Tips for Attending a SQL Saturday Event:  

I’ve been attending SQL Saturday events for only about a year now, however, thanks to the proximity of so many good sized cities in the southeast, I’ve managed to attend 8 events so far!  In doing so, I thought it would be helpful to run through some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way to help out anybody else who may just be starting out.

 

Background

A SQL Saturday event is a free all-day event centered on the subject matter of SQL server and its surrounding technologies.  These events are organized by local SQL Server User Groups and usually occur once per year per city and group.  Most major cities have at least one user group and some have multiple groups.  It is common for a SQL Saturday event to be preceded by one or more pre-conference sessions which all day learning events, for a small fee, on a single topic in a more classroom setting.  While SQL Saturday events are organized by local user groups, they tend to attract speakers from all over the country.

The SQL Saturday home page for SQL Saturday 220 in Atlanta, GA

Registration

  • Registration for the event typically opens a couple of months before the actual event.  You can register any time after registration opens, but if you’re sure you wish to attend, go ahead and register.  If you register but then learn you will not be able to attend, make sure to cancel your registration.  While the cost for the event is free (or maybe $10 for lunch), they do occasionally sell out, so register in advance!
  • You do not have to register for a pre-conference session at the same time you register for the main event.  You can come back any time prior to the session to register for a pre-conference session (so long as it isn’t sold out)  You will typically receive a discounted price for registering for a pre-conference session during the “early bird” window.


Pre-Conferences

  • If pre-conference sessions are being offered, they will be advertised on the SQL Saturday page for the event.  They almost always take place the day before the event (Friday).  If there are multiple sessions being offered, they will usually all occur on the same day/time (so you must choose), however, I’ve seen a few events where they did them on Thursday and Friday instead of all on Friday.
  • If a pre-conference session is offered that is either on a topic you are at least partially interested in, or given by a speaker you are at least partially interested in, then GO!  Pre-conference sessions last an entire day, usually on one topic, and are typically taught by very talented individuals.  The cost is almost always $150 or less and I’ve yet to have a class size larger than 30.  (Once was only 5 — how’s that for nearly one-on-one?)
  • Take advantage of being in the same room with a subject matter expert for the day and enjoy the pace, take notes, ask questions, participate, and enjoy the experience!  Saturday will be a LOT more crowded and rushed.
  • Some sessions lend themselves more to bringing a laptop than others.  Typically you will receive communication from the organizers prior to the session letting you know if laptops are encouraged.  Be aware, there’s always a chance the site wireless internet may not be working and its always a good idea to bring a small power strip with you if you bring a laptop.
Pre-conference event description from Practical Self-Service BI with PowerPivot at SQL Saturday 220

Preparation – Gear and Attire

  • Many SQL Saturdays will offer a “Fast Pass” which they send out 1-2 days prior to the event.  This is a PDF which includes your admission ticket, lunch ticket, name tag, and raffle tickets.  Print this out and cut it out in advance, it’ll make your check-in experience MUCH FASTER and easier for everyone!
  • I do not recommend bringing a laptop to the event.  They’re often too big and bulky and not really needed (most presenters upload their slide decks for you to download later).  Phones and tablets are fine, though you may not have internet or cell coverage.
  • I do, however, bring my backpack-style laptop bag without my laptop in it.  I find this to be very convenient to carry a bottle of water brought from home (should they not offer them in the morning), a notebook for taking notes, and the swag bag and any other swag I pick up along the way.
  • Attire for the events is very casual.  T-shirts, jeans, or shorts are completely fine.  One caveat, you never know what the AC will be like in the building.  My first SQL Saturday event was in late summer where it was 90 degrees outside — but inside it was like a freezer.  I didn’t have a sweatshirt with me, but wished that I had.  I now carry a light one to every event in my laptop bag.

Preparation – The Schedule and Gear

  • About a month prior to event day, the event schedule will be posted on the SQL Saturday website.  While there may be minor changes to the schedule here and there as the event approaches, the schedule is usually pretty solid and you can use it to start planning.
  • The schedule is typically setup with 5-6 timeslots throughout the day and 3-12 “tracks” for each timeslot.  Each track is roughly categorized by a subject matter (DBA, BI, Professional Dev, etc) and represents a physical room.  There is no requirement or expectation that for you to stick to a single track.  Pick and choose sessions as you see fit!
  • Each session will have a short abstract describing the session as well as the presenter to help you decide which sessions you wish to attend.
  • Each session will also be classified as Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced.  This is also a loose categorization, but I wouldn’t necessary recommend attending an Advanced session if you know you are a beginner at best in a topic.
The web-based schedule from the SQL Saturday website for SQL Saturday 220
  • Many events will also include their schedules in a format compatible with mobile devices.  The App I am most familiar with is Event Guide on iOS, but there is also a native App for Windows 8 phones as well.  Event Guide includes the schedule for the day as well as all of the abstracts and you can select which sessions you will attend from the app, making for easy reference.
  • For events which do not publish to a mobile phone enabled guide, I like to take a screenshot of the schedule and mark it up with the sessions I wish to attend and then send it to my phone as an image.  I find this easier than dealing with the website from my phone.


Preparation – Choosing Sessions
It’s decision time!  Choosing which sessions you want to attend is probably the hardest part about attending a SQL Saturday.  Hopefully these tips will help!

  • Choose sessions which interest you, either in a job role you are currently performing or a role which you wish to perform in the future.  When there is one and only one session like this in a timeslot, that makes your choice for that slot really easy!
  • More often than not, there will be more than one session in a timeslot that interests you — then you have to break the tie somehow!  This is tricky.  Sometimes a similar session will be offered later in the day.  Otherwise, one speaker may interest you more than another.  Finally, if you attend more than one SQL Saturday in a region, sessions are frequently given by the same speaker at different locations…so you could attend the conflicting session at another SQL Saturday.
  • Sometimes the opposite will happen and you’ll have a timeslot where none of the sessions really apply to something you are currently doing.  In these cases, I will look to see who is presenting for each session and pick solely based on the presenter — a name I’m familiar with, a known good and entertaining presenter, somebody I want to meet, etc.
  • It’s rare, but sometimes a session will fill up.  It’s a good idea to have a backup session chosen in these cases just in case.
  • If available (and it usually is) I will always choose at least one Professional Development session.  These sessions are almost always rewarding and enjoyable and can be a nice break from all the technical sessions.  They tend to be a little bit of a secret, in that they don’t get a huge amount of attendance, but some of my favorite sessions of all time have been Professional Development sessions.  Professional Development sessions tend to include a lot of experience stories and these are always interesting to hear from other people in the field.
  • The SQL Saturday website provides a tool called “Schedule Builder” as well as the main schedule table.  Use this tool to select which sessions you wish to attend.  This is not in any way binding, but the event organizers can see how many people are interested in each session, which can be helpful when choosing what size room to assign for each session.

Event Day – Pre-Cons

  • Pre-Cons are usually (but not always) held at the same venue SQL Saturday will be held at, but will typically occupy a smaller subset of the venue (such as one or more classrooms or a small auditorium).
  • Try to arrive around 30 minutes prior to the start time.  Parking is not usually a problem for pre-cons, but this will give you an opportunity to get parked, find the registration area, and find the presentation location itself.
  • Pre-Cons will almost always have a small breakfast offering (water, juice, coffee, bagels, donuts, etc) for you to snack on while waiting.
  • There may or may not be enough convenient outlets if you brought a laptop (hopefully you brought a small power strip)
  • The wireless internet access provided by the venue may or may not be working/accessible.
  • Once the session kicks off you’re on your way!  There’ll be a series of breaks here and there and a lunch of some sort.  Take lots of notes and enjoy this great learning opportunity!
  • The event will end at about 5pm or so, at which time the presenters will go meet elsewhere for their traditional speaker/presenter dinner.

Event Day – SQL Saturday

  • Event day is here at last!  Plan to arrive at least 30 minutes (up to an hour for the big crowded events like Atlanta) prior to the start of the first session.  This will give you ample time to find a parking space, get your swag bag and nametag from check-in, and drop off raffle tickets.  Parking can be somewhat hit and miss depending on the venue.  There is always enough parking somewhere, but its common that a primary lot fills up and then you need to find the secondary lot and signage is not always the best on how to do this.
  • Once you’ve parked and found the check-in location, give them your pre-printed FastPass admission ticket (if you have one) and they’ll give you a swag bag and nametag.
  • Some events may have snacks in the morning.  Feel free to take the time to enjoy the snacks and visit the sponsors/vendors.
  • Every sponsor/vendor for the event will have a table and one or two representatives for the company. Try to visit them all and say “hi” — they’ll usually have swag (pens and other toys) and will rarely give you the hard sell.  Their sponsorship money actually covers most if not all of the event cost.  As an added bonus, nearly every one will raffle off a prize at the end of the event.  Drop one of your raffle tickets into every vendor’s bucket…who knows, you may win!
SWAG!
  • Most SQL Saturday events will kick right off with the first sessions.  A smaller number will have a mini opening keynote session in a common area.
  • Depending on how popular your first session is, it may be a good idea to find the location and find a seat 10-15 minutes before it starts…you don’t want to start the day with a session that was too full to join!
  • Throughout the day, its a good idea to get to sessions early to get a seat and then go mingle.  I’ll frequently drop my bag off and then go visit vendors/sponsors and whatnot so I can guarantee I’ll have a seat in a session I wish to attend.
  • Lunch will be addressed in some capacity, be it boxed lunches, pizza, or a nearby food court you can walk to and purchase from.  Some events actually give presentations during lunch, which I think is a great idea.
  • At the end of the event, there will be a wrap-up where everybody gathers in a single location and some closing notes and thank yous are given.  This is also the time in which the prize raffle occurs.  Prizes range everywhere from books to tablets, so it is definitely worth attending the raffle!  There are usually at least 10 prizes.  Good luck!

After Event
At the conclusion of the SQL Saturday raffle, there will often be an after party held offsite.  Different groups are better than others about making sure everybody knows about the after party event and where it is.  Some will post it on the event website, some will pass out flyers or mention it in sessions or at the raffle, and some will tweet it.

Either way, if you know where the after event is, you should go and attend for at least a little while.  They typically only last an hour or two and often have drinks or appetizers available.  It’s a great opportunity to meet people after the event.

Social Networking
Use Twitter leading up to and during the event.  The SQL Server community uses Twitter for communication a lot!

On the SQL Saturday home page for the event, there will be mention of the event’s official hashtag (usual #sqlsatNUM though there are some outliers like #sqlsatATL).

I’ll typically load up the hashtag in the twitter client on my phone and keep an eye on it throughout the day.  Even if you yourself don’t tweet during the event, many will and there is good information to be had as well as interesting pictures, FYIs, free stuff, etc.

Hopefully you enjoyed your SQL Saturday experience and these tips were of help to you!  If you have any tips you’d like to add, feel free to let me know.