How session selection worked with the old PASS

There’s some valuable discussion going on regarding diversity and conferences. I wrote about it last year. I’d like to write more of my thoughts on the subject, but so far I’ve been overwhelmed with my day job and I have some older posts I owe people. That said, I figured this would be a quick way to add some context and something useful to the dialogue.

Below is a blog post I wrote in July 2019 in response to some frustration to the selection process that year. For each section, I’ve added a “What this really meant” section to add some background context. I hope this makes some of the conversations more fruitful.

A peek inside the program selection process

As one of the program managers for PASS Summit, I always wish that people knew more about all of the steps involved in selecting the community sessions each year. The difficulty of balancing all of the tradeoffs and constraints is an incredibly challenging and rewarding task. I personally like to think of it as a high stakes game of Sudoku, and in fact I will be using that analogy to help explain the process.

In this blog post, we will take a high-level look at the different stages of the PASS Summit selection process, as well as a few of the factors that we try to balance as a team.

What this really meant

Back in March of that same year, there was some particular controversy. I forget the exact details, but I recall writing a long Twitter thread about “hey we are human beings, not some shadowy cabal.” Given the regular lack of transparency about the the selection process in general, any conclusions people jumped to were entirely understandable. My hope was to help change that as much as I was able to.

Simply put, if you don’t communicate your process, people will assume the worst.

As a team, we had hoped that each one of us could write a blog post about the process and perhaps give some better insight and transparency. Unfortunately being a program manager was essentially a 50-75 hour per year commitment, where the only financial compensation was entry to conference and maybe some speaker swag. It was difficult to make the time for going beyond that task.

A year later, in the dying days of PASS, I wrote about the difficulties about improving transparency. I think the organization had gotten into a bit of a doom loop, but it’s questionable how much of a difference I could have made alone. Many of the issues stemmed from decisions outside of my control.

Overall Timeline

The very first step is when the PASS Board sets the overall strategic vision, which we, as the program team, then work within. This year, for example, we saw the introduction of the architecture, data management, and analytics streams. One top of that, the spotlight topics for 2019 are Security, AI, and Cloud – which means we need to make sure those topics are well-represented in each stream. So, before we even begin, we already have two constraints to consider in our game of Sudoku.

Next, call for speakers opens up. Without our speakers, we wouldn’t have a conference, full stop. I especially appreciate all of the new speakers who have submitted. I know, for me personally, it was an emotional rollercoaster when I submitted back in 2016 and 2017. I would worry, for a long time, about getting selected or not and then be a nervous wreck if I did get selected!

Once the call for speakers closes, the abstracts need to be reviewed. Each year, we select about 20 volunteers to join the program committee. This team does the bulk of the work, spending hundreds of hours reviewing hundreds of abstracts, over 6-8 weeks. We simply could not get through the hundreds of sessions each year without the help of all of these volunteers.

Once all the abstracts have been reviewed, the program management team drafts the initial community line-up. The program management team consists of 4 volunteers, myself included. We take all the feedback from the program committee and align it to the vision and direction from the PASS Board in order to draft the initial lineup. This combines the community sessions with any targeted sessions that have already been published. Oh, and did I forget to mention that while this process is happening, the PASS Board educational content group works with us and PASS HQ to target initial waves of content? This is based on industry trends, thought leader feedback, session evaluations, and so much more! Just one more set of constraints to add to the board

Next, we reach out to community thought leaders and the PASS Board for ongoing feedback and gap analysis. Thought leaders are a wide-range of people from the community and industry that we reach out to get their perspectives on key topics, trends, and gaps they see in educational offerings.  There are a lot of cooks in this kitchen to help make sure we don’t miss anything. The community program is then completed by the program management team with final approval from the PASS Board educational content working group. Overall, this portion takes just over a month, with the community lineup announced in early-mid July, and any final sessions announced in August. In the next section, we will go into detail regarding the selection process.

What this really meant

What I wanted to communicate with all of this is that the process was complicated. We often would have high level scheduling constraints set by some combination of the board and C&C. This generally came in the form of high level themes or content goals, such as learning paths. There were a lot of constraints being added and sometimes we didn’t have as much time available as other years. When we had less time, we screwed things up and made mistakes.

A recurring theme as well was that we needed outside opinions to avoid screwing up. A lot of the balancing process was a series of spot checks, and it was easy to forget one. It was also easy to lose touch with the community and how they might respond. We knew our process, we knew the challenges we were facing, and we knew we had good motivations. It was very easy to lose touch with how others might interpret things. It was easy to forget what it was like to be a speaker, nervously hoping to get in.

Selection process

Whenever you play a game of Sudoku, there are very few numbers on the board, so almost any choice you make will fit within the existing constraints.

A nearly empty Sudoku puzzle

The same flexibility applies with choosing sessions. Some of the session slots are already filled with invited speakers, but generally we have a lot of flexibility at this stage. So, the first thing we do is take all of the sessions and sort them by their abstract review score. The idea is to start with the highest quality sessions and have the cream rise to the top.

Once we start filling in the slots, however, we then need to consider a number of factors. This is like being near the end of a game of Sudoku, it gets harder and harder to meet all of the constraints and this is where the game, and our job, gets really tricky.

A sudoku puzzle that is half filled in

Here are just a few specific examples of factors we review:

  1. Strategic vision
  2. Content areas
  3. Topic depth/level
  4. Sessions by audience
  5. Speaker performance
  6. Speaker diversity

The first thing we have to consider is how do our sessions balance in terms of content and level. Do we have 15 sessions on Power BI but nothing on SSIS? If we look at the line up by individual audiences are we serving everyone? Do we have any gaps? How much 400/500 level content do we have? Whenever we survey our members, they consistently request in-depth content, but for 2019, only 0.5% of the submitted sessions were at the 500 level. This can present challenges for us.

I could go on and on about all the factors we consider, but I hope that this gives you better insight into the selection process.

The sessions have now been announced, and it is a great feeling to see it all come together. I look forward to seeing all of you at PASS Summit in the fall.

What this really meant

What I really hoped to communicate was that we were juggling a large number of constraints, and the more that got added or the less time and resources we had, the more likely we would fail one of those constraints.

I also was happy to mention diversity as a consideration. I would have loved to have go into more detail at the time, but there was a worry that it was a sensitive subject and that being honest about it might cause controversy. So it was resigned to a bullet point at the end of the list.

Diversity for us was a regular spot check for us. While the main goal was to produce a schedule that would sell well and that people would like to attend, we knew very well that we had to work towards diversity. It would have been easy to just selected the most well known speakers or just selected the best sounding abstracts, but this would have created a schedule that wasn’t reflective our speaker pool and definitely not reflective of the average IT worker.

We knew for a fact that if we let an all male panel slip through, we would get roasted, and rightfully so. We knew that the televised sessions and precons put a spotlight on the speakers, and if we ended up with line up full of white guys like myself, that was a failure.

One final thing, I want to acknowledge that conferences today have a harder time than we did. It was easier when we have lots and lots of submissions both for precons and general sessions. I fully believe that post pandemic, conferences are likely starting with much less diverse of a speaker pool.

Being a program manager in 2022 is a difficult job. But just like how expectations for speaker compensation are rising, so are expectations for a diverse schedule. Ultimately more resources have to be allocated to the task as it gets more difficult.

Why I appreciate it when folks share their pronouns

I think if you aren’t already on-board with it, the whole pronouns thing can seem weird. I remember when people started to adding pronouns to their Twitter profiles and started asking everyone to do the same, and I just didn’t get it. Never in the history of ever has anyone confused me for a woman. I am 6’2″, broad-shouldered, and have an over-abundance of facial hair. It made no sense to me why I should add my pronouns to my Twitter Bio and then later on, my PowerPoint slides. There simply wasn’t a need.

And then, a couple of years later, I found out the person I was married to was a transgender man. We both did really. And suddenly, a subject that I would rather have just muted on Twitter and ignored was now a quintessential part of my life. My hope with the rest of the blog post is that I can explain why I appreciate when folks share their pronouns, and potentially encourage you to do the same.

Small courtesies are how we show people they are important

In my early twenties, I used to be very bad at people skills. I was oblivious, didn’t like small talk, and didn’t understand a lot of social norms. One of the books that really helped me is called “How to have Confidence and Power in Dealing with People” by Les Giblin. It’s a weird title that sounds like a 1950s sales pitch, but so much of the book is about being considerate to other people. One part that sticks with me today is about the importance of small courtesies.

In the book, Les says, “All of us not only need to feel important — We need to feel that other people recognize and acknowledge our importance.” The way that we do this is through small courtesies, small acts of extra effort. When we show up 5 minutes early to a meeting, we show people they are of value. When we make the effort to use someone’s preferred name, we show that they are important. In my mind, if you share your pronouns and don’t need to, that is a small courtesy, and I appreciate it.

Why is it a courtesy?

I remember a friend of mine asking “Why would I add my pronouns to my presentations? That’s a personal part of my identity.” And that’s true, it felt weird for me the first time I did it, and I still feel awkward when I say it out loud. As I said, no one has ever mistaken me for a woman, it’s never been in question. So why do it?

Well, in some ways that’s the point. It is a shared discomfort, it is a shared vulnerability. There is always a risk that by sharing that information you open yourself to mockery or cruelness. I regularly see in Twitter people suggesting that pronouns in your bio means you are partisan and unreasonable. I certainly hope that doesn’t describe me!

For some people, like my husband, sharing his pronouns isn’t as optional as it is for me. For him, to be referred to as “she” or by his old name, it’s a source of unease or discomfort. Just like how if your name is Matthew, you might not like it if people call you Matt. But it becomes a no-win situation for people like my husband. Does he ignore it and suffer recurring discomfort or does he share his information and risk verbal abuse or worse?

I worry about his safety regularly. I still quietly flinch when I tell people strangers that I have a husband. Thankfully no one has ever been a jerk to either one of us about it, but I still worry. Just like in my blog post about Codes of Conduct, when I see that people have worked to make our situation feel normal, I feel safer and more at ease.

It allows me to show you a small courtesy

Whenever I put together my newsletter, I will copy someone’s name directly from LinkedIn or Twitter. It’s very important to me that I get people name right. I feel the same way about people’s pronouns. I try not to just assume any more, given the situation in my own marriage. And I absolutely hate guessing, if I can easily avoid it.

I understand that there are situations where it doesn’t make sense for folks, such as cultures where pronouns are non-gendered or folks that don’t feel safe being out as trans. But when it does make sense, please help me demonstrate you are important and worthy of value, by getting your details correct.

Lessons learned from being self-employed, 3 years in

This month marks my 3 year anniversary of working for myself. I think it was undoubtedly the right decision, but it doesn’t quite feel firm and real. Here are some lessons learned as I enter my third year.

Learn how to work, or fail

I think the hardest lesson for me is that the biggest challenge has not been the technical piece. I know how to do that, and I’d like to think I do it well. I even have somewhat of a grasp on the sales and marketing piece. The hardest part is the daily art of working.

I’ve said it many times before, but there is so much scaffolding that comes from having a workplace, co-workers, and a boss telling you what to do. You expect to just be able to get stuff done when you work for yourself, and that’s just not the case. It’s frustratingly difficult.

In reality, there is a whole suite of skills that need to be learned to work for yourself, to work from home, etc. for example:

  1. Switching between strategy and execution
  2. Setting boundaries at home
  3. Scheduling work
  4. Identifying what’s profitable and drives the business forward
  5. Tolerating financial and career uncertainty

My biggest regret has been not focusing on these things from day one. My biggest struggle right now is the art of daily working and daily success.

Invest in your environment

Related to that, in the last 5 months, my royalties have been at an all time high. That this feels real and stable, and has caused me to reinvest in my environment. I think that is also something I wish I had done earlier.

When I first started, I was using the same laptop for both leisure and work, and this quickly lead to a poor work-life balance and everything feeling like a blur. For the longest time I used a $100 desk from Staples.

More recently, I purchased a standing desk and it has been wonderful. I bought three 27″ monitors. I bought a streamdeck and use it for time tracking launching applications. I purchased $400 headphones, which feels utterly decadent. But I’m realizing it’s all worth it.

Ultimately, not investing in my environment for so long is a kind of stubbornness. I keep expecting to just be able to work, but this depends on some reservoir of willpower and focus, which is always more limited that I expect. Too often I indulge in “should” thinking.

How much money do you need?

One thing that has been a point of frustration is that my top line revenue for the past 3 years has been fairly flat. And sometimes I wonder if I’ve made a mistake. But just looking at top line revenue doesn’t tell the whole story.

First, if you look at where that revenue came from, there’s been a huge shift over time. That first year, 80% of my income was consulting and 20% was royalties. And much of that consulting was work I didn’t want to do, but did to pay the bills. By year three, that ratio has flipped. Covid tanked a lot of consulting but doubled my viewership.

One big benefit of that is now my income, while not higher, has become more stable and predictable. Not once during the pandemic did we have to worry about paying the mortgage. In contrast, I know a couple consultant friends who had to go back to getting a job.

Another benefit has been supreme flexibility. It comes with frustrations, as mentioned above, but I’ve been able to just take a day off, whenever I want. I can take my mom to a bird fair, and it’s fine. I think a lot about folks who get promoted, make an extra $20k but are working 50 hours per week and are miserable. I try to remind myself that I’ve take the reverse choice.

So what’s next?

I plan to continue doing consulting on Power BI and the Azure data platform. I think it’s essential as an instructor to stay grounded and relevant. And I enjoy it! But I’m accepting that my main job is to be a perpetual newbie, having to constantly learn technology and package it up for others. This means focusing on instructional design and, more importantly, how to get work done on a daily basis.

In the short term, I’m working on 3 Power BI courses for Q4 and then hopefully taking the last 6 weeks off for 2021!

Why a Code of Conduct is Valuable

I believe having a Code of Conduct is valuable and that every conference should have one. I wrote before about my thoughts on diversity in conferences, and I think a good code of conduct is a way to potentially have a more diverse speaker and attendee pool. It is a way to make more marginalized folks feel safer and, ideally, make a better experience for everyone.

Shouldn’t people know better?

I’ve seen the argument that a Code of Conduct ignores that fact most people are decent. That the majority of folks who do cause harm, they don’t intend it. The concern is that by writing down a list of banned behavior, we at best state the obvious and at worst imply that the average person is indecent.

In short, shouldn’t it go without saying, “Don’t be a jerk?”.

I’m willing to concede that most people are decent and mean no harm. I find that following Hanlon’s Razor makes me a less miserable and more open-minded person. In an ideal world, there would never be a need for a Code of Conduct. Everyone would be on the same page about what is appropriate behavior, and how to report inappropriate behavior. People would perfectly tune their jokes and comments to the sensitivities of their audience.

When in your life has that been the case? I was not blessed with common sense when I was born. I have spent so many years putting my foot in my mouth. In particular, I remember the time a coworker told me she was in sales and I said “Oh, so you work in recruiting.” because up to that point I had figured sales a was male-dominated, pushy profession and recruiting was more soft-skills oriented. Ooof.

Intention and impact are separate

When I made that recruiting comment, not an ounce of harm or malice was meant. But what these arguments seem to miss sometimes is that we have to look at intention AND impact. My words still could have been discouraging or frustrating for the receiver. What really solidified this for me was an example from the book Crucial Conversations:

Imagine someone is drunk and decides to drive home. During the drive they blow through a stoplight and hit someone. Did they intend to cause harm? No. Did they cause harm? Yes. No one ever drives drunk thinking “I hope I hurt someone tonight”. If we only looked at intentions we’d never be able to stop that sort of behavior.

The truth of the matter is we are all drunk drivers when it comes to social interactions, to some degree. Some of it is obliviousness, misspeaking, or a lack of natural grace. And for those folks, there should be room for gentle correction and growth. But others choose not to grow or change their behaviors.

What a Code of Conduct does is help separate the two groups more quickly. If you read the code, agreed to it, and still violated it, it is much more likely that you simply don’t care. It still may have been an honest mistake, and there is room there for that person apologizing and improving. But it is infinitely easier to identify repeat offenders when the rules are clear.

Isn’t this virtue signaling?

Another argument I’ve seen is the concern about virtue signaling. I.E. are folks creating these things not out of genuine consideration, but for the applause of their peers. That the folks pushing for these things don’t care about the results.

To me this is such a strange criticism, because it’s a criticism of intention. This is often from the same folks who feel that we should be giving the benefit of the doubt to people like me who accidentally say unkind or offensive things. Why is the benefit of the doubt not given to organizers as well? I don’t like accusing folks of virtue signaling because that implies I can accurately assess other folks’ goals and motivations. I simply can’t and it’s likely you can’t either.

Again, we should try to separate intention from impact. A poorly written code of conduct, without proper enforcement mechanisms is harmful. Totally agreed, but I personally think on average they are beneficial.

Potential benefits of a code

So what are the some potential benefits of having a code of conduct?

First, it has the debate happen before the incident. When my husband and I got married, we started a budget for our finances. This was important, because if we are going to argue about how much money was appropriate to spend on restaurants, I’d rather have the argument before the money was spent. The same is true of a community hashing out what behavior is appropriate. You don’t want to have to figure out those lines right after an incident occurs.

Second, it empowers bystanders. In The Checklist Manifesto, they talk about how checklists can help deal with a power differential. Specifically, it gave nurses more space to call out surgeons when they skipped critical safety steps before a surgery. Many of us are conflict averse, and having something clear cut to point to can help us avoid getting caught in the bystander effect.

Third, it signals care and safety. When my husband came out as trans, I started having pervasive concerns about our safety. I’m 6’2″ and 280 lbs, my personal concerns about physical violence are almost nil. But I still often flinch when I tell people I have a husband, anticipating the possibility of someone being a jerk to one of us. Thankfully this has yet to be an issue for us.

When I see that an event organizer has put in the time to call out bad behavior ahead of time, it helps me let my hair down, so to speak. It shows that they went out of their way to think about these things and that I’d likely be successful reporting any issues. I don’t have to constantly keep my guard up.

Summary

I think it’s reasonable to have concerns about folks trying to enumerate bad behaviors and potentially doing so unskillfully or thoughtlessly. But the truth of matter is you already have a default code of conduct at events, it’s just unwritten and often contradictory. It’s whatever folks can get away with. I know for me personally, I feel safer at an event when they have been clear about what behavior is unacceptable.

My thoughts on diversity in tech conferences

Today there has been some discussion on Twitter about diversity in tech conferences. I’m not going to link to the discussion directly, because this isn’t about the specific conference that spurred the conversation. I’m not here to name and shame anyone.

I volunteered for 3 years as program manager for PASS Summit, so I will be speaking from experience. I have written before that diversity is important, and I think the bar for that is raising for tech conferences. So where should that bar be?

What is your target goal?

First, I think every single tech conference needs some kind of target goal for diversity. It doesn’t have to be a a hard numerical goal and it doesn’t have to be a quota, but diversity should be somewhere in the thought process, every step along the way. If you are not intentional about this, you will trend towards the default, which is a very homogenous speaker pool.

So what kinds of goals are there? In my mind I see 4 easily defined ones:

  1. No goal. No consideration given to diversity. This is unacceptable in 2021.
  2. Attendee demographics. Aiming for parity with the diversity of your audience
  3. Speaker demographics. Aiming for parity with your speaker pool
  4. Regional/Global demographics. Aiming for parity with the general population.

I personally believe the bar today should be set at #2 & #3, whichever is more difficult. In my experience, there are concrete steps you can do to improve the diversity of your speaker pool, such as encouraging folks to submit, or setting aside a certain number of invitation slots. If the your selected speakers aren’t at least as representative as your submitted speakers, then you aren’t trying hard enough.

When I was working on PASS Summit, diversity was a secondary concern, but it was a consistent one, and we took steps when there were issues. We didn’t have any hard targets, but if we felt there was an imbalance, we would go out of our way to juggle the schedule or intentionally invite speakers. There was plenty of room for improvement, however, especially with decisions outside of the selection process.

Where does diversity matter most?

It is not enough to say that your total pool of selected speakers has diversity. Diversity is most important where there is an implied endorsement or there is money involved. You don’t get to shine a spotlight and then ignore your responsibility.

If a conference is placing emphasis on a subset of speakers, the bar for diversity is even higher there for two reasons. First, there is where a conference has the most discretion. It is much easier to get it right with a dozen speakers than a hundred. And if they are promoting a specific set of speakers, they have much more control over who they are promoting and why.

The other reason is any time you elevate a subset of speakers, you are making a statement, even if it’s an unintentional one. Let’s say that hypothetically your conference had 25% females speakers, but not a single female precon speaker. That would send strong implied message, because precons are lucrative, highly coveted, and a strong endorsement of the speaker. These kinds of implied messages can be immensely discouraging.

For us at PASS, this applied to two areas main areas. First was the televised sessions, because these sessions had a broader reach and there was an implied endorsement of quality. It also applied to precon trainings. If folks saw the same old faces for precons, we would get roasted, and rightfully so. Lastly, it was also an issue in some of the marketing of the early invited speakers, and sometimes that presented a tension between marketing process and the selection process.

One other area where it matters are panels. In the year 2021, there is no reason to ever have an all male panel, ever, ever, ever. On a panel of 4-5 speakers, it does not take that much work to for you to find at least one female speaker. If you can’t, you should cancel the panel and look into the deeper issues with your selection process. Even if it is completely accidental, a “manel” comes across as lazy at best.

What can conference organizers do?

Generally speaking, conference organizers have a wide variety of tools to improve diversity if they are willing to get creative and especially if they have a budget to work with. PASS was notoriously stingy, which forced us to depend on the former.

Ideally, it should start during the call for speakers. If the speaker pool seems lopsided, the conference organizers should be taking steps to encourage new and diverse speakers. Any conference integrated into the community is likely going to have connections that can amplify those messages. Even better, if a conference is willing to pay speakers, that opens up a much broader pool instead of the most privileged folks. In some cases, conferences can also set aside a certain number of slots for invited speakers and use those to improve diversity.

During the selection process, a lot of it comes down to mindfulness. A conference should be spot checking things all along the way, even better if they can get folks from outside the team to help. Again, having a certain number of reserved slots and being willing to invite and pay people can go a long way here.

Finally, there are indirect steps the conference can take. First, what are you doing to encourage new or low-profile speakers? Things like feedback on abstracts or speaker mentoring can increase the breadth of speakers available to you. As a new speaker in 2017, I felt discouraged about submitting to big conferences and I’m sure under-represented folks feel the same way.

Additionally you can take steps like having a clear code of conduct, having sessions on diversity, and providing support for underrepresented groups. Signs that a conference is safe and fair to underrepresented groups will encourage more of those folks to submit.

Summary

Improving diversity in a conference is hard work, and the average call for speakers is often an unbalanced starting point. However, conference organizers have a number of tools available to them, especially for large paid conferences.

In 2021, there is never an excuse for an all male panel, and any elevated subset of speakers, such as paid precon speakers, should come under heightened scrutiny. Every tech conference should at least be aiming to match the demographics of their submitted speakers and their attendees. To me these all feel like a reasonable starting point.

My experiences as a PASS program manager: improving transparency is hard

Right now there is an election going for PASS Board, and an item that came up multiple times during the AMA was transparency, and the lack there of. In fact Jen Stirrup recently wrote a blog post about PASS special board minutes that are ominous, but too vague to be actionable. I think there is a really important quote from her post:

For transparency, you need to walk the talk. PASS should be more transparent, and all the candidates have it on their ticket.

So let’s try to walk the talk. I’m going to write about my experiences trying to improve transparency at PASS, why I think it’s been so difficult, and the problems any new board members are going to face.  I feel that most of the issues are structural and not the fault of any one person. Some of them are likely cultural and leads to vicious cycles.

Finally, I’m under NDA so I will be talking in generalities. This is probably some level of irony, like rain on your wedding day, but it is what it is. I think some level of NDA is necessary to do this job, but I’d love to see some loosening of NDAs, as well as written guidance on what’s okay to talk about.

We are all volunteers

The first impediment is that we are all volunteers here. The board are volunteers, the program managers are volunteers. As PMs we meet weekly for an hour, sometimes multiple times per week when we are working on the selections and schedule.

I think it would be reasonable to estimate that take 75-100 hours of time to do just the job of managing the program. That is all time that I could be billing or working on my courses. From speaking with a former board member, being on the board probably takes 10x that amount of time, which is huge.

So, just doing the job itself takes quite a bit of time, anything beyond that is extra time and effort. Improving transparency is extra time and effort. That is the reality of the situation. I would love to have a monthly blog post on our process, in practice I’ve barely written two.

I think it’s reasonable to feel that certain goals or values like this should be first-class citizens. It’s natural though, to get into the position and get focused on going the work, on meeting the deadlines, etc. We get distracted by the short term tasks.

I can only assume that it’s the same way for the board members. Anyone running for the first time is going to have the herculean task of trying to change organizational inertia, while dealing with an existential crisis.

People will be shitty on Twitter

First, let me say that people have good reason to be upset and frustrated with PASS and PASS HQ. It’s heartbreaking to read how Andy Mallon’s efforts to promote the LGBT community have been stymied again and again. I’ve seen decreasing support for SQL Saturday’s and UGs, and I’ve seen plenty of poor communication. All valid frustrations.

Second, let me say that how people communicate that frustration and anger is unrelated to how valid those feelings are. That’s a lesson I’ve been taking away from the discussion on race earlier this year. Someone can be snarky, sarcastic or downright mean and still be right.

As a quick aside, hat’s off to three people who I’ve seen communicate criticism without forgetting there are humans on the other side: Erin Stellato, Meagan Longoria, and Monica Rathbun. We should all be more like these folks.

That being said, people being shitty is going to mean it’s more work to be transparent. This isn’t blaming them, but just trying to acknowledge the fact that as human being, it’s easier to not say anything. It’s easier to not write this blog post and take the extra effort, than risk the hot takes and the sarcasm. I want people to like me.

Thankfully, I have not personally been the subjects of any attacks or direct criticism. When I first joined the team 3 years ago, I didn’t want to tell anyone that I was on the team, because I assumed all of the criticism would get directed at me. Mercifully this has not happened, and I’ve slowly been more confident in acknowledging the work I do.

Ill-will and poor transparency breed more of the same.

I definitely think there is a culture with PASS of closed by default instead of open by default. It seems like nearly everything needs an NDA. I can speculate how we got there, but that doesn’t really change the fact. And the bigger issue is that it’s inertial and self-reinforcing. Ill-will and poor transparency breed more of the same.

What do I mean by this? Well, at my last job we had a merger and there were tons of rumors and gossip flying around. When you don’t say anything, people assume the worst. People assume ulterior motives.

This is human nature. If you don’t communicate your selection process for precons, people will assume favoritism.  If you don’t communicate that diversity is a goal in the selection process, people will reasonably assume it’s not a goal at all.

This is frustrating because very often Hanlon’s law applies: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”. So many of the mistakes I’ve made as a program manager have been because of my own stupidity. Something I forgot to check, something I didn’t think would be an issue, etc.

This is exacerbated when you’ve burnt bridges in the community or made mis-steps in the past. Now malice is assumed more quickly, quite reasonably. Now it’s not enough to improve transparency, but you have to do more on top of that to slowly rebuild trust. I’ve heard it said that trust is built in drops and lost in buckets.

Poor transparency leads to ungrounded decisions

Another way this becomes self-enforcing is that we touch base with the community less, we sanity check our ideas less. Communication takes work and the default assumption is people will complain no matter what you do.  But this leads to catastrophic errors.

When you are the person selecting the schedule, it’s easy forget what it feels like to be a nervous speaker, begging for advice on how to get selected. You know how the sausage gets made, and you don’t empathize enough with how people might feel about speakers being announced in waves. And suddenly what you though was non-controversial blows up because you aren’t in touch with your community.

And by you, I mean me.

Summary

This is a long post and I could go for longer. The thing I want to convey is that fixing transparency isn’t some light switch, it’s swimming up-hill. It’s extra work on top of a voluntary position. I like some of the ideas proposed by board candidates, but I think it’s going to be a monumental effort no matter what.

To do it, you need a thick enough skin to ignore what everyone says, and you need enough heart and empathy to listen closely to what everyone says. I’ve found this to be a real struggle.

T-SQL Tuesday #131: Power BI ELI5

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This month’s T-SQL Tuesday asks us to explain a concept like the audience like they are 5 years old. I’ve decided to literally do that.

Do you like jelly beans? I like jelly beans. Imagine if you had a big, big bowl of jelly beans.

assorted flavors of jelly beans

How many jelly beans do you have? Can you tell by looking? I think you would have to count and it would take a very long time. Well, computers are good at counting! We could teach a computer to count our jelly beans and tell us how many Jelly beans we have. Using a program called Power BI, the computer can tell us we have 800 jelly beans! That’s a lot of jelly beans.
card visual

Do you have a favorite flavor of jelly beans? I really like the pink ones that taste like bubble gum.

multicolored candies on white ceramic bowl

What if we could tell the computer to count by flavor? We could then see how many we have total and how many by flavor.

Card visual and bar chart

Wait a minute! We have a bunch of cinnamon jelly beans, ew. I can’t stand cinnamon jelly beans. I will probably give them to my mom. I want to hide the cinnamon jelly beans, to see how many tasty ones I have. We can add a filter to look at specific flavors.

Card visual, bard chart and filter visual

We can even add categories of things, so we don’t have to remember which flavors are good and which flavors are bad.

Card visual, bard chart and filter visual, grouped by flavor
Oh good, we have 700 tasty flavors and 100 gross flavors. Okay, I want you to imagine one more thing. Imagine instead of one bowl of jelly beans, you had 100 jelly bean dispensers and you owned a whole jelly bean store!

candy dispenser lot

Well now we *really* need a computer to count everything. We want to know when a dispenser is empty. We want to know which flavors are most popular. Some people actually like cinnamon jelly beans. Gross! But if you own a store, you have to buy and sell the flavors people want.

Power BI is a program that helps business owners count everything going on in their stores. It helps them count everything but also let’s them look at little details like a single flavor or a single dispenser. Power BI helps store owners make more money and sell people’s favorite candy!

Lessons learned from being self-employed, 2 years in

Two years ago I quit my job and started working for myself. After two years, I think most people would look at it as a big success, I’m now finally able to make a stable living doing what I want. As we enter a recession, I know a lot of people would be grateful to be in my position.

But I’m also vaguely dissatisfied, because the past two years have have been an unfocused 24 months, running around putting out fires and trying to pay the bills. After 4 years of work, Pluralsight revenue pays a reasonable salary and I can take a peaceful vacation. When I come back from my cabin trip next week, I’m hoping to have a better idea of what the next 4 years will look like.

Four years from idea to full-time income

Four years ago, a friend convinced me to think bigger and in March 2016 I applied to be a Pluralsight author. I have never spoken at any large conference, I didn’t have any impressive credentials, and I didn’t expect to be accepted. But it turns out the hard part isn’t getting your foot in the door, but getting your audition approved. Imagine doing a recorded lightning talk that has to convey a technical concept but also tells a story.

It took about a year to go from starting the audition to getting my first course being published. A lot of this was delays from underestimating just how difficult it would be to make my first course, taking 140 hours plus some outsourced editing. All of this was during nights and weekends while working a full time job.

Chart showing7 courses released over 7 years, with revenue slowly increasing during that time.

The chart above is the 3 years it took to go from first course to full-time income. And while I can’t share exact numbers I’ve got two dotted lines there. The first one, in grey, is the bare minimum I would need to make, in addition to my husband’s income, to cover our minimum expenses. This includes paying $900 per month for our own health insurance.

The green dotted line is what I’d need to make to cover our expenses and live comfortably here in the Greater Pittsburgh Area. Additionally each orange dot is a new course being published. I’ve also labeled when I went part time, when I quit my job, when the Power BI learning path came out (with 5 of my courses in it), and the Free April promotion that brought in a lot of new users.

Two years of juggling and struggling

I think one of the key takeaways from the chart above is it took nearly a year of working for myself before my courses could cover by base expenses, and another 8 months before I could finally breathe and not worry where my next paycheck was coming from. During that time, I was trying to do consulting jobs to pay the bills, while completing the next course.

The whole of is chart is punctuated by moments of luck and risk. I was lucky that my second course, on DAX, was enough of a hit that I was about to go part time. It was a big risk quitting my job, since it took a year to get somewhere stable. Both times I hit one of those financial goals were because of an external event. The first was the release of the Power BI learning path, which increased viewership. The second was the FreeApril promotion, which brought in a lot of new viewers, many of which wanted to learn about Power BI.

Success comes from rhythm and routine

The reason I feel dissatisfied is that success comes from rhythm and routine. When you work for yourself, you are the only person rowing. You are the only person blogging, speaking, marketing, etc. And either you find a weekly routine that keeps you going through the difficult times or you will struggle and have moments of no momentum.

In retrospect, trying to do consulting and content creation at the same time has been a great way to diversify my income. As we enter a recession, I see the consulting work drying up and at least one friend going back into regular employment. But it has been challenging balancing the two. Consulting work is all hurry up and wait. Content creation is a slow and steady focus. The two always seem to be in conflict.

I never quite hit a solid rhythm and with Coronavirus happening, all of my extracurricular activities have stopped. No newsletter, no blogging, no presenting. I think this has happened to a lot of people, and I admire the folks who have been putting out weekly content during a global pandemic. When I come back from my vacation, my biggest priority is starting up a new rhythm.

Would I do it again?

I would absolutely do it all over. I wish I had been smarter about some things, but the hard part is over. I don’t need to worry about being fired, or losing my job during a recession. I’ve been able to visit my mom three days a week without worrying about an angry boss or work conflicts.

So am I going to keep consulting? Yes! I think that being a full-time author runs the risk of losing touch with the technology and where things are going. Consulting forces you to be grounded. I think doing a blend is great when you can do it, and awful when you are still figuring it out.

Five ways to reduce impostor syndrome

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This T-SQL Tuesday is about Impostor Syndrome. I think that the term gets used in a broader context than the original meaning. From Wikipedia:

Imposter Syndrome is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved.

To me, it’s a syndrome when there is a persistent fear of being outed as a fraud. But I think there is a broader and more diffuse feeling of one’s skills falling short of what is expected or what other people perceive. I think a lot of people mean this when they say impostor syndrome. Heck, it might even apply to a broader sense of “winging it” or figuring it out as you go.

In this blog post I’m going to list concrete steps that have helped me fight this sense that I might be a fraud or don’t know what I’m doing. I personally believe it’s a tractable problem.

Pursue a growth mindset

Do you feel that you are born with a certain amount of intelligence and talent, or do you feel that it is something you can grow? When I was young, I felt that you were born with a certain IQ or a certain amount of smarts. The problem with this mindset is when you encounter evidence contrary.

Let’s say you screw something up at work. If you believe that you have a fixed amount of intelligence or skills, then you will see this a reflective of you as a person. If you have a growth mindset you are less likely to see this as reflective of you as a whole.

Build a peer network

So much of imposter syndrome can be broken down into two things: a disconnect with reality and a sense of invalidation. The disconnect is that, unless you are an actual fraud, your thoughts and feelings are not lining up with reality. In cognitive behavioral therapy, these things are called cognitive distortions.

The invalidation is the sense that this isn’t normal. That you are alone or unusual in the struggles you are having. That you should be feeling x or doing Y.

In both cases, having a peer network can ground you. Hearing other peoples experiences can be validating and reassuring. You’d be surprised how many of us are winging it. You’d be surprised how many of us have been handed a task and need to figure it out on the fly. For example, I am probably going to do a course on Azure Event Hubs and I know absolutely nothing about them.

Focus on just-in-time learning

In consulting, if you never say “I don’t know”, then you are full of crap. You can’t know everything. If you merely say “I don’t know”, then you are a fool. A good consultant says “I don’t know, but I can find out!”. That is one of the keys of consulting.

So much of my confidence in working as a consultant is knowing that I have a strong peer network I can reach out to. So much is knowing I have a strategy for just in time learning.

One way to do this is to practice presenting and blogging as a way of practicing your research skills. Another is to work on home labs. Multiple times I’ve had to learn something new like mirroring or availability groups for a customer job. By doing those home labs I was able to build confidence for the project as well as confidence for future learnings.

Present, write, and teach

A lot of this vague unease comes from never achieving mastery in a specific area. From those lingering unknown unknowns. One way to rout out those unknown unknowns is to create and share content on the subject.

Doing so will force you to think through the subject, to think through what questions people might ask. The first dozen presentations might be a bit rough. But as you continue, you’ll have a better sense of what it means to really know a topic.

Do paid consulting

I realize this simply isn’t an option for most people. Consulting can be stressful and anxiety inducing, especially if you are struggling with impostor syndrome. But it’s amazing how good it feels to charge for a project and by the end of it have a happy customer.

I still giggle when I tell people my hourly rate, and I keep expecting to get pushback about being too expensive. But it doesn’t happen. It turns out that other people value my time and skills more than I do.

Summary

My suggestions boil down to three things:

  1. Build confidence in your ability to learn on-demand
  2. Experience mastery through content creation
  3. Find people who value your skills enough to pay for them

Where do people get stuck with Power BI?

I was recently talking to a potential customer about getting started in Power BI. A question they asked me was essentially “What are the difficult parts of Power BI, how do these engagements usually go?”. This was a really interesting question and for me a lot of customer engagements fall under two broad categories.

The lost and confused. A lot of potential customers are just starting to look into Power BI. They cans see what it can do, they understand what it is for, but they have questions. Generally these questions are all about governance and implementation. How do we deploy Power BI? How do we license Power BI? How do we secure it?

This is a reasonable challenge because Power BI has a lot of nooks and crannies. It has a bunch of ways to deploy it and a bunch of ways to license it, and it seems like that add a new one every 6 months. For these customers they generally just seem to be concerned about the unknown unknowns out there. Usually after that first hour, that seems to be all the help they need.

The out of control. These customers have made an investment in Power BI. These customers have started creating reports and seeing result. The problem here is scaling their reports. M and DAX have goofy learning curves. Both start out easy, but get incredibly difficult when you try to do more complex things. Maybe reading CSV files was easy, but now you need to work with a web api now. Maybe your report was fast when it was 60 MB. But now your measure or more complex and you have 250 MB of data and it is slow. These customers need help applying good data modeling and optimizing those models.