Setting Session Skill Levels

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Today we have a guest editorial as Steve is on vacation.

For many years, I’ve been presenting my T-SQL window function sessions at events around the US and beyond. I have two sessions: one is an overview of the material with explanations and lots of examples. The second assumes that you have worked with these functions and want to learn more about how to improve their performance. The sweet spot is when I get to present both in the same session room back-to-back.

The main problem I’ve had with these sessions is figuring out the skill levels when submitting to the events. I started out setting the intro session to Intermediate and the performance session to Advanced. I received a few complaints in the evals that I had set these too high: they should be Beginner and Intermediate, respectively. Moving them down has had the opposite effect. I have recently received complaints from beginners in the room who had no idea what I was talking about in my intro session because they were true beginners to T-SQL.

Herein lies the problem. What does “beginner” really mean at a SQL Saturday or other event? It could be an introductory session about an advanced topic, or it could be a session meant for beginners to SQL Server. Often these events are held at university campuses with quite a few students attending. Some of these students are absolute beginners when it comes to databases and may not have written their first SELECT statement, let alone have the prerequisites needed for the sessions. (Some organizers have reached out to speakers about submitting absolute beginner sessions which I think is a great idea). They may or not be able to tell from the session’s skill level if they will have enough background knowledge to understand the topic.

The definitions for PASS Summit session skill levels have some helpful guidance that includes the number of years’ experience as well as an assumption of technical knowledge for each. There are five levels ranging from Introduction to Expert, but I still think it is often difficult to find the right spot. I’m not going to name any specific sessions, but scrolling through the sessions from 2018, I found quite a few that I would move up or down based on the background knowledge required. If the new people look just at the skill levels, they might end up in sessions way over their heads which is both frustrating and a waste of time.

For my sessions, I’ve come up with an idea that will help people make sure they have the right background as they walk into the room. For each session, I create a four slide PowerPoint deck that plays automatically on repeat for the 10 minutes or so before the session begins. It contains a slide for the session title, sponsor slide if any, bio slide, and a prerequisite slide. That way the people in the audience can switch to another session if they realize that my session is not for them.

While figuring out the skill level for some sessions is easy, for many it is quite tricky. The goal is to get the right group of people in the seats so that they learn something new to help them in their jobs and steer the new folks to the real beginner sessions.

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