The 4 Presentations I’m Proudest Of, and What Inspired Them

I was thinking back about the presentations I’ve been the most proud of over the years. I’ve written and performed a *lot* of stuff over time, but here are some of the free public presentations I’m the most proud of, and the stories of how they came to be.

#4: Watch Brent Tune Queries (2014)

This show was inspired by the Discovery Network. I love watching people just do their job. Deadliest Catch. Dirty Jobs. Maine Cabin Masters.

I thought, “Can I build a session where someone just watches me work? Like a Dirty Jobs, but for SQL Server? And how much could I teach them in the process?”

The first version of this session was pretty rough, but as I started presenting it at conferences, I began by using a few slides to explain my query tuning process before I jumped in and went to work, taking real user-written queries from data.stackexchange.com and tuning them.

When I do it these days, I’m back to the mess: I don’t even bother starting with a slide deck. I start with a blank SSMS, type out a few key points about my query-tuning process, open up data.stackexchange.com, pick a query, and begin tuning it. (The queries aren’t selected by random – I pick them ahead of times to illustrate specific challenges.)

I like it because it’s so minimal and it evokes so much attendee interaction. I try to walk a line between getting attendees to suggest what they’d do, versus getting enough direction in my agenda to make progress in a query before the fend of the session.

#3: 500-Level Guide to Career Internals (2016)

Whenever conference schedules come out, my friends and I usually sort the schedule all kinds of different ways, looking at the contents. One of the ways we slice & dice it is by level – we wanna see what presenters think is 500-level material. (Usually, difficulty is described as 100, 200, 300, or 400 level.) We always had chuckles for things that were termed 500-level when it was really more of an introduction – especially if it was a short session that couldn’t possibly get into technical details.

One year I thought, “What would a 500-level career hacking session look like?”

I don’t think of myself as 500-level at anything, so I reframed the question as, “If someone presented a 500-level guide to career hacking at a SQL Server conference, what credentials would that person need to have?” I suddenly realized, uh, it was me: I had cofounded and bootstrapped a multi-million-dollar consulting company, hadn’t worked for anyone else for years, and had basically crafted the job that I wanted.

I had a lot of career development material that I’d written from the FreeCons that I used to run. They were free one-day workshops done before a conference, but rather than focusing on technical training, we focused on building lifelong connections between attendees. We talked careers, blogging, presenting, and more. We did talk technology, but only for the purpose of showing different presentation delivery methods. I really enjoyed doing those.

PASS recorded the session, but there was no videocamera. I hate watching sessions without a camera of the speaker, but I think this one’s worth it:

There’s nothing special about that presentation’s delivery, but it makes my list of top sessions because the material is so near and dear to my heart. There was even a moment onstage where I had to struggle to keep it together, and…I still get a little teary eyed thinking about that.

I recently updated and re-recorded this one for SQLBits 2020, where I had the challenge of picking my favorite 90 minutes of it altogether. That was fun.

#2: An Introduction to Statistics with Playing Cards (2020)

I can’t cook worth a damn, but I loved watching Alton Brown’s show Good Eats. The publicly available Alton Brown Bakes an Apple Pie shows several good examples of his team’s camera work, putting cameras inside a mock fridge, an oven, and above his workspace.

Ever since I saw the overhead camera usage, I filed it away in a text file where I keep ideas for presentation techniques. Later, when I wondered how I could use playing cards to explain how SQL Server’s statistics work, I realized I could combine it with the overhead camera technique to do something memorable.

This session has 3 things I love:

  • The camera angle that’s rarely used in IT presentations
  • The usage of an everyday object to tell a technology story
  • The obvious truth afterwards: when you finish watching the session, you say to yourself, “Well, of course it works that way. It’s obvious now. It couldn’t have possibly worked any other way.” That, for me, is a mark of a great presentation – where afterwards, the technology seems so simple.

#1: How to Think Like the SQL Server Engine (2010)

In 2010, I sat in Edward Tufte’s day-long seminar on how to communicate. A couple of my big takeaways:

  • Communicators should try to build a single handout piece of paper that conveyed a lot of information
  • Communicators should try to bring people as close as possible to the actual thing that’s happening

I thought about how I could pull those off, and I realized a happy coincidence: SQL Server stores data in 8KB pages. I could take the free public Stack Overflow database, export part of it into Excel, turn it into a printed handout, and get people to role play as the SQL Server engine.

I’ve updated it and re-recorded it a lot over the years, and here’s the latest version, fresh from a recent stream:

I’m really happy with those 4 sessions, and I hope y’all enjoy ’em too.

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