What is SQLBits?
SQLBits is the largest data platform conference in Europe. It has been running every year since 2007 in a different city in the UK providing sessions into all things data platform. I have frequently written about SQLBits, it is close to my heart and has had a significant impact on my life, my career and my circle of friends.
The SQLBits committee is responsible for the running of the conference, the selection of general sessions and training days, helpers, sponsors, venue, dates, child care, theme, logo, the party, the website, charity support, hotels, bars, delegate app, helpers app, sponsors app, food, drinks, entertainment, prizes, swag, t-shirts, mugs, code of conduct, badges, printing, freight, stickers, lanyards, bags,on-site therapist, pens, notepads… and everything else that goes into making SQLBits the best conference it can be!!
Before the conference
We have been meeting every week as a committee to plan the conference. Every committee member has also spent a lot of time in meetings, dealing with correspondence, answering questions, and then feeding this back to the whole committee. We received some feedback from one of our largest sponsors that one of the things that the liked about SQLBits was that we are all so passionate about the conference and that it really shows. We are all volunteers and we all have full time jobs, families, and other commitments but we are also determined to make SQLBits the best Microsoft Data Platform conference in the world.
We all arrived in Newport on the Sunday or the Monday before the conference to set up. Set up is a massive operation involving a significant number of people who turn the big empty room into the exhibition hall, build all of the sponsor booths, set up all of the rooms with a stage, screens, signage and projectors, ensure that there is wifi, power, and hard-wired internet access in them all. There was also a team taking all of the output from the speakers desk and ensuring that it will be available for the live streams for the online delegates. Whilst all of that is happening, we were unpacking all of the things that had been in storage (or peoples garages) getting all of the t-shirts for the helpers, for the speakers and for the committee. All of the speaker swag and delegate swag was put into a box or a bag by some of the orange shirted helpers. We also had a “Meet the trainer” event in the evening which allowed delegates to come and interact with the speakers. This was a great opportunity for delegates to ask questions and get to know the trainers before the training days.
That was all expected.
However, there are also things that happens behind the scenes during this time. For example, due to a storm over Northern Europe which impacted flights into and out of Schiphol, London and Bristol Airports as well as the trains running from London to Newport, there was a point on Monday afternoon where we were not sure that over half of our training day speakers for the next day would be able to make it. This lead to a couple of hours of manic phone calls and communication with the speakers as we tried our best to get them to the conference. We were very lucky that with only one exception, everyone made it to the conference. Unfortunately, despite best efforts and a lot of searching, one speaker was unable to get to the UK in time and so we had to switch their rooms to a room with virtual speakers enabled and update all of the schedules and teams involved in providing the content. These are the things that you don’t see, but that are part of the magic of ensuring that the conference runs smoothly. I hope all of the delegates and most of the speakers and sponsors have no idea of the things that were happening behind the scenes. I always describe it like a swan, it looks calm and serene on the surface, but underneath the water, there is a lot of paddling going on!
For me, Tuesday was a training day. With my fantastic partner in fun and games and sharing - Jess Pomfret B M we spent the whole day with about 75 people both in person and online and talked about how to manage large SQL estates. We had a lot of fun and I hope that everyone who attended enjoyed it as much as we did. We had a lot of questions and a lot of interaction with the delegates in both formats and it showed that the system that we had to enable virtual delegates for SQLBits really managed to work well.
Equity and Inclusivity
We had a lot of positive feedback from the delegates and we are really pleased that we were able to provide this opportunity for even more people to attend the conference. We are passionate about Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity and the feedback that we have received is that allowing virtual attendees enabled more people to attend the conference and to learn from the speakers. People who would not have been able to attend because of their family commitments or because of the cost of travel and accommodation were able to attend and this is one of our goals for the conference.
Concentrating on Inclusion and Equity will naturally have a positive impact on our Diversity and our goal is to make SQLBits a conference that is welcoming to everyone. The DE and I teams initiatives such as childcare are beginning to bear fruit and we are seeing more and more people attending the conference with their families, as well as more people from underrepresented groups attending the conference and we are working hard to ensure that we are providing a safe and welcoming environment for everyone.
Getting everyone in
Whilst Jess and I were doing the training day, the rest of the team were ensuring that everyone was able to get in, with a badge, registered with the session that they expected, or the one they wished to change to. Some sessions had a limited number of places and so we had to ensure that the people who were on the waiting list were able to get into the session that they wanted to attend if places became available. We had to print the badges for the people who had signed up in the days before we sent the information to the printers. We had people paying for new tickets right up until Friday!
There was another “Meet the trainer” event on the Tuesday evening and another set of speakers and delegates who were arriving as well as sponsor teams and their freight. Wednesday morning did not see as much of a rush as Tuesday morning, but there was still a lot of people arriving and needing processing or having questions that needed answering. At events like SQLBits there is also a lot of communication and conversation with the venue. Ensuring that there is coffee at the times that everyone comes out of the rooms for breaks and that there is lunch at the right time. When you are thinking about lunch, you also need to think about the sponsors. On General sessions days we need to ensure that they can have lunch before all of the delegates come out of their sessions and they need to spend their time talking with them and demonstrating their products. Wednesday evening was also when the sponsors were able to setup their booths. This, of course, generates a large number of questions that need answering and boxes that need finding and then unpacking.
Wednesday saw the first of the large evening events. We provided a games night with food. Thursday there was a quiz night with curry and Friday was the Party. As you can imagine, there is a significant amount of organisation required behind the scenes for all of these additional events. Food, drinks, prizes, the folks providing the entertainment and the helpers. The venue, security, transport from the hotels to the venue and back again. All of this needs to be organised and then managed on the day. We had a lot of fun at these events though and find them a great way to end each day and enable delegates who want to, to be able to network with each other and with the sponsors all whilst doing something fun. The party is organised by the wonderful, sparkly Julia and her team and they do a fantastic job of making sure that everyone has a great time.
General sessions then add further complexity, more delegates, more speakers, more moving parts that always have the possibility for things to require fixing. I have been a SQLBits helper and runner enough times to know that there were many things requiring attention, this year my responsibility was the agenda and updating the processes behind that when things changed and answering the myriad of questions that come up at the information desk. It is a lot of fun but also a lot of work.
This is a totally raw outpouring of my experience this year, pretty much without filter. Just so that I had it down somewhere in words.