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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.

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. On 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 Sudoku 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.

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.

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.

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.

Eugene Meidinger
About the author

Eugene Meidinger works as a BI consultant and full time Pluralsight author. He currently focuses on content on Power BI and related products. He also leads the Pittsburgh Power BI User Group. He is certified in querying and administering SQL Server.

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