The Changing Community Landscape?

Just dropping in the thoughts I posted in a Twitter thread earlier today –

Random thoughts on the changing landscape around the SQL Server community and training events (more a train of thought than well constructed reasoning with data, so don’t expect some kind of wonderful insight here). Should the demise of PASS happen it will leave a significant gap in the “independent” training space (I say independent here despite times when folks on the board are working for vendors – I genuinely feel that they have overall integrity when it comes to fairness and note that I am excluding C&C from this).

Product vendors already have some say with their spending nuggets, but this will change should PASS vanish. We already see vendors putting on their own conferences (example Redgate) which is not necessarily a bad thing. The larger concern is that it helps to promote that vendor and their products. This promotions can come with explicit warnings that it’s focused on the vendor products or not and you don’t know until you sign up (and PASS sessions have been guilty of this, I know). There are independent conferences like SQLBits in the UK and DataGrillen (formerly SQLGrillen) in Germany, but that space is pretty dead in the US (foam finger number one!). Is a larger conference needed? Maybe, maybe not. One thing that may get lost with a PASS demise is SQL Saturdays. Of course that may not be the case. Back when Andy Warren, Steve Jones, and Brian Knight created SQLSats back in the day they did so without the backing of the monolithic org. It was their hard work and effort that created something significant which they then handed over to PASS. Those could potentially vanish (or at the least see a serious reduction in events) as it will be more difficult to get the help to put on an event as well as reach out to potential attendees.

Does that mean that we need PASS to survive?


We don’t.

Interjection: I previously wrote about why maybe people shouldn’t attend PASS Summit.

However, PASS have done a lot over the years to help folks all over the place. They have a solid reach and they really help to evangelize the SQL Server product and its ancillary pieces, although it’s not the only game in town. With Microsoft recording their own training videos and companies like Pluralsight and a wealth of content there is ample training available (not to mention blog posts and private companies). It may lead to MS having to lean on their MVPs some more and at that point it very much becomes a game where folks will be desperate to find reach to ensure their continued status (or to gain the award). That may be problematic as companies are potentially going to nap up people who are MVPs so that they can be front and center to represent the products that said company sells. This means that there is a LOT that will go into self-promotion (even more than there is now) and that self-branding will become a priority.

For some self-branding comes easily and comfortably (maybe there’s a touch of narcissism in them, maybe not), but for many other it doesn’t. This will lead to the silencing of many voices that just want to help others and not have it be a full-time job.

Twitter/Slack/LinkedIn/Blogs will all find niche spaces as discoverability will becomes more difficult over time, although there is an argument to be made that this is tough now – just look at a PASS conference lineup and see how many new faces appear.

So where are things going in the future? No idea, but we might be coming to the close of the “convention circuit” by which folks travel around and present month in and month out. Those spaces that are left will likely be filled with “names” that squeeze out other folks. Knowledge and experience will go by the wayside as holding an evangelist award provides a certain amount of kudos that leads to folks taking up presentation spots, despite the award having no bearing on actual skills other than the ability to obtain said award.

It will be interesting to see how things play out over the next couple of years. Major changes be coming methinks.

Bonus thoughts (these are the ones I did not include in the Twitter thread for reasons):

Aside from the yearly Summit and SQL Saturday, PASS also maintains remote virtual chapters (thanks for the reminder @jdanton) that provide online sessions monthly and they help (in some fashion) with in-person user groups, for those times when the world is not suffering through a pandemic (note, I am not including 24HOP or the current incarnation of that sort of thing).

The virtual chapters may not survive a PASS purge as outreach becomes a challenge as does cost (something the leaders should not have to pay out for). I do not know what the numbers look like for attendance to those events or the makeup of the audience demographics, but there is likely a subsection of people that will lose access to training should those go away. It is possible that someone will come through to pick up the pieces, but again it is likely to be a vendor which can damage the openness of the community.

Speaking of vendors, many of those are at risk as well. There has been a great deal of consolidation in the vendor space the last few years. I’ve little doubt this impacted the bottom line at PASS (and maybe why Summit started up “sponsored sessions”). Along with that consolidation comes other risks. There are companies out there that will happily gobble up the assets of a smaller shop and then let the product rust as they refuse to put effort into anything other than basic maintenance (that you would still have to pay them for every year). That greatly harms innovation. The other detractor to innovation comes from Venture Capitalists.

When a VC comes along they offer up the world to a business by giving them funding and making the world look like a rosy place. But those VCs are going to want to get their money back (and some) and will start putting pressure on the business to change things like pricing, employee wages, and R&D. I heard stories of layoffs that have happened in the vendor space because some VCs were driving the boat (I’m not aware of any private equity issues in the SQL Server vendor space, but that does not mean they don’t exist). VC money can be important to help small companies scale up, but it can also work to their detriment as time progresses. It is not unknown for companies to startup, go a year or two, and then work hard to get rid of highly paid folks to help balance the books and make the company highly marketable for other entities to purchase them whole. Then just rinse and repeat.

There are other aspects of learning about SQL Server that I would be remiss in not mentioning:

You can find a metric ton of learning already out there in YouTube videos, blog posts, training companies and vendors. There is more content created every week than there was total when I started working with SQL Server a couple of decades ago. As there’s no dearth of things to look at anyone who wants to learn something just needs to find the right content – this is the real challenge. How do you know what is high quality and useful versus low quality and potentially fraught with incorrect information or even outdated information (for example how many replicas are you allowed in an Availability Group?). Is there a content rating that exists to let you know how good things are? Nothing that isn’t subjective that’s for sure. Tack on to that if the content producer is a “brand name” and people will wow over whatever they produce, even though there maybe someone else creating something more useful elsewhere and getting no credit for it. I’ve seen this countless times – well crafted and thought out content by someone that takes hours will nearly always get less traction than some “big name” who just regurgitates the SQL Server help documentation.

There’s also a huge focus on the latest and greatest version of SQL Server. This is especially true of the MVP awardees. This makes sense, Microsoft are giving those folks inside information and private training events on the new versions and encourage people to talk about them. This is not problematic in and of itself. Where it becomes and issue is where it leaves people behind. The new shiny of SQL Server 2019 is lovely, but how many people are still out there running 2008R2, 2012, 2014, 2016, or 2017? Vastly more than the new version (yes, I am ignoring Azure SQL Database here because you don’t get to choose what version that is, nor do you have all the bells and whistles that you can plug into box product running on-premises or in a cloud VM).

Missing from a lot of learning areas is the ability to start on a subject and then grow the knowledge. PASS have been particularly bad at this sort of thing. Back in 2016 I argued for curated tracks that would have sessions that build on each other to provide focus on a given subject (something finally introduced in 2019 as Learning Pathways). This kind of learning space is one where private training excels and most other places (including things like LinkedIn Learning and Pluralsight) fall down. This has the potential to be a significant benefit should any company be able to figure that out.

Just think of a 6 month, 1 hour a week online course for how to do backups and restores that includes backing up just certain files or filegroups and performing page level restores. Include with that blog posts to help reinforce the content, and you have something powerful which is useful for both novice and experienced people. Any place that can create that sort of content is likely to find people coming to check them out. And if it were a free offering, then all the better.

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