A Viable Future for PASS

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I have received feedback that some folks think I just want to burn PASS down, or that I don’t want a for profit company involved with a community organization. Neither of those things are remotely what I’m thinking—I’ve only been loud and writing about it here, because I want PASS to survive, which is going to be near impossible with a loss of its main revenue source (in-person PASS Summit) and its expenses (C&C) which haven’t dropped nearly enough in the face of the aforementioned revenue loss. What do I see as a future for PASS?

Summit

Virtual Summit is going to happen in 2020, it’s also probably going to lose money. It’s effectively a sunk cost at this point, so I’m not going to waste any time talking about that. In 2021, PASS has a tough decision to make—large international conferences are unlikely to be a thing until 2022, when the covid vaccine has been broadly distributed. Planning a virtual conference in 2021 is risky as well, given that most of the competition is free. I think doing a low cost (and lower overhead) smaller scale event using a much cheaper platform like Microsoft Teams or even GoToWebinar would be a good small bet, without much risk. I also think a small conference the size of the old SQL Rally (a few hundred people and run in a hotel, not a conference center) could be viable for Q4 of 2021.

The reason for doing this would be an effort to try to keep the fundamental networking aspect of PASS going, while reducing financial risk. The original SQL Rally was a community organized event—by keeping it small, you not only reduce costs, but you also reduce the time to plan, which allows you to have a better assessment of the pandemic situation. PASS could also think about leveraging larger SQL Saturdays like Atlanta and Dallas, amongst others to be candidates for a Rally, as these events have community organizers who are very experienced at running larger scale events.

The Managing Organization

I’ve said what I’m going to say about C&C, but it’s very clear that PASS as an organization is untenable with its current cashflow situation. This means costs need to be drastically cut wherever possible. PASS won’t be in the business of planning large in person conferences until 2022, and therefore doesn’t require a large event management firm dedicated to its management. I would recommend hiring a full-time executive director (yes, I know I said we need to reduce spending) to manage the organization and manage vendor relationships. C&C currently has a seat on the on the PASS exec board with a title of Executive Director, which is a conflict of interest, and I would propose ending that immediately. The Executive Director role needs to be someone who understands both data and analytics and building communities. Finding this person will be a challenge, but I believe they are out there. I would also move to stop using the custom developed platforms PASS is using and move to using Software as a Service platforms where possible. Sessionize is probably the most obvious solution here, but there are others.

The Role of the Board

As I was reading the by-laws and guidance for the PASS BoD, I came across this paragraph.

Role of PASS Board Members

PASS Board members are the fiduciaries who steer the organization towards a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies, as well as by making sure the organization has adequate resources to advance its mission. They are responsible for the short- and long-term strategic direction of the PASS organization.

Beyond this, what PASS needs from the Board is perspective and expertise. Perspective and expertise as a data professional, PASS community member, from their region, or from drawing on other relevant experience (i.e. speaker, business leader, other Board experience).

What PASS does not need from the Board is tactical execution or day to day management of organizational activities.

The challenge is to do this while also providing focus for the organization. Focus to drive the evolution of the organization and to prevent distraction from impeding momentum.

“What PASS does not need from the Board is tactical execution or day to day management of organizational activities”—I can’t imagine running a SQL Saturday and completely outsourcing everything to a third party—I feel the same way about our community organization, especially in this time of crisis. I think this is completely wrong, and the main reason why PASS is in the situation it is right now. The Board of Directors needs to take an active role in managing the organization, period. We, as a community organization are in a situation where the organization might go bankrupt and die, and while this is largely due to a force majeure (the pandemic), it is also due to decisions made that are in the interest of the managing firm, and not the community. When I was heavily involved in running my PASS chapter, I had a board member, who’s portfolio was chapters, who took an active interest in the chapters, and their needs and worked his tail off to make things better. Unfortunately, he was not re-elected, and things never got any better from there.

The board needs to take an active role—while the day to day operations of the org, would be managed by the executive director, and eventually some administrative staff, in a time where the organization needs to be austere with its spending, being on the board should require you to get your hands dirty. I would also try to involve the community—there are lots of projects, that over time could have been open sourced, but there has always been push back from the board. Given the success of community managed projects like DBATools, I see no reason to not engage volunteers who are willing to help, especially on community facing projects.

I’ve been involved in PASS for nearly 15 years now—I want it to survive, because having a centralized community organization is a good thing and makes the community stronger. The central organization also provides governance and helps with sponsors. PASS cannot survive financially in its current state, and we as a community must band together to help it survive and foster the changes to make it a sustainable organization. While we are doing that, we can make it a better community org.

4 thoughts on “A Viable Future for PASS

  1. Justin Dearing

    “What PASS does not need from the Board is tactical execution or day to day management of organizational activities.”

    I’m curious the history of this rule and if its ever cited or enforced . It feels similar to a race covenant in a deed or HOA. I don’t mean that this rule in any meaningful way is linked to systemic racism, or that its nullified by federal laws and common law. I simply mean, from seeing the reality of how PASS runs, I don’t see that rule being actually enforced in the decade I’ve been involved in PASS.

    In general an executive board should not deal with tactical stuff because the org employees do that. However, the day to day operations of PASS are under the jurisdiction of the executive committees, composed of board members. The nature and budget of the org means there’s a lot of day to day stuff that doesn’t translate to employees or consultants.

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  2. diligentdba

    “The board needs to take an active role—while the day to day operations of the org, would be managed by the executive director, and eventually some administrative staff, in a time where the organization needs to be austere with its spending, being on the board should require you to get your hands dirty.” this is extremely well stated and strikes at the root of the problem. Thanks Joey….Mala

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  3. KevinEKline

    I like pretty much everything about this post, Joey. I was particularly intrigued by your citation from the bylaws about allowable activity by directors, in the same vein as what Justin mentioned.

    This phrasing “What PASS does not need from the Board…” doesn’t pass the sniff test for verbiage that underwent a rigorous legal review. While memory is about as tight as a sieve, I cannot ever remember seeing any such verbiage during my 10 years on the board. When did this little tidbit sneak into the bylaws? I find it not only highly unusual, but also disturbing.

    The implication of this verbiage is that any and all work MUST be performed by paid staff. While that verbiage is not explicit, subsequent interactions between the wider volunteer community and staff is that volunteer work is unacceptable. Many volunteers have offered to do work to launch and support specific programs they are passionate about only to be told “No. There is no budget for the staff that will also be needed to do this work”. On the other hand, long-standing volunteer run elements of PASS, such as the Virtual Chapters, remain run by volunteers. That “sometimes yes, sometimes no” may in fact have good reason to exist, but it seems arbitrary, opaque, and just plain fishy to me.

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