A first timer’s lessons learned at PASS Summit 2014

Me, as a #sqlfirsttimer

Just one year ago I didn’t know what the PASS Summit was. What came after has been a series of serendipitous events. I went to Charlotte, NC to Red-Gate’s SQL in the City event because it was within driving distance and it was free. After the event I met Jes Borland, the first serendipitous event. Jes took extra time to talk to me despite the fact that I was a complete stranger. We ended up walking a few blocks together and she began to open my eyes to the #sqlfamily and what it was to be part of the community. I then managed to find myself at Buffalo Wild Wings where Steve Jones was holding a networking event. I met Steve on the street where he was guiding people into the restaurant, and I decided to hang out and chat. While I was there, a couple of people that Steve knew walked up and he introduced me. This was the second serendipitous event of the day because, after seeing my website on my business card, Steve announced to the group that my twitter handle was @SQLHammer. The problem was, I didn’t have a twitter account. I pulled out my phone and signed up right then and was fortunate enough to get the previously advertised handle.

Fast forward to the present, I’m a new PASS chapter leader and have begun to build personal relationships with tons of amazing people that I would have never met before. I can’t describe the feeling when the first person recognized my face at the welcome reception. It got even better when I was given a hug. All week I chuckled every time that I looked down at my badge. I was sporting the #sqlfirsttimer ribbon and the chapter leader ribbon. I feel that this combination is characteristic of how quickly the community can change your career and your life.

Lessons learned

Before going to summit I did a little bit of research. Two pieces of note include Denny Cherry’s webcast for SQL First Timers and What you can expect from PASS Summit by the Brent Ozar Unlimited team. Some of the lessons learned below are reaffirmations of content from those two videos.

Lesson #1 – Know your goals

Know why you are going to summit. The answer of this question might come very easy to you but I recommend considering it for a moment. There is a high probably that you want great training from rock stars in the community and you want to network with your friends in the #sqlfamily. But I challenge you to define your priorities. Are you willing to skip a couple of sessions for the opportunity to meet with people in the community zone? Also, you want to learn, but what do you want to learn about? There are so many diverse options that you will be able to pick from and being able to just say no to topics that won’t benefit your career will help narrow things down.

Lesson #2 – What (not) to bring

  • I was skeptical the first time I heard it but, do not bring your laptop to the regular sessions. At the precons there were tables where you actually had a little bit of room to use a laptop but, next year, I’ll be leaving my laptop in the hotel for all sessions and precons, with one exception. In Allan Hirt’s precon for Availability Groups, a laptop was required for the lab environment. This is the only case where I’d bring a laptop.
  • Make sure to use two different size notepads. The first you will bring yourself. This one should be small enough to fit easily in your back pocket or somewhere on your person. I used this one for taking notes on the people that I met so that I could remember them better. It was also great for when you met someone who didn’t think to bring a business card. The second notepad PASS might provide for you, like they did this year. This is a full size notepad that you will use for taking notes on sessions because you left your laptop in the hotel.
  • Bring business cards. These can be corporate business cards or personalized ones that can be used even if you change jobs.
  • Bring all the necessary chargers for your devices and make sure that your phone will last all day. I don’t mean a normal day, though. I mean one where you will be checking twitter constantly and your phone will be dropping and reacquiring a WiFi signal every few steps. It’s also possible that your employer will be emailing you more than regularly. If you are concerned that it might not be able to handle a full 16 hour day without charge, then I recommend purchasing some kind of backup battery to bring with you.

Lesson #3 – In conference networking

Heading over to take advantage of the PASS provided breakfast each morning at 7am is where your networking opportunities begin each day. Over the five days I attended all ten of the meals at the convention center and here is what I learned. Sometimes you sit down and the other people at the table already know each other. No one was ever rude but I did find that some of those groups of people were not very open to including you in their conversations. This is usually because the conversation is overly specialized by talking about specific people at their company or other topics which aren’t common to all attendees.

To maximize the benefit of these networking opportunities I looked for these things.

  • If you get to the meal early, look for tables with three or less people. More often than not, those who showed up right when the meal opened and all sat together, usually walked in together also. This is a wild generalization but, even if I’m wrong, sitting with a smaller group doesn’t harm anything. You can start a conversation and, as the meal progresses, your table will fill out and people that join will be more inclined to joining your inclusive conversation rather than beginning their own exclusive one.
  • Take every opportunity to interrupt someone who is staring at their phone while they eat. These are usually the people who need to most help coming out of their shell. I didn’t come across anyone that seemed upset that I began talking to them. Usually the phone falls into their lap and they don’t pick it up again, until the meal is over.
  • Take every opportunity to talk to someone with a First Timer ribbon.

Outside of meals, make sure you mingle in the halls and hit up the community zone regularly. I learned that there is a very real physical toll that summit can take. Relaxing on bean-bag chairs for a few minutes at a time can be a great way to recharge physically and continue networking.

Sometimes you need to mentally recharge as well. This is were hotel selection can be huge. I booked at the Sheraton hotel which is right next door to the Washington State Convention Center. This allowed me to, maybe once a day, go back to the hotel and just be alone for 10 minutes. I took advantage of that time to transcribe my notes of people that I knew, restock my business cards, and off-load any swag I picked up during the day. That 10 minutes a day was wonderful for mentally recharging and especially useful when you are switching between the in conference networking and the after hours networking events.

Finally, go talk to the sponsors. It is easy to think of sponsors like they are hungry bears looking to eat up all of your money but this is an unfair generalization. Take Denny Cherry & Associates or SQLHA, both of these consulting companies were in the exhibitor hall and I enjoyed their company. I spent a bunch of time talking to these great folks and the conversation was like any other I’d have with fellow DBAs. Not all sponsor experiences have to be sales-pitchy.

Lesson #4 – After hours networking

By the time I hit the welcome reception I had already gone to a couple of after hours events on Monday and Tuesday. Then, while I was there, Allen White told me, “if you get more than 3 hours of sleep a night, this week, you are doing it wrong.” That is easier said than done but I found it well worth it.

The important take-away for this lesson is, go to every after hour event that you can without cloning yourself.

Make sure to dive out of your comfort zone regularly. Don’t like karaoke? Who cares? Go anyways, I’m sure that you will enjoy the people, if not the singing. Never heard of the games that they were playing at table top game night? Who cares? We are all intelligent people with the ability to learn.

Finally, use twitter to find the events. This year, the Guidebook app and PASS website only had about half of the events posted. The rest I found out by asking attendees what they were doing at night and simply throwing out a tweet. Also, for the events that are more than a block or two away, send out a tweet to see if people want to walk with you. Not only are groups safer at night but it is so much more enjoyable. I learned this lesson from Chris Bell. I was about to make the wrong choice and stay in for the evening when Chris asked if anyone wanted to walk to Cowgirls Inc. together.

Lesson #5 – Seattle

There is a lot that can be said about the Seattle area. For most of it I will refer you back to the top of this post and ask you to watch Denny’s webcast for first timers.

I do, however, want to talk a bit about catching a flight out of SEA-TAC after the conference. I had a particularly unfortunate experience when I tried to fly out the Saturday morning after summit. I intended to take the Link Light Rail from Westside Center to SEA-TAC. I talked to the hotel concierge and looked up the schedule online. The schedule showed the first train leaving at 4:53am. My flight was at 6:40am. So I showed up early to the train and waited. At 4:53am the train showed up for drop offs but didn’t take any passengers. It wasn’t until almost 5:10am that it came back for pick up. As it turned out that 15 minutes delayed my departure 24 hours but that isn’t the only important piece of information.

I arrived at SEA-TAC and worked my way to the front of the line to check my bag at 6:10am. I was then told that 30 minutes wasn’t enough time to get to the gate and was denied the opportunity to even try. I was given new tickets and was forced to find a hotel and wait until the next day. If I was at Norfolk International (where I am from) this timing would not have been an issue at all. While many experienced travelers might find this common sense, make sure that you give your self at least 2 hours before first call for boarding of your flight to get to the airport.

This article has 2 comments

  1. […] brim with as much community immersion a possible. It was extremely rewarding but also exhausting (read about it here). This year, I set out to refine my Summit […]

  2. […] brim with as much community immersion a possible. It was extremely rewarding but also exhausting (read about it here). This year, I set out to refine my Summit […]

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