On Saturday, March 19th 2011 we held the first ever Saturday “code camp” style event for the IT Pro (Sys Admins) community which we called IT Camp. IT Camps are a free, one day learning event for anyone seeking professional development. This event serves IT professionals and students with a focus on IT Pro (i.e. Sys Admin) related technologies. IT Camps offer a conference style learning environment free of charge to attendees and is open to presenters of all backgrounds and expertise. This blog post is about the lessons I learned organizing an IT community event…
In December, Blain Barton, a Microsoft Senior IT Pro Evangelist who sponsors my Tampa PowerShell User Group, told me about an idea he had to start the first ever IT Camp to meet the needs the IT Pro community. I had been to many SQL Saturdays and code camps (like the Tampa Code Camp) and heard about SharePoint Saturdays, but IT Pros really didn’t have an similar event for them. The idea intrigued me so I volunteered to organize it.
Although I’ve spoken at or sponsored at ten SQL Saturdays or Code Camps I hadn’t organized a large IT community event so my first step was to talk to my local IT community leaders:
- Andy Warren (blog|twitter) – SQL Saturday founder, helped organized dozens of events including Orlando SQL Saturday.
- Keith Kabza (twitter) – organizes Tampa Code Camp
- Michael Hinckley (blog|twitter) — organizes Tampa and South Florida SharePoint Saturdays
- Pam Shaw (blog|twitter) – organizes
I could have expanded the list to more people, but I really felt it was important to seek the advice of folks who are familiar with local Tampa IT community. I would sit down with each person and ask them to tell me about how they organized events. One of the interesting things about each person’s event is there similarity, but at the same time they are also slightly different.
SQL Saturdays have a strong central organization which at first was provided through the leadership of Andy Warren, but has since transitioned to SQLPASS. They help local chapter leaders kick start a SQL Saturday. They provide a web presence to handle speaker submittals, scheduling building and attendee reservations. They provide mentorship and have a really nice public wiki on organizing a SQL Saturday, most of which equally applies to any IT community event. The wiki was helpful to me as I could read about guidelines and lesson learned from the SQL Saturday camp all in one place. I still walked through the budget with Andy and Pam so I could try figure how much money I would need to raise.
SQL Saturdays centralize their web presence, an idea I really like. I know they have to deal with the same types of issues as any IT community event: registration, speaker submittals, sessions publishing, schedule building, sponsorship list and providing a way to contact the organizer—so I spent some time seeing how their site is organized. Now, I’m not saying I ripped off their site. If you look at SQL Saturday site, any code camp site or the SharePoint Saturday site they all have a similar organization to them.
SQL Saturdays folks have their stuff to together the only issues I’ve seen is around check-ins the day of the event which really made me thing about how to address this issue (hint: use EventBrite!)
One of things Andy and Pam mentioned was to plan on a 30% no-show the day of the event. Andy had some good advice on what it means to have a successful community IT event simply, did your attendees learn something. Some of the folks who attend IT community events will not have the opportunity to go paid events and these community events are all they will get to go to. Teach them something and you’ve succeeded.
I haven’t attended a SharePoint SharePoint, but plan to go to my first one, the Tampa SharePoint Saturday on June 11th 2011.I did chat with Michael Hinckley who provided some advice including:
- Use EventBrite – This a free service for selling tickets to any events. The site handles event registration, event reminders, and check-ins. Now that I’ve used EventBrite, I totally agree there service is awesome! Like any technology there some gotchas. I plan on writing a short post about my EventBrite experience.
- Take care of your speakers with a speaker dinner – The day of event many of speakers who traveled may not be able to attend after event party. The dinner is an opportunity to network. Its also customary to show your appreciate to speakers for taking the time to present at the event. Many of speakers will have come from out of town, spending their money in travel. The trick with speakers dinners is choose some place nice which is group friendly. One of the problems with large group and getting preferred pricing is that you have to guarantee a certain number of people if not everyone shows up then you having to pay the per plate price.
Like SQL Saturday I like the centralized website provided by SharePoint Saturday. Its also cool their site is built on SharePoint . The site organization is similar to what you would see on SQL Saturday or Code Camp. My understanding of SharePoint Saturdays is that a committee/group of volunteers help kick start an event in a new location by providing mentoring and web presence.
Code Camps have the least central organization, in fact they seem to be entirely organized by the local developer users groups. To me, code camps feel like an “unconference” where its almost like a really big user group meeting. They also seem to be able to run on the cheap. These guys are the grandfathers of the whole Saturday code camp events and SQL, SharePoint and IT Pros owe them a tip of the hat for doing it successfully for so long.
Keith helped me especially with getting hooked up on event insurance, some recommendations on lunch and break down of budgeting. Keith also allowed me to adapt his sponsorship packet to IT Camp.
One thing that is different about code camps is they seem to enjoy building out a code camp site in whatever is the latest technology. Some spend more time theirs than others. For me, I’d rather just have a group site like SQL Saturday or SharePoint Saturday I can use without having to spend a lot of time developing one.
I chose to develop the IT Camp Saturday site using WordPress. The reason being is I’m not a full-time developer, I’m comfortable using it, and you can find cheap hosting for WordPress sites easily. It’s also very simple to create multiple sub-sites so I can add other locations, but for now its just http://ITCampSaturday.com/Tampa. I took some flack from some of the hard-core Microsoft developer types for not using some type of Microsoft related technology , but again I don’t consider myself a developer. If you’re not going to code up a site this leaves using some type of CMS and with over 11 million installations, 20K pluggins, and plenty of inexpensive hosting–it’s hard to beat WordPress. At some level I think there’s acceptance of WordPress within the Microsoft community. I know plenty of folks who use Microsoft technology all day long, but choose WordPress as their blogging platform. It’s interesting to see what happened to Microsoft Live Spaces users who through a Microsoft partnership became WordPress users. That said I’m not a technology zealot if there’s an easy/cheaper way for a non-programmer to create an extensible site–let me know and I’ll take a look at it. I do think it would be nice to get some kind of hosted SharePoint and uses it as a basis for the site, just because SharePoint is an IT Pro related technology.
One of the big concerns for an IT Community event is the venue. Cost and location are the deciding factors. When it comes to a venue for a Tampa IT community event, we’re very fortunate to have formed a partnership with K-Force. They’ve hosted SQL Saturdays, SharePoint Saturdays, Code Camps and now IT Camps for several years all free of charge. There facility and people are great to work with. As a sponsor they provide the facility (which includes internet access and projectors), cleanup, security and people to coordinate with. This is a very smart business move on their part. They’re able to have group of 100 to 300 people from the local IT marketplace come to them. If you happen to be looking for job, well there are couple of recruiters you can talk to and if not well, they’ve built some good will and branding. K-Force is a good example of IT community and business partnerships.
I still needed to find sponsors to help with all the incidental costs of the event. This is a tricky area especially for new event. The sponsors my code camp, SQL Saturday and SharePoint Saturday colleagues worked with really don’t apply to an IT Pro focused event, plus vendors that do one event may be unwilling to sponsor another event in the same market.
I had a list of potential sponsors from my own network and suggestions from other folks. I would say the “no-show” rate for sponsors was even higher than attendees, maybe 60% of the potential sponsors did not pan out. Part of the issue with getting potential sponsors to commit is my own lack of experience in fund raising or sales—you need to somewhat persistent.
I would contact a vendor and ask them if they are interested in helping sponsor the IT Camp. They’d agree and I’d send them the sponsorship package and then crickets. They wouldn’t get back to me. I took this as meaning they just weren’t interested once they saw the commitment levels we were looking for and moved on to the next sponsor. Looking back on it what I should of done is gotten a yes/no answer through more follow up. It seems kind of silly that I wasn’t more aggressive in pursuing sponsors , but lesson learned.
Another area with sponsors I felt I could have done more—is somehow driving the attendee/sponsor interaction. Unfortunately the sponsors weren’t raffling items which is typically a draw for attendees, but even so I’ve seen the SQL Saturday folks use a bingo-style event raffle card which requires collecting stamps/signatures from sponsors. The SharePoint Saturday folks in South Florida also had a novel idea of having sponsors give out lunch tickets.
This may seem a little gimmicky, but the reality is without sponsors we wouldn’t have free IT community events. Sponsors need to feel they got some value out of it especially if you want them to come back next year. Now that I’ve had to organize sponsors I realize this even more and vow to interact with each sponsor at the community events I attend.
Finding speakers to fill 4 tracks with 6 sessions for a total of 24 sessions was a big concern for me. I really didn’t think we could do it, but the Florida IT community didn’t let me down. This turned out to be the one area that exceeded my expectations. Although this was an area of stress—”will we have enough speakers” is constantly on your mind. One thing this made me realize is I need to get my session submittals ASAP for events I plan on speaking rather than waiting to the last minute—doing my part to reduce organizers stress.
Even before we opened up registration I spoke with several people who were skeptical an IT Pro-focused event would draw very many people. I don’t blame them, I wasn’t really wasn’t sure either. IT Pros tend not to have strong user groups communities when compared to our developers and SQL brethren. Running a first year event is especially difficult in that you rely on word of mouth marketing and since it hasn’t been done before you’re not sure you’ve reached potential attendees.
We did the typical emails, blog posts and whenever we had live meetings with IT folks announced the event. Still I ran into people who mentioned—”if only I had known in advance I could have brought more people.” I was sure to get their contact information, so that next year they’ll know.
EventBrite makes it easy to keep an eye on the registrations numbers. We didn’t pass more than 50% of the registrations until a few weeks prior to the event:
The day of the event we hit 114 attendees which is roughly a 50% no-show. When I spoke with Andy about no-shows he mentioned SQL Saturdays try to remind attendees to cancel if they aren’t able to attend this is how they are able to get to a 30% no-show rate. Next year I plan on actively managing cancellations.
How Did We Do?
I did short re-cap on the IT Camp Saturday site so I won’t re-post it here. There’s more details I’d like to share, but I’ll save this for part 2…