Interview With Rick Bolesta of the PASS Board of Directors

Rick Bolesta and Neil Buchwalter of CA technologies are leaving the Board at the end of 2013. CA and Microsoft were the two ‘founding’ organizations when PASS was chartered and each has had two seats on the PASS Board since then. I caught up with Rick during the 2013 PASS Summit to ask him a few questions about his tenure on the board.

AW: Rick, when did you join the PASS Board?

RB: I joined about four months after the first Summit. The original representative from CA had a conflict and given my experience on other user group boards I was asked to represent CA on the PASS board. Neil joined about a year later.

AW: So you’ve been on the board…a long time!

RB: Right at 15 years

AW: That is a long time. What made you stay that long?

RB: In the beginning it was the excitement of being part of something new. Then it became exciting to be part of something with such great potential, and then (now) it was about being part of an organization finally growing into that potential.

AW: What was PASS like in the early years?

RB: Early conversations tended to be overly tactical. We would often get very deep into details on things that were way too tactical for a board meeting and in ways that weren’t productive. Since much of the strategy was driven by the management company at that time, board members did not question the strategy and were left to tactical discussions. 

AW: When and why do you think PASS has succeeded?

RB: It’s a combination of a few things. Back in 2005 the Board started to engage more on strategy, something that led us to change to our current management company. Microsoft re-engaged right about the same time and that helped too. Our Board members have gotten better at having conversations at the right level, due in part to having better board members and probably in larger part to being able to stand on the shoulders of their predecessors. I think SQLSaturday had a huge impact on PASS as well. By 2008 or 2009 it was apparent that PASS was growing tremendously. Ultimately, I attribute it to a community of great people and true grass roots efforts. It is the collective community that made PASS grow and become better.  There are people in the community that had a major impact on PASS but never served on the board.  They improved that way we do elections and serve the community at large.

AW: Rick, we served together on the Board for three years. During that time I noted that you and Neil both had an interesting (and for me, unexpected) approach to how you served – can you talk about that a little?

RB: Neil and I decided that we never wanted to be the tie-breaking vote on an issue. We would be part of the discussion, but we didn’t want to be perceived as having an agenda beyond the health of the organization – and in particular we were aware of how easily our efforts might have been seen as marketing for CA. As we stayed and grew, we also saw that we could add a lot of value by explaining to the Board the history behind some decisions. Not to say,  “we tried that and it didn’t work so don’t do it again” but rather “here is what happened before, now let’s talk about what is the right thing to do now”. We also focused a lot on governance, making sure that we followed our own rules.

AW: CA was a founding member of PASS. Why is that changing now?

RB: CA has evolved over the years and while SQL Server is still important to CA, we’re focusing in areas that are more encompassing of other technologies and not so SQL Server focused. So, I’d say the main reason is that our interests are no longer as well aligned as they were and because of that we don’t think it makes sense for us to have two seats on the Board – those should go to someone that is passionate and highly engaged with both PASS and SQL Server.

AW: Rick have you considered staying on in some sort of advisor role?

RB: Neither Neil nor I asked for an advisor position on the board so not really. The Board is always welcome to call Neil and I to discuss PASS issues and we hope to personally stay engaged with PASS, but seats on the Board should go to people that are looking forward, not looking back.

AW: Let’s change focus for a minute to something more recent. What did you think of the PASS election this year?

RB: I like to see a vibrant election. Over the past few elections we’ve seen candidates campaign in different ways and I think that is good – it’s all part of PASS growing. I thought the election went well.

AW: I had someone ask me this week about the next ‘big thing’ for PASS. Do you have ideas about what that might be?

RB: There may be a ‘big thing’, but I’d want to bet on pushing for incremental growth everywhere; more Chapters, more SQLSaturday’s, more members, more international efforts. I believe we will make a much bigger impact in membership in the emerging markets with the grass roots approach and by building on the foundation that is in place. I think the BA Conference is a great attempt to expand the PASS community, though I do wish it wasn’t limited to just SQL Server. Limiting the Summit to SQL Server makes perfect sense, that is the brand we built. The BA Conference is new and we could if we wished to open up to more products and vendors. I still hope that will happen.

AW: Rick, how has being part of PASS impacted your career?

RB: It’s always good to do something outside of work. It’s a way to avoid the ‘9 to 5er’ perception to start with, but it also brings the chance to learn different things. I worked with a lot of different people with different styles on the Board, a great learning experience. Learning to use influence instead of authority was a good lesson to learn.

AW: What advice do you have for PASS going forward?

RB: Stay focused on incremental growth and don’t move away from grass roots involvement. Finally, I have said to each new board…your most important job is to make sure we have the right people for the next board and your legacy depends on the future team you build.

AW: Thanks Rick!

The contribution Rick and Neil made is one that was probably only apparent if you were in a Board meeting. Having them present as the voice of history, as a steadying influence, as counselors, and especially their focus on governance was a huge plus for PASS. I was certainly more successful because of their input than I would have been without it. I’m sorry to see them leave, but pleased that they are leaving for the right reasons, in a way totally consistent with the way that they have served all these years.