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.
- 2020 dates: all over the world, size varies by city, typically 200-300 attendees
- Length: Friday pre-conference paid training day, Saturday free training
- Pre-cons available: usually only 1-2
- Videos available online: no
- Tracks: Microsoft data platform only
My thoughts for attendees: there simply isn’t a better bargain than this. The one-day pre-conference workshops are a hell of a deal too, typically around $200-$300. I know some folks who prefer to travel to a few different SQL Saturdays per year (even internationally) rather than go to one of the bigger annual conferences.
For speakers: because this is a free community-run event managed by local volunteers, there are no payments for travel or appearances. Folks do this for the love of it.
- 2020 date: Nov 10-13, Houston, TX – huge, thousands of attendees
- Length: 3 days
- Pre-Cons available: Yes, many
- Videos available online: current year or two are only available to paid attendees, but older sessions are available in the PASStv YouTube channel
- Tracks: Microsoft database only
For Attendees: The Summit is a mid-size (thousands of people) conference dedicated to the Microsoft data platform. 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 years, the Summit has focused mostly on Seattle, but this year it’s in Houston. I’m so excited: Erika and I lived in Houston for years, and it’s a great place to visit in the fall. The restaurants are spectacular, and I’ll put together a list of recommendations and dates/times as we get closer. (I thought about doing a tour bus around to a few, but Erika talked me out of that for liability reasons, hahaha.)
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.
- 2020 date: March 31-April 4, London
- Length: 2 pre-con days, 2 deep dive days, 1 free day
- Pre-Cons available: Yes, several
- Videos available online: yes, but only for the free days
- Tracks: Microsoft data platform only
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 like the PASS Summit, the sense of community at this event is just outstanding. Even the format is unique: if you just attend the free day, it’s much like a SQL Saturday, but if your budget allows then you can get much more in-depth training too. The price is really, really affordable given how much training you get.
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.
- 2020 date: Build is May 19-21 in Seattle, WA, Ignite is Sept 21-25 in New Orleans
- Length: 3-4 days
- Pre-cons available: sometimes, but very limited for SQL Server
- Videos available online: Yes, free – Microsoft Ignite videos, Microsoft Build videos
- Tracks: SQL Server, O365, Windows, Development, Cloud, basically anything Microsoft
For Attendees: These very large (>10,000 person) conferences have 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’ve sat through a few painful vendor sessions and Microsoft marketing sessions. Microsoft and the sponsors clearly run this event, and it shows – they’re pushing their own messages here. The tradeoff: in exchange for putting up with a lot of marketing spam, you also get access to a lot of Microsoft technical staff. 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.
- 2020 date: April 7-9, Orlando, FL and December 8-10, Las Vegas, NV
- Length: 3 days
- Pre-cons available: yes, multiple dedicated to SQL Server
- Videos available online: no
- Tracks: SQL Server, Windows, Development, Cloud, AI
For Attendees: This small conference whose data track is run by Paul Randal and Kimberly Tripp (SQLskills) feels very much like a professional training class more than a conference, and that’s a good thing. There are just a few simultaneous sessions per track, but they’re absolutely top notch sessions. Even though there’s only a few sessions, I still usually have a tough time picking which sessions I want to attend – there are really good expert-level speakers that do a lot of presenting for a living.
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 a super easy conference as a speaker because the organizers work hard to make it as easy as possible for you.
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.
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. 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.