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 booth – Tom 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 bingo – Stuart 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.