The PASS Speaker Agreement

I hope when you’ve read all of this post that you’ll think that I’ve added to the discussion and not fueled the fire.

The various posts and discussions and the time writing this (multiple drafts) have definitely caused me to re-examine my own views. I’ve found that some were simplistic (might still be!) and others just hadn’t been dusted off in a while because others things were needing more immediate attention. I’m betting the same is true for the Board. I also found some of the public discussion so far frustrating, in part because it feels like we’re stuck in 2007 where the only way to get PASS to move was to pound on them publicly. It feels like there should be a more elegant way – a topic for another day.

Tomorrow PASS is having a Town Hall to discuss the speaker contract. I agree that the contract needs to reviewed and revised, both legally and in terms of what we consider ok or not. Not withstanding the most recent changes to it, it has served as the rules of the road for a long time. As much as I’m in favor of reviewing, growing, evolving, and other words that equate to change, I hope everyone will look at the impact of proposed changes on the entire PASS ecosystem. It’s not just speakers who are affected, it’s sponsors, volunteers, attendees, and the full time staff. I hope we have the first of several good conversations tomorrow that start the process so that it can be considered, reviewed, and discussed over several weeks (or months even) so that we’re ready to apply the changes to the 2017 selection process. I also hope that whatever changes we make that we plan to review them again during and after the 2017 implementation to see what worked and what didn’t. I think it would be unrealistic to expect it all to work perfectly the first time.

I don’t know the scope of the meeting tomorrow, but I hope it covers these topics:

  • To what extent free, free with registration, paid, and whatever other categories of products/scripts/services can be mentioned in a presentation OR a pre-conference class
  • Whether speakers should be paid

I believe the PASS Board has tried to build an environment where attendees have access to sponsors and vice versa while keeping as much as possible any commercial element from being included in the educational portion of the program (other that Microsoft!). I’ve long agreed with that approach. Does it work perfectly? It does not. Drawing a hard line is simple and easy to enforce, and it avoids more of the conversations that result from why person x/session x was or was not picked. But I also agree that describing it in such a way that my friend Brent can’t talk about his free scripts isn’t serving the members well. Going further, I think about my friend Steve Jones doing a presentation on source control of databases. He can make it generic and non-product centric, which is interesting, but not nearly as useful as when he shows solving the problem using a full stack of specific (and paid) software. The lines are blurry, maybe always have been. I want sessions that are educational, that doesn’t preclude showing how a not-free product can solve them, but it’s somewhat hard to allow that and not allow a craftily crafted presentation that is more sales pitch than education. I think we can figure out how to make the system more nuanced and more valuable, but it will take some care.

I’ve never been a fan of paying speakers for the Summit. I’ve always liked the idea that all the effort that went into preparing and presenting an hour presentation to my peers helped raise funds that could be used to do good throughout our community. That’s why I was so unhappy with PASS in the 2006-2008 timeframe – funds were raised and not being used to do enough good. It’s better now. Not as good as I want, but tolerable. Beyond that, it’s been more than enough for me to be able to put a line in my resume about being selected to speak. Speakers get free admission to the Summit, something that has both real value to the speaker and a real cost to PASS. It costs PASS less than retail of course, but it’s far from zero cost. Still, traveling to the Summit is not a cheap endeavor. I doubt any speaker (including me, if and when I’m selected again) would turn down a stipend that would defray that cost. Is giving speakers a stipend fair? I’m hard pressed to argue it’s not, I just like the idea of doing my part to make things go. Idealistic? Simplistic? Perhaps. I also wonder what the impact is overall. Do we get better speakers and presentations? What does it do to the budget? I look forward to hearing many views on this topic.

PASS isn’t without fault in all of this. Changing the policy without public discussion first was a mistake. Responding slowly was a mistake. I’d even argue with the benefit of hindsight that it’s been slow to deal with the issues that have blown up this year that have been gathering steam for years, something that this Board inherited and perhaps didn’t fully appreciate. Whether you consider them mistakes or not, the result is that the issues are up for discussion tomorrow in an official and public forum. It might surprise you, but I think that the current Board is the most transparent and most responsive we’ve had so far and trying to improve further. I think change will come. It may not happen all at once, because the Board will be conservative (and that’s appropriate in most cases), but I think we’ll see a lot of change going into 2017.

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