It’s been a busy few weeks in the world of PASS, lots of good conversations that I’ve followed with interest, in particular this post by Kendal Van Dyke, then follow up posts from Bradley Ball and Andy Leonard, as well as others that were more focused on the overall selection process. Today I’d like to add my thoughts on just one part of those conversations, whether it’s appropriate for a board member to present a seminar (“Pre con”) at the PASS Summit and whether there should also be a restriction on employees of a board member presenting seminars. I’m approaching this as a general discussion, but clearly it’s based on events of this year, with PASS VP Adam Jorgensen (and Pragmatic Works President) presenting a seminar (with co-presenter and PW colleague John Welch) on Monday, then two more by other Pragmatic staffers on Tuesday (Brian Knight, Devin Knight, Bradley Ball, Robert Cain, Jason Strate). I know all of them, most of them really well, and they are, without exception, good people. Robert is a good friend, John is one of the great minds in our business on the BI/software side, I’ve known Brad since he moved to Florida and we’re both on the SQLSaturday Orlando event team, Devin is great to work with, and I was business partners with Brian for about 10 years. I also served on the PASS Board. That makes this discussion personal, yet it is about business. The trick, if I can manage it, is to talk about issues as I see them and point out some ways we might improve the process without damaging relationships. I suppose I could just not add my voice to the conversation and take no risk, certainly it’s something I’ve thought on, but in the end I choose to have a voice in the community I’ve helped to build.
So, with that long introduction, let’s get started. Here’s what the by-laws say:
The short story is that it’s permissible for a Director to be paid for presenting a seminar with a majority vote of the Board. I’ve read the minutes and so far do not find such a vote, it could have been in the June meeting for which minutes are not available yet. Assuming that the vote was held and passed, then the by-laws have been upheld. [Related, I was pleased to see a reference in the April 2014 minutes where the Board discussed and voted on Tim Ford participating in SQLConnections, addressing what could be seen as a conflict of interest – that’s good diligence]. If there wasn’t a recorded vote, then we have a problem. Fixable with a vote certainly, but it would cast yet more doubt on the process.
While we’re looking at the by-laws, the only other part that is worth looking at for this issue is this part about employment restrictions, something I voted for when I was on the Board, put in place to guarantee that no company can “take over” the Board or exert an unfair amount of influence. That’s not an issue, right now there are two from Pragmatic on the Board; Adam and Wendy Pastrick. Nothing here to restrict participation of employees of Board members in any way.
I couldn’t find a copy of any guidance to the Program Committee (the group of volunteers that evaluates abstracts and speakers) to see if there were more rules there, and I also couldn’t find the most recent ‘speaker agreement’ that speakers sign when submitting a session to see if there was anything there that might be pertinent. I think most of the latter is about behavior, not any exclusionary criteria for selection. Amy Lewis did post some notes here on the process, but it’s very high level.
Assuming the vote was held, then no rules have been broken. That’s a good start.
Then we get into the details. Are the rules we have ‘good enough’? For general situations involving payment to a Board member I think they are, and I’m not in favor of a by-law change. I do think though that board members have a duty to be seen as being above reproach when it comes to conflicts of interests, and the best way to resolve that is to add some guidance to the program committee (which should be shared with Board candidates) that eliminates Board members from eligibility for any paid pre/post seminar that falls under their charter. I think this protects the Board member and it makes clear to the committee what the rules of the game are, giving them both “political cover” and avoiding the very human temptation to support a fellow volunteer. The other comment that I have on this is that Mon/Tues of the Summit are busy and valuable days for a Board member, too busy to spend out of touch presenting a seminar – especially for officers. The only downside I see to this is that someone might choose to not run for the Board because of the restriction. Certainly their choice to make, but not one that harms PASS (or them).
Going just a step further, what about main program sessions? There are no current restrictions on Board member participation and I think that’s right. We can’t ask people to run for the Board to give up the very thing that got many of them to the Board in the first place. I think with better transparency of the selection process no additional rules are needed here.
So let’s move on to the question of whether a company that has an employee on the Board should incur restrictions on the participation levels of other employees? Even if we put in place the rule above to exclude Board members from doing paid presentations, they could still be perceived as having lobbied/exerted force to get their people on the schedule. This is really, really tough. Over the years Solid Quality has been in this boat, Scalability Experts, and now Pragmatic. All were successful and hired smart, talented people. Would it hurt their business if they were entirely prohibited from paid seminars at the Summit? I think it could well impact their ability to hire and retain the best. Or, imagine the reverse, a working consultant joins the Board and now the owner of that company finds restrictions being placed on them – do they still support/employ the consultant?
What options do we have? We can rely on process with greater transparency, we can put some kind of rule in place that limits participation by company, or perhaps find yet another option.
For general sessions I think process/transparency is sufficient, but seminars are about money, in some cases a pretty good sized chunk of money, and that means we have to be extra careful. For that reason I think we need to put a hard cap in place and limit any company from having more than two paid seminars. That protects the companies that potentially emp
loy (or are owned by) Board members because the rules apply to all. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s workable, and it’s an easy way to show and guarantee that we’re vested in making sure that participants, and PASS, are seen as being above reproach.
I have no issue with members of Pragmatic applying to do the seminars – they played by the rules. I disagree with Adam submitting one, I think being an officer calls for more care and also requires focusing on PASS business at the Summit, and I fault the Board for approving it (assuming they held the vote). I don’t think Adam (or his team) went and applied pressure to the committee to be selected, but I do understand that influence is a subtle beast and it could have played a part in the final choices with absolutely no input/contact from Adam (or SolidQ or Scalability in years past). Minus transparency it’s hard to tell, and even with transparency I’d bet it would never be something that was crystal clear, picking sessions – even paid ones – is just very, very subjective (and that’s not bad, it just is).
The rest is up to PASS, and up to us. We can bitch about this year and do nothing, or we can find a way to have a serious conversation and either change the rules, or write down our expectations so that everyone can go into the 2015 selection process with a clear head. Let’s not have a community where people might not submit because they fear the public perception/backlash because of where they work. This issue is a portion of the larger problem of insufficient transparency on the program committee, and PASS as a whole. Transparency isn’t quite a silver bullet, but it helps us all understand how things work and then we can have a better, more informed conversation if we think changes are needed. How do we get any change done? That’s a good question. My suggestion is that PASS commit by the end of July to a separate committee along the lines of the Election Review Committee that could launch in August and watch events this year, then decide what changes, if any, should be put in place for next year.