My friends in Microsoft’s Product Support Services (PSS) group (aka SQL Server Support) are speaking again this year at the PASS Community Summit.  They’re doing some main conference sessions, the PSS Boot camp, and putting on the PSS Service Center again (where attendees can work through hands-on labs designed by PSS that demonstrate how to troubleshoot SQL Server issues).  I’d encourage you to make your way to their offerings if you possibly can.  They’re always some of the best sessions and content at the conference.

They say the ultimate measure of success with an initiative is whether it survives the departure of the person or people who started it.  Since its inception in 2003, I had coordinated the involvement of PSS in the PASS Summit.  This year, I turned over the reigns to a group consisting of Todd DeDecker, a Group Manager within SQL Server Support, Bart Duncan, an Escalation Engineer within the support group and a good friend, and Haydn Richardson in SQL Server marketing.  I’d long felt that PSS mgmt and the SQL Server marketing folks (who handle the product group’s involvement in other conferences) should work together to handle PSS’ presence at the conference.  They had the charter and resources to do so, and I knew they could go to Bart for any questions they might have of a technical nature.  Once the initiative progressed from toddlerhood to adolescence, I felt it was ready to survive without my involvement.

You might find some of the history behind this initiative fairly intriguing.  I’ve not written much publicly about it in the past, so I’ll jot down my thoughts and memories before I forget them in case you find them interesting.  I think it’s a good story of how fresh thinking and grassroots initiatives can succeed, even in a big company like Microsoft. 

The idea of involving PSS in the Summit originally occurred to me shortly after I joined Microsoft and realized PSS was fairly out of touch with the user community.  For a customer-facing org, this seemed awfully strange to me.  Day in and day out, PSS spent more time with customers than the product team, but even the senior-most PSS folks couldn’t name more than one or two MVPs, had rarely if ever posted in the community newsgroups, and had never even been to the Summit, let alone spoken at it. 

The same was true going the other direction.  Many in the community knew people on the dev team and regularly spoke to them at conferences or exchanged messages over newsgroups and via email.  There was and still is a nice synergy between SQL Server dev and the SQL Server user community.  For the most part, that didn’t exist between PSS and the user community, and this really puzzled me.

So, I began to think about how to remedy it.  I wanted to find a way to “hook up” PSS and PASS, to get them to know each other.  It seemed obvious to me that there was mutual benefit for the support folk and for the user community in doing this:  The support people could learn more about how MS customers actually used SQL Server in the wild (versus mostly seeing just the support issues related to it), and the community could learn more about many of the fine people in SQL Server Support, many of whom had been taking customer calls and helping the dev team find bugs in the product for several years.  They could even learn to troubleshoot some of their own issues without having to call tech support in the first place.

My first thought was to somehow involve PSS in the PASS Summit.  I’d spoken at the Summit for several years prior, and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to let PSS and PASS get to know one another.  Early in 2003, I approached PASS about this possibility, and we began talking about how to involve PSS in that year’s Summit in Seattle.

Initially, I had thought that a pre-con workshop would be the most appropriate forum for PSS to get to know the community better and to demonstrate its wealth of troubleshooting knowledge, but PASS felt that regular conference sessions would be more appropriate because they would allow the PSS involvement to be spread out more across the entire conference.  More people would be exposed to PSS, and PSS would get to talk to more customers. 

I also wanted a forum where customers could bring their support issues to PSS and receive hands-on help solving them.  It occurred to me that this would also be a perfect opportunity to show people how to troubleshoot their own problems—along the lines of the “teach a man to fish instead of give him a fish” philosophy.  I’d long felt that too much of the knowledge related to the SQL Server troubleshooting domain was locked up in PSS; I felt that much of it belonged in the hands of customers.  So, having a forum where the free exchange of this type of knowledge could occur was very attractive to me.  From this, the idea of the PSS Service Center was born.  The folks at PASS and I talked several times about all of this, and I got the green light to explore the possibilities with SQL Server Support.

I talked to several folks about possibly being involved.  The first person I asked about it was Bart Duncan.  Bart talked to his manager at the time who repeated the age-old refrain that they’d be generally supportive of him doing something like this, but funding might be a problem.  Others I talked to were nervous about getting up in front of people, especially customers who might pummel them with support issues in a conference session free-for-all.  One who was receptive to the idea was Bob Ward, an escalation engineer within the support group, and he got his management to agree to fund him to participate in the conference.  So, we had at least one support engineer from PSS signed up, and he had funding to go, so all we needed was a few more people, and we’d have something we could reasonably call a PSS delegation.  I was eventually able to enlist the help of a couple of other Seattle-area support engineers, and off PSS’ modest PASS Summit contingent went—setting sail on its first voyage into the uncharted waters of SQL Server user community involvement.

At the conference in Seattle, PASS generously set aside a room just for Service Center use and allotted lab machines for it.  Though small by this year's standard, it was a start, and attendees loved the Service Center.  PSS also did conference sessions and was involved in several mixers and other social events.  All in all, it was fun to watch.  Things had worked out as PASS and I had originally envisioned.  We got to see PSS interact with customers on a one-on-one basis just as we’d hoped.  Customers learned firsthand just how good some of the PSS folks were at their jobs.  Watching the rapport that developed between them assured me that the hassles of getting it all going was worth it.

We did much the same thing the next year at the 2004 Summit in Orlando.  PSS was able to involve a couple of new people, and the regular sessions and Service Center came off with aplomb.  The relationship between PSS and the user community continued to grow.

The 2005 Summit was to be held in the Dallas area, and it occurred to me that we might be able to leverage the fact that Microsoft’s largest SQL Server support site was DFW-based in order to increase PSS’ participation in the conference even further.  The PASS folks and I discussed this at length and eventually came up with two additional ways for PSS to be involved in the conference.  The first was an intense pre-con session wherein the support folks could cover how they approached solving hard problems at length.  This would be more in-depth and longer than anything they’d done in regular conference sessions in the past.  The PASS folks loved this idea and named it the “PSS Boot Camp.”  It was a big hit with attendees and has been a staple of three shows now—the 2005 Summit, the PASS European Summit in February of this year, and this year’s Summit in Seattle. 

The second idea I had for furthering the PSS involvement in the 2005 PASS Summit was to have a seminar at the MS campus for the SQL Server MVPs.  PASS chartered busses over to the campus one evening during the conference, and the MVPs got to spend some quality time with several members of the support team.  I was proud of our people and happy to have been a part of making it happen.  Having the conference in Dallas had presented some unique opportunities for those of us in the area, and I felt good about the fact that we’d tried to take advantage of those as best we could.

This year, they aren’t doing the MVP night function, but SQL Server Support is still involved in all the other ways I’ve mentioned.  The boot camp has been expanded to two days, the Service Center is once again online, and the support folks have several main conference sessions.  I’d encourage you to attend some of their sessions if you possibly can.  I’m sure they’d like to meet you, and I’m sure you’ll find it’s time well-spent.

I think PSS' ongoing involvement in the Summit is a wonderful success story for the user community and especially for PASS.  None of this would have been possible had the PASS folks not enthusiastically welcomed fresh ideas and worked hard to make the whole thing happen.  None of it would have survived had the user community not embraced it, and PASS was a big part of that.  I always considered the PASS folks my partner in helping connect PSS and the user community, and much of the credit for all of it coming together rightfully belongs to them.