Can PASS Summit change your life? Can a brief encounter that leverages encouragement and skillful questions change your life? The answer is yes for both questions.  Don’t take my word for it. You’ll get the most out of my column this month if you read what Tom LaRock ("Meme Monday For September") and Andy Leonard ("Why I Love the PASS Summit") have to say on the matter. In case you haven’t had time to read them yet, here is a quick summary of their blog posts.

Andy and Tom each had a brief encounter with Ken Henderson at a PASS Summit many years ago that shaped their lives in powerful ways. Below is a key excerpt from Tom’s experience meeting with Ken at PASS 2004:

"I asked Ken my question and the next three to five seconds were a turning point in my database career. . . . He listened, then paused to think about the answer, and then gave me his thoughts. . . .  I had my answer, but I also had something much more. I was now a person that had good questions. . . .  It was a milestone event for me as a database professional, and it happened so quickly."

Here is what Andy had to say about his encounter with Ken at PASS Summit 2004:

"I was struggling with my new career as a DBA. I felt I was in over my head and, any minute, I was going to be discovered and fired. . . . About the time I attended the PASS Summit 2004 I got a few successes under my belt - enough to feel more secure in my job but not enough to convince me I knew anything about very large databases in SQL Server. . . . I heard Ken dispensing no-nonsense advice to people. . . . I was next, and was probably visibly shaking in my shoes. . . . I told him about my approach . . . and explained the symptoms I was seeing. Ken made a few excellent suggestions . . . which, put me right on top of the issues I was describing. . . .  He said ‘Hey, you're approaching this like I would.’ . . . I felt like the kid on the old Coke commercial - the one where Mean Joe Greene throws him his jersey. I know it sounds cheesy, but I entered that room as a guy learning databases and left it a database professional."

Ken was an amazing person and well known in the SQL Server community. He passed away tragically at a young age several years ago.  I wonder if he knew how he had changed Tom and Andy’s life for the better as each of them walked away.

I’m struck by how similar and impactful those experiences were for Andy and Tom. The “answer” had very little to do with the experience in each case. Tom and Andy walked away confident that they could find the answer and were encouraged that their thought processes and techniques were well aligned for life as database professionals. They learned that questions are more powerful than answers.

I might never have heard these stories if I wasn’t friends with Andy and Tom and they hadn’t both evolved into well-known experts and community leaders in their own rights. I suspect their experiences aren’t isolated. I imagine that countless encounters like these happen every year at PASS Summit. Right now I’m envisioning PASS Summit as a giant petri dish of sage expertise and wisdom mixed with exuberant desires to learn, and I don’t think there are models that can predict how those interactions grow, mutate, and evolve over time.

Here is my challenge for the SQL Server experts attending PASS Summit 2011: say hi to your friends and the other SQL Server glitterati at the cool parties. I plan to. But invest time in conversations the way Ken Henderson did. You might never know the impact you’ll have on someone’s life. Perhaps you will read about it in a blog post a few years from now.

Here is my challenge to PASS Summit newbies: be bold, meet people, and ask questions. The sessions are great, but to be frank there’s little if anything you will learn in a session that you can’t find somewhere on the Internet. My hope for you is that you come away from PASS Summit with confidence and the knowledge that you can be great.