Becoming a SQLBits Helper

Becoming a SQLBits Helper


While I’ve been a regular attendee at SQL Bits (going back to the original conference in 2007), this year I did something different. This was my first time volunteering – becoming a SQLBits Helper. 
I’m lucky to already know some people who are experienced SQLBits Helpers. They helped me out by answering some questions before I stepped up to become a Helper and I’m sure that this blog post can help you too!
Overall, I found it to be a very positive experience, working with a great set of people to provide a world class event. It was hard work, but it was also enjoyable and rewarding too. I felt that it would be valuable to record my thoughts on the experience, both for future helpers at SQLBits or indeed for people looking to volunteer at other events too.
During the event, I made a point of trying to be a good volunteer. In fact, some people have said that I can be “very trying”, which I will take as a compliment.
I quickly realised that there were a couple of things that I could have done better, so I decided to record these to aid future volunteer first timers. On Day 2, I told SQLBarney “I’m going to write a blog called “Things not to do when volunteering at SQLBits”” – that’s where this blog post started. Of course, many of the things that I mention could be self-explanatory, in which case you are welcome to roll your eyes at them, but I’m sure that something in this document will be of use.

Let’s start with the “Why”

SQLBits needs volunteers. If you’ve attended SQLBits in the past, you will have noticed how many people are involved in making it run. It’s a big operation and while it’s commercial, no-one is making money from it – it’s literally run “by the community for the community”.
SQLBits needs SQLBits Helpers, lots of them!
Most SQLBits Helpers will be wearing orange which makes them easy to spot – that’s deliberate.
• Helpers welcome delegates to the conference and help them to find their way around
• Helpers are in every room, making sure that sessions run smoothly
• When you’re attending a session remotely and you post a question – that’s handled by a helper
• When you’re a speaker and you need to know when to go, a Helper will… help you
• Those “goodie bags” that you’re handed when you arrive – they are filled by Helpers
• Bits Buddies – a limited number of experienced and trained helpers that people can speak to with questions.
• Runners – experienced helpers questions / issues can be escalated to. They will have lots of experience of being regular helpers at previous events. Known as “Runners” due to the number of steps that they can clock up in a day!






Volunteering starts before the conference

Let’s roll back a bit before the heady first morning of SQLBits. 
If you are interested in becoming a SQLBits Helper then keep an eye on the SQLBits Twitter / LinkedIn page. There will be a post inviting people to apply to volunteer, together with an e-mail address to contact. This normally comes just after the location is announced and I recommend that you get your application in as soon as possible. If nothing else, to reduce the risk of you forgetting.
The SQLBits Helper team will be back in touch to establish which day(s) you are available to help for.
Closer to the conference, you will be invited to attend a “Helper Briefing” with fellow helpers (first timers and experienced). This is a good introduction to how helping out at SQLBits works in general, together with discussing tech solutions that are used at SQLBits – e.g. the “Helper App”. A number of these meetings are scheduled, at different times of the day. My advice is to attend the first one that you can, just in case something unforeseen occurs. I was fine, but I’m sure that it’s quite easy to miss a couple and then have a schedule clash. It is important that you attend, and that you are seen to attend.
The SQLBits team do their best to accomodate helpers preferences in terms of sessions to help out with. Typically, a helper will be dealing with three or four sessions each day.
You do have a say in which sessions that you help out with. Different people approach this in different ways – some choose the sessions that they want to listen to or speakers who they enjoy. Others will choose sessions that are of less interest to them, so that they can more focus on what is happening in the room. As a first timer, I would certainly suggest this approach.
I would also advise taking very special care to ensure that you only use a single e-mail address for all of your SQLBits correspondence, otherwise things can get a bit complicated.

How things work

When you become a SQLBits Helper, one thing that becomes very apparent is just how structured and thought out everything is at SQLBits.
The organisation team are tremendous. They’ve done this before. They’ve thought about it, they are smart people!
Duties for first time helpers will be room monitoring on the “General Sessions” days – i.e. Thursday to Saturday. First time volunteers are paired up with experienced volunteers to provide assistance / backup.
Each session has an experienced helper and another (could be first time) helper.
This is deliberate to make sure that new recruits have an opportunity to learn how the system works with the security of having some more experienced on board. 
Once people become more experienced, they can apply to help on the “Training Sessions” days as well as picking up different tasks / roles.

Conference Days


Each SQLBits helper is provided with a set of bright orange polo shirts with the SQLBits logo. This identifies you as a helper, an ambassador of the conference. With great power comes great responsibility as you are making yourself more visible to delegates / helpers / conference staff to help them. You should wear black or dark trousers / leggings of your own to complete the look and if you are likely to get cold then feel free to wear a long sleeved top underneath.



Helpers Briefing

While SQLBits typically opens at 08:30, the helper day starts a lot earlier. The Helpers briefing can be as early as 07:00 or 07:30, and you will need to attend. This means that staying local to the event is ideal – with the event at the ICC Wales, while I live about six miles away then I was able to stay at one of the event hotels, which made travel far easier.
The briefing generally consists of observations from the previous day, notification or reminding of issues and also an opportunity to make sure that everyone arrives in sufficient time for the day ahead.

Sheet

A sign-in sheet is circulated at the Helpers briefing. Being ticked off on the sign-in sheet is crucial as it lets people know that you are here. If you’re not signed in then all of the sessions that you are booked to monitor will need to be covered by other helpers.
Keep an eye on the Helper Slack Channel. Set it to alert you on Urgent and make sure that you can see when messages appear. On my first morning, I missed two messages about people not being signed in but luckily caught the third one when they listed people that were missing. Don’t be named and shamed!
The Slack Channel also acts as a way for you to notify others of issues / potential issues. This can range from Speakers not turning up to relocation of sessions to cancellations. Okay, so the first message I posted was to alert of a broken coffee machine on level two. Might not have been an issue for everyone but I was thinking of a Speaker who might have been relying on that beverage to get them through. This was picked up, passed to the relevant conference team, and resolved swiftly.

Use paper!

Create a plan of what’s going on each day. Make sure that you know where you MUST be (your assigned sessions), where you would LIKE to be (other sessions that you want to catch) and know / schedule in sufficient time to move between sessions. SQLBits is a big conference and you need to make sure that you get to where you need in time.
Technology is great, but it can let you down. My eyesight isn’t what it was, so reading screens is a two-stage process – glasses on, then read. Far simpler just to have my plan on a piece of paper – written in large letters!
After you’ve written your list, take a photo of it – just in case! The best time to create your plan is the evening before, but if that’s not possible then in the morning, straight after the Helpers Briefing, before leaving the area used for the briefing. 
Once you’re out in the public areas, you might get distracted while helping someone / spotting an old friend or colleague, next thing you know it’s time for your first session to monitor.


Session Monitoring

When monitoring a session, there are a few key tasks
• Making sure that you have a speaker 15 minutes before the start
• Welcoming the speaker, making sure that they have everything that they require and checking when they want to be notified of time during the session
• Counting delegates
• Monitoring online channels for questions and making sure that they are addressed
• Giving time notifications to the Speaker – e.g. 10 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 minute
• Keeping order within the room!
Each of the above tasks will be outlined in greater detail closer to the time – you don’t need to remember everything! There is a “session pack” in each room with reminders / time cards etc and the process is explained in the briefings mentioned earlier.






Counting Delegates

The best time to count delegates is 5-10 minutes into the session. Numbers should have settled down by then

Extra jobs

Chances are, on your first stint as a SQLBits Helper, you will only be given the role of room monitor. This is deliberate so as not to overwhelm “new starters”. There are loads of other jobs that you’ll see people getting involved with. A few examples would be
• Goodie bag filling (those mugs and t-shirts don’t get in there by magic!)
• Directing delegates to rooms, or to available seats in large auditoriums
• Folding T-shirts (could probably do with a T_Shirt folder)


SQLBits Helpers are still eligible to enter competitions and raffles, so make the most of it!
Friday night party – this is handled by an (excellent) external company, so there are no volunteers required – go and have fun!
It’s OK to feel tired or overwhelmed. It’s natural. Being a SQLBits Helper means that you are working long days doing something completely different to your normal work. There will be times in the day when you feel tired and you can call upon your fellow volunteers for support. You will feel part of the team and the adrenaline will carry you through.

There are benefits too

Being a SQLBits Helper, you get to speak with more people than you would normally. You engage more with the speakers, delegates and fellow helpers to get far more benefit from the conference. That orange shirt gives you more excuse to ask people questions – “how are you enjoying SQLBits?”, “what sessions have you enjoyed?”, “what sessions are you looking forward to”, even “did you enjoy the party?” 
In return for monitoring three or four sessions per day, you are free to attend the conference for the rest of the day. You will need to cover your own travel and accommodation costs. This can work really well if you are having trouble getting SQLBits costs signed off. In my experience, travel costs come from a different budget pot than training. So, if your Training request is denied, you might still be able to attend with your employer paying just for the travel and accommodation.


I do admit, it was easier for me to be a SQLBits Helper in 2023 as SQLBits was hosted in Newport, South Wales (about 6.5 miles from my home). My employer was able to pay for hotel accommodation for the week which, while it made an interesting discussion at home, made perfect sense. I was able to spend time with my colleagues, take time out to network, and it also made it easier to get to the conference center for the 07:30 briefings.

Final words

I hope that the words above will encourage and help more people to volunteer when the “call for Helpers” comes out for SQLBits 2024.

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