Goodbye, 2013

For me, 2013 was one of the most interesting and busy years of my life.  It was a good year for me, especially on the career front, and it’s certainly been the busiest year in several years.  Among the highlights of 2013:

Going independent

The most significant event for me this year was when I fulfilled a long-time dream of mine to become an independent consultant.  Back in June, I left my full-time (W2) consulting job to launch my independent consulting practice.  At the same time, I joined up with the fine folks at Linchpin People, which allowed me to maintain my status as an independent consultant while aligning myself with other like-minded folks in the same space.  The downside was that this move meant my leaving Artis Consulting.  The folks at Artis – the ownership as well as the employees – are some of the best people I know, and the decision to tell them goodbye was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my career.  As difficult as that decision was, I think it was a good move for me.  As an independent consultant, I’ve already gotten to work on some exciting consulting projects, as well as focusing on other related initiatives (including training and tools development).  There are still a lot of unknowns and a great deal of risk along this path, but I’m glad I made the move and am very excited for the future.

Presenting

I got to see a lot of you people in person in 2013.  Last year, I got the opportunity to speak at numerous events here in the States, including the SQL PASS Summit in Charlotte, the DevConnections conference in Las Vegas, six different SQL Saturday events, and five user group meetings.  In addition, I was invited to speak at SQLBits in Nottingham, England, which was my first international speaking engagement.  All told, I delivered 23 technical presentations this year, five of which were full-day workshops.  This is one of my favorite parts of being involved in the SQL Server community.

Volunteering

For the past 4 years, I’ve been a member of the board of directors for my local user group, the North Texas SQL Server User Group.  My time on the board was an incredibly rewarding experience, one that I would not trade for anything.  However, with the demands of my independent consultancy, I found myself with less and less time to focus on user group responsibilities.  My seat on the board was up for election this fall, and I made the difficult decision to step aside and not seek reelection to the board.  Although I’ll miss being a part of the NTSSUG board, I’ll still be around, attending user group meetings and other functions as my schedule allows.  As an aside, I want to extend congratulations and best wishes to my friend Dave Stein, who was elected to the open board position.

Travel

Holy schnikes, this one caught me off guard.  Between travel to client sites and my conference travel, I was gone almost as much as I was home this fall.  I don’t mind some travel, but I got a full year’s worth of travel in about three months.  Particularly with my new role as an independent consultant, there will be at least some travel involved, but I hope to avoid repeating the brutal travel schedule I had during the last 3 months.

Writing

I wrote – a little.  Very little.  This blog, which used to be a busy highway of information, has evolved into a rarely-traveled side street.  I love to write, and it is a rewarding endeavor in many ways, and yet I’ve neglected this part of my career this year.  I don’t want to use the term resolution, but it is my expectation of myself that I will write more in 2014.

Personal stuff

Though my professional highlights are almost all positive, there were a few other things that brought sadness this year.  My former sister-in-law, who is the mother of my 10-year-old nephew, died quite unexpectedly early this year.  I lost an aunt and uncle this year as well.  I also marked a sad milestone on what would have been my late son’s 18th birthday.  After nearly three years in business, my wife and I decided to cease operations on our small photography business, a marginally profitable but time consuming endeavor that taught us a great deal about choosing the right business.

There were others around me who struggled this year as well.  I have friends and family who have battled with health issues, job losses, family friction, and other hardships.

Although there were some sad events in my personal life, there were many positives as well.  I got to surprise my kids with a couple of vacations and spend some quality downtime with them.  On one of my visits to a client, I was able to visit Fenway Park for the first time and see the Red Sox beat the Rays.  We added a new family member, of the four-legged, canine variety.

Hello, 2014

I had many successes in 2013, as well as areas I want to work on improving during the new year.  I’m excited for what I see on the horizon, and I hope that 2014 is as good to me as its predecessor.

Dust Off That Resume

Since I started regularly attending SQL Saturday events some five years ago, I’ve sat in on a number of professional development sessions by Andy Warren, Buck Woody, Don Gabor, and others.  Each one offered different bits of advice based on his or her own experience, but there was an overriding theme in all of them: Don’t wait until you need a job to start grooming yourself as a candidate.  Start building your network right now, they would all advise, regardless of your current employment status.  Push yourself to learn, especially where you see a shortage of skilled workers.  Stay visible, stay relevant.

But what about that resume?  After all, the resume is just a very small piece of the big picture… a document that be easily thrown together as soon as you need it – right?  (Note: If you nodded after that last sentence, please, keep reading.)

2585643891_dc3e1b8c4c_n“Tell me about yourself…”

Writing an effective resume isn’t easy.  Most people think writing about themselves is easy until they actually go about doing it.  To describe oneself in a way that is flattering but not overly boastful, colorful enough to be interesting yet still truthful, while keeping the description to one or two pages at most, takes a great deal of time and concentration. Sadly, I see some resumes that appear to be an afterthought – just a means to an end, without much planning or proofreading involved.

Resumes that were thrown together at the last minute have several telltale signs:

  • They enumerate every piece of software or hardware you ever touched, without describing how you used said hardware or software to solve actual problems.
  • They are full of filler phrases like “dynamic”, “uniquely qualified”, “fast learner”, “track record”, and “progressive”.
  • They contain too many errors in grammar or spelling.  (How many is too many? Any number greater than zero.)
  • After I read the whole resume, I still have no idea who you are or what you can do for the company.

My friend Steve Jones delivered a professional development presentation some time back in which he recommended that everyone touch their resume at least once per quarter, regardless of whether they were actually looking for a new job.  I believed in that advice so strongly that I’ve repeated it numerous times since.  However, like an out-of-shape cardiologist, I’ve been quite adept at ignoring my own advice.  When I recently needed a current copy of my resume for a training initiative, I discovered that I had not updated this document in over three years.  I succumbed to the thought that “I’ve got a good job, I’m not looking to make a move, so it can wait” and let the information go stale.

5217079666_076cdc469a_mBut I’m not looking for a job…

Is keeping your resume up to date really necessary, unless you are (or expect to soon be) looking to make a career move?  I submit that it is important, for several reasons:

  • A properly written resume takes time to create.  Don’t allow yourself to be sucked into thinking that you can spent an hour or two to create a superb resume.  At a minimum, you’re going to need several days to get it right.  A resume isn’t ready to be sent to a prospective employer until you’ve gone over it, word by word, to make sure it’s perfect.  Write your resume, put it down for a few days, and come back and reread it to be sure it really tells a story.  You should engage others as well – get as much feedback as possible before you finalize it.  These things take time!
  • You might not be looking for a job today, but you might be tomorrow.  Let’s face it – for those of us in the ranks of full-time employment, we’re just one really bad day away from joblessness.  Anyone who works for someone else could, on any given day, find himself out of work due to a high-profile error, an unforeseen downturn in business, a personality conflict, or for no reason at all (in many states).  If you find yourself suddenly and unexpectedly looking for a job, you shouldn’t let a stale resume slow down your job search.
  • Your career changes faster than you think, and it’s easy to lose track of those changes.  During the three years that I ignored my resume, I had contributed to two books, was elected to the board of my local user group, received the Microsoft MVP award three consecutive years, and learned several new technologies.  What I thought would be an easy task of documenting three years worth of career changes turned out to be much more work than I expected.  Especially in high-tech fields such as ours, careers can evolve quickly, and an up-to-date resume should reflect those changes.
  • You occasionally need an up-to-date resume for reasons other than getting a job.  At a previous job, I was asked on a few occasions to provide a copy of my resume for the benefit of potential clients of my employer – these prospects wanted to know the kind of people they’d be working with in case my employer was selected as their service provider.  Further, some extracurricular activities (community board service, authorship opportunities, etc.) require the candidate to produce a current resume.

Conclusion

Keeping your resume up to date takes time, and it’s even harder to motivate yourself to keep current if you’re not looking for a job.  But in the same way you continue learning and networking while not actively shopping for a new position, it’s beneficial to keep your resume polished and ready to go.

Side note: If you’re a senior BI professional and are looking for a new challenge, why don’t you send me a copy of that freshly-updated resume?  My employer is hiring, and it’s a great place to work!

Being The Best vs. Being Affordable

I read a post on Brent Ozar’s blog last week that discussed employers’ expectations when hiring new team members.  Though the story was specific to database professionals, the same principles apply to almost any hiring situation.  The moral of Brent’s story is that when hiring, just like in real life, you have to compromise what you may really want to stay within the budget you have to spend.  If you had an unlimited budget, you’d hire Paul Randal to be your DBA, Emeril to be your cafeteria manager, that Sham-Wow guy would lead the janitorial team, and every employee would have a corner office and lunchtime massages.  Most situations don’t lend themselves to that kind of financial freedom, so you settle for more affordable talent.

There’s a flip side to this, specifically from the perspective of the candidate.  Everyone who has sat for an interview worries that they’ll be passed over in favor of someone who is better qualified.  Only the most arrogant truly believe that they are the best talent money can buy; the vast majority of people have enough self awareness to know that there are others who are better qualified, smarter, and willing to work for less money.

For the job candidate, the takeaway from this is to simply be yourself.  Understand that the employer wants to find the best person for the job, but they’re operating within a certain budget, and they won’t make their decision on skills alone.  Don’t try to convince your interviewer that you’re Seinfeld if you’re closer to being Carrot Top, or even Ben Stein.  Be honest about your strengths and your weaknesses, and don’t try too hard to impress. Your transparency will be apparent to any interviewer worth his/her salt, and even if you’re not a fit for that position, you’ll make an ally for the next time an opening appears.

Your Local User Group

When I talk to other SQL Server professionals, I’m often surprised at how many do not have any involvement in their local SQL Server user group.  As best I can tell, the problem is not limited to SQL Server types – many technical pros do not even know that there are user groups in their area, much less participate in any of them.

Local user groups are incredible and underutilized resources for technical professionals.  Most active user groups meet monthly, generally in the evenings or on weekends, and most are free.  These groups are not closed social groups as some may perceive, but are quite accepting of newcomers.  In all but the largest user groups, everything is run by volunteers, so there are opportunities to get your hands dirty if you feel led to give back to the community.  These groups offer a venue to share ideas, socialize with fellow techies, and some informal peer technical assistance.  If you are looking to improve your presentation skills, most groups are open to new speakers at group meetings.

If you’re not already involved, I encourage you to check out one or more local user groups.  I’ll take the opportunity to plug my local group, the North Texas SQL Server User Group, which meets at the Microsoft headquarters in Irving on the 3rd Thursday of each month.  The PASS website also has a domestic and international list of recognized chapters of SQL Server users.

SQL Quiz: Two Mistakes

I was tagged by Gail Shaw to post two big mistakes made during my professional career.  The only challenge here was to narrow the list down to two :)

The first one is very easy.  During my early days working with SQL Server, I wore a lot of hats, including that of web developer.  One of my first major web projects was to create a student assessment system, which would allow instructors to create online exams.  Students would then be able to use the web interface to take the exams, and the manual paper grading process would be no longer.  Now I’m not ashamed to confess that I was underqualified at the time to effectively complete this process; as the sole developer/DBA, the entire project from spec to support rested on my inexperienced shoulders.  Nevertheless, I forged on and delivered the application on time, albeit untested.  The magic hour was the following morning, when a dozen educators were to begin entering exams on the new application.  I should also mention that I was still in college at the time, and was in class – over an hour’s drive away – during the critical go-live.

It probably goes without saying that my phone started ringing shortly after the first staff members arrived.  Problems were rampant, and I ended up leaving class to go address the issues.  I dodged the angry mob at the front door and managed to get in and take care of the most pressing issues so the test building could commence.  In the end, the application was made usable and found a niche where it worked pretty well.  However, I can’t help but wonder if this tool wouldn’t have gained more widespread acceptance if I had been more experienced at the time and had done a better job during development and deployment.

Lesson learned:  Admit when you’re in over your head, and insist upon a thorough testing cycle.

The second one caused me a good deal of embarrassment and cost me the better part of a day.  After receiving a report from an end user that a critical report had not been run on one of our main databases, I got with our hardware guys to arrange for a restore of the database backup file from tape.  Since this is a large database, it takes a few hours to copy over, but our backup guru agreed to copy the file directly to the development server to save another copy operation from live to dev.  I got the call a few hours later that the copy was complete, but I found only old files on the target directory (and deleted some of them, as part of a periodic manual cleanup).  I called our backup guy again and told him something had gone wrong and the file hadn’t been copied.  Always a good sport, he kicked off the file restore again.  When the call came that the process was again completed, I checked the backup directory and still found only old files, including one I had deleted earlier.  I made another call to our backup guy to find out what was wrong with the backup software, and simultaneously opened a window to the live database server backup folder.  As I was explaining to our backup engineer that he had made a mistake, I saw the filenames in the backup directory on the live server – which looked curiously like the files I had deleted!  The database backups on the live server had a different naming convention than those on the dev side, and I had recklessly deleted the restored file the first time.  A quick RESTORE HEADERONLY confirmed that I had just wasted a good part of my day, as well as that of one of our best hardware guys.

Lesson learned:  Before you assume someone/something else is at fault, make sure you’re not doing something silly to cause the problem in the first place.

SQL Quiz: Career Challenges

I’ve read a number of responses from Chris Shaw’s first DBA networking quiz.  I missed out on the first one, but I have been tagged by Grant Fritchey for the second round.

The Questions for this quiz…
What are the largest challenges that you have faced in your career and how did you overcome those?

1) The first one of these, I still laugh at when I remember it.  I got involved in the IT industry later in life than most (mid-20s) and found quickly that I had a knack for learning and applying new things quickly.  I was doing tech and sysadmin work and there was an acute shortage of those skills, so I probably received more praise and recognition than I really deserved at the time.  During those early days I started to imagine myself as the alpha ubergeek, and believed that I could be an expert at all things technical.  I started to learn programming, jumping from C++ to Java and Perl to PHP, then onto non-Windows system administration – Linux/UNIX and even a little OS/2, and finally database administration in MySQL, Oracle, and of course SQL Server.  I remember at the time thinking that I would be able to set myself apart as an expert on all these disciplines.  Need an enterprise application built?  I’m your guy.  It’ll be a web app?  That’s still me.  I’m also the database guy (architect, dev, and DBA), and I’ll do the sysadmin as well.  Oh, and I maintain the hardware too.  I actually created a schedule that encompassed about two years, and included time for me to self-train in each of these topics.  I wish I still had that schedule, which would now be good for a hardy laugh, but I can remember that I had allocated a mere three months to teach myself everything about both PHP and MySQL.  This story does have a happy ending, in that I realized the absurdity of my intentions before I got myself in over my head.  My youthful inexperience allowed me to convince myself that I could learn everything about everything, and could maintain this knowledge as the technologies changes.  Another positive result is that my study in these other disciplines gave me a cursory understanding of other technologies to which I might not have otherwise been exposed.

Lesson Learned: Don’t try to be an expert in everything.  Identify a few things that you enjoy and do well, and maximize your time in those areas.

2) This challenge is ongoing, but I’ve gotten much better at this, particularly in the past year.  I’m a big believer in hard work, and I have seen that a person who learns a craft that is in demand and puts his or her nose to the grindstone will do well.  However, when I think about the people that I perceive as successful, these are not people that simply work hard (although most of them do work very hard).  Those who are exceptional are people-persons as well.  They work to know their constituency, including executives, end users, and fellow technical staff, and are comfortable at explaining difficult concepts to all groups.  They are good enough at office politics so that they are rarely blindsided.  In short, these successful people have soft skills to accompany their technical prowess.  One of my favorite lines used to be “I’m not a salesman, and I don’t play office politics”.  However, I’ve learned that everyone has to be a salesman to some extent, even if you don’t sell anything, if for no other reason to do enough self-promotion to ensure that you don’t become an office wallflower.  Office politics is not necessarily an evil thing – at its root, it’s about knowing people and understanding interpersonal dynamics.

Lesson Learned:  Keep working hard, but you’ll do even better if you also spend some time talking to and getting to know the people you work with/for.

To keep this thing moving, I’m now tagging Tim Costello and Devin Knight.

The Next Generation DBA

DBA, database developer, analyst, SQL grunt, or whatever your title may be, there is no question that your role will be evolving in the next few years.

I read a couple of posts from Jason Massie about the Death of the DBA (part 1 and part 2) earlier today, in which he predicts a diminishing market for database administrators, and SQL DBAs in particular.  These posts are not the first references to the “cloud computing” initiative stealing away market share from hard-working DBAs, and to some extent I can agree with this.  Opportunities for the “typical” install-backup-restore-defrag DBA will be reduced in the future, though it could be argued that this has already begun.  The stereotypical introverted techie who works best while locked away in an isolated server room can make a good living right now, but it is this type of position that could be in jeopardy due to cloud computing or similar automation.

Tomorrow’s database professional must know not only the technology but the business that requires it.  DBAs cannot afford to be agnostic about the data stored on their systems; he or she must understand not only the technical objects and methods, but has to grasp the big picture of what the data and metadata collectively represent.  This new generation of database professionals must have an understanding of the organization’s objectives, and must have at least a familiarity with – and just as important, an empathy for – users at every level, from data entry clerks to CXOs.  Top-notch database gurus will have to perform as well in a boardroom as they do in the server room.

I think you’ll find that the role of the DBA is not dying, but will certainly be forced to evolve.  There will not be a shortage of opportunity for those who understand the business as well as the technology and can translate (sometimes ill-defined) business needs into intelligent system objects and functionality.

Microsoft Certified Master program – Is This The Answer to Certification Woes?

In the past few years, many people – myself included – have expressed a desire to see the quality of the Microsoft certification program improved.  Even though there have been some positive changes in the MCP program during the past few years, it still lacks the repute (and frankly, market value) many of us hope for.  On that topic, I was interested to read in Greg Low’s blog earlier this week that there is a new Microsoft Certified Master certification program for SQL Server 2008.

According to Greg’s post and the information on the official website, this track is a rigorous 3-week program (that’s three straight calendar weeks, not three work weeks) that blends instruction, labs, and exams to provide a comprehensive evaluation of candidates for the Microsoft Certified Master: SQL Server 2008 certification.

This program is not for the faint of heart or wallet – long days and the extended schedule make a brutal learning schedule, and the $18,500 price tag (plus travel, lodging, etc) set this certification apart for only a select few.  There is a formal application process, and candidates must meet a number of criteria to qualify; a minimum of 5 years experience along with the MCITP admin and developer certifications are the most notable prerequisites.  The application fee alone is $125 and is, of course, nonrefundable.

We asked for a better, more thorough certification process.  Is the Microsoft Certified Master certification the answer?  No, at least not by itself.

Let me first say that this new certification is a great idea.  Those who need or desire to set themselves apart as the top 1% of the top 1% will be well served.  I can think of a few people I know whose knowledge, experience, and occupation would be well suited to justify this kind of investment, but I can count those people on one hand.  Most people can convince their employers, or can justify spending from their own pockets, a few hundred, perhaps even a thousand dollars every few years to maintain current certifications.  However, many employers have to be given the hard sell to send their staff to one week of training at $2-4k per week, never mind the $18k plus expenses (along with three weeks away from work) for this new offering from Redmond.  There are probably a few independent contractors who could cost justify this, but for the other 99.9% of us, it would be impossible to amortize such an investment of time and money, especially considering that we’ll see a new product every three years.

There is still a large underserved population within the SQL Server community who want for more than the off-the-shelf MCTS/MCITP certification offers, but are unable to rationalize spending the kind of time and money required for the new Master certification.  I would like to see something in between these two extremes:  a certification process requiring an application process and certain experience benchmarks, along with more practical examinations and at least one personal interview.  In my mind, this is a process that could be completed in three or four days, administered regionally rather than solely in Redmond, and farmed out if necessary – at least partially – to existing test providers.

I know this would take some time to implement, and even cutting-edge companies such as Microsoft take some time to change direction like this.  The answer may come from a party other than Microsoft – perhaps even PASS as Andy Warren suggested recently.

Comments for or against are welcome…. Let me know what you think.