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Growing the Pool of SQL Speakers – Part 3

Continuing on from Part 2, I want to continue this time with two points I left open last time:

  • How to qualify who gets help in terms of funding to speak
  • Whether there is really a speaker shortage

I want to start with the second point. Is there a shortage of speakers? The honest answer is somewhere between “I don’t know” and “in some places”. For example, when we did a SQLSaturday in Tacoma about 2 years ago we struggled to find speakers, so there is (or at least was) a local shortage there. It could easily be that there are speakers we don’t know exist and that’s something our upcoming speaker bureau project hopes to address. My hunch is that in the rural/smaller urban areas we don’t have the speaker density we need. I’d like to see us at the point where we can stick a pin anywhere in the map (of the US, to start with) and find a dozen people within 200 miles that want to speak, and ideally it’s closer to 100 miles. I don’t think we’re there yet.

Providing funding for speakers is a big deal. We’ve either to go come up with some options to help out, or we have to build enough events within a reasonably driving distance that new speakers can afford to get some practice. Options?

  • Speaker just tries to travel on the cheap, perhaps asking for a mid day session so they can drive over, present, drive back. Not the greatest, but probably lowest cost.
  • We try to help lower costs by offering room share, ride from the airport, etc
  • We build a fund and some way to decide who gets to use it
  • We start to see speakers funded by vendors in our product space in return for demoing their product and/or staffing a table

I’m most interesting the latter two options. Let’s say we build a $20,000 speaker fund at PASS. We ask each chapter leader to recommend a local speaker for a sponsorship that would allow them to visit another group or SQLSaturday. We do the same for SQLSaturday event leaders. We compile that list, send out invitations offering to reimburse up to $250 in airfare or mileage to speak at an event at least 150 miles from their home. That won’t cover the entire cost of course, but it means they have a vested interest in managing the other variable expenses. In the best case we can identify and fund 80 speakers to get a second chance at presenting, speakers that their chapter/event leader have identified as credible.

It’s only a second chance, but it also means that we’d have a good chance at having each chapter or event get a mostly paid for out of town speaker. It’s a chance to feel the heat of presenting to total strangers, and the excitement of hitting the road as a ‘real’ speaker. I might have the details wrong, but my question to you is: would doing something like benefit the overall community?

The other point is about vendor funded speakers. We have a few now, mostly true employees of the vendors, but a few cases where it’s less formal. I think as long as there is disclosure, and the speakers are presenting a “real” session with a slide that indicates they were sponsored by Vendor X, there is no problem. In fact, I think it’s a real win. Vendors often struggle to get speakers to all the events, and covering a portion of travel costs might well be cheaper than keeping someone on staff.

I know I’m dreaming some, but I also see some of the growth and problems happening already. Think about what we (PASS + members) can do, think about what you can do. Are you scouting talent locally? Doing what you can to encourage/train them to take the next step? Maybe we need a prize for best talent scout!


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 SQLServerCentral.com and helped grow that community from zero to about 300k members before deciding to move on to other ventures.


Posted by david_wendelken on 31 March 2010

I've been involved in this process as a conference attendee, a vendor, a speaker and as a board of directors member for a user group sponsoring an international conference, so I think I've experienced a few of the viewpoints on this issue. :)

Here are some options I've seen:

Blind abstracts, i.e., submission ideas reviewed by a committee without knowing who submitted the idea.


1. New speaker has as good a chance as an experienced one.

2. Harder to do the good-ole' boy system.


1. Big names draw bigger attendance.  No guarantee the big names get chosen.

2. Popularity of topic - as viewed by the committee - is a big bias.  Too many presentations on the "hot topic du jour" and too little attention to a niche topic or truly innovative work.

Invitational, i.e., conference committee decides who to ask:


1. Can get the big names.

2. The good ole' boy system can act as a filter to ensure only experienced, good speakers get asked


1. Same old, same old, year after year.  Few new faces, new ideas or new approaches.  Burnout of existing speakers.

2. The good ole' boy system either can act as a filter to ensure only cronies of the conference committee get asked.

Non-blind abstracts, open invitation.  Committee knows who submitted the abstracts.


1) Big names can be chosen to draw attendance.

2) If metrics were taken on prior speaker performance, bad speakers from last time can be filtered out.

3) New speakers get considered.


1) Established speakers have a better chance to be picked than new speakers, all things being equal.

2. Popularity of topic - as viewed by the committee - is a big bias.  Too many presentations on the "hot topic du jour" and too little attention to a niche topic or truly innovative work.

What I've felt was the best blend was this, and it assumes metrics on past speaker performance are available:

1) Top speakers are just invited to speak on what they want to talk about.  This allows them to speak on things they think important rather than the hot topic of the day.  There are some speakers that I will attend on any topic, because I trust their judgment enough to say, "If they think it's worth their time to prepare a presentation on this, it's probably worth my time to hear it, even if I don't yet know why."

A non-blind, open abstract process chooses the bulk of the speakers.  In practice, quite a few new speakers get into the pipeline this way.

Top speakers are asked to talk/blog/publish encouragement to others to present at conferences on a fairly frequent basis.  As a result of that, folks will contact them with ideas they are considering presenting on.  If they run across someone who is doing innovative work, they have a pipeline into the conference committee.  In effect, they can say, "Take a really good look at X's submission, it's top notch work.  You should fit it in if you can."  This helps address the niche topics that don't fit in with the technical fad of the day.


On an unrelated note, I've found that "fame" in speaking circles is VERY techology platform dependant.  I've known people who are top-notch, internationally known speakers/developers/architects in one technology stack that can't get the time of day from committees in a different technology stack.  

Posted by Andy Warren on 31 March 2010

Great comments and I will forward those to the program committee!

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