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I'm Andy Warren, currently a SQL Server trainer with End to End Training. Over the past few years I've been a developer, DBA, and IT Director. I was one of the original founders of and helped grow that community from zero to about 300k members before deciding to move on to other ventures.

Growing the Pool of SQL Server Speakers

In a nutshell, I’m interested in growing and diversifying the pool of speakers that focus on SQL Server. You might ask why, is there a shortage? The answer to that is…in some areas. For example, when Greg Larsen set up SQLSaturday #11 in Tacoma we really struggled to find speakers.

But that’s not all of it. We need to keep the list off speakers fresh at our events, from chapter meetings to SQLSaturday to the PASS Summit. We need to push our best speakers to get better, and we need to have the next generation of speakers in the pipeline. We need a way to grow speakers so that we don’t have first time speakers at the Summit – we need a farm club system. We need new ideas and new presentation styles. We also need to bridge geography as best we can, get speakers from East cost to visit West coast, etc.

I think of speakers as falling into four categories:

  • The “A” list – Paul Randal, Kim Tripp, Kalen Delaney, perhaps a few others. People with broad name recognition and deep experience
  • The “B” list – speakers are that have participated in multiple events and have established a reputation (to some degree!). For example, I’d put myself in this bucket, and most speakers that speak at the Summit.
  • The “C” list – speakers that have participated in only one or two events, usually a presentation at a chapter
  • The rest – those who haven’t done a presentation yet!

We’ve started the farm club system by building SQLSaturday, now we just need to expand it. That should over time expand the C list and some of those will migrate to the B list. We need to look for the talent and offer encouragement and mentoring where we can, understanding that not everyone wants to move up (and that’s not wrong). The upcoming speaker bureau should also have an impact on this, making it easier for new speakers to identify unfilled niches in the SQLscape.

So we’re making progress there, what’s left?

We need to find a way to make the spots at the Summit more competitive to make sure there is a growth path for people moving to the B list. I think the program committee does ok at this, but I’m in favor of implementing a policy that says no one speaks at 3 Summits in a row. But at least we should make sure that 20-30% are first time Summit speakers (but not first time speakers).

More importantly though, going from C list to B list requires practice, and that practice requires travel. Most events don’t have the budget to cover travel costs, so it’s self funded and that often makes it prohibitive even when the desire is there. What can we do?

  • Encourage event leaders to help reduce the costs of those travelling in – work on room sharing at a hotel, try to place speakers with local members to save the hotel cost, pickup/return to airport to save rental car
  • Set up a system of grants or scholarships. I’m thinking of something like raising $10,000 a year to start with, picking 40 speakers to be given a $250 grant to be used to attend a SQLSaturday that requires travel. It wouldn’t cover all the cost, but it might cover most of the airfare.

Thinking about the speaker bureau I worry that the A list gets bombed with requests, who invites the C list? If the people on the C list showed up as having a grant, then chapters/events would be fighting to get those, because it would be an out of town speaker.

I think this is ambitious, but important. So far it’s my idea, not something adopted by PASS, and it needs some work before we get to that point. But it’s good to be ambitious, because we can grow PASS and grow the state of our craft by building a system that encourages the best and brightest to participate – and they in turn educate, mentor, and role model for the next generation.

Definitely hoping for comments and contrarian views on this.


Posted by Grant Fritchey on 12 February 2010

Oh man, I've barely made it onto the "B" list and now you're going to cut me off from the PASS Summit? No love there at all.

I started typing this long rant about how some speakers need to remain on the C list, but I've deleted it. I think the difficult part is, how do we identify those people on the C list that really should be on the B list but aren't quite making it on their own? I'm in favor of offering support to the C list (although I think the B list needs love too), but spending that money well is the issue. Sending bad speakers around the country on PASS's dime won't help anyone.

Posted by jcrawf02 on 12 February 2010

Grant has a good point, how do you evaluate speakers that *should* be developed/helped when they're not speaking much? I would assume they would need to be vetted in some manner before receiving a grant. (can't help but picture receiving a bobble-head ScaryDBA after that paragraph)

Posted by Steve Jones on 12 February 2010

I think that we will always have a pyramid of speakers. Few A listers, a few more Bs, more Cs, and lots of others. Moving from one level to another requires some commitment and effort. In the last decade I think we have grown all groups quite a bit. They continue to grow, especially as more people see the chance to earn an MVP or get business through exposure as an expert.

I'm not sure about limiting speakers from PASS. Maybe a 3 in a row limit is not bad, but then you could speak again in year 5. (speaking years 1, 2, 3, 5). It does cut off some people that might not otherwise attend, but it then forces the audience wider. Not to mention that there are so many sessions that are rejected.

One thing that works out well in Denver is that user groups do two presentations. One short (15-20 minutes) and one longer. That's good for newer people to get started. It's a lower barrier for building something as well.

One way that might help as well is publishing presentations/demos that people can use. Lots of people might be willing to give a presentation, but they don't want to spend a ton of time learning something and then trying to put together a presentation. Or they know something but don't want to spend a ton of time trying to develop a flow in a slide deck and a demo.

Posted by Jason Brimhall on 13 February 2010

I think it would be difficult to identify those speakers that need to be developed when the pool is so big.  You would need a committee that could view their presentations.  Or, those "C" listers would need to request development first and then you could review those applications and then visit them while they present to see if they are "worthy" of assistance in development.

Posted by Glenn Berry on 14 February 2010

One point that can make it more feasible to travel to do presentations is when an area has several user's groups that have meetings on successive nights. Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs is a good example.

I'm not sure I like the idea of anyone not being able to present at PASS for more than three years in a row. If there is a shortage of slots, I would think about reducing the number of Microsoft speakers. With some notable exceptions (such as Buck Woody), many Microsoft speakers are pretty bad.

Posted by Jason Brimhall on 14 February 2010

I agree with Glenn.  If you can create a piggy back effect - that could minimize cost substantially.

Posted by Andy Warren on 15 February 2010

Glenn, I agree that successive travel is interesting, and we should always try to do that if it works. But the costs are still there, as is the time away from the office. If you're a working DBA, you'd have to basically take a weeks vacation to do the Denver circuit.

All - good feedback. I don't exert any control over the program at the Summit, but I'm trying to start a fairly hard conversation. Ever work at a company where no one gets promoted because no one higher up ever leaves? As long as we have real competition for the slots then there isn't a problem, but one issue I've seen a lot is when Speaker A gets picked and Speaker B doesnt, that usually leads to visible frustration. Having clear ratings would make it a lot easier, if open to gaming perhaps.

Also, I get the concerns. I didn't submit an abstract last year because I had been there the past 8 years, figured time to give someone else a turn. Definitely missed speaking and being part of the process of getting on the schedule.

But...I want to spend less time on that than I do growing speakers overall. If we end up with a 1000 or 2000 abstracts for the Summit, that will drive some type of change and we can worry about that if (when!) it happens.

I've got some more thoughts to share soon on the B/C speakers.

Posted by WI-DBA on 27 July 2010

I am about to embark on my first speaking engagement this fall, should be interesting.  One thing I disagree with; like "The Masters", once you have won it once, you can return for life - and Paul Randal, Kim Tripp, (and several others I have not seen in person yet) should probably come until they retire.  Their material is too good and presented too well.  It's a concert, the headliners get you to buy the ticket and then you find that cool new band you never heard of.  

Posted by Jeff Moden on 29 July 2010

There's not much going on in the State of Michigan... if I got a little help for travel expenses and a place to hang my hat for a night or two (could even be a spare bedroom or decent couch at someone's house), it would be my pleasure to speak at just about any SQL Saturday.

Posted by Andy Warren on 30 July 2010

Jeff, few events have a travel budget, but usually room sharing can be worked out (though we need to do more to encourage it and make it easier).

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