My Experience As a SQL Bits First Timer

I’ve recently returned from my first SQL Bits conference (Bits XI), which took place in Nottingham.
Before I went I asked on twitter if there was any advice for first time attendees. I had a couple of responses, pointing me to this blog post from John Sansom (blog|twitter) about the mindset to take with you to SQL Bits, and this blog post from Mark Broadbent (blog|twitter) about his first experiences of the PASS summit.

Both posts contained some great advice, but didn’t seem to offer exactly what I was looking for.  At the conference I got talking to Mark Pryce-Maher (blog|twitter) about it, who suggested I should blog about my own experience.  Telling him I didn’t blog was met with a simple “well, wouldn’t that be a great first post to start with”.

So here we are, my first ever blog post, about my first ever time at SQL Bits.

Below are three things that I feel were key to me having a great conference:

1. SQL Bits is more than a three day conference

Sure, there was three consecutive days of 9-5 training.  But there’s also evening events and entertainment, and even breakfast for the early birds.  My interaction started before I walked in to the conference centre on the first day for registration.  In the days leading up to the event, Twitter (#SQLBITS) was buzzing with excitement.  I replied to people and found somebody staying in the same hotel to share a taxi with on the first day, and I got myself on a quiz team for the first nights entertainment.  And all before I’d even arrived in Nottingham.  Since getting home from the conference I’ve followed up with the people I met, I’ve connected with people on LinkedIn, I’ve started a blog 🙂

And did you know that SQL Bits make videos of all the sessions available on the website.  For free.  I prepared for the conference by watching some sessions from previous years, and once the sessions from Bits XI are online I’ll be catching up on a couple that I missed.

2. Plan your schedule, but keep it flexible.

There are multiple ways to view the agenda.  It’s published on the website and I printed it out so I could go over it on the train journey up there.  I also subscribed to the event calendar so all of the sessions were in my phone’s calendar, and the day before it started they made a Guidebook app available for iPhone and Android (which I thought was brilliant by the way).  The agenda is also included as part of the registration pack.

I went through and picked a handful of key sessions that I knew I didn’t want to miss, and I then went through and picked sessions for the remaining timeslots but with a view that these were a bit more flexible.  Some of the sessions fill up fast, and by picking out my key sessions I knew which ones I needed to get to quickly.  In one of these sessions, in one of the smaller rooms, the room filled up and the dreaded “session full” sign was posted outside and people were turned away.  Having some flexible sessions meant that at certain times I felt more comfortable taking time to chat to other attendees, and to the sponsors about their latest products.

I also made an effort to take at least one session outside of my comfort zone. For me, that meant a session on Hadoop.  It’s not something I use, or am likely to use in the near future, but it helped to put some context around some of the buzz words I’ve been hearing.

3. Don’t be afraid to network

This is were the tips from the other blogs were helpful.  I’m generally pretty bad at introducing myself to complete strangers.  I went to SQL Saturday in Cambridge last year, which was a great event, but I pretty much spoke to no-one.  I’ve never been to a user group meeting (although that will change soon).  I knew no-one else going to Bits.

But I made an effort to connect with people this time, and it started before I got there.  The quiz team I ended up on?  I had a great time, but it was only the following day that I found out that two of my fellow team members were MCM’s.  They hadn’t quizzed me on undocumented trace flags or obscure dmv’s to make sure I deserved to be at SQL Bits, they were just genuinely nice people chilling out over a few beers and having fun trying to answer some devilishly hard questions.

While I was there, I made a point of introducing myself to Mark Broadbent to say thanks for the advice in his blog.  And at breakfast in the hotel (I stayed offsite) on the second day, I recognised quite a few people from the conference and a few of us had breakfast together.

So don’t be afraid to say hi.  To the helpers, to the person sitting next to you, even to the speakers.  Ultimately, everybody is there for the same reason.  To enjoy the conference and learn some cool new stuff along the way.

I’d love to hear your feedback.  Either about SQL Bits XI, your own experiences as a first-timer, or even your thoughts on my first attempt at a blog post!