Thoughts on the PASS BAC

I recently read PASS and Business Analytics: A Winning Combination on the PASS blog and it reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write some thoughts and concerns related to the BAC. I start this acknowledging I’m looking at things from a DBA perspective and that I haven’t attended a BAC. I don’t think those preclude me having an opinion, but certainly there may be parts of this I don’t see or understand.

PASS Isn’t Just DBAs. I’ve never thought PASS was just for DBAs. We’ve always had a large and open tent while retaining that core focus on SQL Server and closely related technologies. Defining “what’s in” has always been fuzzy. It used to be “what ships in the box” which covered SSIS, SSRS, etc. Clearly Azure is part of our game now, even if not “in the box”. HDInsight? Sure. PowerBI? Some of it at least, maybe more. That doesn’t mean that we exclude others – I like that we have the occasional Oracle, Sharepoint, etc, etc – content. Focus matters though. Water it down too much and it will splinter into more focused groups. Too focused and it’s hard to drive attendance or build community.

Why Not a BI Conference? One of the things I’ve never understood is why we need “business analytics” instead of “business intelligence”. I think many of us thought that BAC=BI, but clearly that was not the case, especially for this most recent event. It seems to me that the BA is a subset of BI, why not have a BI conference and grow the BA segment? The positioning of the event in May (originally occupied by SQLRally) is the perfect offset from the PASS Summit to hold a second premium event. Why not start to look the Summit has 70% DBA and 30% BI (as a guess), and reverse it for a BI Conference? To me that model is interesting because the center of influence for the BIC would shift some to allow including things that wouldn’t fit as well as the Summit. Regardless though, I don’t understand why we don’t have a BI conference. That market continues to grow and is clearly relevant to PASS members. Perhaps if we had that and the BAC I’d feel more comfortable about the vision that PASS has.

How Did The Board Define Success for the BAC? I didn’t see any published metrics prior to the event. It felt more like a “we’ll decide after it happens” if it succeeded. Even for year one it’s worth setting and publishing goals, though in year one I’d expect them to be conservative and loosely binding – you expect to learn a lot in that first iteration. I’m not surprised that most attendees were happy with the event, a combination of self selecting for an event that matched their interested and the ability of PASS to deliver a professional experience. But attendee happiness can’t be the sole measure. Sponsors have to see it as a venue worth the price and more than that, it has to do far more than break even (unless specifically chartered otherwise, as the US SQLRally model was). We’re now going into the fourth year of this format. What is success next year. Status quo? 10% growth? Did we make money? I’d like to see a lot more on that.

No Grassroots. I’ve always seen PASS as a grass roots org that didn’t always connect well with the grass roots, but at least we have chapters and lots of local leaders doing things for their members. BAC doesn’t seem to have that, so far at least. I don’t see BA chapters or SQLSaturdays, and PASS even specifically asked that they not be planned. What does that mean? All communities need a seed planted somewhere, it could well be that the BAC will spawn the rest. Is there a plan for that? Or, more interesting to me, is it possible to have events that don’t reach a large enough base to support local chapters? There’s an interesting idea there with the PASS Virtual Chapters, maybe we could have some in-person events (free or paid) that align with them.

Taking Risks. I applaud the Board for taking some risks to try to make the BAC succeed. Taking risks is hard and harder still if things don’t quite go according to plan. I thought it was a brave choice to reboot going into year three (making it year 1 all over again) and it didn’t tank, so that’s a start. Did it do well enough to merit continuing? With attendance at 620 (SQLRally sized) it wasn’t a total failure, but I suspect it didn’t hit the internal attendance goal. Committing to year four I hope means that they see the tweaks needed to boost attendance to 1000+, the level needed to merit the kind of investment/risk we continue to make. What I worry is that we’re stuck in the sunk cost fallacy, which goes back to defining success before the event, not after.

Board Time. The BAC has taken up a lot of time from the PASS Board over the past three (four?) years. Look at the minutes and you see it. Far more time than they invest in the Summit. I’m not arguing about time spent to date, that’s part of taking risks. But what about going forward? There are a lot of things in PASS that need time and focus from the Board and each member only has so many hours to to give.

My Net. If the BAC is financially viable and the time required of the Board drops to Summit’ish levels I don’t have a large objection to it remaining in the portfolio. What does concern me is the focus. Does PASS has the right focus and the right mission statement? Are we evolving, or chasing next? That’s not an easy question for PASS or any business to answer, but I think it’s easy to see people not served and want to include them, both as people and as business prospects. The hard part for me is to understand to what degree the focus has changed. PASS says not much, but then why change the mission statement, or even the name of the org?

I think I’d be a lot more confident if goals had been published and met. I think I’d be a lot more confident if the name of the org didn’t have to change to support this event. I think I’d be a lot more confident if there was a plan being worked to grow the grass roots that would feed the BAC. Those are all easy things to fix.

That’s my 1000 words on a complex topic. Go back through the PASS blog and the minutes, see what you think, and write something, whether you agree me or not. PASS leaders need to hear diverse opinions.