7. The Doctor Is In

Origin and Evolution of the Data Clinic

You walk in and are greeted by the smiling face at the reception desk who helps check you in. You're directed through to the couches in the waiting area, listening for your name to be called. Everyone here has a problem they need to fix, and they need to meet with an expert. But this isn’t just any clinic - this is the Data Clinic.

What grew from two Microsoft experts troubleshooting SQL Server problems in the basement of PASS Summit in 2003, is now an integral part of the PASS Summit experience. The premise is simple: if you have a problem or a question you can't find an answer to, bring it to the Data Clinic, where a hub of technical experts are available to help and provide advice. These experts come from an array of backgrounds and can work through technical problems, offer guidance on your system's set up, and detail all the latest technologies and best practices to help you work better.

While its held different titles over the years, the Data Clinic can trace its roots back to Bob Ward and Ken Henderson. Bob Ward had been with Microsoft Support for around ten years, and at that time he was not particularly engaged with the community. Ken was already a well-known author and figure in the community who joined Microsoft that year. Recognizing his unique perspective on troubleshooting and the internals of SQL Server, Ken urged Bob to speak at PASS Summit 2003. A few weeks before the conference began, Ken had the idea that they could get a small room at the event, where they could set up a few desktop PCs, install SQL Server, develop some hands-on labs, and allow people to stop by and ask them questions. This early iteration of Data Clinic was known as the Service Center.

"On the first day of the conference, I had my session, and I presented. I mentioned the Service Centre. The rest of the day, Ken and I sat in this room, and we had maybe two people walk in," recalls Bob. "The next morning in the keynote, they announced that the experts at Microsoft Product Service Support were in this room, and to just go and ask them questions. By the end of that second day, they had to get the fire marshal to come and kick people out. We just had so many people coming in there. It was just crazy popular."

The Service Center continued through the mid-2000s, following the structure of experts answering questions and delivering labs. Throughout this period, the team still operated out of rooms out of the main traffic areas, but they were growing and bringing in more engineers to provide support. Over time, the Service Center became well-known as a highly effective, grassroots component of PASS Summit, with a reputation built through word-of-mouth. Bob recalls one particularly memorable client who stopped by the Service Center in the mid-2000s.

They can fix a problem for you; you can ask a question about how SQL works and see it white-boarded in-person or talk to these architects to help you design a solution for you.

"He came into the Service Center. It was raining, he was all wet, with his laptop. He said, 'Hey, our SQL Server has crashed. Our entire system is down. We're desperate. We heard you can help.' So we dialed into their server, fixed it within 20 minutes, and brought their system back up live. And then when we were done, he got up and said, 'I have to rush and get back to work.' I said, 'Aren't you here for the conference?' He said, 'No, I heard you were here, and I heard you're a great trouble-shooter, so I just bought a pass for the day just to come to the Service Center.'"

In 2009 Mark Souza, who was part of the Microsoft Customer Advisory Team, reached out to Bob. The Customer Advisory Team would provide advice in architecture, design and building applications, and had become a highly sought-after group at PASS Summit. The Customer Advisory Team would receive significant walk-up traffic, and Mark realized by combining the energies of both the Customer Advisory Team and the Service Center, they would be incredibly effective. It was from this point that the SQL Clinic was born.

The SQL Clinic took the best parts of the Service Center's problem-solving approach and the Customer Advisory Team's expertise in providing advice for larger projects. They began offering appointments, as well as walk-ins. Growing over the years, the team now has more than 60 experts rotating through the space throughout the day. At peak times more than 40 people are providing support simultaneously.

"We have two full-time admins, and a few extra PMs and they were filling calendars like they would for doctors. They would make sure that all the skills were covered," says Mark. "There is a lot of scheduling from our side to make sure that all the skills were there. But this system allowed people to come in and schedule a time slot."

The success and benefits of the SQL Clinic have been felt not only by attendees but also by the engineers working on the products themselves.

"SQL Server is a better product because of the clinic, because of our customers. The feedback we receive from customers has fed directly into the product," says Mark. "This is the perfect place for engineers to learn.

Bob agrees. "We will say, 'we got this question a million times at the clinic, there is something really busted here. What are we going to do about it?'" says Bob. "It is a direct customer feedback session without sending people all over the world because all the world comes to us."

The SQL Clinic was renamed the Data Clinic in 2017 and has relocated to a much larger space in a high-traffic location of PASS Summit. The move has helped to grow its popularity further and allow the team to reach even more people.

"Think about this, when you attend this great event, you go to the sessions, and you have all the community advice. And now, for no extra charge at all, you can walk into a room full of people you would pay a lot of money per hour to speak to," says Bob. "They can fix a problem for you; you can ask a question about how SQL works and see it white-boarded in-person or talk to these architects to help you design a solution for you."

The team is proud of the service and expertise that they provide, knowing that it is a unique and valuable part of the PASS Summit experience, and one of the reasons why attendees come back year-after-year.