Maybe it's not a re-imagination. Maybe it's a return to what it once was. I don't know.
I'm writing this on my blog because I doubt I'm going to get an audience with the PASS Board of Directors any time soon. I've been relatively vocal about these thoughts for a while, but have never written them up.
And before I start, I want to mention a few things for context. I used to be on the PASS Board of Directors. I served for about six months in the second half of 2011 as an invitee, and then ran for election and served as an elected director for two years, 2012-2013. At that point I didn't re-run. I had discovered that the toll of being on the board from such an incompatible time zone was harder than I wanted it to be, and I didn't feel I was being effective when I had a hard time being physically present at meetings and events. The cost was great, and I didn't feel like my presence on the board was having the impact that the community might have wanted.
One thing I did learn from when I was invited to be on the board was that Microsoft saw PASS as a vehicle to reach the data community. Along with JRJ from the UK and Raoul from Denmark, we had been brought onto the board to help it be more globally aware. To find ways to increase the organisation's global reach, rather than having it just centred on North America. I don't feel like I was effective in helping with that, for reasons I'm not going to go into in this post. Instead I want to focus on that thing that I learned – that Microsoft saw PASS as a vehicle to reach the data community.
Let's be clear – I'm not in the room for the discussions about the future of PASS. I'm not a director, and I'm not running for re-election (because I don't want to have a two-year commitment to those people who might elect me). I offered to be part of discussions, but that hasn't amounted to anything. I do hope those discussions are actually happening, but I'm not in the room.
This post is about making my opinion known in the wider community and opening it up for comment. Maybe some people on the PASS Board will notice and see your comments too.
I think right now, most people associate PASS with their annual event the PASS Summit. But I don't think the PASS Summit is PASS's raison d'être. It's become the main focus of the organisation over the last ten years or so, maybe because it's the primary source of revenue, but I think the reason PASS exists should still be as a vehicle for Microsoft to reach the data community, and for the data community to reach Microsoft.
I've heard from people involved in other data community events – ones that are not PASS-branded – that PASS wouldn't give support because they weren't PASS-branded events. If the goals are to get people along to the PASS Summit, I understand that. If the goals are to reach the wider data community, then it's wrong. From the perspective of building PASS revenue, then protecting the PASS brand is good. From the perspective of being a vehicle between Microsoft and the data community, it's bad. Sadly, this felt consistent with the experience that I had while on the board, and continue to feel as a PASS group leader – that PASS' goals are about promoting Summit, not about the community.
Also, about 13 years ago, Microsoft Australia gathered lots of user group leaders together. Leaders from all the various technologies. One of the things that was communicated that day was that we shouldn't see Microsoft as a monolithic whale, but rather as a pod of dolphins, where each group is doing its own thing, communicating in its own way, but understanding the general direction of the pod. Once upon a time, the SQL Server Product Group might've been a single one of these dolphins – but now there are lots of different groups that might want to interact with the data community. And there are lots of data community groups that want to interact with Microsoft.
So here's how I imagine how PASS could be.
PASS kinda wants to be like in this diagram. Microsoft's way of reaching the data community.
And if this is accurate, if you remove PASS from the world, it looks like this:
And nobody really minds.
If the PASS organisation restricts its definition of "Data Community" to PASS-run events, then that's limiting the reach, and Microsoft will simply go directly to all the other events that run. Events like SQLBits, DPS, DataGrillen, 8kb, GroupBy, all of them. And that's what's been happening over the last dozen years or more.
Let's consider that pod-of-dolphins view of Microsoft. Let's also acknowledge that the Data Community actually means all the different events where people gather and connect and share and learn about data in the Microsoft world.
So now imagine that PASS was a vehicle between all the different data groups within Microsoft and all the different data groups within the community. Now it looks something more like this.
PASS becomes the "Enterprise Service Bus" (to draw on an analogy that's about as old as PASS) to serve as a vehicle between Microsoft and the data community. The various groups within Microsoft that want to reach the community can talk to PASS. The various groups within the data community that want to reach Microsoft can talk to PASS. PASS can be a facilitator, an enabler, a vehicle. Those events want something like the SQL Clinic? Talk to PASS. Those events want a bunch of Microsoft speakers? Talk to PASS. Microsoft wants to get some messaging out about some new thing? Talk to PASS.
In this model, if you remove PASS, it looks like this.
…which is actually what it kind of feels like now. When I run my local user group, I have to figure out who to approach to get to speak. I know quite a lot of people, but if I didn't, I would really struggle. SQLBits, DPS, and all the others have worked hard to establish relationships when a different model of PASS might've enabled it better. And what about new groups that are created within Microsoft? The community doesn't know about those groups, and those groups don't have the relationships with the people that run all these different events.
A model of PASS like this means that PASS is no longer a "Professional Association" of anything. It's about PASS-through communication. It's the Service Broker, enabling conversation. PASS hasn't been a professional association for a very long time, but it can still be a vehicle like this. Money would come from sponsors, particularly Microsoft, rather than events because PASS would be making the logistics between Microsoft and the community smoother. It would provide an actual service to both Microsoft and the community, one that would be paid for by Microsoft and by others who want to be part of the Microsoft + data community conversations. And this service doesn't disappear because of an interruption to the event calendar such as a pandemic, volcanic eruption, or terrorist attack – all things which have been problems before.
This approach also provides a way of letting the community know about events that are coming up that they might want to attend or speak at, because PASS could provide that centralised communication. It could be a central vehicle for other sponsors to reach event organisers (and vice-versa). And it could provide assistance for group leaders to run their groups – not by trying to control everything, but by offering advice. They could offer advice and maybe negotiate discounts for using tools like Sessionize and EventBrite rather than trying to provide all of those services themselves.
PASS would be how you the community reach Microsoft, and how Microsoft reaches you. No matter where in the world you are, and which events you're attending.
Please let me know what you think. Hopefully PASS and Microsoft are watching.