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PASS: Time to do a lot more than change the by-laws

with 7 comments

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:
http://www.sqlandy.com/index.php/2012/01/pass-time-to-change-the-by-laws/
http://voiceofthedba.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/ethics-and-power

(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.

Written by Chris Webb

January 14, 2012 at 11:36 pm

Posted in PASS

7 Responses

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  1. Chris,

    I think you’ve switched arguments on me, but I’ll address your points.

    Without a doubt, the organization has had a US centric view for a long time. In my mind, this is a problem that deserves a complete overhaul.

    In the US, we have separate representation, so Rhode Island is represented in the House of Representatives, similar to your House of Commons, with 2 Congressmen. California has 53. In the Senate (House of Lords) they each have 2.

    How does this relate to our organization? I think that the goals and directions of our respective nations, and others, are different. What works in one area, may not work in another. With that in mind, I think that there are two potential solutions. The first is what you’ve proposed, a potential group that represents other countries more fairly. The second is that each country, or group of countries, have it’s own organization.

    Having worked with volunteers, and seen so many people abuse the system or drop out, I’m not sure a large body is workable and will even agree on much. In fact, given the nature of the board, I can’t imagine them sharing any power with another group, nor listening to them and instead continuing along the lines of their semi-ethical decisions.

    Ultimately the problem I see is that we elect people that are not politicians, but quickly become them because of the power given to them. They develop a level of self-importance and entitlement, not because they have earned it, but because they were elected. It’s a human reaction, but one that surfaces. Not everyone falls victim, and not to the same degree, but we see this over and over with the board, a group who has many members disengaging for long periods of time as their regular jobs interfere.

    The second solution would be to make the board of directors a strategic group, that overseas separate organizations in any country. They would be more like a United Nations, setting resolutions and goals, but having no authority over the individuals. In this case, they could actually lead, or attempt to, without forcing changes. People such as yourself could form a group inside the country, or even with a group of countries, that would be able to access some funding, receive some sales/billing assistance, and run their own events. They could band together and potentially build their own professional goals, related to their area of the world, and their culture.

    Whether either works, I’m not sure. There is a third choice.

    SQLBits is the perfect example of an alternative group that succeeds because the people have a passion to drive it forward, and not because it is a note on their CV that they achieved a position from a quasi-disinterested electorate. SQLBits is positioned to grow beyond an event, and become an organization that helps people build their careers, supports them with information about how to write a CV, study for a certification, and more. It could be a great model for other countries, or regions, to build their own, independent group that looks out for their own interests, and that of the people in a similar situation.

    I cannot see PASS addressing international concerns because they are primarily focused on their Summit, secondarily focused on their Summit, and tertiary focused on the Summit as well. They are loathe to innovate, experiment, and attempt other ideas. Without Andy on the board, I wonder if the Rally will continue beyond this year. If Karla were to leave, SQLSaturday would drop off rapidly. They are small thinkers, with little experience or interest in building something great for the community. As minders of their narrowly focused conference, they do fine.

    way0utwest

    January 15, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    • Steve,

      Well, maybe I did go off on a little bit of a tangent… But to make things clear (and hopefully not sound like a broken record) let me restate my argument as briefly as possible: appointing JRJ to the board over the head of someone who went through the election process was ‘unethical’, yes, according to the by-laws of PASS but in my view a necessary step to push through the reforms needed to make PASS a properly functioning international organisation. Perhaps your argument was subtly different, though – that not appointing Sri when he’d gone through the election process was wrong? If that’s the case I’d agree you probably have a point there.

      Either way JRJ’s appointment to the board is a good time to address what the role of PASS should be (North American UG or hub of all the SQL Server communities in the world?), and if it is going to turn into an international organisation how it should be constituted. I had something like your second solution in mind when I was writing this post although something tells me you favour the third. There are two problems with the third option though that I see. The first is that with no central organisation there’s too much scope for duplication of effort and single place to swap ideas or discuss common issues, so there’s always an urge to create a centre even if one doesn’t exist. The second, and more important problem, is that Microsoft clearly wants a single organisation it can deal with to to funnel money into the community and to co-ordinate the activities of groups around the world, and I can see why it does. So I think some kind of central organisation is unavoidable.

      I don’t have any romantic ideas about human nature, and while I’m proud of what SQLBits has achieved please don’t romanticise us or use us as some kind of ideal! I don’t see SQLBits ever expanding to be more than an event or helping people with their careers; we’re just a bunch of guys who put on the kind of conference we’d like to attend and nothing more than that. We have our own problems and shortcomings too. What I will say is that we do treasure our independence and while we’d like to engage with some kind of central organisation we’d never cede control of what we do to it.

      Chris Webb

      January 15, 2012 at 10:52 pm

  2. Hi Chris,

    Some great thoughts. The global advisers including JRJ are working on addressing the very governance issue that you brought up. We do want to work towards a more “global” model, potentially, very close to the lines of what you are recommending, although not at a chapter level, but probably more regional. It would carry very significant advantages to georgaphies outside US, without impacting or diluting community focus that is currently in US. The nomination and appointment of JRJ as a voting board member underscores the boards commitment to our international growth goals.

    Steve,

    Just to quickly respond to a couple of your comments… Andy was absolutely instrumental in moving the ball on SQL Rally and making it successful. As for Rally continuing beyond this year, we already ran a successful Rally in the Nordic and have more Rally’s in the pipeline. I have no doubt that the PASS organization will continue to make strides in this program that we believe is also vital to our International growth. We have been building a strong support model for running this event. In addition, PASS’s commitment to SQL Saturday is not limited to Karla’s role, which is a lot more community facing. We have had key HQ folks working with SQL Saturday portfolio leave in the past with very little hiccup in our support for the events. There are multiple folks at PASS HQ that collectively support the SQL Saturday events in US and globally and we are ensuring that when people do leave, there is continuity in our support for these various programs.

    Lastly, while Summit is a big focus (currently over 80% of PASS revenues), it is not the primary focus of the board or even HQ. PASS has made great progress in building a successful and repeatable event model for the summit, thus requiring less than 25% of HQ resources for putting together the summit. Rest of the HQ team and most of the board is dedicated to running non-summit related community programs that include, aside from SQL Saturday and SQL Rally – our Chapters, Virtual Chapters, 24 HoP, Global growth and other portfolios outlined by Bill in his post earlier in the year. In the minutes of all our board meetings that get published regularly, you will see that very little time/discussion is focused on Summit.

    Thanks,

    Rushabh

    Rushabh Mehta

    January 15, 2012 at 8:32 pm

  3. Chris,

    If the case is made for JRJ to be appointed, fine , let me entertain that for a bit . In that case, Sri should have got the appointment before Kendal did. To skip the person who finished 4th and appoint the 5th has “WRONG” written all over it.

    I really think the Board should given those 2 appointments to Sri and Kendal and let JRJ continue as an advisor. JRJ has the power to change what has happened. I hope he refuses the appointment and takes his board advisor role and the Board goes back to giving the position to Sri. He can continue to impact the community in all ways you had outlined.

    Rushabh – As always, you just comfortably avoided the elephant on the table. What else to expect from you ?

    To PASS Board ( If Rushabh is reading this, I am sure the others are)

    I bet, if the entire existing board ( including exec ) ran for re-elections all over again, less than 1/2 the people will get relected especially after this fiasco. You all got lucky and were able to blame the Nomcom the last time around wrt Steve, not this time. This one is all on you PASS Board.

    And you “un-ethical” folks are the reason why Andy Warren and Mark in recent times and many others in the past did not want any part of this and ran miles away.

    Way to go PASS Board ! I am so “sick” of you all.

    Joe

    Joe Wilson

    January 16, 2012 at 3:43 am

    • Joe, you’re forgetting that “popular vote” is not the only criteria (much like the President of the United States is put in place by the electoral vote, not the popular vote). Have you reviewed the NomCom results? Did you know that Kendal finished ahead of Sri? The point is that nothing in the by-laws dictates that they have to pick from the previous election, regardless of how recent, never mind that they have to pick from the recent election in order. The fact that you *want* the by-laws to say that is irrelevant – they have other criteria they must consider in addition to the popular vote.

      bertrandaaron

      January 16, 2012 at 10:47 pm

  4. [...] this year I got involved in one of the slanging matches that seem to blow up every so often about some aspect of PASS [...]


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