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Kevin Kline

What Direction Do You Choose?

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose.
Dr. Seuss

 

Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss makes a great point.  Only you can determine where you go in life and where those you lead in life (your significant other, your kids, your family, your business associates) will follow.  What happens when you don't have your feet in your shoes?  What if you're not wearing shoes?  Or what if your shoes are sandals?  Which direction do you steer?  Do you head to the beach or to the snowy mountains?  What if you're not only steering yourself, but an entire professional association?

I've watched the blog posts and comments pile up throughout the community with eyes wide and mouth hanging open in consternation.  In a way, I'm thrilled to see all of the discussion.  After all, prior election were rather placid affairs.  An election with a lot of discussion should be a good thing, right?  Normally, I'd say "Absolutely!"  However, the rancor and negativity have been impossible to ignore. In response, please allow me to walk you through PASS' history relating to elections, as well as the entire nomination and election process to give you a better understanding for this situation in its entirety.

Before I go further, I want to thank the members of the Nominations Committee (NomCom) for their steadfast dedication and self-sacrifice.  NomCom members include uber-volunteer Allen Kinsel (twitter), former board member and co-founder of SQLServerCentral Brian Knight (blog), PASS EVP Rushabh Mehta (blog), PASS executive director Judy Christianson.  PASS president Wayne Snyder also sat in the sessions (since he'll be leading this effort next year) but did not vote.  The committee spent many hours of time on the entire process, frequently, at the cost of family and personal time.

The Context

Historically, PASS nominations were entirely committee-driven.  In many years, there were only as many candidates, good or bad, as slots.  As the years advanced, the board directed that the NomCom alter the nomination vetting process in several ways.  For example, for many years, the NomCom simply rubber-stamped existing board members if they wanted another term on the board.  After experiencing a handful of board members that were unproductive or even counterproductive, the board wanted to make sure that returning board members were subjected to the same rigors as a newcomer.  The NomCom was instructed by the board to develop a set of interview questions to assess the candidates and also to analyze the candidates' performance as a board member or a high-level volunteer for the organization.  (An unintended consequence of this change was that some candidates without much experience within the organization didn't pass the vetting.)

As time passed and the board seated many top technical talents, the board began to see a definite pattern of technologists who couldn't focus on the big picture, couldn't formulate strategies, and would derail board meetings with unending discussions of deep technical details.  Using a hypothetical example, if the board was considering a strategy around collecting information and feedback from chapters (to better advocate to our founders and vendors about the reach of the organization), some board members loved to spend huge amounts of board time building data models and noodling over what sort of client- and server-side code should be written to support the application, when in fact the board hadn't even settled on what strategy to pursue.  That's like spending all your time writing an application without requirements - worse practice!

After all, these other board members had all been great technologists and had willing spirits and giving hearts, but they actually obstructed PASS' advancement rather than helping it.  There wasn't anything intrinsically wrong with what they were doing.  They were simply playing to the skills that had made them such successful technologists and key players throughout their careers.  However, it was simply counterproductive.  PASS simply needed more business and leadership skills and less, yes LESS, technical skills in the board room.  Consequently, the board further instructed the NomCom to begin assessing incoming candidates for strategic and leadership skills.  And because strategic and leadership skills were shown through many years of experience to be at least as important as SQL Server-related skills, the NomCom was also encouraged to entertain nominations from candidates outside of the traditional applicant pool in search of those business skills.

From Here to There, Funny things are Everywhere
From Here to There, Funny things are Everywhere 

The Process Today

As the chair for 2009's PASS Nominations Committee, it's my job to ensure that the candidates presented to the PASS membership for the general election meet the standards and objectives set by the board, the bylaws, and the processes and procedures currently in place.  The NomCom had very clear directives and processes (at least internally):

  1. Collect all of the "paper" applications that come in through the Call for Nominations.  (We received only 11 this season.)
  2. Each member of the NomCom then ranks each "paper" application on a variety of criteria, including criteria like leadership experience, volunteer experience, educational experience, performance, and much more.  Based on those scores, we looked for a clustered scores among the candidates.  There is usually a clear break of a full point or more between the top scoring candidates and the lower scoring candidates, and this year was no different.
  3. Candidates who scored strongly on the "paper" ranking then advanced to phone interviews with the entire NomCom.  (Only seven of this season's candidates had scores strong enough to advance.)
  4. With leadership skills now as important as other overall skills and experiences, candidates needed to provide the NomCom with a vision statement for what they'd like to accomplish while on the PASS board.  Then, the candidate had to answer questions like "Describe a situation where you were able to use persuasion to convince someone with an opposing view to see things your way" and "Tell us about a time when you had to much on your plate and had to reprioritize all of your projects" and "Tell us about your biggest successes in your volunteer/board work this last year".  (It is at this stage that a candidate can establish their leadership credentials.  It's also worth noting that those leadership experiences and examples could come from any aspect of the candidates' life - not just PASS, or professional work, but examples such as the local PTA, the Girl/Boy Scouts, athletic teams, civic groups, and church activities were all acceptable and encouraged.)  Each candidate was then reranked by the NomCom members with all new scores.
  5. Since the candidate's volunteer track records was given equal weight to their interview and discussion with the NomCom, a candidate who was strong in both areas would definitely advance to the elections while a candidate who was weak in one area or the other might land on the fence or, in a couple situations, performed so poorly during the interview that they didn't advance.  (Once again, there was a strong clustering of scores with a top four and a bottom three by a wide margin.)

While the NomCom wanted to put forward a slate large enough to have two (or more candidates) per open slot, the simple fact is that the NomCom only felt a strong confidence in four candidates.  In other words, the NomCom felt that anyone of the four would perform admirably as board members and by advancing the candidate to elections it, in effect, endorsed them.  One of the candidates, Tim Ford, who went through the tough interview process commented on it here.  Once all the candidates were notified, they were allowed to begin campaigning according to the rules set up early this year.

The Fallout

I want to point out that a lot of the criticisms of this year's elections are, in some form or another, a declaration of what people think the elections should be rather than what they actually are. This is a lot like assessing a family sedan for racing performance, and then criticizing it when the quarter mile and zero-to-sixty numbers aren't too strong.  The fact is, you'll always come away disappointed. (Of course, I'm TOTALLY aware that PASS is too veiled about all of these processes.  To extend the analogy, it's like a family sedan that you can't tell is a sedan until you get inside of it.)

Much of the turmoil seemed to start with Brent Ozar's blog post and interview with candidate Matt Morollo.  Be sure to read the comments!  (I'm not going to speak to the specifics of any individual candidate, btw.)  In our case, the nomination process was designed in pre-collaboration days before Web2.0 capabilities were ever conceived.  Transparency was not a strategic goal of the board or of the NomCom, vetting the best candidates was the main strategic goal of the NomCom.  Examples of this sort of criticism, and I'm not saying that the criticisms are wrong only that they target an ideal situation rather than what is currently in place, are illustrated when Geoff Hiten declares a PASS Fail, when Chuck Boyce says It's the Transparency, Stupid, or when Andy Leonard says that only database professionals should be board members.  Again - these are not wrong per se, they're simply personally held views about the way things should be.  Marlon Ribunal's recent blog post seemed to reflect an awareness that NomCom policies are a reflection of directives coming from the board and attempting to help drive the board's core strategic goals.  Stuart Ainsworth, on his blog entry, pointed out that all candidates should experience a high degree of scrutiny and questioning.  And Joe Webb pointed out that balance is extremely important for board candidates regarding not only their skills, but also who  the candidates work for, what the candidate does in their day job, and much more in his post on the PASS Board of Director elections.

Would You Eat Them Here or There?
Would You Eat Them Here or There? 

Times, They Are a Changin'

Web2.0 has definitely arrived on PASS' doorstep.  The board has, traditionally, not been motivated by transparency coupled with direct collaboration with the wider community.  The gyre of Twitter conversations and blog posts with long trailing conversations are a new experience to many with a seat at the board table.  While it's important to one or two of the current board members, a transparent and collaborative approach hasn't taken root with everyone on the board.  Do you want that to change?  Then I am directly calling you to action!  Meet with like-minded individuals at the Summit in two short weeks.  Identify a champion (or two) within the board who will spearhead the effort and then work cooperatively to build the proposal(s).  But beware what you wish for.  Governance changes are surprisingly draining on a board, especially if they're expected to draft the new governance policies themselves.  In effect, by retooling the governance of the organization, you'll also be asking the board NOT to accomplish something else among the major goals for the year.  Perhaps the very first proposal should be for the establishment of a Governance Committee that could discuss the issues openly and collaboratively, while taking the majority of the workload off of the board?

There have been so many ideas about what needs to change for the election process, many contradicting one another.  Do you want to require a director to have attended one or more past PASS Summits?  Or do you want to promote diversity between North American and other countries where Summit attendance is probably prohibitively expensive?  Do you want to allow the board to prescribe a certain ratio of consultants versus corporate IT versus vendors?  Or do you want the most experienced candidates, even if they're all from one sort of  career path?  Or, as these multitudes of conversations have asked again and again, do you want someone who can sling some great Transact-SQL code or do you want someone who has a more diverse viewpoint with more of a general business orientation in their daily job?  Do you want direct open elections without a NomCom or only a cursory check on qualifications?  (Be prepared for a lot of candidates to come out of the woodwork from all over the globe!)  Or do you want to have a strong quality-control process in place for nominees as a prerequisite for the elections?  Would you feel good seeing a candidate conduct a train-wreck of interview in which that can't clearly articulate why they should be a board member?  That gives us transparency, but discourages a lot of people from considering putting their hat in the ring. Or would you rather shelter them from possible embarrassments?  You get more candidates that way, though transparency declines.  The trade-offs aren't always so easy.

Let me be direct on a second point - not enough people are answering the Call for Nominations.  If you want to see elections with multiple candidates for each open slot, PASS will need many more high-quality candidates each year.

Finally

I don't mean to put any one on the spot or make anybody feel bad.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion, after all.  However, I hope that I've helped illuminate some of the dark corners of this process and why the NomCom put forward the slate of candidates that they have.  Don't like it?  I've given you what you need to set about bringing change to your professional association.  Let me know what you think!

Thanks,

-Kevin

Twitter @kekline

 More content at http://KevinEKline.com/

Published Wednesday, October 21, 2009 2:12 AM by KKline
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Comments

 

Chuck Boyce said:

Hi Kev,

Great post. You present things as you see them with clarity and dignity. I want to make a brief observation about Web 2.0 and those in the SQL Server community who use social media.

You state:

"Governance changes are surprisingly draining on a board, especially if they're expected to draft the new governance policies themselves.  In effect, by retooling the governance of the organization, you'll also be asking the board NOT to accomplish something else among the major goals for the year."

To those of us is the sql server community that use social media every day, we might read this concern and say "just use twitter and UStream? What's the big deal?".

We don't see social media being that big of a change because we use it everyday and it greatly benefits our professional lives. I am involved in a lot of the sql server conversation that takes place on twitter and UStream and participation from members of the Board with one notable exception is small to none. One possible idea might be that if members of the PASS Board tried to engage the sql server community personally for a trial period of say, two weeks or so, just so Board members could see what engaging the sql community using social media entails. Board members might see it doesn't require a lot of effort to begin using social media.  (I know that setting up a twitter account and a UStream channel can literally be accomplished in one hour.) I think it'd be great if the members of our Board would give it a try! Join us, PASS Board. We don't bite. Mostly.

:-)

Thanks again, we are very fortunate to have been led by you.

Your friend,

Chuck

@chuckboycejr

October 21, 2009 7:24 AM
 

Andrew Kelly said:

Awesome post Kevin. There are always going to be people who disagree with what ever PASS does but hopefully this opens peoples eyes to the reality of what it takes or will take for PASS to be sucessful overall.

October 21, 2009 9:41 AM
 

Matt Morollo said:

Kevin,

Thanks for the post, love the opening theme, and have responded in more detail on Brent's blog for continuity....www.brentozar.com

Thanks so much,

-Matt

October 21, 2009 10:02 AM
 

Stuart Ainsworth said:

Great post, Kevin. I appreciate the way you’ve clearly articulated the goals of the NomCom and the direction that the BoD is taking; however, I still support Andy Leonard’s approach that technical experience with SQL Server should be a requirement for Board members. It is certainly not the ONLY requirement, nor is it necessarily the most important, but it does help ensure that the BoD stays in touch with the community it is serving.

If, as in your hypothetical example, you have board member who don’t know when to put down the technical hat and put on the business hat, I wouldn’t say that you need less technically-skilled people but that you just don’t have enough of the other skills to get the job done. Granted, that means that you need more people to apply for the position, and I think having a post like this which clearly lays out the nomination process will help with that.

I hope that we have this much interest next year (if not as much controversy); it’s exciting, and I hope it motivates more of us (myself included) to become more active.

Stu

October 21, 2009 11:01 AM
 

Todd McDermid said:

Fantastic post, Kevin.  I never could accept that "not knowing" what the NomCom did meant that it was "wrong".  I truly appreciate the vetting process that it (and the potential candidates) went through - you guys spent tens of hours (each) allowing me to make a _very_ educated decision in under one.

I share your caution about having the board retool the governance process - it's not easy.  Just because joining the conversation might be easy doesn't mean altering the nomination process to include it will be.

October 21, 2009 11:55 AM
 

Adam Machanic said:

Some people--most notably the loudest and most obnoxious in the debate over on Brent's blog--seem to not realize that PASS, while calling itself a "community", is really a business. And it is absolutely not a technology business. A community of technologists has nothing to do with technology; it has everything to do with the members of the community: people. PASS is in the people business. And members of the PASS board do not lead the members of PASS; they lead the organization toward its goals. These arguments about needing to be a DBA to be on the board completely miss the point. The board needs people who understand business and who understand the business of people.

October 21, 2009 12:02 PM
 

Andy Warren said:

Kevin, that's a good start, but I'd ask for more. How can we drive more candidates if they can't really assess what is required? How we do make sure the community knows that we're doing a fair job of the evaluations? My answer? Publish it all. The applications, the questions, the scores.

We've got a lot of work to do on governance and I think we can do it next year, even if it does come at the expense of something else.

Adam, I only agree with you in part. We have to make sure PASS lives on what it earns and to that degree is a business, but as a pure business I think it would fail - it is the implict trust in PASS that the community grants, and the community could take away - that makes PASS 'different' from other events. Lots of room to debate and compromise on the Board makeup, but I for one believe that PASS does represent the community, and I believe it can do still more.

October 21, 2009 1:49 PM
 

Adam Machanic said:

Followup: I just saw an announcement from PASS that said only 578 people voted. I think this is quite telling. Either the PASS community is lazy (I hope not), PASS failed to communicate well enough (which I know firsthand is not true--I received numerous e-mails), or the PASS community doesn't care and/or thinks it doesn't have a voice. Interesting to think about in light of these discussions. PASS, as a people company, has failed to get its people motivated. Too bad the media guy didn't get a spot.

October 21, 2009 3:10 PM
 

K. Brian Kelley said:

Adam,

 I would disagree with you on business vs. community. When I see business, I think "for profit," which PASS is not. Maybe that's us using different semantics. I know that you can run a professional organization (community) where the focus is on the people and where most members are unaware of the financial side. There are quite a few out there that function just like this. As a result, they don't feel like a "business."

I would agree with you that based on the #s who voted, we do have a people problem, though. And for this reason I really hope Matt sticks around and gets more involved. PASS can use his talent, skills, and passion. One doesn't have to be a board member to make a contribution for the benefit of the organization and all of its members.

October 21, 2009 3:29 PM
 

Adam Machanic said:

Brian, I've done loads of consulting work for "non profit" companies and there is a huge flow of capital through these places. Whether for or not for profit it is most certainly a business, and if you forget that you'll wind up without any business at all. Money makes the world go 'round, like it or not. This is not a commune :-) ... That said, I agree that it should not feel like a business to members of the community, and I think PASS has failed in that regard. To most people PASS is a conference and everyone knows that the goal of a conference is to make money. That's even PASS's goal with the conference; it's the only way, as far as I know, that the organization makes money to drive its other programs.

October 21, 2009 3:43 PM
 

K. Brian Kelley said:

Adam, point taken on the capital flow for non-profits. Your comment reminded me that there is a local non-profit here in Columbia, SC, struggling for this very reason. Noble goal, does a lot of good work for veterans and underprivileged youth, and can get donations in equipment and software, but it has struggled over the last 18 months because it hasn't been able to always secure the money to keep the lights on and the employees paid.

I rescind my position on PASS not being a business. It has to be, but it doesn't have to feel like one. So to take Andy's position with respect to the NomCom, I'll start asking around about how I might be able to help in this.

October 21, 2009 3:55 PM
 

Chuck Boyce said:

I choose to believe that the SQL Server community and PASS are one in the same. Certainly, PASS asserts that it is a community:

http://www.sqlpass.org/AboutPASS/BecomeaMember.aspx

If the economy were ever to struggle to the point (God forbid) that the PASS conference LOST money and PASS had to find another way to "do community" - there would still be a SQL Server community for PASS to serve, even if it weren't via a conference.

Chuck

@chuckboycejr

October 21, 2009 4:06 PM
 

Andrew Kelly said:

Come on people wake up already. No one is saying that PASS cannot or does not have a community. It is obvious that it does and will continue to have one. But in my opinion the community is simply a part of PASS and in reality not as big a part as some people want to believe. As Adam stated I think the voting numbers spoke for themselves. There are thousands and thousands of people who are technically part of PASS yet only hundreds voted.  The key here is this should be expected to some degree and is not necessarily a problem. Many individuals simply utilize PASS for its ability to provide them with the means to further their education, plain and simple. At the end of the day they are home with their family who is their true commuunity and they may not have the desire or time to devote to the PASS community in the way many of the people in these threads think they should. This may be hard for some people in these threads to comprehend since they devote a lot of their spare time to helping others in communities such as PASS. MVP's or even twitter. But the bottom line is not everyone chooses to do the same. And this can be for many reasons that range from purely personal choice to devotion to other activities or simply their own families. The point I am trying to make here is that a community tht is based around a technical aspect such as SQL Server will always have a limited truely dedicated following. The rest will simply be gettign the benefits that the organization such as PASS have to offer as their time, money and schedules permit. As such PASS cannot function solely off the "community" aspect and needs to reach out to the rest of the world and keep providing services and products that will keep them coming back or to bring in new ones as well. This my frieds is where the business aspect plays a major role. All of these activities we come to love and the ones most people don't see all require money, planning and proper execution to be successful. It doesn't matter how devoted a handful of individual are to PASS is they can't serve the majority who are there strictly for the business or technical aspect as well.  So PASS needs to server both sides equally well and of coarse it takes someone who knows SQL Servers ins and outs to ensure certain aspects are covered and understood. But that is simply not true of the pure business side of PASS at all. And before anyone starts no one is suggesting we replace all the board members with people outside of the SQL Server community but there needs to be an effective mixture of the two.  Hopefully enough said but I know that won't be the case.

October 22, 2009 9:47 AM
 

Rajib Bahar said:

I'm inclined to suggest in addition to the elected Board members, they should consider having appointed Board members. It's done in real life including our democracy (in some form), non-profit organizations, etc.

The appointed board members should be people who came short on the business/board skills, but, have accomplishments which would enhance the image of the elected board members and the organization overall.  

Rajib

@rajib2k5

October 22, 2009 9:58 AM
 

Andy Warren said:

I'd agree to not make too much of the voting numbers, and in fact I think they are higher this year than last (Kev, can you comment on that?). I'll be honest, I was hoping for thousands of votes, and I think we can get there, but as I've talked to people they are often reluctant to vote because they don't really know the candidates or the issues (much the same as in American elections at times).

What we need are town hall meetings! Though I'm not sure I want to be the guy that answers teh qeustions!

October 22, 2009 10:38 AM
 

Jack Corbett said:

Interesting insight into the process Kevin.  Some good comments as well.

I think PASS is in transition and trying to figure where it should go and what it should be doing for the community.  I think it definitely needs to do more than the Summit or at least publicize what it is doing better.  I think it can do that by working through the local user groups.  

This is the first year I've been involved in PASS and this will be my first Summit, so I'm learning about the organization as I go.  The problem is that it isn't always easy to find what I want to know.

October 22, 2009 10:47 AM
 

Adam Machanic said:

Andy W: It's difficult to know the candidates when PASS reveals almost nothing about them. And PASS never says what a board member actually does, or what qualities make for a good board member.

But I think the crux of the issue is that it's unclear why members should care. Why should Joe DBA take time out of his busy day--or even worse, time he could be spending with his family (see Andy K's reply)--to research whether he should vote for Brian Moran or Thomas LaRock?

What difference is the selection of the board going to make to him? The conference is always pretty much the same, and the local users group will still keep chugging along, so who cares? Very few of us actually have incentive to vote: those of us who speak at the conference, run users groups, or are interested in the organization for other reasons.

Not expecting you to answer these questions here, and I'm not sure there are any good answers today... But I think it would be great if PASS -could- answer these questions.

October 22, 2009 11:20 AM
 

Jimmy May said:

@Kev EXCELLENT post, including but not limited to the graphics.

@Adam, PASS may not have published the info, but But Brent Ozar provided a series of superlative, lively interviews.

<ADD>  Why is the word superlative used so ubiquitously near Brent’s name? </ADD>

http://www.brentozar.com/archive/2009/10/meet-pass-board-candidate-brian-moran

http://www.brentozar.com/archive/2009/09/meet-pass-board-candidate-jeremiah-peschka

http://www.brentozar.com/archive/2009/10/meet-pass-board-candidate-tom-larock

http://www.brentozar.com/archive/2009/10/meet-pass-board-candidate-matt-morollo

I appreciate the dialog here--continuing the constructive exchange will result in a PASS that's better than ever.

Kudos to those who ran; congrats to those who won.

October 22, 2009 11:38 AM
 

Adam Machanic said:

Jimmy: It's great that Brent did that, but PASS should not expect some third party to do the job. And this still begs the question, why should anyone bother reading these interviews on Brent's blog, the PASS Web site, or anywhere else?

October 22, 2009 11:59 AM

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About KKline

Kevin Kline is a well-known database industry expert, author, and speaker. Kevin is a long-time Microsoft MVP and was one of the founders of PASS, www.sqlpass.org.

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