Picking Technical Conference Sessions (#SQLRally Edition)


Conferences are awesome. They are full of people and sessions. Almost…TOO many sessions. How on Earth do you get in the “right” ones?

I can see this problem from both sides of the fence. On the one hand, it can be very difficult to understand what content a session may have, just by reading the abstract and title.  On the other hand, it’s very frustrating as a speaker to put together a 200 level session, and get 20 comment cards back that only say “not enough advanced material”.

So! Here is your handy dandy guide to choosing sessions at conferences! We’ll go from general to specific: track, level, title, abstract/keywords, and speaker.


Let’s take the SQLRally regular sessions as the example, since that’s what’s happening this week. We have the following tracks to consider:

  • Top Picks – Clearly, the most popular of the voted-in sessions.
  • DBA – Administration related topics.
  • Dev/PD (Professional Development) - This is a bit of a mixed bag. Look for both T-SQL and career related sessions.
  • BI (Busineses Intelligence) – Here you’ll find your reporting an analysis services sessions.

Tracks are very general, and a great place to start narrowing down your choices. (I’m not a big BI guy personally, but I do like the occasional reporting or 100/200 level SSAS course.)


The session level is easily overlooked, but it is key for setting your expectations.  These definitions were yanked handily from Paul Randal’s SQL Connections Fall 2012 call for abstracts (consider submitting an abstract!):

Level Number Level Name Example
100 Beginner what does ‘corruption’ mean?
200 Intermediate what do I do when corruption is detected?
300 Advanced how do I do take advantage of partial database availability and online piecemeal restore?
400 Master how can I fix broken system tables using the DAC and server single-user mode?
500 SQL Server Internals how does the read-ahead in DBCC CHECKDB differ from regular adaptive range-scan read-ahead?

So, as an example: If you attend a 200 level class, you’re not going to get in-depth knowledge. You may learn something very useful, of course, even at your very advanced level, good sir.  This class is geared toward people who are only partially familiar with the subject matter!


Titles are really supposed to give you a good clue to the session underneath, though occasionally you get a few that are a bit too cutesy for their own good.

At the very least, you should get the subject: sequence objects. Backups. Reporting Services. Compression. Constraints. TempDB. Troubleshooting. You dig?

Download: SQLRally Session Title Word Cloud

Abstract and keywords

Once you’ve narrowed the contenders down to a few, look over the abstracts.  At a minimum, you’ll get a better idea of the session content.  Some abstracts tell you outright: “You will learn ___ in this session.” (Sean’s 100 level Understanding Backups abstract says “I will take you through basic backup syntax and fully explain how things work the way they do and why.” Very specific!)

Sometimes, you can get the tone of the session from the tone of the abstract, too. (My own Unraveling Tangled Code session abstract is supposed to make you smile, and be intrigued. Much like the session itself.)

Keywords like “demo” and “example” tell you that you’re going to see some usable code or GUI work. “Troubleshoot” and “avoid mistakes” means you’ll get some real world problem avoidance advice.  “In-depth”, “detail”, “internals”, and “advanced” = time to dig deep.

You get the idea.


Of course, you may have your favorite speakers, or that one speaker you’ve been meaning to see for some time. This can be a tiebreaker, or sometimes the entire session-picking criteria.  (I have a few favorite speakers, but I always pay mighty big attention if Joe Celko is speaking; you’ll see me in his Advanced DDL Constraints session this week!)

In short…

  • Consider the track – Are you more interested in DBA sessions, or BI?
  • Pay attention to the level – Session level is key for setting your expectations
  • Titles are only clues – Session titles should at least communicate the subject.
  • Abstracts communiate session content – The abstract tells you the content. As a bonus, the tone of the abstract will often be the tone of the session.
  • Speakers – Sometimes a known speaker will convince you to go (or, to stay away!), regardless of content.

Finally, GIVE FEEDBACK. Speakers want both positive and negative feedback, as long as it’s constructive.  (“You rock!” and “You suck!” are what we call “minimally constructive comments” in our kinder moments. :)

Happy days,

Jen McCown

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