Thoughts on PASS Summit Speaker Selection Changes

Recently the PASS Blog released some changes to the speaker selection process that have generated some commentary and thoughts from various people. I read Joey D’Antoni’s thoughts, Andy Leonard’s thoughts as well as various tweets and comments. I talked with a few people, and wanted to put out a few comments for discussion. I’ll also give a few comments at the end about my experiences.

If you want to join a PASS Board town gall, there are two on April 13.

Pronouncements

My biggest complaint with this, and really with most PASS changes, are the pronouncements. While I’m sure PASS spoke to some in the community, there is no general time for comments before a decision is pronounced.

Please, stop doing this. Propose changes, give us a few days or a week to comment, and then make decisions. Don’t debate this in board meetings in a vacuum. Just propose, get comments, and then move on.

More later.

First Time Summit Speakers

The pronouncement from PASS doesn’t mention first timers. I think this is a mistake, as my feelings are that it’s important and healthy for the organization to regularly grow beyond the pool of speakers available. We always have new people attempting to speak and some of them are really good presenters.

On the flip side, we have experienced speakers that will get busy, get tired, and mail in their presentation. By that I mean they don’t prep well or polish their talks, or put in much effort to ensure the audience gets a good talk.

Last year I was on the call when PASS noted that we had about 20% first time Summit speakers. I think that’s great, though perhaps a bit high. I wish they had published and pointed to these numbers. In fact, I’d like to see this as a category in review after the schedule is announced. Give me year over year first time Summit speaker percentages.

Ideally I’d like to see PASS have a goal of some percentage of new speakers to the Summit. I think 10% is a good number, though this should vary year to year based on submissions. If it’s +/- a few percent that’s fine. Just list some reasons.

Note that this is new to the Summit speakers, not new speakers. I am against anyone, including Microsoft speakers, giving their first outside-the-company talk at the PASS Summit. Anyone speaking at the Summit should have experience at multiple presentations. I’d say they ought to have at least 2 user group and 1 SQL Saturday (or equivalent) talks on their CV.

Pre-Con Speakers

Pre-conference slots are lucrative. Both for PASS as revenue, and for speakers as a way of funding their journey to PASS. This is one reason we often see the independent consultants delivering similar content they might provide in a training class to customers or paid attendees.

Three things here. First, the content is often re-used and condensed from a multi-day class. I’m fine with that as long as the content is well structured and most attendees find it worth their $500. Training is training, and that’s what this is.

Second, we need quality talks here, and like first time Summit speakers, I think anyone chosen here should have a record of multiple one (or more) day training classes delivered. In fact, I might say they ought to have delivered a full day of training at least five times, maybe ten,.

Third, like speaking slots, we need growth. Some of the expert, very well known speakers have skipped delivering Summit pre-cons in the past. That means we should have at least one or two new pre-con speakers every year. If we lost the three or four most popular speakers in a year, revenue might precipitously decline.

However, as in years past, I’d like to see a list of qualifications. Publish some bar of what you expect. Don’t make it really high, but publish something. Also, incorporate my next comments.

Inviting Speakers

There was a meeting at the last Summit (2016) between the program committee and a number of speakers. I was invited to attend and enjoyed the discussion. I gave feedback and one of the items I supported was inviting speakers. I think there are certain speakers, such as Mr. Ben-Gan, that should always be invited to speak and don’t need to submit a variety of talks in a general call.

Even though PASS is a not for profit organization, the Summit is a commercial venture. The event needs to make money and support the rest of PASS. This is a fundraiser, and as such, it needs to be very profitable. That means that a certain amount of attention should be paid towards attracting lots of attendees. Content matters more than anything, but there are a few people can move the needle and grow registrations. I’m fine with extending a certain number of invitations.

Again, be transparent and give us a percentage of invited sessions. I might limit this to 10-15%, understanding that the percentage may vary slightly year to year.

Inviting Sessions

On par with choosing people, I think there should be some effort to choose content. Ultimately the content matters, and given the nature of submissions, it is entirely possible that there are some areas that don’t get sessions, or perhaps there are areas we’d like to have more content.

Rather than encourage everyone to submit 4, 5, 6 talks, I’d rather limit the talks, but have the program committee be allowed to go back to presenters and ask them to alter their sessions if need be.

For example, if Mr. Hirt submits a range of FCI/AlwaysOn sessions for on-premise work, but the program committee would like to see an AG in Azure, I would hope they could approach Mr. Hirt and ask that he alter his session, or submit a new one, that meets some need.

I don’t expect this to happen often, but I’d like some flexibility here. I would also expect transparency here so that we don’t have friends just picking and inviting friends to talk. Let’s just be open that we want a session on X and chose person Y. I don’t need a percentage of talks, just disclosure. We can debate in the future if this should be amended.

Community Sessions

There are always a few people or sessions that don’t get picked, but a number of people find interesting. A few years back there was a chance to vote in a few sessions. I’d like to see this again. Save 4, 5, 10, whatever number of slots for community talks. Pick from the list of sessions that were submitted and met speaker guidelines and take a vote. Give people 3 or 4 days and then put those into the program.

It’s fun, and it’s a #sqlfamily community thing to do.

Summary

Here’s what I’d like PASS to do.

  • No pronouncements like this. Submit ideas, then take feedback, then decide.
  • List speaker statistics after the schedule is announced. Include the last 4-5 years for comparison.
  • Include percentage of invited speakers, community sessions, first time speakers.
  • Issue minimal guidelines for speakers, varying by type of session.

This isn’t perfect or the best system, but it’s a start, and I think an improvment on what we’ve done.

About way0utwest

Editor, SQLServerCentral
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14 Responses to Thoughts on PASS Summit Speaker Selection Changes

  1. spaghettidba says:

    Great post, Steve. I agree with you on most of your points.

    What really concerns me is more room for opacity in the selection process. Who decides who gets an invite? Who guarantees that it’s not just friends inviting friends (or business partners) to speak? Those, like myself, who have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get a speaking slot at Summit and see chances slimming down even further would really like to know.

    If revenue and popularity of topics is what PASS is looking for, why not let people vote their favourite sessions? SQLBits does it and quality and revenue are safe. Why can’t this work for PASS?

    • way0utwest says:

      Thanks. A few comments on this:

      I can’t determine who gets an invite, but I have to trust someone. What I’d like is a limited number of invites. Invite Mr. Randall and Mrs. Tripp, Mr. Ozar, Mr. Ben-Gan. Keep it to a few slots overall and disclose the number, not the people. There’s nothing to be gained by knowing who. However, limit the space.

      Keep in mind, this happens now. There are people that get picked for who they are. I’ve never been turned down. I’m not the best speaker with the best sessions.

      In terms of popularity, I’ll say that people don’t think about things well, certainly not in aggregate. They’ll end up picking people they know, a few topics, and leave us with a conference that doesn’t grow and expand, and think about the depth of topics. SQL Bits does some of this, but it’s not just votes.

      Pass can do better, and the Summit is an achievement for most. Rotate, make an effort to get new people in, provide feedback and coaching for those that want it, and ensure we have volunteers outside the US.

  2. rsterbal says:

    Is PASS really as closed as you make it sound in this post? Is it worth the effort to see if they are willing to open up some?

    • way0utwest says:

      What part is too closed? I’m not sure I implied they’re closed, more that I disagree with some of their choices, and that I’d like to see more openness.

      They have changed a lot, and they continue to try new things. I’m not complaining about any inflexibility or the level of transparency. I would just like more.

  3. rdameron says:

    Steve,

    Excellent post but I think the requirements for new speakers at the Summit should be higher than 2 User Group presentations and 1 SQL Saturday. I think it should be a minimum of 12 presentations at User groups, SQL Saturdays, and Virtual Chapters. The great thing about Virtual Chapters is that there almost always recorded. If I knew that a speaker had only given 3 presentations before Summit I would likely bypass the session unless it was @spaghettidba.
    If I skipped his session, that would be INSTANT DAMNATION!

    • way0utwest says:

      This is a minimum. Plenty of speakers might not deliver 12 in 5 years. I think that’s a high bar, but that’s worth a debate. My point is only there should be some bar, not too high, nor too low.

  4. SQLAndy says:

    Experience counts, but so does the quality. Having good/better speaker stats helps to figure it out. I’m not opposed to someone with minimal presenting experience making it to the Summit. Not 100% newbies, but I think its important to provide a clear path.

    • way0utwest says:

      Clarity is important, and I’d agree. Pick good speakers, not necessarily just experience.

    • spaghettidba says:

      That’s an excellent point, Andy! PASS has a unique opportunity of growing its speakers of tomorrow and is not taking enough advantage of it. SQL Saturdays would be fantastic for collecting speaker stats, but in my esperience the way attendee feedback is collected is too inconsistent (paper forms, speakerscore or similar, SQL Saturday online evals…) and the information gets lost in the process. Maybe it’s something PASS should focus on for the future.

    • rdameron says:

      Oh, yeah. If someone has done 12 crappy talks then I wouldn’t select them. I think having a minimum number of sessions with the virtual chapters would be a good requirement. That way we have a recording(most of the time) to assess the quality and the experience of the speaker.

    • I don’t think relying on virtual chapters and recordings is an effective method of speaker selection. In my 20 years as a public speaker (the last 15 giving technical presentations), I think I’ve done 5 virtual presentations (and had communication difficulties with two of them).

      Presenting to a virtual audience is VERY different than presenting to an in-person audience. Energy’s different, Q&A is different, pace, etc. I think we need better standardized measures of quality rather than focusing on narrow data collection.

  5. Andy Leonard says:

    Excellent thoughts and suggestions, Steve, as always. I’m sorry I didn’t see this until now (that’s what I get for turning off trackbacks on my SQLBlog blog…).

    20% first-time speakers was probably on the high side, but I was glad to see the selection process welcome new speakers. In my opinion, it balanced a previously-unmet demand.

    Overall, I’m impressed with the current effort to update the selection process. I think PASS has the right people on this project and that they’re making some interesting decisions. As always, the proof will be in the pudding…

    :{>

    • way0utwest says:

      I agree. I think 20% was high, but good to see changes and some appreciation of the efforts or new speakers. I do think the changes are good, though I sympathize with those that haven’t ever spoken and worry about being selected now.

  6. Pingback: How Can I Get Accepted to Speak at the PASS Summit? | Voice of the DBA

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