So, I’m an Orange Shirt and I’m a Bit Different.

Our community of helpers is as wonderfully diverse as the data community they serve and we welcome everyone who wants to help us make the SQLBits experience a success.

Read on to hear the story of just one person from the helper crew...

SQLBits Volunteers in their orange shirts
The famous orange shirts. Courtesy of Mikey Bronowski

“So, I’m an orange shirt and I’m a bit different…”

What do I mean by that? Well, I’m neurodivergent – I have an ASD diagnosis.  I didn’t get the diagnosis until last year, and being in my fifth decade on the planet, I can say getting a diagnosis has helped me a lot.  A. LOT.

All through life I’ve struggled, mainly with interactions with others. Historically, I always got picked up in appraisals for my communication style, coming across as arrogant and aggressive. This in turn caused internalised stresses as to why other people got so upset.  I provide my points with logic consistently, where possible using very simple language and pictures to try to get others to understand but to no avail. I scenario plan with multiple contingencies and my default fight, flight, freeze response is to in fact, fight.  

I developed a perception that I lived in the North Pole…

Back in 2014, I was working my notice for the company I’d been with since 2000.  
I was leaving on my terms with 4 weeks per year redundancy so I was happy-ish, had handed off most of my work, and was generally just going into the office to keep my routine. Routine = good.  

There was a SQL Relay community event in my home city so I went along. WOW. Inspiring? Yes. Beneficial? Yes. Demo of the up-and-coming MS Power Pivot\Power Query releases? Yes.  I asked a question, got a response that it was a great question, and was provided an answer within the boundaries of what could be answered due to commercial constraints.  Oh, and I also got a Microsoft Polo Shirt (a treasured possession) for asking.  
This event caused a paradigm shift. Does the data community also live in the North Pole? 

My first SQLBits…

Now, in 2017 I moved teams at work from an MI team to an analytics team. This was also about the time my organization was dipping its feet into the Cloud, mainly Azure.
I got asked to look for training and managed to get the company to send me to SQLBits in Liverpool*. Thankfully another person from my organization was going, so I wouldn’t be alone. (Shouldn’t have worried about that.)  

* Liverpool was a Star Wars theme and as alluded to above, I have always struggled with an internal conflict between the light and dark side. 
I did lots of background research as I needed to plan.  Multiple Google Maps sessions to work out best way to get from station to hotel, hotel to venue.  Much time was spent viewing the internals of the venue, identifying spots for coffee, smoking & quiet areas.  
I honestly cannot remember a lot about the conference in terms of technical.  For me, Technical goes in one ear and is committed to long-term storage. What I do remember is that it was informative, the people were all passionate about the subject, a certain Italian DAX god was vaping, and the inflatable igloos were a little bit cold. I was there for the entire 5 days, so got to see things being set up in the Exhibition Hall too.

Thursday morning, when I walked in for my first helper briefing, was a bit interesting as I got to see what the hall looked like now all the sponsors had set their stands up, but the hall wasn’t full of people as yet.  There was mild shock during the first break on Thursday as the hall was full, with lots of bright lights, people, and noise.  I can imagine someone walking in on Thursday when the conference is in full swing and being a bit overloaded by everything.  

What happened next?

I didn’t do any conferences in 2018, then in 2019, I got to go to Microsoft Ignite. It was the gold standard but that’s what I expected from the world’s largest software company.  It was good, it was enlightening but… I sat there in the keynote and as one of the big announcements, Satya Nadella mentioned Synapse.  

Umm.  In my opinion, at launch, Synapse was just a nice wrapper over various components that already existed in Azure. Anyway, I went to many sessions including Chris Testa-O’Neill sessions. I’d previously met Chris at SQLBits in 2017 and he remembered me too. Coming out of the Friday night party, he was walking along with his family and I thanked him for his sessions at the conference and also thanked his family for sharing him with the community!

The time no one speaks of…

In 2020-2021, as we all know, the world got tipped upside down. I personally didn’t have much issue with lockdown and permanent WFH as it removed 90% of the interaction I had with others. The workload increased dramatically. I got offered a job with another company, more money and less stress so I took it.

Out of Lockdown!

2022 – SQLBits at the Excel announced.

A request for helpers went out so I volunteered to be part of the Orange army. Why? Well, we’d just come out of 18 to 24 months of social isolation. People have been mostly working from home and there may have been a shortage of volunteers.  From a more mercenary perspective, being a helper provides a greater understanding of the event, and as such, more knowledge means (for me) greater data points to use in my personal planning. This in turn reduced my personal anxiety.

Additionally, the fact that SQLBits was doing DE&I-related sessions was a great plus. I’ve been to conferences where there have been sessions on career progression etc, but for me, my career’s been smooth rolling for the most part. I’ve been lucky and have an aptitude for data. DE&I is important to me as I do not understand people and I hoped to gain additional insights into these strange biological computers!

So I got the 6 AM train (fewer people & less likelihood of disruption), got off at Stratford and rush hour commenced… It was very busy, time for deep breaths and to head down, change train platform, and get on the DLR. Then I arrived. Yeah, time to get a coffee…Starbucks wasn’t open yet, how dare they!? 

Thankfully, due to my inability to be late, I was at the venue about half an hour before SQLBits was underway. Once Starbucks finally opened, I got my coffee and started to de-stress a bit.  There was a bit of a delay with the conference opening for registration so time to do a reconnaissance of the venue.  For those of you who have never been, the Excel is:

A: Quite big
B: Has a variety of different food vendors
C: Has lots of toilets.   

Once registration opened, I got my entry badge and started having a walk around the Exhibition Hall.  This is a good idea for me, as not everything was set up so it’s a lot calmer.  
By Thursday morning, all the exhibitors are in and the hall is full of bright lights, teaming with people and generally gets a little bit busy. This is nothing to worry about if you are expecting it but I’m just making those aware of it for anyone who may get sensory overload from this particular scenario. I did the 2 training days as an attendee which gave me a view of the venue and what the helpers were doing. Then I did Thursday, Friday, and Saturday morning as a helper.

On the first training day, I got a message in the morning to call home! Lots of panic, and bucketloads of stress – I called home to find out what the problem was. Now my other half didn’t do too well in lockdown.  She coaches sport as a job and has done her whole adult life. This was obviously stopped due to the lockdown restrictions and having our kids and me at home all the time, had a negative cumulative effect on her. She’s been diagnosed with something. My initial reactions were as follows;  

1: First work-related time out of the house for around 18 months? 

2: I need to go home and be there for her.  

3: I have no experience, nor planned for this. What do I do?

 Even though at this time I did not have a diagnosis, my other half knew I’d need time to process this and told me that I was to stay at the conference. (Prime example of someone else assisting with executive function.) Have I mentioned I have ASD? (This bit may seem disjointed but it’s how this individual’s brain works; It compartmentalizes and switches to the third person.)

Well for me, one of the ways this difference presents is in a lack of emotional intelligence, 90% of the empathy I may exhibit is cognitive processing. For example, if you say something bad has happened, my brain will take that input, cross reference it against previous experiences and/or my understanding of society’s expectations, and return a hopefully appropriate response. Thankfully, I have a high-power CPU in my head and a lot of memory.  Sometimes, a null is returned as this Orange Shirt has no frame of reference.

Thankfully SQLBits has an on-site councillor. This resource was on-site, available for anyone who needed it, and acted as a great sounding board for me to vocalize the multitude of internal emotions I could not process. Big thank you to Traci. Truly.
Now once I’d processed that, I could get on with the conference. 

As you may know, the conference is run by volunteers. They give their time free of charge and are doing this for the benefit of all. I’m not a believer in altruism in general but at SQLBits, it is a real thing.  
As an attendee, despite the historic levels of low personal confidence and high levels of imposter syndrome, I’ve always been met by others with a friendly face and where I’ve needed help, it’s been forthcoming.   

As 2022 was my first time as a helper, I was paired with another helper with a bit more experience and was guided and supported where needed.  I’m not going to go into what the helpers do, how the day progresses etc, as many others have or are already blogging about this. What I will say is that it’s a safe space. Everyone; attendee, helper, venue staff, and the committee all bring something to the table and all have immense value. Being the first post-Covid and in-person event, I suspect there were a lot of people with very high levels of stress but we all supported each other and got through successfully.  
This was such a positive experience that I volunteered for 2023. See you there!