I recently returned from the 2010 PASS Summit in Seattle, WA. One of the many things I did while there was volunteer as a returning attendee to meet and greet a group of first time attendees. The idea was that, by introducing them to each other, they would meet some folks right away and kick-start the networking which is such a huge part of the Summit. This came to be known as the PASS Orientation Committee, or OC.
Thomas LaRock, who originally came up with the idea for the OC, recently mentioned an interest in feedback from an OC member. This post will describe my experience, what I thought worked well, and what could be improved.
Why I Did It
When I read Tom’s blog post describing his idea, I immediately thought it was an excellent one. As anyone who has taken advantage of this aspect of the PASS Summit can attest, networking is what takes the PASS Summit from a good conference to a can’t miss, amazing experience. In a world of Live Meeting and GoToMyPC, networking is much of what makes the travel and expense of attending a conference in person a worthy investment. Anything that can be done to facilitate this for first timers is valuable. I wished something like it had existed when I first attended the PASS Summit in 2006.
When the call for volunteers came out, I did not hesitate to sign up. I believed in the idea, but also wanted to put myself in a position to meet 8-10 new people on day one. Despite having attended two previous PASS Summits and knowing some folks, I was determined to leave this Summit knowing more (mission accomplished, by the way). I also did not have any other volunteer role at the conference but was looking for one.
Based on what I heard from fellow OC members, my response rate from my first timers was average to above average. Two of my first timers were there on Monday morning. We were able to have breakfast together and I introduced them to some folks I ran into in the dining area. One had some confusion over his registration (the dates on his registration had led him to believe that Monday was the first day of the conference and he was not registered for a pre-con). I was able to help him out a bit as he got settled.
Monday evening was the pre-welcome conference for first timers. I invited my group to meet me at the fountain on the first floor of the convention center. I had about four or five show up. At that time, I saw Grant Fritchey walking around looking for his group. We decided to merge our groups and proceeded to have a nice meeting there on the first floor. Everyone was introduced to each other and as speakers, BoD members, and other recognizable names and faces passed by in the hallway, Grant and I would grab them and introduce them to the group. That was cool.
Then we made our way upstairs to the pre-welcome and welcome receptions. We stuck as a group for awhile, but eventually broke up into a number of subgroups. Mission accomplished! The goal was not to make everyone best friends, but just to introduce them to some folks and hope they latched on to some semblance of a group somehow. Nobody eats alone (as LaRock put it). There were a number of folks that I met downstairs that night that I hung out with all week and will continue to correspond with. Then there were other groups that formed at that same time and place and went off in their own direction. Beautiful!
What Could Have Been Better
While I had a decent response rate from my first timers, I certainly had bandwidth to accommodate a full roster and ended up with less than half. This has been said by others, but I agree that an opt-in system would help increase response rates. Improved participation would, by definition, improve the experience for the first timers by increasing the number of initial contacts they make.
In my opinion, the pre-welcome reception was not necessary. For my group, all it did was kill the momentum that we had on the first floor. I understand that there were not enough OC volunteers for every new attendee. I understand that the reception provided something that all first timers could attend. From where I stood, however, it just did not work. Frankly, it was boring. I think a brief shout-out to the first timers during the actual welcome reception would have been a better use of everyone’s time.
I heard others suggest that a geography-based OC group would be more effective. I have mixed feelings on that. Meeting people from your own region is nice in terms of who you might see at an upcoming SQLSaturday event or your local user group. However, I do not find myself seeking out local contacts in particular as I wander around the Summit and related social activities. I look for people who are enthusiastic about what we do, enjoy learning, and have a similar outside interest or two (read: enjoy a nice IPA).
Finally, finding convenient time slots for new ideas at the PASS Summit is not easy (hence BoD Q&A Sessions after the last session on the last day). Just prior to the welcome reception is certainly the best time for OC groups to gather. I do think that communicating to those participating when these activities are occurring at the time that they opt-in would help them plan their travel accordingly. I had a couple folks who could not participate because they had not arrived in Seattle in time.
It may take a couple of tries to get the Orientation Committee concept completely right, but it is already a win and the extra effort will only make it more so. The PASS Summit vibe is unlike many technical conferences and that is directly attributable to the social, supportive, and enthusiastic qualities of the SQL Server Community. Anything that can be done to introduce first timers to this sooner rather than later will only serve to help them enjoy the conference more and look at future conferences as opportunities not to be missed. It is impossible to “geek-out” while you are eating alone.