Ned Stratton: 17th March 2022
SQLBits came to the ExCeL centre in east London for five days last week from Tuesday 8th to Saturday 12th March. It's the leading UK annual event for Microsoft data technologies (SQL, Power BI, Azure and a few more), complete with a theme changing each year, a Friday-night party, and four days as paid entry (£500 for one day, £1600 for all four) and the final day free of charge. I'm a big fan of "open source" when it comes to events as much as software (ie. a cheapskate) so I went along on the free Saturday and got pretty good value for my non-money.
This year's theme was retro arcade games, with space invaders and Pacman on the free notepad and delegate bag. Demo laptops were nested in the screen areas of vintage gaming stations dotted around the exhibition floor, which worked well as the not-too-densely-packed centre of the event with 12 clearly signed session theatres around it. This all made for a good visitor experience alongside pre-printed badges, the agenda on a phone app instead of a magazine, and free lunch.
The exhibition floor was somewhat less busy than BigData LDN last September, but that was to be expected on the graveyard shift of the last of a five-day show and the morning after the Friday party. Indeed it was very much quality rather than quantity as I merrily bumped into kindred spirits I used to see at London data and tech Meetup groups from before the pandemic, catching up with their news and in many cases picking up great ideas for the further development of UCOVI from their suggestions. And the beauty of the final day of an expo is that by then the sales reps manning the sponsors' exhibition stands are simply too tired and dry-mouthed to try and sell you a data lake storage solution you have no intention of buying from them. No extra spam emails for me!
Another factor reducing the footfall was that akin to many large events post COVID, SQLBits has (I suspect by now out of habit not health concerns) mutated into hybrid virtual/physical. Having half of the audience live-streaming in from home compounded the empty feeling of the 7 talks I sat in out of 96 held on the Saturday. The losers of SQLBits 2022 were undoubtedly the speakers, who didn't get the audiences that their well-researched presentations around creative ideas or important subjects deserved and would have had in 2019. They also had to waste time repeating back any questions they did get from visitors owing to the absence of staff passing round microphones.
Having 96 sessions in one day meant I was spoilt with as many as ten choices for each session, and I duly made the classic mistake of picking the talks that sounded the most important and theoretical/managerial instead of the technical tips 'n' tricks. The subjects of the talks I attended included Gathering Report Requirements, Five steps to create a data-driven culture and Data Science and Analytics: Real-World Experience from Diverse voices in the field. I chose these because they sounded broad or covered common and frustrating problems that one encounters working in a data team and craves magic bullets for. Sadly the three talks flattered to deceive; the report-requirements talk was an amusing but unoriginal tirade about the incompetence of business users with spreadsheets, the five steps to the data-driven culture were unmemorable save for the step where you gave the speaker's consultancy practice a phone call and a cheque, and the real-world experiences in data analytics from diverse voices was a data-free millennial homage to intersectionality, inclusivity, unconscious bias and "diversity" from a trio of MBA/PhD-qualified women who kept saying "I couldn’t agree with you more".
I passed up sessions on PowerShell scripting, Power BI report design for mobile, and other SQL demos to go to these, and the lesson here is that grand-titled, management-theory talks at tech events tend to tell you what you already knew. When I eventually did attend a technology-focussed, less ambitious-sounding talk on What to tell your security team about Power BI?, I was treated to a clear, highly useful presentation of key assurances about Power BI on questions of authentication, data encryption, and security accreditations, as well as ways to enhance security through sensitivity labelling and Certified Datasets.
A talk I attended on neurodiversity by Sarah Francis at YouGov also deserves mention for using the-rarely-used-and-for-good-reason Excel radar chart to visualise the executive functions of a neurodiverse person, as do the series of 5-minute lightning talks. These gave newbie speakers a chance to pop their SQL cherries on subjects close to their hearts, as well as more established ones the opportunity to try more frivolous approaches, which included a speaker from Microsoft using a purple cookie-monster puppet to present a demo on Azure Synapse. One of the biggest gripes I had about lockdown apart from not having Meetups and data events was the lack of ventriloquism in technical product demonstrations, so for that and the other positives from SQLBits Saturday, a huge thanks to the organisers.