Interview with #SQLPASS Presidents Rushabh Mehta and Bill Graziano

#SQLPass
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PASS takes bloggers seriously.

This is the third year I’ve been offered press-style sit-down interviews with members of the PASS Board of Directors. On Friday, outgoing President Rushabh Mehta (@RushabhMehta), upcoming President Bill Graziano (@BillGraziano), and PASS Marketing’s Alison MacDonald talked with me for over an hour about PASS, the Summit, finances, membership, web sites, and beer.

Rushabh and Bill are perhaps two of the busiest guys at the entire Summit, and yet they made sure to connect, learn, and share with me. I can’t tell you how humbled I am about that. These guys really live the mantra.

But wait – it gets even better.

About 45 minutes into our discussion, Rushabh excused himself because he had to go to his session. This guy had actually taken time OUT OF HIS OWN SESSION TO TALK TO ME. His co-presenter handled the first half of the session while Rushabh talked to me. I was completely shellshocked. Ladies and gentlemen, I am not that important, but it tells you just how serious PASS is about community. That’s insane.

Every year, it seems like more and more events overlap. Several sessions compete for your attention, three or four parties happen every night at the same time, and there’s hundreds of people you want to talk to in the hallways. I thought my schedule was tough, but I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be for the PASS volunteers. I really salute these folks who give up their own enjoyment of the Summit just to make sure everyone else is taken care of. Big round of virtual applause for these selfless people.

Summit 2011: Best. Summit. Ever.

Talking to attendees and speakers, I kept hearing that this was one of the best SQL Server community events ever, and I completely agree. Board of Directors member Allen Kinsel (@SQLInsaneo) heard this a lot, too, but he followed up with a sharp question: why? Here’s what I heard:

First-timers were embraced. Last year’s introductory programs for first-timers had a rocky start, but this year’s looked really impressive. The Big Brothers & Sisters program helped introduce newbies to the community.

Session offerings were fantastic. In almost every time slot, I had at least two must-see sessions. The community is learning to write better abstracts, and the Program Committee is doing a great job of sifting through them. Attendees had plenty of great choices for pre-cons, too, and they responded by buying more than ever.

First-time speakers were well-received. Bill Graziano pointed out that a lot of local speakers are building their reputations at SQLSaturdays and SQLRally, and as a result, even first-time-speakers got good attendance numbers in their sessions.

Submit Your Feedback and Vote
Submit Your Feedback and Vote

How Do We Make the Summit Even Better?

Bill Graziano carries a little notebook around during the Summit to jot down suggestions. He thumbed through page after page and talked about some of the most interesting and practical suggestions he’d gotten from attendees. I’m going to touch on a few of them and give my own thoughts, not necessarily Bill’s or Rushabh’s – the Board has to put thought into these kinds of things, and they can’t leap to conclusions like a knee-jerk blogger like me.

Help the hearing impaired – hearing-impaired attendees had a tough time getting the most out of some sessions. (Not to mention those of us who couldn’t read the slides.)

Add a closing get-together – the Summit has a gradual taper-down close right now. People gradually leave throughout the day, with less and less people in each session, and there’s not a feeling of closure. For those of us who stay over Friday night, we could have one last networking event. I love this idea. In the past, there’s been an MVP networking event, but an open event makes more sense. Vendors probably aren’t going to throw last-night parties because their staff have all flown out on Friday.

Put the PASS logo at the bottom of the slides, not the top – attendees in the back of the room can’t see the bottom 10-20% of the slides because the projector screens are near the floor. You can’t just raise the screens – in many rooms they were already near the ceiling. You have to make the screen size smaller, and that isn’t good. Instead, move the PASS logo from the top of the slide down to the bottom, giving more content space at the top. Smart.

Put electric outlets on the pre-con desks. Attendees pay $395 to sit in a pre-con all day and learn, but they can’t take notes as easily if their laptops die within the first hour or two. At every break in my pre-con, the attendees made a mad dash for the wall outlets to plug their laptops in for a brief burst of resuscitating juice. I can almost understand the unreliable wifi – after all, it’s hard to satisfy thousands of geeks in a single room – but extension cords are easy. We need to handle this. One attendee even told me, “Idera is my new favorite vendor because they put fast phone chargers in the hallway.”

To read about more ideas, vote on them, and submit your own, check out Feedback.SQLPass.org.

How Do We Make the Keynotes Better?

This year will go down as one of the most (unintentionally) funny keynotes ever. BI projects made the amazing discovery that kids like frozen yogurt. Attendees made the awkward discovery that presenters wanted to utilize children. And nobody made any discoveries on screens covered with tiny fonts.  When I recovered from the fits of giggles, I was pretty happy with the balance of marketing versus technical information when all three keynotes (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday) were added together.  There’s still some improvements to make, and I talked about these with Bill and Rushabh:

Microsoft keynotes need to embrace the community. PASS listens to what the community likes and jumps right in to join us. For example, Bill Graziano took the stage on #SQLkilt day wearing a kilt himself – but not the Microsoft speakers. A few of the Microsoft speakers were willing to poke fun at themselves (Denny Lee and Lara Rubbelke were a hoot), but otherwise, things felt pretty stiff.

Test the keynotes with tough critics. If Sean McCown, Aaron Bertrand, or I would have seen any of the decks or demos, we could have pointed out the font illegibility, pedophile hilarity, and Excel saturation ahead of time rather than having it blow up in public. Plus, by getting members of the community vested in the keynote itself, it turns us into cheerleaders rather than the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

If you don’t have something timely, do something timeless. Microsoft didn’t really have anything impressive to unveil at the Summit – absolutely not their fault, because the Summit came at an awkward time in the release cycles for SQL Server and SQL Azure – but that doesn’t mean Microsoft doesn’t have anything cool to say. Microsoft has all kinds of brilliant thinkers who’ve done amazing things over their careers. Put Buck Woody up on the stage as a host and let him cycle through four people as they explain something they’re really proud of. Look at the number of people who chose to go to Bob Ward’s session on TempDB – that demonstrates how well-received a Microsoft speaker can be even when there’s no new feature announcements involved.

Offer choices. When a keynote starts to bomb, we can’t really vote with our feet – there’s nowhere else to go. What if we opened the expo hall earlier so that attendees could spend time with the sponsors rather than being stuck in uncomfortable seats listening to uncomfortable pitches? Competition breeds improvement, and right now the keynotes feel a little monopolistic. If Microsoft knew people had real choices, I bet keynote quality would improve dramatically – especially after the first year of people walking out. Or perhaps we could choose from three simultaneous keynotes on day 2 – one for DBAs, one for BI, and one for developers? Microsoft could deliver targeted information without boring 2/3 of the people at any given time. I swear, if I see one more demo of PowerViewPivotCrescentStreamChartExcel, I’m going to pivot forward in my chair and hurl. I’m not saying we should offer sessions that compete with keynotes. (Although as a presenter, I’d looooove that. I bet I could completely pack a room with keynote refugees. Hmmm.)

Got something you’d like to see improved?  Check out feedback.SQLPass.org and cast your vote.  The PASS Board listens!

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Brandon Leach
    October 17, 2011 3:30 pm

    You make some great points. All to often I’ve found keynotes at events to be rather dull. They run too long and often do not give enough useful information.
    I definitly think shorter keynotes would be better. Say reduce them by a third. You could use the time to get everyone to introduce themselves to a few people.

    as for “PowerViewPivotCrescentStreamChartExcel”, I think you found a new hashtag.

    Reply
  • Brent,

    Again I want to say Thank You taking the time to talk with us. Ending my Summit with your interview is becoming kind of a tradition for me. Kind of like meeting Denny in the bar to fill up my little black notebook 🙂

    And for anyone else reading, please don’t skip your sessions! GAH!

    Thanks for promoting the feedback site.

    -Bill “LL Cool B”

    Reply
  • Great write up on the event. I will definitely be going to next years (and hopefully many more after that!).

    Reply
  • Brent, Thanks for the post. Very good points, and the feedback site shout out was much needed. I tweeted it, but failed to mention you in the tweet (sorry!).

    I agree with the competition comment: it definitely spurs improvement. It seems that history has shown that Microsoft has learned this, but then again… from history we might find that after we compete, Microsoft might just buy us out to get us to attend their keynotes!! LOL

    Anyway, thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

    Reply

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