Despite the down economy, the 2009 PASS Summit attendance was down only 8% compared to the 15% of other conferences - in large part due to new attendees. 40% of the attendees this year were new - including myself. Will they be back?
I'll be back. The quality of the conference was high. The question is not if - but when. I haven't decided whether I'll go every year or every other year. It will take a while to absorb all the know-how and do things with it.
I do have some feedback though that I think prospective, new and even veteran attendees might like to hear.
Imagine deciding on the roster of conference sessions. That takes some guestimations about the makeup of attendees - like what their skill and experience levels are. One would imagine that being willing to attend an expensive conference would bring out mainly veterans of SQL Server. So most sessions should be advanced. I'd say that most of them were - and even veteran attendees were stretched.
However, as the stats show, the landscape is changing. I'd venture to say that many of those new attendees that made up 40% are also fairly new to SQL Server. I interacted with a lot of attendees and found that to be the case. That poses challenges for selecting the right experience level of sessions. I suspect the mix needs to change along with the attendees.
Times are changing for SQL Server, I think. Just looking from a 10K mile perspective, one can see the trends. One trend to note is that the SQL Server platform is becoming a more collaborative space where non-database professionals and those of related areas of expertise are to take part in various activities historically entrusted only to admins and others who are more accustomed to limiting access.
One of the big mantras I heard from Microsoft at the conference this year was "BI to the People." Microsoft is introducing PowerPivot - an extension for Excel that broadens the spectrum of people who are capable of doing business intelligence with data. One demo I saw at the conference showed Excel reports being built using over 10M rows - far beyond the typical 65K or so Excel row limit of the past. This is definitely an expansion of collaboration.
Another expansion of collaboration is the rise of domain specific languages and development frameworks like "Oslo" and SQL Server Modeling. The idea here is that more people in different roles like business analysts and less-technical stakeholders are getting together to help decide what to build even including the modeling of the database layer on an iterative basis.
So the takeaway is that one can expect a more diverse, less specialized crowd attending the conference in the future.
So, one adjustment I think should be made is that attendance should include the DVDs of all the sessions. That way, everyone can go back and continue learning and feel enriched even if many of the sessions were a bit over their head or not what was expected.
Now, part of the satisfaction equation is what an attendee puts in. I tried to go in highly prepared to learn and enjoy myself. The conference website offered an itinerary builder for those who wanted to plan out all their sessions. What a great app! I availed myself of that and went in with an itinerary. It definitely helped.
I also looked at what was going on around Seattle so I didn't just go back to the hotel. That turned out to be a good idea. That opened up a lot of conversations with other attendees that lead in turn to making valuable connections.
It was the first of the month - and the first Thursday is when Seattle hosts its Art Walk. There was a jazz festival going on all week. The Dine Around Town event was going on where some of the top restaurants were offering three-course high-end meals for only $30. There were some good concerts going on. They Symphony was playing Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. The Seattle Art Museum threw a big party on Friday - and were showing a Micahelangelo exhibit. I availed myself of all these things and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Of course, there are some things that will always slip through the cracks. A couple of my sessions were a miss. Also, I stayed at the Sheraton - and nearly the whole time I was not aware that on the 35th floor, there's a two-story workout gym complete with a lap pool and hot tub, with amazing views of the entire city and the waterfront. Doh!
Well, having those DVDs makes up for the sessions that I should have attended. The other stuff can only be rectified through experience and repeat visits.
Now I know that one shouldn't bother renting a car - because there are cabs going everywhere - the public transit is free in the entire metro zone - and the local garages charge about $26 per night for parking. Also, the Fox Sports Grill right next to the conference center serves the best steak chili I've ever had in my life. The posh restaurant "Art" at the Four Seasons down near the waterfront charged me $6 for a glass of cranberry juice - but the food might have made up for it. Lots of people didn't bring their netbooks and laptops because previous years didn't offer free WiFi. But this year and hopefully beyond, the WiFi was there and was free. Many attendees used the WiFi to communicate via Twitter, Facebook and the like. I even tried to invent a rumor that John Hodgman was there at the conference - mainly because that would be cool if he were there - but it didn't work. My netbook battery, however, doesn't last long. I was stuck a few times without a pen and paper backup. Not next time.