This is a little late in coming; however, I wanted to document my experience planning and putting on a SQLSaturday event. While officially put on by the Richmond SQL Server Users Group, ‘my’ event took place March 9th, 2013 at the University of Richmond. The work was challenging and sometimes painful, but I am already thinking about organizing another–even better event next year.
Start with Vision
It is sometimes amazing to think that Andy Warren and company were sitting around one day and said–You know, we ought to put on a free Saturday training event . . . and it spread like wild-fire. I had attended a handful of user group meetings when I started attending regularly in December of 2011. It was there I learned about SQLSaturday, although I wouldn’t attend my first until June of 2012 in Philadelphia. I was impressed with the content and winning a book didn’t hurt my experience. I started talking with other members of the Richmond user group and there seemed to be enough interest in putting one on, so we jumped in.There would be two main objectives–grow the pool of local speakers by encouraging them to speak and provide a well-organized day of training for the Richmond Community. We always focused on the latter as it was the big fish to fry, but we tried to circled back to supporting the user group.
Plan the Work, Work the plan
I am unsure how the early adopters managed to pull it off–I am not sure what I would have done without Karla Landrum. While she won’t find sponsors or ask people to speak at your event, the invaluable experience of being battle tested is so important. We would bounce ideas off of her and she directed us in what steps to take at certain times and every time we took her advice it was the right decision. In fact there was one area with the SpeedPass we did NOT take her advice and it bit us in the butt.
Never to early
While doing these every year will reduce the time an organizer/user group needs to put on an event, I am surprised at how many events go up with only 3-4 months notice. Our event went ‘live’ about 6 months in advance and I thought we needed all of that time to prepare. Occasionally, we just needed some time for an idea or concept to marinate until we felt comfortable as a group. Other times, we need time to find someone to assist us with a task. Starting early also helped in the coordination with the venue. We were lucky to have a gracious host in the University of Richmond and the School of Continuing Studies; however, this type of event was new to them and we needed time to work out details and ensure we met the requirements of the University. As I mentioned, I am already thinking about next year and I think by July we will need to start putting together the team if we hold the event in March.
Help is out there
The best compliment I received about the event was “You had lots of people helping and it showed.” While others have organized an event outside of a user group, my thoughts are you should take it to the user group (assuming there is one) and get buy in from them. Sure, not everyone will help; however, the leaders normally help or provide input on organizing an event, getting local sponsors, and speakers as they have to do this on a regular basis for the user group. Also members that have been to a SQL Saturday are normally easy pickings for at least the medium level tasks. Local business sponsors can help promote the activity as they can show their involvement in the community, so don’t be afraid to approach them with a request to send out an email to their network and put some verbiage on their website. After a successful event they are eager to help again and hopefully in an increased capacity.
I had the privilege of working with a small core team. Between us we share the load of the largest responsibilities and brought in others for day/week of needs. Wayne Sheffield b|t and Geoff Johnson b|t were my two biggest supporters. Many hands make light work and it was no exception with this. Having a team around you lets you share experiences and increases the number of reviews an idea gets. While the men represented the core organizing team, I had another team of ladies made up of mostly of spouses that helped with day of needs. It was impressive to seem them work and immediately resolve issues that came up.
Speaker Dinner and gift
Nothing made me more nervous than the speaker’s dinner and gift. We had a great line up of A list speakers–and I was scared to death of what they would think. It didn’t help that someone had volunteered to organize that part and then fell of the face of the planet. Richmond is a big small city and there are limited spaces for a party of 35 on a Friday evening. While unintentional, there is also some pressure to come up with an original gift or idea because many of the speakers have been around for a while and each event is publicized about the good and not so good things that happen. At the end of the day, what makes the SQL community so great is the willingness to help each other and while our dinner had a few issues, everyone enjoyed getting together and talking. I had heard it before, but the speakers really are there to help out the community and this was my experience. While they all seemed to enjoy our gift, they truly appreciated the organization of the event, the preparation of the room they were in, and the people in their sessions.
Day of the Event
We did not have a pre-con before the event, so I had taken most of the day Friday to review everything and get the items I needed to bring to the event. Because we had user group buy in, we had put together all the programs/swag bags the Thursday prior. Geoff was the volunteer coordinator and had the registration items and Wayne had the speaker items. I had a van load of kids so it was good that I didn’t have too many items to bring.
We were the first to arrive that day at about 6:30 AM. The school was such a big help and the tables were already set up so there was minor physical arrangements to make. We had made assignments beforehand for the coffee pickup, sign posting, and registration needs. I shouldn’t have been surprised–after all this is the SQL Community, but several people got there soon after me and offered to help. We soon had people unpacking cars and bringing in needed items.
The rest of the day passed quickly. We had a few problems with Standby attendees so attending a morning session was out of the question; however, I did take the advice of some other organizers and squeezed in parts of a couple of afternoon sessions.
I had my family there and I made my oldest daughter, 10, attend the Women In Technology forum with me during lunch. It might be a few years before she appreciates it. :)
It always amazes me how many people stay for the entire day, but I guess that is why we save the prizes for the end. We had a good assortment of prizes and we are so grateful to the sponsors for helping us to make it happen.
There are a few areas in which we can improve, but they are dwarfed by the goodwill of the attendees, sponsors, and speakers. If you are willing to put in the time (and emails) it is a worthy en devour. Don’t forget about listening to Karla. Don’t forget to have the coffee there early–even if it means two trips, one of the first rush and one of the rest of the morning.
I am glad I was able to play a small role and I hope to see you on the SQL trail.