A friend recently asked me about my involvement with PASS, and that lead to the two questions in the title. Why do I support PASS? Why do I criticize PASS? And there is one more that goes with it, do I balance criticism with praise? Interesting stuff.
First, for those who don’t know me, a little background. I’ve been part of PASS since 2000. I’ve been to the Summit every year since 2002. With Steve Jones and Brian Knight as part of SQLServerCentral we did a lot in those early years to promote PASS, we partnered with PASS to print The SQL Server Standard (though you could argue that was business) and we provided the hosting for chapters for quite a few years too (free, not business). I was a member of oPASS here in Orlando when it launched, and I led the re-launch later on. With Brian & Steve we started SQLSaturday and gifted it to PASS once it was up and running and we had done 30+ events (and no, that wasn’t business). I’ve served on the Board and am serving this year on the NomCom. I designed the SQLRally concept which was eventually killed here in the US, but still gets used internationally. All of which is only useful as far as that I feel like I know something about PASS and have been willing to invest in it to make things better, with only the former really being a requirement to praise or complain.
But why? Back in 1998 when I moved to my first IT job I started working with SQL 6.5. It wasn’t long after that I stumbled across PASS and loved the idea, it’s what every career book says to look for – the organization that has something to do with your profession. I think professions need organizations. They can spread ideas, grow ideas, help people connect. PASS has done that and continues to do so. Not always as fast or as well as I’d like, but certainly good enough to be worth participating in. I look at other parts of IT, especially in the Microsoft space, and while there are clearly other “communities”, none that feels as inclusive and as organized, and none that seems to try to do nearly as much. The SQL community is more than PASS of course, it’s hundreds of bloggers, SQLServerCentral and MSSQLTips, and a lot, lot more, but PASS, because of it’s mission to do good, can do things that aren’t done for profit and therefore might not get done at all. I think more can be done. A lot more. It can be done so that our profession is better, the people in do better and live better, and then, as a very nice side affect, the world is a bit better place. That’s why. On a personal and tactical level, I’m better for my involvement with PASS, and I think others can benefit too. Maybe I didn’t articulate that too well? The why feels obvious.
So why criticize PASS? That’s not so obvious. PASS is lead by volunteers and I know from experience it’s a fair amount of work. It’s volunteering on a different scale. It’s also an environment where decisions are made by a committee that sometimes acts like a hierarchy. It’s a business and a community, trying to balance profit and value, because without money no good gets done. The volunteers come from backgrounds that tend to frown on risks and failure, which often makes it hard to do medium size things without a guarantee of success. PASS has an important relationship with Microsoft that can be incredibly hard to manage because Microsoft tends to think of PASS as just another marketing outley , and we have a management company that is event focused and incented to do some things (at the Boards direction) more than others. You end up with a group of smart and dedicated people that have, since 1999, kept the organization going and growing – that’s no small thing.
For the past ten years I’ve known most if not all of the members of the Board. Good people, all ones you’d sit and have coffee or dinner with comfortably. Some more effective than others, due to life experience or life commitments or resources (or lack of). They bring various ideas and strengths to the role and that’s good, as diversity always is. Criticizing PASS means criticizing people, the elected ones and the ones that do is their full time job at HQ. Is it fair to criticize a volunteer? Or a volunteer organization? I guess I can’t understand how we cannot criticize, though criticize is a harsh word. Ideally it’s a question, or a concern, or an idea, but sometimes it is a true disagreement or outright criticism, so let’s stick with the harshest description as not to sugar coat it. If you care about the organization and the people it serves, sometimes you’re going to wish a decision was made or not made and I believe you have an obligation to say something. Of course, how and where and when matter, but even when done very well criticism is…..not fun. Yet I believe it’s necessary for the organization to stay healthy that the leaders remain accountable to the members and if the members “don’t get it”, they make a solid attempt at closing the gap. Few of us – including me – take criticism well. It’s extra hard to take when you’re giving up family time to do the work to start with, then you have to give up more to explain/argue with a member that thinks you’re wrong. I get that. I’m just not very sympathetic. If you wish to lead, then lead. Take the bad with the good. Learn to listen more deeply, to care without being damaged, to realize that, just like our elected ones here in the US, that it’s incredibly easy to be captured by the system and lose sight of what the people you serve think.
Due to various life experiences I’m a little bit qualified to comment on things related to PASS. I’m not always right, but I usually have some pretty good reasons for why I think what I think. I share ideas and concerns privately, but candidly, I’ve had very limited success with that approach. I write publicly not to eviscerate, but to evoke discussion and thought, not just within the Board, but with you, someone else who cares and who may one day choose to lead. It’s also a fact that the Board tends to feel more pressure from publicly posted comments than they private email. I wish it was different. I wish that thoughtful emails could be exchanged, but that tends to work only when you’re in agreement. I just finished up an email thread with PASS that spanned four months and I’m surprised that it was resolved without having to make it public. My experience may not be the same as yours, because, as I’ve been told more than once, I’m perceived by the Board as being one of a handful of people that are never going to be happy/always see the dark side. Not pleasant to hear, perhaps a little bit true, and a reminder that speaking up is harder than not. Turn the criticism thing around. As a member, why should I take any crap at all for raising what I see is an issue or concern? Isn’t that interesting? I suspect it’s why few have much to say.
Now to praise. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t often praise PASS. Occasionally they delight me and I try to say so (the last 24HOP I participated in did so), but mostly it’s keeping the lights on and, candidly, I expect them to do that. That’s not entirely fair, and doesn’t mirror my own strategy when I manage, but for PASS it’s a way to challenge them – no hugs for status quo, show me more! I’ll also argue that PASS, now and historically, has done a really bad job of explaining what they have done and why it matters. A great example is the recent budget. It’s a lot of work and it matters, they release the budget, but where is the story? What was the win? What had to be sacrificed? Even when good to great work is done, we rarely hear about it, and we’re all too busy to try to figure it out. My own answer here feels like it needs work. Something to think on.
I thought the initial questions that led to the post were fair and interesting, and they came at a time when I’m debating whether to write something critical of PASS, perhaps the most critical I’ve written, and I struggle with it. Will writing something help? Am I right? And, selfishly, do I use up karma with people I respect to no good end? Reading all of that, I’m sorely tempted to delete it all. Does it matter? Should I criticize less and praise more? Who cares beyond the few of you that read this? I write that not to whine, but to illustrate that just like most people, on any given day I’d prefer jazz over conflict. So, with all that said, I look forward to your thoughts.