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Running a Small User Group - Getting Quality Speakers

Midlands PASS is a small user group. We average about 15 people coming to meetings, which is good for Columbia, but still puts us in the small user group category. Having a small user group can mean some challenges, and that's what I'll be blogging about over the next few days. Probably the biggest challenge we face each month is with getting speakers. We've had a great cast of speakers. Among the MVPs we've been able to line up in person:

  • Page Brooks (Silverlight MVP)
  • Chris Craft (Mobile MVP)
  • Chris Eargle (C# MVP)
  • Andy Kelly
  • Kevin Kline
  • Brian Knight
  • Andy Leonard
  • Wayne Snyder
  • John Welch

We've had other great speakers who weren't MVPs, like Paul S Waters from our sister group, SQL Server Innovators Guild and folks from the SQL Sentry team. So it's not a bad list considering we're small and most folks have to travel to get to us. We're working on getting remote capability, something I'll address with our host for the coming year. So that list is comprised of those who have been able to find time to travel to our little place in the world. So what have we found that works? I'll give five rules that we try to follow.

Rule #1 - Don't Be Afraid to Ask

A lot of the folks I asked outright, "Hey, we're small, but you've got something to offer, can you come out this way?" And I have been continually amazed at the positive response from folks. My rule is the worst that anyone can say is, "No." If that's the case, then we move on and try someone else. Not everyone can get here or would want to get here, but we'll take quality speakers that do want to.

Rule #2 - Look for Piggy-Back Scenarios

We were able to get Brian and Andy because they had work in our area. Both were teaching classes locally so we worked our schedule to accomodate them. There have been some others who have come down our way, like Jessica M Moss and Jonathan Kehayias, but their schedules didn't permit it at the time. Jessica was neck deep with a client and Jonathan was going through the Army drill instructor course at Fort Jackson (Free time? You must be kidding). However, I've asked (begged) that if they are ever this way again, would they consider speaking at Midlands PASS. Again, the worse they can do is say no.

Rule #3 - Talk to Your Fellow User Group Leaders

Paul S Waters leads SSIG. Page Brooks and Chris Craft lead the Pee Dee Area .NET User Group. We were able to hook onto John Welch thanks to Peter Shire of the Charlotte SQL Server User Group. Peter also help us get hooked onto Kevin Kline's "Carolina Cruise," so we had the privilege of hosting him. And actually, I got in contact with Andy Kelly thanks to Peter as well. So maybe this should be, "Talk to Your Fellow User Group Leaders and Peter Shire." You can't go wrong with that.

Rule #4 - Let Your Members Do Some Legwork

One of our members had a connection with Wayne Snyder and ran down the details of getting him to come and speak. Sometimes your members will have connections you don't. If they can use those connections to get a great speaker, let them run with it. We had a dynamic presentation to Wayne, and our largest user group meeting ever. So this is a testament to what an individual member can do for the group. You don't have to sit in a leadership position to make a difference.

Rule #5 - Use Your Sponsors, but Be Careful

Peter Shire also works for SQL Sentry. And I will tell you that as a user group leader I always want to make sure that a vendor coming in doesn't give a sales pitch. The SQL Sentry guys are great. They come in and they lay down some real knowledge. They'll take five minutes at the end to show how one of their products addresses the pain points that they just got done talking about. But it's not a hard sell. And you leave a whole lot more knowledgable about SQL Server than their product. I don't know if that's a great marketing angle on their part, but I'm glad they take the time to come out to user groups and present on SQL Server, not on SQL Sentry. Likewise, Kevin Kline came and gave a great presentation on query performance. Yes, he works for Quest Software. Yes, Quest sponsored the meeting. And yes, Kevin used Toad and mentioned why he like what Toad did in a few cases. But they were relevant to the discussion at hand. And when you left the meeting, you learned a little bit about Toad but a whole lot more about SQL Server. These are great examples where vendors have helped us without doing the hard sale.

Now this isn't to say we haven't been burned the other way around. We have. We had some very heavy vendor pitches when we first started out. So now we make sure that a vendor understands that if they're coming in, we expect to hear about SQL Server, not their product. If they can't agree to those terms, then we don't want them. And this is a hard and fast line we've stuck to.



K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.


Posted by Adam Machanic on 28 December 2009

I give vendors a choice: They can do a 20-30 minute "sales presentation" before our "main" speaker goes on, or they can have the full 75-90 minute slot if they agree to do at least 75% on SQL Server. So far this has worked out relatively well, although most vendor presenters don't actually know much of anything about SQL Server so we have had some edge cases with a couple who have accepted the full slot.

Posted by Steve Jones on 28 December 2009

Good advice, and I agree with Adam's recommendation on vendors. good to have them come, but keep it in mind that most people come to learn, not be sold.

Posted by Glenn Berry on 28 December 2009

I have seen some dreadful presentations by vendors at user's groups. I think it is better to try to "grow your own" speakers if you can. As far as getting well-known speakers to travel to present, I have seen the Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs user's groups cooperate to get someone to travel and present at all three on successive nights. Peter Myers is a good example.

Posted by Wesley Brown on 28 December 2009

I vet vendor presentations before they go on. If it isn't what I've vetted it is the last time they speak at my group. I'd rather talk 5 times a year than have sales pitches in those slots.

I will say I've only cut one vendor in my time as UG leader and all of them work with me about sales vs. tech talk. I agree with Brian, you should nurture your relationships with vendors that bring knowledge and value to your UG.

Most of the time vendors do have a subject matter expert who knows the core problem they are solving very well and I don't mind if they pitch at the end. You get folks like Brian Knight, Kevin Kline or Brent Ozar these guys are at the top of their game, and they are vendors. There is nothing wrong with that.

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