The Malta Data Saturday is finishing. I still need to compile the numbers, but the comments and feedback are great. Let’s talk a bit about the story of this conference and I hope this story can provide it’s 2 cents to the build of our new era, at least starting many discussions about do’s and don’ts on new era conferences. Specially for community members and event organizers, I believe it will worth reading.
The story needs to start when I arrived on this beautiful island. When I arrived, Slawomir, the creator of MMDPUG (Malta Microsoft Data Platform User Group), was leaving to Poland. When I contacted him willing to help the existing group in Malta, he saw the opportunity to keep the group alive (but let’s he talk about in the comments).
Challenges faced and overcome, the local meetings were working fine. However, I believed Malta would never see a SQL Saturday: The physical space and the usual amount of attendees were not good for that. Or, maybe, I was with the wrong view, coming from a place where I organized four SQL Saturday with 300 in person attendees each (but yes, it was reducing a bit along the years).
When the pandemic hit us and SQL Saturdays became virtual, that was Malta’s chance. A virtual SQL Saturday. I filled the request and waited. That’s when things got worse and PASS Died. Malta would never have a SQL Saturday.
When a great community team created Data Saturday concept and portal, it was Malta’s chance. I had no doubt and scheduled the Malta Data Saturday.
After having many experiences speaking in conferences all around the world, the purpose was to make something different. Give a step ahead for our new era conference in challenging times when we were barely leaving the home.
Firsts, let’s jump and introduce the team. Me and Slawomir could not handle the conference alone, we need more volunteers for the Conference. After a call for volunteers, the ones who jumped in were: Deepthi Goguri, Vinicius, Karina, Diogo and Jaqueline. Besides Deepthi, who was also a speaker, all the others are Brazilians, who faced huge language barriers to help with the conference.
The ideas used on the conference were not mine, I can’t have full credit for them. Our experiences inspire us to go beyond and I hope the Malta Data Saturday will become an experience to inspire many to go way beyond as well.
Where I got my inspiration:
- The hosting format used by Azure Lowlands conference was great, I thought I could do that and go beyond.
- The videos created for each speaker by Stephen Simon for each speaker at C# Corner SQL Server Virtual Conference
- The fun relationship between Brazilian speakers, making fun of each other on the conferences. Diogo Nogare, Fabiano Amorim and the disappeared Felipe Ferreira know what I’m talking about.
What the pandemic brought to us
When the community was focused on in-person conferences, it made total sense for the speakers to build a set of some sessions, 5 or not much more, and repeat these sessions in different conferences around the world, spreading the technical knowledge.
For the attendees, they should be present on the conference, in-person, or miss the opportunity to learn.
The online conferences changed everything.
The conferences started recording the sessions, so there was no meaning for the speakers to repeat the same sessions, because they would be recorded and available for everyone to watch.
The attendees had no need to be present, the conferences became a new Tech Netflix service (yes, I copied this idea from someone else).
However, although everyone were aware of the change, most people didn’t want to change. The speakers continue providing the same sessions around the world (guilty!) and the conferences still want attendees for the live conference.
All these scenarios lead us to one of the biggest challenges: A lot of noise. There are a lot of online conferences, every week, many each week. The attendee can be present to the conference, but if not, he can watch the recordings later, no concern about that.
This appears to be a series of activities without a course. Where this takes us?
It reminds me something from the past. Most universities in Brazil are used to a yearly conference called Tech Week. The classes in the entire week are replaced by technical presentations delivered by people from the market. I delivered technical sessions on many of these conferences and I started thinking about: How could I use this opportunity to bring something more than just similar sessions every year ? How could I use this opportunity to create a learning progress among the conferences, something from beginning to expert?
I never managed to solve this problem, because it had to be a team work and I never managed to have a team betting on the same idea.
It seems to me the change from in-person to online conferences caused the same scenario, maybe a bit worse: The conferences have the chance to become more than conferences, to become a kind of progressive work to take anyone who wold like from the beginning to the expert level.
Otherwise, the conferences will continue repeating themselves, becoming only a lot of noise the attendees needs to cut throw to find something important to them.
Cut throw the noise
This was the main challenge, cut throw the marketing noise of lots of conferences around the world.
I’m not sure if we managed to cut throw the noise or not. Besides that, this is an unpleasant task for me. It’s about image, creating an image for the conference. I don’t like images or marketing, I prefer to live based on results than on images, so I try to get as far as these tasks as I can, but there are some times it’s not possible.
I used 3 methods to cut throw the noise:
- Link the conference with well-known companies. I manage to make this link with Betsson, RedGate and Microsoft, but this end up being too close to the conference date
- Make a happy hour using some of the methods planned for the conference. This didn’t attract the amount of attendees I expected
- Make a lot of noise
Conference: Base Definition
We were trying to make the conference fun, like a happy hour and still a learning experience way beyond Netflix style of recording sessions.
- Videos for the introduction of each speaker
- Host activities similar as a broadcaster
- Fun and inspirational videos played during the breaks
- Speaker’s interview made in a fun way, turning the conference more fun and the speakers closer to the attendees
- Every speaker who submitted was invited to appear on the back stage at any moment, helping with the interviews
- Live Kahoots with prizes
- Off-Line Kahoot competition with prizes
- Treasure Hunt using the map of Malta
Features we decided to implement, but are already becoming common;
- Voting for the sessions
- Conference running on multiple time zones
- Make banners for the speakers
- Carefully built powerpoint templates
- Session Recordings
We are still analyzing the results of the conference, we don’t know exactly what worked, what failed because we executed wrong or what failed from the concept (but yes and thank you, the lots of positive feedback already tell us we did a lot right).
Let’s talk more about each item, other conferences can get inspiration and go beyond what we did.
Videos for the introduction of each speaker
We were in doubt about producing serious videos or make a lot of fun. If we decide by the fun videos, we would need the approval of each speaker. However, the limitation of the tool we were using, Animaker, didn’t gave us this opportunity, so we decided to go for serious videos and use the questions for the fun.
Produce the videos was a huge challenge, but Slawomir was up to the task.
Fun and inspirational videos during the breaks
I have some Microsoft videos with me, fun videos I watched for the first time around 2002, showing a view of the future. I thought it would be a great idea not only show these videos, but show videos with a current view of the future and compare in a simple way “If Microsoft was right 20 years ago, we should bet on their future view”
I’m not totally sure about the result and effect these videos during the break had. We also probably had some problems when showing them, this is something that still needs to be analysed.
We researched about each speaker and we created a set of questions we should ask to each speaker. Some of the questions were planned to be fun, interesting and to trigger some stories. I heard some stories myself during the interviews I made.
I’m not sure how successful we were, but I’m proud of this format and result. I believe this can bring the speakers closer to the attendees and make the conference less formal and more fun.
Speakers invited to the backstage
We had some situations where speakers accepted the invite, were present at the backstage establishing conversation, talking with each other and about future events. In my opinion, another success, this created a very friendly environment.
Kahoots with Prizes
Kahoots are a great way to make a happy hour. We even created a happy hour event for one week before to show how the conference would be. Out idea was to use online and offline kahoots as a learning addition, capable of really transforming a weekend conference in a fun and in deep learning experience.
We planned to use Microsoft Learn custom collections together the Kahoot, but this didn’t work very well.
I think it’s a very different way of fun and also a contribution to the community, since it will be exposing the country and convincing people to come here on the summer!
We were not able (not enough time) to build the links using some tool such as bit.ly, so I don’t know the real result of this new approach
Every conference uses powerpoint templates, there is no news on this. However, every conference use templates on different ways, sometimes only providing some basic slides and expecting a copy/past. This sometimes give trouble when applying the template, requiring many adjustments to the powerpoint.
I tried to improve the the template to make it the easiest to apply possible. First, as an improvement, second, because in the end I was only able to provide the template two days before the conference. If I couldn’t make it easy to apply, no one would use it.
The secret was to make everything based on a master slide and layouts, even providing a dotx file. It was very easy to apply, except by the font-size, a problem that I had to submit to support and I’m still waiting for a conclusion.
I believe it worked well, most speakers applied the template. Any feedback about if it was easier or not it will be very useful.
I created a custom app to build banners for each speaker/session based on the sessionize information. It’s interesting, but probably I used very bad methods to insert the speaker picture inside the banner. I had to customize the position for each speaker. Even so, it saved some time.
Multiple Time zones
This really gave us a lot of work and, for our surprise, not many people really attended the session on different time zones. Were they expecting the sessions to be recorded?
Yes, we recorded the sessions. However, we are not sure if we should make the recordings immediately available. This would be only feeding the attendees behavior to turn the conferences into a netflix shop. We are thinking if we should limit the access only to the ones who registered for the conference for some months, or if we would be shooting our own feet. Suggestions are appreciated.
EventBrite is great for the attendees registration. Some of the benefits:
- Integrates with Mailchimp, the attendees can opt-in to receive newsletters
- Integrates with facebook, we can be publish the events to a facebook page
- Provides mailing for the attendees
- Doesn’t integrate very well with meetup
- Provides a customizable event page for online conferences
- The event page requires user registration for access to lives, videos and event information
- The design of event page is not so much customizable or beautiful
The data saturday portal is great and one of the best features is to show the schedule from the sessionize adjusted to the user timezone.
For NGO’s related to training, such as user groups, Kahoot has a school license plan cheaper than the regular plan. There is a limitation of having a single host for the Quiz
StreamYard has some very interesting features to control the backstage, that’s the main reason we choose it. It lacks some iteration features other tools such as teams have, but we can’t have everything.
StreamYard brodcasts to many different destinations, such as facebook, twitch, youtube and so on. Only the paid version can broadcast to multiple destinations, but maybe there would be workarounds for that.
Attendees can make questions on the destination platform. The questions appear on the StreamYard backstage.
We can only change the background if we are already using a green screen, that’s a limitation. I had to use XSplit Vcam to solve this. Probably I need to learn more about OBS. I bet that’s the tool used by Magnus to make those interesting live streamings.
It’s a very simple tool to create a virtual webcam. It captures your webcam image, allow us to work the image and transmits it to a virtual webcam.
It’s useful to craate a fake background in any other streaming tool that usually doesn’t support changing the background.
Most conferences already use this site nowadays. From the call for speakers to the schedule builder
On the last minute I decided to use SurveyMonkey for the session evaluations and conference evaluations. I’m not sure it was a good decision, since the limit of evaluations on the free version is too low.
Mailchimp is great to manage e-mail deliveries to user group members, it gives us way more control to built newsletters and campaigns and follow up the results.
The only problem is being too expensive when the number of registered users increase
Custom google maps
The ability to create custom google maps is very interesting and open space to games, such as treasure hunt
The Animaker was great to build the speaker’s video, but it has a download limit of the videos, what made the work limited.
Everything that worked and didn’t work on the conference is a great experience for the new ones to come and I hope this experience can be reproduced and made better by other conference organizers. Maybe this small post can even be a starting point for further discussions about the future of conferences on the new world ?