I'm a Database Developer (primarily using Microsoft SQL) in my day job, and have been going along to the SQL South West User Group since it was formed back in April. Following some gentle encouragement from a colleague, and a discussion at the group, I thought that this "SQLBits" stuff seemed like something worth investigating - as previously I'd thought (wrongly) that SQL Conferences were all held in America, which is a bit far for me to go for a day trip.
Going to the SQL Bits website, I looked at some of the previous sessions (which are available as videos online - a great training resource in themselves), and the Saturday was listed as a "Community Day" (i.e. free!), I thought I would give it a try. I have to say my employer was very supportive - and even helped with my costs in terms of accommodation etc.
So it was that when the Friday before the conference rolled round, I found myself driving up from the west country to Liverpool, with a mounting sense of anticipation about the conference, and a mounting sense of frustration at Friday afternoon traffic. I don't think this was helped by the forecast of the hottest October day on record for the Saturday, with the accompanying rush to "get away for the weekend"!
I was pleasantly surprised by how many SQL Server users there are who will get up and be at a conference by 8am on a Saturday. Apparently, it simply requires the offer of a good breakfast - and an urn of coffee. It was great to see people engaging and chatting as they awoke - and the speakers and helpers engaging with the rest of us in a helpful and friendly manner.
So on to the sessions. With six sessions running concurrently, spread over 7 time slots, there was a lot of option as to what to see. Clearly, as these were spread over 5 subject areas (BI, DBA, Denali, Dev, and Sponsor), there were going to be clashes of what people wanted to see - in my case I'll be watching at least two sessions (which I couldn't attend due to a clash) on the SQLBits website as soon as the videos go up. I may also "revise" some of the bits where I can't quite read my notes from the sessions!
The sessions are all listed with a "difficulty rating" which follows the same pattern as the standard levels that Microsoft uses for training sessions (100 being not very technical, up to 400 which is really very detailed) - so you can pick a more or less technical session depending upon your ability and awakeness levels. The agenda is published online before you sign up, so you know what you are going to attend, and can discuss with colleagues before you go. I chose to start with a level 200 session on Database Unit Testing in Visual Studio 2010. The talk was very helpful and identified several areas where I can incorporate changes into my daily work. It's worth noting that whilst this was a level 200 session, there was a question from the audience which highlighted a feature which couldn't be used via the default use of the tool, but another audience member was able to identify how the problem could be solved - at a slightly more technical content level. This shows that the speakers aren't afraid to tailor the sessions should the audience be interested in knowing a bit more detail.
The breaks gave me an opportunity (after a quick coffee) to engage with some of the events sponsors. It's great to put a face to the names of the organisations upon whose tools you rely every day, and to find others who you can use in the future. Of course, there were a number of times that specific tools were mentioned in the sessions - but this was always on merit, and often were completely unrelated to the sponsors.
I was pleasantly surprised that I found myself talking to all sorts of people - some of which I'd heard of from blogs and community websites, and some of whom were first time attendees like myself. It's great to get a sense of involvement in the community, and to realise that these people are so down to earth. It also means that you worry less about asking "silly" questions online if you've at least met the people who answer you!
I saw a selection of talks from across the variety of "specialisms" - it was great to be able to pick on a talk-by-talk basis which I was attending next. Generally the rooms were sufficiently sized that there was enough space to go round - although some of the sessions clearly appealed to more people than the organisers expected. I only missed one session - I'd gotten talking to a vendor, and quite forgotten the time - which was unfortunate, but resulted in a somewhat longer lunch break than expected! This wasn't a problem, and it was actually nice to be able to take a bit of a break as the day can get quite intense if you engage in as much as you can.
The only slight niggle came from the skies - the aforementioned weather. Whilst most rooms were well ventilated, there were a couple of rooms which were quite warm - those of you who attended the sessions in the "boardroom" will know what I mean! Unfortunately there's little which the organisers could have done to foresee this - and I really don't regard this as a problem.
All in all, I really enjoyed my first SQLBits conference, and I'll be looking forward to the next one. In the mean time, I'm going to continue to engage with my local User Group - you can find yours at http://www.sqlserverfaq.com/.
If you're thinking of attending your first SQLBits conference, and you have any questions, do get in touch - either with me or the SQLBits organisers directly - they're very friendly!