Unless you take a close interest in the politics of PASS you may have missed the kerfuffle around it changing its name from the “Professional Association of SQL Server” to just PASS a month or so ago. Blog posts from Andy Warren and R. Brian Kelley seem to sum up a lot of people’s feelings. There was a similar outcry on Twitter following an announcement about the way speakers will be selected for next year’s PASS BA Conference. In both cases I read the news when it came out and didn’t give much thought to it, because I agreed with what PASS were doing and I could understand why they were doing it. The strength of feeling these moves stirred up surprised me, and it made me realise that what made perfect sense to me was not so clear-cut to other people in the SQL Server community and needed to be defended – hence this blog post.
Let me start with the name change. I don’t think PASS will ever be anything but a SQL Server-centric organisation, whatever its name. However the definition of what is “SQL Server” and what isn’t has blurred in recent years. You could argue that PASS should confine itself to products that have “SQL Server” in its name, but if you were to apply that rule strictly you’d exclude Azure SQL Database. Aha, you say, that would be silly because the technology behind Azure SQL Database is so closely related to on-prem SQL Server and people who use the former will almost certainly use the latter. But in the same way Power Pivot is SQL Server Analysis Services running inside Excel – it’s more or less the same code base, the development experience is the same, the development team is the same, and the DAX language is identical in both SSAS Tabular and Power Pivot. The SSRS team gave birth to Power View and a lot of MS people closely associated with SSIS now work on Power Query. The worlds of corporate BI and self-service BI are drawing ever closer and soon it will be difficult to say where one starts and the other ends. A lot of SQL Server BI consultants and companies (like me) are now using and building Power BI solutions in addition to the SQL Server BI stack. This is why PASS is right to concern itself with Power BI and self-service BI: it’s a big deal for a lot of PASS community members.
What’s more, Microsoft is working on a number of new product that may have no technological link to SQL Server but will be used and championed by members of the PASS community. Azure Document DB and Azure Machine Learning are two good examples. To me it’s right that PASS takes an interest in these products even if other technical communities do so as well. Anyone with a background in SQL Server – anyone with a background in managing and analysing data with Microsoft’s traditional data platform – will have a natural interest in Microsoft’s new tools for managing and analysing data.
The argument against what’s happening seems to be that it means PASS is no longer focused solely on SQL Server, that it will end up spreading itself too thin. The people making this argument, as far as I can see, are from the DBA side of the SQL Family who equate “SQL Server” with the SQL Server relational database. That’s an easy assumption to make for those who only work with the relational engine. It’s true that “SQL Server” is the name of the relational engine, but “SQL Server” has also meant more than the relational engine for a long time: SQL Server is a suite of tools, and the relational engine is just one part of it. I’ve been a SQL Server MVP for nine years and have almost nothing to do with the relational engine. I started working with OLAP Services with SQL Server 7 and spoke at my first PASS event at (I think) the 2005 PASS European Conference in Munich. I haven’t been involved in the SQL Server community as long as some people, I know, but I feel like I’ve been part of it for long enough for my definition of what “SQL Server” is to carry some weight. As I’ve just argued, SQL Server Analysis Services, the tool that I have worked with for almost all of my professional career, has found a new expression in Power Pivot (even while traditional SSAS still exists) and so I think it is right for PASS to follow me as my career changes. This isn’t PASS losing its focus; this is PASS keeping its focus on what SQL Server has become and what its members are working with. I’m not leaving the world of SQL Server behind. SQL Server itself is changing and I’m changing with it.
Nor do I see any evidence of this stopping PASS from providing support and education for DBAs and those who work exclusively with the relational engine. As the PASS community has grown, as the PASS Summit adds yet more tracks, as other events like SQLBits and SQL Saturdays have taken off, I see that the economies of scale that come from the wider definition of “SQL Server” to include the relational engine and the BI tools have provided even more opportunities for those who are focused on the relational engine alone to learn and grow. Each sub-community may have a smaller slice of the pie, but the pie itself is much larger than it would be if we all went our separate ways.
This brings me on to the topic of the BA Conference. Andy Warren’s assertion, in the blog post I linked to above, that the BA Conference should have been the BI Conference is an opinion I hear repeated a lot and one I disagree with strongly. Before I do get onto that topic, though, I want to be clear that I’m not picking on Andy in particular – I’m engaging with him because he puts his side of the argument in a clear, thoughtful way which I respect (this more recent post is a great example of why I admire him and his thoughts on PASS). Unfortunately this particular discussion risks being turned into a very unpleasant argument, and I hope the PASS Board takes action to stop this happening. Twitter is where this is most obvious: it’s easy to be angry in 140 characters, less easy to have a nuanced debate. The tradition of heckling by certain members of the DBA community on Twitter during PASS Summit keynotes while BI features are announced is something that particularly p*sses me off: I feel like it’s rude and disrespectful to the large number of people in the audience who are interested in these features, and to the people on stage announcing them. Let’s stop this kind of thing, it can only be divisive.
OK, back to the topic of the BA Conference. When it was first announced I wrote a post entitled ”The PASS Business Analytics Conference is not the PASS Business Intelligence Conference” but I think my arguments here need to be clearer. First of all, I do not agree that BI content should be split off from the PASS Summit into its own conference. Some DBAs are not interested in BI; some BI pros like me are not interested in relational engine topics. However we are in the minority. I know from my friends and customers that a lot of people who work in the SQL Server community now deal with both the relational engine and some or all of the BI tools, and having the PASS Summit cover both BI and DBA topics at the same conference makes it appeal to a much wider audience than it would if it concentrated on just one or the other. Indeed, part of the reason why I felt disappointed with this year’s PASS BA Conference, and why I felt it was a bit of a failure, was because it had fallen into the trap of being a PASS BI Conference.
So why then should PASS have a BA Conference, and why is BA<>BI? Let me give you an example. Last week I ran a private SSAS Tabular/DAX training course for a large company in London. The people on the course were traditional corporate BI developers, smart guys, the kind of people I have worked with all my career. This week I’m going back to the same company to deliver training on Power Pivot, DAX and Power BI to the business analytics team of the same company. A lot of technical topics I’ll be covering will be the same but the people attending will be very different. They are equally smart guys who work outside the IT department, but in close association with the IT department, analysing data to answer business questions. They don’t have the kind of technical background that someone in the IT department might have but they do use many of the same tools and technologies (SSAS as a user; Power Pivot and Power BI; Excel). They ask the business questions and they then work together with the IT guys to find the answer. This is the BA community.
A BA community has always existed within the Microsoft ecosystem, originally around Excel and Access, but with the advent of Power BI and the wider self-service BI and Big Data movements it has grown in size and confidence recently. Evidence of this growth includes the “New Excel” user groups that Rob Collie is involved in organising, and the London Business Analytics User Group that Mark Wilcock organises. Should PASS reach out to this community? Yes, I think so. There is a clear overlap between the technologies that the BI side of the PASS community uses and those that the Microsoft BA community is using. Also, I think the BA community can benefit from the passion, experience and infrastructure built up by PASS. As far as I can see, the BA community is also happy to collaborate and engage with the PASS BI community too. In the past few years I’ve made a lot of new friends in the Excel world, for example Excel MVPs like Bob Phillips, who have this attitude. BI pros and BA pros are now working side by side in the office, so it makes sense that we come together as a professional association.
The BA community is not, however, interested in being swallowed up by an organisation that identifies itself purely with the IT department. It is interested in joining an organisation that has IT focused people as a major component but which also recognises the importance of collaboration between IT and the business to work with data. This is why the PASS name change, and especially a separate BA conference, is important. DBAs will only ever want to attend the PASS Summit. SQL Server generalists, and BI pros, will also want to attend the PASS Summit. Some BI pros will want to attend the BA Conference as well as or maybe instead of the PASS Summit. BA pros will only want to attend the BA Conference. BI pros like me will be presenting on topics like Power BI alongside Excel pros at the BA Conference; this is where the overlap between the existing BI community inside PASS and the new BA community is obvious. There are also a lot of topics such as machine learning, R (which is a big part of Azure Machine Learning as well as a massive topic in its own right), Hadoop and pure Excel that do belong at the BA Conference and do not belong at the PASS Summit.
As I already said, I felt like this year’s second BA Conference was a bit of a step back from the first because it had too much pure BI content. Part of the reason for this was, I suspect, because PASS relied too heavily on its existing speaker community and did not make enough effort reach out to the BA community’s speakers. I believe the PASS Board has come to the same conclusion as me and this is why the BA conference next year will not have an open call for speakers. Brent Ozar did a valiant job of trying to imagine why this has taken place here; he falls a little wide of the mark with his explanation in my opinion, even if he’s dead right that the PASS Board need to make a clear and positive case for why they are doing this. Here’s my take. A large Microsoft BA community undoubtedly exists. There are a number of great speakers out there too, but they are not yet convinced that PASS is serious about engaging with the BA community so they are cautious about investing the time and money to speak at the BA conference. What’s more the economics of the BA community are very different from the economics of the traditional PASS community. In the world of SQL Server there is a virtuous circle that allows someone like me (or Brent, and any number of other well-known speakers and trainers and consultants) to invest our own time and money in attending the PASS Summit, SQLBits and SQL Saturdays and so on because we know that it strengthens the community and therefore benefits our own businesses, which are based on high-rate consultancy and training. I’m not saying that we do this cynically – we are genuinely motivated by a love of the community, it’s just that what benefits the wider community benefits us as well. Unfortunately this virtuous circle does not exist (yet) in the BA community. Potential speakers in the BA community are more likely to be full-time employees, or academics, or people like Mr Excel who make a living from selling their content to a mass market, rather than from a small number of customers who pay high rates. They may not be able to afford the time and money to come and speak, and giving away their content for free at the BA Conference might be detrimental to their business. If PASS is going to make the BA Conference work then it will have to approach these potential speakers individually, convince them that the conference is worth their while to attend, and probably pay travel expenses and maybe also pay them a rate. Let’s not forget that this is normal practice in many other technical communities, and I know that top speakers have in the past been paid quite handsomely to speak at TechEd.
The last thing I want to say is that it could be argued that PASS is changing its name and focus because Microsoft wants it to, and indeed that it depends on Microsoft so much that it has to do Microsoft’s bidding. I don’t accept this argument though. PASS should support the interests of its members regardless of the whims of the marketing folks at Microsoft. My point is that I believe that the changes that PASS has made have been for the right reasons, because they are in the interests of a large number of people like me from the BI pro community who have been part of PASS for a long time. The forces that Microsoft is responding to in the wider world of data are the ones that PASS itself must respond to.
I think this post has gone on for quite long enough, and if you’ve read this far then I’m very grateful. I expect that I’ll provoke yet more debate by what I’ve said here, but I also think it needed to be said because the arguments so far have been one-sided. I don’t pretend to speak for the PASS Board or have any more inside information than anyone else already involved in this discussion. However I do believe that the more we talk about these issues, the more likely we are to understand each other’s points of view and come to some kind of agreement that we are all happy with.