UKOUG Conference Survival Guide

I’ve been going to the UKOUG conference for about… Well, most of this century. I think this year (2017) will be my 14th visit. Not only that but I’ve helped organise the tech side of the conference for several years. I was the Database Stream or whole Tech Stream lead for the last 3 years (though, this year, blame others as I passed over the duties to Neil Chandler as Tech17 lead and Chris Dunscombe as Database lead). I also grew up 30km North of Birmingham, in a little city called Lichfield – but to be honest that does not help as my family was from Nottingham and we went there to shop.

So with my many years of experience, here is my Survival Guide to UKOUG Conference in Birmingham.

Oh, and just to be clear. I sometimes say “we” when talking about organising the conference. It is habit. I was not involved this year.

Getting There

Train

A lot of people arrive by train, coming into the main train station, Birmingham New Street. This used to be a dark, horrible, Stygian nightmare of a train station but now it is bright, clean and has a nice shopping centre above it. It is just a 10 minute walk up the road called New Street, through the German Market and then bearing left-ish (probably past the Birmingham Town Hall) towards Broad Street where the conference centre (the Birmingham ICC) and most hotels people stay in are clustered. There are underpasses or bridges to take you over the horribly busy road that is in the way.

There are a few other train stations in Birmingham city centre (Moor Street, Snow Hill and Five Ways ) but I have never used them, sorry. Apparently you can walk to the ICC from them. Or get a taxi, but as it is Christmas and Broad Street is very close to the shopping areas, expect a slow taxi journey.

It is probably too late for this advice, but buy UK train tickets as soon in advance as possible. Train fares in the UK are stupidly high (for a crap service) and the sooner you book, the less eye-wateringly expensive it is. The UK is about the only European country where the trains are run privately for profit rather than by the government, which is why they are so “efficient and good value” here. Not.

Plane

Again, a bit late for advice on your actual plane route but if you come into Birmingham international get the train in. The service is regular and quick. Taxies, especially at this festive period, are likely to be slow and expensive. I have never tried Uber in Birmingham but UK Uber is in a lot of trouble at the moment as they have been accused of not vetting their drives much.
If you are coming into London, again get the train. From London Euston to Birmingham NEW STREET (not Birmingham International, that is the airport). It takes about 90 minutes.

Automobile

If you are driving into Birmingham then in some ways it is good, in some ways it is terrible. For example, the A38M gets you deep into Birmingham pretty quickly and smoothly but, like a lot of cities, at times the route is a bit confused and, as it is Christmas, the centre of Birmingham itself will be hell to drive around. Once you get near the centre the traffic will just stop.
I advise you allow for at least half an hour or more extra for driving into or out of Birmingham than you expect. If you arrive on Saturday or on Sunday afternoon add an hour.
If you are leaving by car on Wednesday afternoon, I suggest you consider having a final coffee or light meal in Birmingham before you go. Trying to drive out of the Broad Street area between 4pm and 6pm is something I do not want to have to do again in my life. One year (when it snowed a bit) it took me 2 hours just to get onto the M42 that circles the East and South of Birmingham.

If your hotel has reserved parking, great. If not then good luck. Check the UKOUG web site for suggested car parks, plan which car park you go for and remember, Saturday and Sunday all public car parks will be very, very busy. I had such a nightmare last year when I arrived on Saturday that I am parking 20 miles away and coming in by train!

Once There…

Once you are at the ICC you won’t need public transport – unless you booked a hotel a distance from the conference, in which case you are on your own. Or you are local and coming in and out each day. In which case you know the place and you are on your own.

You can walk to enough bars and restaurants as you could want, taxies in the evening for a couple of miles are not too bad. Access for wheelchairs is pretty good in the UK, there is step-free access to the ICC. I have a nasty feeling you cannot go across the canal to the main bars & restaurants from the back entrance of the ICC by wheelchair, but you can go via Broad Street.

 

Food & Drink

The UKOUG conference is great for breadth and depth of content. It is not so good on the catering front…

Coffee & Tea

It seems like a small thing, but getting a cup of tea or a coffee at the UKOUG conference can be a bit of a trial. Unlike other conferences, such drinks are not always available. I know, it’s mad. I’ve tried to argue about this when I’ve been involved in organising the conference but the ICC charge silly amounts for constant provisions of these conference basics and the UKOUG want to use the provision of drink and food to drive footfall through the exhibition. When it is the allotted time for Tea/Coffee, the queues are of course bad. And the ICC staff take some sort of evil delight by directing you to a different queue. Which turns out to be just as large or, occasionally, not even open yet. (They do this at lunch time too).

To make things worse, providing drinks as an exhibitor seems to be a real challenge too. I looked into having my own stand a couple of years back, with decent coffee. To provide anything more than the odd jug of real coffee would have cost me a fortune, if even possible.

I would advise you just hang about a bit. Maybe get a biscuit before someone who is trying to get a week’s calories from just the conference food hoovers them all up. Then get a coffee/tea once the rush dies down.

There are water coolers around, so you can get water. If it does not run out. Don’t drink water from the bathrooms, it is not “potable” unless otherwise stated – it will be going through a tank  which may or may not have a dead pigeon in it.

However, on the floor below the main conference reception area (so technically outside the conference) there is a coffee company that will sell you something approaching coffee or tea. And if you go out of the “back” of the ICC  and over the canal, there are some coffee places out there.

I suggest you get a bottle of water and keep it filled and with you. The conference rooms can be warm and if you “enjoyed yourself” the night before you could be dehydrated from that too. I used to get tired and suffer headaches until I realised I was constantly dehydrated.

Conference Food

The lunch will be OK. Probably. It varies from year to year. Last year we had a buffet as opposed to a “real” meal and, I have to say, it was a hell of a lot better than the slime provided the year before. If you are vegetarian or have allergies I hope you said so when you registered. In any respect, let your needs be known to the catering staff or the UKOUG staff. If the member of catering staff you are asking does not understand you, go ask someone else. It’s just not worth the risk.

The food provided on Tuesday evening is OK and, if you are determined, you could eat enough to count as a meal. But most people will go outside the ICC for evening meals and drinks. I would recommend you do so.

Drinking and Eating in Birmingham

The conference is in central Birmingham. There are lots of options. If you go out the “back” of the ICC (the opposite side to the main entrance, where there will be some sort of winter fair) you will go over the canal and find many plastic bars and restaurants. You know, All Bar One, Wagamama, Pizza Express, Slug and Lettuce. If that is your thing, you will be happy.

The conference centre is on Broad Street. If you come out the main entrance where the fair is, go right and then once at the road, go “back” along the side of the conference centre. If you come out the back entrance, head left (by the canal or once you have reached the bars). If you are not on Broad Street within 1 minute, you went the wrong left. Here there are more bars, restaurants, even an executive gentlemans dancing club. I have no idea how entertaining  executive gentlemen getting groovy is, I never popped in. There is a lot of choice of types of food up and down Broad Street, though the national cuisine of curry is most in evident. Please do not ask me to recommend anywhere, I loose track of where has been good. Use an App.

I would suggest you do NOT go out in a gang of 20 and expect to get seated. Go out in a gang of 4 or 6, maybe 8 and you will fair better. If you want a bigger group, use your search app of choice and book somewhere.

I would also suggest you be willing to walk more than 5 minutes, it really increases your choice and places are less busy. There are some nice Chinese and Thai places a little further out and lots of other food choices. For drinking I like the “Wellington” pub and there are a couple of other real-ale places scattered about but near by.  There is also the *speaker’s pub* but I won’t tell you where that is as you will all go there and I won’t be able to get in. I’ll happily take you there though. Let’s just say it is much improved since it was renovated and stopped smelling or urine.

Most people end up in the bars and restaurants near the ICC but if you walk back towards New Street (not all the way to New Street!) you will find the German Market where you can get Gluhwein and other bars with more character.

As the years have gone on, I’ve been more likely to pop out from the conference to get lunch or have a quiet coffee. It helps me keep fresh for the rest of the talks I go to.

Alcohol

Alcohol is of course utterly optional. But it seems a lot of British people and international conference presenters opt for it. There should be non-alcoholic options at all UKOUG organised social events. If there is not, feel free to complain like hell as it has been an issue once or twice and should not be.

Given you do wish to partake of the odd alcoholic beverage I feel I would like to offer some advice. That last pint in the hotel bar before you go to bed? Why is it always that one that is bad? I try and keep things in moderation until the last night at least Trying to concentrate on index internals whilst the Hangover Pixies bang hammers on the inside of your skull is not easy.

As a general rule, alcohol is not available in the conference during sessions.

As a general rule, after all sessions are finished, alcohol seems to be appreciated by many.

If you are not English (and in particular if you are from the US) you should be aware that our pints are a bit bigger than a US pint or a half litre. Also, though I know that the US have finally got their heads around “craft beer”, English beer (especially Real Ale) tends to be a bit more flavoursome and stronger than what many people thing of as beer, namely lager. You can get lager from most of the bars around the ICC and nasty, bland pap it is too. I’ll be holding out for beer that is brown, above 5 degrees C and is not mildly fizzy. Preferably delivered from the keg via hand pump, not just pressure-squirted out of a tap.

 

The Conference

Firstly, I’ll admit my prejudice. Other conferences have their own selling points, I actually personally prefer a few of the smaller national conferences, but for breadth of content and the technical validity of what is on offer, I don’t think you can beat the UKOUG conference. DOAG is on a par and is a little larger, but I think is less relaxed than the UK experience. Oracle Open World is a massive, ball-achingly on-message sales and marketing event that frankly I can live without. The UKOUG conference is independent of Oracle and, though we love having their presence and speakers, you will get talks that are not all “Oracle is the best”. You even sometimes get Oracle corporation speakers letting slip the occasional negative word or admission that something could be better. We put things in the water to make them more honest. Yeast, barley and hops, mostly.

Sessions

The UKOUG conference is big. Tech17 has something like 12 concurrent streams, 3 or 4 of which are database, a similar number across development and middleware. And you can move between Tech17, Apps17 and JDE17 as you wish now.

There will be times you want to see more than 1 session on at the same time. Sorry, this is impossible to avoid for the organisers. I’ve spent days in darkened rooms working on the agenda in the past. We try to make sure that talks in the same technical area (e.g. Database) are not on similar topics, we try not to put popular talks/presenters in small rooms or against each other. We try to look across the agenda so that a database-based talk on PL/SQL is not clashing on a PL/SQL talk about database management. But it is impossible. We organisers make mistakes or we simply do not see what is obvious in retrospect. Add to that short-notice changes in speaker availability and other run-time issues, the planning is not ideal.

But the main reasons we get such clashes is that:
(a) We have no control over what you lot are interested in. You might be passionate about APEX and database performance, or in-memory and Java. There are too many variables to plan to suit everyone
(b) There are so many good talks submitted by known speakers we could pack the event with only known, established speakers that you all want to see. And we don’t as we want to encourage new speakers and new topic areas.

So, when there is a clash, please try to be mellow and just accept that the UKOUG put on SO MUCH good content you are going to have to miss something.

And for when there is nothing at all you want to see? Sorry, it will probably happen too, it’s called random variation. Read below for suggestions.

Try to plan your day and what sessions you are going to. I have a piece of paper or the full agenda and I put big circles around the talks I intend to go to, so that I don’t have to keep thinking about this stuff as my head fills with new information.

Go to one or two sessions outside “your” area. It’s good to expand your viewpoint. Some of the best, most useful talks are ones I had to go to as I was chairing them. So now I throw a couple of oddities in each year. This is of course an ideal thing to do if you hit a point where there is no talk you really want to see. Rather than go see a talk you have seen before or a speaker who is well known, go see a talk on something you know nothing about.

HAVE A BREAK. If you feel your head is full or you cannot concentrate anymore, skip a session and chill. Have a coffee. Chat to people. When I first started coming to UKOUG conference I would go to 7 or 8 talks in a row. I did not really remember the last couple from day 1 or 2, or most of them from day 3. Because I was too tired to process new information anymore. Now I take the odd session out and, over all, I learn more. Pace yourself.

GIVE FEEDBACK! You buggers are getting worse and worse each year for filling in the feedback forms. I know, you all think you will do it online later. You won’t. You never do. I know, I’ve been reviewing the feedback for years. Fill in that paper form. And be honest. Don’t give everyone 5 or 6 for everything, apart from Derrick who was crap and you give 1 or 2 for everything. Of course, any talk I do (I’m not doing one this year) is 6’s across the board. But use the whole breadth of the scoring. (update, see the comment section).

Those feedback scores not only help the presenters personally, we use them when planning who gets to talk in future years. We really wish you would just tell us what you did and did not like. Please.

Speakers

Speakers are there as they want to be there. Well, most of them. So feel free to go talk to them when you see them around and about. Obviously don’t rudely butt in when they are deep in conversation with someone else, but of course you can chat to them in a queue for bad coffee or when you bump into them in the exhibitors hall. Oh, if you are between them and the nearest loo and they have a slightly determined look in their eye – leave them alone. And don’t follow them in! Yes, I had that once. I did not want to talk to that gentleman about Index Organised Tables right at that moment.

In my opinion, the worst time to try to talk to a speaker is… just after they have spoken! They need to get out of the way of the next speaker, you might be one of 4 or 5 people vying for attention and (true for me at least) often just after presenting you hit a bit of a lull in cognitive ability. I actually don’t tend to go to a session after I have presented as I know I won’t concentrate. So do ask your question, but ask it a little later when you see them about.

Oh, and you know those Oracle Hero Names? I’ll let you in on a big secret. They are just people, like you are. Obviously smarter and more handsome/pretty than you, but just people. Do you object if someone chats to you? No. So chat to them. And you don’t need to have a question you can, like, just talk to them like they are normal people. Apart from Tim Hall, he is strange. (Joke!)

Social

Conference is anything but just sessions. You are surrounded by people who all have an interest in Oracle, many of whom have a shared interest with you. Sessions are great but often the best stuff comes from conversations with people. It can be hard to talk to people you don’t know, but then those people you don’t know often feel the same. Come and talk to me, I hardly ever tell people to go away.

There are social events Monday and Tuesday nights. Come to them. Relax. Drink Whisky (Monday tech Community Networking). Or water. And chat.

If you get into a good discussion with someone and a new session is about to start, well maybe change your plan and go to the same session as them. Or. Don’t go to a session. If you have found someone who has had the same slow-death-by-frustration as you with feature X or implementing Payroll version 666 then spending half an hour with them might be the best thing you both get out of the conference. It’s what the Oracle Community is all about.

Odd Stuff

Toilets

I have not noticed queues outside the ladies loos. This is because IT is still a distressingly  male-dominated sphere, most conferences even more so. Though UKOUG try to encourage a better balance, one benefit for the ladies is no queuing for the loo. Men however, may need to queue! The problem is, several talks will finish  at the same time and those in need head off to the loos. The same ones as everyone else, right next to the hall you were in. Take a tip from me, if your bladder can hold on for 95 seconds, go and find a loo away from the hall. The ones down by halls 10 and 11 are quieter, it is worth seeing if there are loos by a hall that is not in use. I have my “favourite” loo, where it is always quiet. I’m not telling you where it is.

Wandering Around the Area – Safety

You will be safe in the vicinity of the ICC, Broad Street, down towards the centre of Birmingham. Of course, be sensible! Don’t wander down some dark alley on your own and don’t tell a bunch of Youth they look stupid with their trousers around their assholes (still a fashion thing for some here in the UK, I don’t get it). But you and your mate(s) will be safe wandering around where there are bars & restaurants. If you suddenly realise you are surrounded by only dark, lightless buildings – you are probably STILL safe. But maybe go back towards the bars. If I was a lady on my own, I would like to think I would not feel threatened on the main roads and thoroughfares. But I’ve never been a lady on my own. Several of those ladies I know who frequent the conference are at ease walking back to their hotel on their own. Though as a gentleman I find it tricky to let them do it, but that’s my latent sexism coming out.

Weather

Birmingham in Winter is world renowned for it’s warm climate and sunshine. Or more specifically, for how it is NOT warm and is only rarely sunny. As I type this I am looking at the long-term weather forecast and see no snow is predicted. But last time I told people there would be no snow – it snowed. (We do not get snow like say Canada or Norway gets snow. We get an inch or two that confuses everyone driving a car.)

It will be cold, I can be absolutely sure of that. A few degrees centigrade above freezing in the evenings, with a breeze. You will need a coat, gloves and a hat will help. If you are from America, it will be about 40f.  You will still need a coat, hat and gloves. Maybe throw in a scarf.

It will almost certainly rain at some point.

German Market and Shopping

I should not be encouraging you to leave the conference for a period of time, but in the evening the German Market and lots of shops are open. I personally don’t bother with the German Market anymore as I’ve been there soooo often (and, as I said on social media recently, you only need so many wooden toys and sausage in your life). But it is well worth a visit if you have not been before, or at least not for a while.

I know some people who include a mooch around the shops as part of their conference experience.

Coats and Luggage

It is warm in the ICC and blinking cold outside in Birmingham in December (see weather). So you will probably want to drop off your coat and maybe your luggage. There is a cloakroom in the ground floor of the ICC where you can do so. They will charge you a British pound or two. People complain about this charge. A lot.

You work in I.T, you are paid well, you do not want for money to pay for food and water. Just pay the damned pound will you? Take it off whatever charities you contribute to if it bothers you that much. Just don’t keep complaining at me about it.

If you stayed in a local hotel, they should be willing to hold on to your luggage for you on the last day. Depending on which hotel you are in this might not be convenient of course. If you do, how many of you will tip them more than a pound for doing so?