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The PASS Summit 2015 Call for Speakers

Here we are, the annual community tradition of submitting sessions to the PASS Summit. This is the big time, the real deal, the event everyone wants to be seen at (as far as SQL Server goes). We all have hopes and dreams of standing on that stage, sharing what we love about SQL Server with the greater community.  Now that the submission deadline has passed, I wanted to post a few thoughts I had on this year’s process.

And yes, I want to do it before the OTHER annual community tradition of “bitching about why I didn’t get selected” starts.

Too Many Topics

The first thing that struck me was the excessive number of topics in each track. I didn’t count them all, but it was a little overwhelming. What made the process especially difficult was that there’s a lot of overlap with these subcategories, making it confusing about which to select.  This is especially a challenge for me with Powershell submissions, because many of the abstracts I created could have easily gone under two or three subcategories.

One example is my abstract on automating SQL Server builds with Powershell. Now, there’s a Powershell/SMO subcategory and one for Installing/Upgrading SQL Server. Which do I choose? I went with Powershell because that’s the focus of my session, but it might have been more applicable to the other.  This is a problem.

Suggestion: Either PASS needs to cull the overall list of topics or allow you to select multiple topics for your abstract.  Personally, I’d prefer the former.

Too Many Submissions

We have a good problem in the SQL Server community: tons of great speaking talent. There a lots of folks at the local and regional level who give great presentations at local user groups and SQL Saturdays. There’s also a fair amount of mediocre talent as well. However, all of these speakers can submit to Summit, regardless of their experience level. This places an overwhelming burden of work on the program committee.

I don’t want to make speaking at the Summit an exclusive club. I think all community members should have the opportunity to present at the Summit, but we need to balance that with consideration for the program committee volunteers and trying to provide the best product for Summit attendees. As such, the process should focus on standards that encourage both active community participation and a focus on public speaking.

Suggestion: PASS needs to start placing restrictions on who can and can’t submit. They already do this for the precons. My initial thought is a speaker should have four public SQL speaking events in the past calendar year. With opportunities like local user groups, SQL Saturdays, and virtual chapters, this is not a difficult number to hit.  It ensures that the speaker is an active community participant, someone who is contributing and practicing their craft.

We need more faces

In general, this isn’t a big deal, but we do have many popular speakers get multiple sessions at the Summit. I understand these folks are a draw and will put butts in seats, but the reality is that every person who gets doubled up means one less other speaker who will be selected. Again, considering the depth of speaking talent in the PASS community, this strikes me as problematic in general and a wasted opportunity to increase the variety of speakers at the Summit.

Suggestion: All speakers are limited to a single session, no exceptions.

More Transparency Around the Selection

I know this is a constant refrain regarding PASS, but it is needed. This is not me piling on the organization for being closed and secretive, but simply reminding them that we still need to know more about what’s going on. I’ve been paying attention to the selection process for the past two years and it IS getting better. I like how open PASS has been with how the program committee works.

The challenge is that the program volunteers don’t make the actual selections. They make recommendations that are passed to the selection committee. The selection committee then performs “levelling” and uses that to select sessions. This is the black box, because I don’t know what the levelling process entails and how things are judged. I’m not advocating some grand conspiracy theory around who gets selected, but there will always be questions and criticism until we are better informed about why.

Suggestion: PASS needs to continue what they have been doing and communicate more about the process. As I said, I recognize that the process of improvement is ongoing and it is getting better, but it can’t stop. The community needs communication, especially as we grow larger and larger.

Videos Don’t Add Value

I understand that PASS is trying to gather as much information about a speaker as possible. Videos are not the way to do it. There are too many issues with recording quality and software that make this a reliable method. Additionally, many videos won’t actually display a candidate’s public speaking skills, only their ability to sit down and chat in front of a camera. These combine to make video recordings more subjective than objective, and we need to focus on objective quantifiers.

Suggestion: Just ditch the video submission.

You Don’t Deserve To Speak At The Summit

This one is directed to the entire community, the people submitting. Every year I see the same tweets and posts griping about how certain people did not get selected or others did. How the process is horribly broken. To be fair, when you craft abstracts and then wait two to three months for a response, the resulting rejection is disappointing.

I think, because of all the other opportunities in the community, being rejected from a speaking event is a bit of a shock. The reality is that competition is tight for the Summit and speaking slots are limited. Getting turned down really is not that surprising. What bothers me most is that I see an attitude of entitlement from some of community members concerning presenting at the Summit. None of us are owed a speaking slot and the burden is on each individual speaker to prove their worth.

I view speaking at the Summit a lot like free agency in a professional sport. There’s a lot of competition to get noticed and a lot of reward if you do. Some people have an edge because they’re really good at what they do and demonstrate that on the public stage. Some others are hidden gems, waiting for their opportunity to get noticed. However, the market is driven by demand and selections are made based on that demand, not by attribution or “right”. We as speakers should always be striving to prove ourselves to the community and our selection should be based on ability, presence, and contribution, all of which will drive up demand.

Suggestion: Chill out if you don’t get selected. Focus on what you can do locally and regionally, through your own user group and SQL Saturdays.The Summit is awesome and I love going, but the truth is I have MUCH more of an impact speaking at smaller events. I encourage all community members to have a presence at these events, to focus on what they can do in their city. Build your community resume and skill set so that when you do submit to the Summit, you’ll be better prepared when you do make it to that stage.

In Conclusion…

I’ve already shared some of this with some members of the PASS board privately, but I wanted to share this publically as well. This is our community and we all have the ability to affect this change by being involved and reaching out. What has always impressed me about PASS is how grass roots it is and how members feed off each other. We need to focus on that, because it is what makes our community stronger than any other technical community out there.


  1. Brent Ozar says:

    Really well-thought-out post, and I like how you presented your facts.

    I’ve shared similar thoughts with the BoD privately over the years, and I blogged about it several years ago as well:

    I don’t hold out a lot of hope for change at this point – 24HoP has taken a similar turn in that instead of making people speak at virtual chapters first, they’re welcoming newcomers. I just don’t see PASS’s big premier events (Summit and 24HoP) as the right place for new talent. Put in your dues and polish your techniques at local & regional events first. Honor the attendees’ time.

    1. Mike Fal says:

      Thanks Brent, I appreciate your input. I can’t speak to how much PASS listened in the past, but I can tell you I’ve already shared these thoughts with both Tom LaRock and Amy Lewis and both were very welcoming of the input. I intend to continue the conversation and see how things develop.

      I have a slight bone to pick with how you characterize the recent 24HOP that is designed for new speakers. I think it’s a great idea and a worth while experiment. I understand your concerns about honoring the attendees time, but I also think that we have a unique opportunity to help build our speaker base. Will this experiment work? We’ll need to wait to see, but I will credit PASS for trying something to accomplish its mission of building the community.

      1. Brent Ozar says:

        Mike – thanks! But…why not require the 24HOP speakers to have spoken at a Virtual Chapter? I know from working with the VCs that they often struggle to bring in speakers. Why should someone’s first online session be at PASS’s Cadillac online event, rather than putting in their dues?

        What part of it is an experiment that’s any different than a regular VC event?

      2. Brent Ozar says:

        (And vaguely related note – pleeeeeease add a Subscribe to Comments plugin. I had totally forgotten about this post and never would have seen your reply, but I just happened to get poked about it.)

  2. Andy Warren says:

    Mike, there’s a lot of good stuff in your post and I agree with most of it! I’d like to see a lower cap on the # of abstracts submitted, I think that would up the quality and reduce the noise some. I’d like to see some qualifications too, though I think limiting it to the last year might not be enough of a window? Maybe it is?


    1. Mike Fal says:

      Might be. Personally, I’d want to start the bar low and raise it instead of start high and lower. This is because I think the strength of the Summit is that it is mostly community driven, so I don’t want to drive out the community. I still want speaking at the Summit to be accessible, but I think a reasonable level can be set to start with so that we’re not overwhelming the Program Committee.

      The primary focus of any restriction, though, should be on making sure speakers are active members of the community. Folks who speak a lot will, by their very nature, be the kind of presenters we want at the Summit because they are constantly working on their craft. In this way, it’s very much a no brainer sort of requirement to set.

  3. Karen Lopez says:

    Some great observations and recommendations here.

    This “leveling” part of the process I think is always going to be a bit of a closed process. Having done this for other, even larger, events, I know it involves a lot of subjective discussions. It has to do with finding the right balance of topics, pop speakers, serious speakers, people who know how to educate, people who know how to perform for the audience, people who have a different point of view, etc. It’s difficult. And at times, it involves making comments about a person’s ability to deliver. In the event world, that is “programming” the event. Looking at the entire list of speakers, sessions, topics, draw, celebrity status, etc and putting together a great program, not just a great set of single sessions all happening in the same place at the same time.

    There not enough programming, in my opinion, because people keep wanted the event to be a popular election of speakers. That’s not what makes for a great event. Sure, you need the celebs and the old school popular folks. But you also need a mix of personalities, styles and topics.

    One of the tradeoffs of cutting down the number of submissions to just one is that people will just offer to present on the topic they think is most in demand. So instead of 900 submissions on a breadth of topics, we will get 250 on Tuning Queries and maybe 50 on Indexing strategies. Is that what we want the event to be? 50 sessions on the same topic by different speakers?

    The trouble with programming an event as if it were just the running of a bunch of scripts against a data set, with no thought to balance and program will be that we will end up with a series of robot-generated sessions. Disconnected, all about the same topic, all by the same speakers every year.

    And I’m 100% behind can we please stop with the “Don’t You Know Who I Am” crap after the sessions are announced. The reason this works, every year, is that community backs them up on the whining and entitlement. If only some people were brave enough to speak out, to say “ENOUGH”, it might stop as a way to stir up drama and clicks.

    I’ve been to the types of events that cater to these bad behavours. They are massive marketing events. Is that really what we want? I don’t.

  4. Mike Fal says:

    Great input Karen. I know you’ve preached the “programming” message before and I agree with it. One nice step in the right direction was the interest survey done before PASS opened submissions. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very well advertised and didn’t have much of a response. Hopefully we’ll see more of this action next year and help speakers tailor their presentations to the interests of the attendees.

  5. Kevin Kline says:

    Great comments, Mike! Very well-considered and advances the conversation in all of the right ways without being the least bit negative. It’s criticism with lots of ‘constructive…’


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  7. VISHAL says:

    So true said ! I really like “All speakers are limited to a single session, no exceptions.”

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