PASS – Meanderings

As most people reading this would know…the PASS organization is in a state of crisis now following the decision to go virtual. We are in a place where we are obligated to get very high attendance #s for the virtual summit, or risk going under if not. While on the face of it this seems like a financial crisis, I believe that is only one aspect of what it is..some of these wounds have been festering a long time and now broken open and gone septic. Many people have written posts on the financial part/association with C&C. I don’t have a head for accounts and am not going there. I will address what it means to be a PASS volunteer and what it has come to mean, over time.

Being a volunteer is hard, thankless work. When I started my sql saturdays at Louisville, I was the only person on the team with community association. I had volunteers, but they were people who would do what they were told to do, not the ones handling money or doing other publicity for it. I did this almost 100 percent on my own for 8 years, after which two dear friends who are community members came in and started to take over. I was burned out and tired to the bone doing it although I got many valuable contacts from doing it. I was also co running my user group at the same time, with similar challenges. I’ve also done plenty of other volunteering with PASS over the past 20 years that have helped me grow as a person, and helped enormously with my career. BUT it has also shaped my thinking a certain way, that seems a little dated for today’s world. My thinking and my rules/values by default run as below.
1 You have to work and contribute a lot to be seen. I mentally associate this with actual grunt work, significant hours, running around, searching for speakers, sponsors, presenting, helping and coaching people and such. So anyone who is newer and wanting recognition typically get this line from me – to pick up and do something and keep doing it a while until you are seen as worthy/respectable/sincere volunteer.
2 You have to support the organization at some level even if you disagree with their decision making. Like, a ‘core loyalty’ is needed, without which it is really difficult to get people to understand where you’re coming from when you have feedback. You can’t say ‘I hate PASS and its time they were gone’ and simultaneously offer feedback on how to improve.
3 You have to be willing to risk speaking up and let concerned people know at PASS that whatever they did wasn’t ok and why.
4 Have some heart, and be willing to forgive what other volunteers, including people on the board did – since we are all doing it for free, because we care and have many personal obligations to cope with.

In today’s world, none of my above values are holding up. Based on experiences using those lines – a lot of people get and want quick recognition. A lot of people think loyalty is about being brain washed and kool aided. A lot of people do not want to speak up anywhere for fear of being bullied or drawn into long winded arguments that end up making them feel defeated and regretting it. A lot of people think the board is like the White House, a huge static entity constantly making bad decisions that have negative impact. They don’t care to even know who is there, let alone forgive or think about why those people did what they did. Not all of these stances are right or wrong, but they exist and are impacting us a lot as a community.

In short, PASS has gathered ill will to an enormous extent that even those of us who were not part of any ill will are having significant challenges promoting the cause. Looking at some of the reasons why this could have happened –
1 Diversity issues – WIT is literally the only user group supporting diversity, they do an awesome job, but more sub groups are needed that actively push other causes – neuro diversity, LGBT, Racial inclusivity..everything. People from these sub groups feel their cause is not out there and acknowledged.
2 Old model of conferences and user groups – we did have online conferences with 24HOP (which was an enormous success when it started and one of its kind), but we did not keep up very well. The technical focus of PASS itself is very sideways skewed, after the move away from being a core SQL Server user group and conference. It seems a hotch potch of a lot of stuff broadly grouped under ‘Data’.
3 Speaker model – many speakers have asked about what they get in return for sessions. Advanced sessions especially need a ton of effort – and what they get in return does not seem to add up to it. Speakers need to be compensated well and not fed the line that the money coming in is going to other causes. That line is seriously old.
4 Weak anti harassment policy – Atleast two community leads I respect enormously left on grounds of this. It is becoming standard practice too everyone to adopt a strong policy and stand up for what it is.
5 Affliations for user groups and sql saturdays – The value of the affiliation, aside from a website has been seriously and repeatedly questioned. We have run some day long events virtually from our local user group here, and not used any tools PASS provided. We have had considerable success there and there is no reason that cannot continue. Sponsorships are also mostly local and enough to make a decent local event happen. In short, this affiliation is meaning less and less by way of value.

So..what next?

I wish for PASS to survive. Or to put it another way, I have to train myself to imagine it won’t exist since it was such a significant part of my life and am not quite there yet. It gave me a platform where I was seen – as a woman, as a person of color. That is not easy to find everywhere. I have been among other non affiliated user groups – it is really hard to get people to see who you are and sometimes they are so white male dominated that you don’t even exist even if you are physically present. I am not sure just saying PASS has to go and ‘lets do things locally’ is going to fix that problem. I will absolutely miss the big party that is the summit, but that is hardly on top of the things I will miss.Getting seen as a community member who added value and worked hard tops that, and many volunteers like me who are not mvps or even speakers in high standing are going to miss that, A LOT.

But, sometimes changes are needed even though they seem difficult to get used to. Pumping money into a system with all problems as above is not going to work very well. Or it is going to be a question of time, again, when a crisis comes up and everyone is re evaluating the need for their existence.

I wish for a new PASS, maybe smaller or less powerful, but with a clean slate and more acceptance from various parts of the community. I wish for more acceptance for free speech and more respect for volunteering in general. I wish for people to be seen and respect regardless of age, ethnicity,religion,sexual orientation or gender in this community. How all this will happen – I really don’t know. Maybe it will involve the organization to dissolve and re emerge as a smaller entity. I have hope and I hope for the outcome to be something meaningful for us all.

One thought on “PASS – Meanderings

  1. Thanks for this, Mala. I appreciate the way you’ve summed up the list of concerns here.

    I personally would add two additional issues to your list:

    6) Not giving back enough to the community — other professional organizations not only support free events, but also give regular grants to help others join the tech community. It feels like PASS is able to do very little by comparison. We have so much talent in the community, it feels like our community association should be an engine of ideas and initiatives on new ways to give back more, instead of simply building a larger paid-for conference. (To be clear: I don’t think this is because anyone leading the community is not *wanted* to give back more, simply that it doesn’t seem that this has been able to be accomplished or has ever been able to rise as a priority.)

    7) A control given bureaucracy whose obsession with contracts works against community collaboration. PASS uses contracts to a greater extent than most corporations do, much less community associations. These contracts are often very restrictive, and contain restrictions that many speakers don’t want to accept. They attempt to do everything including control the speech of community members (this ties in with your mention of free speech) — does a community really benefit from clauses that say you can’t tweet negative things about a conference? Does that do *anything* but destroy trust? The contractual practices used by the organization over the years have convinced many of us that PASS does not value its members, but only seeks to benefit from us, and will punish us any time we don’t follow the hundreds of rules they set out in their long, complex contracts.

    It is this longstanding engine of bureaucracy that makes me think that the PASS organization is not capable of transformative change, no matter who the board members are. It is very difficult to change a type of organizational machine whose individual board members come and go.

    I do think that no matter what happens with this specific organization, we have a very strong community and we will come together in one way or another over time.

    I really appreciate your work in the community, Mala, and I thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 2 people

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