It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 10 years since we started the planning for the first event in Orlando. The success of the idea seems obvious now – surely the time was right for something to happen in our space. Back then though it was far from obvious. We didn’t have doubts about the ability to do one event, or even repeat it in Orlando, but how to get it to grow in other cities? The best answer we had was to leverage our network, slowly. Pam Shaw in Tampa, Brian Knight in Jacksonville, Greg Larsen in Tacoma. We were bare bones on everything in those days – the site had no login, no tools, and we just updated the HTML from the first event to support the second one. Thinking about it, I don’t know if I could do it that agile/lean again, but back then we had limited time/resources and we knew that we didn’t know enough to build anything, and building tools is a big leap when you don’t know if the concept will grow or not. Running lean was the right decision, not without pain times. We learned a lot in those early days, the chance to iterate quickly made a big difference.
Even back then there was a lot of worry. We worried about finding free venues (or having someone go the paid space route and lose personal money). We worried about running out of sponsor dollars! We worried about finding speakers. We added the optional lunch fee to mitigate the sponsor money issue, a decision we struggled with then but in hindsight was a good choice. We saw the speakers start to appear – when I saw Tim Mitchell and Geoff Hiten traveling to see what we were doing I realized that the speakers would drive it all – if they came, we’d grow. They did. Not overnight, but that pool grew (and continues to grow). Events grew slow as speakers took the idea back home and encouraged their own groups to try it, and that pattern repeated, you can see from the early days the focus on the south east and how it spread outward. Looking back at those early days with minimal tools and not a ton of experience I’m amazed that the event leaders took up the challenge and while they had suggestions for making it better it was always positive dealing with them.
We went from planting a seed to slow growth to decent success, enough for PASS to see the value and take over the event format in 2010. It was not a popular decision then, many feared that PASS would mismanage it. I can’t say we had no concerns, but we were betting on the people on the Board – good people – who wanted to serve the community. It took a while for PASS to decide and it was Rushabh Mehta who made it happen, a decision I’d call the capstone of his tenure on the Board. The handoff illuminated the weaknesses we still had in tools and processes, a source of pain and concern for HQ but once we worked through it things settled down. I believe it changed PASS. It didn’t fix everything, but it provided a steady stream of new members and it made the org feel vibrant in a way that it didn’t before. I credit the Board too for spending to support it, hiring a full time evangelist, providing direct sponsorship to events, and a lot of IT time/money into upgrades to the tools. The growth caused pain at times, but the right kind of pain. I can’t close out this paragraph without mentioning Karla. If there was every the right person at the right time! The growth since then has been incredible.
An obvious but unpredicted side affect of having more events is that we built more relationships faster. Relationships need repetition to grow. Back then most of us met once a year at the Summit. That coincided with an uptick in social media so it’s hard to credit just one or the other, but together that sense of family started to grow further and faster.
I look back in wonder at the wisdom/luck of defining a format with so few rules. We had a formula, or a recipe if you prefer, but it was loosely defined. I believed then and now that the whole thing depends on the event leader, that one person who says “I will get it done”. The best way to encourage that is to give them a goal, some suggested guidelines, and then get out of the way. It’s their event. If they want to do a BI edition, or customize the logo, or buy Hawaiian shirts or whatever else, let them do it. It’s that sense of ownership that will drive them to do more and do it better. Related to that, we’re also training leaders – they have to find a venue, make deals with sponsors, provide customer service, and not least learn the challenges of using volunteers effectively, all skills that will serve them well in business, life, and when they run for the PASS Board.
The impact is hard to measure. We can measure hours delivered, number of events, number of speakers and sessions, all good stuff. But that misses the intangibles. The careers launched or improved because an attendee heard the right message at the right time. The friendships built, obvious but so easy to overlook. I can’t count the number of friends I’ve made at SQLSaturday, but I remember the first – Jack Corbett, who introduced himself after the first event and soon become part of the SQL fabric. The increase in the number and quality of speakers vying for Summit sessions. Even sponsors that have grown and changed from the chance to be at so many events. And what about our craft, surely it’s better for the exchange of ideas?
My thoughts? Unimaginable success. Satisfaction. I wish I could shake the hand of every event leader and every speaker – we’ve done this together as peers, making our part of the world a better place and perhaps inspiring more to do the same. Thinking back to when dreaming of doing this in multiple cities seemed like an awfully big dream. Thinking that one day we’ll peak and perhaps even decline as needs and interests change, but also thinking that if we dare that we might do more good in more places. A bigger dream? Improbable? Why not?
Finally, the biggest reason to look back is to prepare to look forward. What if anything needs to change to continue to serve, to grow? Let’s look at that openly, calmly. I’ll write more on that soon.