No Caps for SQL Saturday : Speaker Edition

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A few weeks back, I got into a conversation about whether PASS should put the boot down on events and prevent people from doing what some view as “bad” things.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized that this had turned into such a controversy until I received a DM the other day regarding the number SQL Saturday submissions I was putting through for the events that I submit to.

After a bit of digging around, I recalled seeing some posts in this general arena in the last few weeks and then one from yesterday (which I read this afternoon):

I considered responding in comments, but thought a post was more in order since I got a little long winded on all of this.  There seem to be three things that some speakers are doing that have been upsetting others in the community; double-booking, over-submitting, and canceling.

Double-booking

First, there is double-booking.  With just my rudimentary understanding of physics, I get that this is a problem.  There are practical issues with attempting to be in two places that are hundreds of miles away from each other.  The organizers should not have to try and determine if someone is double-booked before working on the event schedule.

Over-submitting

Next, though, is over-submitting; what is too much?  For some, anywhere between three and four is acceptable.  For others, you should only submit the sessions that you yourself would want to present in the day – so if you only want one session, then only submit one session.  There are two general reasons for these caps – no one can give more than X number of good quality sessions, and over-submitting overwhelms the event organizers.  On both of these, I cry foul.

Many speakers have a large depth of information and knowledge that they pull from. Many can get up and speak on a random topic at will.  If a speaker can talk for an hour at an expert level on four topics, couldn’t they also speak at an intermediate level on those topics (or even an introductory level.  Using that example, there are potentially sixteen topics that the speaker can likely provide a quality presentation on.  Then, there are the speakers who that have one or two pre-cons in their library.  The content of a single pre-con could easily be considered equal to that of three or four sessions, is that speaker then only limited to that content being good quality?

On, the other side of the hand, is the idea that event organizers are somehow overwhelmed by having more than three or four submissions by each presenter.  Wouldn’t that also mean that there is some max cap to the number of submissions that an event can have before they are overwhelmed by the event itself.  If there are 100 submissions, and I submit 4 or 8 of them, wouldn’t the organizers be equally overwhelmed?

I’ve had my hand at selecting SQL Saturday and PASS Summit sessions.  It’s hard work, and it can be hard to juggle around getting the right mix of sessions and speakers.  But from that experience, I want to see more sessions from speakers rather than fewer.  I had one time where I was accused of participating in blacklisting a speaker because the only sessions that had been submitted conflicted with higher rated sessions that were already approved, and the allocation for that topic had been used up.  We wanted the speaker, but there were no options on the board to accommodate the speaker.

One suggestion for a lack of sessions during planning, is for the organizers to reach out to the speaker and ask for more submissions.  True, we could have let the speaker know that all of their submissions conflicted with existing topics, but how fair is that to other submissions?  Also, that type of communication adds work to the scheduling process that shouldn’t be necessary.  There are due dates for getting SQL Saturday sessions posted and approved.  When the organizers are likely working on the schedule at 2 AM, should they have the additional burden of chasing down new topics from presenters?

Maybe, though, the presenters could ask what sessions the event needs, and only submit for those.  In reality, though, how is this fair?  If I ask, and am told they want an index internals sessions, I could submit that.  But if Jeremiah Peschka (Blog | twitter) or Kevin Kline (Blog | @kekline) then submits a similar session, which do they choose?  I’d choose either of their sessions over mine, but since I reached out do I get preference for asking ahead of time?  If not, then is it up to the organizer to reach out again and ask me to submit a new topic?

Now, people could wait until the last day of the call for presenters to see what has been submitted and then fill in the gaps.  This doesn’t help the organizers, though.  If most of the speakers wait until the end, how do the organizers begin to determine if they have the right mix of sessions?  In my experience, I always started putting together the potential schedule as sessions came in to see what there was and what was needed.  Then we knew what to chase down and which trees to shake.

One of my favorite times I got to schedule a speaker for a SQL Saturday was when one speaker sent me a PDF with more than twenty sessions in it and asked me to tell them what we wanted and needed.  It was great – there wasn’t a sense of being overwhelmed – instead, I was relieved that I had a speaker I could fit in how ever was needed without having to go back and forth trying to balance out their submissions with others.

Cancelations

When it comes to canceling, this stuff happens.  Of course, people should cancel as soon as they know they aren’t going to be able to attend.  In my experience, the only people that I’ve had cancel is those who’ve gotten caught up with an end of the quarter sales commitment or been hit by a car while cycling.  I assumed that there reasons were valid and that they were planning to be there until they had cancelled.  The solution for this was simple, we asked a few people that had submitted more than a one session to fill the gap.

I will admit that I did cancel a session earlier this year.  A few weeks before the Madison SQL Saturday, I realized that the second session that I had been slotted for would not be ready.  I could have put something together that wasn’t what the sessions was supposed to be, but felt it would be better to have a good quality session as opposed to something I was winging.  I had simply run out of time while trying to wrap up my book.  I made the call about the same time that I looked at April and realized that I was screwed and something had to give.

In retrospect, I’m not sure that this is the same type of cancellation that people are upset with.  Honestly, I haven’t encountered anyone that canceled because they had somewhere better to go.

Local Events

When I think of some of the conversations regarding having PASS get involved in managing speakers for SQL Saturday events, I get the feeling that there is a push to make PASS take on more of the responsibility and control for SQL Saturdays.  Isn’t the intent of these events, though, to be local with local speakers having the opportunity to gain exposure? 

Right now the way the process works, the organizers call for speakers.  Potential speakers submit their sessions, hoping to get the right mix of topics that the event will call for.  When the call closes, the organizers select the presenters that they want and it just works.  Organizers have complete discretion to approve or decline any session or presenter that they see fit. 

I don’t see anything broken here.  Sure, some events might get a large number of submissions, but is this not a good thing.  If a national speaker isn’t selected it isn’t a slight on that presenter, its probably a good sign that the local community can support an event that caters to their attendees.

On the upside, if this is the stuff that we are getting all bent out of shape over, then I guess the state of PASS and SQL Saturday’s is pretty darn great.  And if it really matters, say the word and I’ll start withdrawing sessions to make life just as easy and difficult for organizers.

  • http://www.brentozar.com/ Brent Ozar

    In Microsoft, they call what you’re doing cookie-licking: when the cookie tray comes out, you’re licking all the cookies and other people won’t want ‘em.

    When you submit a session, you’re putting a stake in the ground and saying, “I want to talk about this.” Other people see that, see your community stature and experience level, and they won’t try to compete. I know, because I’ve heard that from several of my mentees: “I want to present, but every time I go to submit, somebody else really qualified has volunteered to speak on that topic, so why would anyone pick my session?”

    • Chris F

      I was initially thinking of having people put in whatever sessions they want to talk about and have the ones they want to talk about most at top so the organizer, if they don’t want to consider all, can only look at the top few. However, that doesn’t handle the issue of people not submitting because they already see a session by someone else for that topic. Perhaps just submit the top few and email the organizer the rest so they’re aware that it’s an option but will still meet the goal of encouraging local speakers.

  • http://twitter.com/WIDBA Zach M

    As a total aside to this topic, please do an advanced level index presentation at SQL Saturday MN this fall (or PASS MN). I will even buy your book if you do it :)

    I am not sure what prompted this whole SQL Saturday thing, but I think at least in MN and WI there has been ample opportunity for the beginner speakers and a good mix with the seasoned ones. Of course if Aaron Nelson or Allen White were posting powershell//sql presentations in this region, I would probably not submit (as Mr Ozar mentions)

  • http://www.brentozar.com/ Brent Ozar

    Jason – something else I just noticed right at the top of the SQLSaturday submission form: “We recommend that you submit at least two sessions to maximize your chances of making in on the final schedule, and that you review the list of sessions already submitted so that you do not overlap with another speaker.”

    That right there is a really strong argument about why we shouldn’t cookie-lick.