In the first of a new and ongoing series of Inside SQLSaturday posts, which I hope will give you an insight into the phenomena known as SQLSaturday, I would first like to introduce you to Jonathan Allen (blog|twitter) who currently runs the SQL South West User Group, which is a PASS Chapter and also the parent organisation behind SQLSaturday Exeter. Last year Jonathan led his first successful SQLSaturday Exeter and is currently preparing for the second on Saturday 22nd March (the pre-conference is on Friday 21st March). At the end of this year he also completed his two year term as a UK PASS Regional Mentor (working alongside myself), but many of you will probably know him better under his alias of @FatherJack on Twitter. He also is a frequent blogger on Redgate’s Simple Talk platform.
Q: Hi Jonathan, thank you very much for agreeing to the interview and answer my questions. I’ve been wanting to interview you for a while now and I’m very much looking forward to your replies. Before we get started though, I have to ask about your Twitter handle and the inspiration behind it?
A: Fatherjack? that comes from way back. When I’m writing code it’s generally easy to tell how it’s going based on the language emanating from my desk so I got the nick name of Fatherjack in the office during a time when it wasnt going so well. My colleagues felt I was very very similar to Father Jack Hackett from the Channel 4 Father Ted comedy series. I had to create an user name on a website and it was the first thing that came to mind, gradually it got used on more and more sites and now it has reached the point that people often think I am actually called Jack or that I am in some way ordained!
Q: If I am not mistaken, your Twitter Avatar is probably one of the longest running unchanged pictures; where does the Mug come from and have you ever flirted with the idea of using a photo of yourself?
A: The mug was bought in the Brighton Lanes while I was attending SQLBits there. The photo was taken when I was testing the camera on a new phone at my desk and then needing to put an avatar on Twitter soon after. Again, its been around so long people know me by it. Would I change it? No probably not now I’m happy being a mug!
Q: Tell me about your SQL User Group and how it all got started?
A: SQL South West had its first meeting in May 2011 but it all started at SQLBits in York in 2010. I was speaking to Tony Rogerson (twitter|blog) in the community area and asked where my nearest User Group was. Turns out it was too far away to attend regularly and Tony simply said ‘start your own then’. It took all the time from Oct 10 to May 11 to get things organised (location, attendees, speaker etc). We’ve met pretty much every month since then.
Q: I spent an enjoyable 10 years growing up in the South West. For those who are not too familar with the region, can you say why it is so special and why they should pay it a visit?
A: The South West (specifically Cornwall, Devon and Somerset) are a wonderful place to be, there is plenty of space to get away from it all – we have Bodmin Moor, Dartmoor and Exmoor close by as well as all the beaches and coastline. The pace of life is relaxed and it all makes for a pretty great experience whether you live here or just come and visit us.
Q: Building upon the success of your User Group, last year you hosted your first SQLSaturday in Exeter. How do you think it all went and what lessons did you learn that are proving useful this time around?
A: I think we did OK, certainly based on the feedback from the delegates that came along. We had a short time from launch to the event day and had Christmas and New Year in the middle so it was pretty frantic. The bulk of the preparation work was done by me and Annette (my wife/ @mrs_fatherjack) but with lots of help on the day from a lot of very generous people. This year we launched a lot sooner and we have recruited a team who are doing a spectacular job to take a lot of pressure off us. we have a few deadlines and ‘pressure points’ but we look in pretty good shape at the moment.
Q: One thing I admired about your event last year was the involvement of your User Group members. What tips can you give to SQLSaturday events trying to foster local involvement and contribution to the running of a SQLSaturday?
A: I guess I am benefiting from the excellent people that come along to SQL South West meetings, they are very generous and willing to help us with the event and their eager assistance is invaluable to the smooth running of the day. From the outset of thinking about last years SQLSaturday we wanted to make sure that as much as possible the event would showcase the South West – hence our pasty and pint refreshments and using local suppliers for as much as possible. This ethic flowed into asking the group for their assistance on the day and they were superb in the work they gave us, we cant thank them enough.
Q: SQLSaturday Exeter is probably hosting the largest number of pre-conference sessions I think I have ever seen at a SQLSaturday. Could you share with us the motivations behind this and also explain to the audience why they should attend one?
A: 9 training day sessions, yes its probably the biggest change people will see between this year and last. It is certainly the biggest single cause of ‘should we , shouldnt we’ conversations while we are preparing. Essentially we had some outstanding submissions for training day sessions and when we found a second location that could support our event we thought we would try something new: a SQLSaturday training day with 9 sessions, spread over two locations. We have chartered a bus to make sure everyone gets where they need to be in comfort and on time. It should be quite a sight going through Exeter with FusionIO logos all over it! Another strong motivation is to keep trying something new, we have a 2 hour session on the Saturday, to provide a chance to get a more in-depth session on a topic and we are also mixing the event party with the speaker meal to see if we can bring everyone together and start socialising as early as possible.
Q: You have some great pre-conference Speakers, but could you pick any personal favourites and tell us why?
A: That, sir, is a nasty question! It’s like asking someone which is their favourite child! However, a special thanks needs to go to all the speakers that are travelling thousands of miles between them to be with us like Stacia from the USA, Mladen from Slovenia and Hugo and Andre who are both from Holland. Having said that, some of the UK based speakers are travelling a long way too and we are just as thankful to them.
I guess you will press me for a firm answer though so, if was able to attend any of the sessions then I think I would probably choose André Kamman’s session on SQL Server 2014. It looks like there will be masses of content that I can take back to work and implement or use as points to argue for an upgrade project to move our servers off the older versions that we run. Take a look here.
Q: Have you any advise for someone attending the pre-conference or your event on Saturday?
A: Come along with the aim of having a good time, we are a small event so you will meet some great people in a friendly atmosphere. you will no doubt see some excellent sessions on both days and there is a strong chance that you will meet some people that will more than likely become a good friend and part of your ongoing career. I know that I have made many strong friendships with people that I have met at community events that I am sure will last longer than my career. Catching up with these people at events becomes a key part of attending SQLBits or SQLSaturday or even the PASS Summit.
Q: Your event is just weeks away now, how are your finding the traditional mayhem to the run up of it?
A: Yeah, it’s pretty frantic currently. We have a lot to do but we seem to have it all in hand at the moment! It’s been a lot less frantic this year as we have a bigger team and more time in project.
Q: You are returning to last years venue and I am guessing that this has made many of the arrangements much easier this time around. Do you want to say anything about Jury’s Inn?
A: Yes, this was something we decided almost before last years event was over was that we would return to the same location. We think it suited our needs very well, was well placed for transport connections and we worked well with the conference team. The Jurys Inn staff were incredibly flexible dealing with our requests and very responsive to things happening on the day. Not only were the conference facilities very good but the accommodation was very comfortable and I am sure that the bar area will be as popular in the evenings this year as it was last.
Q: One really nice touch at the end of your event last year was the serving of Cornish Pasties to the attendees. Rumour has it that you have surprises in store this year too, are you able to share any with us?
A: The Pasty and Pint will be with us again but rather than on the Saturday when everyone is heading home it is going to be on the Friday night. Anyone attending the Friday or Saturday training is welcome to come along from 19:30 on the Friday and join in our party. We are having a beach/surf themed event so anyone in the right sort of clothing is in line for a prize. We have hired a surfing simulator and there will be prizes for best surfer of the night as well as the best (or worst!) ‘exit’ from the surfboard. Not only will delegates be there but the evening will have speakers from both days and sponsor representatives too so you can all talk and get to know each other.
Q: I also love the fact that you have managed to engage with local sponsors and contributors. How hard (or easy) was it convince them that they should get involved?
A: The ‘local’ part of the event was each to say but not so simple to put in place. People are not so close together in Devon and Cornwall as they are in other big cities so finding SQL Server users is always hard work, whether it is for our User Group or for the conference. We had great support from Nexus OS last year and we are hoping to have some other local companies involved this year. One key tenet of last years conference was that not only were we putting on a SQL Server conference but we were also showcasing how good things are in the South West. We have excellent services and resources down here and they perhaps dont get the publicity that they could or should. Hopefully SQLSaturday Exeter helps address this a little.
Q: There is a great selection of speakers on the Saturday event. How hard was it to select your sessions and could you give an insight into how your team did this?
A: Selecting session for SQLSaturday is one of the hardest tasks in the whole project. Another aim for SQLSaturday Exeter is to give new speakers a chance to have a session in front of a big audience and show what they can do. We tried to balance the session content across 4 major topic areas – Performance, DBA, Dev and BI but also to bring in new speakers as well as having some of the regulars in place too. If I was giving advice to speakers on getting submissions accepted it would be to focus a lot on the abstract that you send to the event organisers. Sometimes ambiguity or poor content here means that sessions get dismissed.
Q: You have a few first time speakers at the event. What advise what you give to them?
A: Come along and have a good time. There is noone here that is hoping you will fail or have problems. If something goes wrong then the room is full of people ready for you to recover, continue and succeed. I had a nightmare session last year: someone in the front row poured a hot cup of tea in their lap, my PowerPoint crashed and the internet connection dipped out right at the time that I needed it but we all came out of the session alive and hopefully a few people picked up a tip or two along the way. Take a look at one of last years first timers experience here : “Community Interview – What’s it like to speak at a SQLSaturday?“
Q: If you manage to break away from behind the scenes and make it to any sessions, which ones do you think you will try to attend?
A: I’m hoping to get to see some of the 2014 content for the reasons I mentioned before and then I’d like to try something different and maybe get to a BI session. its something I have only ever seen from afar and I see it as a gap in my SQL Server knowledge.
Thanks Jonathan for taking the time to answer my questions, especially during this busy period. I look forward to attending again soon and enjoying the fun and SQL learning!
Great, it was a pleasure, looking forward to seeing you and a whole lot of new friends in a week and a bit!