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Is a Bigger PASS Better?

Over the past several months, I’ve talked about SQL Server conferences (SQL Server Conferences to Watch for This Fall), the large amount of SQL Server information available (Too Much SQL Server 2008 Information?), and community (Defining the SQL Server Community). Today, I’ll combine these topics and talk about the effect of too much information at a community conference.

Last week, when discussing community, I mentioned how excited I had been to see a conference dedicated solely to SQL Server. The PASS Community Summit, which is taking place in Seattle this week, has been held in the United States for the past 10 years. (I only realized as I was writing this commentary that this year is the 10th year that the PASS Community Summit has been held, but I can’t find any mention of this auspicious anniversary on the PASS website. Maybe they’ll make a big deal of it next year, when the 11th PASS Community Summit will take place 10 years after PASS was started.) In 1999, PASS offered about 70 sessions, with no full-day preconference seminars, and a couple hundred people attended it. This year, there are more than 150 sessions, two full days of pre-conference seminars with seven seminars to choose from each day, and more than 3000 people in attendance. What a change! But is all that change a good thing?

There are good things about attending such a big conference. You can catch up with people you haven’t seen in awhile and talk one-on-one with Microsoft engineers. There’s a very good chance of having a topic of interest to you available during every session time slot. And with more attendees, there will be more vendors (and more swag) in the vendor exposition hall. PASS certainly isn’t the biggest conference where you can get great SQL Server content. For example, Microsoft’s TechEd is huge. More than 20,000 people attend, and there are a limited number of possible venues. (This year, Microsoft split the conference into two parts, partly to reduce the space requirement, but next year it will be a single event again.) Although TechEd offers hundreds of sessions, most attendees are interested in only a small set of technology areas (such as SQL Server) at the conference, so the fact that there are hundreds of possible sessions can be overlooked. In fact, TechEd 2008 had only about 60 SQL Server sessions, which were spread out over two weeks.

PASS is still huge for a conference devoted just to SQL Server. The topics are divided into three technical tracks: Application Development, Business Intelligence, and Database Administration. (A fourth less-technical track is devoted to professional development.) So if you’re interested only in DBA topics, you’d think it would be easy to decide which sessions to attend. Think again. Some time slots have three good DBA sessions scheduled, each with a terrific speaker. In addition, Microsoft is offering hands-on labs concurrently with the sessions. So how do you choose which sessions to attend?

I know there are some companies that send several people, including multiple SQL Server developers and DBAs, to PASS, and those groups plan their session attendance carefully, making sure each person attends different sessions. These people then meet over dinner (or breakfast) to share with each other what they learned.

I’m not trying to make this commentary a commercial for PASS. I’m interested in knowing if you think the conference is getting too big or if there is such a thing as PASS being too big. If you’re considering going to PASS in the future, or if you’re one of the 3,000 people attending it this year, what might make you decide to attend a smaller SQL Server conference instead? We’re all aware that bigger doesn’t always mean better.

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