Kathi: Bill, what got you interested in hosting a SQL Saturday?
Bill: The simple answer is jealousy. In 2008, I attended my first training events - Kansas City Day of Dot Net and SharePoint Saturday Kansas City. The SharePoint event was cool, but SharePoint just doesn't tickle my fancy. What was amazing to me, though, was that it was free and anyone could present. It was all day, they had cool giveaways, free food and all the knowledge a person could handle. I remember thinking, man I'd love to have one of these things in a SQL Server flavor. I even found some website that took a postal code and email address and said they'd contact you if enough people in your area were interested in a SQL Server event. No clue to this day if it was SQL Saturday or not it's been so long. The seed was planted though and every now and then, it'd send out another tendril.
Kathi: How did you hear about SQL Saturday?
Bill: Fortunately, my current employer encourages employee growth and managed to send me to PASS Summit 2009 with the pre and post con (Adam Machanic & Itzik Ben-Gan), even in the middle of hard economic times.
I know the joke is that going to conferences is supposed to be a mini-vacation on the company's dime but I couldn't treat it that way after so many years of begging for training. I was so desperate for a drink of knowledge and this place was an oasis! I filled my entire PASS memo pad with session notes in addition to lots of tweets, quick blog posts and a handful of business card contacts due to being a square in SQL Bingo. During the PASS chapter lunch, I sat with the East Iowa folks and heard about how they had put on a SQL Saturday. It sounded so amazing and I couldn't wait to head up there for the next one.
Michelle Ufford also told me that Andy Warren was the guy to talk to about getting one organized in my town. On my last day, I finally met Andy. I actually interrupted a group he was in to ask to speak to him and we sat down and talked about some things. Until that moment, I had figured there was some recipe they followed whenever a city wanted to have a show. Deploy the crack SQL Saturday set-up squad to an area, ask the locals some questions and boom, knowledge everywhere. The dread secret to putting one of these on is the "professional set up squad" is you. That realization took some of the wind out of my sails as I figured that's going to be a lot of work so I better shut up before I get roped into a huge commitment.
Kathi: How did you decide that maybe you really could host a SQL Saturday in KC?
Bill: As fate would have it, the return flight from the PASS Summit had Bill Graziano and some other KC folks on it. Bill got me to thinking maybe I can pull this thing off. Or even better, get someone else more organized, more knowledgeable, more everything to organize it and I'll help out where I can. I wanted it now though, I really wanted some more of that PASS experience and I wanted it here, even if I'd have to suck it up and overcome my utter desire to not be in charge. Late November saw the changing of the guard for the KCSSUG and my DBA Andrew became the president. I also met this guy Mike Gelphman and we thought we'd conquer the world and pull off a SQL Saturday in May. In fits and starts we tried to get it rolling but around February, early March there was no way it was going to work and we scuttled it. We didn't give up on the idea though, just that we'd be have to get it done in a later timeframe.
Kathi: What happened after you adjusted your timeframe?
Bill: We regrouped and went back to the drawing board. This time we got more people involved, delegated more tasks and met regularly to discuss progress.
We were meeting every few weeks and then upped it to every week as planning came to a close. Given the geographic distribution of our team, physically meeting got to be a hassle but we began hosting our weekly meetings via WebEx and it worked really well for me. We'd cover what we accomplished since last meeting, what's still outstanding and what new things we've ran into.
Kathi: What was the first challenge you faced?
Bill: After having to change up the schedule, we ran into a challenge of finding a suitable space. It seemed all the colleges in town had events going on the same weekends we were looking at. Mike scored a massive coup by reaching out to folks at Cerner who donated the amazing event space we had. Along with the space, we got Cerner associates Katie Lofton and Kris Nessa to help out. Without Katie and Kris we'd have been lost. At the first meeting, Katie peppered us with questions about details that I hadn't even considered but I hoped I had faked it well enough to have not scared them off. Andrew Cross, our PASS chapter president and my DBA, Brett Flippin from Children International and Rob Rich from HNTB and rounded out our core team.
Kathi: Once you had a venue and date, and a group of dedicated volunteers, what were you most concerned about?
Bill: We were worried about budget for printing the event guides. We were warned by Christine Carpenter, who helped design the event guide, against printing and trying to bind it ourselves as it wasn't going to look professional. What you may not know is that as you bind so many sheets in and attempt to staple it, the pages will feather our and it'd look like amateurs did it. The "good" service that was going to address most of this was going to run closer to 4x what we had guesstimated printing would cost. Once again though, Katie and Kris came through and talked to their internal marketing. Cerner print shop agreed to deliver the professionally printed and bound brochures on time and much closer to our budget. Have I said Cerner rocked as a partner in this?
Kathi: How did you handle all of the other printing?
Bill: As a cautionary note to would-be organizers, I over-extended myself and committed to printing the name badges, sponsor raffle tickets and speaker evaluation forms. The admin tools indicated I could buy some perforated paper or cut it myself. There was a significant difference in price between the micro-perforated paper vs ultra-cheep copy paper so I went the cheap route. We had 318 people sign up for my event and had 6 hours worth of speaker evaluations needed. Speaker evals print 6 a page, raffle tickets and name badges printed 8 to a page. Why this becomes important is the unbelievable pain in the nethers it became to print 2.5 reams of paper and then to cut it by hand. Gross underestimation on my part for how much sweat equity that would require. Fortunately, we got them all cut up and ready in time, but next year that is a definite task that we will leave to those with a proper printing facility.
We had discussed printing name badges versus having a table with markers and letting people write their own name out but we felt with the networking aspect of the event necessitated having preprinted badges. Mike also pointed out that at his KCITP events, people filling out name tags is always bottleneck on registration and one we should avoid. The pre-stickied name tags I purchased weren't cheap but I was excited to print them. I had these grandiose ideas of reworking the existing admin name tag reports and reformatting them to not cut off really long names, add Twitter handles and put some icons on there to designate speaker and staff. I have the data, I've done enough SSRS, shouldn't be hard. And it probably wouldn't have been difficult, but it’s not a project to start 10 hours before the event. My ideas are good, my planning is horrible. Come to find out, name tags cannot be fed through a printer in bulk so I spent a full hour standing at the printer feeding it page by miserable page of blank sheets of name badges praying to $diety that I didn't lose too many sheets to miss feeds. Lesson learned for next year is to get a sponsor for name tags and make it their responsibility to print and assemble name tags.
Kathi: There were a lot of positive comments about the food you served. How did you come up with serving BBQ instead of pizza or box lunches?
Bill: Kansas City is fairly well known for BBQ so it seemed a no-brainer to offer our visitors a taste of KC. You can get a box lunch anywhere and yes it's probably easier and cheaper but attendees won't remember it---at least not favorably. The subject of BBQ can be a bit of a holy war in town. So besides trying to find a reasonably priced offering, it was important to find a place that most people agree has great food. Fortunately, the planning crew was all in agreement that Oklahoma Joe's absolutely rocks http://www.oklahomajoesbbq.com/
Bill Graziano really upped the BBQosity of the weekend by organizing a pre-event BBQ crawl that was a fantastic opportunity to showcase the town and some of its historic BBQ joints as well as entertain the early travelers and the locals http://weblogs.sqlteam.com/billg/archive/2010/09/23/kansas-city-sql-saturday-bbq-crawl.aspx
Another food-related note that I was pleased with was our handling of vegetarian meals. I'd have to find my tweet but we had about 20 people register as vegetarians, roughly 5 of them being speakers. Having vegetarian friends, I know what a challenge finding complete meals can be for them. Vegetarian = iceberg lettuce salad doesn't cut it. Fortunately we have some great places here that cater to those with dietary restrictions and Eden Alley was my choice as they offer clear stratification on their food for vegetarian/vegan/soy/lactose/gluten free. Plus, their food is awesome with a side of soy! We received such warm thanks from the vegetarians for really caring about their needs that I'd encourage other organizers to go the extra length to take care of your attendees.
Kathi: I heard you had lots of leftover food. What did you do with it?
Bill: Estimating lunch was a bit of a challenge---we had to supply numbers to OK Joe's 2 weeks out from the event. At that time I think we were sitting at 225 registrants, over our minimum goal of 200 but under our soft cap of 250. Registration was ramping up though, and my biggest fear was not having enough food. I guessed at 300 people which was overkill. I had not looked at the admin console to see how many wanted lunch and had paid. Plus, I had not factored in the drop off rate which was about double my guesstimate based on attendance numbers for Dallas #35. I was feeling guilty about how much food we had once I saw it all as it seemed so wasteful. Even if the 250 or so people we had attending ate to their arteries' content, there was going to be a serious amount of leftovers.
My CLR session was on deck, so after a quick lunch bite I sequestered myself to review my materials. I don't know who came up with the idea of taking the food to a soup kitchen but it was a masterful stroke. All I know is that I came out of my presentation and was told Cerner let us use their refrigerators to reduce the risk of spoilage and we'd be taking it to the soup kitchen after the event. I was elated, not only had we fed and educated a passel of SQL Server professionals but we would be able to make an impact, if only for one meal, on the lives of the less fortunate in the Kansas City area. City Union Mission estimated they'd be able to feed 400-500 people based on the leftovers!
Kathi: Any other thoughts you would like to pass along to would-be organizers?
Bill: A recurring theme for the planning was a lack of a well-defined structure, roles or responsibilities. It's definitely not a strong suit of mine but it's something we're addressing for next year else they'll skin me alive.
One thing I wish I would have done better with the core team in the beginning is to get to know them. It sounds odd to say it now, but it wasn't until a good month in that I got to know any of the details about who these folks were beyond good hearted souls helping me out.