Last year in early September, I wrote about the SQL Server “conference season” and discussed how you might determine which of the multiple conferences available would be valuable for you to pursue. This year, it’s a bit late to be making any decision involving travel, as PASS Summit Unite 2009 is next week in Seattle and SQL Connections (the SQL Server Magazine conference that’s part of DevConnections) is the following week in Las Vegas.  The one big virtual conference of the season (SSWUG’s Ultimate Virtual Conference), for which no travel plans need to be made, was last week, so we’re too late for that conference as well.

So instead of talking about which conference you might choose to attend, I’ll direct this commentary to those of you already planning on going to a conference, particularly to those of you who might not have been to many technical conferences before. If you find yourself looking over the agenda and feeling absolutely overwhelmed with all the choices, you can take heart in knowing that you’re not just imagining things. It is overwhelming. There’s no way you can attend every interesting session, hear about every useful product, or talk to everyone you might hope to talk to.  It’s just not possible.

So how do you decide how to spend your time to “do” the conference right? The big conferences usually have multiple concurrent presentations scheduled across several different tracks (or focus areas). Concurrent with that, most conferences will have a vendor trade show, where technology vendors can display their products and give away swag with their company logo on it.  Then there are the evening activities, which can run late. Afterwards, many people get together with friends and colleagues at local pubs or in hotel bars, and stay there until even later. No matter how late you stay out or up, sessions start again the next morning. Maybe you’re young enough to carry on like this for a week, but not all of us have that much stamina. So you need to know your own limits.

I suggest you first decide which of the technical sessions are most important to you and plan to attend those by getting to the rooms early and securing a seat. You might think that if a session proves not to be as interesting or valuable as you thought it would be, you can switch to another midstream. However, this doesn’t work for popular sessions, where there’s frequently standing room only and latecomers aren’t admitted. The well-attended sessions can be very interesting to attend because frequently discussions will start between the presenter and audience members, and these discussions can get quite lively. However, I’ve seen some really small sessions allow for lots of Q&A, where everyone can get their questions answered and the presenter can be much more informal in their conversations with the attendees.

In recent years, most conferences record the sessions and make the recordings available to attendees, either by CD or online. So missing one session doesn’t mean you won’t get to hear that presentation. Knowing that you’ll be able to hear a session later gives you the flexibility to choose to visit the vendor exhibits occasionally in place of a session.

To make your personal scheduling even more difficult, many of the big conferences offer other types of presentations, besides those in the regular presentation rooms. Many presentations will be set up on stages near the vendor area, where less formal discussions can take place. Frequently, these discussions are based on some interesting topic and the presenter will have a few demos and talking points, but the exact content is up to what the people in the audience want to know about. These presentations are rarely recorded, so if you miss one, there’s no chance to listen to it later.

Although I do suggest that choosing which technical sessions to attend be your first priority, I don’t mean to suggest that the social aspect of conferences is unimportant. In this age of so much digital communication and the rise of the social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter in just the last year or so, it’s really wonderful to see the people behind the words. Even if you think that socialization isn’t what you’re there for, you won’t regret meeting some of your favorite bloggers or tweeters face-to-face. And sometimes, even better than meeting the experts, is the opportunity to meet other SQL Server users confronting the same challenges that you are. Be sure to say hello to whomever is sitting at your table during breakfast or lunch, and just find out what their interests are and why they came to the conference. It’s never a bad thing to expand your personal network.

If you can’t make it to one of the big conferences this fall, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Last year, I mentioned that although the PASS website had an events page, it was sparsely populated and listed only PASS-related events. That’s no longer true. Check out www.sqlpass.org/Events.aspx for a list of places to meet SQL Server experts and other SQL Server users in locations all over the world.