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PASS Update #41 (Elections)

In 2009 we had a contentious election cycle at PASS, and I won’t go through the details again, but because of that I saw two things; we needed greater transparency, and for what I feel was the first time the SQL community took on the task of vetting and discussing the candidates. The latter point in my view was a huge win, it was a shift from just voting the names you knew to starting to ask them good questions about their background and their plans.

As many of you know transparency is one of my things, so this year I joined in the process of updating the election process to add transparency. I fought to get the aggregate score and the category aggregate scores published as well as the applications. We talked about publishing a transcript of the interviews, or even recording them, and ultimately I (we) thought that was too far too fast. Interviews are hard, they can go badly, and for now, at this stage of our evolution, I was hesitant to add the possibility of public humiliation as another obstacle in the path of getting great candidates. I was adamant that we needed more than three viable candidates, and I fought for having as many as nine (vacancies x 3) if they were available and passed the initial screening. The discussion from there was that interviewing and hiring is not a cut and dried process, and Wayne Synder wanted the nomcom to have some discretion about who was selected, and that made sense to me – and so I voted for the guidance that the Board heavily preferred at least N+1, and up to N*3 candidates.

Now to this year. Let’s start by making sure you know my bias. I’m on the Board. I’m up for re-election. I helped modify the election process this year. Steve Jones is my business partner and close friend. Jack Corbett is the co-President (and soon just President) of oPASS, a partner in the SQLSaturday #49 effort this year, and a good friend as well. I wrote letters of recommendation for both of this for the election this year. Perhaps given all that the wiser thing to do would be to say nothing, but I’d like to think you expect more than that from me.

I hope to write something that isn’t defensive. Something that points out the flaws I see, something that gets each of you thinking about how and why and what we do next year. There are some questions I can’t answer; I wasn’t on the nomcom for one, and what I do know about the events that lead to our current situation were discussed in a confidential setting. My goal isn’t to change your mind, to convince you the Board was right (or wrong), or to raise the tension, just to try to have a calm conversation about where we – that’s us, the collective we – next year.

I’ll start by saying that I appreciate the work of the NomCom, especially Denise and Stuart. Both joined the Board call that lead to the vote on the final slate, and both have replied publicly to questions and comments about the process. Both are people I think well of, and I think they have conducted themselves well.

As this has unfolded, the question for me was the process wrong? It’s basically the same process we have used since the beginning, but updated for 2010 to give you a deeper view into what happens and why. Going into the election the increased transparency, the clearer timeline, the great work Hannes at PASS HQ did on the planning document, the election HQ page at sqlpass.org  -  all things I was very pleased with. Incremental steps, but still progress.

When Denny and Markus were removed as candidates I was concerned, was just lack of volunteer experience enough reason to have fewer than nine candidates? At this point I could’t try to change the process for fear of it being viewed as tampering, but I thought – we still have seven, and what a superb seven! This was competition at last, and with some community vetting it would be a real race.

I went through the nomcom process as a candidate, and I think it was administered well and it matched my expectations. I took the interview seriously and felt like it went well.

Then we got the news about the recommended slate and I was just….lost. I knew that there was nothing that we could say to the community that could convince them that my friend Steve Jones shouldn’t be on the ballot. Did I feel as strongly about Jack? The truth is I didn’t. That’s not to put Jack down at all, but I could see that compared to the other six, he didn’t have quite as much experience in all areas.

We ended up having a vote on the slate, and I voted against it (in 7 days or so we should have the minutes posted showing the vote, the rest of the discussion was tagged as confidential – something I agree with). I wanted, and fought for, putting either all 7 candidates on the slate, or even all 9. It wasn’t because Steve was my friend, it was because I knew the storm would come. I’m ok with controversy, making hard calls when needed, and I’m not prone at this point in my life to being reactionary. But I knew that this would be the second election in a row that was problematic, and it would shake the trust of the members in the leadership of PASS. I didn’t have the votes to get the no vote, and so we proceeded.

Note: I did vote on the slate that contained my name. In most cases I would have abstained, but as I wanted more candidates and not fewer, and felt so strongly about the results, I elected to participate. Board member Neil Buchwalter has proposed a rule that would prohibit that going forward, and we plan to discuss that today at the Board meeting. I’m on the fence, but I will probably support that rule.

Not the result I wanted, but it’s the result of the greater process, so onward. This decision was made Monday night. Our process calls for email notification to all the candidates, and that took until Wed morning. In hindsight that was a mistake. We should have done it on Tuesday so that the Board would be available during the day for questions (we all travelled to Nashville on Wed), and we should have called those that were excluded from the slate. We should have done a better job of telling them…not so much why there weren’t selected, but what they needed to change to be selected in 2011.

Wed and Thurs were not fun days to be on the Board for me. Lots of public comments, and many from people that I consider friends, people I trust, who opinions I value, and they were saying what I believed – we had reached a decision that just didn’t match with the values of our community.

I keep saying process. The nomcom is part of our by-laws, and we have a policy document that supports that with all the details this year, far better than in any previous years, and in my view about five times better than it was during my first campaign two years ago. I believe in process, I believe in sharing it, and I believe in executing it and making notes as we go about what could be done better the next time. Process isn’t evil, but there are always ways to make it better.

Was it fair to consider throwing the process out and just setting a slate of seven (or nine)? The Board has discretionary powers, and it could have made the change, but was that making things better? Was it being reactionary, or smart? I like to say that the best and hardest decisions involve nuance, not reliance on a strict formula, and it’s that very reasoning that convinced me to not lock the NomCom into a strict formula. So I think it was fair to consider, and I would have voted for that, something you need to know as you evaluate me as a nominee this year.

Now that I’ve had some time to think, I realize that for all the changes (and I believe improvements), I missed the underlying problems from 2009:

  • First, we – us, the members – have just not had the discussion we need to have about what makes a qualified candidate. I don’t believe PASS experience should be a requirement, though certainly it makes sense to acquire it. I believe in applying a basic filter, but should that filter be? Should it flex from year to year? What do we do if only one candidate meets our criteria? Have a non-election, or relax the criteria? I (we) should have had that conversation as part of our revision process this year, and I’ll take the blame for that, I should have caught that.
  • Second, understand that the NomCom takes their job seriously. Shouldn’t they? Wouldn’t you? They are vested in the survival of PASS, know that we need good, strong leaders, and they feel that pressure just be being on the NomCom. We haven’t given them any tolerance for risk, we’ve said here is the process. Their job is to follow the process. Anything less opens us up to a whole other kind of criticism and of the two, I’ll take process criticism any day.

I don’t know the right answer. I believe that some vetting of candidates is appropriate. Maybe it should be a strict formula; x years, x PASS hours, x letters of reference. Maybe it should vary based on the number of candidates. Should it ever let someone in that knows nothing about PASS? What if we have 29 candidates that pass the formula test, do all go on the slate?

What about the NomCom? Right now the Immediate Past President selects the members, because he is arguably the most vested in the long term survival of the organization. Do we agree with that? What would be better? Do we want people that know the job – that have done it, or does that tend to preclude the kind of change we might want to cause?

We need to fix this. I believe PASS is starting to grow into it’s potential, but that can’t happen if we don’t have trust in our elections. We’ve got to be able to grow the next set of leaders, and have them understand exactly what it takes to get in the game.

We need ideas, we need to argue this out, we need a lot of use cases. We need to change, or not, the process, and put it out for public debate. Not everyone will agree, but I think we can get a broad consensus, and what a great conversation to have! You – we – can stop and say, wait, this is our organization, we appreciate your work and we celebrate it, but it’s time for us to own it. Isn’t that what we want? Don’t give up, don’t think it’s hopeless, it’s not. Understand that all of elected want to do the right thing, we do our best every time, but we don’t always know the right answer, we don’t always get it right, but we’re trying to get it right every day.

Maybe you don’t agree with me on this and that’s fine. I hope we can talk and both learn. But if not, you can vote someone else in for 2011. In fact, you can put three brand new faces on the Board if you choose to. I challenge you know to ask us the hard questions, get them to commit to positions, tell them what you want in your elected representatives.

I’ll be at SQLSaturday here in Nashville this weekend, and I look forward to talking more about this. For those of you not attending, post questions here, or on the PASS election forums, or email me at election at sqlandydot.com, and we’ll talk. We may not agree, but I listen.

Finally, something from the heart. PASS isn’t the Board. It isn’t HQ. It’s us. Steve, Brian, and I didn’t give SQLSaturday to the Board, we gave it to you. That’s how I hope you’ll think of PASS…as us. And once you do that, your vision changes, things become possible, and you become an owner in something bigger than you, something that can do good. Don’t give up on us.


I'm Andy Warren, currently a SQL Server trainer with End to End Training. Over the past few years I've been a developer, DBA, and IT Director. I was one of the original founders of SQLServerCentral.com and helped grow that community from zero to about 300k members before deciding to move on to other ventures.


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