Pirates of PASS: Curse of the Elections Process

Cross posted from Jorge Segarra’s blog

The last few weeks we’ve watched the drama unfold in regards to the PASS BOD elections. We’ve seen people attack criticize the NomCom, the board, PASS itself, the process and the decision of feeding of Gremlins after midnight. Thankfully the fireworks have died down and we can take a look at everything that has happened and make strides to move forward in a positive (and more importantly) constructive manner. Given that, I’ve been asked by my good friend Kevin Kline (Blog | Twitter) to respond to the following:

Many in the community seem to think that the PASS election process is badly broken. Do you think that PASS needs to implement fundamental and far-reaching changes to its election process, or does it only need some fine tuning? Please explain your thoughts?

I’m not going to recap the entire reality series-type drama that unfolded regarding the final slate of candidates but you’re more than welcome to read it yourself here. While I could rail on about how I believe Steve was slighted, unfortunately there’s nothing more to be done about it now so let’s look forward, shall we? The issue here is that the NomCom chose (and rightly so from my perspective) to follow the processes set in place for them and acted accordingly. Okay, fair enough. What we need to ask ourselves now is: “Is this process still appropriate for our organization?”

All together now…IT DEPENDS! Just kidding. Seriously though, up until now the entire (or at least much of) the process involved in electing someone to the board was hidden behind a veil of secrecy. Thankfully after last year’s elections issues the folks at PASS (and yes this includes both the board AND headquarters) worked extremely hard to change things for the better. This year we now have the PASS Elections Portal which offers much more transparency into the whole process than we ever had before. I think this move was a huge step in the right direction however much like Uncle Ben warned young Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Now that we have this transparency it introduces a new issue that wasn’t prevalent before: accountability. Prior to this year’s elections we, the community at large, didn’t have easy access to things such as the NomCom scores, process documentation, direct/easy/clear communication lines to those involved. That being the case this year you’re seeing the results of a very PASSionate community demanding answers to outcomes that quite simply don’t make sense to the masses. I think the one of the best posts/discussions to show this fact was Stuart Ainsworth’s (Blog | Twitter)  post addressing issues raised directly. As a small aside, HUGE kudos to Stu for meeting the community head-on and not being afraid to answer questions. I think we all owe him a big ‘thank you’ along with the other NomCom folks who openly communicated and helped clear up what they could.

While Stu’s post somewhat answered lingering questions the problem remains that there were things with those scores that simply “didn’t add up” when viewed publicly. This is where the danger in transparency comes in. People are going to question your methods and motives. Now that I’ve rambled on for a couple of paragraphs though we need to come back to the question of the process. The official process can be found from the elections site (pdf) so you can read the wording yourself. Ok finished reading it? Good, we’re all on the same page now. So far we’ve heard NomCom folks state that they had a very specific procedure to follow. Ok…well I’m looking at the procedure wording and it still doesn’t explain what happened this year. Unfortunately this is where the arguments start breaking down due to the only answer starts becoming “can’t talk about it due to privacy”.  Again the veil impedes the view. So how can we improve “the process”?

The process currently states that the NomCom is as such:

Finally, the NomCom meets to pick the interviewees on the list they think should be the candidates. This is the slate. The NomCom must always strive to put a minimum of (n+1) candidates on the slate, where “n” = the number of available slots – that means the slate should contain at least 4 (3+1) candidates. However, if the NomCom is in strong agreement that n or <n (“n” or “less than n”) candidates are of sufficient quality to go on the slate, it has the right to present n or <n candidates to the Board of Directors. (e.g. If the NomCom has good reason to believe that only 2 candidates are good enough to serve as Directors – where 2 is clearly less than 3 – it has the right to put only 2 candidates on the slate.) The responsibility for this decision falls on the Chair of the NomCom. This situation is less than ideal and the NomCom will strive to avoid at all costs.

Ok well what I’m reading here is that the NomCom still has the power to submit more or less people to the slate than is needed/asked. That being the case this reads more like Pirate Code from Pirates of the Caribbean wherein Captain Barbossa explains, “the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner .” Maybe we should follow Captain Barbossa’s sage advice and realize that some of the wording we try to stick to are more guidelines. Perhaps we need to just really re-word the official documentation rather than the process as the process itself makes sense in the grand scheme (for the most part). Are there tweaks we can make? Absolutely!

I believe Andy “The SQL Godfather” Warren (Blog | Twitter) wrote in a recent PASS update post about his view and how things could change for the better. In there he states that the NomCom followed procedure and anything less than that would open things up to a new world of trouble and I agree with him. So again, is it the process or the WAY the process is worded that is causing issues here? There are things that could definitely stand to be reworded for clarification. For instance, in the ranking for interview we’ve got Steve Jones being ranked in the average of 2 for Leadership. Really? Okay, I’ll bite. We need a CLEAR definition of what exactly they mean by “leadership experience candidate has demonstrated”. In my eyes being the community leader for the largest SQL Server community website on the planet tends to hold weight. I’d like to know what it is about this category that would cause members to vote so low (or so high in other cases). To be fair and balanced let’s look at another category and candidate. Under education Douglas McDowell comes in at perfect 4.0. What exactly are they looking for in terms of “education”? Does Douglas hold a PhD and everyone else is lower? Does this relate strictly to academia or other areas?

Earlier I mentioned this process isn’t broken and works for the most part and I feel I need to explain that a bit further. As of now the process is that we have a NomCom that sifts through all of the potential candidates and weeds out the weaker applications and comes up with a batch of candidates they feel (again based on given criteria worded in existing process documentation) are strong enough to move forward with. From there they take that batch and interview them with another ranking formula. After the interviews the applicants are ranked, sorted and based on those rankings another smaller batch emerges as those up for candidacy. Now this is where breakdowns occur, in my opinion. Here the NomCom is able to modify the batch of candidates to be either more or less than is stated in documentation (again we should defer to the Pirate Code on this). Here is where NomCom could say “numbers don’t add up, let’s talk” and fix this. Where this year’s rancor is coming from is that we seem to be missing the piece of the puzzle where (or if) this occured. Now we have a final slate presented to the board. Again, here, the board can look at the slate and say “good, good…errr this doesn’t seem right, you sure?”. Once more we haven’t seen anything from the black box of the board on this, all we know is that they approved the submitted slate. This final slate is what will be presented to the community and from there a general election will be held.

Now the process itself makes sense and potentials are vetted multiple times before we finally get our final candidates but something kind of seems “off”. Maybe it’s me but maybe there needs to be a more balanced check system. As it stands you only have two bodies that ping-pong a decision back and forth. Would adding a third body like our government system be a better way to check this? Perhaps that third body can get results scrubbed of personal data (e.g. name, employer, location) and only be presented with answers and they do rankings based on those. This blind ranking system can then be matched up with what NomCom finds and the board can make decisions based on aggregation of those results? This third branch could be made up of purely community folks so there is no percieved bias of board influence. Barring that we COULD have a board member on in that group but with no voting rights and their role is simply to moderate. Again, just bouncing ideas. Would this be too much to deal with? Do we really need to go to these lengths to please the masses? Only time will tell.

Outside of the election process itself I’d also like to take this time on my digital soapbox to encourage the board members as well as HQ to please PLEASE don’t be afraid of communicating with the community. Blog, Tweet, interpretive dance. Take a note from Andy Warren and see that it’s OKAY to publicly state your thoughts and opinions. Even if you feel your ideas may be “less than popular” at least you’re doing something more than the percieved nothing. In this age of transparency and numerous communication avenues (blogs, twitter, forums, mailers) there really is no excuse for not reaching out.

After all of this ranting and word vomitting, I’d like to 1) commend you if you’ve actually gotten this far and 2) Invite you to voice your own thoughts. If you’d like comment here on this blog or take the talk to the elections portal forum. It’s a new day in PASS and with the right people in place and the support of this amazing community I think we could transform this organization into something truly wonderous (as if it’s not already awesome enough). Thanks for your time, I’m going to go ice my fingers down now from writing this mess…

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