PASS Update #52 (ERC)

[cross-posted from Andy Warren's blog at sqlandy.com]

We’re doing weekly calls for the ERC (election review committee) and we seem to be making some progress. This past week we came up with a good outline of what we hope to see as the process for selecting the nomcom (look for a post from Bill Graziano for details), and you can from that guess that we plan to retain the nomcom as part of our recommendations back to the Board.

My focus has been thinking about what matters when evaluating candidates, because to a degree we’re trying to predict success. I’ve got about a 50% average on picking employees, so I’m not sure that I can do much better with picking Board members. But skill or not, there’s merit to making it clear which attributes we value, and giving the nomcom very clear guidance on how the attributes are scored and weighted. What I hope we’ll wind up with is a process that:

  • Allows potential candidates to easily self-assess if they meet the minimum qualifications (and yes, the hard part is describing those)
  • Allows us to score candidates in a close to objective manner in most areas. For example, if we include education we might award 1 point for High School, 2 points for two year degree, and perhaps cap it at 3 for a 4 year degree or more. For things like leadership it might be 1 point for each 12 months in a management/leadership position, with a max of x points, and it must have been within the last x years.
  • Allows our nomcom to add a portion of the overall score based on their impressions during an interview. Not everyone shines under stress, not every nomcom member will see everyone the same way. Maybe this is 20% of the score, but it’s not 80%.
  • Takes the scores and then puts the top 3*slots on the slate

That’s not a huge change from last year, but I think it’s really going to add a lot of depth and structure to the “process”. What we want is for the Board (and by extension, the members) to tell the Nomcom the attributes it values and how they want them evaluated. It’s got to be more than “pick the ones you think best”. Even with these changes it’s really important that we get a diverse Nomcom that’s vested in the health of PASS overall, and I think we have good ideas for you on that.

There are two places where I’m pushing for change. The first is that we need a safety valve, a way to bypass the Board and the nomcom to a degree, to make sure that if the members want change, they have a way to do it. My proposal is that of the candidates who passed the minimum qualifications but did not make it to the final slate we’ll have a vote by the members (I don’t know how else to do it) to the slate. It’s essentially a write-in, with the pre-requisite that you have to meet the minimums and do the work to fill out the application, which makes sure that we get candidates that are interested and viable.

The other one is removing the requirement that sitting Board members go through the nomination process for re-election. It takes time, and if they were qualified before, reasonably they still are. It’s both their time and the time of the nomcom, and it’s tough to imagine a time when the nomcom would not put a sitting board member on the slate. Then they get to run on their record and the members decide. Is this right? I argue with myself on it! I’ve been through it this past year and didn’t mind paying my dues, but was it worthwhile? I don’t think it was, but I’m sensitive – perhaps overly so – to the perception that we’re trying to make it harder to change by making it easier to maintain the status quo, if that makes any sense.

We’ve got a lot more ideas than that, and a lot of discussion, none of that is set yet. Doing it by phone is slow and mildly painful. Good discussion, great differing points of view, but no problems working together. I just wish we’d been able to work it out to spend a weekend working on this in one room. The hard part is that some ideas need time to grow, so doing it all in a weekend would have been unlikely.

As we talk about our ideas for recommendations I’m trying to look at the entire stack. It’s not enough to just fix one thing or tweak one thing, we have to try – as best we can – to look at the entire stack and ask if it’s rational. I want it to be clear and simple, if not easy, for someone to look at the requirements and decide to become a candidate, and I want them to be able to clearly understand how we evaluate and rank them. In the end we may not satisfy everyone about why we value x more than y, but we’ll have it up on the board,and we can revisit each year and tweak as we learn lessons. In fairness we’ve tried to do that the past two years, but never with the big picture view we’re trying to do this year.

I’ve probably left you with more questions than less, but wanted to let you know we’re working on it and I think that we’re making progress. Post questions if you have them and I’ll do my best to answer!

PASS Update #51-Summit Site Selection

[cross-posted from Andy Warren's blog at sqlandy.com]

In November/December HQ requested that the Board to send in suggestions for possible sites for the 2013 PASS Summit. I sent in a few, and at the recent Board meeting we then reviewed the preliminary research by HQ to narrow it to a list of serious candidate cities. I was so excited at the start of this that we were beginning to consider a new site that I didn’t think it through, we don’t have a good set of criteria for selecting the site. The rest of this post is about what I think should go into that decision and where I stand on some of the issues.

Let’s start by looking at some of the criteria I think we should use in the decision:

  • Ease, cost, and time of travel
  • Cost of meeting space and nearby hotel rooms (and making sure there are enough rooms)
  • Availability of after hours options, ideally with walking distance, or at least via low cost public transit
  • Things for family to do in the area and family friendly (safe, secure, fun)
  • Weather
  • Risk of natural disasters
  • Layout of meeting space (we prefer that everything be clustered so that walking time between room is minimized)
  • Microsoft presence
  • Additional expense/risk required for HQ to manage an event at a new location
  • Visiting various areas of the US to give our members who can’t afford the time and/or travel a chance to head our best event

None of these is simple. Is it always the cheapest location? Do we rule out anywhere on the Eastern seaboard (and New Orleans, etc) because there might be a hurricane? And that might not be all the criteria, just the ones that I think are at least worth getting into the discussion. In our Board discussion we covered some of these, but the problem is that even with the Board we weight these things differently. For some, any type of risk is unapproachable. For others any reduced Microsoft presence is a deal breaker. It is, to put it mildly, complicated. I think we erred in not having this conversation first, and fighting our way to better guidance that might have given us a different set of candidate cities, and then we would be re-applying that to the list as we narrow it down. It’s not quite too late for that, but we won’t meet again in person until May and that means it will just be a phone discussion, never as deep and never as satisfying, because we expect to decide in March. I’ll also say it’s not always as simple as a scorecard, though it’s worth the effort to score the options. Intangibles are hard to score.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about whether we should move the Summit. Some are on the East coast and won’t go because of the time/cost. Others don’t care about time/cost. Some like having it the same place, comfortable as old pair of shoes. Others don’t like that. Some people don’t care about after hours, or family, or ….whatever.

How do I, as a Board member, decide what to do? I’ve heard some on the Board suggest that it’s only a noisy few who want it moved, that we don’t hear from the many that are happy with the current location. Do I listen to the the squeaky wheel? Launch a poll? If I do that, who are the “right” people to respond? The ones that want change? Those that don’t? As an elected representative I try hard to understand the various views, but I can’t decide based on polls. I’ve got to decide based on what I think is fair and good for the members as well as a sound business decision for PASS. I think it’s possible to balance those.

Within the Board, and among those I talk to, most see it through a filter. Part of what I hope to get you to think about as you read this post is that we don’t all value the same things in the same amount. Just because you don’t mind the cost, the time, the weather, or whatever, others do. I may not agree with someone who cares about those things, but I can’t disregard it either.

It’s not a simple decision. Lots of reasons to do this, or do that. To change, or to not change. No way to know what is the right answer from a business perspective until after the event, and maybe not even then.

I’ve thought about it a lot, and then some more. My position is still that I support moving in 2013, preferably to the East coast but something in the Central time zone is also possible. I also support going back to Seattle in 2014, winding up with a strategy much like we had in earlier years, rotating from Seattle to one or two other cities. Maybe it should be the same one or two cities (easier, less risk), or maybe we should make it different ones, a good discussion to have in itself. I’m confident that we can move the event, maintain the quality, and grow attendance, in large part because of our HQ staff – I know they will get it done.

As it stands I hope we’ll move in 2013, but that is by no means a done deal. As I said earlier, I’m trying to decide based on what is far and good for our members and that is a sound business decision for PASS.

Finally, we listen to the people that care enough to engage. We may not decide the way you want, but we listen. Make your case for moving, or for a particular city. Blog it, or email any or all of us on the Board. Make a logical argument, tell us how you weight various factors, and before you hit send, ask yourself – are you considering what’s good for the one, or for the many?

 

 

PASS Update #50-January 2010 Board Meeting

[cross-posted from Andy Warren's blog at sqlandy.com]

This post is my thoughts on the Board meeting, and my views on related topics. I encourage you to read the minutes (not yet published) as the official documentation.

I flew into Dallas around noon on Wed, catching an early flight so I could get to The Joule hotel and spend a quiet few hours doing some prep for the meeting before the scheduled dinner with the Board. Cold when I arrived, maybe 45-50, enough to discourage me from much in the way of exploring beyond the Starbucks around the corner. Got a few things done, caught up on email and did some meeting preparation, and then back to the hotel to put stuff away prior to dinner. The hotel is one of those boutique type hotels, not the standard drywall and concrete, and with the one attribute I appreciate during travel, a great shower. Looking at lists prices it’s not cheap, but we ended up paying $169/night, a little higher than I’d like but in the range of acceptable for business travel.

Dinner was at the Iron Cactus immediately next door, fairly reasonably priced (my fajitas were $15) and where we had the strange experience of the waiter telling Tom LaRock to not to get the meatloaf. Good meal all in all. I spent some good time chatting with new Board members Allen Kinsel and Mark Ginnebaugh, and then Sri Sridharan from the North Dallas SQL Server User Group (NTSSUG)  joined as the end as well.

We spent a good chunk of Thursday looking at our global strategy, thinking about how we will grow and support SQLSaturday and SQLRally so that we can do some early sizing on the FY 2012 budget. Global growth brings complexity. An example is the SQLSaturday site is set up to manage money in dollars. Another is that if we move money across borders there may be tax implications on both sides. The next step is to learn some lessons by doing one or two, with our next step a SQLSaturday in Portugal, and then potentially a SQLRally in Sweden by the end of the year. We’ve also identified what we would like to have in time and resources, HQ will take that back and start looking at how to re-slice our current resource allocation to see if we want to do is possible.

We also talked about site selection for 2013. As I ‘m sure you know we’ve been in Seattle for a while and will be through 2012. Typically we sign contracts for space 2-3 years in advance, it’s the only way to be sure the space will be available within the date range we use for the Summit. Several months ago we built a list of around a dozen candidate cities. HQ has since done some research to help us understand what is available and the rough prices. At this meeting our task was to narrow the list to 3-4 cities. HQ will then send a formal RFP to those and we’ll start into the bake-off that should end with a site and a contract in March/April this year.

The list of cities is something we don’t publish in the minutes, and while we will announce when we sign the contract, we most likely will follow our previous pattern of not announcing the location until the end of the 2012 Summit. The rationale for this is that if people thinking about attending 2012 see that 2013 will be closer or in a more interesting location that they will defer attending for a year. From a pure business perspective maybe that makes sense, but I think it serves our members poorly. I see nothing wrong with letting them know 1-2 years out our plans. If they prefer to wait a year to save on travel, or to travel to a city they would like to visit, that’s good for them and ultimately good for PASS. I think it evens out year over year. More on this in a post later this week.

At 4:45 we started the journey across town to the monthly meeting of NTSSUG at the Microsoft office. Tom LaRock and I rode with Mark Sousa, Mark driving an F-150 he rented (only in Texas, right?), I was the navigator and Tom did the color commentary. We were worried about traffic and being late, but we arrived early and had a chance to mingle with the chapter members. We did a quick introduction of the Board, and then settled in to watch Sean McCown do a very nice hour class (part 1 of 6) on backup and restore strategy. That opening class has become part of their strategy to draw people in and it’s been effective. That was followed by Tom doing his presentation on wait states and queues.

After that we went to Red, Hot, and Blue for some ok barbecue, with a good handful of the chapter members joining us for discussion. It was cold out, had me wishing for home! We finished dinner about 10 pm and I called it a day when we got back to the hotel.

Friday morning we worked on our business plan and a “who we are” document, both are things I expect to see published in the next 30 days. The business plan was something that was largely done a year ago, but it didn’t quite make it out the door. Who we are, you might think, is something we should already know. 2 years ago PASS was the Summit and Chapters, today it’s the Summit, Chapters, Virtual Chapters (though to be fair we had them as SIG’s, but not very successful in my view), 24 Hours of PASS, SQLSaturday, and SQLRally (a work in progress to be fair, but still a big growth item). That’s a lot of change to absorb, and we’ve done it unevenly in places. That’s not unexpected or bad, it just means that we need to step back from growth mode and make sure we’re doing a good job and allocating appropriate time and resources to each area (which could mean adding more, or reducing).

We also need to make sure that you know what we see as our mission and where we’re spending time and money. My view is that we’re on step two of three or four on the path to being a “true” professional association. I don’t say that to dismiss our accomplishments or the work of our staff or volunteers. We’ve grown and matured, perhaps in more ways that we communicate. Yet many wish for PASS to be more. The hard part is that a full shared vision of “more” hasn’t evolved yet. At the heart of it is what we might do for members directly. Right now we have a strategy that is largely indirect – we build events, we facilitate, we connect, but we don’t a lot in the way of things that you can point to and say “my PASS membership means this and from I receive this and this and this”. I like our current strategy, I think it’s realistic, it’s functional, but it’s not sexy, and it’s still hard to explain to what I call the DBA in the back of the room, who says “why should I join?”. We can do more, I think a lot more, but the first step is to consolidate and make sure we do the things we do well. While we’re doing that we can be talking about what that next phase looks like that we might start 12-18 months from now.

On the time and money, Bill Graziano will be publishing more on that soon. We publish our budget, which has both too much and too little detail at times. We want to do more to show you how we apply resources to our various goals, and we want to make very clear what we contribute to things outside the Summit. I’ll write more in the next couple months to dig into what I get for resources for SQLRally and SQLSaturday.

We’ve been working on some revisions to the by-laws for several months and those should be published for review in the next week or so. Some of it is clean up and clarifying, making it very clear on things like term limits. We’ve removed the officer nomination committee which in the past nominated a “slate” that the Board would vote up or down, and instead it will be direct selection by the Board. We debated extensively moving to one year terms for officers. Not a one year limit, but a one year term. This is something I really believe in, I think it allows our Directors to step into a role and apply max energy. We’ll be publishing them for comment shortly, and I may add additional comments when we do.

Friday night I was lucky enough to have Tim Mitchell and Ryan Adams join me for dinner. Tim and I go back to SQLSaturday #3 and we just didn’t get much time to talk on Thursday, so it was nice to find some time in the week to talk more. Allen Kinsel was there, along with Mark Ginnebaugh and Bill Graziano. I was a spectator for part of it, listening to Bill chat with Tim and Ryan about chapters, and not for the first time wished we all talked more and more often.

Saturday morning I was up at 5 am for the taxi ride to the airport and the morning flight to Orlando, glad to be home.

 

PASS Update #49–SQLRally

[cross-posted from Andy Warren's blog at sqlandy.com]

I get a lot of questions about how SQLRally is going, which tells me that there is a lot of interest and that we’re not communicating enough. The hard part is that in some ways there is a lot going on, and in some ways not all that much!

We started SQLRally last July and we’ve worked through identifying our format, pricing, selecting a logo, and getting graphics designed for the web site (you have looked at www.sqlrally.com at least once haven’t you?). We’ve got a marketing flyer done, registration is open, the call for speakers has closed, and our first round of voting on the schedule wrapped up earlier this week and should have been announced by now. We’ve got another three ballots to go, covering the DBA, BI, and Developer tracks. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on that process from speakers who love the idea of a ‘free market’ where they get to compete against their peers in a open way.

As we get closer to having the schedule complete it’s time for us to work more on marketing the event. Our intent has always been to do marketing a lot like we do for SQLSaturday, using social media and mailing lists to reach those that are interested, only trying to do so across a wider geographical area and building brand recognition at the same time. So how are we going to do that? Here are some of the things we’ll be doing:

  • Distributing flyers to events in the South East to help build awareness
  • Asking chapters in the region as well as .Net user groups to send email reminders to their members, to post a link to our flyer, and hopefully in the next week or so we’ll have a banner ad or two for them to use as well.
  • Ask potential speakers to work their blogs and twitter to reach their followers (and try to drive voters to their abstracts too!)
  • Mentions in the PASS Connector
  • Working our local contacts in Orlando, such as asking our staffing friends to send out a reminder to their network

The key is to make sure people know about it. It’s easy to think that a blog post or a tweet or an email is all it takes, but in practice those reach only a small percentage of the audience on any given day. We’ve got to keep repeating the message (hopefully in an interesting fashion) to make sure that those people that would jump at the chance to get two days of training for $299 know about the opportunity. Help us do that by mentioning it to people that you know; tweet, blog, update your LinkedIn profile with a note, make sure it gets mentioned at your next chapter meeting.

HQ is reviewing the logistics plan and that’s uncovered a few glitches, but that’s good, better to figure that stuff out now and not on opening day! We’ve invited the Florida chapter leaders and some key volunteers to join our planning calls, and one area we’re asking for their help in is coming up with ideas and leaders for ‘after hours’ events. We’d like to build the kind of strong social structure we have at the Summit, which takes time and iteration, but no reason to not try to do some creative stuff regardless.

If you’d like to see more the detail, I encourage you to read the minutes. We post minutes of each meeting and while it’s not exciting reading, it’s part of our effort to document how and why we do things, and to operate as transparently as we can.

 

Goals for 2011

[cross-posted from Andy Warren's blog at sqlandy.com]

Last week I wrote about my goals for last year and some frustration at having to make some trade offs during the year, and as I write this I find that I’m struggling to define my goals. Some of that is goal backlash, but I think more it’s a lot of ideas in my head and a sense of not quite knowing which path to take.

Some things I know so far:

  • I want to stop working at all on weekends other than a few SQLSaturday’s. It’s wearing me down, and family needs more time.
  • I need some time playing on a team again. Four years working solo has me craving, at least for now, going after shared goals.
  • I’ve been gradually moving to reduce my time teaching, and that feels right. I like sharing and the excitement of opening doors for students, but it’s not enough. I need interesting problems to solve.
  • I need to decide in the next few months if I’ll run for one of the VP positions at PASS this fall. Tough call.
  • I need to change how and how much time I invest in PASS. That’s not a sign of a lessening in commitment, just a realization that it’s time to move past heroics and make the next stage work.
  • I’d like to put some time back into my schedule for mentoring and coaching new speakers and bloggers.
  • I want to spend more time in the Florida technical community, in part to strengthen my network and in part to reduce my travel time while still participating.
  • I’d like to get better at writing, but that’s a vague goal that needs some work.

That’s a start, and next week I’ll write more. I think my theme for this year is setting goals for things I want to do rather than things I should do. Not sure if that’s selfish, realistic, or maybe both, but feels like the right path for right now.

 

SQLRally Call for Speakers Closes December 15, 2010

[cross-posted from Andy Warren's blog at sqlandy.com]

The call for speakers is open through December 15, 2010, and I hope many of you will take the chance to throw a session or two into the SQLRally hat. Whether you get picked or not for the final program, it’s fun to be in the game, to enjoy the wait and the voting and the announcement to see who gets one of the prized slots at the first every SQLRally.

The final selection will be done by the community, so as you write your entries you might think about:

  • Is the title descriptive, intriguing, but not too cute?
  • Does the abstract tell them clearly what you will deliver? Imagine the voters have to be pick between five similarly titled abstracts, will the text you write give them the best understanding of what you will teach?
  • It wouldn’t be wrong to post your title and description on your blog or twitter for comment before you submit it. Why not get some feedback first?
  • Writing a good bio is hard, it can feel a bit like patting yourself on the back or overselling. It certainly can be overdone, but think of it as a very short resume – if a voter has a choice of five similar presentations have you done the best job you can to show them your technical and speaking experience?
  • Niche topics are ok, might even give you an edge!
  • Remember you’ll be competing by topic category, so it might be worth spending a few minutes seeing what other presentations have been done on that area of SQL and try to stake out new ground
  • Don’t be afraid to go head to head with the big dogs. Yes, it’s harder to win against someone with bigger name recognition, but it could happen – especially if you’ve built your chops and some community recognition of your own. Plus, it’s good to make them keep working at it!
  • Pick a topic you know and are passionate about, even if it is topic most likely to win. Passion wins more often than you might think.

Take the chance, I think you’ll be glad you did, and it’s a great way to contribute to the community, giving us the chance to pick from a great selection and try to build the schedule we want!

PASS Update #48

[cross-posted from Andy Warren's blog at sqlandy.com]

It’s the end of November and this will probably be my last update on PASS for the year as things slow down for the holidays. This seems like a good time to update you on ongoing projects and to think about where I’ll be headed next year.

As I look back at 2010 it’s a mixed bag. I started the year with speaker bureau (SB) project, one that I was enthused about, a good project that would have a nice impact on both speakers and chapter leaders. Then I had to change course to manage the adoption of SQLSaturday by PASS and had to put SB on hold. That adoption took a while, and then I also ended owning the initial implementation of SQLRally which pushed SB back again. I kept Rushabh in the loop about the delays, only so much time in the day. In hindsight I wish I had gotten a little further in the beginning and tried to hand off to a volunteer team.

The SQLSaturday transition has been slow and not without some minor pain internally as we worked to divide the work up at HQ and learn how to make it work, but it’s been almost seamless for the event leaders and certainly so for the attendees. My work on this now consists of long term vision, making sure we’re finding the efficiencies where we can, budget, and driving lessons learned back to our event leaders. HQ owns the day to day stuff, from making sure email goes out to coaching first time events to sending out checks at the end of the event. A successful transition, and one that has had a tremendous positive impact on PASS.

SQLRally is of course still in flight, but we’ve been working on it hard since July. There were definitely times prior to the November launch that we were behind the curve, not having a web site ready was one, but the choice was to say nothing until ready, or start talking about it even though not fully prepared. We opted for the latter just to get the news out early enough in 2010 that people could try to get it worked into their 2011 budget requests. At this point we’ve opened registration, completed a community vote to pick the pre-con speakers, and the call for speakers is now open through Dec 15th. Our next real challenge is marketing. We have some ideas and it’ll be fun to see if a true grass roots effort works as well as we hope.

Going into next year I’ll have two projects, SQLSaturday and SQLRally. SQLSaturday I’ve covered already, SQLRally the goal is to have another one in the US in 2012, but also take the event international which brings a whole new set of questions and lessons. PASS is working hard to develop an international strategy and this is part of it, doing some mid size events and finding out what works and what doesn’t. Rushabh and had a long talk at the Summit about where to best use my time, and the result was that the SB project is being transferred to Allen and Jeremiah. Hard to let it go, but it needs to be done, and I’m not likely to find any more time in my weeks.

My other current commitment that will run some months into 2011 is the Election Review Committee (see the web site at http://erc.sqlpass.org). That effort is under way and as a group we’re still working to understand the various view points and problems before we start to work on recommendations. I hope in the end our recommendations will be simple, but getting to them is going to be a lot of work!

It’s easy to think (and for me to make it look like) that I’m just a project manager, and sometimes the doer as well. There is some of that, though I expect to spend less time doing in 2011 and put a lot more time into thinking. It can’t just be throwing ideas on the table and hoping someone grabs them, it’s got to be coming up with ideas and testing them through conversations, and figuring out which ones make sense to work on. There is no shortage of ideas for PASS, but we’re going to have to get better at figuring out which ones we should do. We can’t do them all, and that’s part of the thinking process – should we do it, how can we do it with less time, is there something else that would be of greater benefit?

It’s been a good two years. I’ve learned a lot and helped drive some change, and hoping that I can do more of both in the next two years. I plan to continue writing these update over the next two years, so look for #49 sometime in January!

PASS Update #44 (Budget)

(cross-posted from http://www.sqlandy.com/archive/pass-update-44-budget/)

I had a question recently about how budgets work at PASS, and I think that’s something worth sharing, so I’m going to write an overview of that process today.  Note that I’m not the Finance guy, so the “official” word gets published elsewhere, and for that reason I’m not quoting numbers, just talking about process from my perspective as a participant in that process.

First, we start with funding, how do we raise money to pay the bills? A big, big chunk of our revenue comes from the annual PASS Summit, and you can think of this as not just a community event but an “annual fund raiser”. Some of that is from paid attendees and some from sponsors. We also generate some funds from selling Summit DVD’s as well as sponsorships for things like 24 Hours of PASS. PASS does not take any portion of sponsorship funds from SQLSaturday events or Chapter meetings. [Note: That isn’t to suggest that we might, just to explain that we don’t.]

Also, we should have the budget for 2011 published shortly and I’ll post a note when you can review the full document.

Early each year we start estimating (aka guessing) what our revenue will be for the next year. So in Jan/Feb and up through May we’re looking at how much money we will have for the fiscal year that begins July first, with the added challenge that we won’t know how we did until mid to late December after we’ve finalized all the items related to the Summit. If we guess too low we hurt the organization by spending less in often critical areas, and if we guess too high, then that leads to painful discussions about what areas to cut. This is something that most businesses go through and certainly isn’t unique to PASS.

Then we switch to spending. It starts with the President assigning ‘portfolios’ to Board members, which you can think of a being about the same as a large department in most companies. Directors then submit a budget request to the VP of Finance outlining how much and the major areas where it will be spent. At this point it’s a wish list, but scoped based on anticipated changes up or down in revenue as well as the previous year budget. The VP of Finance (currently Bill Graziano) and our accountant then combine all that into a monster spreadsheet for the first round of review.

Next we typically look at that first cut and start talking about where we can make adjustments. Most requests are reasonable to start with, but sometimes there just isn’t enough to do everything, so we each review our list and find places to reduce our request. This has been for one of the best experiences on the Board for me, everyone working together and jointly trying to find ways to get to a budget that will let us accomplish our most important goals.

Then, finally, we vote to approve the budget. At that point we’re able to authorize spend against that budget as long as it generally fits within the plan. If it’s a minor change we’ll send a note to Bill asking for his ok. An example was the project to populate the SQLSaturday wiki. I requested to re-align some of the funds allocated for the project and as it was inline with the goals of the portfolio it was approved. A deeper change might be sent out to the Board for discussion. Once the budget is approved, getting ‘more money’ requires a budget exception, which in turn requires Board discussion and vote. That process is, by design, painful. It takes time to have the discussion, we have to find that ‘more money’, and in general we don’t like mid course changes. They do happen though, and perhaps once a year we’ll have one.

So, where does the money go? We maintain an office and staff, to do things like plan and handle Summit logistics, do SQLSaturday coaching, maintain an auditable set of financial records, and a whole lot more. A lot of it goes to costs at the Summit. I won’t go into numbers here, but the costs are significant. To give you a taste of the costs, at the upcoming SQLRally it costs $12,000 per day for the space, and anything we spend on food and beverage reduces that cost, hopefully to zero. We have to use the hotel for food and beverage, and a boxed lunch costs, wait for it, $35 per box! Our team does a lot to control, reduce, and negotiate these costs, but if you need a big venue, you’re largely stuck playing their game. We devote some money to all the other stuff; SQLSaturday sponsorships, IT projects, etc, etc, etc.

Board members are not paid. When we travel on behalf of PASS (usually just 3-4 meetings a year) we get per diem and reimbursed for airfare, PASS pays for the hotel directly. We do get “free” admission to the Summit. Individual Board members don’t have any personal discretionary spending authority or budget, if we buy drinks or appetizers or coffee when we sit to talk informally with members it’s all out of pocket.

Each year we grant free admission (a “comp”) to the Summit to our speakers and a small number of volunteers. Comps are built into the budget because they have a real cost. It’s not “free” to just let someone extra attend – they get a bag, require registration services, eat meals, drink water, and in general cost real money. It’s somewhat less than the cost of a full registration, but it is substantial. We’d love to do more comps, but ultimately it comes back to the budget. Faced with sponsoring a couple more events or buying SWAG or any of the other places where spending would help, we try to do the things that help most members.

All in all, it’s the standard process that any business goes through, making estimates and judgments and tradeoffs to try to do the most good. Hope that helps some. When Bill publishes the budget I encourage you to read it carefully, though I’ll tell you it’s not exciting reading! He’ll also be publishing an annual statement about our finances and you should read that as well. I think the thing I’d tell you is to look at it portfolio by portfolio and if you have suggestions, send them in.

PASS Update #36

(Cross-posted from Andy Warren's blog on SQLServerCentral.com)

We had our monthly Board of Directors call on July 8th, and as is fairly common, the call went smoothly. Unusually though, I had two items on the agenda, the budget for the "spring event" and the SQL Server Standard.

The budget went through a number of revisions, starting with a super minimalist version in my original proposal and over the course of the process ballooned up to a no profit budget. I think it’s natural to go through that, looking for places where the corners were cut too sharply and fixing them, thinking of places where you want to do nice things. As we got close to final, I really felt like we had gone too far, and started looking for things to cross out of the budget. We went back and made some spending items conditional on hitting certain attendance numbers, took some things out, and ended up with a budget that should deliver a modest profit back to the organization if all goes well. Profit is important. It makes us manage to a budget, makes us make hard decisions, and hopefully gives us another small but interesting revenue stream that can in turn help support other activities. The event budget was approved and that really helps get things moving, and I’m glad to be done with that task!

The second part was the discussion of the Standard. This has been part of my portfolio since last year, relaunched in single-article PDF format to try to continue the great work my friend Steve Jones did in the years when we owned the print magazine. Grant Fritchey took on the role of editor, and so far we’ve produced 7 issues of great content. Yet, when I did a recent review of the project, the click-through rate was pretty low, and even with much better marketing it didn’t seem like that we could generate enough content to create the traffic flow to justify creating the content. Chicken and the egg scenario. I thought about it some, and early this week sent  a note to Rushabh Mehta recommending that we would probably be best served by closing down this project.

About the same time we found that we needed to revise our recently completed FY 2011 budget to account for about $50k less than expected revenue. For Rushabh and the rest of the Board (and me), it wasn’t a hard call to pull about $10k of that from the Standard budget. We voted yesterday to end the SQL Server Standard project, and to look at funding other writing projects on a case by case basis out of the special projects budget.

On content and workflow, I think we got a lot of things right:

  • Set up Grant Fritchey as the editor with a focus just on finding/managing the content
  • Engaged volunteers to do the tech edits
  • PASS HQ handled author payments, workflow, copy edit assignments

Grant Fritchey, Brad McGehee, and the rest of the volunteers did a a great job on the project, so why did it fail? Without trying to make excuses, here are things I think were involved:

  • Written content is a mature market. Not impossible to create a new niche in that market, but it was going to take the combination of good pay (which we had at $500/article) and good exposure for the right writing, which we weren’t able to provide. That added up to not being hugely attractive to authors.
  • We set the bar pretty high for authors. I think this was the right thing to do, we wanted something longer and better than a blog post. Not that blog posts don’t have value, but we wanted something of high quality for the PASS website. We also wanted to challenge the authors and give them a writing credit that might help them land a book deal.
  • We marketed it poorly. We mentioned it in the Connector and on the PASS website, but many told me that they didn’t even realize we were publishing the articles. Definitely there is remedial work we could (and should) have done, but it should have been done better from the beginning. Too much focus on content, not enough on the rest.
  • We required a login to view the articles. Another decision I believe was good, but we just didn’t have enough content to make a new reader invest the time in setting up a login.
  • Lack of deeper involvment from me in areas that could have used help, specifically finding authors and marketing.

At the end, we have to call this a modest failure. We could have kept going; I think the right choice was to stop. Definitely not exciting to blog about ending one of my projects. I was reminded on the budget call that it’s OK to fail sometimes, and that’s logic I agree with – to make gains you have to take some risks. Still, not fun to fail.
–Andy

Who Is PASS?

Maybe it’s bad grammar, but who is PASS? Right now I think too often we define PASS as being our annual Summit, or as the Board of Directors and PASS HQ. Those are part of the equation, but not all of it, and I’d argue not even the most important part.

It’s us.

It’s you.

We all serve the organization in some way. Some of us have reached the point in our careers where we can give back by speaking or leading a chapter or working on a volunteer committee. Some of us are trying to juggle a career and professional development. Some of us are just starting out, seeing SQL Server as a new and exciting world. It takes all of us to make it work.

Without you, we’re an empty shell. With you, we can do incredible things. So the next time someone asks you about PASS, maybe you’ll be ready to say “we are PASS”.

Andy Warren