dbt Coalesce 2023: Experience Recap

A recap of dbt Coalesce 2023 from Lindsay Murphy. Read on to re-live the conference, see what you missed, and maybe even get convinced to attend next year
Last updated
May 2, 2024

dbt Coalesce 2023 in sunny San Diego feels like it has come and gone in a flash. If I could sum up the conference experience in one word it would be reinvigorating. Heading into this year’s conference, I had some skepticism that it would be able to top last year in New Orleans. Coalesce New Orleans has become a top conference experience for me–so my expectations for this year were pretty high–and based on the surprising number of rejections of some top community members for speaker slots at this year’s conference (which serendipitously led to MDS Fest 2023), I wasn’t feeling super optimistic about the quality of the conference presentations remaining community-led and high value.

Well, I will be the first to admit it–I was wrong. This year absolutely surpassed my expectations, on many different levels, and San Diego Coalesce will be a fondly remembered event for me. From the city itself, the venue, the speaker presentations I caught, the activation hall, some killer evening events, and the overall experience–it was truly a blast.

Since a lot happened each day, I’m going to break down the entire experience in a few posts. I hope that I can convey the collective value that was felt from this year’s conference (for those who were able to attend), and for those who weren’t, I hope to share some useful insights, and maybe even convince you to attend next year :) this post, I’ll start with the overall vibe and experience of the conference versus last year. Did I mention we brought puppies?

San Diego vs. New Orleans: What changed?

As I mentioned above, heading down to New Orleans for Coalesce 2022 was such a great time, but reflecting on it now, this year did feel like quite a different experience. I’ll break down some of the changes I noticed.

Joining the Dark Side

For starters, my personal situation was quite different this year.

Last year at this time, I was working as the Director of Data and Analytics at Maple, a virtual healthcare company based here in Toronto. I was leading a team of full-stack analytics engineers, and managing a sizeable and growing modern data stack. I was attending Coalesce in person for the first time, and looking to learn from fellow community members about how they were solving some common problems. I was eager to learn about best practices and meet other community members working in similar roles to hopefully make a few connections.

what's not to love?

This year, I’m in a very different place in my career. Having joined Secoda as Head of Data back in May of this year, I’m now on the data vendor side of conference exchanges (“the Dark Side”, if you will), I’ve become much more involved in the data community (writing blog posts and hosting educational webinars), and I have built my first course (Advanced dbt with Uplimit). I even had a few folks ask what this change has been like–and I had to admit, that I think it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Being a Head of Data, I’m still building and maintaining a modern data stack, solving business problems with data, and being a data practitioner, while also being fully immersed in the community as a data vendor–so, I kind of get the best of both worlds. This new role provides me with the opportunity to flex some new skills, such as writing, community engagement, and product development–not to mention, I get to work with an amazing group of people at Secoda. The Secoda team had an absolute blast as a group this year–the hit Tristan rap tees we made, the Seco-dawgs (rescue puppies at our booth), and a top-notch karaoke event we sponsored with Count and Census–it was pretty clear that the Secoda team knows how to have a good time. I know that being a part of this team was one of the key reasons why this year’s conference was such a great experience for me.

dbt’s Stance on Managing Complexity

Comparing the opening keynote from this year to last year’s, another key difference was the clear focus dbt has put on solving complexity. Last year, Tristan talked about how dbt was continuing to allow data people to create and disseminate knowledge, and how dbt was allowing data teams to do this while also balancing velocity and governance. This year, his focus in the opening keynote was more on how dbt customers (and dbt themselves) are feeling the growing pains of managing maturing data stacks and the growing complexities that accompany this. I’ll dive into the keynote more in my day one recap post, but it is safe to say that the experience data teams feel when they start using dbt, is not one that sustains as they continue to use it over time–and almost all modern data teams are already feeling these growing pains to some degree (amplified by the shifts in the economy that are putting more cost pressures on businesses and their data teams).

The Vendor Hall was Epic.

Despite the vast changes in the economy over the last 12 months, it appears that data vendors are still going all out to impress current and potential customers attending these conferences. The activation hall experience this year (the area with vendor booths and fun activities) was a significant step up from last year. Not only were the booths more visually appealing, but all vendors had stepped it up with interesting activities to do at each booth.

Some of my favourite booth experiences were:

  • Secoda’s rescue puppies: even if I wasn’t part of the team at Secoda, as a huge dog lover, this would have been at the top of my list. Chaquito, Jack, and Clementine joined us for the afternoons on Tuesday and Wednesday, and are definitely the reason I didn’t make it to as many sessions this year (but, totally worth it for the sleepy puppy snuggles). The best part was this promoted the local San Diego dog rescue The Animal Pad, helped socialize the puppies, and donated to a great cause to help more rescue dogs <3
  • MotherDuck’s challenging claw machine game: compelling enough to keep you at the booth trying for hours, and maybe even drive you a bit insane (turns out there may be a trick to snatching a prize out of a claw machine game–I wish I’d known this sooner!). Their overall booth branding, duck merch, and someone walking around in a huge Duck costume were quite attention-grabbing and hilarious.
  • Lightdash’s beading station: a quiet and focused activity was nice among the high energy and chaos of the activation hall.
  • Datafold’s coconut drinks: a creative and refreshing drink option to enjoy while walking around the rest of the hall

Overall, the activation hall was a huge highlight for me this year and I spent a lot more time there. I ate more of the dbt Labs cookies than I care to admit, enjoyed several delicious oat lattes and cold brews, had a good laugh at some of the swag choices (the data warehouse dumpster fire socks), and had lots of fun engaging in various activities and conversations with data community members.

Networking and community building remained a top part of the Coalesce experience

I got to spend some time with members of the Data Angels community which was definitely a highlight and so great to see better female representation at this conference than at Snowflake Summit (albeit there is still a stark imbalance). I caught up with some data friends from last year’s conference, was fortunate enough to make lots of new connections and friends at karaoke 🎤, and had some great chats over breakfast with a few community members. Overall, this is still one of the most valuable parts of the Coalesce experience for me, and it’s so fun to get the opportunity to meet and chat with fellow data people.

There were so many evening events to choose from

Off-key happy hour

While I only made it to a few of the evening events this year, it felt like there were way more options and a variety of activities to partake in. From Secoda, Census, and Count’s well-attended and highly entertaining karaoke night on Tuesday, Count’s anti-social social board game night for introverts, and the final closing night event at Nova SD rooftop bar, there was certainly a lot of fun to be had. It can take a lot of energy to keep going after a full day of conference sessions, but it felt like vendors provided a lot of great options for people to keep the activity going if they chose. I always feel like these events are where you make the best connections and have the most fun getting to know other data folks, so I was happy to see this trend continue and have good attendance at all of the events I made it to.

Nova SD rooftop after party

San Diego = very cool

Since the Secoda team flew in on Monday and back on Thursday morning–I, unfortunately, didn’t get to see quite as much of the city as I had hoped. Last year in New Orleans, I chose to stick around for a few extra days after the conference and my husband flew down to meet me so we could adventure around the city, so I got a much better feel for New Orleans. That being said, the city of San Diego was really beautiful and inviting, and it’s definitely on my list of places to return to someday. Despite only being there for a short time, we got to enjoy some delicious meals (we hit up Tacos El Gordo for lunch on Monday, and Neighborhood for a delicious dinner and cocktails on Wednesday). The food was a highlight, but I’d love to go back for more outdoor activities we didn’t get to like hiking or surfing.

Recapping conference sessions

Since I was a bit distracted by the puppies, I’ve got a list of some recorded sessions I didn't make live that I’m planning to watch back and plan to share a dive deeper in some follow-up posts :) But overall, my concern that sessions would feel too “vendor-y” was largely invalidated. From the vendor-led sessions I did attend (Hex, Secoda, and GoodData), I didn't get the vibe that they were one big sales pitch but were focused on delivering true value in the form of insightful guidance and discussion, which is really promising!

I was lucky enough to be invited to join a timely panel discussion, “Is AI the new AE”, with Kate Schiffelbein (Head of BI at Northbeam) and Patrick Ross (Solutions Architect at Data Clymer). I hope the discussion from our panel can be useful to many data teams who are still figuring out exactly how to apply generative AI and LLMs most effectively to their workflows to drive more productivity and efficiency.

Overall Coalesce 2023 Takeaways 

To sum up the experience in a few short points:

  • Coalesce has still got it and draws one of the more engaging and valuable audiences (as compared to other modern data stack relevant conferences like Snowflake Summit)
  • I feel hopeful that dbt is going to stay true to its promise to remain a stewardship of the community they’ve built as dbt continues to scale (as challenging as this may be)
  • I feel that dbt is doing a good job of being transparent about some of the challenges that come with using dbt and scaling a modern data stack, both for their customers and for themselves (the DAG they showed was truly terrifying). The company seems focused on the right problem areas to help solve the growing complexity data teams are facing.

See you next year–in Vegas, baby!

Next year's Coalesce has already been announced and it will be held in 🥁🥁🥁 Las Vegas! 

The conference is scheduled a week earlier than the past two years, which should still be pretty toasty 🔥and 2024 super early bird registration is already open. I’ve spoken to a few folks who have already purchased tickets, so the excitement for next year is definitely felt. I hope to have the opportunity to attend again next, and hopefully be a speaker again 🙂. The location choice does feel like a continued step up in scaling the conference (but at least we get to have Tacos El Gordo again!). Vegas can be a polarising location and will be a lot more expensive for community attendees, so I’m hopeful that doesn’t deter folks from joining. I'm sure the experience will surprise me and exceed expectations once again–but I guess we have a whole year to wait and find out!

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