01 Oct 2009 Interview with Kevin Kline
I attended graduate school with the idea that I might become a college basketball coach one day. Within the first week of being on campus I walked right into the basketball office and asked if Coach Eastman was available. I wanted to introduce myself ask him if there was anything I could do to help the team, perhaps tutor someone in math, get them water at practice…anything, really. In fact, I have done this same thing every time I wanted to get a coaching job: I find out where the head coach is and I go over to introduce myself. Believe it or not, it works. Why? Because coaches can always use help from other coaches.
Fast forward a few years. I attended my first PASS Summit in 2004, in Orlando. I knew not a single person that was heading to the Summit. By the end of the first day of pre-conference seminars I had met Pat Wright and Allen Kinsel. We met up for the keynote the next day, something I might have skipped. And that’s where I met him.
Kevin Kline was introduced as the President of PASS and my first thought was “Wow, he’s really let himself go since he made A Fish Called Wanda.” My next thought was “PASS has a President?” I was now determined to find out as much as I could about this mysterious entity called PASS, and I decided I was going to start at the top. After all, if meeting the person at the top of a basketball program was always the right thing to do, then meeting Kevin Kline should also be the right thing to do. Why? Well, as it turns out, because database professionals can always use help from other database professionals. Crazy, huh?
In the past five years I have come to know Kevin as not only the President of PASS, not only a respected technical author, but as a trusted mentor. There is no doubt that it was through his encouragement that I ended up on the PASS Board of Directors myself.
I asked Kevin if he would want to do one of these interviews and he agreed. And if you find yourself in Seattle in a few weeks make an effort to find Kevin and ask him about the time we put him in a rodeo barrel.
SR: How long have you been a database professional, and how did it all start for you?
KK: I first started in IT back in 1986 as a lab jockey and entrepreneur assembling and selling x86 PC clones, as well as being a lab technician setting up Intergraph Unix workstations and managing the Digital VAX 11-751. I first encountered databases in a database design class, actually it was more of a normalization class, in college. I was the only person in the class who aced it. But I didn’t truly start working on databases until a 1989 when I did a lot of work with dBase, FoxBase, and Clipper. My first application interfaced a Intergraph Unix CAD/CAM application called Microstation into a dBase database. It would take a CAD/CAM design for a building and, based on the type of construction (prefab, cinderblock, brick, wood, etc), it would produce a bill of material and cost estimate for the construction materials. When the chance came for me to move off of dBase over to Oracle for a project at NASA, I jumped – right in to Oracle v5.
SR: How long have you been a member of PASS?
KK: I was one of the founding board members of PASS. I missed the very first board meeting in early summer of 1999, but I made it to the second one in August. I was attractive as a board candidate because: 1) I worked in corporate IT at Deloitte, and the starting group wanted a balance between freelancers and corporate IT people, 2) I was an active participant in the International Oracle User Group and committed to community, and 3) I’d just written the first book on Transact-SQL and had a minuscule amount of credibility in the SQL Server space.
SR: It seems like you have been a board member forever, what positions have you held on the board?
KK: When the initial board was created, the only position still unfilled was the VP of Marketing. I’ve blogged a lot about leadership and strategic thinking, but I really didn’t know any of those lessons at that time. It really was on-the-job training! In a sense, I was blessed to be living at the tail end of the paper-based era. I didn’t have to learn any new paradigms or figure out how to deal with Web 2.0. The work, as a marketing person, was pretty much around print-based marketing campaigns, press releases, and writing “official” verbiage. After two years in the marketing position, I moved into the EVP of Finance role. That role is all about the money and it also coincided with September 11th, which nearly killed PASS. I’m sure I was a gadfly to the rest of the board, because I wouldn’t give anyone budget for their agenda unless they could prove it was “budget neutral” or better, meaning it had to cost us nothing or even make PASS some money. Definitely tough times, but the nascent community rallied around PASS and our management vendor at the time floated all of our bills until after we were able to hold the postponed Summit in Denver in January, 2002. I served as president for the next four years, focusing as much as possible on establishing better governance and financial controls. Other outstanding members of the board at that time were focused on conference growth and chapter expansion. After four years as president, I assumed the traditional, advisory position of Immediate Past President, which I will give up at the end of this year. That’s a full ten years on the board. Whew!
SR: How much has PASS changed since you first joined?
KK: Oh my gosh – so much! I’ll use a couple analogies. First off, PASS was like a Silicon Valley startup. A few half-crazed, ridiculously optimistic people got together to achieve their “pie in the sky” dream of a highly credible community for SQL Server professionals. There were funding problems. There were staffing problems. There were strategy problems. The only way PASS survived in those days was due to the heroic efforts of board members like Andrew Zanevsky, Kurt Windisch, Trey Johnson, and Joe Webb. And you must add in the unswerving support of exceptional Microsoft liaisons like Haydn Richardson, Rebecca Laszlo, Steve Murchie, and Jacqui Borges and CA liaisons Steve Vandor and, particularly, Rick Bolesta. Ironically, I think the fact that our founding vendors didn’t pump endless subsidies into PASS really helped make it a stronger and more focused organization. (Microsoft and CA only gave subsidies in the first two years of PASS. After that, they only gave dollars in exchange for the services that other vendors did, such as space in the exhibit hall.) It seems like the turning point came in 2006 when Steve Balmer keynoted the PASS Summit. That seems to be the time that PASS changed from a scrambling startup wondering if it’d survive, to a more mature professional association that was here to stay. It was also around 2006 that PASS began to focus on growing membership (it became free in 2008) and adding chapters worldwide (we grew from 86 to 180+ chapters between then and now).
SR: What changes have been the best, in your opinions?
KK: Good governance, which is invisible and uninteresting to the vast majority of members, is the underpinning all of PASS’ later successes. Some professional associations are happy with a big conference every year and then spend the rest of their money holding board meetings on cruise ships. (That attitude constantly comes to mind when I think of Enron, Worldcom, uncontrolled CEO compensation, and the whole financial meltdown of 2008. Leadership as an entitlement for the leaders, rather than as a services to its constituents.) We weren’t going to do that. When we made the decision years ago to publish our financials as an emblem of our good ethics and servant-leader attitude to our membership, that triggered a series of extremely challenging next steps, including divorcing ourselves from an association management company that was very happy with the status quo. So that’s the best change from the vantage point inside the board room. I think the best change from the vantage point of the membership is the way that PASS has embraced new media and channels, coming from all of the hard work down by board members like Rushabh Mehta, Bill Graziano, Andy Warren, and yourself Tom as you help build a strong esprit de corp on Twitter for the SQL Server community. Today, SQL Server Professionals know that PASS is not just a conference – it’s a group of people who know and care about each other and want to engender each other’s success.
SR: What changes would you still like to see happen?
KK: For years, PASS worked on the “A” in its acronym. We just wanted people to know that there was a not-for-profit association out there for SQL Server professionals. The association hadn’t taken root yet, so keeping the association alive and helping it to grow was our daily task. Those early efforts at cultivation have born good fruit. If I were to sit down today to write a vision statement for PASS, perhaps as a candidate for an open board position, I would like to see it work much harder on the “P” in its acronym. I would like to see PASS work to build much stronger offerings around professionalism in the same vein that the PMI does for project managers, that the bar associations do for lawyers, and the medical associations do for doctors. Some examples might include seeing PASS introduce chapter programs for universities in the same way that IEEE does for engineers and awards for distinguished technologists who advance the state of the art in the same way that ACM does for broader computing. I would like to see a highly selective and universally lauded certification program for our professionals. And I would like to see PASS achieve a truly global reach with “brand recognition” across all regions of the map with PASS having over 100,000 members worldwide and twice as many chapters as today. But that hard work, I am happy to say, is left for another generation of leaders!