Closing Time

Open letter from Mindy Curnutt to the PASS Membership. (zoom)

This year, I’ve written a couple of critical posts targeted at PASS. If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’ve been critical there, too.

Last week, the PASS Board of Directors had their December meeting. Coming out of that meeting, Mindy Curnutt (blog|twitter) resigned from her position on the board citing “morally wrong” decisions and an experience that I will describe as being excluded from participation on the Board. We don’t know what those “morally wrong” decisions are, but I trust Mindy is not over-reacting and her concerns are legitimate.

During the December Board meeting, the Board also approved the November meeting minutes. (TL;DR, PASS was seeking a financial investment from Microsoft in order to maintain viability.) The meeting minutes got a good bit of reaction from speaker-organizers and others who volunteer time to the SQL Server/Microsoft Data community. Keep in mind that even though those meeting minutes are freshly published, they are from a meeting that happened a month ago.

Update (2020-12-09): Hamish Watson (blog|twitter) and Melody Zacharias (blog|twitter) have both resigned from the PASS Board as well. While NDA prevents them from providing meaningful details, you can read Hamish’s and Melody’s letters on their blogs.

A lot can happen in a month

It’s possible that Microsoft or someone else has come through with a financial bailout, or that they’ve found an alternate source of cash infusion. However, the cancellation of an in-person Summit, and a poorly attended virtual Summit means that PASS is in dire straits. The organization went “all in” on having a Virtual PASS Summit to fund the organization going forward, and it appears that didn’t meet revenue targets. If there were other attempts to diversify income or to protect assets (such as spinning off SQL Saturday to a separate organization), that hasn’t been communicated. My estimates of the budget shortfall says that PASS would need a multi-million dollar infusion of cash to carry it through the next couple of years.

Piecing together the hints and some comments on social media, I expect that PASS will announce this week that the organization is shutting down completely (or possibly spinning out some entity so the brand survives, even though the current organization will not). I don’t know if the “Professional Association for SQL Server” corporate entity will actually file for bankruptcy protection or not–but my own guess is that if they don’t file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, they will essentially liquidate assets and cease to exist. It’s closing time for PASS.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

I’m not sad about the prospect of PASS spinning down. When PASS was formed, the SQL Server community needed the help of a big central organization that would help guide & grow the community. This has benefitted SQL Server users by infusing the community with training, and making many of us better at our jobs. However, over the years PASS has maintained that heavy-handed approach to management, with a desire to continue to steer the community in it’s direction.

When I was a Junior DBA, I needed a manager who would use a firm hand to steer me. As I grew professionally, that need for firm direction subsided and became more of a burden. As a Senior DBA, I need a lighter touch from my manager, and much more freedom to do my own thing and set my own direction. At this point in my career, heavy-handed micromanagement isn’t productive and will chase me out of a job. The SQL Server/Microsoft Data community is now at a more mature place than we were when PASS was founded, and the heavy-handed approach to trying to run a community is chasing people away. In particular, the community of speaker/organizers were never fully recognized as a unique (and critical) class of membership within the PASS organization compared to more casual members who are simply invested in their local user group, and not the greater PASS organization.

The SQL Server/Microsoft Data community has evolved faster than PASS on many fronts. I have been most critical of PASS’s failure to build an inclusive community, as that is something I am passionate about and hold to be of utmost importance. I’ve tried–and failed–to get PASS to evolve faster in that area, and have cut my own expectations that they would prioritize inclusion to invest in it. The failure to build a diverse, welcoming, inclusive community is a major contributor to PASS’s failure–even if the financial problems were ultimately the last straw.

I’m not sad about the prospect of PASS spinning down because it is an opportunity for a fresh start without the inertia of a massive organization with years of history.

Let’s assume that PASS doesn’t exist

If we assume PASS is completely gone (we don’t know for sure yet, but lets assume), what would we (the SQL Server/Microsoft Data community) build in it’s place?

The Microsoft Data community does not need a big overarching multi-million dollar corporation to steer it. Monoliths can be great when you’re starting out, but they scale poorly. The Microsoft Data community needs a more agile approach. The Microsoft Data community already has a number of successful smaller organizations & events–they just need a better way to link them together, so that they can work together, interface easily, share successes, share struggles, and build a community together.

Instead of a new monolithic PASS-like structure, the Microsoft Data community would be better served by a consortium of smaller organization where each member organization has a seat at the table–think something more like the UN. . Like a software solution built on microservices, the teams that run each microservice/organization get independence and liberty to do their own thing–as long as they are working cooperatively to make the full solution work. Similarly, it’s easy to add new microservices/organizations into the mix (or to deprecate & sunset them when they are no longer useful). This certainly adds complexity, but it also adds a certain bit of freedom that mature organizations & individuals demand.


This new “Network of Microsoft Data Professionals” would need some sort of charter that serves as the foundation for it’s future. You could think of it like the UN Charter, or the Magna Carta, or the US Bill of Rights, or as a series of user stories for a new product.

Here’s my quick, non-exhaustive, unordered brainstorm for what some of those top priorities might be:

  • Build an inclusion-first community. Inclusion & belonging are are just as important as technical skill or content quality.
  • Help grow Microsoft Data Professionals professionally–so that they can advance their careers over the long term.
  • Provide technical education so that Microsoft Data Professionals can solve technical problems–both long & immediate term.
  • Build a community that empowers speakers and organizers to contribute to the positive growth of the community.
  • Reward intersectionality–understanding & promoting that different communities intersect, and have unique needs. This extends to geographic communities, technical communities, socio-economic communities, etc.
  • Leverage our own strengths as technical professionals to apply to organizing our community.
  • The organization should be run by/for the community. The community is not run by the organization.
  • Transparency is more important than strategy & secrecy.
  • Community members are the stakeholders & equity-holders of the community & organization.

There’s surely some pretty obvious things I left off, but I just want to get your brain moving in the right direction.

What do you think the Microsoft Data community should prioritize in a fresh start of building a new organization to help tie the community together? Comment below, or write your own blog post and drop a link in the comments.

Update (2020-12-11): PASS has not yet issued any statements or updates. Steve Jones (blog|twitter)
has written an excellent post on the topic of PASS’s (lack of?) future, and how it may affect the community. If you’ve made it this far, I suggest you keep reading with his post.

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