PASS Summit 2013-Blogger Interview With PASS Officers

On Thursday the PASS bloggers were given the chance to meet with the PASS officers and I participated along with Tim Mitchell and Mark Vaillancourt. I went in not sure what to expect but I had prepared questions just in case. I’ll write about the results first, then I have some more thoughts about what I think about trying to do these kinds of interviews well

Bill Graziano was the only one there when we started and he had no item he wanted to discuss so we did round robin on the questions, with the bulk of them from me as the hour progressed. Others joined as we got started, so that we had Douglas, Rushabh, Tom, Denise at the table with us and some PASS HQ staff off to the side.

  • I asked if the Board had a timeline for announcing a process for selecting future Summit sites. There was no ‘plan’, and at the Q&A later they confirmed we should hear something by next May.
  • They were asked (Tim I think) about how the event went. Considered a success, all indicators good, approximately 1500 first timers and they are thrilled about that. Will take several months to get final numbers on costs.
  • Mentioned that Craig from PASS HQ is moving into a new role, Global Alliance Manager to manage sponsors across events/continents. [My thoughts: I’m not sure what this will do. We will see.]
  • I asked about plans to replace Niko (he is leaving PASS) and they said they would. They want to re-evaluate that role and decide if any changes are merited. Tom would prefer it be someone from the PASS community. Bill concerned whether someone that is a speaker will be a good fit, wants to research/discuss. Board has appetite for expanding beyond two evangelists, one at a time – see plenty of demand.
  • Tom may initiate a membership portfolio to replace Global Growth which will finish up at the end of next year
  • Mark asked about some complaints about the Program Committee process. Adam gave a great detailed answer, he plans to blog post-Summit with that answer. Scaled program manager to two people and had 73 volunteers. Mechanical process stayed basically the same. More care in picking track leaders. Blind review now. Security VC was an outcome, but security included in every track. Would like to tell community how to influence tracks. Cant get effective feedback when surveyed. Attendance at Security VC could win a dedicated track. Not clear if lower attendance at other VC could remove a track. [My thoughts: No huge problems, but some places where we can keep making incremental improvements]
  • Asked if goal of 10-12% reserves was enough. Bill stated that the Summit was canceled at 30 days out (natural disaster, etc)  the cash on hand would be enough to retain all staff and continue operations. No firm plan on allocating more to reserves, look at each year.

Some good information there, but the process and outcome didn’t feel very satisfying. I am a “blogger”, where you can define that as me having a blog and posting stuff to it of varying quality. I’m not a journalist and I don’t post to the blog for profit, it’s just me writing and thinking.   My goal was to try to ask questions that might not be asked at the Board Q&A that I thought needed to be asked and that people reading would find interesting.

Having served on the Board was both help and handicap. I can ask deeper questions and detect some nuances perhaps not obvious to others, but I can (and did) fall into a discussion mode several times more appropriate to a Board meeting than a meeting with bloggers. Where is that line? I’m not at all clear on that. I thought about it a lot on Friday (thus the late post) and discussed with a couple people. My thinking today is that there are a couple ways for this to work going forward:

  • Focus the meeting on a topic, more of a ‘press conference’ where the topic is known, bloggers and Officers can prepare, and you get an outcome that makes sense.
  • Interview format. One one one, or more than one blogger interviewing someone. I think this would be a great way for us to probe what someone new to being a VP or President plans to do – they should be prepared for that. My interview with Dr. DeWitt  fits into this category.
  • Panel on Panel, the format for Thursday (need a better name for it). It’s nice to be that open and that transparent, but it is the hardest to handle. Questions may get asked that the panel isn’t informed about (it was not the full Board). Follow up questions may try to go into detail that isn’t available or appropriate. There is also the challenge of accepting the premise of the question in every case – that may not be the right thing to do.
  • Open Forum, aka the Board Q&A. This has proven to be less contentious and more effective than I think anyone thought. I attribute that in part to it being fully public, and in greater part to the diversity of questions and everyone wanting to take only a fair slice of time for their questions so that others can ask theirs as well.

Anyone who sits down for a “press” interview should have their game ready. They should be able to answer questions without saying “I can’t speak on behalf of PASS” because that is the whole point. They need to be able to end a line of questioning if it is going off track, and live with how that gets written up. They should not be deflecting issues by using statements like “we don’t hire, we direct HQ to hire”.  It’s tough being on that side of the table, absolutely! It’s worth the risk, because transparency is powerful, as is the chance to communicate in a way that isn’t a canned message.

PASS Board – can I suggest either hiring a trainer/coach for those doing the interviews and/or doing some mock interviews. There’s no crime in practicing something that very few of us have ever had to do.

As someone provided the opportunity to probe, I intend to do so. That means I dig for information before hand (yes, I have sources, and not necessarily the obvious ones), look for problem areas, and I prepare questions. I’m going to push for answers.

Do I have an agenda with those questions? My overall agenda is always the health of PASS and the SQL community. Closer in, it gets cloudier. For example, I had heard that PASS was thinking of replacing Niko with someone from PASS HQ. We had a HQ evangelist several times before and never had anywhere close to the success that Karla and Niko have had. That kind of sea change might well be justified, but it should be – in my view – one that comes after revisiting results and expectations and after communicating the direction to the members. That’s my view and it shapes my questions, but that doesn’t mean that someone couldn’t convince me that a change was worth trying. I asked the question and got unclear and unsettling answers, though by the end of the discussion it seemed to be tiling towards hiring from the community (as noted above). Was that me exerting influence or drilling into uncertainty? Of course the answer is yes.

Just as in American politics, bloggers and the press are a tremendous force for good, asking questions and giving different points of view. And just as in American politics, it can turn into something else. It serves no one well if the Board withdraws and only does canned news releases. It servers no one well if whoever is serving gets pounded with unfair questions or unfair characterizations. I’m not saying this is or has been the case, merely that we should all understand that.

I’m hoping we can have a Round Table type discussion for bloggers next year at the Summit. I have a lot to learn and would enjoy the discussion, and certainly there are many other topics we could discuss there as well.

Wrapping up, I hope you won’t take my thoughts as a negative on the state of PASS. I see it a huge plus that th

ey are willing to open the doors more each year and take the risk that the answers they give may not be polished or popular or reported as clearly as they would wish.