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Suggestions for PASS

By Andy Warren,

I'm still amazed at how many people have not heard of PASS, the Professional Association of SQL Server (www.sqlpass.org). They have existed since 1998 and today their membership is perhaps 25,000 (combined paying and free members), a small portion of the available pool of SQL Server devotees as compared to the number of members that SQLServerCentral (SSC) reports. I think that lower membership is caused by a few factors; insufficient marketing, lack of perceived value of membership, and too much focus on the yearly conference at the expense of other objectives. In this article I'm going to present some ideas that I think would address some problems I see and how I think they might be fixed. I hope both current and non members will add their comments to the discussion about what a real first class association might bring to our profession.

Now I think in articles like this is it's fair to acknowledge any bias, so let's start there. First, I've been a member of PASS (www.sqlpass.org) and a speaker at their annual conference since 2000. Along with my business partners, Brian & Steve, we have and continue to provide free web hosting for any PASS chapter that needs it, and we negotiated a relationship that resulted in The SQL Server Standard being first co-branded as PASS/SSC, and following the sale we gave PASS full control of the magazine at no cost. I know most of the board members and quite a few of the volunteers, and over the years have had opportunities to discuss ideas and challenges with them. So in most ways I've very pro-PASS, but that doesn't mean that I'm  not one of it's critics as well! I see a lot of things that I think PASS could do better and I've been quietly vocal about pointing those things out behind the scenes.

This isn't meant to criticize the volunteers that make PASS run. They put in a lot of work for zero pay and I appreciate what they do. These are suggestions that I think can make PASS a better organization for all DBAs.

What Should PASS Do For Chapters?

I manage the Orlando Chapter (www.opass.org) as a volunteer, and I know quite a few of the other chapter leaders. All work hard, and I think we share to a degree goals and expectations. Chapters really represent the grass roots of PASS.

Only a couple of these suggsetions require additional funding; the rest I think could be accomplished in 60 days.

  • First would be send us a monthly blurb that we could directly pass on to our members via our own newsletters, something that wouldn't be in the Connector (the standard PASS newsletter). Maybe stats about chapter attendance, news about a new vendor relationship, etc. Maybe highlight a chapter each month?
  • We also need a way to send PASS our member lists so that they can get on the Connector mailing list, and obviously count towards the PASS total membership. This is not happening right now and it needs to.
  • Maintain and distribute a speaker list. Funding is a separate matter, but just having access to a list would be a huge help.
  • Maintain and distribute a vendor list, of those vendors that have chapter/user group programs. I think it would be a huge mistake for PASS to try to centrally manage this. Give the info to the chapters and let them pursue it, or not.
  • PASS should commit to providing one non local speaker per year and pay the travel/stipend.
  • PASS should commit to funding any start up chapter at the rate of $5/attendee for the first six meetings. That takes the pressure off trying to find vendors while they get established and guarantees that they can have pizza and soda (which for most new chapters comes out of the Chapter Presidents pocket).
  • PASS should set up some incentives for maintaining a chapter. I'd like to see PASS award additional conference tickets. Formula might need to be tweaked, but I'd suggest comping one ticket per each 20 average attendees. For example, in Orlando we meet six times a year and I hope to average 20 per meeting, so we would earn one extra conference ticket.
  • PASS should also incent chapters that both grow their average attendees and their mailing lists. Not everyone will attend chapters regularly, but they often continue to get the local (and hopefully national) newsletter. This would encourage chapters to grow and market themselves and not just rest on their laurels. I think a difference incentive would be nice here, something that would benefit all the members. Maybe a big box of books or PASS polos's, or funding an extra non local speaker.
  • Fix the PASS value proposition. Selling attendees on premium memberships - even at the chapter rate of $60 - is a very hard sell. More on this another day!
  • Find a couple chapter superstars that have the time (key point there) to coach new chapters. This is really really critical and will cost a little as someone is going to have to travel to do it.
  • Set aside dedicated time on Tuesday at the Summit for the chapter leaders, and only the chapter leaders, to talk. I'd suggest giving them 2-3 hours to share ideas, and then maybe bring in some or all of the board to hear any open issues or suggestions, and to look at the progress of the chapters overall.
  • PASS should pay the travel costs of the Chapter presidents, even the international ones, to the annual Summit. It is incredibly important to get those people in the same room once a year and this is a pretty small reward for a lot of hard work.
  • PASS should have a standard email alias that is added to all chapter mailing lists so that the Board of Directors and volunteers can see what each chapter is doing.
  • PASS should involve chapters in any local SQL Server event (PASS regional events, MSDN events, PASS Summit, etc)
  • Require each chapter to have an annual membership and fund raising drive in a format of their choosing, but perhaps something like SQLSaturday

What Should PASS Do For Members

This comes down to a big question; what should PASS be? I personally think too much has been made of direct benefits. Twenty years ago joining an association did mean some real discounts on things like travel, but in today's world any discounts are likely no better than what can be found on the internet. That doesn't mean there should be no benefits. PASS is not a charity, if we elect to give them money it's fair to expect some sort of return on that investment. Right now PASS has two classes of members; free and premium, with the primary difference that only premium members can vote. Premium memberships are $150, or $60 for chapter members. What changes do I suggest?

  • Discard the concept of "free" members. Let anyone who cares to join the mailing list, but true members should be willing to pay some dues. Equally, reduce the price of membership to a number that matches the perceived benefit - a variable so far, but no more than $75/year.
  • Provide every PASS member with a quality polo with the PASS logo and branded with the year (PASS 2007, 2008, etc). Something that is perceived benefit and will help market the organization.
  • Continue to provide the printed SQL Server Standard magazine to paying members. This is a real benefit, and has the advantage of being one more way to market and expose PASS to more than just the member it was sent to. They can share it at work, give it to a friend, etc.
  • Develop a PASS certification for DBA's. I'd suggest one that required the MS DBA certification as a prerequisite, required documented work experience as a SQL Server DBA, a review and interview by a certifying committee, and mandatory annual continuing education. This isn't easy, but I think it would easily have the highest perceived value if it was made to work. Absolute a fee should be charged for the evaluation.
  • Provide a way for members to prove PASS membership similar to the mechanism that MS for their MCP's. This could lead to discounts from vendors for PASS members, pass through credentials at other SQL sites, etc.
  • Establish a 'life membership' plan. Most larger organizations do this and use it as a long term revenue source via the interest earned.
  • Offer PASS branded items for purchase - tshirts and coffee cups are a great way to expose the brand to more people, and the members buy only what they need
  • In each email to members publish the schedule of upcoming events with a focus on chapters and highlight the chapter nearest the member if possible

What Should PASS Do to Improve the Annual Summit?

  • Commit to rotating the conference across more locations instead of Seattle then some other city and back again. I know it's nice to have a large Microsoft presence, but if we grow the organization they will come regardless of location!
  • Provide more beginner & intermediate level content. A good way would be to set required percentages for beginner/intermediate/advanced sessions.
  • Solicit ideas for sessions from members. Have them enter the title of the session they want to see and the level. Roll this up when the call for speakers opens and try to address as many as possible.
  • Show speakers what sessions have already been submitted to avoid duplicate abstracts.
  • Provide more coffee, water, and snacks, not just at breaks
  • Augment the current session evaluation plan to include a special evaluation done by an experienced speaker
  • Stop the spin at keynotes! Require keynote speakers to demo or present real technical content - yes, even MS.

What Changes Should be Made to sqlpass.org?

It looks like some good progress has been made with the conversion to Sharepoint for serving up the site, but it's content that matters!

  • Stop trying to compete with commercial SQL Server sites (SSC, SQLTeam, SQLMag) in the content business. Entrepreneurs will simply out work and out spend PASS, and more importantly, it's not the place where PASS should be expending resources that could be used in other areas. Instead, I would suggest that PASS license content from any SQL site that is willing to do so, with the goal of having a new technical article listed on sqlpass.org daily, rotating across communities so that all get about equal exposure. This would expose PASS visitors to a lot of the great sites and authors we have in the SQL Server community.
  • Equally, I would suggest that the SIG's (forums) on sqlpass.org be changed to discuss topics about PASS itself, certifications, and career development. Other sites already have the infrastructure to support answering technical questions. Trickier than content to work out, but perhaps performance related questions would go to one site, BI questions to another, etc.
  • List an event calendar of all upcoming SQL events, especially chapters
  • Conduct an annual salary and benefits survey and provide the results to all members
  • Provide a directory of all SQL Server related product vendors (at no cost to the vendors) (another note: I'm in the SQL training business, so there is a conflict of interest in that suggestion)

What Changes Should be Made to PASS?

  • Publish the annual budget with line item summaries. Yes, this may generate some questions (and ideally the common ones would be addressed in footnotes), but it's important that as members we see how money is earned and spent.
  • Publish minutes of board meetings. Some parts may need to be redacted, but I would like to see who attended and what business was transacted.
  • Remove board directors who miss two meetings OR who miss more than two deadlines they have committed too OR fail to reply to email on a timely basis over a sustained period.
  • Change the election process. The current process - in my view - favors incumbents. We get a two paragraph blurb and are expected to make a decision based on that. Incumbents should be required to publish any missed meetings as well as major tasks accomplished. I also would like to see all candidates submit a plan for what they hope to accomplish during their term.
  • Build a process for adding the PASS logo to any SQL Server book from any publisher. Publishers may take some persuading, but since it helps them market it one more way, maybe not a lot of persuading.
  • Require all board members to attend at least one non-local chapter meeting per year. They need to see and feel the grass roots. Many probably already do this, but it should be a requirement.
  • Stop thinking of MS as our rich uncle that we have to please and start being the voice of the SQL Server DBA. One way would be for PASS to issue an "approval" for any service pack based on feedback from members. This would grow to the point that no major corporation would apply a service pack without the PASS seal of approval. Maintain a Top 10 list of bugs that PASS sees as the most serious and keep it visible on sqlpass.org. Note that the PASS Certification I recommended earlier actually supports the MS agenda, so this also provides a window for commenting back to MS about needed changes in the certification process.
  • Rotate board meetings to cities that have a local chapter and open the board meetings to local chapter leadership

That's my list. Maybe you will agree with some, and probably disagree with some. I hope you'll comment regardless, and even consider sending Steve your own list to be published. A strong professional association can be a huge asset, but it takes work and the willingness to look at what remains to be done rather than what has already been done. I look forward to your comments.

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