SQLBits holds a special place for me as it was the first technical conference that I had ever been to. I can safely say that it has massively shaped my career and encouraged me to do more in the community, so thank you Chris!
Before we start on the main part of the interview, tell us all a little about yourself.
I’m an independent consultant specialising in SQL Server Analysis Services (both Multidimensional and Tabular), PowerPivot, MDX and DAX. I spend about half my time helping people with performance tuning, writing difficult calculations and doing design reviews (see http://www.crossjoin.co.uk/); I spend the rest of my time running public and private SSAS training courses (see http://www.technitrain.com). I’ve co-written three books on SSAS, and I blog about SSAS and Microsoft BI at http://cwebbbi.wordpress.com
How did you start in SQL Server?
In the late 90s I was a VB6 programmer and I got put onto a project evaluating OLAP tools. I was given the job of looking at OLAP Services on the beta programme for SQL Server 7.0 (OLAP Services was renamed Analysis Services in SQL 2000) and I’ve been lucky enough to work with it ever since.
Tell me, how did the idea of SQLBits come about? Had you drawn your inspiration from any other kind of community event?
Ha, you’re testing my memory now! I think the original idea for SQLBits came from Tony Rogerson: he’d seen the success of the free, Saturday code camps that were just getting going at that time and wanted to do something similar for SQL Server in the UK. I do remember him talking to me about it in the back of a taxi on the way to the airport after the PASS European conference in Barcelona in 2006. The UK SQL Server user group was already quite well established then (although nowhere near as large and successful as it is today) and it seemed like the obvious next step to run a full day event.
Would you say that the original idea or vision from the first SQLBits has changed or are you right where you want to be?
I think SQLBits has become a lot more ambitious than the original vision, which was just for a one-day, free Saturday conference. About 150 people turned up for SQLBits 1 and we were very pleased with that; at SQLBits X we had about 1300 people over three days so it has grown a lot. That said the spirit of the event remains the same and I feel that that’s an important part of our success. All we wanted to do was to run the kind of conference that we’d like to attend, with sessions on topics we were interested in and the opportunity to get together with our friends and colleagues for a drink and some fun, and that’s still what SQLBits is all about.
You mention that it is now a three day event, for those who have never been to SQLBits before what can they expect from those three days?
The three days all have something different to offer. Thursday is devoted to full-day seminars given by well-known SQL Server experts from around the world – very often the only time you’ll get the chance to get training from these guys in Europe. Friday is a pay-to-attend conference day consisting of one hour presentations on any SQL Server-related topic, from TSQL to tuning, Analysis Services, Reporting Services, Integration Services or StreamInsight. Saturday has the same format as Friday but is completely free to attend.
If you’ve never been to a SQLBits before you might think it’s all a bit dull and geeky. The geekiness is unavoidable but anyone who’s been actually been to SQLBits will tell you how much fun it is. There are lots of opportunities to hang out, meet people, have a drink, play games and relax in the evening. At the last SQLBits in London we had a massive pub-themed party on the Friday night complete with pub quiz, arcade games and a darts tournament featuring professional darts players!
What would you say was the most difficult part of an event to pull together? Is there anything that the team particularly dread?
Without a doubt it’s the Tuesday night conference calls that are the worst part of the process – they can last anything up to two hours! The committee members all have specific parts of the conference they look after such as sponsorship, venue, speakers, website, marketing and so on, and since we’ve been doing the same roles for a while now we more or less know what we’re doing; there’s always lots to talk about though. I won’t lie and say that SQLBits is a super-efficient, well-oiled machine: we’re often quite disorganised, we forget to do things, and we have frequent, long and bad-tempered debates over minor details like speaker shirt design.
Having started my own user group I’m now starting to appreciate the effort that goes into running an event. SQLBits X in London was the largest physical launch event in the world for SQL Server 2012 and must have really taken its toll on the organisers. How do you plan for such a great undertaking?
I don’t think we plan for it as such, we just do it. As I said, SQLBits is by no means a slick, professional organisation – we all have quite demanding day jobs, and this has to happen in our (very limited) spare time – and the fact that we haven’t had any major disasters so far is the result of sheer hard work on the part of the committee members and our helpers.
With running your own company it must be a struggle to find the time to fit everything in, I know a number of the other organisers are in the same boat. SQLBits XI is quite a bit smaller than the London event, do you think that will be the last time we see such a large scale event in the UK?
Yes, I think so. SQLBits X was a special case in that it was a launch event but it really pushed us to the limit of what an amateur organisation can achieve: it was around 50% larger than the last few conferences we’d done, which had 700-800 attendees. As a result there was 50% more stress involved with organising it and that was not pleasant. In the future we’re going to go back to running events at the same scale as Liverpool and Brighton which were a much more manageable size. Bigger is not always better, and the large number of other SQL Server community events going on in the UK these days means there are plenty of other opportunities for people to learn about SQL Server if they can’t make it to SQLBits.
So, SQLBits XI has been announced as taking place in Nottingham on 2nd – 4th May 2013. I’ve seen from the website that session submissions are open and public voting has started, when are we going to see registration opening?
Registration will be opening sometime in early January, once we’ve got ourselves organized. In fact by the time you read this registration might already be open – so check out www.sqlbits.com to find out.
SQLBITs registration is now open, go to http://www.SQLBits.com now to register your place!
You must be really proud of what you have achieved so far. Are there any landmarks that you and the rest of the committee are still aiming for?
We are very proud, definitely. As I said I don’t think we have any more goals in terms of the number of attendees or the overall size of the event, but we do want to carry on making the event better in other ways. For example, we’ve got some ambitious plans for the Friday night party at SQLBits XI and we’re looking at having a testing centre for people to get SQL Server certifications while they’re at SQLBits.
With SQLSaturdays becoming more prominent and the third SQL Relay in the pipeline for later this year, do you think that sponsorship for all these events is sustainable in the current climate? To put it another way, do you think events will need to put more focus on a pay to attend model?
Sponsorship money is getting harder to find, and that’s certainly something we’re seeing at the moment. It’s partly due to the number of events that are happening and partly due to the economic climate. We’re lucky in that we’re very secure financially at the moment as a result of previous successes; we could probably raise our prices to cover any future shortfall in sponsorship while still being competitive compared to other forms of training. The fact that we’re a not-for-profit, volunteer-run organisation also helps us here because it means our overheads are relatively low.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as being in competition with events like SQL Saturday or SQL Relay, though. A lot of the SQLBits committee are also heavily involved in running user groups too. We’re all friends and we’re all working towards the same end, so there’s no reason why SQLBits itself should not provide financial and other forms of help to other events (as we have in the past) if they need it. Co-operation across the various groups that make up the SQL Server community in the UK, and with PASS, is the key to us making the most of the sponsorship money that’s out there.
I think the first time we met was at SQLBits in Newport where I was a volunteer helping out on the registration desk and as a room monitor. The venue was beautiful, what would you say was your favourite venue?
Celtic Manor in Newport was very good – well laid out, and the staff were very professional – but I think the Grand Hotel in Brighton was my favourite. We had great weather for the whole conference and the beach was just over the road!
If you could hold an event anywhere in the world where would it be and why?
That’s hard to say. With SQL Saturday there are already SQL Server events in all kinds of exotic locations around the world! Ideally, I’d have a SQLBits just down the road from where I live to cut down on the amount of travel involved – I already spend way too much time on the road as it is!
What was your most memorable moment at SQLBits?
Undoubtedly it was meeting Steve Wozniak at Brighton! I still can’t believe we had someone that famous come to our conference. He was very friendly and didn’t mind signing autographs or posing for pictures. In fact at the end of the conference on Saturday afternoon, when Martin Bell and I were manning the registration desk and no-one else was around, we saw him checking out and his wife came over to say how much he’d enjoyed coming and to ask for his own SQLBits goody bag. Who knows, maybe he has the occasional cup of coffee in a SQLBits mug?
Thanks for your time Chris and all the best for the next SQLBits in Nottingham.
Why not check out Chris’s blog at http://cwebbbi.wordpress.com
You can find out more about SQLBits at their website http://www.SQLBits.com
Following this post from a syndicated source and want to read other interviews in the series? The anchor post for this series can be found here.