Reflections on PASS Virtual Summit 2020

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PASS Summit 2020 has wrapped up (or is in the process of wrapping up), and as with years past, I’m getting this written while the experience is still fresh in my mind. This is also my long-form event evaluation.

We’ve Moved! We’re Closed!

The announcement that Summit 2020 was to be held in Houston brought was both disappointment and excitement. I enjoy visiting Seattle and have gotten to know little bits of it. I like the fall weather there. But it’s a long flight to get there and back.

The move to Houston brought the promise of a shorter trip for those of us on the East Coast. I even started looking into extending the trip by a day or so to visit Johnson Space Center, going so far as to figuring out if I could have my son accompany me (it turns out that unaccompanied minor rules on most US airlines make this really difficult for us).

And then COVID-19 happened.

I don’t think PASS’s May announcement of Summit going virtual came as a surprise. My own registration was very late because…I don’t really know why. But without having to book travel or accommodations, that wasn’t really a big deal.

Where was I? Oh, right - this Summit was quite different. I’m not sure that any of us really knew what to expect. I saw some consternation on Twitter from speakers, mostly around pre-recording content, that had me a little concerned. We didn’t get much of a preview of the delivery platform. Were attendees just going to sit and watch videos? Would there be enough live content delivery? I was worried about this being successful.

More of This

  • Attended many more sessions this year than in each of the previous two years
  • Saw more “new to me” speakers than I did in those years
  • Slept more
  • Saw my family more

Less of That

  • Caught up with fewer friends
  • Less food & drink
  • Less walking. Last year I averaged 15,000 steps per day over the week. This year I did #SQLRun and one day I walked out to the mailbox.

What We Missed

One of, if not the, most important parts of Summit for me is the social aspect. Catching up with friends. Trading war stories. The Hallway Track. Games night.

It was much more difficult to connect with our friends from far-off places. Either you got lucky that you all happened to be online at a time that was good for everyone, or someone had to timeshift and be up in the middle of the night.

No photos. No #sqlselfies. No hugs. No random comments which can be tweeted out with the OH: prefix because they sound bizarre or hilariously suggestive out of context.

These are things out of PASS’s control, or anyone else’s for that matter. With a virtual conference, we just can’t do these things the way we’re used to. We have to accept and adapt to that.


#SQLRun is a big thing for me at Summit, and obviously that wasn’t happening in the traditional manner. Taiob Ali (blog | twitter) and Michelle Haarhues (twitter) organized a virtual SQLRun and it got me into my running shoes for the first time in 3 months!

Jen McCown (blog | twitter) set up a Discord server which helped us out with both conversation and Game Nights. We played a few rounds of Among Us and Codenames Wednesday and Thursday nights.

Event Feedback

What Worked?

There were some advantages to the virtual format to be sure.

  • In some of the live sessions, there was a bit of a “party” atmosphere in the chat room. I guess we kind of did that in the past with people shooting Tweets at each other while being in the same room. But this let more people in on it (because most people aren’t on Twitter).
  • Questions in live sessions were submitted separately from the discussion, voted upon by attendees, then read by the moderator at an appropriate time. The “I’m going to pretend to ask a question but really I’m telling a story that doesn’t need to be told just to show how smart I am” questions that occasionally happen are now a thing of the past! I don’t think I saw any bona fide questions get asked that didn’t get answered.
  • Having pre-recorded sessions with the presenters available for Q&A meant that some sessions could be done outside the presenter’s home timezone without them being completely exhausted and off their game. It also allows the same session to be presented twice without over-working the presenter. I didn’t attend many of these, but the associated live chats were good. The chats weren’t strictly limited to the session content, so we could shoot the sh…breeze with the presenters.
    • Ray Kim’s (blog | twitter) session about blogging kind of turned into a 2-person panel discussion (thanks again for letting me jump in, Ray!) as there was some difficulty with his recording.
  • Session evaluations were a lot easier to locate and fill out than in years past since they were right there on our screens next to the session we were just in.
  • One year of access to the session recordings, all sessions recorded, and all recordings available within a day or so? Outstanding!
  • The live closed captioning was hilariously bad at times.
  • Pre-recorded sessions have closed captions.
  • No lines for coffee, lunch, snacks, or the restrooms!
  • No cross-country travel! After Summit was over, I took a look at the flight prospects to/from Houston and it’s actually worse than going all the way to Seattle (especially coming back home).
  • The usual User Group Leader and SQL Saturday Organizer meetings normally held on Tuesday of Summit week are now online meetings later in the month. This is terrific for folks who can’t make it to Summit. While I understand the value in having these meetings in person, I’ve always felt that a large number of our peers are unfairly left out of them because they aren’t at Summit.

What Needs Work?

I recognize that 2020 threw a huge curveball thrown at everyone (and continues to do so). The fact that we were even able to have a virtual Summit is a testament to the hard work put in by the PASS BoD and PASS HQ in a short amount of time. If we have to do this again next year, there are things that can be improved.

  • There was no prompt to create a password when first logging into the platform. Our password was our Reference Number which was sent in cleartext to the registered email address, and as far as I could tell, couldn’t be changed.
  • The schedule listings should adjust to the user’s local timezone. Either derive the timezone from the attendee’s contact information, or make it a field alongside that information in the user preferences. Please don’t make people outside EST do time math all week long.
  • At past Summits, I’ve really enjoyed the Birds of a Feather tables. This year, they were scheduled for 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM EST. I missed both nights because that’s dinner time. Obviously there is no “one size fits all” time - how about scheduling a few different timeslots over the course of Summit?
  • Along those same lines, we didn’t have a “room” that was open the whole time for people to drop into at random. The Community Zone was open occasionally but we had no chat room that was open all the time for drop-ins.
  • Especially early on (Wednesday), the platform seemed to struggle with bandwidth at times and video streams got downgraded automatically to 240p. This is pretty much unusable for this sort of content, but the system didn’t automatically bring users back up to higher quality. A number of tweets went out from attendees asking how to fix it or people proactively saying “here’s how to get the image quality back.”
  • The closed captioning was shockingly bad at times.
  • Live sessions only have closed captions for the actual live event. Post-event, there are no captions. This isn’t a great experience for folks with hearing difficulties.
  • Some people struggled using the platform early on. I think usability needs a review for the whole thing.
  • Talking to sponsors was slightly difficult and awkward.
    • There was text chat, but it didn’t seem to be that interactive when I looked at it.
    • Icons in the bottom-left corner of the sponsor “booth” show the people (either named or just titles) who might be available for video chat. But that’s not where you initiate the interaction. You have to go to a different spot to do that.

Why Write All This?

I write all of this not because I disliked Summit this year. In fact, overall I enjoyed it. I’m grateful that we had it and that I was able to attend, no question about it.

I’m writing this because I love Summit. Odds are that it’ll be virtual again next year, so I’m hoping that feedback like this, combined with more preparation time than we had this year, will yield an even better experience.