T-SQL Tuesday #148 – Advice on Running a User Group

Today’s T-SQL Tuesday edition comes from Rie Merrit and she is asking about “Advice on Running a User Group.”

Fortunately she’s only asking for 1-2 ideas, not an entire book (though there’s at least one book out there on the topic, which I’ll admit I’ve skimmed but not read cover to cover).

It Starts at the Door

This is actually an area I’ve not done as well in as I’d like, but I’m going to continue to work on. For your in-person meetings (we remember what those were like, right?) find one of your more outgoing, sociable members, ideally someone who is good with names and details, and position them by the door to greet people. When someone new comes in, this person should make sure they get their name, ask them if they have any particular interests, and then introduce them to others, ideally with similar interests.

It can be very intimidating to walk into a new User Group meeting where you know no one, and every already there is already happily chatting away and you end up feeling like an outsider.

By assigning someone to the role of greeter, ideally any new person instantly can be made to feel welcome. Besides simply introducing them, the greeter can explain how things work in terms of schedule, where the bathrooms are, where food is at, etc. This keeps newcomers from feeling lost and left out.

On the flip side of this advice, the greeter has to make sure they’re not too enthusiastic either. If the newcomer indicates they’d rather just sit in the corner and listen and leave, that’s fine too. The goal isn’t to force everyone to socialize. The goal is to make it easier for those who wish to.

I can guarantee that if you make people feel welcome, they’re more likely to come back.

It Pays to have Sponsor

Or more accurately, its sponsors that make it possible to pay for food and other costs. Several years ago at a User Group Leader meeting at PASS Summit, I listened as a speaker talked about looking for sponsors you might not normally consider, i.e. going outside of getting sponsorship from technical companies. This has worked really well for me in the past. But before you even go that far, you need to get some data. And since we’re DBAs, we should be good with data. I recommend once a year, collecting data about your group with some questions such as:

  • How many people receive your weekly or monthly emails. You don’t need an exact number, but is it 100, 300, 500, 1000?
  • How many people typically attend your meetings? (and now ask in-person versus on-line if you’re doing hybrid)
  • Where are they coming from?
  • How many years have they been in the industry?
  • Do you have a breakdown by age range?

You’re trying to get a sense of demographics. This will come in handy when you look for sponsors that are non-technical (for technical sponsors you will want different demographics). But with the data from my group, I have approached a number of different sponsors such as banks, insurance agencies and the like. My sales pitch is generally along the lines of:

I can put your name in front of 400 people via email and 20-30 people in person that are in your demographic (generally 40-50 years of age, higher income) that are probably in the market for your services (such as life insurance, investment opportunities, etc).

I’ve had a lot of luck with this approach. Sometimes I’ve gotten a check right there, sometimes they’ve had to go up their chain of command, but now they have data to sell the idea to their boss. And sometimes, you find out a prospect is not a good match. This happened with me when I approached a contact at the local, then new casino. Turns out their target demographic was older, retired women. Apparently they spend a lot of time and money at the casino. In contrast, mid-life professional DBAs don’t gamble much!

The other key detail when approach a sponsor is being clear on what you’re selling them. You probably recognize this without really realizing it. At any conference you’ve been to you’ve seen Platinum Sponsors, Gold Sponsors, etc. The more someone is willing to pay, the more mention they get, the bigger their logo may be featured, etc. This works for user groups. My advice here is to not overdue the number of sponsorships and to deliver on what you promise. For my group, pre-Covid, I would typically try to have no more than 3-4 sponsors at a time, and total over a year, perhaps 6 or so. Some sponsors would sponsor for 3 meetings, some for the entire year. There were discounts for an annual sponsor as opposed to a quarterly sponsor. If you were a quarterly or greater sponsor, besides having your logo in emails and being mentioned from time to time, you were given the opportunity once a quarter or so to give a 5 minute pitch before the group. Some took advantage of that, some didn’t. But I have to say those who did, I think made a better impact when they could introduce themselves and point to the food and say they were glad to sponsor our group.

I’ll close with one final comment on sponsors: not all need to provide a direct financial contribution. We have a local hotel that has provided us 1-2 free room nights a year. We typically use one to put up a speaker who is coming in from out of town, and the second as part of our annual holiday raffle. We also had the local garbage collection company provide a free year’s service as a prize for our annual raffle. That was surprisingly one of our more popular prizes. In SQL Server you don’t have to worry about garbage collection and for a year neither did one of our DBAs!

In Conclusion

I can’t speak for other user groups, but I do know we’re probably very close to going back to in-person meetings in the near future so I’ll be dusting off the playbook and doing the above as well as other things in order to build up our successful in-person attendance again.

I look forward to seeing what other group leaders advise!

And Fun Was Had By All

I want to give shout-outs to Rob Farley, Peter Shore, Deborah Melkin, and Rob Sewell for making the final Capital Area SQL Server User Group meeting of the year a rousing success. And this being T-SQL Tuesday, I’m going to try to very loosely tie this into the topic this month How much do you love meeting in person, where would you like for your next event to take place, and why Costa Rica? as invited by Xavier Morera.

tsqltuesday
T-SQL Tuesday

First, let me get his questions out of the way:

  1. Favorite Conference: The easy answer has been SQL Pass, but honestly, at this point, any where I get to see folks in person!
  2. Best Venue: Ignoring Pass at Seattle, I have to say Manchester UK was nice, simply because it was my first overseas SQL Saturday, or perhaps Virginia Beach SQL Saturday, because Monica Rathbun and her group provided a nice charcuterie board!
  3. Best Presenter: Oh, this is a tough one. I’m going to take a pass. But then cheat and answer below. Sort of.
  4. Next event and why it’ll be Costa Rica: I’m suspecting sort of a bias in this question, but to be honest, I’d love to go. I think 2022 will be a bit too busy for me to visit, but perhaps 2023 or 2024. Maybe I can work in some caving then too!

That all said, I want to get back to my shout-outs above and tie that into this T-SQL Tuesday.

As the coordinator for the Capital Area SQL Server User Group, one of my primary roles, in fact perhaps the most important, is finding speakers to present. I’ve tried over the past few years to have a good variety and to bring some variety. We haven’t really missed a meeting since the pandemic has started, but we have been virtual for well over a year now. This has presented both drawbacks and opportunities. The biggest drawback of course is the lack of actual in-person interaction and the feeling of connectedness that has brought. On a personal note it also means not only have I not gotten out of cooking dinner the night of meetings, but often, I’m juggling getting something together for dinner and getting the session started (though last night my wonderful wife did take care of dinner for me.)

On the flip side, being virtual has allowed me to invite speakers who might not otherwise be willing or able to travel in person to Albany NY and for attendees from across the country to show up. It has also given me the opportunity to experiment a bit more with formats.

Last year, instead of our traditional in-person holiday party format, we did a version of “Bluff the Listener” where I asked various presenters to tell their worst IT/SQL horror stories, but one was lying. It was a success and a lot of fun.

Not wanting to repeat that, this year I decided to ask the above 4 presenters to present lightning rounds. That’s not so bad, except I added a twist. They didn’t get to choose their topics, they were given them: 10 minutes before they were scheduled to present. (And yes, some may I stole this idea from Buck Woody, I’d like to say I was inspired).

I’ll admit I was very nervous about this idea. It seemed a bit gimmicky and it could have been a complete disaster with lesser speakers. Fortunately, all four brought their A-Game.

Rob Farley, presenting from the future, in I believe a public work space, managed to give one of the best talks on column-store indices I’ve seen. Given he had only 10 minutes of prep, I was impressed. His presentation included the use of Powerpoint in sort of a “green screen” mode so he could draw on his screen and we could see what he was drawing.

Peter Shore followed up talking about Tips in Advancing a Career in Data. Again, off-the-cuff with limited prep time, he did very well with this topic. I think in some ways this was almost harder than the more technical topics because you can’t fall back on a demo or graphics.

Deborah Melkin followed, talking about the Best new SQL Server features (2019, 2022, Azure). I had announced previously that the best speaker would be awarded a prize. By I think unanimous declaration, even before Rob Sewell finished out the night with his presentation, the other speakers decided Deborah was the winner. She included some demos in her presentation, which, given the lead time, really impressed folks.

Closing out the evening, Rob Sewell entertained us with a demo of SQL Injection. Not surprisingly, he made use of PowerShell and Notebooks.

As I said, it was an entertaining and educational evening. I purposely set expectations low and made sure folks understood that the entertainment value was as much, if not more important than actual educational value. But I was very pleased with how educational it turned out to be. It was a nice way to end the year and honestly, I think a decent way to get a break from the bad news that seems to have surrounded us lately.

I do have a theory though about why the educational part turned out as well as it did though. In general I’ve always enjoyed lightning talks and I honestly, think they’re among the hardest type of talk to give. Sometimes people promote them as a good introduction to speaking for novice speakers, but I’m not so sure. To give a successful lightning talk, one really has to strip a presentation to the bare essentials and really focus on just one or two key concepts. This can be difficult. But done well I think it really makes those concepts stick.

Now, combine that with topics only being given out 10 minutes in advance, I think that really forces a presenter to focus on key concepts even more. I wouldn’t give an inexperienced presenter a random topic, and even with an experienced presenter, I’d give them a chance to decline a topic if they feel it’s completely outside their wheelhouse. But otherwise, give them a chance to see what they can do. It might surprise you. Heck, it might surprise them.

So, to go back and answer a question from above: Best Presenter… at least last night Deborah Melkin, who if nothing else proved her Google-foo was impressive.

And I think if I can find volunteers, I will definitely try to do an in-person version of this at a future SQL Saturday or Data Saturday or other conference.

Thanks to all who participated and joined us. It was a blast. But honestly, next year, I hope to see you all in person at our holiday party!

Summit Recap

As many of my readers know, last week was the 2021 PASS Data Community Summit hosted by Redgate. In the past I would have travelled to Seattle to attend in person. Last year, due to Covid the Summit became a virtual event. I was a bit disappointed since I had finally been selected to present and was looking forward to doing so in person. I ended up presenting virtually. That alone would have been disappointing enough, but there were other issues and basically the underlying structure that supported PASS and its structure went belly-up and declared bankruptcy.

More Thoughts on Last Year’s Summit

My recap last year was positive but I have to be honest now. I was certainly trying to put a good spin on things. The truth is, I was more frustrated than I originally let on. I’m still not only grossly disappointed by the poor closed-captioning, I’m still a bit offended. I’m as guilty as anyone for probably not being inclusive enough when it comes to things like color-blindness, difficulty of hearing, etc, but to know that the organization had weeks to get good closed-captioning done, and didn’t still offends me.

I was also extremely insulted when weeks before the Summit, User Group leaders were asked to pony up money to attend. A benefit of doing the work of leading a User Group has traditionally been a free ticket to Summit. To have that change weeks or just a few months before Summit, especially one that was going virtual definitely felt like a bait and switch.

This and some behind the scenes factors in regards to PASS had left a bitter taste in my mouth. Then of course we finally got word that PASS as an organization was no more.

There were wails of anguish, and rending of garments, and wearing of sackcloth. (ok, I may be overdramatizing a bit). But I was hopeful. As I stated then, PASS really is the community. It’s the people. And they’re some of the best people I’ve known professionally: #sqlfamily.

This Year’s Summit

So, on to Summit this year. Within months of the demise of the former structure, Redgate announced it was buying the intellectual property associated with PASS. Microsoft in the meantime was rolling out tools to help the user groups. Steve Jones was working on SQL Saturday. Things were looking good. I was hopeful.

Redgate announced the Pass Data Community Summit would happen, albeit virtually. I was excited and looking forward to it. That said, I’ll admit I did not put in to speak this year. I just didn’t have the motivation. This was a mark on me, not on Redgate’s efforts. Redgate also announced that while the precons would cost money, the Summit itself would be free. Last year there was a lot of discussion about charging for a virtual summit and while I defended the concept a bit, because there are still enormous costs associated, I also was not a fan of it, because I knew it would be a hard sell to managers. I think I was proven right there. The very preliminary numbers I heard for attendance this year appear to have FAR outpaced the numbers for last year. I think that’s a good sign.

So, enough rambling, what about Summit this year?

First two criticisms

I common complaint, and one I knew I was guilty of, was it was unclear that for many sessions one was supposed to watch the recorded session first and then attend what was essentially a live Q&A. I know for the first presentation I attended on Wednesday, even the presenter, who was in the Q&A was confused by this. I’ll admit, I never did figure out how to watch the recorded sessions beforehand.

The second was, I didn’t discover the Spatial.Chat system until the 2nd day, and that was only because I am a Friend of Redgate had received a specific email inviting me to a private chat.

Now, partly, I will put the blame for the above two criticisms squarely on myself for probably not reading the emails in enough detail. But, it does seem others had the same issue and perhaps more succinct, clear links or emails might have helped. I honestly don’t know.

The Positives

That said, despite the above criticisms, I really enjoyed Summit and in a huge part because once I learned about the Spatial.chat system and how to use it, I for the first time, felt like I was in a virtual space that closely mimicked real life. The idea of being able to move closer to people to hear them better, or to move away if I wanted to focus on some work but still be “part of the crowd” worked REALLY well. Trying to translate a physical presence into a virtual one is often tough, but I think the Spatial.Chat stuff worked really well. I found myself hanging out there more than anything else.

Since I never did figure out how to watch recorded stuff before the live Q&A, I focused on the actually live sessions and they did NOT disappoint. As usual, while folks talk about how great the social atmosphere is at Summit, the truth is we tell our bosses we go for the technical content and it was topnotch as expected. Once again great content!

I also really enjoyed the Keynotes this year. I’ll admit, because of jetlag and because I’m often up late talking with the college friends whose house I crash at while in Seattle, I am often late to the keynotes (if I make it at all) and sometimes doze off in the large, warm dark room. This year, none of that happened. I was entertained and really enjoyed them. I especially enjoyed Brent Ozar‘s Keynote on Friday and the impact of the Cloud on ones career.

I think this year’s Summit overall felt more positive for a number of reasons. For one, I think many of us are finally hoping to see a light at the end of the Covid Tunnel. For another, I think most of us are far more hopeful about the overall #SQLFamily community and future PASS Summits than we were a year ago. Finally, I think we just all felt the need to socialize again, albeit it virtually.

Redgate has already announced next year’s summit will be in Seattle again next year, but will be a hybrid event. I will be very curious to see how that works, but I can tell you right now I’m already budgeting to attend in person.

  • End note: I am a Friend of Redgate and write for their Simple-Talk blog. That said, in this case Redgate isn’t paying for my thoughts and my thoughts are my own.

Impact and Legacy

One of my favorite movies for many reasons is Dead Poet’s Society. Robin Williams is excellent in this role. Shortly after his death, Apple repurposed a short segment that I’ve always loved where he quotes my favorite poet, Walt Whitman: What will your verse be?

“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” – Walt Whitman.

I’ve been thinking more about my legacy and the legacy of others and this week seemed a good time to muse on that. This is the week that in the past many of us would travel to Seattle (or in years before my time, other cities) and gather at PASS SQL Summit. This year things area bit different, but Pass Data Community Summit is happening, albeit remotely. Though at times like this, I can’t but help think of and riff on a line from the Passover Seder, “Perhaps next year in Seattle.” So in any case #SQLFamily is on my mind. And here’s my thoughts on the impact of some individuals.

Let me start with saying this is FAR from a comprehensive list of the people who have had an impact on me. If I didn’t name you, that’s more an oversight on my part and please don’t take it as a slight. And there’s really very little order to this.

Grant Fritchey – I’m sure I remember my meeting with Grant better than he remembers meeting me (is oft the case when a presenter or instructor teaches so many) but it was at a SQL Saturday in Boston where I first heard him speak, in this case on HIPAA. From there I learned not only more about SQL but about #SQLFamily itself and how important this community truly was.

Rie Irish – I want to say it was a SQL Saturday in Philadelphia, but I could be wrong. I was one of two men in her talk  Let Her Finish: Supporting Women’s Voices in Technology. Turns out the other was a friend she had asked to attend. I still wish more men had attended, it’s still a great topic. Rie has helped me be more aware of diversity issues in this community and called me out at least once or twice when I needed it. She’ll be speaking at my user group in a few months and can’t wait.

Andy Mallon – There’s just something infectious about being around Andy that no matter what my mood makes me want to smile.

Bob Ward – Despite him being a Dallas Cowboys fan, he’s an all-around good guy. More seriously, despite how hard he works for Microsoft, he always takes time out to speak to the community and I’ve been honored to have him speak at my local User Group more than once. And despite the general advice to “not type during a demo” he’s brave enough (or crazy enough) to pull out the debugger and debug SQL Server live!

Kathi Kellenberger aka Aunt Kathi – At my first Summit I attended a talk by her on writing a book. What a long strange trip it’s been since then. I wrote my first book and numerous articles for Redgate since then. And yes, I did say first book. I have ideas for others.

Jen and Sean McGowan – Not only have I spent plenty of time on their coach in their booth at Summit, I still find Sean’s class on regexp usage in SSMS, especially for find and replace to be one of the more useful technical skills I’ve learned that arguably isn’t really T-SQL specific.

Tracy Boggiano – For being their during Covid and for making me more aware of mental health issues. And I’m proud to say I’ve got her first ever signature on a book she co-authored with Grant Fritchey!

David Klee – My go to man on certain subjects who knows more about VMWare tuning than I’ll ever hope, let alone want to know. His current Twitter profile picture is a bit misleading, as it suggests a rather sedate, mild-mannered person, but the reality is there’s a mischievous streak there.

Deborah Melkin – I first saw her speak at our Albany SQL Saturday and was immediately impressed, especially as it was her first SQL Saturday. I immediately cornered her and didn’t so much ask as told her to prepare a topic to present to our user group. She happily obliged. One of the aspects I really like about her presentations is she can take a topic that may appear to be a 100 level topic, but still have something new to teach to experienced DBAs.

Andy Yun – I of course now can’t mention Deborah without bringing up Andy’s name. We first met at a SQL Saturday Chicago where I had a blast. At the time it was my most western SQL Saturday gig (since surpassed by two in Colorado Springs). Always helpful and just fun to be around.

Steve Jones – If nothing else, his Daily Coping Blog posts have been a light in my day (even I only skim them). That said, I honestly, don’t know how he gets time to write so much AND do actual work!

Hamish Watson – Despite being literally half a world away, great fun to be around and has shared his great chocolate me, and for that alone he gets a mention.

There are so many more folks that have had an impact: Monica Rathbun, Chris Bell and Gigi Bell, Andy Levy, John Morehouse, Matt Gordon, Kimberly Tripp, and so many more. If I’ve left a name off, I apologize. Honestly, there are dozens of members of the #SQLFamily that have had an impact on me. The only folks I’m not intentionally naming are folks local to me, simply because I want to focus on the larger, worldwide community as a whole. The folks local to me hopefully already know how important they are.

In years past, I’d be looking forward to seeing many of them in person at Summit, but this year the best I can do is perhaps see them virtually and remember them this way.

You may notice a theme too: the impact hasn’t always been directly database related. While it’s true I’ve learned some great database tips from everyone above, their impact has been larger than that. And all of the above folks are more than simply folks who “work on the Microsoft Data Platform”. They’re folks who have lives outside of that. Some rock-climb, some run up buildings, some love to cook, others love to bake, others love to work on their houses, or love to talk about their dogs or cats. And I care about all of them

They’ve each introduced a verse (or more) into the powerful play of both #SQLFamily and to my life. And I’m eternally grateful. Thank you.

Feeling Older

This is probably far from the last time I’m going to write on the subject, and certainly not as in depth as I plan to someday, but this past week made me feel past my prime.

While in many ways I believe age is just a number, the truth is, it does change us. While I am still very active, such as biking a century ride last year, still caving and teaching cave rescue, the reality is, the body and mind are slowing.

I’ve been working with SQL Server in one form or another since 4.21. I’ve spoken at PASS Summit, I’ve presented at more SQL Saturdays and User Groups than I can remember. I’ve published a book and numerous Red Gate articles and I’ve mentored more than a few people over the decades. I’ve worked at two start-ups (not counting mergers and acquisitions) and been a consultant before, between and after those gigs.

So I think I can safely say I’m comfortable with my credentials.

That said, the past week really made me consider if it was time to hang up my cap, or at least change caps again. I won’t go into details, other than to say a particularly stressful project for one of my clients reached a major milestone. I’m actually just one small cog in a much bigger piece of the project, but it’s a fairly important cog. And, it had issues. Now, I’ll put on my shoulders that a bit was due to issues with my code and some assumptions I had made. Most of the issues actually stemmed at a far higher level and with another consultant agency working on the project. Let’s just say that GIGO still thrives. But some of it I realized was, I was slightly off my game, and I think a bit of brain fog was involved. I don’t know if that was age related, simply a result of being cooped up for well over the last year due to Covid or what.

Regardless, the culmination of all that and other issues, some personal, started to come to a head. By Friday I was seriously wondering how much more I had left in the tank, physically and mentally.

Today I will admit I’m in a better place. The last major piece of code I needed to get working finally succeeded in production last night and the GIGO problems seem to be disappearing.

But that was after a long weekend of introspection about where I’m headed. I am at that age where retirement is no longer some far off nebulous goal, but an actual reality I have to consider. I’ve always known I’ll probably never truly retire; I do enjoy being busy and working too much. However, I have for several years now done the delicate balance between making sure I hit certain target goals for income and actually enjoying my work. Last week that balance was way off. I need to get it back.

This is my long-winded way of saying that for the first time in years, I’m honestly not sure what I’ll be doing a year from now. Perhaps I’ll still be consulting in my current form and enjoying it. Perhaps I’ll go back to a full-time 9-5 gig; I have come to realize, I deeply miss the management side of work. For my two stints as a full-time employee I was a manager and honestly, I loved that. I miss it. Perhaps I’ll be consulting in a very different way going forward. Maybe I’ll invest in real-estate. Perhaps become a vagabond teaching cave rescue across the country (this last one is not as far fetched as it sounds, I am planning on teaching at least 2 if not 3 different classes next year.)

But I think change is coming again. It’s the season.

Coping

I’m going to be a bit more open than I usually am in my blog posts. I think it’s time for a bit of transparency.

Let me start by saying that overall, despite the impact of Covid, the last 15 or so months have not been terrible for me. Far from it. In fact I’ve been very fortunate. So this post isn’t a rant or a series of complaints. It’s really a short reflection.

Last year for example, I biked more than I had in years, and in fact did my first century ride since college. I presented at PASS Summit for the first time, albeit virtually. I got to spend more time with my kids. Fortunately, no one close to me had a serious case of COVID nor died from it (though I had friends and former coworkers who did lose people close to them).

I even managed to organize and pull off a cave rescue training class late last summer. And of course just pulled off another weeklong course this month, and will help with another one in late August.

So overall, it’s been a pretty decent 15 months.

But lately I’ve noticed things aren’t necessarily where I want them to be. My motivation levels have been off. I’ve got at least 3-4 ideas for more articles for Redgate. But, I find myself finding reasons to put off writing them. I’ve got a few other projects that I haven’t made progress on. I need to finish tiling a backsplash in my bathroom, patch a hole in the wall in the downstairs bathroom from when I put in a fan, and a few more.

But honestly, the idea of launching into such projects just makes me go “bleah”.

I think too some of the frustration in my inability to attract new clients like I was hoping to this year has put me into the “bleah” mode, and of course in a vicious cycle caused me to put less effort into attracting new clients.

But, ultimately, I’m writing this post not because I’m looking for sympathy or for comfort, but ironically for the exact opposite reason. I find that often people hide the state of their emotional well-being and put on a happy façade, especially on social media, and as a result everyone goes around thinking that everyone else is doing better than they are themselves doing. So, I’m saying, “hey, I’m doing great, but you know what, there are days when life is ‘bleah’ and it’s ok. And if you’re having such days, or even worse, you’re not alone.”

Postscript: I want to add, if you haven’t, check out Steve Jones blog, he’s been daily posting a bunch of coping suggestions. I don’t read them every day, and I suspect Steve would agree with me that take what works for you and ignore the ones that don’t is the way to go. In part his posts helped inspire this one.

Changing Technologies – T-SQL Tuesday

Select <columns> from Some_Table where Condition=’Some Value’

T-SQL Tuesday Topic

The above statement is pretty much the basis of what started my current career. Of course it actually goes back further than that. I have a Computer Science Degree from RPI. So I’ve done programming, learned hardware and more. I even took an Intro to Databases course while at RPI. I still recall the professor talking about IBM and something called Structured Query Language. The book had a line that went something like “while not the most popular database technology, its use may grow in the future.” Boy did it.

When I first started working with SQL Server, it was 4.21 and for a startup. I had a lot to learn. Back then, a lot was by experience. Sometimes I made mistakes. But I learned.

When I started at that startup, if one could write basic queries and backup and restore a database, one was a half-way decent DBA. Knowing how to tune indices was a definite bonus, as was knowing things like how to set up log-shipping and replication.

Back then, besides experience, I learned new stuff two ways: SQL Server Magazine and the SQL Connections conference. Work paid for both. It was worth it. But honestly, there wasn’t too much to learn. But there also weren’t as nearly as many resources as there were today.

Fast forward 30+ years and here I’ve written a book, worked for several startups, regularly write about databases and database related topics, and often presented at User Groups, SQL Saturdays and at the now defunct PASS Summit. Today as a consultant I regularly touch the SQL Server Query Engine, SSAS, SSRS, SSIS, use PowerShell, write the occasional C# and VB.Net, sometimes do work on a Linux machine or VM and more. A lot has changed.

Obviously the technology has changed. So how have I responded? By doing what I said above. This may sound like a tautology or even circular reasoning but it’s true. When I would go to a SQL Saturday, I’d often attend 3-5 different topics. I’d learn something. But then I started presenting. And that forced me to learn. As much as I may like to think I know about a topic, when I go to present about it, I like to ensure I know even more. This forces me to read white papers, other articles and perhaps attend other sessions.

When I’ve written an article, I’ve often had to do a lot of research for it.

So strangely, I would say a bit part of keeping my skills up to date is not just learning from others, but from teaching. Teaching forces me to keep my skills up.

In summation, I’ve responded by learning from others, but also forcing myself to teach myself before I taught others. It’s a feedback loop. The more technology changes, the more I reach out and learn and the more learn, the more I do outreach.

The impetus for this week’s blog was Andy Leonard’s call for a T-SQL Tuesday topic.

This Post is Free!

Yes, seriously, other than a bit of your time, it will cost you nothing to read this post. And you might gain something from it. That can be a good value.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, one of things I do when I’m not doing SQL Server is perform training for those interested in Cave Rescue. I also sometimes blog about it. I have also mentioned that this year I’m organizing the National Cave Rescue Commission‘s national weeklong training class. In addition, since apparently I’m not enough of a masochist I’m also organizing a regional Level 1 only weeklong training class.

Due to generous contributions the NCRC is able to offer scholarships. For the regional weeklong, we are able to offer 4 scholarships of a value of up to $375 each. This covers 1/2 the cost of training. Applications were due Saturday. Now, we’re hoping for 12-20 students, so this means if everyone applied, they’d have between a 1/3-1/5 chance of getting scholarship. Can you guess how many had applied as of Saturday?

Before I answer that, I’ll note my wife used to work as a financial aid director at a local nursing school. They too sometimes offered scholarships. There was one worth I believe $500 that often went unclaimed. Yes, it required a one page essay to be judged to apply. That one page apparently was too high of a barrier for many folks and as a result sometimes it was never awarded. Quite literally a person could have written. “I would like to apply for the scholarship” as their essay and gotten it.

The same thing happened with our regional scholarships. Out of 11 students so far, none applied. This was literally free money sitting on the table. We have decided to extend the scholarship application process until April 23rd and reminded folks they could apply.

Now, some of the students probably can NOT apply, because they are employees of government agencies that sometimes have rules on what outside funds or gifts can be accepted. This actually increases the odds for the other students. And some may feel that their economic status is good enough that they don’t need to and fear they’d take a scholarship away from someone who has more of a need for it. And that’s a position I can definitely appreciate. But my advice to them, “let the scholarship committee make that decision.” If they determine someone is more needing the money, or your need is not enough, they will let you know. And if they do give you a scholarship and you feel guilty, pay it forward. Donate to the fund later on, or give the money you saved to other causes.

Besides essentially free money at the NCRC, I got thinking about the amount of free training I’ve received in the SQL Server community. Yes, I’ve paid for PASS Summit a few times, but even if I had never gone to that, the amount of knowledge I’ve gained for free over the past several years has been amazing. Between SQL Saturdays and User Group meetings, the body of knowledge I’ve been exposed to has been absolutely amazing.

And yet, I know folks who shun such activities. I’m not talking about folks who say, “I can’t make it this month because it’s my kid’s birthday”. I’m talking about folks who claim they never learn anything. I don’t understand how that’s possible given the HUGE range of topics I’ve seen at SQL Saturdays and oh so many other free events. Some folks seem to think only the paid events are worth it. And while PASS Summit had certain unique advantages, the truth is, you can listen to almost all the presenters at various free events too.

Yes, time is not free, and I recognize that. But overall, it still amazes me at the number of folks who overlook the value of free events, or easy to gain scholarships to events. Don’t turn your nose up at free. It can be valuable.

P.S. – for the parents of college bound kids out there, one thing I did in college which netted me a bit of free money. A few days after the semester began, I’d stop by the financial aid office and ask if there was any unclaimed scholarship money I was eligible for. I never netted much, but I did net a few hundred dollars over the years. For 15 minutes of my time, that’s a pretty decent ROI.

2020 in Review

Yes, I’m joining the chorus of so many others who are publishing a lookback on the previous year. This has become a tradition for me. And I of course followed last year’s review with a preview for 2020. I made the obligatory dad joke then and I’ll make one now, that I can’t wait until 20/20 is truly hindsight!

2020 I think upset everyone’s goals, and mine were no different. But I figured I’d start with my goals from last year and then try to end on an actual up-note.

  • I had a goal of blogging at least once a week. I think I missed 1 this year, but a few weeks I blogged more than once, so, including this post, I will have 56 posts this year. Not to shabby. And my overall page count is up. So that’s good.
  • I vowed to write more for Red-Gate and I did. But not as much as I’d like. I do blame this partly on Covid. I lost some of my enthusiasm. But I am working on another article. I was hoping to have it done this week, but lost motivation. I did learn one of my articles there is one of their top read articles. I’m quite proud of that!
  • I did read more this past year, that’s for sure.
  • One goal I had was to keep speaking at more SQL Saturdays. Well, that didn’t quite go as planned. I did speak at the Albany event, but that was about it. This one I 100% blame on Covid. On the other hand, I finally attended the Portland Oregon SQL Saturday, albeit virtually.
  • Speak at SQL Summit: well I did achieve this one, sort of. It was virtual, but I was selected and that was a HUGE highlight. And in fact I ended up being part of two presentations, the 2nd a live one that I ended up doing from my car while waiting for something else. And my presentation on PowerShell for Beginners apparently was very popular. So, I can at least say I went out on a high note.
  • On one hand, we postponed our NCRC Weeklong Cave Rescue Seminar here in NY to 2021. On the other hand, I was able to work out a Modular Level 1 Seminar here in September, the first of its kind in my region ever. And we did it safely and effectively.
  • Started to use git on a far more regular basis, including from the command line (previously I had limited myself to the GUI in Visual Studio).
  • I did read more! – including:
    • The Power Broker, I biography of Robert Moses
    • Station Eleven, though in retrospect, reading a book about the world after a global pandemic was NOT a great way to start the year!

So, overall, I did accomplish a number of my goal. I had some generic ones that included caving more, biking more, and hiking more. More on those in a moment.

Overall, the year was a bummer in many ways. I really missed travelling. I really missed seeing friends and family (I think we saw my mom in person twice during the entire year). I missed my seeing my #SQLFamily in person. I missed my NCRC Family. I missed having our normal annual pool party.

I missed, normalcy.

But…

You know what, for me personally, 2020 was actually a year of some ups. I’ve been very fortunate and I was able to do things I had not done as much as in the past.

  • For one I accomplished my first overnight hike in perhaps over a decade, a nice 18 miles on the Appalachian Trail. Due to scheduling I couldn’t quite get in a 2nd hike that would have completed a gap in Massachusetts, but perhaps next year. I did find I needed some new equipment, which I purchased in anticipation for next year.
  • As for biking, I definitely did a LOT more this year. I biked over 1300 miles this year (I can’t recall the last time, if ever, I did as much) including my first century ride (100 miles in one day) since my senior year of high school. I’m really proud of that one. Who knows, maybe I’ll do another in 2021.
  • Despite a contentious election season, America voted the Orange One out.
  • Spent more time with my family! We did several walks around the area including some paths we had not explored in the 20+ years my wife and I have lived in the house.
  • I fixed the dryer that had been making a horrible rumbling sound for years.
  • I made a bunch of sourdough bread, pancakes, waffles and even a pizza crust or two. And I’m back to making sourdough again.
  • I finished binge-watching Haven, a quirky fun show based on a Stephen King story.
  • I rewatched (and for my family, they watched for the first time) the entire Prisoner series. Yes, everyone still wonders what the hell the final episode is still about.
  • We’re binge-watching Schitt$ Creek and wondering why we didn’t watch it sooner.

All in all, it was a very mixed year. It wasn’t a normal year in many ways and some of the normalcy, I really missed. But, on the flip side, I think it encouraged and in some cases forced me out of my comfort zone and to do things I might not have had time to do otherwise.

I can’t say it was a great year. While I’ve been fortunate and have not had anyone close to me succumb to Covid, I know too many people who have had friends and family die of it. So in that aspect, it’s been a terrible year. As of the latest count, over 342,000 have died in the US and yesterday set a new record in the US for daily deaths. At this rate, by the start of next week we’ll have over 350,000 deaths and predictions are of over another 80,000 in the next three weeks. PASS has been a side casualty of this too.

Too many lives have been impacted and effected and I don’t want to minimalize those.

But, I do want to highlight that even in a dark year, at least personally, I’ve been able to find some positive things to focus on. I hope others have too. Hopefully everyone reading this has at least one thing they can look back on and say, “Yeah, that was good” or “That’s a special memory, I won’t forget.”

And to quote Colonel Potter from MASH: “Here’s to the New Year. May she be a damn sight better than the old one, and may we all be home before she’s over.”

SQL Community

First, I want to thank Rie Irish for giving me cause to blog a second time this week. Normally this time would be sent writing up another article for Redgate (yes Kathi I’ve got one more in the works).

Second, I want to add, that up until now I had decided to refrain from writing about the fall of PASS. I knew eventually I probably would, but some good news last night has accelerated that process.

Last night Rie posted to Twitter an announcement about a new initiative by Microsoft to provide a space and tools for the former PASS User Groups. I was thrilled when I saw this and I’ll explain why.

In the past few days there has been a LOT of efforts put forth by various members of the #SQLFamily to create new spaces for the former members of PASS, both individually, and as groups. I’ll admit, I was both heartened by this, but also a little concerned. I was obviously heartened, because as I knew would happen, the members of #SQLFamily have stepped up and tried to fill various needs. This is a great volunteer community! I want to emphasis that. Even weeks ago when I had suggestions forwarded to me that PASS was about to close shop, I felt that the community would go on.

However, my concern was that it would fracture, that various little domains and fiefdoms would develop. Now, this may not necessarily be the worst thing that could happen. A decentralized community might actually be a good idea. For example if we separate the concept of Saturday events from User groups, that might spur innovation and might encourage new ideas to come forth. But, it might also inhibit things for folks who have organized both if they end up having to maintain two mailing lists, two sites, etc. So it’s a mixed bag. That said, if nothing else had happened, I’d take that over having the community completely falling apart.

And even if nothing else had happened, I know my User Group has speakers scheduled out through May of 2021 (and the only reason I haven’t scheduled beyond that is because I’m hoping by June to know if we can do in-person again and if so when). I know that Monica Rathbun has the Hampton Roads SQL Server User Group scheduled out through all of 2021. This is the case with a number of other User Groups. So, no matter what, User Groups would continue.

And there are still SQL Saturdays in the works, by that name or others. So, the community will continue.

But, as I said, my concern was the community might fracture into fiefdoms.

I think the announcement from Microsoft goes a LONG ways to allaying my fears. Yes, it’s just a press announcement with details to be worked out, but it has several things going for it. The biggest is the name behind it: Microsoft. Let’s be honest, the one thing the #SQLFamily has in common is we all work on the Microsoft Data Platform. So, to me, it makes sense that Microsoft be a central focus. Another is it appears this platform will end up providing a lot of the tools community leaders will need, and all in one place. These two facts should help keep the community from fracturing.

Now, I already know there is going to be one huge objection from some: “But it’s Microsoft, they can dictate what we do! We want something independent like PASS was!”

Well, first let me point out, for all its independence, PASS is no more. So independence is no guarantee of perpetual success.

Secondly, please read the release with an open mind. It’s NOT an attempt to recreate PASS. There’s no talk of a Board of Directors, there’s no talk of a main event. It’s very clear, at this stage what it is: a set of centralized resources to sustain the community. Additionally I’ve spoken further with Rie that has given me further confidence in the plan. We will see more over time how the winds blow, but I am comfortable recommending moving forward with this path. And you know what, if it turns out the Microsoft suddenly wants to take things in another direction, #SQLFamily will again do what it needs to for its members.

So, this is NOT “PASS Version II”. It doesn’t attempt to be. Perhaps PASS Version II will come to pass someday. I sort of hope it does. I look forward to another Summit. But for now, I think this is an excellent step forward. I will end by pulling a quote from the release:

Although Microsoft built SQL Server, it’s clear that the passion and dedication from each of you is what makes it thrive.

And I think this is as true today as it was 2 weeks ago.