PASS: Time to do a lot more than change the by-laws
I read the following posts by Andy Warren and Steve Jones today, and before you hear what my thoughts on the subjects they discuss you should probably read them too:
(In the interests of full disclosure let me state that I know James Rowland-Jones pretty well because we’re both involved in running SQLBits, but the first I knew about his being appointed to a voting position on the PASS board were the above posts. What follows are my opinions alone, written without consultation with James or anyone else).
I completely understand why Andy and Steve are upset. I have an awful lot of respect for them and their views. From their – perfectly valid – perspective, what has happened is unfair and undemocratic. However I suspect there’s a reason for what has happened, and that reason can be found elsewhere on Andy’s blog:
For too long PASS (and SQLSaturday) have been US centric.
In my opinion the big problem with PASS is that on one hand it’s a self-described international organisation (number #3 on its list of current and future strategic objectives is to “Focus on International Growth and Consolidation”) but it is, in effect a North American user group with a North American focus, run by North Americans. As far as I know the vast majority the membership of PASS is in North America and therefore it’s not surprising that North Americans dominate the board: PASS members vote for candidates they know and can relate to, and who address their concerns. And that also, to me, explains why despite its good intentions PASS has had such problems with its international role: the only way it can be successful internationally will be if it has a genuinely international element in its leadership, but that’s clearly never going to happen while membership is so skewed towards North America. It’s a vicious circle.
You could argue that as PASS, and especially SQL Saturday, expands internationally it will attract more members from outside the US then more international candidates will make it onto the board through democratic means. Indeed, Rob Farley’s success in the recent elections could be a sign that this is happening. I certainly voted for Rob not only because I know, like and respect him but because of his stance on international issues. The problem is that even if the level of participation in PASS elections everywhere in the world reached the same level as it has reached in the US today (and even an optimist would accept that we’re still a long time away from this happening) the PASS board would still be dominated by North Americans simply because it’s the biggest single market for SQL Server. Moreover some countries and territories would never have any effective representation because they would be simply too small. The world isn’t divided into the US and ‘everywhere else’ but each SQL community has its own identity and its own challenges and deserves representation. Not every community is as lucky as Australia to have someone like Rob who is a native English speaker, has an impressive technical reputation and can spend the time and yes the money (those plane tickets to the PASS conference aren’t cheap) to become sufficiently well-known in the North American community to win a PASS election.
So why should, say, the UK SQL Server community get a voice on the board that is out of proportion with its relative size? That is what I’m arguing for and it might seem fundamentally undemocratic. However the challenge of effectively representing different, geographically distributed subcommunities inside a larger community is one that all large, diverse democracies have to deal with. Why should Rhode Island have the same number of seats in the US Senate as California? The answer is that this has to happen for the larger community to gain democratic legitimacy within the smaller subcommunities. If this doesn’t happen in PASS it risks disinterest, disengagement and at worse resentment in its non-US chapters – the smaller communities will quite rightly realise they are better off on their own because their interests are not being considered. Unfortunately I’ve already encountered a certain amount of resentment towards PASS for exactly this reason over the years I’ve been involved in the SQL community in Europe and I would hate to see that grow; it’s certainly the reason for the historic weakness of PASS in the UK.
The appointment of James and Raoul Illyés as international advisers to the PASS Board of Directors was clearly an attempt to address the problems of international engagement and break the vicious circle I describe above, and I’m sure the same motives were behind James’s appointment to a voting position. I strongly believe that this move was the only way that any traction on the international issue could be gained. But as I said I can understand why Steve and Andy are upset and that’s not acceptable either. What can be done? I suggest that if PASS is serious about becoming an international organisation then wholesale constitutional reform is necessary to ensure that international chapters have a voice and a vote. To use a US-friendly analogy, PASS needs its own Connecticut Compromise: alongside the board we need another, parallel body with equal representation for each chapter in the world. I would like to see discussion on how such reforms could take place as soon as possible, otherwise there’s a risk each SQL community in each country will end up going its own separate way and that won’t be good for anyone. Whatever our nationalities and whatever our cultural differences we all have SQL Server in common and working together will bring benefits to all of us.