Q: Is it worth going to community events like SQL Code Camp?
A: Yes – read on for explanation…
When considering any developer event these days it is important to calculate whether you are getting good value. With so much content available online, we need to evaluate the costs (financial, comfort, time and otherwise) involved in traveling to a venue to learn similar information. The greatest cost is of course in personal time. These days I put an hourly $ value on my time and use it to compare options. Sounds clinical and selfish perhaps, but is primarily an attitude of considering yourself as your own personal business – you need to make a profit or else you're not around for long.
Let's breakdown the costs
First the financial costs of attending an event like SQL Code Camp… the event is free, but everything else adds up. Airfares: $240, Accommodation: $268, Hire car: $191, Meals: $40, so roughly $750. Sure, there's ways of minimizing these expenses, but I have certain standard of living expectation, so these values are about right.
Next, personal time cost: You are giving up at least 2 and probably 3 days (including travel down on Friday, recovery on Monday morning etc) of your personal time that could have been spent on other activities. Giving myself a nominal personal charge out rate of $1.5K a day and I've basically said that I am expecting $3K value out of the weekend for it to be worth my while.
[Aside: My personal hourly rate is based on a combination of personal time and professional charge out rate: so I use $200 an hour and $1.5K a day when making these calculations. I treat weekend days and week days the same.]
What about the comfort cost? This is a hard one to gauge, but basically amounts to how unpleasant (or pleasant) the conditions are. They include everything from an uncomfortable bed (serves me right for being tall) through to eating too much pizza at lunch. I'm on a bit of a health kick at the moment, so I really notice it when I eat badly (yes, I could have catered for myself I guess). Sounds picky? I guess, but I don't really mean it to come across like that, rather I'm just evaluating. Let's put a nominal half day cost on the comfort side of things…
Other costs? Well, if I were in Catherine Eibner's shoes I guess there'd be a few more costs to consider…
So, let's add it all up. $750 travel expenses, $3K time expenses, $750 comfort. That's about $4.5K. So what value did I get in return?
Return on investment
There are three main returns from an event like this. First of all there is the content delivered by the speakers. At this code camp the quality of speakers varied a lot. Crowd favourites like Greg Low, Adam Cogan and Grant Paisley delivered in fine form, Kevin Kline from the US was excellent, and even a few of the 'new' speakers were well worth the time (Mai and Ducas were standouts). The majority of sessions were helpful, but approximately a third were disappointing. The main reasons were due to poor presentation skills and too little content for their allotted time (I won't pick on anyone in particular, but when much of a session involves looking at the syntax of a command and encouragement to check out Books OnLine, you know you are getting poor value). This is of course the problem with community events – you can't expect to have top content for the whole event. Verdict: Overall content was fair to good value.
Next is the value of networking. This tends to get overrated by people in my opinion. For example, I often hear people talking about how one of the main benefits of an event like TechEd is the networking. Whilst I don't disagree, I am less hasty to tout this aspect. Networking is indeed important, and must (yes MUST) be a part of every developer's time in the community, but it is also something that is available via other avenues (and I guess that's why the 'social networking' fad is so big these days). There's nothing like meeting in person mind you, but, like many developers, I have a limit to the amount to talking and chatting I can manage. In general I'm on the introverted side of the scale, so a few hours over a weekend is all I can manage. Thus, it is about a balance really. In terms of networking, SQL Code Camp is a good opportunity. Meeting and chatting with a few experts is important, and to be honest some of the tips I picked up from sitting next to Peter Ward on the flight home were priceless. so, I'm not going to underestimate that.
If I was a speaker (I wasn't) I could include some kind of exposure benefit from attending. For example, Kevin Kline would have received great exposure from speaking, and I'm sure Quest will get a few more hits and even purchases in the coming months. Thus being a speaker could return great value.
Let's discuss the content a bit more. As I mentioned earlier some of the sessions were excellent. For someone in my position I need to be aware of as much as possible that is happening in the technology circles. Although I've been developing with SQL since the 6.5 days, given the size of the product now, there is no way to be competent across all areas. Thus, although I don't have to know the specific details of how to program in a particular area, I do need to know what a product is capable of. And, in this regard, the event was fantastic. I was given exposure to a broad range of areas involving SQL Server. Everything from performance tuning, to migration strategies, tips and tricks, to SSIS, SSAS, SSCE, even a touch on VSTA, and plenty more. In a single weekend I've seen a number of SQL 2005 areas and have a high level overview of where SQL 2008 is going. This was a great return on investment for me.
But let's compare it to other avenues. If I'd taken my $4.5K of opportunity cost elsewhere, what could I have bought? The first possibility is self-study. I could have taken a week off work and just studied, played, read and worked with SQL 2005 and the latest CTP of 2008. But consider this… how often have you spent half a day trying to work out something that turned out to be really simple? Something that you perhaps picked up from an off hand remark an accomplished speaker made… Yes, there is a definite value from seeing people present and work with a product. Never devalue the live performance.
Another option would have been to take a training course. Given my budget of $4.5K this is probably the equivalent of a 2 day course (if including the cost of my time etc). The advantage of this approach is that you can (normally!) be confident that the course is high quality throughout. And you can also control the content (because you decide which course you are attending). The down side is that courses are usually more detailed and specific to a particular topic, as opposed to the broad range offered at a Code Camp event. However, this post is about the value of events in general, not just Code Camps, so often the level of topic changes with the event.
Moving on to other options, there are paid events/conferences (eg TechEd, ReMIX, PDC, etc). I'm calculating my $4.5K would only buy 1 day of a conference like TechEd (factoring in conference registration cost, accommodation + travel), so I'd likely need to equate 3 Code Camps for one TechEd. The advantage of a conference like TechEd is the range of topics that one can choose between, the calibre of the speakers and sheer size of the event. There are no real downsides by comparison that I can think of.
The value of repetition
So, let's compare going to TechEd with going to 3 Code Camps. What represents the better value? I suspect few would choose Code Camps over TechEd, but does that mean that we should only go to TechEd? Or is there value in attending both? What if I attend TechEd and also Code Camp? Is the value of Code Camp in anyway reduced? This last part is an interesting question. And this is perhaps one of the best value parts of Code Camp – the value of repetition. You'll all know that being shown something twice makes it much easier to learn (doing it yourself is even better). Therefore, the maximum value of a Code Camp in my opinion is combining it with other events. The ideal would to attend TechEd, then a number of events afterwards to reinforce things learnt at TechEd. In fact, even greater would be to attend TechEd first in the US, then follow it up with the Australian version . If you are an MVP, then you are even luckier, since you can get the heads up on technology at the MVP Summit, then follow it up at TechEd.
[Another aside: This is also why I will happily see a presentation twice, eg if a great speaker presents a great session at two different events, I am happy to see it twice as I will often get more out of it the second time.]
Let's draw this all to a close. Do I think there was $4.5K of value in attending SQL Code Camp? Answer: Given the broad range of content, the quality of some of the speakers, the networking potential and added value of repetition, the answer is a resounding yes.
Therefore, as an overall statement of my position:
Question: Is there value attending community events? Answer: Yes.
Question: Is it valuable to attend both community and paid events? Answer: Even more so.
Question: Given the limitation of having to choose between community or paid events, which offers more value? Answer: Paid events.
Question: If there was one thing about free community events that you wished could be improved, what would it be? Answer: I wish the quality of the presentations was consistently high.
A big thank you to Greg Low, Readify and helpers (including Microsoft, WardyIT, Quest and others) for putting on another fine community event. See you again next year.