At big conferences like the Professional Association for SQL Server Summit in Seattle, attendees can pay extra to attend a pre-conference or post-conference session. Select speakers talk all day on just one topic, so the attendees get really deep coverage on it. Competition among speakers is tough for these slots because there’s money involved – they get paid per attendee. A few of us co-submitted a performance tuning abstract this year, but we didn’t get accepted. (I’m completely okay with that – the quality of the accepted sessions was outstanding.)
I decided to offer my own free invitation-only pre-conference instead, and the Free-Con was born. I wanted to make sure I didn’t compete with the paid pre-con sessions in any way, so I ran mine on Sunday, a day before the paid ones. I emailed about a dozen bloggers from various walks of life and said, “Get your free-con.” I really wish I could have invited a huge number of people, but for the first draft of this experiment, I wanted to keep it a very small group. I really like the chemistry that a 15-person group seems to produce: just big enough to create small pockets of discussion, yet small enough that everyone can get to know everyone else’s viewpoints.
Seattle native Kendra Little (Blog – @KendraLittle) offered to help pick the location and arrange the food, and frankly, she did a better job of that than I did on the presentations! We gathered at the Richard Hugo House, a downtown Seattle spot for writers to improve their craft, and I performed in the cabaret. We feasted on healthy and tasty local food – well, except for the Trophy cupcakes brought by Yanni Robel (Blog – @YanniRobel), which were just tasty.
No SQL Server talk here – we’ll get enough of that during the PASS Summit this week. Instead, we covered topics like how the employment market is changing, how to create and manage your personal brand, how to work with vendors and publishers, how consultants achieve a work/life balance, and why content creators are so valuable.
This event really reinforced to me that the most valuable things you can get from a conference are the conversations from people who share your troubles and beliefs. I left inspired to do more work to help more people achieve their dreams, and empowered by thoughts from people like Karen Lopez, John Robel, and Steve Jones who challenge me to do a better job.
The Free-Con is still too fresh in my mind to know if it was a real success – the real proof will be seen in what the attendees took away from it. I’m going to be following up with them over the coming months, challenging some of them to take their online persona to the next level, and challenging others to mentor bloggers, presenters, and podcasters. If I think it helped (and especially if they tell me it helped) then I’ll do one at Connections next spring too.
Even if nothing comes of it, I’m proud that I tried it. I trace the heritage of this idea back to my coworking time at the Caroline Collective and to my time working with Christian Hasker and Andy Grant in the Quest Software marketing team. Those two times in my life taught me the importance of taking gambles and creating stuff. In 2010, I passed the Microsoft Certified Master tests the first time I took ‘em, wrote my free Twitter e-book, launched SQLCruise with Tim Ford, gave up the stability of a paycheck to start consulting full time with SQLskills, taught my first paid pre-con at SQLbits, and tried this Free-Con. As the year starts to come to a close, I feel incredibly grateful to have so many wonderful people in my life who support and enable my crazy ideas – or at least humor me. (That includes you, Erika!)