Growth or Control – #sqlpass

I’m disturbed.

I read an announcement from the PASS organization this week that bothers me. I am less upset with the content than the manner in which it was presented, though I am not pleased with either.

Making SQL Saturday Sustainable was released this week, with a few changes to the SQL Saturday franchise. You can read the piece, but there are two fundamental changes being made for 2017 and beyond:

  • [PASS] will be reducing this to amount to $250 and targeting those cities/locations that really need the financial support to grow, rather than well-established events.
  • [PASS] is implementing a new 600-mile radius and concurrent event timing restriction to reduce competition between individual SQLSaturday events in Canada/USA.

There are comments on these notes at the bottom of the announcement.

Heavy Handed and Ham Fisted

I’m not sure why, but it seems that no matter who has been elected to the PASS Board of Directors seems to believe that they must make decisions without communicating, collaborating, or consulting the community. Decisions made year after year, on various topics (Summit location, pre-con speaker criteria, code of conduct, org name change, etc.) are announced without and sort of discussion or communication with the community they serve.

We are a community of diverse and disparate individuals. We won’t agree on many topics as a group, but we can discuss and debate them. We can have open and transparent disagreement about how to handle situations. Ultimately the board must decide (after a vote), but I’d hope and expect, really, I demand, that they solicit views before making decisions. It’s ridiculous in this age of instant communication, of no-cost publishing, of email votes, to not propose changes, gather feedback, and then make a decision.

Doing otherwise is as disrespectful as it is heavy handed.

This is not specific to this decision, but rather the way the PASS BoD has operated across a decade. I will say that I don’t think the Board makes all bad decisions. But they have made some that could have been avoided with a little more collaboration with those affected, us, the voters.

The Decisions

What about these specific decisions? Well, I have a few thoughts.

I do think these decisions are intended to slow the growth of SQL Saturdays. There is something to be said for this, in that sustaining fewer events for the long term is easier to manage and may not require replacing Karla Landrum as an evangelist. This benefits vendors, including my employer, but it’s not great for attendees. There will be fewer chances to learn, and smaller events in places that will never grow to 200+ people will likely die. Or move to a Code Camp/different model, abandoning SQL Saturday. That makes me sad. This appears to be less about growth, and mostly about controlling fewer events.

First, on the financial aspect. Let me say I know there are events that raise well over $20k (I have no idea what the record is). I also know there are events that have only raised $2-3k. The low level might even be lower. It doesn’t matter what you think about event cost, some events don’t need $500 and there is a limit to what PASS can support. I think not committing to funds for every event is good. However, what I’d like is flexibility.

Don’t set a hard limit, and note that events could get up to $500, but PASS reserves the right to not provide any financial support.

Now, the 600mi radius for events. Well, it’s not just 600mi, but also 600mi + a weekend either way. Let’s see 600mi from a few cities. Rob Volk tweeted this image:

2016-07-19 20_59_24-Rob Volk on Twitter_ _@codegumbo Nashville_Salt Lake City on consecutive weekend

This is 600mi from Nashville and Salt Lake City. That means that most of the US couldn’t have an event in a month with these two, at least not if there were a holiday weekend. Certainly some large cities are still here (major TX cities, NY area, etc), but most of CA, the West, the Midwest are all cut off.

Know what cities are within 600mi of each other? Vancouver and Portland. These two cities have held events book-ending the PASS Summit to allow speakers from overseas (or US speakers/attendees) to go to one or both events around the Summit. That’s now cut off.

There are probably others, but I will say this. The hardest part of getting an event going is the venue. There are more than a few organizers and events that have worked out deals with schools or other events. Baton Rouge and Oklahoma City? One might need to move. Those markets have had events in the same month, within 600mi of each other.

I have always thought the 400mi limitation was ridiculous. Events can happen within 400mi if they can manage to find speakers and raise funds. Rather than arbitrarily limit events by distance, why not limit by viability, or by fundraising?

I love that we’ve grown to over 100 events in a year. I think it’s great, but I also think the competition and effort put into making large events is crazy. I don’t like 10+ tracks. I don’t like 30+ speakers. I don’t like $20k spends that include fancy dinners.

The aim here is to train people, teach them something, inspire them, and expose them to options for SQL Server, including vendors. I get that vendors struggle to justify going to so many events. That’s fine. Make choices. I suspect vendors will support larger events and smaller ones will struggle.

I’ll put down thoughts, but smaller event, just be smaller. Don’t buy dinner. Don’t make shirts. Don’t try to provide a great meal for attendees.

Teach them. That’s what the event is about. Stop there and you’ll be fine. Everything else is nice to have, but in no way necessary.

And PASS, please, stop believing you need to earn your position and make hard decisions as a small group. Work with the community, with proposals, not decrees.

About way0utwest

Editor, SQLServerCentral
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32 Responses to Growth or Control – #sqlpass

  1. SQLSoldier says:

    Here here!

  2. rsterbal says:

    Nice comments on the blog: http://www.sqlpass.org/Community/PASSBlog/tabid/1476/entryid/806/Making-SQLSaturday-Sustainable.aspx

    I really appreciated Patrick’s back testing the rules.

    It also helps me get another perspective on why I find these types of organizations challenging at times.

    Thank you.

  3. SQL Padre says:

    I believe this line sums it up perfectly — “increase PASS’ ROI”

    • Daniel Janik says:

      I almost feel that the ROI mentioned is more or less about competition with Summit. I know they aren’t the same but you’d have to ask if so many SQL Saturday events are going on would that drive down Summit attendance? Perhaps I’m just crazy… After all SQL Saturday is an advertisement for Summit, right?

  4. stefflocke says:

    Posted a comment on the PASS blog about how I was surprised they made these rules for the US as opposed to the EU. It feels like we have too few speakers to go around, and it’s causing increasing drains on event budgets to take care of speakers in order to woo them in the EU.

    I generally don’t like the way PASS do things – but then I’m not very good with corporate! I much prefer smaller, flatter systems. I would love to see PASS become more open – from accepting feedback, to allowing contributions to the infrastructure, to open sourcing their stuff for the benefit of the community.

    • way0utwest says:

      Thanks, Steff, for the comment. It may seem like fewer speakers there, but I’m not sure I’d agree. In a very small area, the SQL Relay, multiple user groups, a few conferences, all work. I think you have plenty, but you also have to consider how many speakers you really need to run an event. Most attendees are looking at topics, not speakers. I would guess you could run events with fewer talks than you think.

  5. retracement says:

    Excellent post Steve which completely echo my views on this particular issue and many of the decisions being made by PASS. As I stated on twitter “WE the COMMUNITY need to be listened to & ultimately drive decisions NOT that decisions drive us…” and the reality is that I believe we are slowly being driven away from the PASS umbrella as we repeatedly ask ourselves ‘is it worth it?’. Communication with the community is key and sadly the ball is being dropped too many times. In light of the lack of communication and influence by the community, I would therefore argue that it is a potential conflict of interest for serving board members to actively be involved in organising SQLSaturday’s or other events since their own personal experiences or interests could influence these decisions.

    I don’t really agree with you on the spend side of things since these things are often dictated by region/ country (but I know you were specifically talking about US in this case). Cambridge (for instance) is guilty of most of the things you mention. Large spend -check, fancy speaker dinner -check, speaker shirts -check, 10 track agenda -semi-check (nearly half is SharePoint Saturday) but each of these things is seen as an important driver for the event to continue to succeed. The economics and logistics are complicated but happen to elaborate in person 😉

    • way0utwest says:

      Thanks, Mark. And I agree with board members and SQL Saturdays, though I’m not sure how this will work. A board member doesn’t need to organize to have influence. I’ll pick on two friends. Do Allen and Grant get to dictate when their events are in Boston and Cleveland at the expense of other events that might want to be at a similar time? I’d like to think those gentlemen wouldn’t, but we now have a potential conflict of interest that I’m not sure how we disclose.

      We can disagree on the spend, and if you can raise the money, do what you want. However, I’m not sure those are drivers. I think that’s not what makes the event go, and not what makes it a success. Those are extras, but we can chat later this year.

  6. retracement says:

    Yeah. It is probably worth me stressing (since there are a lot of BoD who are currently running or involved with events including Allen, Grant, Wendy and others) and while I believe it is a conflict of interest as things stand, I absolutely think that all are professional enough not to let their personal feelings, interests and concerns cloud their judgements. The simple solution (as you’ve clearly stated) is for the community members to start being consulted.

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  8. I was already thinking of folding my local PASS-affiliated SQL Server user group. Yet another reason to do so…

  9. willassaf says:

    Man, there’s some real negativity being raised in the comments of this blog post. (Really? This is a reason to fold a user group?)

    As a long time SQLSat organizer, I challenge us to be a little more positive, understand the other side of this. Especially if you are a community leader. Yes, there are benefits to intelligent scheduling/spacing of SQLSat events, and it’s necessary.

    I bet you that these changes weren’t done without community input. I’ll preface by saying I did not give feedback directly preceding Argenis’ blog post, nor I believe have I spoken to Argenis about this. But in the context of my role as a longtime SQLSat organizer and also a PASS Regional Mentor, I have given feedback to PASS in the past in support of geo/time fencing for events. I’ve given feedback to PASS about redirecting money from big SQLSat events who don’t need PASS money to smaller events that struggle to get sponsors. I have complained when events (regardless of size) are too near (geo/time) each other and suffer as a result. This is not new, PASS has been hearing about these issues for years.

    There are endangered SQLSats that will go extinct unless we figure out ways to support them, and also potentially shield them from being crowded out by regional events. Many of the recurring SQLSats in the South Central region are seeing their lowest sponsorship numbers ever, though there are a number of reasons for this. These event organizers are giving PASS this feedback, I heard it at length today and commiserated on a PASS South Central regional leadership conference call.

    • way0utwest says:

      William,

      Whether there was some input from people, or not, it was limited. My complaint is mostly that there was not a solicitation of feedback from the public. Any small group can easily be self selective, have tunnel vision, and support each other in a limited discussion. I am all for PASS making a decision, but there should be debate and discussion.

      There is debate and discussion here, which is the wrong place. This should be on the PASS site.

      I think some decisions make sense, some don’t. Some events can work differently than others, and some SQL Sats might die. However I’d disagree with you that geo-fencing is the best idea, or that it needs to be larger. I’d say that you could cut BR in half and you wouldn’t have “suffered”.

      Sponsorship is a tough battle, but this, IMHO, won’t fix it. I think there can be other things that help here, and these should be more widely discussed. I think we have a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma here with events, and I have a few more thoughts on that for another day.

  10. way0utwest says:

    Let me add that the lack of public discussion is a problem here. I know some events are struggling and money is tight, but the issues, repercussions and implications of the policy should be something we talk about as a community.

    Separately on the actual decision, my concern is the impact on events, and that this is presented as a decree, not a guideline, or a flexible rule. I would really like to see detailed analysis on what this means, especially with back testing various ideas against events.

    This is not intended to just vent or complain, but encourage discussion. I would also remind everyone that these events are about teaching people, not just an achievement for speakers or an opportunity for sponsors. Those are important, but it I think they should be below the importance of reaching out to help others.

  11. andyleonard says:

    Excellent post, Steve.

    I’ve helped organize a few events. Looking at this solution made me ask, “What is the problem they are trying to solve?” I cannot come up with a good answer. I don’t think this does anything for the “endangered SQL Saturdays.” Or it does, but nothing positive (unless you consider killing them off to be positive).

    Events – especially free events put on by volunteers – are going to ebb and flow in popularity with presenters, attendees, and even sponsors. There’s an economy at work in community and our Community is no different.

    Yall had it right before: Don’t make too many rules. I’m sorry to see it come to this, but it has me thinking about a possible solution…

    :{>

    • way0utwest says:

      Thanks, Andy. I have some thoughts on how to move forward. I will be thinking aloud here in the next few weeks, trying to come up with some ways to make things better.

  12. Mike Walsh says:

    These are good thoughts. Sometime you should run for the board of… Oh wait.

    But funny hat off, these are good thoughts. And I trust they’ll listen. I like that they ended their post with a request for feedback.

    I think they would do better with some decisions on something like this by saying something like this in the board meeting.

    “Hey board members, I think we should put a new limit on SQLSaturdays for x or y reason”
    “Hmm. Makes sense. That’s sort of a big thing. It affects a lot of the membership We have the Summit coming up, let’s ask that at our SQL Saturday organizers meeting. Or maybe we can put a poll out or try this and see what the community thinks”

    And then do that and then go back a meeting or two later and decide. Some things? Sure just make decisions. But something that is so community impacting? Try and talk to folks before not after. It goes over better.

    Especially for something like SQL Saturday. It is really “democratized” and local focused. I was there the day the key was handed over to PASS at that early SQL Saturday. It was a great joy to watch it happen. I don’t know if I would be as joyful to see if that happened today. And that’s unfortunate.

    The folks we elect to the board are amazing servant minded people. So this is really some sort of a communication style or approach problem. I’ve served on some boards before. Sometimes the board wags the tail of the organization. Sometimes the executive director and staff wag the board. I wonder how PASS operates.

    Either way I’m confident the right thing will be done here. Normally that ends up happening in these situations.

  13. Rafael Salas says:

    Thanks for this post Steve. It echoes many of my feelings about the new ruling. I struggle with the “Sustainability” claim when no data points are shared openly. I struggle with a ruling that translates in fewer seats and hours of training available to attendees. It bothers me that PASS ROI is thrown in the mix – What kind of return are we talking about?
    I also wonder what universe of sponsors are looking when trying to improve their experience? My casual observation is that the majority of sponsors on a given event are local/regional ones that sponsor few SQL Saturdays – if not just one – a year.

    Regarding high budget/expenditures, that’s a tough one. I agree we don;t need fancy dinners and gifts, but we do want to treat the folks that put their time and money to support the event. Another angle is that as organizer I want to minimize carry overs of funds so we try to invest it back into the event. Last year we started donating some money to neighboring user groups in need of funds.

    • way0utwest says:

      Fewer training hours here bothers me, as does the ROI. After all, for a non-profit, this is what they should be doing.

      I get wanting to do something for speakers, but ultimately, I see that as an extra, not as a core part of our budget. If you can, great. However, it’s not a failure or problem if you can’t.

  14. Chris Shaw says:

    Great post, Like you said over the last few years we have seen a number of changes that have been made. I am afraid of what they will do next.

  15. Terry McCann says:

    Great post and I agree with most of the comments. However I also feel that if you want to run an event that educates and provides value to the community, why do you need PASS involvement? What does being associated with PASS really offer? A small investment, a booking website and name.

    If you want to organise an event then DO IT. Look at events here in the UK, SQLBits amazing, nothing to do with PASS, SQLRelay nothing to do with PASS, SQL in the city. I have also attended SQL Saturday type events in the UK which are as well organised as a PASS SQL Saturday – At the end of the day it is the drive and passion of the organisers and speakers which make the event, not PASS!

    Also if this makes you not want to run a PASS SQL UG, then drop the PASS not the UG. User groups are so important!

    • way0utwest says:

      I would not discount all the support for registration and organization, especially knowledge of tasks and scheduling that come with the website. If you’ve done an event in the past, then this is probably less important, but it is quite a lot of difficulty to get this going. A simple “we’re having an event” on EventBrite is likely to work as well as most meet-ups, with 8 people showing up.

      I would also say marketing and managing the event is helpful, and PASS does some of this. If you look at the UK, a lot of work goes into those events. SQL Bits has learned a lot over the years, and this is closer to the Summit than a SQL Saturday. The Relays are great, but really the effort and work of a small group (5-10). If a few of those people dropped out, the event would likely suffer, or cease.

      It’s possible to move outside of the SQL Saturday umbrella, and if you want to, that’s fine. However, don’t discount the effort. A lot of local UGs and events have died because an organizer moved on and there was no infrastructure or support to keep things going. PASS has helped smooth some of these transitions.

  16. J says:

    A few semi-random thoughts…

    I’ve met Argenis, like him a lot, respect him a lot, but agree that this seems to be a unilateral decision. And that’s a shame. I would rather have seen the board say, “We’d like to move SQL Saturdays toward (fill in the blank). What are some suggestions from the community for doing that?” My guess is that the direction they’re wanting to go is a sound one, but they need to get the community to buy in to it, not just dictate.

    Our local SQL Saturday is extremely healthy (from my perspective), even though it falls within a week or two of another one just down the interstate. So, the 600-mile radius rule seems a bit awkward in this case.

    However, it’s my opinion that this same group is having some very poor month-to-month viability. And I’ll bet they’re not alone. So, instead of focusing on SQL Saturdays, how about focusing on getting the local groups more healthy overall?

    • way0utwest says:

      Local groups don’t necessarily equate to the success/failure/viability of the SQL Saturday. I’d tackle them separately. Plus, it’s way easier to get people to show up for an event 1-2x/yr than every month.

      A UG is a grind. I like the UG, and they’re great, but separate from a SQL Sat type event. I don’t want to address those here, because that’s separate.

      In terms of SQL Sat viability, I don’t like the restrictions, obviously, and I have a post tomorrow with a few thoughts on smaller events.

  17. SQLSoldier says:

    Revenue idea: If there are multiple groups in the same geographical area that want the same date for their SQLSaturday event, PASS can hold a lottery. $10 per lottery ticket. The more tickets you buy, they greater the chance you will win the slot.

    • SQLSoldier says:

      Looks like my snark closing tag got filtered out of that reply. 🙂

    • way0utwest says:

      Snark noted, gladly. I think what will happen, in the de facto sense, is what you jokingly proposed. Larger events, with essentially a larger entry into the event lottery, will get precedence over smaller ones. I would hope that Providence getting an event listed on May 6, 2017 doesn’t get cancelled or squashed if Boston decides they can only run their event on Apr 29.

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  19. Cyndi Johnson says:

    If their goal is to reduce the amount that’s being spent on SQL Saturdays, then they should simply reserve the right to pick and choose which ones get money. The distance rule will only hurt SQL Saturdays, and PASS in general. SLC holds an amazing event in conjunction with their code camp. It’s a really big event, and I imagine that imposing the distance rule may only cause that event to break away from SQL Saturday instead of changing dates. I thought about starting a SQL Saturday in a nearby city, but with all these rules, I don’t have the motivation. I imagine user’s groups may evolve in response to this edict.

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