August two years ago I originally posted, Make the PASS Summit Work for Your Employer. After conversations at several SQL Saturdays over the last couple of months, I decided to refresh and update that original content and post it again.
I keep hearing how the job market has changed. That companies just don’t want to pay for training any more. However, I don’t recall any of my employers in the past ever actively wanting, desiring, begging me, please, oh, please, can’t you go out to a little training? In fact, for the most part, I pretty much always had to beg the boss to send me out to training. I had to sell it. I don’t think that’s a new development. Let’s review the selling points to help you convince the boss.
My Knowledge Base
That’s the easy one. Tell the boss, “I’ll learn more.” 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, by extension, your worth to the company. There is a ton of excellent learning opportunities at the Summit covering the entire length, breadth and depth of Microsoft’s Data Platform 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 by helping you. 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 Microsoft Data Platform products that are so severe I should 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. 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. All the vendors of all the tools you’re using are also there, frequently with some, or all, their development staff. Need some help with that software you purchased, go and get it.
Our Future Direction
Your company needs to make decisions about their technology future. 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. That’s not to say that a Microsoft session by the people who built the product won’t be useful too. 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. Or, why they finally decided to upgrade, maybe even moving to Azure.
Our Team Skill Set
Most companies are not going to want to send all of the database development team, 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. If you have more than one person from your company at the event, 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. Before you go, if you’re the only one going, head around to the teams and see if they have a request for a session that you can attend. This is a chance to enhance your image within the organization and make your boss look good by offering to help others. Send them links to the event schedule so that they can pick and choose. Finally, 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 a week of training 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. Demonstrate that commitment by being available. However, as with all things, there has to be a happy middle, assuming a non-destructive total emergency, they should leave you alone for little stuff so that you can attend sessions and network. That’s why they sent you in the first place.
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, showing the enhanced value that you’re providing.
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.
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. 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 being an introvert. But the PASS Summit is not recharge time. If you’re not almost literally crawling out of the venue on Friday afternoon, 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.
How does your network help the company? Remember that you don’t know everything. You can’t. However, you can know the people who do know things that you do not. That effectively expands your knowledge set. That makes you more valuable for your organization.
As you can see, going to the event could be a ton of work. In fact, if you’re focused on maximizing the returns for your organization, it will be. You’re going to be working just as hard at this event as you do in the office. It’s all about showing the organization that they will receive benefits by sending you. They will profit from the expenditure. Never lose sight of the fact that it has to be a partnership with the business. You need to benefit as much as they do from the experience. The fact is though, if you follow all my suggestions, you will benefit, and you will deliver worth to your org.