Kevin Kline Unplugged

(Thanks to SQL Server Magazine for providing the transcript of Brian Moran’s interview with Kevin!)

I recently had the privilege to spend some quality time with Kevin Kline as PASS Summit Unite 2009 was wrapping up. I served with Kevin on the inaugural PASS Board of Directors 10 years ago, and I’ve considered Kevin a good friend for the past decade. I knew that many of you would enjoy hearing Kevin candidly discuss his journey with PASS, so I asked Kevin if I could interview him, and he was gracious enough to say yes. The interview was a bit hectic because we did it at the PASS booth during PASS. We tried to hide away in the corner, but Kevin’s fans couldn’t help but say hi from time to time.

Brian Moran: How has being on the PASS board for 10 years changed you?

Kevin Kline: It's been very humbling for me, actually. There are certainly things to be proud of when you're at the helm of a big organization, but for me I still see so many things that need to be done, so I feel like in a sense, "Gosh, it would be really good if I had gotten those other things done." And also I really recognize the fact that for me, having been on the board at PASS is an aspect of what I call servant leadership, in which the leader is not there to be served or treated especially well, but is there to serve others and act in such a way that their needs are to be met. So, for me, it was the kind of thing that I thought about every day I was working on PASS stuff, which was most days at least for a little bit. I was definitely thinking about how was it that I could bring value to the membership and provide something that is not being provided elsewhere, or build a relationship that is being broken down somewhere else, or reconcile with someone who was irreconcilable before. Where can we make these things better, rather than leave them as they are or let them get worse.

Moran: How much time, on average, do you think you spend working on the board?

Kline: Well, it's varied, depending on the particular time and job. In the early years, it was probably between 5-10 hours per week. For a few years, when we were doing all that work to move to CNC, it was 20-30 hours a week on top of the 40-50 hour day job. That was backbreaking at that time, but I was very dedicated and loyal—I really wanted to see it happen. I knew it had to be done, so I had to see that through.

The last couple of years have been less demanding but still probably on the order of 5-10 hours a week. I would say that over the lifespan of being on the board for 10 years, it's probably averaged 15 hours per week.

Moran: Was that primarily personal time per se? Did Quest Software ever say, "Hey Kevin, it's great that you're on the board, and you only have to work half-time for us and we'll still pay you full salary"?

Kline: No, I pretty much always had to work on it on personal time. Now Quest was always supportive of what I was doing, and if there was a way I could multi-purpose it, that was great, but that didn't always work out. Sometimes you have to take off your employee hat and you have to put on your PASS hat and just wear that one. So a lot of the time, I did need to do that. When I was working on Quest stuff, I tried to give 110 percent, when I was working on PASS stuff, they needed a full measure too.

Were there ever awkward situations with being the president of PASS and being a senior person at a major SQL Server software vendor as well?

Kline: This was something that could've been horrible, and I think one of the key things we need to do as smart professionals is recognize the risk and take steps to mitigate it. For example, when I started on the board I did not work for Quest; at the time I was working for Deloitte & Touche as a standard team lead for the DBAs there, so it wasn't an issue. But later on when I took the job with Quest, it was sort of an issue. And at that time we adopted much stricter rules around conflict of interest, just to make it clear to everyone—not just to the board in general, but the membership and also to myself—that we're going to manage it, we're not going to let it manage us. We also did some changes in the governance. At that time (around 2002), the board had less strictures around the way it was structured and the president was a more powerful position. We implemented a new structure called the Executive Committee inside the wider board, so there would be checks and balances against a very powerful president who might try to use that inappropriately to try and sponsor his employer or company. So the two VPs and the president—along with the immediate past president—made up the executive committee. So it was possible for them to override the president if the president stepped out of line to do anything.

And then just on a personal level, because vendors are so important to the success of PASS, anytime I spoke about a vendor, I mentioned my employer but then I also gave thanks to Red Gate [Software], Imceda, xkoto, to CA, to everybody. I made it clear that I'm wearing the hat as PASS's president and we love all of you guys, and we want to make all of you successful selling to this group of people. We want to make everyone in this group of people SQL Server professionals—we want to make you their chosen one. I always tried to play as fair as I could, make it as above board as I could, so that everybody benefitted in the old "rising tide raises all boats" mantra that was sort of carried through. But it was definitely something that we knew could be an issue and we spent a lot of time thinking about it.

Moran: For my next question, I wasn't sure if I wanted to phrase it as "What's next for Kevin?" or "Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?", so you can answer it either way.

Kline: No, I don't know what I want to be when I grow up. I do know that I need to take a sabbatical for awhile. So I need to take a little time off to rest and recuperate, but I also know that I'm a rather restless soul, and I think like yourself and like quite a few other people in the world, I'm not the kind of person that's just content to do a 9-5 job and that's all I do or all I think about. So I know there'll be more. It could be something like volunteering more at my church, could be something much more global or a much larger organizational sort of thing. I don't know what it is yet, but yeah, there's definitely more.

Moran: Where does PASS need to be in five years, and then 10 years? You've been around for 10 years—where should it be the next 10 years?

Kline: I've kind of beat this drum before in the past. PASS right now is great about touching on the technology side of being an IT professional/SQL Server professional. I think it needs to develop much more in terms of the first letter in its acronym, on the professional side of things. Much more needs to happen in terms of helping people progress through their careers. Many people don't stay a technologist their whole life—maybe they start as a developer or support person and become a DBA, then they become a BI analyst, and BI has business in its name, so maybe they then move into the business and become an owner of a major component of the business. So we need to help people move through those different stages of their career, not just this one, seven-year period of your career. We need to help you become a much better professional across the board, and help you raise your game in a number of ways.

So that's one big thing I see changing. Another—and again, going back to your earlier question—is I really see Web 2.0 becoming a much bigger element of PASS. Much more content streamed, much more availability for comment and discussion, for people giving something three stars or five stars or no stars. A lot more collaboration. One of the things that I think has already been great about PASS is the way the community really pulls together, and I think we're going to see that become even more dynamic and even more, as Amir Nazim says, more "alluring" and attractive and pulls in even more people. We know that there's this group of people that everyone's invited to come and discuss. I think we'll see more of that in the future.

Moran: Have the various technologies and social media networking spaces impacted the way PASS works?

Kline: There's no question. Definitely. And I don't mean to be critical, but in some ways the leadership of the organization has been somewhat insular, and by no one's fault, just that our older methods of communicating were slower and it was a little harder to get that information. If I had a great idea, it was harder to get that into the board, then get someone to sponsor that idea, make a proposal, turn that into an action plan, and carry it all out. Now those things can happen much much faster through social networking. I think that PASS is going to make some smart bets, put some resources in the right places, and we're going to start to see that bear fruit.

Moran: I know there are some achievements at PASS that you're proud of and some things that you wish could have gone better.  Over your whole tenure, is there anything you wish you could go back in your time machine and do a different way?

Kline: Well, there’s a very long list of things I wish we could've done differently or done better. Here's a simple example: The board has had a great number of people who have served for varying lengths of time—one year, two years, maybe even two terms or more. Once those sterling individuals have left the board, in most cases, that's the last we hear from them. They don’t come back as speakers; they don't lead a local user group. For some reason, many of them have disengaged. And in some cases, these folks were promoted into better jobs, and they don't care about SQL Server anymore, which is understandable. But in some cases, those people are still engaged in SQL Server, and I wish there was something we had done to help them stay in the fold, and to stay active and interested, and to at least comment every now and then and say, "Hey, here's my thoughts on this particular issue."

I really should actually broaden that, because there's a lot that happens to people who we have made contact with, but we somehow lost that contact. So we've had great speakers, chapter leaders, committee members, and in any kind of volunteer organization—boy and Girl Scout troops, PTO—volunteers do it for the love of that organization. I fear that if we had just expressed a little more care and appreciation, some of these people might still be with us today. And that's a fault I take personally—you know, I could've done a better job telling these people how much it meant to me. So that's just one example—there are quite a few where we could've done a better job as a team trying to lead this organization.

Moran: On that topic, I'm just thinking out loud a little: Do you think there's value in having some sort of advisor's network of past PASS leaders who have institutional knowledge about what's worked and what hasn't worked? Has the board talked about something like that?

Kline: The board has not talked about something like that very much. We have talked about some ideas around giving some long-term benefits to a board member. Say, if you served more than a year, then you always qualify for the lowest-price discount for the conference. Or, you know, some things like that.

Moran: Like a lease on a 5-series BMW maybe?

Kline: Exactly. You get at least 25 percent of what we paid you before. But actually, to go directly back to your idea, that was one of the things I was thinking: You know what, why don't I create a LinkedIn group of former board members? If nothing else, we can be the peanut gallery.

Moran: Have you done that?

Kline: I have not done that, but I plan to do that. Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. One of the things that mature organizations do is that, after they pass a certain threshold, you have enough institutional knowledge that if you take any one individual out of the organization the institution still continues. We're not there yet.

Moran: Can we have a special LinkedIn group for people who used to be on the board and are now on the board again now?

Kline: That would be a very special group, with a membership of maybe just one person.

Moran: I could probably ask you an infinite amount of stuff about PASS per se, but without sounding too silly, I think you have a lot of fans in the community. They probably wouldn't mind knowing a little more about Kevin, the non-SQL Server professional. Just some soft ball questions: Based on the amount of time you’ve dedicated to PASS, I'm not sure if you had a lot of time for golf or something. What do you do for fun?

Kline: That's a great question: What have I been doing for fun? I think consistently, one of the things I've been doing that gives me a lot of pleasure is I am a person of faith, and I'm active in my church, and that's probably my biggest group of friends back home in Nashville—the people I see every week and we have parties, throw each other birthdays parties, Easter, Christmas, Halloween parties and things like that. I enjoy playing classical guitar, Spanish guitar. And I am also a bit of a tinkerer and inventor—I'm going to file my first provisional patent this year.

Moran: Congratulations. Well you haven't filed it yet, so can you say what it is or perhaps I could revisit that question after you file?

Kline: Yeah, let's come back in a couple months and we'll talk about it some more.

Moran: Do you have a favorite memory of PASS?

Kline: It's a very personal memory, but I guess it was either the first or second year I was president, and it was in Dallas when we were in the Gaylord [Texan Hotel] in Grapevine, and we went to this big rodeo place for a volunteer outing. A bunch of the really big volunteers like Pat Wright at the time, Chuck Heinzelman, there was 50 people there and they grabbed me and stuffed me into one of those rodeo clown barrels. And, I don’t know, at that time I just felt like it was a big family of people who cared about each other. It felt really great. If I was home sick, I would get a card or a call from one of these people, and that's what made it feel really really good to me. Yeah, I learned a ton about SQL Server, but it wasn't until it felt like family—that's when it was priceless.

Moran: Just for the interview record, I'll readily admit I was silly and didn't have a good recording device, so we missed some of the earlier stuff. On that topic, you were talking about family. You already addressed this, but I think the readers would really want to hear it in your own words rather than my note taking. You talked about having been in IOUG versus PASS, and the differences.

Kline: Thanks for reminding me of that—I forgot all about that. One of the things that attracted me to PASS in the very early days was when I realized it was a different group and different kind of people. I had been active in IOUG at the local level—now it's called the Independent Oracle User Group. It has a very different feel—people have their heads down, there's not a lot of mixing and laughing and cajoling and playing around, and it just didn't have the same kind of feel. That's one of the things I really love and enjoy about PASS—there's a real sense of humanity. You said that I have fans—I never thought of it that way. There's people who think that what I have to say is interesting and worth listening to, and maybe that's what a fan is, but I'm just as interested in what they have to say back. It's not a closed loop, and I really love that about PASS. I love being able to do a session here, and then ask the audience to answer another audience member's question—"Does anyone else have any thoughts about that?" And it's great. In an Oracle environment, you would be kind of ashamed to do something like that because you wouldn't get that support. People would be like "What are you, stupid? What's your problem?"

I'm not saying it's that way with all Oracle groups or all Oracle people by any means, but the times that I went I definitely got a vibe that, "I'll ask a question, but I'm going to do it in more formal terms. Excuse me sir, I have question," not "Hey, Kevin! What do you think about this?" So it has a very different feel.

Moran: So to paraphrase: Would it be fair to say that SQL Server people are generous and nice and Oracle people are evil and wicked?

Kline: I would use that any day of the week.

Moran: You mentioned that the Oracle people are a little bit more heads down. I was at the keynote this morning and I seem to recall a picture of you being somewhat heads down. What was the story on that?

Kline: That was back in Dallas, and we were just doing our transition to our new management company, so we were having an enormous amount of meetings as well as just trying to run a conference and do all the logistics there. And in addition, that year I really really wanted to conduct some postmortems with each of the board members individually to find out what they felt like had gone well and what had gone poorly that year, not just with the conference but with each of their portfolios. Was I helping them facilitate what they were trying to do? Was the board?

So it was back-to-back meetings, up at 6 a.m., in bed at midnight, 1, or 2 a.m. It was the last day of the week in that photograph, Rick Heiges and I had just completed his postmortem, and the next board member on the list wasn't immediately at hand. Rick said "Hey, I'll check to see if he's around." It was Paul Nielsen, I believe. And so he turned his back just for a minute or two, when he turned back around I had just completely flatlined, passed out I was so exhausted. So he took a picture at that point, and we had a good laugh. I was going 100 mph and just didn't have enough gasoline to keep it going the whole time.

Moran: I asked this question earlier and I have some notes on it, but just so readers can hear it in your own words. You don't see a lot of tears at a PASS event. For the readers, Wayne [Snyder] was doing an introduction for Kevin and got a little bit emotional and was crying. I did go up to Wayne after and told him he was a big sissy for crying, and then I did get a little teary-eyed too. How did that make you feel?

Kline: You know, I was so honored, and I was really shocked and surprised. But, I was just so honored—so deeply honored. Very touched, and quite choked up myself. I'm very humbled by it.

Moran: You've probably had a chance to travel a good bit with PASS. Was there one place that you had the opportunity to go to that you enjoyed the most?

Kline: There's not a lot of perks to being a board member, but the one perk for me that was really neat was that we were able to go to different places that PASS paid for us as board members to go to. One of the places that was just magical was Dubrovnik, Croatia. Just a beautiful city built right on the Adriatic Sea. Beautiful Mediterranean landscapes, gorgeous blue sea, and really really a magical place. It's definitely a place I hope to go back to someday and see again.

There are other places that are also wonderful that I've been able to go to because of PASS, but Dubrovnik is definitely at the top of the list.

Moran: Is there anything you want to share with the community that I haven't asked you yet?

Kline: Yeah there is one thing. I'd like to make a call to action to the community: So much of the time, we're just focused on getting our work done, going home, watching some TV, and going to bed. And, getting back up and doing it all over again. I would encourage any reader and listener to think about, maybe you can give back a little bit. And the difference between a lifetime of achievement and a lifetime of just doing what you needed to do, I think in a lot of cases is simply watching a little less TV, and spending a little more time trying to help others.

Think about how much TV the average person watches a week, and how much the average person just doesn't really care about. If they could just cut out one or two of those a week, they would be giving back in a substantial way to the community. So I would encourage everyone—it doesn't have to be PASS even—to pick what you really care about and give back to that, and you will make the world a much better place.

Moran: That's good advice. What you just shared about a call to action sparked this question. It's a little weird interviewing you as an outgoing board member as a member of the press when I'm an ingoing board member. When I got elected this year, I think this year PASS published the number of people who voted this year, which I'm not sure that PASS did in the past.

Kline: No, not that I'm aware of.

Moran: I was surprised, myself, at what I thought was the relatively low number of people who actually voted. I had always assumed the numbers were pretty high. You probably know, but it was 530 or something like that. What are your thoughts on the number of people who vote on PASS?

Kline: I hate to be harsh, but I think it's pretty pathetic, really. In a membership of between 30 and 40 thousand people, we had 500 people vote? And I know that many people don't think that this is an organization that has an electoral form of governance, but really, I wish people would care a little bit more. If, as a member of PASS, the only thing you do this year is to vote, I think you will have contributed in a significant way, really. I'd love to see that number with a 0 behind it. Let's get at least 16 or 20 percent of the membership voting.

Moran: You probably don't even need to miss a whole TV show to vote.

Kline: Exactly, it just takes moments.

Moran: Well Kevin, I know you're busy this week. I've known you for a long time. On a personal level and on behalf of the community, I want to say thanks for everything you've done.

Kline: Thank you Brian. It's been my pleasure. Really appreciate it.

(You can also read this article on the SQL Server Magazine website.)