SQL PASS Summit 2011 – A First Timers View

SQL PASS Summit 2011 – A First Timers View

So, as promised, I’m lightly documenting my experience as a first timer at the SQL PASS Summit. In the next few posts, I’ll be specifically covering the 2011 Summit, held in Seattle, WA. I’ll break it up by day, beginning with travel and what to expect.

Also, there are plenty of other articles out there from well experienced PASS Summit attendees, so I encourage you to read all you can prior to your first trip to what is truly the largest, best supported, and well carried out technical conference I’ve ever attended. Without further ado….

Day 1 of my First Timer experience of SQL PASS Summit 2011

Travel to the Summit
Day 1 was the Tuesday before the first day of the Summit. It began with a two-stop flight from Wichita to Seattle, with the stop in Denver. No hassles anywhere along the way there. It was when I arrived at SEATAC that things began to get interesting. I had read and heard that Seattle had a Light Rail Train system and that the cost was only a few dollars to get from the airport to just about anywhere between SEATAC and downtown Seattle, so I immediately set off to find the Light Rail. That was a bit of a trek, but nothing deadly ;). It was on the third level, accessed from a walkway connecting the airport parking garage to the Light Rail. There were plenty of signs along the way. Once you get to the Light Rail, there’s no one posted to talk to or ask questions, which you’re sure to have if this is your first time. You walk thru the gates and must purchase a ticket to ride the train based upon your destination. For the Summit, the very last stop (Westlake Center) was what I wanted, but the maps are difficult to read and figure out when there’s line of people behind you at the ticket kiosk, so I chose the University destination. I then went up the escalator to the train loading areas and luckily didn’t have to wait for a train since one was there already. (SEATAC is the southern most end of the Light Rail system, so any train is going where you want to go). I jumped on and took a seat. Then waited for 5 minutes and the train took off, north bound. I only wasted all this time to talk about the Light Rail train to highlight my mistake on the destination (which forced me to walk a lot more with bags in tow to get to my hotel (Marriott Spring Hill Suites) and to let you know that it took the train about 50 minutes to get from SEATAC to Westlake.

Summit Registration
Once I got to the hotel, I checked in, dropped off my bags, and headed over to the Washington State Convention Center, the site of the Summit in 2011. Registration was easy. It was on the 4th floor, up two sets of escalators in the main hall of the center. Lots of people were posted on the 4th and 6th floors (both PASS volunteers and convention center staff) to direct you to what you needed. I registered (4th floor thru the doors on the left to enter the Summit site) around 1:15PM Tuesday afternoon and there was zero wait. The registration volunteers were cheerful and very helpful, explaining what everything was for. Not sure if that would be the case if there were lines, but it was nice for me.

PASS Chapter Leader Mtg
I then grabbed lunch at the Subway out in the main hall on the 4th floor and read thru some of the program guide and mini-schedule. For those of us who are PASS Chapter Leaders, there was a pre-conference meeting that I attended Tuesday @ 2:30PM. I met a few other chapter leaders and we chatted for a while before the meeting. Finding people I already had something in common with right off the bat was nice.

First Timer Orientation
After the chapter leader meeting, it was already time for the first timers meeting. This was something new this year. Thomas Larock (http://thomaslarock.com Twitter: @SQLRockStar) and other PASS leaders and volunteers coordinated a Big Brother/Sisters solution to the issues of attendees not returning to the Summit because they felt they arrived alone, ate alone, spent the evenings alone, and left without making any real contacts. I don’t know, honestly, if the Big Brother/Sister program worked well due to the fact that is very difficult to stay in contact with any of the people in your group after you initially meet. Our group never got back together. And with all the different sessions, experience levels, and goals for the summit, I can understand how that could be difficult. It would have been nice to have some more group lunches or breakfast or something. In the end I did meet one person that I really felt we hit if off well together and did manage to hang out with a few times during the summit. So that was a win.

Speed Networking
After the first timers met their group and Big Brother/Sister, we all went into a huge room where all 800 first timers sat in on a 45 minute Speed Networking session by Don Gabor. We learned the importance of introducing and selling ourselves within a couple minute’s time during this session, which was like a massive 800 person speed dating party. Every 3 or 4 minutes you moved down to the chair and met someone new. Interesting for sure.

First Timers Red Carpet Welcome
At the end of the Speed Networking session the two large displays showed the insides of the even larger conf room next door (the main conf room) where the current PASS President (Rushabh Mehta) was on stage and welcoming everyone to the 2011 PASS Summit. At the end of that welcome, he introduced the first timers and a huge black curtain between the two rooms fell and all 800 first timers entered Welcome Reception thru lots of fog, lights, and a red carpet. Pretty sweet way to start the Summit. We were all rock stars!

Welcome Reception
Alright, so on to the lowdown on the Welcome Reception. It was around 4000 people in a huge ballroom. Dimly lit, free food and drinks, and lots of movement and noise. Some of that is where I have some complaints. There weren’t any signs or indications of where things were. As a first timer, I had no idea what was going on and decided that if I didn’t just grab some food, I wasn’t going to get any (turned out that wasn’t the case). With 4000 people and cuisine specific buffet tables in different areas of the room, getting around was tough and you didn’t know what was available unless you got around the whole room. I was also disappointed in the fact that although drinks were free, there was nothing non-alcoholic aside from water.

During the reception party, a group of SQL Server community “celebrities” were brought on stage along with 4 attendees and 4 teams played Quiz Bowl, a team based version of Jeopardy, with answers consisting of funny combinations of SQL Server technology and pop culture. Entertaining, and those attendees walked away with prizes.

First Afterhours Event
As the Welcome Reception was drawing to a close, many people began heading out to various after hours events and this is where the PASS Summit to me is vastly different from other technology conferences. As a first timer I wasn’t sure what to expect, but had heard that getting yourself invited to afterhours stuff was critical in experiencing the Summit the right way because you get to hang out with other SQL Server professionals in a mostly social way. Sure there was still a lot of shop talk, but it was usually surrounded by a party. This night, as a chapter leader, I attended an invitation only event sponsored by PASS for volunteers and speakers at the Garage, around 10 blocks from the convention center. I caught a cab with group of people, so it was only a couple bucks each. Most were already blitzed and I don’t drink, but I can have a good time w/o, so it was all good. At this party it was a little more difficult finding people to talk to here, but I think it was because most of them weren’t first timers. They were reconnecting, which is understandable. I did meet some people and have some cool conversations just by sitting down and introducing myself. I shared a cab with some other leaders back to my hotel around midnight and then did some work and hit the sack. The next day (Wednesday) was the first conference day and started at 8AM, so I needed some sleep.

At the end of the 1st day, I’d already met a handful of people I really liked and would chat with during the rest of the Summit off and on. And that’s honestly what the Summit all about. Realizing you’re all there with the same passion for SQL Server and overcoming fear and putting yourself out there. You’ll be accepted here….

As the PASS mantra goes, Connect/Share/Learn.

Well, that’s it for today. Tomorrow, Day 2.