The Changing Face of PASS

[cross-posted from Bill Graziano's blog at sqlteam.com]

I’m starting my sixth year on the PASS Board.  I served two years as the Program Director, two years as the Vice-President of Marketing and I’m starting my second year as the Executive Vice-President of Finance.  There’s a pretty good chance that if PASS has done something you don’t like or is doing something you don’t like, that I’m involved in one way or another.

Andy Leonard asked in a comment on his blog if the Board had ever reversed itself based on community input.  He asserted that it hadn’t.  I disagree.  I’m not going to try and list all the changes we make inside portfolios based on feedback from and meetings with the community.  I’m going to focus on major governance issues since I was elected to the Board.

Management Company

The first big change was our management company.  Our old management company had a standard approach to running a non-profit.  It worked well when PASS was launched.  Having a ready-made structure and process to run the organization enabled the organization to grow quickly.  As time went on we were limited in some of the things we wanted to do.  The more involved you were with PASS, the more you saw these limitations.  Key volunteers were regularly providing feedback that they wanted certain changes that were difficult for us to accomplish.  The Board at that time wanted changes that were difficult or impossible to accomplish under that structure.

This was not a simple change.  Imagine a $2.5 million dollar company letting all its employees go on a Friday and starting with a new staff on Monday.  We also had a very narrow window to accomplish that so that we wouldn’t affect the Summit – our only source of revenue.  We spent the year after the change rebuilding processes and putting on the Summit in Denver. 

That’s a concrete example of a huge change that PASS made to better serve its members.  And it was a change that many in the community were telling us we needed to make.

Financials

We heard regularly from our members that they wanted our financials posted.  Today on our web site you can find audited financials going back to 2004.  We publish our budget at the start of each year.  If you ask a question about the financials on the PASS site I do my best to answer it.  I’m also trying to do a better job answering financial questions posted in other locations.  (And yes, I know I owe a few of you some blog posts.)

That’s another concrete example of a change that our members asked for that the Board agreed was a good decision.

Minutes

When I started on the Board the meeting minutes were very limited.  The minutes from a two day Board meeting might fit on one page.  I think we did the bare minimum we were legally required to do.  Today Board meeting minutes run from 5 to 12 pages and go into incredible detail on what we talk about.  There are certain topics that are NDA but where possible we try to list the topic we discussed but that the actual discussion was under NDA.  We also publish the agenda of Board meetings ahead of time.

This is another specific example where input from the community influenced the decision.  It was certainly easier to have limited minutes but I think the extra effort helps our members understand what’s going on.

Board Q&A

At the 2009 Summit the Board held its first public Q&A with our members.  We’d always been available individually to answer questions.  There’s a benefit to getting us all in one room and asking the really hard questions to watch us squirm.  We learn what questions we don’t have good answers for.  We get to see how many people in the crowd look interested in the various questions and answers.

I don’t recall the genesis of how this came about.  I’m fairly certain there was some community pressure though.

Board Votes

Until last November, the Board only reported the vote totals and not how individual Board members voted.  That was one of the topics at a great lunch I had with Tim Mitchell and Kendal van Dyke at the Summit.  That was also the topic of the first question asked at the Board Q&A by Kendal.  Kendal expressed his opposition to to anonymous votes clearly and passionately and without trying to paint anyone into a corner.  Less than 24 hours later the PASS Board voted to make individual votes public unless the topic was under NDA.  That’s another area where the Board decided to change based on feedback from our members.

Summit Location

While this isn’t actually a governance issue it is one of the more public decisions we make that has taken some public criticism.  There is a significant portion of our members that want the Summit near them.  There is a significant portion of our members that like the Summit in Seattle.  There is a significant portion of our members that think it should move around the country.  I was one that felt strongly that there were significant, tangible benefits to our attendees to being in Seattle every year.  I’m also one that has been swayed by some very compelling arguments that we need to have at least one outside Seattle and then revisit the decision.  I can’t tell you how the Board will vote but I know the opinion of our members weighs heavily on the decision.

Elections

And that brings us to the grand-daddy of all governance issues.  My thesis for this blog post is that the PASS Board has implemented policy changes in response to member feedback.  It isn’t to defend or criticize our election process.  It’s just to say that is has been under going continuous change since I’ve been on the Board. 

I ran for the Board in the fall of 2005.  I don’t know much about what happened before then.  I was actively volunteering for PASS for four years prior to that as a chapter leader and on the program committee.  I don’t recall any complaints about elections but that doesn’t mean they didn’t occur.  The questions from the Nominating Committee (NomCom) were trivial and the selection process rudimentary (For example, “Tell us about your accomplishments”).  I don’t even remember who I ran against or how many other people ran. 

I ran for the VP of Marketing in the fall of 2007.  I don’t recall any significant changes the Board made in the election process for that election.  I think a lot of the changes in 2007 came from us asking the management company to work on the election process.  I was expecting a similar set of puff ball questions from my previous election.  Boy, was I in for a shock.  The NomCom had found a much better set of questions and really made the interview portion difficult.  The questions were much more behavioral in nature.  I’d already written about my vision for PASS and my goals.  They wanted to know how I handled adversity, how I handled criticism, how I handled conflict, how I handled troublesome volunteers, how I motivated people and how I responded to motivation. And many, many other things.

They grilled me for over an hour.  I’ve done a fair bit of technical sales in my time.  I feel I speak well under pressure addressing pointed questions.  This interview intentionally put me under pressure.  In addition to wanting to know about my interpersonal skills, my work experience, my volunteer experience and my supervisory experience they wanted to see how I’d do under pressure.  They wanted to see who would respond under pressure and who wouldn’t.  It was a bit of a shock.

That was the first big change I remember in the election process.  I know there were other improvements around the process but none of them stick in my mind quite like the unexpected hour-long grilling.

The next big change I remember was after the 2009 elections.  Andy Warren was unhappy with the election process and wanted to make some changes.  He worked with Hannes at HQ and they came up with a better set of processes.  I think Andy moved PASS in the right direction.  Nonetheless, after the 2010 election even more people were very publicly clamoring for changes to our election process. 

In August of 2010 we had a choice to make.  There were numerous bloggers criticizing the Board and our upcoming election.  The easy change would be to announce that we were changing the process in a way that would satisfy our critics.  I believe that a knee-jerk response to criticism is seldom correct.

Instead the Board spent August and September and October and November listening to the community.  I visited two SQLSaturdays and asked questions of everyone I could.  I attended chapter meetings and asked questions of as many people as they’d let me.  At Summit I made it a point to introduce myself to strangers and ask them about the election.  At every breakfast I’d sit down at a table full of strangers and ask about the election.  I’m happy to say that I left most tables arguing about the election.  Most days I managed to get 2 or 3 breakfasts in.

I spent less time talking to people that had already written about the election.  They were already expressing their opinion.  I wanted to talk to people that hadn’t spoken up.  I wanted to know what the silent majority thought.  The Board all attended the Q&A session where our members expressed their concerns about a variety of issues including the election.

The PASS Board also chose to create the Election Review Committee.  We wanted people from the community that had been involved with PASS to look at our election process with fresh eyes while listening to what the community had to say and give us some advice on how we could improve the process.  I’m a part of this as is Andy Warren.  None of the other members are on the Board.  I’ve sat in numerous calls and interviews with this group and attended an open meeting at the Summit.  We asked anyone that wanted to discuss the election to come speak with us.  The ERC held an open meeting at the Summit and invited anyone to attend.  There are forums on the ERC web site where we’ve invited people to participate.  The ERC has reached to key people involved in recent elections. 

The years that I haven’t mentioned also saw minor improvements in the election process.  Off the top of my head I don’t recall what exact changes were made each year.  Specifically since the 2010 election we’ve gone out of our way to seek input from the community about the process.  I’m not sure what more we could have done to invite feedback from the community.

I think to say that we haven’t “fixed” the election process isn’t a fair criticism at this time.  We haven’t rushed any changes through the process.  If you don’t see any changes in our election process in July or August then I think it’s fair to criticize us for ignoring the community or ask for an explanation for what we’ve done.

In Summary

Andy’s main point was that the PASS Board hasn’t changed in response to our members wishes.  I think I’ve shown that time and time again the PASS Board has changed in response to what our members want.  There are only two outstanding issues: Summit location and elections.  The 2013 Summit location hasn’t been decided yet.  Our work on the elections is also in progress.  And at every step in the election review we’ve gone out of our way to listen to the community and incorporate their feedback on the process.

I also hope I’m not encouraging everyone that wants some change in the organization to organize a “blog rush” against the Board.  We take public suggestions very seriously but we also take the time to evaluate those suggestions and learn what the rest of our members think and make a measured decision.