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Andy Leonard

Andy Leonard is CSO of Linchpin People and SQLPeople, an SSIS Trainer, Consultant, and developer; a Business Intelligence Markup Language (Biml) developer; SQL Server database and data warehouse developer, community mentor, engineer, and farmer. He is a co-author of SQL Server 2012 Integration Services Design Patterns. His background includes web application architecture and development, VB, and ASP. Andy loves the SQL Server Community!
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PASS and Summit 2014 Session Selections

Earlier this week, the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) announced speaker and session selections for the Summit 2014 and there was spirited community feedback, questions, and debate. I offer the following analysis and opinions:

In Defense of PASS…

Full disclosure: I was selected to present this year and have been selected to present for several past years. In 2012, I was selected to co-present a full-day, paid, pre-conference session in 2012 but not selected to present during the Summit proper.

Speaker and session selection is a zero-sum game. There are a finite number of session slots. In order for a non-selected session to be selected, one of the selected sessions must be de-selected. Over 900 sessions were submitted to fill roughly 165 slots.

Selecting sessions is hard. That’s one reason PASS (wisely) allows volunteers to do the selection work*. There will be winners and losers, and the losers are not going to be happy about losing. I wasn’t happy about not being selected when it happened to me. I wanted to know why and I asked for feedback. After much persistence I got the feedback I asked for, and I wasn’t happy about that either.

Session Selection is a Process

PASS has a process for selecting sessions. I know the process is designed to facilitate session selection. I know it’s a different process from one used by my friend Allen Kinsel [blog | @AllenKinsel] in years past. There are benefits and liabilities to having a process – any process.

People should always trump process.

PASS and Processes

When people are unhappy with the results of a PASS decision, PASS holds up their process in defense. *But PASS has a history of “overriding” process results. In an earlier Summit pre-conference session selection process, the selection of the volunteers was overridden by PASS leadership. The response of one participant in the selection committee was, “PASS, Don’t Waste My Time.” And this (valid) complaint led to all sorts of trouble in the PASS 2010 Board if Directors election. When PASS makes these sorts of decisions – for whatever reasons – people become suspicious and request more transparency. (I was once asked by a PASS Board member, “How much transparency is enough?”)

Is it better to have no process? I don’t think so. But I think it is hypocritical and a leadership failure to hold up a process as a defense when the process isn’t always followed.

When an MCM who consistently ranks in the top 10 sessions at the PASS Summit, Tech Ed (US and Europe), SQLBits, SQL Connections, SQL Intersections, and almost every other conference at which he presents is not selected to deliver a full-day, paid, pre-conference session and three full-day, paid, pre-conference sessions are awarded to employees of a member of the PASS Executive Committee (which is elected by the elected-members of the PASS Board of Directors, and not elected by the PASS membership – meaning PASS membership has no voice in this Executive Committee member’s future in PASS leadership), ethics questions are inevitable.

I call for a public explanation from PASS leadership of why Brent Ozar [blog | @BrentO] was not selected to deliver a pre-conference session at the PASS Summit 2014.

The Appearance of Misconduct

As Kendal Van Dyke points out in his post, Thoughts On The 2014 PASS Summit Selections, it “smells” when three (of seventeen) day-long, paid, pre-conference session speakers work for the same company and that company’s president sits on the PASS Executive Committee. Are the selected individuals qualified to deliver pre-conference sessions? Yes, they are some of the best and brightest in our community. Are there others in our community who could deliver pre-conference sessions of equal (or higher) quality? Yes.

Is it fair that qualified people be disqualified because they are employed by a company whose leader sits on the PASS Board of Directors? No, it is not fair. But it is right. In business and life, ethics demands we avoid “the appearance of misconduct”. The appearance of misconduct means we are technically (and perhaps morally and actually) right; but the action, words, or decision appears suspect. This is why I’m against having two (or more) members of the PASS Executive Committee work in the same company, and three or more PASS Board of Directors work for the same company.

And this is why I believe the company’s of sitting PASS Board and Executive Committee members should be excluded from the (potentially substantial) financial benefit of being selected to deliver full-day, paid, pre-conference sessions at the PASS Summit.

Some Suggestions

  • Collect and distribute feedback from the PASS volunteers selecting the sessions. (After some digging, I’ve learned feedback was collected from volunteers serving on the session selection committees, but the collected feedback has not been distributed. There may be more written about this in the coming week…)
  • PASS should either follow PASS processes completely or stop using “process” as an excuse for a failure to lead.
  • Do not allow sitting members of the PASS Board of Directors and Executive Committee, or people they employ, to present pre-conference sessions.

Conclusion

I write these words because I care deeply about the SQL Server Community and the subset of the Community that is PASS. Historically, PASS does not respond to Community concerns. I’m not sure if PASS leadership takes the SQL Server Community for granted or merely acts like they take the Community for granted. Either way, it’s no fun for the SQL Server Community.

This is fixable. There’s time to rectify this before the Summit in November. Will PASS leadership make corrections? Will PASS leadership address the concerns of the community? Or will they write the complaints off as coming from “a vocal minority” (unless this post goes viral and gets 250k hits)? We shall see.

Andy

Published Friday, June 27, 2014 10:00 AM by andyleonard
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Argenis Fernandez said:

Bravo. I, too, second in demanding a public explanation from PASS.

June 27, 2014 11:24 AM
 

Brent Ozar said:

(gulps) Wow, holy cow, I'm absurdly honored, like wildly honored, that you'd write this. I had no idea this was coming, and as I was reading through your description of the MCM guy, it suddenly dawned on me that you were talking about me, hahaha. I wish you could have seen my face.

However, I totally don't want a public explanation of why our pre-con wasn't accepted.

I want EVERY session submitter, pre-con or regular session, to get an explanation of why their session wasn't submitted.

The community volunteer speakers put a ton of work into their titles and abstracts. The selection committees worked really hard to review them. I just want those two groups to see each others' work - the speakers deserve to see the feedback so they can improve their craft.

Think about attendee feedback - would we ever keep that from speakers? And if we did, would we speakers be getting better as a community, or worse? The only way I've managed to get good ratings is by consistently listening to what attendees say and striving to improve my work. I want everybody to get that chance, and that means sharing the session criteria and the feedback.

I don't want special treatment. I want regular treatment, but I just want the regular treatment to be better. Let's work together to raise the status quo.

June 27, 2014 12:49 PM
 

Kendra Little said:

Andy, I think your heart is in the right place, but I don't think anyone is automatically entitled to a session, pre-con or otherwise.

Last year, Brent and Jes Schultz Borland and I gave a pre-conference session at PASS that was very successful. It sold so many seats that they couldn't keep the temperature in the room cool enough, and we got really great feedback.

This year, I submitted a pre-con with Jes and Jeremiah Peschka. Brent submitted a pre-con with Jeremiah and Doug Lane, and that wasn't the right fit either. They were both sessions with multiple presenters. Neither got accepted: but that's OK!

I think I can speak for everyone in our company when I say we don't feel "entitled" to automatically have sessions selected because of who we are. And it's totally OK for us to not get picked if we're not offering sessions that are right for the conference -- that's how it should work!

June 27, 2014 1:00 PM
 

andyleonard said:

Hi Brent and Kendra,

  I understand and agree with your sentiments.

  One reason I haven't been selected to deliver a Summit precon since 2011 is I feel strongly that others should be given a chance to do so. So I haven't submitted for Summit precons for two years.

  Brent not being selected is half (maybe less) of my concern. The other half (perhaps more than half) is ethics and avoiding the appearance of misconduct.

  Yall's humility is admirable. I hope I haven't embarrassed you by putting you on the spot like this. I would simply like what many have been seeking for the past several years: feedback.

  Considering PASS has the feedback, I request they release it to each speaker, selected or not. This would add transparency. (There's that word again...)

:{>

June 27, 2014 1:13 PM
 

mrdenny said:

Just out of curiosity if there's all these outrage for Brent not getting a pre-con, where's the outrage for me not getting one?  Is it because I wasn't all over Twitter and Facebook complaining about the process and that I didn't get selected?

Like Brent I'm an MCM.  Like Brent I score well when presenting at TechEd North America, TechEd Europe, Dev Connections, SQL PASS Summit, SQL Rally, etc.  

I've sold just as many seats at a PASS pre-con as Brent.  In fact last year there were people waiting to see if someone had returned tickets to my pre-con.

So I ask again, where's the outrage for myself (and the other people who have delivered a pre-con)?

(As a side note, I'm not asking for a pre-con, or any special feedback here.  I just think it's a little ... like bull shit ... that everyone's all pissed off that one specific person didn't get selected.  Be pissed about the process, or the lack of feedback, but don't go out there demanding that one person get feedback about why they didn't get a pre-con.)

June 27, 2014 8:08 PM
 

Brian Knight said:

Andy - "Is it fair that qualified people be disqualified because they are employed by a company whose leader sits on the PASS Board of Directors? No, it is not fair. But it is right. In business and life, ethics demands we avoid “the appearance of misconduct”."

Am I to understand that you're stating that because a person chooses to volunteer 3-4 weeks a year to the community by serving on the board, that none of the employees of the company that person works for should be accepted for these sessions because it will lead to, or have the appearance of, favoritism? Does this stand true, despite the fact the selection committee can't see speaker and company names tied to their sessions? That seems, frankly, ridiculous. Blocking every one of the board member's employees would be a disservice to the community and would lead to people leaving the increasingly thankless job that is the PASS board.

June 27, 2014 10:31 PM
 

andyleonard said:

Hi Denny,

  In a year when the selection process returns three precon selections for a company whose president sits on the PASS Executive Committee, I think it's plausible to ask why others were not selected. Had I known you were also not selected, I might have written about you instead of Brent, because I feel you are also imminently qualified to deliver excellent precons.

  The reason there was no outrage (on my part, at least) about you not being selected was that I did not know you had not been selected. For me, it isn't about a specific person being selected - it's about the appearance of misconduct of others being selected while someone in authority potentially holds influence over those selected. My outrage is not over Brent; it's directed at leadership that doesn't acknowledge an obvious conflict of interest.

  If my choosing Brent to write about Brent has offended you, I apologize.

Andy

June 27, 2014 10:54 PM
 

mrdenny said:

Multiple company employees have received pre-cons before, lots of times (excluding Microsoft as they pay for their pre-cons and their pre-cons don't come from the community pool).  And this was before the program committee was blind voting.  Now when that happened the company didn't have any board members on the board, but still this isn't exactly earth shattering.

Now that the voting is blind it's bound to happen, especially given that there are so many speakers working for companies like PW.  They submitted abstracts that the program committee liked better than the ones that the rest of us submitted.

The thought that people would be blocked from having pre-cons or sessions because they work for a company that a board member works for is laughable.  That means that as a community we would loose out on a lot of great sessions just because people happen to work with a board member?  Is that fair to the community members who are attending the PASS Summit to get an education?

Something that I'm trying to figure out is why does there have to be a conspiracy because some people didn't get a pre-con or session?  Can't it just be that the program team liked those abstracts better?

Imagine how all the 1st time speakers feel who over the last couple of days have been told that they took the spot of a more deserving speaker.  Because that's basically what happened.  And yes, there are 1st time speakers who feel exactly that way, that they took the spots of someone else.

Writing about Brent doesn't offend me.  The entire back lash has offended me, and others (imagine this, knowing how hard it is to offend me).  Every year it seems that we have to have a massive uproar over something.  It's gotten predictable and frankly old.  We as a community are better than this, I hope.

Yes pre-cons are a big deal, because there's money on the table for the speaker.  But there's also money on the table for PASS.  If the pre-cons bomb at the summit, that's a huge chunk of operating revenue that PASS is missing for the year.  That's a lot of pressure on the program committee.  And they feel that these sessions will benefit the attendees the most, and at the same time make PASS the most money.  No one is entitled to a pre-con, which frankly is what a lot of this complaining looks and feels like to me.  If you get one awesome, you get to make a little money during PASS.  If you don't then you don't.  If you are counting on making money during the PASS summit and need to make that money, then attending the summit probably isn't the best idea.  Just sayin'.

Denny

June 27, 2014 11:35 PM
 

andyleonard said:

Hi Brian,

  You understand my statements correctly, sir. It is my position that, in addition to the sacrifices you list, a leader of a company should ask those in her or his employ to not submit for these (potentially) lucrative opportunities to avoid the appearance of misconduct. This is something I would do voluntarily were I serving on the Board of Directors. Would you as vehemently oppose my "disservice to the community" if I was asking this of Linchpins instead of employees of Pragmatic Works?

  I'm willing to grant that you may.

  If so, are you disappointed in me for not submitting to deliver PASS Summit precons for the past two years? Prior to 2010, I argued the pool of precon presenters should be larger than the handful of individuals permitted to deliver precons. I participated in two teams that delivered precons in 2011 and 2012. I removed myself from consideration by not submitting to deliver a precon the past couple years, consistent with my claim - and belief - that a larger pool of precon presenters was better for PASS, the Summit, and the SQL Server Community.

  I'm limiting my comments to the potentially lucrative, paid, precon sessions - not the regular sessions for which presenters receive free admission to the PASS Summit. While admission is offered to all selected presenters, presenters of the small (by comparison) pool of precons can earn a substantial amount of money for their delivery. Is it too much to ask - for the sake of avoiding the appearance of misconduct - that members of a company serve the SQL Server Community in less-profitable ways while their corporate leadership serves in a position to potentially influence who - and who does not - get to earn that substantial amount?

  I'm not begrudging members of the PASS Board of Directors or Executive Committee the influence they wield. It is part of the thankless job that is serving in PASS leadership. I am stating what most familiar with the PASS Summit 2014 precon selections are thinking. I don't think that they are, or that I am, being ridiculous.

  Although we disagree, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and welcome any other thoughts you share on this post or blog.

Andy

June 27, 2014 11:37 PM
 

andyleonard said:

Hi Denny,

  I apologize for not making my opinion clearer, sir.

1. I am not advocating against multiple presenters from the same organization.

2. I am not decrying multiple presenters of PASS Summit regular sessions from same company - *even if* someone from their upper management sits in PASS leadership.

3. Although volunteers perform the initial, blind ranking of sessions, sessions selected by the volunteers are subject to an additional process before being finalized. While this process is necessary (in my opinion), it is not transparent.

4. I *am* stating the appearance of misconduct exists when a corporate leader serves in PASS leadership and several of their employees are awarded potentially lucrative sessions.

  This is not a question of favoritism, it's about ethics. Ethics demand one avoid the appearance of misconduct.

  This is not an accusation that anyone did anything inappropriate; this is recognition that the potential for someone apply inappropriate influence exists - especially during the non-transparent phase of session selection.

  This isn't a conspiracy theory. If you want my opinion about whether something unethical happened or not, my opinion is that there was no undue influence applied to achieve these results. The Pragmatic Works presenters selected are qualified to deliver PASS Summit precons. This fact is obvious to anyone familiar with the good people in our community.

  Given that...

  None of this touches the possibility that, had someone so desired, both the opportunity and the influence existed. That's why ethics makes such demands of leaders and individuals.

Andy

June 27, 2014 11:58 PM
 

Brian Knight said:

Andy,

Given the process of blind selection with no speaker names, I feel may the best session win in the eyes of the selection committee. I had several regular sessions that I thought would be a slam dunk for the selection committee that weren't selected also but so be it. I even used the word "internals" which I though would win for sure :).  

What's upsetting me is the great leaps you and the few others have taken here to plant seeds of mistrust that a board member is granting access to employees of his or her company. That's why I had to really make sure that I wasn't misinterpreting your statement that in the previous comment. I thought you knew us better than that. To make your accusations or perceptions true, that single person would have to override the other dozen board members, who also would love to have their people represented. It would cause more chaos in the board and more public backlash.

Telling my hundred employees to not submit pre-con sessions when there is a dozen MVPs on staff would just be crazy when community involvement is part of our culture. The company doesn't profit in any way from them getting accepted as you alluded. Actually, quite the opposite. Our products and services are never mentioned and we lose a billable resource for two more days. We also never receive a list of who was even in the room. Logically I should discourage them from submitting and keep them billable but I want them to be best they can be. The payment is nice but the time to help others and help mentor their skills is the main goal.

Yes, I do think you should continue to submit your pre-conference sessions as your session was packed and you helped a lot of people that day. Yes you made money from it but you also helped a full room of people learn more about SSIS and you helped PASS balance their budget.

I was going to stay out of this and not post but the accusation of potential misconduct had me take the bait. I've known you for about a decade now and have always respected you. While I love a good debate, I feel personally a low blow to have the ethics and morals called into question here when you think about the how much work would have to go into an influence with a dozen other board member checks and balances in place and the double-blind session selection. Regardless, I've said my peace and I'm looking forward to seeing you at PASS as always. Have a great weekend!

June 28, 2014 12:40 AM
 

andyleonard said:

Hi Brian,

  Thanks for your response. And thanks for your advice; I'm going to start using the word "internals" in all my abstracts going forward. :)

  I would agree with you if the "blind" session selections were the final step in the session selection process, but it is not the final step. There is a non-transparent process that happens after the blind selections. As I stated in a reply to Denny, you and I would likely agree with most of the decisions rendered during this phase and there is most likely no undue influence applied by anyone, ever. I grant the unfairness of the circumstance to MVP's and other intelligent and imminently-qualified presenters who work at Pragmatic Works.

  But...

  None of this impacts the ethics of the matter. The fact that there is opportunity for such influence raises the appearance-of-misconduct flag.

  Everyone must decide how ethics apply to themselves. Some look at ethics as a balance in life and in business, and argue that the good one does permits some exceptions. They see a scale in their minds where "good" goes on one side and "questionable" goes on the other - and they seek some balance between perfect and leaning-towards-good. I see ethics not as a scale driven by gravity, but as gravity itself: uni-directional, ever-present, never-changing. My friend, the ethics professor, agrees with my view. Regardless of what anyone claims to believe, the proof or our belief lies with our actions. People listen to what you and I do. This isn't a great leap, in my opinion. It's a choice between avoiding the appearance of misconduct or not.

  You don't have to tell your hundred employees to not submit precons, there is another option. It is equally unfair and ethically right. And it is an option similar to one that I have - and would and will - exercise for the sole reason of avoiding the appearance of misconduct. Again, individuals - especially leaders - must make these decisions for themselves. To quote that great philosopher, Geddy Lee, "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

  My concern is not an accusation. It is a concern, and a valid one. Given the history of PASS's relationship with the SQL Server Community, I expect PASS leadership to choose to do nothing in response. I've accomplished my desire to point out that the people concerned about this matter are standing on solid ethical principle.

  I appreciate your feedback, Brian. I'm glad you jumped in. I look forward to seeing you in November, sir.

Andy

June 28, 2014 7:20 AM
 

Brent Ozar said:

Denny - you wrote that:

"Just out of curiosity if there's all these outrage for Brent not getting a pre-con, where's the outrage for me not getting one?  Is it because I wasn't all over Twitter and Facebook complaining about the process and that I didn't get selected?"

You're implying that I complained on Twitter and Facebook that I wasn't selected.

Just to be clear, I have not complained about me not being selected - not even once. I have absolutely complained about the process, but only because I want more transparency and more feedback for submitters. I've made that same complaint every single year, and that complaint will not stop until session submitters get feedback about why they don't make the cut.

We wouldn't hold attendee feedback away from presenters, right?

June 28, 2014 3:15 PM
 

Adam Machanic said:

I have mixed feelings about the "same company" complaint. But I absolutely DO NOT think that a board member has any place delivering a paid precon. You can wait until your board tenure is over, as far as I'm concerned.

As for Brent's mission for transparency, I am 100% behind him. I wrote to the prior person in charge of the program committee and nothing was done. The response was to brush me off. I've now written to the new board member and we'll see if something better results. I'm glad that Brent is bringing this to a broader audience. It's an important topic, and the board can't brush ALL of us off forever.

--Adam

June 29, 2014 4:00 PM

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