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The recent PASS Board of Directors election and the PASS Summit made me stop to think about what community means to me.

Community Means Connecting, not Credentials

You don’t have to do the secret handshake to comment on my blog, to ask me questions at the PASS Summit, to answer questions on StackOverflow, or to write articles at SQLServerPedia. The simple fact that you found these places means you’re in the club. You connected.

From the point you stumbled in here, you’re judged on the contributions you make, not the certificates on your wall. We have no clue who’s got their MCITP or who finished college, and even if we did, it wouldn’t matter because I haven’t done either of those. You don’t have to prove yourself here. Just be yourself, and talk to the rest of us.

Community Means Constantly Congregating and Chatting

People bond by being in the same place and doing something together. On the net, that usually means talking. The intertubes are rife with chatrooms, forums, and messaging technologies, yet new ones still keep popping up out of nowhere.

Last week during the PASS Board of Directors election, people suddenly found themselves with a hot topic – yet nowhere to discuss it. They talked a little on Twitter, but because there wasn’t a hash tag or an easy way to follow the conversation, the talk moved over to the comments on Matt Morollo’s interview page. My blog is by no means an official PASS meeting place, but since PASS doesn’t have chat rooms or an election forum, my blog’s comments were the next best thing. Make no mistake – nobody deliberately said, “Come discuss the PASS Board election on Brent’s web site.” It just happened that way by accident.

Several weeks ago, when SQLServerPedia started distributing t-shirts with a derogatory quote about Microsoft Access, people needed a place to talk.  There was no official SQLServerPedia T-Shirt Forum because we didn’t expect we’d need it, but we ended up with a lively discussion in the blog comments.

When StackOverflow.com started, Jeff Atwood (the founder) fought against having any kind of discussion forum. He hated “meta” discussions, discussions about the site itself. He wanted people to focus on answering programming questions and not spend their time talking about people doing the answering. He lost – underground discussion groups sprung up all over the place. Eventually he gave in and started Meta.StackOverflow.com, a place where people could talk about StackOverflow.

I could go on and on, but the point is that unsanctioned spontaneous conversations will always happen. People are desperate to connect.

Community Means Crazy Chaos, Not Calm Continuity

At any given moment, I can open up Twitter and be surprised by something that’s going on out there. You folks find all kinds of wacko links, neat ideas, new companies, and other things that make my job easier.

My job at Quest is to empower the community to do amazing things. If I tried to be some kind of project manager for the webernets, nobody would ever listen to me. All I can do is watch all the cool things going on, identify the best ideas, and figure out how to make them happen.

Perfect example – several months ago, I started building out a set of pages in SQLServerPedia’s wikis that would lay out an educational track for new database administrators. I tried carefully planning out the subjects I wanted to cover, organize them in a way that would flow well, and prune the content. It wasn’t the top thing on my agenda, so I didn’t make much progress.

Then out of nowhere, Jorge Segarra announced SQL University – a series of blog posts to do exactly the same thing. Instead of trying to take it on himself or project-manage it, he simply contacted the best bloggers and people who get ‘er done. He said he’d put together a Google Docs spreadsheet with a list of topics, and invited people to blog about them in some kind of orderly fashion. In a matter of days, people lined up the content, posted blog entries, and wrote some hilariously good stuff.

Jorge embraced the chaos, and it paid off. I’d tried The Old Way, but it just doesn’t work as well anymore. As soon as I saw Jorge’s effort, I knew it would succeed where mine had failed, and I was completely okay with that. My end goal is to help the community, and I can’t do that by keeping them under my thumb.

Community Means Creativity, Not Coordination and Control

The more people that participate in any community, the less likely it is that you’ve got the best ideas or the best execution.

Even if you think you run the joint.

You might be smart, but you’re no match for a dozen, a hundred, or a thousand other people. You’re going up against the proverbial monkeys with typewriters, and some of those chimps are banging out some pretty good stuff.

I work in the marketing department at Quest, and I work with people who do marketing full time. They went to college for marketing, they’ve been trained on marketing, and they’ve forgotten more about marketing than I’ll ever know. But check out some of the things we’re doing at the PASS Summit this year:

  • Twitter testimonials in the SQLServerPedia booth – we needed stuff to put on the wall of the SQLServerPedia booth, so I posted a tweet asking you if you had anything to say. I gathered some pretty funny quotes, and you’ll see ‘em in the booth. Some old-school members of the marketing department wanted to clean up the quotes, but I put my foot down. You guys were more creative than we would have been, and we would have only made the tweets worse.
  • Did You Know campaign in the Quest boothTom LaRock came to us with an idea for a marketing campaign and slogans. We loved it, and we asked him to keep going. His work turned into a video that’ll run in the booth.
  • Twitter bingoStuart Ainsworth came up with a killer idea to get people to mingle, and we threw resources behind it to make it happen. We never would have come up with that, and we love it.

None of these things came from us – they came from the community. We embraced them because all of you collectively are wittier than the handful of us in marketing. We’re wildly open to ideas from outsiders, and we do our best to deliver those babies. I believe that I can serve the community by being an enabler – connecting ideas with resources.

Community Means Concepts, Not Contracts

When Stuart approached me with the Twitter Bingo idea, he didn’t give me a rigid set of specs and ask for an exclusivity agreement. He gave me a concept idea and asked what it would take to make it work.

I went straight to Brett Epps, the PHP mind behind SQLServerPedia, and asked him to whip together a Bingo-card-generator. I think I gave him maybe two sentences of specs, tops, and let him loose. His execution was amazing.

I then went to Stephanie McCulloch, who makes everything in the Quest and SQLServerPedia exhibit booths happen. I think I might have said “we wanna do Twitter Bingo,” nothing more, and she came up with all of the logistics. She got the prizes, worked with legal to get the rules, got a raffle drum, set up the drawing times, etc., etc.

We went to Blythe Morrow, who coordinates the PASS both.  She picked up the torch and kept running with it, making sure the details got taken care of and that everybody would have a great experience.

The whole thing was great because it happened so fast. If Stuart or I would have tried to control the whole thing, it would have taken us forever. Instead, all we did was pass ideas on to the people who would actually do work, and trusted them to do their jobs. That’s community at its best: lightning-fast execution, low-cost, and no status meetings.

Problem was, I acted a little too fast. I didn’t know Quest’s sponsorship contract with PASS didn’t allow us to run contests at the PASS Summit without paying PASS an additional fee. I’d gotten a little too caught up in turning Stuart’s idea into reality, and we had to hit the brakes until we could get the legalities sorted out. Sometimes it’s tough for me to draw the line between where my help with the community ends, and my work as a Quest employee begins. I have to be more careful about volunteering Quest resources to help community members, even though Quest doesn’t have a problem with helping the community for free.

Community Means Crediting Contributors

You’ve worked for that slimy boss who steals all your good ideas and tries to pass them off as his own. He never invites you to the meetings with management, never gives your name to the customers, and never invites you to the launch party. You just turn around one day, and there it is, with your name nowhere in sight.

I believe that the community needs to know exactly who came up with every gem of an idea. Brilliant ideas don’t come out of committees – they come out of people. When I have a great idea, I’m proud as hell, and I know you are too. I want to give you every single minute in the spotlight that I possibly can, because I know how your job is. I’ve been a DBA. I’ve got plenty of shirts in my closet that have treadmarks from the bus. I do my best to keep pointing out the people who come up with the great ideas and who do great work.

Community Means Choices, Not Clear-Cut Consensus

We’re not always going to agree. There’s people out there right now who don’t agree with what I’ve written above. Some folks want the SQL Server community to be a corporate environment that’s organized from the top down and managed like a project. If you don’t stand up and participate in the community, these people will be happy to plan out the community for you, decide how your community will work, and decide how much say you get in your community interactions.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I know a lot of people who choose to live in planned communities in real life. They’re well-organized areas that are safe, clean, and quiet. Me, I like living in a vibrant downtown with lots of restaurants, museums, and shops within walking distance, but it has drawbacks. I wouldn’t use the words clean or quiet to describe my neighborhood, and I wouldn’t leave my car unlocked at night. But the great thing about communities is that I’ve got a choice to live, work, and play wherever I want.

I posted interviews with the PASS Board of Directors candidates because I wanted you to make informed choices.

Now I’m going to toss out some more choices:

  • Where do you want the next Summit to happen? – Do you want it in Seattle again next year, or would you like to see it move around?
  • Would you like to vote on sessions? – Some events like SQLBits let the attendees vote on which sessions are presented. If attendees decide they want 2/3 of the sessions to be about, say, BI, then that’s what they get. If not, they get more sessions about something else.
  • Would you like a bigger say in who leads the community? Do you think we should have more Board candidates during an election?  Should we have minimum qualifications for Board members?  Should we make our Board look more like traditional Boards of Directors where members are pulled from outside the community?
  • Would you like a place to talk about this stuff? – Doesn’t it strike you as odd that a community doesn’t even have a forum? That a blogger’s interviews with the BoD candidates was the only place to talk about them?

Community Requires Championing Choices

Just because somebody isn’t asking you a question doesn’t mean you don’t have a choice.

At next week’s PASS Summit in Seattle, take a moment to get to know the people at PASS who are making the choices that build your community. Talk to the members of the PASS Board of Directors about what you like and don’t like about the community. Talk to the volunteers who help make the Summit happen, and talk to them about what you’d like to see next year.

Talk to me and the folks at Quest Software who build community sites and events for you.  We all have choices to make, and even if you don’t have the time to volunteer, we do have the time, and we’ll champion your ideas.  I was completely honored and humbled when Stuart came to me about the Twitter Bingo, for example, because I got the chance to go to bat for him and build something really cool.  Twitter Bingo came thisclose to not happening at all, and it took a lot of effort from a lot of people to drag it over the finish line.  There was a lot of backslapping when we all pulled it off.

The community is made up of choices, and your choices matter.

Your ultimate choice is deciding whether or not to return to the PASS Summit next year.

I want you to come back because I want to see you next year.  The only way I can make sure that happens is to make sure you’re active about what you like – and don’t like – about the community.  I want you to get off your lazy duff and help make the choices that define our community.

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  1. Very good. Keep tossing out choices like those and you’re going to need a security detail at PASS.

    :-)

    You are showing great leadership with this post and fostering conversation that will promote vibrancy within the community.

    Chuck
    @chuckboycejr

  2. Great questions for the community, from the community.

    I’d can’t to read everyone’s answers to these questions – and any other questions, comments, ideas, concerns that are on people’s minds. I have my own ideas but I’d rather know the community’s ideas and see what PASS can do to help DBAs on a daily basis.

  3. Brent, it’s a good post and one I’ll come back. Not sure I entirely agree with the definition of community, I tend to include anyone who uses SQL that is interested in career, even if they don’t time to follow along every day on our online journey!

    As far as PASS, we’re going to up publish a suggestion box email address, and I suppose we could put up forums. Maybe we should have already? In truth I like it that these threads popup and people that follow them join in and comment, I think we reach a wider cross section that way. I don’t think I’ll be successful at forcing everyone to come to PASS forums to discuss problems, though Im sure some would. I’d be interested in hearing thoughts about that, as well as ideas on the best way for PASS HQ to find out about these posts and make sure the Board sees them, so that someone from PASS can watch for good ideas and participate in the discussion. Maybe it’s the equivalent of #SQLPass, maybe something more or less high tech.

    We appreciate your efforts on the bingo and for helping make things work out. Easy to get frustrated and quit, but good karma to fight through and ultimately see something work out.

    I’ll also add that if anyone has a comment or question they’d rather ask direct, please just email me andy.warren@sqlpass.org.

    • I totally agree that everyone can’t be forced to the PASS forums to discuss problems, but I’ll give you a great example where forums would have added a lot. When we had the Board of Directors election, PASS had a Campaign Space here:

      http://www.sqlpass.org/AboutPASS/Elections2009/2009SlateofCandidates.aspx

      But there’s nowhere that viewers can post a question or a comment about a given candidate in a way that the candidate can respond publicly and run a conversation. I was really bummed out when I ran interviews with the candidates, and the majority of the voters probably never saw those interviews or interacted with the candidates. Every candidate’s profile should have had a link underneath it saying, “Ask Mr. Smith a question in the forum now.”

      I truly appreciate the work you’ve done in bringing transparency to PASS. Your blog recaps of what’s happening have really opened my eyes. Keep up the great work!

      • Yeah. In 2009, if I see a web publication that doesn’t allow uncensored comments I immediately think #fail and move on to some other site that understands interactivity.

        Some very simple and expected things that any site should offer are:

        1. allow comments on everything
        2. do not censor those comments
        3. do not require people to sign in to comment

  4. Good questions Brent. I’ll be adding them to my list of things to ask the BoD members about next week. Andy and I have about 1 & 3 before, but I want to hear from all the other directors.

  5. I sometimes feel like a monkey on a typewriter. It’s a matter of random chance whether or not I “bang out some pretty good stuff”.

    Ideas in the category It’s-fun-to-think-about-but-I-don’t-have-any-immediate-plans-to-implement-them:

    idea: Monkey on a typewriter t-shirts for SQLServerPedia Bloggers/Editors.

    Cheaper idea: Typing Monkey sqlserverpedia blogger/editor badges.

  6. Brent, you won’t hear me disagreeing, lots of ways we could have made the election better. I think we did a little better than last year, but this year we have lots of feedback – now to gather it up and try to execute on it.

    Chuck, I don’t have a problem with not censoring, but for serious discussions I don’t have a problem (or see the problem) with requiring some type of sign in. At some point if you want to be serious and vest in the success of somthing, I don’t see that signing in should be a real hurdle, especially if OpenID or similar is supported. I’m open to discussion on that, but even here I like that I have a pretty good idea of who is writing, their background, biases. Could an anonymous opinion be valuable? Sure! But for PASS, is it a dealbreaker if it was set up that way?

    • Anonymous, or even 100% uncensored feedback, is a tricky thing. I know of very few communities that allow for 100% uncensored participation. Actually, I don’t know of any. The problem is that people tend to say nasty things in the heat of a discussion and some level of moderation is necessary to prune off topic discussions, name calling, and other things that, sadly, seem to crop up online.

      There are many ways we can get better, I think, and I’m excited to see the community getting so involved and voicing their opinions and concerns.

      • I’m against anonymous uncensored feedback. I routinely get comments here in the blog that slam someone (or me) with clearly false names and no web links. They don’t even try to fake being somebody. If they slam me, I let it stand, but I won’t let ‘em slam somebody else. That’s not right.

    • Andy,

      I think the PASS site has low readership and interactivity because of the “walled garden” PASS chooses to employ. While I do agree with you in principal that IF the sign in is implemented well and the site remembers you this is a non issue, I think the reality is that the PASS site has typically very few reads and usually few or zero comments for this reason.

  7. Chuck, my experience with SSC is that logins aren’t that big a barrier, and definitely help build repeat traffic. There are some things that should be behind the well, others that shouldn’t…call that line a slider you can set as best you can.

    PASS isn’t – right now – a destination site. Part of the discussion we need to have is whether it should be, and if so, in what areas. My stance – speaking for me and not for PASS, is that we should like sites like SSC do what they do (and well), and have PASS serve niches that are valuable, but perhaps not profitable, or large.

    • SSC is an example of a site that implements sign in fairly well.

      Nonetheless, I personally hate walled garden sites. I use them when their value exceeds my irritation at the wall they have put up.

      I think it is the antithesis of a place where all are welcome. That’s just my 2 cents.

      • Chuck,

        Andy has a unique perspective having established and help run a truly large forum. I ran a free speech BBS. You had to have a login but I required no verification or user information. I found folks love to be anonymous right up to the point someone else makes them mad. I had to deal regularly with people demanding the identity of others. It was easy for me to say no, since I didn’t have it to give. It was a litany of complaints all the time. People complained that a single person could have multiple accounts and use more than their hour a day, keeping others from getting equal access to my BBS. Mostly harmless complaining, sometimes entertaining but always there was a level of respect for those like myself who ran BBS’es and had free and open access to all.

        I’ve also ran a large Internet forum. Not by SSC standards, but I did have 15k users and the forum was very active. It required verification but no personal information. I was mostly just keeping out spammers. Again, the same old issues kept coming up. This time instead of having several hundred users I had several thousand and the problem grew exponentially. The final straw was a phoned in death threat to my home by an angry user. Not to just harm me but my family. That’s when I really learned that when you are dealing with a large volume of people concentrated in one spot it only takes one crazy person to wreck it all. You must have some kind of control valve. A way to keep people who simply enjoy wrecking what the community has built out or limit the destructive influence.

        You may not like walled gardens, but without them you end up with a muddy trampled field at some point.

        • Hi Wes,

          I have run some reasonably well trafficked sites as well (probably the biggest was with a former Cable News commentator).

          You may have missed my earlier reply above, but I am not advocating anonymity.

          What I dislike is having to sign in to the site before I can read anything.

          There’s no technical need for a walled garden if all you are trying to avoid is annoynimity. (Look at UStream. You can sign in if you want, but you can also use your twittter account to identify you.)

          A great example of how PASS could affect this simply at no cost without employing a walled garden is Disqus:

          http://disqus.com/

          • Hey Chuck,
            I did see you post above. I don’t have an issue with read access, but at the same time you seem to be asking for an unfiltered comment system. These two things seem diametrically apposed to each other.

            Maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture here.

  8. Wes,

    Google statisticsio and look at Jason’s site. He has employed the Disqus commenting system that I am advocating.

  9. Brent,

    Thanks for the good Q & A here.
    Election voting was good, but I’d like to see all candidates on the ballots, not just a few. Also I don’t think we had enough members voting. Need to get more people involved. Having a PASS blog site would be good, but are people afraid to comment too much as it may affect their chance of running for the board if they are too negative of PASS? Too much anonymity tends to bring out the radical element who just want to complain, nothing wrong with a login in my opinion.
    Hope to see everyone next week at PASS.

  10. “Would you like a place to talk about this stuff?” Hell yes! I am what I’ve been referring to myself as the local noob; Accidental DBA when my company got a SQL Server box / instance two years ago; in the last six months just found the SQL community at all, just joined PASS, just joined twitter, all while trying to soak in and learn everything I can as quickly as I can (thanks Jorge for SQLU!) In all of this I, too, have found it strange that PASS’s site isn’t more of a Community Center than it is. It’s a good resource, don’t get me wrong, but I think that the biggest entity representative of this absolutely awesome group of people would be more, most especially a place for us to “sit and talk” as it were.

    Brent, you do a great job of giving us a place to be, but it seems like we’re the neighborhood kids on the block, hanging out at one of our friend’s house talking about important people and things that the people we’re talking about should be hearing directly. I realize, as evidenced by some of the commentors above that certain highly placed people in PASS do, in fact, appear here and listen (and comment) but it does seem strange that we’re not having this conversation within the “garden walls.”

    Speaking of which, I don’t see why PASS’s site is given that misnomer. I came in from nowhere, realized something about what I had found, and signed up all in the first few minutes after finding the site. There was some confusion about my login for a while, but, through twitter replies, that got worked out, and I’ve been a member in good standing since July, even found my Local Chapter and have been to a User Group meeting since – except for the lack of forum or other type of discussion-ware on the site, I have no complaints about it.

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  12. I wouldn’t advocate censorship, but as a long time online community manager, I know you have to set policies for acceptable behaviour, then moderate to those AUPs. Otherwise, you’ll have spam, porn, political off topic stuff, etc. that lowers the signal to noise ratio to the point that *only* the wackos will stay in the discussion.

    The key is to set AUPs at the right level. I manage one community where the policies are fairly strict because we allow users of all ages. So it has to be downright cheerful in content – no swaring, no iffy avatars, no rude signatures, etc.

    My professional communities are pretty much: stay on topic, don’t make it personal, and post stuff that will make it through most corporate firewalls. That covers overt spam, naughty bits, and stuff that drives real professionals crazy.

    BTW, I choose to turn off anonymous posting on most of our communities because it saves so much moderator time. We allow anonymous reading and do provide a mechanism for moderator assisted postings where the member can make a good case for why the post needs not be attributed. This is usually to hide the identity of the company where the technical problem is being experienced (“someone deleted our entire repository – how do we get it back”).

    I don’t like sites that require registration and login to read content, either.

  13. Chuck, hopefully we can agree to disagree on this point and still have a positive outcome. We all come from different background/experiences and those color our decisions, we try to take input and balance that against what we know and try to figure out to do from there.

    We – mostly volunteers – do the best we can on any given day. Wer’e not against change, but even here in this small forum we don’t all agree on the best approach!

    • Hi Andy,

      The SQL community is larger than PASS. If I invested my hopes for that community solely in PASS, I admit it would be hard to remain positive all the time. However, the conversation you and I are having here and the fact that you are willing to listen to suggestions for PASS and I and others are willing to make them is cause for optimism in itself.

      I wish you and PASS well. PASS has always held promise to benefit the SQL community. May that promise grow.

      Chuck

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