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PASS Summit Selection Process in 2020

Starting the year

While organizing and scheduling the sessions for PASS Summit is always a challenge, this year has been particularly difficult and unusual. While I’ve written before about the web of overlapping constraints we have to deal with, I’m hoping to cover some more of the process and what has made 2020 a unique year.

Before we’ve even opened up the call for speakers, we have 3 big chunks to start thinking about: spotlights, learning pathways, and pre-cons. Each of which have a different set of goals we are trying to accomplish.

Spotlights are an attempt to highlight some of the key topics PASS Summit has to offer. The spotlights change every year and are picked by the Board and community thought leaders. We, as the program management team, try to make sure we have enough sessions to support those spotlights.

Learning paths are an attempt to create a more curated curriculum and more of a guided experience for attendees. While I enjoyed circling sessions in my schedule book during my first PASS Summit in 2013, others might find over 200 sessions intimidating. We try to aim for around 10 learning pathways based on content that was popular last year or areas we’d like to cover.

The learning pathway design is a lot more organic and can easily change. The Python and Spark pathway was originally just “Open Source” and it shifted as we saw there was a lot of good Python content. Generally, we aim for 3-6 sessions per learning pathway, with it branching out near the end.

Dealing with COVID-19

What made this year unusually difficult was dealing with COVID-19. Back on March 20th, we were trying to decide whether to delay or extend the call for speakers. This was right when COVID-19 was gaining attention in the US, and a lot of us were very distracted, myself included. Ultimately, we decided to extend the call for speakers one week, as an acknowledgement that there was a lot going on in the world right then.

The next challenge was the number of submissions. At that point in time, the plan was still to have a physical conference and there was just too much uncertainty to submit, especially for international speakers. For a while it looked like we were only going to have 150 submissions, which wouldn’t have been enough to even run the conference. While we ended up with around 400 submissions, it was still a lot lower than usual, giving us fewer choices for specific topics.

Finally, in early June it was announced that we would be going virtual. This meant that out of fairness to all the people who wanted to submit but couldn’t before, we needed to re-open call for speakers. Quite a few people submitted to this second round, giving us a much healthier number of sessions to choose from.

Moving forward

There are still a number of hurdles as we look forward to PASS Virtual Summit in November. First, how we take into consideration the more global audience a virtual conference presents us. There will be people from all over the world attending, all from different time zones. But at the same time, people need a set range of hours to block out in order to be able to attend the session.

Second, how do we match some of the value of attending an in-person conference. We’ll be looking at ways to add interactivity or novel types of sessions, to try and replicate some of what makes in-person PASS Summit so great.

While I hope we never have another year like this one, I’m looking forward to working to make this year’s PASS Virtual Summit the best possible one we can.

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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