Should We Allow Paid Sponsor Presentations at PASS Summit?

For many years the PASS Summit program committee has enforced a bright line rule – no sponsor content in the educational tracks. I always thought it was a good rule because it was easy to enforce and it made sure that sessions were educational (that is, not a veiled or not-so-veiled sales pitch). If you wanted information about a product or the all out pitch you could make your way to the sponsor expo and talk to a rep or watch a group demo. It wasn’t perfect, but it was usable and easy to follow (if not appreciate).

I think we could continue to apply the rule, though clearly there could and should be some exceptions for speakers who are demoing a free solution (take sp_whoisactive as a great example) to show how it works and how to solve problems with it.

I’ve slowly realized that in this case, as in life, it’s the nuance that matters. There are plenty of presentations that are “just SQL”, but our jobs require more than that. Take the task of putting a database into source control and learning to do continuous (or close!) release. We can talk about that from an academic perspective which has its place, but if I want to take the next step it’s one that requires tools and now we’ve hit the conflict. What happens now?

I’ll borrow my friend Steve Jones as an example. He works for Redgate and they have a stack of tools (there are other vendors that have similar) that support source control and continuous release and he’s working to understand the real world problems that the tools solve and don’t solve. I’m biased of course, but I can see the value of attending a presentation that shows how to put that stack together and do something with it. Under the current (maybe old now) rule it’s not going to make it onto the schedule regardless of the quality of his speaking skills or abstract or domain knowledge. Right? Wrong? Complicated.

Maybe think of sessions as having these possible flavors:

  • Pure education using SQL Server (maybe with a sub-flavor of including tools that are open source or otherwise free and require no registration to use)
  • Vendor tools allowed in context of solving a problem (try parsing an abstract to figure that out, or even assessing the final presentation)
  • Sales pitch allowed and expected

Think about that for a moment. If you kill the rule, what’s the new rule? Maybe you’re ok with sales pitches being on the schedule, but how many others won’t be?

For 2016 PASS did something I don’t think much of – they sold session slots to vendors. As far as I know that’s the first time. We’ve put up with it for keynotes because, well, it’s just always been that way. Personally I think we’d get better keynotes if we paid the speaker rather than the other way around. Rant over. Anyway, I know more than a few attendees were taken aback this year to see content being delivered that didn’t fit their mental model of what was allowed or accepted. PASS didn’t hide it, but it wasn’t really published or explained well, before or during the Summit.

Selling slots to vendors, does it solve the problem, or just make money for PASS? I don’t know. I know that the vendors with the most to spend get the spots and the little guys are left trying to play by the old rules. Free market? Eh.

I spoke to PASS about some of this last July or so. My suggestion was to leverage the current system of abstract evaluation. Imagine if we did this:

  • Require speakers to disclose any tool being using in the presentation that isn’t available as a free no registration download
  • Require speakers to disclose their relationship with the tool vendor (employee, contractor, “friend of”, or “none”)
  • Mandate that pricing/licensing cannot be shown/discussed (come see us in the expo)
  • Tag sessions and speakers  (“vendor” maybe?) so that anyone deciding what to attend can clearly see that it might have a subtle sales pitch and/or product bias. Many would go anyway (or because), others would run the other way. Transparency would support both.
  • Limit those specially tagged sessions to some percentage of the total, or perhaps allocate one track for them.
  • Let the program committee evaluate as always using the amended rules – this ensures quality, transparency, and I bet intense competition for those vendor slots.

We could do all of that pretty easily and trial it for a year without much change in process or software. Maybe there’s a better way to do it, and maybe we shouldn’t do it at all, but I’d like to see a public discussion before selling slots is ingrained into the fabric.

It’s easy to complain about the old rule…until you think about the consequences of not having it. Changing the formula is always tricky (New Coke!).









2 thoughts on “Should We Allow Paid Sponsor Presentations at PASS Summit?

  1. When I go to PASS or SQLBits etc it is mainly to find out how to use SQL Server better. This includes learning about new techniques I did not know before. It is a great strength of user-led conferences that just about all the content is from actual users and not a vendor sales pitch.

    However, vendors do have a part to place in helping me meet my objective at these conferences that could usefully extend beyond those seminars mainly available during break times. Certainly all vendor seminars should be labelled as such and evaluated in the same way as other seminars. Also, given the choice between allowing vendor seminars to mingle with user seminars in each of the streams and having a separate stream just for vendor seminars, I would prefer the separate stream even though it could be messy. Keeping vendor seminars to a separate stream helps both to positively identify them and limit their number.

    Mostly I want to see what an end-user has done in a real-world situation. Often the presentation quality is good, but sometimes it could be better. But this is part of the conference experience, and allowing speakers space to improve their speaking ability means we keep growing the future conference stars. If we let too many vendor presentations into the mix we risk squeezing out the end user speakers and the conference turning into mainly a sales pitch that would not be worth the cost of attending.


Comments are closed.