#TIL From Organizing a SQL Saturday Event

April 2016 – I attended my first ever SQL Saturday event a few months after I started engaging the #sqlfamily on Twitter.  I experience first hand the intensity of large amounts of SQL Server knowledge being forced into my brain by entertaining, engaging, and respected speakers (particularly Philip Labry and Jes Borland).  I leave the event feeling empowered and inspired.  I set a goal of creating a PASS chapter in northcentral Wisconsin as well as putting on a SQL Saturday event as well.

August 2016 – WausauPASS holds its inaugural session.  Jes Borland presents at our session, and we have a record group in attendance.  It is at this event I announce SQLSaturday Wausau, September 2017.

December 2016 – I secure a venue for the event at the local technical college, Northcentral Technical College.  I fill out the paperwork and get my event number.  SQLSaturday Wausau is now a reality, not just a dream and a goal.

Today – I sit down at my computer and reflect on the lessons I learned so far in the process.  I am far from done.  In fact, our call for speakers is still open until July 18, 2017.  However, a large portion of the thinking and planning is complete.  The last planning activity is to fill out the schedule and determine which sessions are going to present.  This post a list of lessons I have learned so far in this process.

Lesson #1 – When planning, create a realistic plan – then create an optimistic plan and a pessimistic plan.

When putting together a SQL Saturday event, there is a lot of planning to be done up front.  Where are you going to have the event?  Who is going to speak?  What is the lunch arrangement going to be?  How much is the lunch fee?  What sponsorship levels do you need?  Are you going to do a speaker dinner?  I could go on, but you get the idea.  There are a lot of questions to ask and answer.  We also know that in battle, plans are the first casualty.  We also know that you can plan all you want, but life may not agree and things may turn out very differently.  When I did the planning (especially the budget) for SQLSaturday Wausau, I created three plans.  First I created a reasonable plan that I was 90% confident I could execute.  Then I created a plan that I was only 50% confident in – that was my optimistic plan.  I also created a very pessimistic plan that eliminated everything but finding four rooms to hold the sessions in where people could gather and get trained.

Lesson #2 – Remember your purpose

It’s easy to get caught up in event fever as I call it.  You want to create this epic event that people will talk about for years.  You want there to be lavish luxuries, exciting raffle prizes, and great speakers.  You think, “Gee, in order to attract great speakers I must have to have a lavish speaker dinner, private after party, and expensive speaker gift”.  Before you know it, you lose sight of the mission.  This is especially likely to happen if you have gone to an SQLSaturday event (much like SQLSaturday Madison) and hear through the grapevine that they had a $20,000 budget to work with.

It’s important to stay grounded during this process.  Your first and most important priority is to provide a day of quality training for your attendees.  That is it.  No fluff.  If you miss this mark, the entire event is a failure.  It’s fine to add some fluff in after you make sure you achieve this mission, but if you are cutting rooms from your budget to make room for a seven-course speaker dinner, you are doing it very wrong.

Lesson #3 – Less is more

This is especially true when it comes to costs.  SQLSaturday events are supposed to be about a day of training for people that might not otherwise have the opportunity to get that training.  It’s about bringing the community together to create an environment where the more experienced of us can share our knowledge with the less experienced.  It’s not about dinners, or gifts, or shirts but it is about giving back to the community.

Likewise, you don’t need 50 different sponsors.  You don’t need a $20,000 budget.  SQLSaturday Wausau has a $1,250 budget, not including lunch fee revenues that are used to provide lunch and refreshments to the attendees.  You don’t need 50 raffle prizes.  You don’t need expensive attendee gifts.  You just need knowledgeable speakers and eager attendees.

Lesson #4 – Try to have something for everyone

This is a very tough lesson to implement, and it refers to the session line-up.  If you make your event too niche, you will alienate attendees.  If this is your first event, you will want to make sure to cover a wide variety of topics.  For SQLSaturday Wausau I plan to have four tracks:  beginner DBA, intermediate/advanced DBA, beginner business intelligence, and intermediate/advanced business intelligence.  You also need to make sure that there is something that aligns with your passions as well to make sure you don’t burn out on the event planning side.  For me, business intelligence is my passion so by making sure to have those tracks I have something that I can relate to and am interested in.

Lesson #5 – Don’t go it alone

This was the hardest lesson for me to learn because I don’t like asking for help.  No one can expect to plan, organize, and execute an SQLSaturday event by themselves.  It’s too much decision making and too much work.  At the very least, you will need volunteers to register attendees, scan raffle tickets, and monitor rooms for problems because you cannot be everywhere at once.  It is also helpful to have multiple opinions during the planning phase because you will be asking and answering a lot of questions, and most of those questions will be opinion-based so there is no right or wrong answer.  One might think this would make it easier but it actually makes it a lot harder in my opinion.

That wraps up my lessons learned so far in this process.  I am sure after the event I will have a few more to add to the list so be sure to check back in October to see the next 5 lessons learned!

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