How to Pick a SQL Server Conference

As a consultant and speaker, I’m lucky enough to go to a crazy number of SQL Server conferences. Here’s what I think of each mainstream conference out there – who they’re for, and who they’re not for.

PASS Summit

  • Length: 3 days
  • Pre-Cons Available: Yes, many
  • Videos Available Online: Yes, but only for paid attendees
  • Tracks: SQL Server only
  • Typical Location: Seattle, WA

Just one of the PASS Summit after-hours options

For Attendees: The Summit is a mid-size (thousands of people) conference dedicated to all SQL Server, nothin’ but SQL Server. A dozen or more sessions run simultaneously at all times, so no matter what niche topic you’re interested in, somebody’s running a presentation about it.  The “somebody” is a key here – the presenters are from all walks of the SQL Server life, some professional presenters and some people presenting in front of a crowd for their very first time.  Quality is all over the map here, but the community is forgiving: this feels like a big family event.  Twitter is lively with attendee chat during the day, and the fun continues after hours with several big parties to choose from on any given night.

For Speakers: The conference doesn’t pay any expenses or speaking fees, but competition’s still tough for slots here just because so many community members are encouraged to submit abstracts.  Along with the lack of payment comes a lack of work, though – presenters aren’t required to spend time in various booths or attend a bunch of pre-conference meetings.  PASS seems beholden to Microsoft to keep this event near Seattle as often as they can, and like TechEd, this doesn’t make for good vacation time.  I’m sick and tired of rainy, gloomy, Novembers in Seattle, but I put up with it because it’s like a family reunion.

Microsoft TechEd North America And Europe

  • Length: 4 days
  • Pre-Cons Available: Yes, but only one for SQL Server
  • Videos Available Online: Yes, free
  • Tracks: SQL Server, Sharepoint, Windows, Development, Cloud, Exchange, basically anything Microsoft
  • Locations: various US and EU cities

TechEd Europe Keynote

For Attendees: This large (~10,000 person) conference has multiple tracks for almost all Microsoft technologies. If you wear multiple hats like developer AND database pro, sysadmin AND accidental DBA, or DBA and SharePoint admin, then this is the biggest conference for you. Biggest doesn’t necessarily mean best, though: I sat through a few painful vendor sessions and Microsoft marketing sessions. (The keynotes are simply awful.) Microsoft and the sponsors clearly run this event, and it shows – they’re pushing their own messages here. This is the conference to hit during release years because tons of Microsoft staff are readily available to answer detailed questions about new products. The vendor expo is huuuuuge, too, so if you need to compare multiple vendor products quickly, this is the place to go.  If you can’t go, though, you can watch any of the session videos for free.

For Speakers: Microsoft pays for speaker airfare, hotel, and a speaking fee, and there’s some prestige involved with speaking at Microsoft’s own event, so competition is extremely fierce for speaking slots. However, because the conference is run by Microsoft, the competition doesn’t necessarily mean the sessions are the best. Sessions have to conform to Microsoft’s speaking (marketing) standards, and presentations are vetted by Microsoft employees. You won’t see a lot of anti-Microsoft sentiment in the slide decks here. Many attendees even believe that all presenters are Microsoft staff, so I start my sessions by explaining that I’m an independent consultant.  Speaking at this conference involves a lot of meetings, red tape, and mandatory duties at various get-togethers and booths.  Worse, the conference isn’t always when and where you want to be – New Orleans in June is not my idea of a good time.

DevINTERSECTION and SQLINTERSECTION

Connections in Vegas. Because, y’know, Vegas.

  • Length: 3 days
  • Pre-cons Available: Yes, multiple dedicated to SQL Server
  • Videos Available Online: No
  • Tracks: SQL Server, Sharepoint, Windows, Development, Cloud, Exchange
  • Locations: Twice a year in Las Vegas

For Attendees: This small conference run by Paul Randal and Kimberly Tripp (SQLskills) feels very much like a professional training event. There’s just a few simultaneous sessions per track, but they’re absolutely top notch sessions. Even though there’s only a few sessions, they’re ALL sessions I want to attend – really good expert-level speakers that do a lot of presenting for a living. There’s no filler here.

For Speakers: The conference pays for speaker airfare, hotel, and a speaking fee, so competition’s pretty tough for the few speaking slots. As a result, the sessions tend to be more curated and fairly high quality. This is my favorite conference as a speaker because the organizers work hard to make it as easy as possible for you.  I get one email with my contracts and travel details, and that’s it.  I show up onsite, pick up my backpack with my logistics stuff, and I get to work.

DevConnections and SQLConnections

Connections in Vegas. Because, y’know, Vegas.

  • Length: 3 days, one of which is dedicated to Microsoft presenters
  • Pre-cons Available: Yes, usually one SQL Server pre-con per day
  • Videos Available Online: No
  • Tracks: SQL Server, Sharepoint, Windows, Development, Cloud, Exchange
  • Locations: Twice a year in Las Vegas

For Attendees: Like DevIntersection, this is a small conference focused on training. It used to be run by Paul Randal and Kimberly Tripp (who now run Intersection), so it’s easy to get confused as to which one is which. Connections is now mostly community-driven, though. Between Intersection and Connections, I’d pick the former. (And I do as a speaker.)

Microsoft MVP Summit

Jeremiah acting out SQL Server through interpretive dance at the MVP Summit

  • Length: 2-4 days depending on your interests
  • Pre-Cons Available: No
  • Videos Available Online: No
  • Tracks: All Microsoft technologies
  • Location: Microsoft campus in the Seattle area

For Attendees: This invite-only conference is the biggest benefit to being a Microsoft MVP.  Microsoft trots out developers and managers to talk about what they’re working on.  MVPs get to interact with the people building their favorite products, plus interact with other MVPs – and that’s a killer benefit by itself.

I include this conference in my list just because it’s an event away from home that I need to schedule time for, so it’s part of my decision-making process.

SQLBits

  • Length: 1 pre-con day, 1 deep dive day, 1 free day
  • Pre-Cons Available: Yes, several
  • Videos Available Online: Yes, but only for the free days
  • Tracks: SQL Server only
  • Location: Moves around the UK

For Attendees: Maybe it’s just because of their accents, but I think the presenters at SQLbits are some of the best ones out there.  I’ve been consistently impressed by the SQLbits sessions I’ve seen, and the sense of community at this event is just outstanding.  It’s held in fun places at fun times of the year.  Even the format is unique: if you just attend the free day, it’s much like a SQLSaturday, but if your budget allows then you can get much more in-depth training too.

For Speakers: SQLbits does pay presenters for doing pre-cons, but not for the free days.  It has an interesting mix between a professional-feeling conference and a community one, and I think it strikes a really good balance.  If you can get a pre-conference session approved, then this conference can pay for itself – they offer some of the best revenue sharing of any of the conferences.

SQLCruise

  • Length: One week
  • Pre-Cons Available: No
  • Videos Available Online: No
  • Tracks: SQL Server only
  • Location: Cruise ships, typically out of Florida

SQLCruise #1

For Attendees: This very intimate (15-attendee) conference is a chance to build close personal relationships.  Yes, there’s SQL Server training, but the really valuable part is the one-on-one time you get to spend with MCMs, MVPs, and experts.  There are much less presenters (and attendees) than any other conference, but you get tons of time with them.  At larger conferences like the PASS Summit, you’re not likely to get hours of time to have drinks and talk directly to the presenters – there’s just too much of a crowd at any given time.

For Speakers: Presenting on a cruise ship comes with some drawbacks.  Attendees expect plenty of time to build those relationships, which means you’re now required to attend every single session, group event, party, dinner, etc – and there’s a lot of ’em.  The cruise room is paid for, but the airfare and pre-cruise hotel is not.  If you see this as an easy vacation, you’re going to be in for a shock – I found it to be more work than any other conference.  The benefit is that the attendees are sincerely thankful for the work you put into making the event a success.

How I Choose Which Conferences to Attend

If you’re an attendee, I’d recommend basing your decision on:

  • Is it more important to you to learn, or to build relationships? (And are you sure?  You can watch a lot of the conference videos for free online right now – so what’s holding you back?)
  • Is it important to you to have conversations with Microsoft employees?
  • Is it important to you to meet peers who have similar problems?
  • Do you want a conference located somewhere that you can do sightseeing before and after?

When I’m an attendee, the most valuable things are conversations and relationships.  I want to be able to talk to experts who have solved the same problems I’m facing, hear how they worked past it, and get their contact information so I can ask them questions later.  That’s why I prefer conferences with plenty of time for side talks – if everyone’s rushing from session to session, I don’t get as much value as an attendee.

I try to budget some money for lunch and dinner because food at these conferences is frankly horrendous.  The presenters don’t want to eat that stuff either, so when I needed help, I tempted presenters by saying, “Hey, can I take you out to lunch or dinner and pick your brain about something?”  You’d be surprised by how often that works.

Me at the PASS Summit Bloggers’ Table

I also care about the conference’s tracks.  I have to do more than just SQL Server, so sometimes I need to talk to experts from other fields.

This is going to sound crazy, but I don’t really care about the sessions or the keynotes.  If I want sessions, I can watch free videos from SQLbits or TechEd anytime I want.  I don’t have to wait for the conference to fix problems I’m having right now.  I also don’t care about product announcements because Microsoft doesn’t really do them at conferences anymore.  Take the recent Surface announcement: we had TechEd North America one week, then the Surface announcement the next week, then TechEd Europe the week after – but not a single bit of information to be had about Surface at either TechEd conference.  Given that the audience consisted of developers, and that developer support is absolutely critical for launching a new tablet, I don’t get why Microsoft would ignore these conferences – but they do.  If tech news is important to you, get it from blogs and news sites rather than conferences, because the Microsoft conference scene has stale news.  (That’s not to say these conferences don’t have good information about new features – you just won’t find it at the keynote sessions, which have turned into a boring rehash of old news and marketing demos.)

If you’re a presenter, here’s what I think about when choosing my conference calendar:

  • Where I can help the most people
  • How I can bring in business in the future
  • How I can minimize expenses (after all, as a consultant, I’m not getting paid when I do this stuff)

Each conference has its own pros and cons, and it sucks to decide, because I wish I could attend conferences all year!  I have to cut back to honor my family commitments, though.

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12 Comments. Leave new

  • Great summary Brent. I must admit I don’t learn an awful lot at conferences, I network a lot and get an overview of a lot of technologies. And companies have rules against certain places – many companies i know wil simply not consider sending anyone to Vegas or Orlando or even on a cruise simply because they don’t think any ‘learning’ goes on there (wrong on the last one but possibly true on Vegas and Orlando). So gloomy rainy Seattle in November might work just bcoz one gets paid to do it!!

    Reply
  • Mindy Curnutt
    July 24, 2012 10:53 am

    nice! No mention of the SQL Saturday conferences where someone looking to get some speaking experience can get a few sessions under their belt without so much competition?

    Reply
    • Mindy – yeah, SQLSaturday isn’t really a full-blown conference. I see ’em kinda like local user group sessions. They don’t usually require hotels, so I didn’t include them in the list. They’re great events, and I like ’em a lot, but I wouldn’t call them a conference.

      Reply
    • Also – forgot to mention, competition’s really tough on these too these days! There’s usually 2-4x the number of sessions submitted as sessions accepted.

      Reply
  • I’d have to say that learning at conferences is tough. I mainly go to get inspired or hear about some new idea/implementation/application of technology that makes me think. Therefore a variety of people speaking make it more interesting, especially when they talk about solutions from work.

    I’m curious though, for an attendee that isn’t producing content, is TechEd good in a release year? I’d think the year after, once the technology has settled a bit and the MS people can answer questions about how people are using it, not how they predict people will use it.

    Reply
    • Steve – yeah, I get the most value out of hearing real-world scenarios. Sometimes those scenarios come from the podium, but most of the time they come from other attendees. I wish we got more time with the other deploying folks who can answer questions honestly and off-the-record without marketing filtering what they say. (sigh)

      Reply
  • Chris Plank
    July 25, 2012 5:56 am

    Really good summary Brent and a lot of what you said is applicable to other vendors conferences as well.

    Vendors seem to have the same scheduling issue for their European conferences, choosing places at the wrong time of year (usually October, clashing with other conferences and holiday time).

    I know of one vendors conference which has a track specifically for wives/husbands accompanying attendees which keeps them entertained during the day whilst their partners are at the conference sessions. Makes it easier to justify attending to the “real boss” 😉

    Reply
  • You forgot another cost factor for SQLCruise. It costs a week of vacation/family time for those of us employed by companies. It costs a week worth of billable time for those that are consultants.

    Reply
  • Brent (and team), since this post is 5 years old now, any updated thoughts on the current conference scene? I’ve been a PASS Summit attendee the past couple years, but am thinking of trying SQLintersection this year or next if I can to mix things up a bit.

    Reply

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