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An interview with Alex Whittles Chairman of SQLRelay 2013

Some of you may recall in January I ran a series of interviews entitled “New Year Aspirations”. This interview was held back from the series in order to coincide with SQL Relay that is taking place 17th-20th and 24th-27th June. So grab a glass of your favourite beverage and sit back and read an insight into how Alex has taken ownership of SQL Relay.

Before we start on the main part of the interview, tell us all a little about yourself.

I’m a SQL Server Business Intelligence Consultant at Purple Frog Systems, so I spend my days turning the World’s data into warehouses and cubes – and I couldn’t ask for a better job! When I’m not working on BI systems, I choreograph and run professional firework displays set to music, I’m part way through designing and building a hovercraft, and I’m also an avid F1 fan.

How did you start in SQL Server?

After university I started out as a programmer, writing software to monitor cash movement and peoples’ playing activity in casinos. The volume of data captured required a database, and SQL Server was the natural choice. This was largely due to the power provided by Analysis Services cubes; a large part of my work revolved around developing data analytics tools. I started to get more interested in the power of Business Intelligence, I enjoyed this area so much that I set up my own consultancy business, Purple Frog, specialising in SQL Server BI.

What inspired you to start your own user group in Birmingham?

I’d been working for a number of different clients in South Wales, and was down there when Adam Morton set up the Cardiff user group. I started to get more involved, including speaking at a number of the events. I wasn’t aware of the SQL Server user group community before this as there wasn’t a group in the Midlands. I soon realised the benefit that user groups can provide to local SQL professionals, and was surprised at the quality and number of speakers who are willing to give up their own time to help the wider community. Birmingham needed its own group, so I decided to set it up. We’ve now been running for 2 years, and get 30-40 attendees at every event, making it one of the UK’s largest groups.

Although I’m on the committee for SQL Relay my first user group event was rushed in to be part of SQL Relay and so I wasn’t there at the conception of the idea. Tell me, how did the idea of SQL Relay come about?

SQL Relay came about following a discussion between Chris Testa-O’Neill and Tony Rogerson, both of whom have been instrumental in building the UK SQL community over the years, through SQL Bits and the SQL user groups. The initial focus was to help raise the profile of the SQL user groups to reach a wider audience, and to help user group leaders to work more closely together to further improve the quality and scale of SQL community events.In the first year, each event was largely the same as a normal user group meeting, held in the evening with 2 high quality speakers. The difference was that all events across the UK were coordinated together to provide a stronger image.

Would you say that the original idea or vision from the first SQL Relay has changed or are we right where you want us to be?

The focus on raising the awareness of SQL user groups within the community is still very much there. The events have however evolved significantly. In the second year, we ran 5 events across the UK, each of which was a full day of SQL training, divided up into hour long sessions covering all aspects of SQL Server. It had evolved from an extension of user group meetings into a full series of conferences. This proved to be a huge success, with great feedback from all involved. Although SQL Relay has developed an identity of its own, it is still very much an extension of the user groups. SQL Relay is run by user group leaders, and both events help promote each other. As SQLBits grows, the gap between it and small, local user groups gets ever wider. There’s so much demand for SQL community events that SQL Relay fills in the middle ground, offering a full day conference, locally to attendees. Now we’re in our third year, we’re keeping the same model as last year but expanding to 8 events around the UK. Our focus however is still the same; raising the profile of the SQL community, and bringing top quality events to local audiences.

We’re now in the planning stages of our third relay event and you have taken the role of chair of the committee. How are you finding the position? I would imagine it’s vastly different for you than the last two series of events.

I’m following in the sizeable footsteps of the previous chairs, which I’ll admit is a little daunting! I ran the Birmingham event in 2011 and 2012, so I’ve been involved from the start and have learned from others which make it a little easier. Each location has an event owner, who is in charge of sourcing the venue and organising the details of their event; all I really have to do is help coordinate the centralised activities; sponsorship, marketing, speakers etc. We have an enthusiastic committee who take care of a lot of this work, and my thanks go out to them for doing such a great job. My main difficulty is available time; running a business is a full time job, finding time for SQL Relay is a never ending juggling task, but its great fun and incredibly rewarding.

For those people that would like to put on an event, what would you say was the most difficult part of an event to pull together? Any advice for them?

The main problem we face when running events is spreading awareness. I know from my experience that if I’d known about user groups earlier then I would have been attending them for years! Once people find out about them then they keep coming back; we have an incredibly loyal and dedicated attendee base. My advice would therefore be to start thinking about different ways of promoting the event in the area, contact companies who may be large SQL users, talk to other user group leaders to get advice, and plan events early enough to allow time for promotion. We’re incredibly lucky in the UK to have such a vast wealth of expertise in the SQL community, with expert speakers willing to give up their time and travel to all corners of the country. There are plenty of people who can help a new event get started, if you can get attendees there.

You must be really proud of what we have achieved so far, I know I am. What are your goals for the next relay event?

SQL Relay shows what can be achieved by a group of like-minded people, who come together as a team and spend a little time each week helping to build an event which is far greater than the sum of its parts. I’m incredibly proud of what we have achieved over the last couple of years, and excited about what we have in store for SQL Relay 2013. This year we have capacity for 850 attendees over 8 venues across the UK;

The direction and goals for SQL Relay 2014 will be up to next year’s chair, but my hope is that we’ll continue to build on the success of the first three events, and strive to bring high quality free SQL training to an even wider audience across the UK. 

With SQLSaturdays becoming more prominent, the third SQL Relay happening this month and of course SQLBits, 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?

This is something that we discussed early on in the planning for SQL Relay 2013, but we decided to stick with the free to attend model. Our concern was that moving to a payment model may change the perception of what the events represent. They are community events, organised by the community for the community. A payment model may be perceived to be more ‘corporate’, which is not what we want.

You’re right that sponsorship is a very important subject, and vital to making the events happen. Sponsorship however is not just about a company donating funds, but about building a symbiotic relationship between the events, attendees and sponsors, and creating a win-win environment for all. Sponsors need to improve awareness of their products and services, and our attendees are looking for better ways of doing their jobs. They will learn new skills and techniques by attending the conference sessions, but sometimes learning of a service or product can be equally beneficial. As an example, our gold sponsors, Confio and Violin, provide database monitoring software and flash storage solutions respectively. Understanding the power of these and how/where to implement them can be just as beneficial to an attendee as learning about deciphering execution plans etc.

Microsoft, as our Premier sponsor, is also very proactive in helping community events, and provides a lot of assistance when putting on SQL Relay and other community events. They recognise the collective power of building a community around SQL Server, which helps promote the strength and size of the technical user base, which consequently makes the product more attractive to potential customers.

If we can continue to provide a win-win where everyone benefits from the sponsorship model then we should have sustainable funding for years to come. The increasing number of events throughout the UK is such a positive sign; it shows that the community as a whole (attendees, speakers, organisers & sponsors) are still driving forward with an ever increasing appetite for more community events. And that can only be a good thing for us all!

What has been your most memorable moment at SQL Relay so far?

Personally my favourite moment was the sense of satisfaction at the end of the Birmingham 2012 event. It was the first full day conference that I’d ever run and after months in the planning it was a huge success. The team involved were exceptional, both on the day and the wider committee throughout the planning stages. I enjoyed it so much that we’re doing it again this year!


Thanks for your time Alex and thanks for taking on the role of chair for the committee.

You can find out more about SQL Relay at the website http://www.SQLRelay.co.uk

Richard Douglas

Richard Douglas is a SQL Server Professional working in the UK where he recently worked as a DBA in women's clothing, not literally he hastens to add! He is certified in SQL Server 2008, runs the Maidenhead SQL Server User Group Pass Chapter and is on the organising committee for SQL Relay. In his spare time plays the trumpet in local symphony orchestras.

His online presence includes:


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