Why I Support PASS & Why I Criticize PASS

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 str
uggle 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.

13 thoughts on “Why I Support PASS & Why I Criticize PASS

  1. Thoughtful words, Andy,

    I don’t see the need or benefit of patting people on the back for 1) doing their job; and 2) having to put up with the less-exciting parts of a position – whether paid or volunteer. Is it difficult? Yep. Did you know that going in? Yep.

    Andy

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    1. Andy, I mostly agree, but I know that learning to say thank you more often rather than less has helped me at work. Managing is different though, I think?

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  2. The comments that led to this post came from members who aren’t seeing a hidden agenda behind the BoD or the management company or Microsoft. They are questions from smart individuals that care a lot about PASS, its direction, and its continued viability. However, those questions were not taken in that light.

    That’s why I responded with what I thought their position was and their reason for asking hard questions. The fact of the matter is if BOTH sides continue to treat the “opposition” with suspicion, we’re never going to cross this bridge. And it is on both sides. It’s not just on the side of the non-BoD/PASS core.

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    1. Smart as always Brian. It’s a tough bridge to cross I think, but nothing would be better. Perhaps easier if we were in a room with a facilitator.

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  3. Andy,

    Thoughtful words, as always. While you may get a reputation for criticism, you seem to censor the snark and that takes a lot of the sting out of it.

    As for praising people for “doing their jobs” as Andy L put it, I don’t think it’s out of line for anyone to expect both positive and negative feedback. We do our jobs to make a difference, and it doesn’t happen every day. Some days are just slogging through paperwork or taking phone calls. When you finally do accomplish something that you believe makes a difference, if you get only negative (or zero) feedback about i t, you will begin to doubt your own sense of self-judgement. Perhaps not everyone is like that, but I think the thoughtful folks we want on the BOD are.

    I don’t expect my boss to say “Thanks for showing up today” when I walk in on Monday morning — unless it’s at 2am on Monday, January 1st. But I like to hear “You made a change that’s going to allow our business grow more quickly and effectively” even though that’s the job I come in to do — it’s good to hear that I am succeeding. We have regular performance reviews because we want to get feedback on our goals. If my boss only ever pointed out my failures, I’d wonder if I was in the right place.

    So don’t take off the gloves…I (and many in the community) love you for the punches you throw sometimes. But don’t be afraid to toss a compliment here and there, either. Even if it’s for just executing well.

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  4. Hello Andy,

    I have no issue with constructive criticism and take that in the spirit in which it is intended. You’ve challenged me to be more open with my communication and your request is both reasonable and fair. None of us are perfect and there are always mistakes that we make along the way. That said I take my role on the board very seriously and work hard at it – as I know all those I’ve served with do. I don’t consider this is a job.

    I think it is important to remember that the decisions taken at board level are not made by an individual. There is a vote and the board ratifies the decision. I would therefore much prefer to see criticism addressed to the board as a board rather than calling out individuals.

    Furthermore, I will say that some of the criticism that has been levelled at individuals has crossed a line of mutual respect in recent times. Please don’t take that personally, I am not out to name and shame anyone here and I am certainly not directing that comment at you. I am here talking about the issue. Issues we can deal with – stinging personal attacks are much harder. I’ve experienced this personally and it is not pleasant and wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I have to wonder if some of the overspill has contributed to deterring members from volunteering and running for the board.

    It is also worth recognising that it takes a while to operate effectively at board level. Many of the roles and responsibilities are new for our members to adopt and adapt to. It is definitely a learning process. Actually, I think this is a very good thing and affords members the opportunity to stretch themselves both personally and professionally. I’ve learnt a significant amount as a result and believe I am a better person for having served on the board. However, there does need to be support and understanding from the community and the electorate – especially for those stepping up into the role.

    Finally, I would like to say that all this discussion is occurring against a backdrop of a board election where submissions for leadership have been disappointingly low. As I said earlier, public, personal attacks I don’t believe are helpful. If you were an employee would you want to risk being called out for something you do as a volunteer that directly affects your professional career? Would you want your family to read such comments? Many things are said in haste and as we all know once it is out there is often no going back.

    On the flipside discussing the issues I believe is very helpful. Hopefully it will motivate many others to get involved. I would encourage anyone (as I am sure you would) to strongly consider how they can help make PASS a better organisation for us all. That includes either running for the board and/or supporting those that do.

    Thanks again for taking the time to write up your thoughts.

    Kind Regards, James

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    1. James,

      Thanks for taking time to reply. Lots of stuff worthy of discussion! In general I agree with having criticism directed at the Board vs a person, but in practice I’ve seen that then just frustrates/hurts the entire Board. I’d rather discuss issues, but it’s always about people. We’re human.

      I’ve been lucky so far as not to weather much in the way of attacks and so probably don’t appreciate the pain of it as much as I would. I take it for granted that any kind of public service opens one up to criticism and that it’s the nature of those roles that someone will be unhappy with a decision. I’ve found that if I’m willing to talk about why, openly, and as non-defensively as I can manage that the people that have disagreed have been amazingly understanding. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. As far as family, as long as my family isn’t included, then I’d say my family thinks I can take care of myself – I’ll figure it out, prevail, or in the worst case, change. But to your point, no, they wouldn’t enjoy it or even understand it. As far as career, I understand the risks (and the potential gains) of being in the public eye in even a small way. I guess I think if I stand to gain, there should be some risk associated too.

      I think about the criticism a lot. It’s not as easy as saying because you’re donating time we won’t criticize you, whether on the PASS Board or helping rehab a house locally. Ideally we try to coach them to success, or steer them to another job, or finally, politely, delicately, explain that they are hurting more than helping. The stakes and rules have to change when it’s leaders in an org, whether it’s PASS or the local homeowners association. I’m still in favor of politely and delicately surfacing issues, but they must be surfaced, and I think the tools we use to communicate (blogs, twitter) don’t lend themselves to delicacy or good interaction. It’s just hard.

      I’ll write more on that soon, because there are things for me to learn there if nothing else.

      As far as candidates, I don’t know if its fair to attribute the reduction in candidates to criticism, it could just as much be thinking the NomCom was going to be extra hard this year, or the lack of people behind the scenes encouraging candidates. Or all of the above. The larger problem is we simply aren’t preparing candidates and that’s a long standing problem. Not only does it hurt elections, it hurts PASS when our choices are few and we take what we have (no offense to candidates this year intended), and that, ultimately, a failure of the Board (including my time there as well).

      I appreciate your service. We don’t always agree and that’s ok, maybe even good, and if I did cross that line somewhere in the past, my apologies for doing so.

      Regards,

      Andy

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  5. Hi Andy,

    I don’t believe there is anything you have reason to apologise to me for. I also do not ask for complete absolution either. If I have done wrong or can improve in a certain area then great. I am happy to take that feedback and will redouble my efforts. However, I want to make sure that this is a positive experience for all involved. As members of the community it is important all voices are heard – and I hope we are agreed that volunteering for PASS must be a positive experience not a potentially career limiting one. Where I suspect we differ is in our interpretation of the role. Being in a leadership role within PASS is a public service – I think we are agreed there. However, I don’t see this as a job. I would strongly disagree with those that would believe that. Yes I am an elected person in a publicly facing role but I am not a paid public figure making a career from contributing to PASS. If you look at how a politician serves your community and what I do they are very, very different.

    My ask is that people individually and collectively take responsibility for keeping the dialogue open and mutually respectful. That extends into the realm of the secondary conversations as the issue gets discussed. I don’t believe people should be called out by name and certainly not by the company that employs them. There needs to be common standards of decency. This has happened to me on an issue relating to SQLBits and I did not enjoy it then either. I mention that because I want to be clear that this is not just something that is a PASS exclusive. I am with you on the difficulty of the modern “social” communication medium. Very easy to misconstrue or be misconstrued. Not sure what is best for that. It is a shame that the Q&As for the election were so poorly attended. That town hall style might have been worthwhile but given the interest level I would be inclined to say not.

    I am in favour of people asking questions of the board. I am willing to try anything that changes the communication dynamic. I actually believe it results in better content that people are more likely to read. So all of that I am happy with and happy to contribute to. I would also be happy to continue to offer responding to Q&A like I did with Brent. I personally like this method because it takes the conversation out into the community.

    I also agree that the focus moving forward should be about growing leaders and creating greater opportunities for people to get broader exposure. As I believe we discussed I think there are opportunities for the regional mentors to have greater influence and also be exposed to community oriented portfolio budget cycles. That would be a good place to start I think. My point about board criticism is that I can’t imagine that when people read it that they are inspired to run for the board. I agree there are other factors – life is rarely that simple. However, I do also believe that this is probably one as well.

    Kind Regards, James

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    1. JRJ, I think we’re really disagreeing about one big thing – how to treat the performance of board members. I’ll agree it’s not a job, surely there is no salary! We elect a Board member, then we can re-elect them, what can be done in between? Part of the problem is the one board member = one portfolio. Years ago I made the case – unsuccessfully – for moving to a committee structure, one of the big wins would be being able to address committee “X”, targeted, but not personal. For years we’ve tried to get Board members to post goals, rarely happens, and more rarely is there an end of year true up, perhaps fearing that “bad for my career” thing. I don’t know the answer on what lies between job and volunteer, but there must be a model that could be easily understood and used.

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  6. Andy, I believe that was our cross-over meeting. I remember the community committee conversation and I remember at the time that I didn’t like that idea – mainly because it was very all encompassing which leads to insufficient checks and balances. I would like to see the community portfolios “push down” responsibilities into a committee structure but I would be loathe for it to be a single committee. Perhaps break it up around Virtual Events (virtual chapters and 24HOP), Local Events (sqlsat and chapters) with Volunteers being held out on its own. This would increase exposure and number of leadership opportunities moving forward.

    As for performance management. I will think about this one some more. I don’t have anything for you on that front at the moment other than refer to what was already done in January. I realise that what is there is too vague to cover your ask but that is where we are today and internally I can say that this was the best it has been whilst I have been on the board.

    http://www.sqlpass.org/Portals/0/_Public_Governance/_Meeting_Minutes/2014-01-21-22%20Board%20Meeting%20Minutes.pdf

    However, I would also say that modelling this isn’t straightforward. I think these issues plague many volunteer groups. I don’t think we are alone in that regard. What I will say is that it is hard to be effective in your first year. There is a lot to get to grips with. I therefore would be loathe to see any framework that judged a board director based on their first years performance. However, the term is only two years. End of Year 2 you can simply not vote for them. Therefore this really comes down to measuring performance for existing board members (>1 term) and the board as a whole. Is that how you see it?

    Cheers, JRJ

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    1. JRJ, I think reasonable people could figure out a committee structure, especially with built in calendar points to reassess and change based on results. The bigger problem is convincing the Board to make that change. Looking back, as is too often the case, I didn’t spend enough time building up the rationale for why it was a good idea.

      It might be interesting if I could vote NO for incumbents, but that gets complicated.

      Board members are in a tough spot. Elected with little relevant experience plus learning HQ and the culture, and then trying to do something in two years. Very hard. I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t get a lot done during my time there. We should scorecard candidates (as Brent did) at a high level. Scoring the Board is harder, not sure it’s the right way. Getting feedback from members is very hard until after something happens. I guess what I want is goal setting, goal adjustment, and candidate conversations about what is/not/can’t be done and why. In my view the Board suffers from two big problems – the seniors invest little time in training the juniors, and the Board thinks because they were elected to make decisions that decisions have to be made only by them. Getting out and talking to the voters is a wonderful thing. It’s never as easy as doing what the voters want, but good exchanges – like this one – often help both sides.

      JRJ, I appreciate you engaging here, but I’m also cognizant that no one else benefits and you’re in mid campaign. Go do your thing, and let’s find time to sit in person and talk in Seattle. Regards always,

      Andy

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