Developing presenters with an open mic night

In August I ran a tag-team user-group meeting. The idea was that people within the group would get up and give a really short presentation about something which they thought was cool. I had a few people put their hands up, and I prompted a few more people as well. All in all, the meeting was really good. Numbers were down, but I think this comes down to people not really knowing what to expect (but let's face it, numbers are down when I'm listed as the speaker – I think it's the familiarity thing).

Since then, I've noticed some other groups doing similar things. And some of those people have asked me about the whys, and hows of it.

The Why is easy for me.

Firstly, it lets me know who in the audience is willing to present (and who has a knack for it). More than that though, it tells me who I could potentially help develop as a speaker.

Secondly, it gives me an idea about the things that people are interested in. The section of the evaluation form that says "What should we have presentations on in the future?" is almost always blank.

Thirdly, it saves me having to find a speaker that month. Actually, this is a really big thing. Getting speakers to come to Adelaide can be awkward – we're a bit isolated from the rest of the world.

The How is a bit more complicated. I have a list here, and these are in no particular order.

First, you need to give people a lot of warning. Tell them a good two or three months in advance, and also tell them that you'll be prompting people.

Second, you need to prompt people. You didn't get that from the first point? Hmm… You will get people who just volunteer, but you'll also find that a lot of people won't. So just ask them. Especially those people who you think would do a good job.

Third, It helps to have a prize for the best talk. If nothing else, you'll find that some people really like the prize and want to pursue it. Greed can help. 🙂

Fourth, give people ideas. I don't just list them, but I tell people I have some ideas, and then when I prompt people, if their excuse is that they can't think of anything to speak on, give them a couple of topics to choose from.

Fifth, warn people that you might not get through them – and have these people as the seasoned presenters who really don't need the practice. The newbies will go overtime, almost guaranteed.

Sixth, don't stop those people that go overtime. Be really encouraging to them. Actually, be really encouraging whatever happens.

Seventh, get people's notes in advance and prepare good questions. If someone's struggling, you can turn their talk around with a couple of well-placed questions. This can really help.

Eighth (wow, there's a few), have a bunch of tips yourself that you don't need slides for. You can give these tips while people swap machines – just a way of filling in time between presentations. Keeping it flowing will really help.

Ninth, offer to have an interview-style presentation if you know someone has something
good to say but will be nervous about presenting. For many people, the problem is just standing in front of other people. But if you get them to just have a conversation in front of everyone else, then that could be the break-through they need.

There are more, of course. But I can't think of them right now. I guess that's where 'comments' come in. 🙂 I'd like to hear feedback from anyone else who has run similar meetings, to hear how they went.


How they know you know

There have been many times over the years when someone has asked me to assess someone's skills. Usually this is by looking at a CV, but it has also involved talking to them in an interview setting.

For any potential employer, the hiring process is painful. They know they need someone, but typically they don't really know who they need. Could be they need to hire someone to join a team, in which case they can ask the team what kind of person they would like. But often they just know that they need someone to do a particular job.

First step, they need to write a job specification. Great. What they really want to write is "We need someone to be able to fix up this stuff" – but they actually have very little idea about what skills may be required for that. So they put criteria like "Must be good with people" and "Must have experience in the integration of systems". But really, they have very little idea.

Let's suppose somehow, they get a terrific advert written up, and the CVs start flying in. That's a really good start. Now they need to go through those CVs and work out which of these people they are going to invest their time in. Getting someone in for an interview will take time. There's the interview time of course, but as well as that, there's arranging a time that suits, and working out a range of questions that not only suit the role, but suit the candidate. They might want to ask about the candidate's time abroad, or why they left that job which sounded so good. All-up, I would guess that a single hour-long interview would take around 3 hours of effort.

So you can't interview everyone, you need to use CVs to filter them out. That's tough. You try to rank them according to a feel for whether one is better than another. But how do you do that? Is this person who has worked for a couple of big name consultancies better than that person who has a degree from a top university? Does it matter that this person has a few gaps in his CV? Lots of questions need to be considered.

Typically as a candidate, you need to be able to demonstrate very quickly that you are better than the crowd. Obviously if you have an outstanding employment history, have written books, that type of thing, then you may get through on reputation alone. But if you have a good reputation, then you're probably not applying for jobs anyway – the employers are probably chasing you directly. For the rest of us, it's much harder.

Certification can help I think. If someone gets two identical (-ish) CVs across their desk but can only get one in for an interview, does it help that one has achieved some level of certification? I think so. Does it help that one is a member of a professional society? I think so. It doesn't mean that the candidate is necessarily any better, but it ought to increase the odds of it. The person without the certification might not be good enough to get certified. Or they might not qualify for membership of a professional society. So I think employers will always lean towards the person who has these things.

When you get a certification from Microsoft, they send you a certificate in a folder. The folder says "How they know you know". And I think this is the key. Whilst certifications don't guarantee you know anything, I think they do go a long way. And after all, even if it's more like "How they can justify hiring you rather than the other guy", then surely that makes the certifications worthwhile.


I’m on the MS Developer Podcast

I'm listening to myself right now on the The Microsoft Developer Show from The Podcast Network, being interviewed about certification. The link is

I do talk too fast – that's a pain. I really need to work on that, especially if it's being recorded for a podcast. I don't talk so fast on the ones that I record myself (but they're not technical, and I'm just talking to myself, not to someone like Nick).

The show notes scare me a little. I see a mention of Dave Lemphers at 4:01. I like Dave a lot – great guy. When I saw his name there though, I thought "Oh, I don't remember mentioning Dave…", and wondered what it was about, considering some of his views on the MVP program.

Having listened to it, it's not too bad, except that I talk too long at the end (what – Rob talking too much? Can't be true…).

I'm happy to promote certification, and also to encourage people (both candidates and employers) to think higher of the certifications. After all, we really do need to know how people know.

SQL Code Camp Talks

All the talks this weekend have been great. Almost every talk has a bunch of things that I really hadn't appreciated before. All 5 SQL MVPs from Australia are here, plus Itzik (from Israel) and a few non-SQL MVPs from Australia.

I would've liked there to have been a few more people here from my user-group in Adelaide, but I do appreciate it's a long way to come. There are two, plus me.

SQL Talk Drinking game

Personally, I don't drink. Not at all. Just one of those things. But, at TechEd this year, I thought of a drinking game while listening to people talk about data.

In the UK, people pronounce data as 'dayta'. In the US, it's 'datta'. And as far as I can tell, people from these places don't tend to vary which one they use. But in Australia, the typical pronunctiation is 'darta'. Yeah, I don't get it either. But that's just the way it is.

Now, because of the international nature of the community, many Australian SQL presenters have started to say 'dayta' instead. No-one says 'datta', but people switch between the other two even within the same sentence – (putting 'dayta' into a 'dartabase')

So in my drinking game, you split into pairs. One person is assigned 'dayta', and one is assigned 'darta'. And of course, each time the presenter says it each way, the appropriate person takes a drink (very small, or else they get very drunk very quickly).

SQL Code Camp

Well, here I am at Wagga Wagga. It's Sunday morning, and Itzik Ben-Gan is speaking. He's just shown us slides of the SQLHike trip, which looks like a really cool idea.

Being here in the middle of nowhere talking about SQL with people is really fun. My talk (on the OVER() clause) went okay yesterday. I was last up and had to keep it short, but I got good feedback from people. People liked it when I jokingly told Itzik to just put his hand up if he had any questions. I must check out Itzik's talk on row_number() some time – I'm sure I'd learn plenty, and be able to make my talk even better.