It's no exaggeration to say it's been a whirlwind year for the SolarWinds User Group (SWUG) program. Like I said when announcing the 2019 SWUG list, we completely rethought the program and made drastic changes between last year and this year. The biggest (and IMHO best) change was moving to a multi-day schedule.


It all boiled down to one concept: time. Until we get backwards time travel working, time is our only 100% non-renewable resource. When it's gone, it's gone, so making the most of it should be your top priority. For me, that means leaving on time and enjoying my evenings and weekends, getting the most out of my business day by decreasing "unplanned work," and having stimulating conversations that enrich me as a human being. The SWUG program has provided the latter for me all year long. And the conversations we've had this year? Just amazing. It doesn't matter if, like me, you're a long-timer with SolarWinds solutions, or a relative newcomer. The conversations drive me.


We asked on day one how everyone would gauge their personal level of knowledge. In a room of over 140 people, 11% said they were SolarWinds Certified Professionals, 15% said they were experts, 55% called themselves intermediate, and only 20% were beginners. I felt like this was a great mix for a user group, but we'd like to provide everyone with the tools they need to level up their careers. As part of leveling up, we made sure we spoke about SolarWinds Smart Start, the open office hours, and our certification prep guides. All of these are great ways to unlock further professional achievements.


Like the other events this year, it was my pleasure to act as the Master of Ceremonies for the Chicago SWUG. I got to give a few presentations, provide the introductions, hand out the raffle prizes, and hang out with over 140 of my fellow THWACK members. I had the privilege of opening day one with a keynote and closing the event with some warnings and recommendations about alerts. Leon Adato was again in rare form talking about the discipline of monitoring, how to be empathetic to your users, and how to use some of the lesser-known tools to do some critical monitoring. Craig McDonald gave an excellent overview of how SolarWinds has been providing visual representations of data as our environments become more complex. Ashelena did a recap of what we learned over the year and how to leverage SolarWinds resources for the career growth and monitoring glory. Mike Driskell provided his expert opinion on when it's time to upgrade, migrate, scale up, or scale out. We heard from Kellie Mecham about how SolarWinds relies on our users at every stage of the SolarWinds Development Lifecycle. Jim Hansen took to time to explain why it's important to quantify data from the outside and the inside when troubleshooting system or user issues. Kathleen Walker reminded us all that security was part of our job with tips and tricks on having the necessary conversations as well as scaring us a little straight with some of current trends in ransomware.


This trip, we brought three THWACK® MVPs to the stage. New MVP Dave Lando talked about his story of inheriting the Orion® Platform, what he did to claim control, and how he got the organization behind monitoring. Nick Zourdos couldn't let it go and had to tell you all why your dashboards are still bad. Thankfully, he provided tips and tricks on how they could be made better, including some examples and what he's done for his organization. And finally, Zack Mutchler demystified the Orion SDK by providing clear examples of how to dip your toes into working with the SolarWinds Orion API.


Since returning to Texas, I've been trying to wrap my head around the best way to encompass what I've learned over the last year at the SWUGs. After a few hours of wracking my brain, staring at a blank screen, I was inspired by a question from a friend.


Today, my friend and colleague Leon Adato asked me the question, "If you were given a salary of $1,000,000, but you still had to have a career, what would it be?" When I stopped to think about it, my answer would be talking to IT professionals, helping them break down their challenges, guiding them in their own careers, sharing my experiences, working with them to provide solutions, and basically everything the SolarWinds User Group program has provided over the last few years. This trip to Chicago, really cemented that for me—I love my job because of the people.


Now, we've traveled to the Chicagoland area before for two previous SWUGs, but 64% of this event's attendees said they'd never joined us and that made my heart sing. Putting faces to usernames is always a pleasure and some of the best questions are the ones for which we don't have an immediate answer. Those questions make us pause and have a real conversation. At a SolarWinds User Group, you might get "I don't know" as an answer, and that's awesome! It means we get to learn as well. Those conversations are still happening today.


We tried something different in Chicago this time with a "Community Pick" session. On the first day, you could submit an idea for a half-hour topic for day two. At the beginning of day two, we tallied those requests and held the session. Yes, you read that correctly. We put together a session in approximately 2-1/2 hours to present just before lunch on day two. It was one of the most stressful, exciting, exhilarating, and exhausting sessions we've ever produced. If you were there, I hope you enjoyed it.


Another new session—but not new as a concept—was BYOQ: Bring Your Own Questions. We basically stole a conference room, grabbed a whiteboard, plugged in to a television on the wall, and were there to answer questions. That's it. I know it doesn't sound extraordinary, but it was a revelation. You had a question about Patch Manager? Great. You wanted to know what happens during Orion database maintenance? Cool. You needed help writing a port inventory report? Excellent. No question was too big or too small. Even when we weren't answering questions ourselves, we heard other attendees answering each other's questions. This is the THWACK community at its finest.


Throughout the event, we had hundreds of people ask questions in person and online. There were questions we didn't get a chance to answer while we were on the ground, so we're trying to answer them as quickly as possible. Many of them we have collapsed into a single question based around a theme, but if you don't see your question answered at the bottom, let us know by commenting below. We'll be happy to continue the conversation.


It seems every single event I find myself saying, "we tried something different for this SWUG." Personally, I think that's wonderful. As each group of attendees provides feedback we try to adjust and make sure we're providing the content in a way that's both educational and entertaining. We're doing what SolarWinds has done for years: listening to the community. SolarWinds and THWACK wouldn't be who and what they are without you, the community members who make coming to the job delightful.


To say I'm excited for what 2020 holds would be a gross understatement. There's so many (figurative) places technology is going and so many (physical) places we're planning to take the program. Keep your eyes peeled for the official announcement of dates and places sometime in the new year.


If you've gotten this far, you hear ad nauseum how much I love these events, but I'm not the only one. A few of our attendees took the time to say nice things about Chicago SWUG.


"One of the most valuable vendor events I've ever attended in nearly 20 years of IT experience."

"This was a great User Group that focused on the product rather than trying to push third-party software and vendors for prizes. The presenters were amazing and the interaction during breaks and after hours was terrific."

"This event was way better than I expected it to be. It was recommended by the vendor we went through, and I was very happy I could attend. I am hoping that after applying what I've learned I can make a yearly SWUG attendance part of the company budget"

"I appreciate that the focus was primarily on how to utilize [the] Orion [Platform]. I've been to events like this before only to be bombarded with what I can purchase from either the host or their partners. I got the feeling that the employees representing SolarWinds genuinely care about their customers."

"I always get a lot out of these meetings, and I REALLY liked the 2-day event. It works out GREAT! I am not gone too long from work and I feel like I got A LOT more than last year."

"I have already told my boss about it and he would like to go next year too. You guys are truly amazing to care as much as you do for being a big company with areas all over the place. It shows you all love your jobs and value the community."