Archive for March, 2022
T-SQL Tuesday #148 – Advice on running a user group
Posted by bennidejagere in T-SQL Tuesday on March 8, 2022
It’s T-SQL Tuesday!!
T-SQL Tuesday is the brainchild of Adam Machanic (Blog | Twitter). December 2009 was the first T-SQL Tuesday invitation that went out by Adam. It is a monthly blog party on the second Tuesday of each month. Currently, Steve Jones (Blog | Twitter) organises the event and maintains a website with all previous posts. Everyone is welcome to participate in this monthly blog post.
This month’s T-SQL Tuesday is hosted by Rie Meritt ( Twitter | LinkedIn ). Rie says: “For this edition of T-SQL Tuesday, I’d like to ask everyone to write about all the various aspects of running a user group.”
The original post is here.
Building out a session schedule for your user group
I’ve been planning and running our dataMinds user group evenings for a few years now, and have a learned a few “gotchas” and “aha’s” while doing so. With what I know now, I could have things so differently when starting out with this. And for that exact reason, this is a T-SQL Tuesday I was jumping to for participating. If someone else can benefit from my random thoughts, than I’ll be very pleased about this!
Listen to your Target Audience, and include them
For me, this is the most crucial thing about building your session schedule. Most user groups have a pretty specific scope where they specifically focus on Power BI, DBA, Data Engineering, .. topics. Early on, we made the decision to cover the entire span of the Microsoft Data & AI landscape. It gives us the chance of building in lots of variety in speakers, topics, complexity.
A definite downside is that when we’re switching from the hardcore SQL Server Internals stuff to Power BI visualisation, we see a big change in the attending audience. It’s harder to build up a strong bond, as most attendees will not want to attend the majority of the sessions. And still, we like the way we’re doing things and get some good feedback from those attending with us. I know, it’s all a bit different these because of the virus thingy that shan’t be named, but the patterns still come through quite clearly.
We actively ask our user group attendees, and recipients of the newsletter to come to us if they want to see specific things covered in a session or speaker. Even better, something they want to cover themself. By listening to the things your users are facing in their occupations, you have a bit more certainty that you’re planning sessions that can actually help them.
Pick your dates
2 years ago, we switched to planning the event dates at the beginning of the season (September to June). For me, this has worked so much better as I now just plan for an entire quarter with the dates I have availabe. I know other groups take a certain day of a certain week every month. It all depends what works for you, and your attendees. As we’re now doing 1 – 2 evening sessions per month, we try to alternate between days of the week, to make sure we can include other people too.
The art is in the balance
Depending on that target audience for your user group, it’s all about finding a healthy balance between speakers, topics, and levels. Are you including sessions that vary between introductory stuff and more complex deep dives? Is the same speaker presenting at your user group every quarter, with a decline in attendance? Are you covering only Power BI stuff when you also have a large DBA audience?
There’s no silver bullet here, as it will be catered to your specific situation. But I think striving for a healthy balance based on your member feedback is a healthy way to progess.
In the olden days, our user group held its evening sessions on site at one of our partner companies. With usually 2 sessions planned per evening, it would be one of their employees presenting a community oriented session and another speaker that fits well with this. The partner provides the location and catering, meaning we can run the user group as a low cost effort. Then, because we’re essentially travelling through the country (It’s Belgium, so don’t think too much of it), we cater to people living in the different parts.
Now with the virtual sessions, it’s mostly 1 extended (60 – 75 minutes) where the speaker can take their time to explain things, with plenty of room for a healthy portion of banter.
With things returning to a steady situation in Belgium, we’re actually planning a return to in-person activities as we speak. For now, we plan on the same approach as we did before, and adapt if we see the patterns changing. One thing I’m personally worried about is the increased percentage of no-shows. When we’re going back to ordering drinks and food, I actually do care if someone shows up..
Network, network, and network. Did I mention network?
Now for the tricky part .. How do you actually find those speakers for a healthy mix? What worked for me was networking, in a variety of forms. Starting public speaking myself really helped me increase my range, but it doesn’t have to be this way. What matters most is that you try to build connections with those people you’re hoping to plan on your schedule, or that you meet people that can introduce you in a proper way. It’s not always easy, but so rewarding when you finally land those people you think will deliver a killer session for your group. Social media has changed this process drastically, where it’s become so much easier to get an overview of what is happening, or which interesting sessions pop up somewhere else.
Then, it’s keeping those eyes and ears open, at all times. Do you see a local person posting an incredibly useful article on LinkedIn? Why not ask them to turn it into a (short) session? Do you have a person that’s consciously attending most of your sessions? Why not check if they need a nudge to get on stage themself? Maybe you’ve heard of a consultant that has done some crazy stuff at a client to get something complex to work? All simple examples that can really help you build out the schedule.
And then, try to look at other user groups or conferences. Which sessions are being planned there, and can be a great fit for your audience? You’d be surprised of the interesting sessions you can come up with this way.
Be an opportunist!
Then, when you’re browsing those social media you may run into a message by a speaker saying they’re travelling to your region for whatever reason, or you’ve heard it through the grapevine. It never hurts to send them a message to check if they’d be interested in doing a quick session for your user group. It won’t always work, but it can lead to an interesting addition to your schedule!
Pick the tools you prefer
I know Sessionize now set up a User Group mode, that can have multiple installments of dates, where speakers can apply to. Personally, I still prefer reaching out to speakers myself, as this gives you better insights into who you’re asking. Maybe a speaker you want to plan, wouldn’t submit out of their own iniative. But, it’s the other way around as well, as you can get interesting submissions you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
Whenever I reach out to a speaker, I do it with the same standard template I’ve built over the years. It contains some information about how we run a session, which session we’d like to plan, and the dates that are still open. With the remote approach of the last 2 years, we also ask up front if we can record, upload, and share demos afterwards, with a clear indication that this is not mandatory.
Then, when we’ve agreed on session and date, I set up the events on our own website and Meetup, and send out a calendar invite to block calendars for all parties. One last tip, don’t be too optimistic when reaching out to speakers. For example, don’t reach out to multiple speakers for a single date if you can only plan one. It’s poor planning if you have to come back on your words because of a double booking.
Another quick ‘n dirty writeup for T-SQL Tuesday, but I really felt I had to include my thoughts on this one before heading off to London. As always, I’d love to hear from you if you have any questions, remarks, or rants!
Stay safe, take care!