It was pointed out to me that since PASS is such a huge networking event, any employer would be crazy to send a good employee to the event. They’ll just come back and hand in their two weeks notice. You know, that’s entirely possible. But, let’s not confuse networking with job hunting. Funny enough, while I did get my latest job while at the PASS Summit, it wasn’t through the personal network that I had built up over the years of going to, and speaking at, the Summit.
I use that network as an extensive knowledge base. If I have a question about Availability Groups, I have at least three different people I can reach out to. If I get stuck on some internals question, I have other individuals I speak with. I know who to talk to if I get stuck in PowerShell. Think about it. How much more valuable does that make me to an employer? They’re not just hiring me. They’re hiring my network. But that’s only part of how you want to convince your boss to send you to the PASS Summit. Let’s go over a few items that will make it easier for you to convince your employer it absolutely is in their best interest to send you to the PASS Summit.
My Knowledge Base
Maybe this one is obvious, but you should talk to your boss about the addition of more skills to your skill set, an improvement of your overall knowledge and your worth to the company. There is a ton of excellent learning opportunities at the Summit covering the entire length, breadth and depth of SQL Server and it’s attendant products. These sessions are lead by some of the most knowledgeable and skilled people in the industry. Further, they’re practically slavering at the bit to have you ask your difficult question so that they can exercise their skills and expand their knowledge. You can learn more, faster, at the PASS Summit than almost anywhere. That’s going too help your employer because you will be a better employee
Our Current Problem
Just about every year in the 6-8 weeks leading up to the PASS Summit, I would start collecting questions. What particular pain points are we experiencing with the products that I need to grab 10 minutes with a Microsoft engineer to talk about. Oh, didn’t I mention that fact? Yeah, the guys who built the product are frequently at the Summit (although more are there when it’s in Seattle). You can take your immediate problems straight to these people. Further, there’s likely to be an MVP or MCM standing near by who might be able to help out too. Or, you can try the Customer Advisory Team (CAT) who always have a number of representatives there. In short, you can get pretty close to premier support without wasting a premier support ticket.
Our Future Direction
Your company needs to make decisions about future direction. You’ve seen the marketing hype. Now, what do the people who are working with the newest stuff every day have to say? Can you get more information by attending sessions that are not put on by Microsoft on emerging technologies? Yes, frequently, but not always, you can. The PASS Summit is the place to see this. Microsoft doesn’t just develop things and then toss them over the fence to see what works (mostly). Instead, they have companies and individuals working with them all the time to develop new directions for the product. Those people and organizations are frequently at the Summit, displaying new stuff on the vendor floor or giving presentations about the new directions they’re taking the technology. You can get a better understanding if your company’s plans are going to work well going into the future. Even if the plan is best summed up as “We’ll sit on SQL Server 2000 until it rots around our ears.” Others are doing it too. Find out how it’s working out for them.
Our Team Skill Set
Most companies are not going to want to send all of the database development team or DBA team, or development team away for a week. Instead, they’ll send one or two people from each team (maybe less). So your team loses out, right? Wrong. Two things. First, coordinate. Make sure that you cover as many sessions as you possible can. Don’t overlap. When I was working on a team heading to the Summit we would divide up sessions to make sure things got covered that the company needed or that we needed as individuals. While I may want to see speaker X do her session on indexing again, my co-worker has yet to see it, so I’ll send them. And make sure you have a couple of sessions picked for a time period because the session you’re in could be a bad choice. If a session isn’t for you, for any reason, just walk out. Second, teach. You just spent a week getting data dumped into your brain. Teach it to your team. We made a pact that anyone who went off to an event had to present 2-3 sessions to the team from that event. You can even purchase the event DVD and show sessions to your team in meetings.
NOTE: This is not to say, steal these slide decks to become your internal training resource, unattributed to the original presenter. That is a bad thing.
Who do you want to work for? The employer that says, “Heck no you can’t go to the PASS Summit. You’ll meet people and figure out that our company stinks and you’ll try to get a new job, or you’ll learn more and be more valuable and we’re not about to raise your pay.” Or, the employer who says, “Yeah, sure you can go this year. Let’s document what you’re going to learn and how it’ll help the company.” OK, it’s not going to be that easy. You may have to agree not to leave the company for a year or something afterwards. Be cautious about exactly what kind of strings get attached, but also be aware of the fact that the company is investing in you and would probably expect to get something for that investment. Just be sure it’s fair to both you and them.
I get it that some employers are smaller and just can’t foot the bill for this. See if they’ll meet you part way. You pay for the trip and lodging and they pay for the Summit, or vice versa. It can also be about timing. You’ve got a major software release that’s going to prevent you from going. I almost missed a Summit myself because of this. It’s just not always possible, but a good employer will find a way to make it possible, occasionally. If there is literally no support, of any kind, ever, you’re either working for a not-for-profit or, maybe, the wrong company.
I’ll Be On Call
Be on call. Carry the laptop with you. Keep your phone charged (ABC = Always be charging). Don’t enjoy the evening festivities too much (and yes, there are parties at the PASS Summit). Be a responsible employee. I’ve had to walk out of great sessions because of calls from the office. I missed half a day because of a failed deployment. But I was online and available, not falling off the face of the planet just because I was at the Summit. Make the commitment to be available as needed by your employer.
Take lots and lots and lots of notes. You can type them into OneNote or EverNote or whatever. Or you can scribble them into your tablet or onto notepads. Anything that works. But write stuff down. Write lots of stuff down. Write down what you’re thinking about the information as well as details said by the speaker that may not be visible on slides or in code. Write down what you talked about with that lady from that vendor on the back of their card. Take notes while talking to the Microsoft engineer or CAT member. Then, turn the notes over to your employer. They act as an additional knowledge base about the event. It’s one more resource that you’re bringing back to your team.
Bring home a t-shirt or two for those people who couldn’t go. If there’s a particularly cool piece of swag, give it to the boss or have it as a raffle at the team training event for the best question. Share the stuff you get as well as the information you get. A friend of mine and I once collected 56 t-shirts and a stack of other swag (and had a heck of a time getting it all back on the plane) which we then spent almost two weeks handing out in the office to our team, development teams, managers and systems people, etc. It made us look good and cost us nothing but a little time on the vendor floor. It’s silly, but it works. If nothing else, it shows the boss that you’re thinking about your team and the company while you’re away.
I talked about it at the beginning of this blog post. Network. That means not being “that person.” That person is the one who comes to the event, shows up for all the sessions, doesn’t ask questions or talk to a single person all day, then leaves and goes to their hotel room (and then usually goes home saying “Wow, that was a waste of my time”). There are large numbers of opportunities to network. Waiting in line to register, turn and talk to someone. Ask questions of the presenter during their session AND follow-up afterwards (although, let them get unplugged and out of the way of the next speaker). Go to the vendor floor where you should talk to the vendors as well as others. Attend the First-Timers event. Go to the Birds of a Feather lunch. Wear a kilt on Day 2 of the Summit (SQL Kilt Day, you’re reading the words of the founder of the event). Attend the Women in Technology Luncheon. Look up and track down all the places where people are getting together and talking. Go to them. Get together. Talk.
I’m an introvert (people laugh when I say it, but it’s true). I recharge with alone time, not at parties. I get it. But the PASS Summit is not recharge time. If you’re not almost literally crawling into the venue on Friday, you’re doing it wrong. The flight home should be the most relaxing plane flight you’ve ever had because you’ll pass out before take-off and wake up when the wheels touch down.
Take the time and trouble to begin to build your network. And remember, a network is not a series of authors or MCMs or MVPs that you can call. It’s a collection of people, some may be presenters/authors/etc., but the best are probably doing the same job you do but for a different organization. Talk to everyone. Build that network.
And that’s all I’ve got. Here is a different view from the PASS organization and another from Steve Jones. Yes, the learning and the networking should be enough for any employer, but these things aren’t always immediately valuable. So, try out some of the other strategies and approaches I mentioned. Explain to the boss this is what you’ll be doing. Come up with a written plan. Then execute that plan at the Summit. Your career is in your hands. You have to decide how and where you’re going to expand it. The PASS Summit is a unique opportunity to do just that, but you may need to convince the boss.