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One year later: my look back on the PASS organization

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Rest In Peace PASS

My good friend and talented singer Rob Volk reminded me recently that I had promised to write about my involvement with PASS at the end of its life, and I remember saying out of respect that I’d wait a year before doing so. Time flies.

To recap, the few remaining assets of the PASS organization including branding and video content were sold to Red Gate in early 2021, after the association announced in December 2020 that it was shutting down. A flurry of digital archival work ensued, with various people trying to save as much of the content from publicly available URLs as we could in those four weeks. Fortunately, this turned out to be unnecessary, but I still have about half a terabyte of old PASS videos on my NAS, which is pretty cool.

I had three separate roles in relation to PASS over and above my regular membership:

  1. Regional Mentor for all of Canada
  2. Member of the Board Nominations Committee
  3. Calgary PASS User Group lead

Regional mentor

I became a Regional Mentor after my friend Melody Zacharias stepped down from that role when becoming a board member. There wasn’t much to do because it involved keeping in touch with Canadian user group leaders and checking in with them periodically, and I already knew a bunch of them.

Although I enjoyed it, it was brief. I resigned from that position in December 2020, in support of two friends who were treated very poorly by the PASS executive. I had no idea the organization itself was a week away from its own announcement, so it didn’t mean much in the end.

NomCom

Prior to that, I was also a member of the Nominations Committee for the 2021 board. The joke now is that there would be no organization to run come 2021, but despite the rumours circulating that the organization was in financial trouble, all members of the selection committee (chaired by Erin Stellato) took their job very seriously. As a committee we needed to vote unanimously, either for or against each candidate, and there was a limited slate to fill. The interviews were recorded so that committee members could review the recordings as required.

During the committee’s run, there was an incident where one of the candidates had somehow acquired information that was allegedly protected by a non-disclosure agreement. We had long discussions about the ethical considerations, and whether the candidate was still eligible to be put forward on the new slate. As I recall, we agreed (as a committee) that under the existing selection criteria at the time that we would go ahead with nominating the candidates as presented, and that a future committee would need to add a clause to deal with ethical behaviour.

All told, the Nominations Committee was a great experience, with a very thoughtful group of members with whom I’d happily work again.

User groups

Let’s turn our attention to the user group then, and why there was a Calgary Data User Group and a Calgary PASS User Group at the same time.

I joined the Calgary PASS Chapter in 2013, when the chapter leader was still hosting it at his employer’s office. We eventually moved our events to Microsoft. I remember there was always a lot of pizza. Over the years I was placed in charge of the awful, terrible, no-good website (anyone who has been forced to use DotNetNuke will empathize). In November 2019, during the last ever in-person PASS Summit, I was asked to take over the group during a social event at a ping-pong hall in Seattle. It was, in a word, unceremonious.

Prior to that, in September 2018, I had hosted a one-off special event called The Ethics of Machine Learning with a fellow data community member Evin Fenton which I branded the Calgary Data User Group, with a fancy logo designed by Michael J. Swart. This turned out to be a really successful round-table discussion with members of the data and machine learning community in Calgary, many of whom I had never seen at the PASS events. I figured that I would use the Calgary Data User Group name for more special events down the line. I kept the Meetup page open for new members and forgot about it. Little did I know…

In February 2020, I hosted the Calgary PASS user group’s first (and last!) in-person event under my leadership. We had a total of five events in 2020, and a record-breaking seven events in 2021. But, in October 2020 with rumours swirling about the future of PASS combined with my frustration over having to use DotNetNuke, I spun off the website into our own custom domain and started co-branding Calgary PASS User Group events with the Calgary Data User Group name and logo. In other words, I merged the two groups and dropped PASS.

Considering that in-person events were no longer a thing, it made little sense to continue under the PASS banner anyway, because there was literally no benefit outside of the PASS website’s mailing list. That was a relatively easy problem to overcome. Because our local PASS events were hosted on Eventbrite, I had access to a very long list of RSVP email addresses which I put into a single mailing list on MailChimp and sent out a one-off email to ask people to opt-in to our own mailing list (the spam laws here in Canada are pretty good).

Along with that, there had been growing interest in the Meetup group I started in 2018, so the Calgary Data User Group now had its own domain, its own website, and its own mailing list. Then, when Microsoft stepped in with its Azure Data Community initiative, our group no longer needed to pay for the Meetup subscription, and all our online meetings are now hosted on the Community Teams tenant, also thanks to Microsoft.

I happen to be one of the charter members of the Azure Data Community advisory board, which works nothing like the PASS board did. The PASS executive dictated to members how they should operate their local community events, whereas the Azure Data Community advisory board tells Microsoft what the community needs. The community served PASS, and now Microsoft serves the community. Given the exposure Microsoft gets from this ongoing volunteer work, it makes sense for them to help in that respect. The board meet every two weeks, and several of my posts about accessibility stem directly from this work.

And so…

I’ll be the first to admit that PASS closing down was sad. Here was an association of thousands of members who made the effort to see each other once a year at a massive event. But the times were already changing, and it was expensive to take time off work for a week and pay for flights and accommodation. Compared to other industry events, speakers did not benefit from being speakers unless they held a pre-con, and we were seeing fewer people each year, with some folks I spoke to in 2019 suggesting that it was probably the last big conference.

In other words, COVID-19 simply accelerated the inevitable demise of the event, and the organization along with it. The first thing I learned as a business owner was that cash flow is king, followed very closely by diversifying your revenue streams. PASS neglected to diversify until it was far too late. While I supported their initiative for paid membership, it would never have worked because they’d given away everything for free for so long, buoyed by one big expensive in-person event.

The way PASS ended was absolutely preventable, but in the year that it’s been gone I haven’t really missed it. For the members who lost money when PASS went under, you have my sympathies.

The future

In the next few years, when it becomes the norm to wear masks (properly) in public and do proper vaccine checks, I expect we’ll see more frequent (but smaller) regional events, capping out at a few hundred attendees. For example, instead of a massive annual Summit, perhaps we could have a Western Canada regional event with attendees from British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

That said, SQLSaturdays are still a thing, as are Data Saturdays (I must plug them, because I help there too), and of course Red Gate needs to recoup their costs for buying PASS assets (PASSets?), so they are planning another big Summit “one day,” possibly this year. We shall see.

I’m already almost 1600 words into this post, so I’m going to wrap it up by saying PASS is gone, but the community prevails. The Calgary Data User Group with its core membership of between 10 and 15 people has continued on, with a small but dedicated leadership team. Our group is also part of the larger YYC Data Society. Given Calgary’s reliance on the energy sector, this means we get exposure to non-Microsoft technology too. And, you know, a community of passionate people.

Meanwhile the Azure Data Community (Microsoft’s initiative to support user groups on Meetup and Teams) has over 72,000 members in 130+ user groups in around 40 countries worldwide. That wouldn’t have been possible without the tireless work of volunteers working with Rie Merritt and Buck Woody.

I miss seeing my friends around the streets of Seattle once a year, but it was never Seattle in November that made the PASS Summit what it was. It was always you, dear reader, and the thousands of people who love SQL Server and the larger Microsoft Data Platform, the thousands of people willing to give up their time to learn, and help their community learn, that make the Azure Data Community what it is today.

Thank you.

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2 thoughts on “One year later: my look back on the PASS organization”

  1. I discovered PASS and the Summit in 2002 and over many years grew to know who knew what aspects of SQL Server. It meant I had a number of go-to-experts I could ask questions and know I was getting good answers. The Summit also became a place to have face-to-face meetups with those experts and many friends.

    You, my friend Randolph, are one of those experts in more than one area of SQL Server.

  2. Wow, it’s been a year. It feels like longer than that in a way, in other ways shorter. I’m still quite emotional about what I viewed as reckless, exclusionary and irresponsible decisions that put the organization into a death spiral. I’m still trying to take a breather so I can calm down. 😉 The whole thing was extremely traumatic from my perspective.

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