Why I Want to Have Coffee With You

10145153253_b3bf50d2d6_z Yesterday I read an article entitled “Why I Don’t Want to Have Coffee With You”, in which the author writes that he doesn’t have the time or the desire to simply “have coffee”. While I empathize with some of the author’s justifications for his position, I was disappointed at the hard line he took on this. Personally, I prefer a completely different approach to professional requests for coffee, lunch, etc.

When I started in this business some 16 years ago, my market value was limited. As a young buck with no college degree, almost no experience, and few contacts, I wasn’t the type of person that most people would go out of their way to hire. I had a lot of enthusiasm and aptitude, but with little in the way of actual experience, my options were limited. I had to take whatever I could get to start building my skills and my résumé.

Although it was well outside my comfort zone to do so, I reached out to others in the industry who appeared to be successful. To my surprise, some of them actually talked to me. Not all of them did, of course, but I was pleasantly surprised at how many successful technical professionals were willing to sit down and visit with me to hear about my ambitions and let me ask them questions about their success. A few of them gave me really good advice about how to actively manage my career. Later, some of these folks ended up being colleagues or clients, and in a few cases, friends.

As I built up my experience, I continued this tradition, actively engaging some of the folks whom I admired in technology and business. But a funny thing happened along the way – others started reaching out to me for advice and counsel. I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud the first time someone asked me for career advice, because it sounded silly at the time. However, I’ve found that if you know just one thing, there’s always someone else who doesn’t know that one thing and might benefit from your experience. So I happily accepted requests to help out others in the same way I was helped during my green years.

Later, as I matured in my career, I saw this come full circle. In agreeing to these casual requests to meet, I had – somewhat accidentally – built a network of others in the technology business, and a few of those relationships paid off as casual contacts were converted into employees and clients. However, even in cases where my coffee companion didn’t turn into a formal business associate, I (and they as well, I hope) benefited from having shared time discussing our experiences and perspectives. If I’ve learned anything from all this, it’s that a fruitful business relationship doesn’t always require an inked contract.

So, having revealed some of my history and bias in this matter, I’ll tell you why I do want to have coffee with you.

1. People are my business.

By trade, I am a technical consultant. However, if my focus were just on the technology, I would be out of business. The truth is that I’m not a tech guy – I’m a business professional who knows how to use technology to solve problems. To solve those types of problems, I need to understand those pain points, which usually cannot be fully diagnosed with a database script or an automated process. These problems have to be articulated, and more often than not, I must put forth a lot of effort and analysis to ask the right questions so I can get to the root of the problems. My business is understanding people, and the fact is that having coffee with you will improve my interpersonal and communication skills. When I ask about where you are in your career, where you’d like to go, and what you think you should be doing, I’m honing my craft – remember, I’m in the people business – which will help me on my next client, and the one after that.

2. It’s a small world.

More precisely, it’s very big world, but the circles in which we travel tend to overlap a lot. The person I have lunch with today might be the one who knows someone who will ask tomorrow for a recommendation for a business intelligence consultant. On the flip side, the person whose coffee invitation I reject might soon start a new job with a Fortune 100 company in need of exactly the services I offer. Both of these people will remember me, and my acceptance or rejection will help to shape their perception of me. When I accept your invitation to coffee or lunch, since I’m a people person (remember the prior bullet?), I’m optimistic that I’ll make a good enough impression that you’ll remember me positively and call on me, or perhaps refer me to someone else in your circle.

3. I’m returning a favor.

Yes, I’m returning a favor, but chances are good that you weren’t the one who extended me the favor I’m repaying. As I mentioned, there were numerous others who helped to guide me when they had no obligation or prior history that required them to do so. Whether you call it karma, the golden rule, or simply paying it forward, I’m trying to help people in the same way that others helped me. In some cases, I’m going out on a limb for someone who will never directly become a business associate, but that is not the only metric I used to measure the success of these types of meetings.

4. You offer a fresh perspective.

Too often, businesses – and technical businesses in particular – spend a lot of time in silos. In the echo chamber inside of an organization, ideas can sound incredible when in reality the product or service being built could be something that nobody really wants. When we meet for coffee, I’m going answer your questions and offer whatever counsel I can, but I’m probably going to casually bounce an idea or two off of you as well. Further, getting an outside opinion helps me to better understand industry trends. Do you think this cloud thing is going to stick around? What are your thoughts about the next version of Windows? Are you having a hard time finding good people to hire? I’m not just making chitchat when I ask these questions – your perspective will help me understand the technical and business ecosystem in which we live.

5. You might someday become an employee, client, or business partner.

Notice that I didn’t say that there’s a good chance we’re going to ink some kind of deal. We might do business together. If I’ve learned anything as an independent consultant, it’s that you can’t always predict where business relationships will come from. I’ve seen deals that were practically guaranteed end up falling apart without explanation. I’ve also seen business materialize out of seemingly insignificant encounters. I’m not building a business to be successful just in the short term, and while my spending a half hour at Starbucks with you might not pay off today or even this year, chances are good that one of those lunch/coffee dates I accept today will pay off down the road.

Now, I am a realist. I recognize that because of time constraints and logistics, I won’t be able to fulfill every request I get to meet up. I agree with the author of the article above that client work does come first, and I concur that one shouldn’t neglect family responsibilities to abide every request to network. However, since I don’t have a crystal ball to know who will and who won’t contribute to my business, I’m not going to arbitrarily refuse a coffee invitation simply because I don’t see an immediate return on my time.

The Idea Book

How many times have you said to yourself, “Someone should build an application that does [x]…”, or “Wouldn’t it be easy to add automation to [y]”, or “It would be a lot of fun to work on a project to build [z]”? For me, this has happened a lot, and seems to occur more frequently the longer I’m in this business.

image In the early days of my career, these ideas were all great – for someone else. Someone with more skills and experience than me. Someone with more connections. Someone more confident, good-looking, eloquent. But definitely not me. I subconsciously put onto pedestals those other someones who actually could do the things I thought up. Sure, I had the occasional wild thoughts like “What if I were to build the next eBay?”, but thoughts of realism and self-doubt always reigned me in. I would move on, sooner or later forgetting that I’d even come up with the idea.

However, a few years into my career, I turned a corner. I started to mingle with those who were creating solutions, and I began to realize that they weren’t demigods. I learned that folks who were building successful widgets weren’t vastly smarter or more talented than me. They were just ordinary people who had an idea, explored its potential, and then worked like crazy to make it happen. It was this realization that led me to believe that I, too, could dream up and build successful widgets. From there, my Idea Book was born.

Yes, it really was a book

Version 1 of my idea book really was a physical book. More specifically, a spiral notebook. I carried it with me and would jot down ideas big and small. Most of the ideas I wrote down in my idea book were dumb. Many were wildly ambitious and unattainable by anyone at any skill level. Others were so narrowly focused that their implementation would benefit no one. Still others were solutions looking for problems that didn’t exist. The vast majority eventually found their way to the cutting room floor, and only a fraction of them had enough merit to really pursue. In spite of all of these deficiencies, my idea book has been a resounding success. I’ve carried several of the ideas to implementation. Some of them have made their way into the code tool bag that I use on a nearly-daily basis. A couple of the ideas from my idea book have made me a lot of money.

Having an idea book doesn’t make it a success, obviously. For the first year or two, my book was where ideas went to die (or more accurately, to fall into a coma). I was also timid at first about adding ideas I wasn’t sure would be practical or doable. My idea book didn’t bloom until I committed to two concepts: no idea is too big/small/ridiculous to be added to the idea book, and I must actively push the ideas through the funnel.

All ideas are welcome

Over time, my idea book has transformed from a physical notebook to a virtual one (I use Evernote). I’ve also worked up a semi-structured idea funnel, which I used to categorize ideas into buckets including brainstorming, researching, and in-progress. I’ve also resolved to allow any idea, however grandiose/trivial/odd, into my idea book. My idea book is mine and mine alone, and it doesn’t get shared with anyone – not even my wife or my business partners will ever see the unedited version. Any and all ideas are welcome, though not all will survive the vetting process.

My idea book is with me all the time, in one form or another. If I’m riding in an elevator and a new idea strikes me, I type out a quick note into my phone app to capture the moment. If I’m in the middle of a presentation and someone asks a question I want to pursue later, I scratch out a note on my spiral pad (yes, the old-fashioned method still works sometimes). On occasion, an idea will strike me in the middle of the night, and I’ll grab my Surface from the nightstand and jot down my idea. The medium(s) used to log the ideas isn’t critical, so long as I’m faithful about getting them into Evernote as soon as practical.

The real value shows through when I’ve got 20 minutes to spare, and I’m looking for something to fill the time. Sitting in the lobby of the Kwik Lube, waiting for my oil change. Waiting to see the doctor. On hold with tech support. Using my idea book (the new virtual version), I can review ideas I’ve previously logged, and sketch out pros and cons, flesh out why they will or won’t work, and weigh the benefits against the investment. Having my idea book easily accessible makes it easy to do this in bite-sized chunks rather than having to schedule several hours to go through these ideas.

So where is your book?

Should everyone have an idea book? Absolutely. Whether you’re a technical professional or not, newbie or seasoned veteran, a maker or a strategist, a coder or an executive, having an idea book can stoke the creative fire in you. Thinking through new ideas, analyzing them, and implementing the good ones helps keep you thinking about alternative approaches and different ways of doing things, and can keep you out of a career rut. And who knows, your idea book might end up producing the next eBay, Facebook, or Rubik’s Cube.

On Failure: Getting Up

WP_20150205_004 In my continuing series entitled “On Failure”, I want to talk about skiing.

I’m not a great skier. It would probably be a stretch to say that I’m a good skier. Still, I enjoy doing it, and I want to (and can) get better at it. Since I live in the Dallas area, I don’t get a lot of opportunities to ski – usually 1-2 trips per year – but I try to make the most of it when I do get to go.

When I first started skiing, I fell – a lot. The first time I went skiing, I took a half-day lesson before I got started, after which I assumed I’d be a decent skier. I was wrong. Beginner ski school is more of a lesson in logistics (how to put on and take off your skis, how to board and deboard the ski lift, etc.) than an exercise in actually learning how to ski. So my first trip down the mountain was rife with tumbles, lost skis, snow burn, and “WHY DO MY LEGS HURT SO MUCH??” On those first few runs, I spent more time in the horizontal than the vertical. Because I had to get out of the snow and put my skis back on every few hundred yards, just completing each run was a slow, painful, exhausting process.

Toward the end of that day, I recall that I had a particularly nasty fall after inadvertently crossing my skis (again). I was exhausted, embarrassed, and hurting. All I wanted to do was to lie there, gather my thoughts, and let some of the pain subside. My friend, an experienced skier, was skiing behind me and stopped to help. When I told him I just wanted to lie there for a minute, he told me, “Get up. Lying in the snow just makes it worse.” Grumbling, I got up and continued the slow trek down the mountain.

I’ve thought about my friend’s advice a lot since then. As a skier, I’ve come to find that his words were quite true. Why?

  • Simply lying in the snow after a spill makes you colder, and the cold coupled with inactivity make it physically more difficult to get up.
  • It’s easier to talk yourself out of continuing when you’re lying there feeling sorry for yourself.
  • You’re physically in danger from other skiers crashing into you from behind.

But this statement doesn’t just apply to skiing. We can all use this advice in our careers and business relationships as well. Many of us have had some nasty spills in our careers, being on the wrong end of business failures, professional quarrels, terminations, and other career maladies. Personally, I can completely empathize with the desire to “just lie in the snow” after a career setback. I’ve been guilty of indulging the instinct to just stop moving forward, attempting to soothe those aches using self-doubt and self-pity, after a career setback. But just like the skiing analogy, such behavior only makes the situation worse. Refusing to move forward after going topsy-turvy will almost certainly impact your relationships and career prospects. Sometimes it hurts to get up and keep moving forward, but simply lying in the snow hurts even more.

Every failure, on the ski slope or in the cubicle farm, requires some small amount of time to regroup. But the key objective is to keep moving forward, even if it hurts to do so at first.

On Failure

Well, there's another way not to make a lightbulb.The first rule of blogging is that you should write about topics you know a lot about. And I know a lot about failure. This post will be the first in a series on the topic, through which I’ll share a few of my own failures and how I’ve done my best to use them to my benefit.

In almost every context, the word fail is a negative:

  • Last night’s database backup failed.
  • Our data warehouse project was a failure.
  • We failed to close a deal with this prospect.
  • The boss failed to live up to his promise.

Failure means that something wasn’t done, or was done incorrectly. Failure is a missed deadline. It is a lack of planning, or misplaced trust. Failure is a lost parcel, a lost customer, or a lost cause. It is a business ending, a marriage dissolving, a career plan torn to shreds.  And it’s also an inevitable part of life.

I don’t consider myself an expert on failure, but I’ve experienced enough failures – both large and small – that I can speak with some measure of authority on the topic.  I’ve lived through multiple divorces of parents and grandparents. I’ve lived in poverty on the wrong side of the tracks. I nearly got fired – on multiple occasions – from my first job because of my immaturity and a bad attitude. I dropped out of college in the middle of a semester (and failed to withdraw, of course) and received grades commensurate with dropping out in the middle of a semester. I invested years in preparing for a career I’d dreamed about since junior high school only to discover that I didn’t want to do that anymore. I started a business which failed in under 2 years. I’ve missed out on dozens and dozens of business and career opportunities due to my own procrastination. And those are just the high-level failures I can think of off the top of my head that I’m willing to share – there are many more that I’ve forgotten, and some others are frankly too embarrassing to blog about.

But the beautiful thing is that I’m still here. I’m alive, I’m employed, I’m healthy, and I’m sane (stop laughing – I really am). But even more importantly, I’ve learned that failure is a part of life, and more specifically, it’s a part of my history. For every failure I experienced, for every hardship I brought on myself, I learned something. And because I still fail, I’m still learning.

I don’t know if there’s value to anyone else in my sharing this information. So in that way, this post may be a failure. Except that it won’t.  Even if neither of the people who subscribe to my blog get any value from this, I will have learned something from writing all this down. And at a minimum, I’ll have something that I can refer to on those days after I’ve had a particularly large failure and need a reminder that I haven’t failed in vain.

I realize that some of this may resemble bumper-sticker logic. I promise not to go all-out Tony Robbins on you, but here are a few of the points I’ll cover in this series.

  • Failure is necessary for growth. Not unlike the muscle-building process, to build we must first destroy. Failure is a little bit of destruction, but managed properly, will lead to personal and career growth.
  • Failure of integrity. This is the worst and most destructive kind of failure. How do you get past this?
  • Failure through inaction. Failing to seize an opportunity is a huge source of regret for many (this guy included).
  • Respond properly. You’ve got to know how to respond to failure (yours and that of others) to be able to properly manage it.
  • If you’ve not failed in a big way, you’re not taking enough chances. This is where I’ll tell you all about my business failure and what I learned from it.
  • Failure doesn’t have to be fatal. Failure is not the end of the line. It’s an obstacle in the road.
  • Failure demands both forgiveness and accountability. Learning to forgive failures (especially your own) is critical, but there must be accountability as well.

I’m not necessarily proud of my failures, but I try to remind myself every day to use those failures as a way to do it better next time.

Six practical tips for social media success in 2015

Social media is the new résumé.  In many ways, it’s even better than a résumé – a person’s social media stream can reveal attitudes, biases, and deficiencies that wouldn’t dare appear on a résumé.  Your online thoughts – blogs, Instagram pictures, tweets on Twitter, posts on Facebook, among others – help to make up the digital you, which friends and strangers alike will use to assess who you are and what you can contribute.  The things you share on social media become part of who you are.

Even more importantly, there’s a permanence to social media content that requires us to pay special attention to anything posted on the Internet.  There’s no Undo on the Send button; once you publish something to the Internet, it can be there forever.  Remember that potential clients and employers will most likely review your social media activities before making a hiring decision; in fact, a recent survey of human resources personnel revealed that over 90% of respondents looked to social media when checking out a candidate.  Even if you’re not looking for a job, consider that what you post today may still be around for years afterward.  Sure, you can edit or delete content or restrict its privacy settings, but have you read the terms of service for the medium on which you’re sharing that information?  In some cases, content you share online may be used in ways you don’t expect, according to the provider’s terms of service.  The bottom line is that privacy settings and deletion won’t necessarily keep your content private, so think twice before posting angry rants or NSFW after-hours photos.

With that, here are a few basic rules I try to follow when posting to social media.

Don’t write anything in the heat of the moment, especially if you’re hurt or angry.  Intense emotion often leaves logic behind, and those types of posts tend to be the ones you regret.  If you routinely find yourself posting to social media and later editing or deleting those posts, you might have a problem with this.  Things posted on social media can have a long life span, even when the original media is deleted.  The few minutes of satisfaction you get from sharing that angry tweet, Facebook post, or blog post might cost you years of embarrassment.  Take an hour and walk around the block before you post in an emotional state.

Find your pace.  Everyone has their own speed at which they share on social media.  Some will write a new blog post almost daily, while others do so just once or twice a month.  There are folks who post to Twitter a dozen times each day.  These are all acceptable, but the most important thing to remember is to be consistent.  Don’t publish a dozen blog posts in January and then stop blogging for the year.  Your audience, however larger or small, will follow you in part because of your volume and velocity.  Find a pace that you’re comfortable with, and most importantly, that is sustainable for the year.  The right scheduling tool can help with this, especially when the amount of time you have to devote to social media can vary from week to week.  (As a sidebar, I use HootSuite, though it’s just one of many such tools available, many of which are free.)

Check ur grammar.  I’ll admit it – I’m dogmatic when it comes to proper grammar and spelling, and I evaluate the quality of social media entries based in part on those criteria.  If your posts are littered with misspellings and grammatical errors, you could end up being passed over for a job or a gig.  It’s a fact that some folks are simply more attentive to this than others, so if you struggle with spelling and grammar, find a trusted adviser to proofread your posts (especially longer and more permanent compositions, such as web articles and blog posts).

Rid yourself of negative influence.  The things you read will affect how you write, and negativity breeds negativity.  You know the type – the blogger who complains about everything, the person on Facebook who’s all about drama, or the Twitter follower who’s always posting in anger.  I exercised a social media purge recently, either hiding or completely removing some folks who were constantly angry and negative.  Following people who post a constant stream of bile will almost certainly affect your mood and attitude, and is an unnecessary distraction.  Don’t disengage from someone over one online rant, but if they demonstrate a pattern of this behavior, cut ‘em off.

Have conversations.  Your social media presence can be advertisement, an online résumé, and a series of conversations.  Don’t neglect the last one!  You don’t want to be known as someone who simply broadcasts without listening.  The more you establish yourself as an expert on a topic, the more folks will want to chat with you, whether it’s to ask for advice, share an idea, or simply to get to know you.  While you don’t have to engage with everyone who reaches out to you (see the prior bullet), it’s usually best to err on the side of openness.

Last and most importantly, be you.  Don’t look to mimic someone else’s blog posts, tweets, or Facebook activity.  Your followers will read what you write because it’s yours, not because it resembles that of someone else in the community.  In fact, being different is a good way to gain even more followers; if you’re writing about things few other people are writing about, or if you’re approaching it on a level or from a perspective others aren’t, you’re likely to be different enough from the crowd that people will seek out your content.

Everyone uses social media differently, and each of us will have our own set of internal guidelines on what to post.   Just remember that your social media stream becomes an extension of, and a window into, your personality.  Take care in what you share, pace yourself, and be accessible.

On Perspective

Perspective can make or break a career.  Maintaining a proper perspective is very often the differentiating factor between a good technologist and an incredible one.

6281420488_68b88bfc00_zIn my 15-ish years in IT, I’ve said a lot of dumb things.  Many of them I’ve forgotten, but I can’t shake the memory of one particular phrase I uttered more than a few times back in my early days of my career.  Even today, it still embarrasses me that I ever had the mindset to say these words about other people:

“… those stupid end users …”

Yep. I said that.  Why would I say those words?  Sure, there was some emotion and frustration involved, but even more than that, my perspective was all wrong.  Being new to the IT field, my expectation was that it was our job as technical professionals to dictate standards and practices, and that the end users we supported would modify their business processes and their workflow to match those standards.  I looked at most business problems as the fault of the users for not following our standards, or not using their software tools properly.  Looking back on 15 years of experience, it seems silly that I would have ever held that position.  But in my (at the time) limited field of vision, this was my expectation.

Fast-forward a few years.  With a little experience under my belt, my perspective had changed.  Through a few hard lessons, I had evolved to the point that I fully understood that my principal function as a technical professional was to serve the business, not the other way around.  My attitude significantly improved, and I became a more proficient technical professional.  But my perspective still had one significant shortcoming: I simply solved the business problems that were brought to my attention.  Sure, I had my technical resources in order – my backups were always done and tested, my code used common best practices and was checked into source control, and I did my best to get out in front of performance issues before they ballooned into bigger problems.  But I still considered business problems to be outside my purview until my assistance was specifically requested.  My perspective was limited in that I was still trying to be a technical professional, rather than focusing on being a business professional solving technical problems.

I still remember when it finally clicked for me.  I’d been working in the industry for about four years, and after multiple rounds of meetings to solve a particular business problem, it hit me: my perspective is all wrong.  I’ve been looking at this from the perspective of “Tell me your problem and I’ll fix it,” when the dialog should have been “Let me understand what you do and what you need so we can address our problems.”  That’s right – it’s not that those end users have business problems.  It’s that we have business problems and we need to solve them.  There’s nothing more comforting for a nontechnical person to hear, and rarely a statement more empowering for a technical person to make, than a sincere expression of “I feel your pain. Let’s solve this together.”  This is true whether you’re tasked with front-line technical support, you’re working deep in a server room, or you’re a senior consultant in the field.

I believe a person can be a moderately successful technologist by focusing strictly on understanding and solving technical problems.  Where one becomes a rockstar problem solver is the point at which he or she has the experience and maturity to see things through a perspective other than his or her own, while understanding and feeling the pain points of others.

Four things I wish I’d known back then

In the blogging meme of the day, I was tagged by my friend Tim Costello to share four things I wish I’d known back when.  The only hard part was paring the list down to four items.

I think back to 15 years ago, when I was working retail and desperately seeking something else.  Something I could really get into.  Some kind of work I was passionate about.  On a dare, I took the A+ computer certification exam and passed it, and embarked on a career that has led me to where I am today.  Although I miss some of the aspects of that guy I was 15 years ago – bold, fearless, with boundless dreams and ambition – I also wish I could go back and teach my younger self a few things I’ve learned since then.

Failure is a part of growth.

I used to worry a lot more about failure.  I feared that a big failure would end my career, but also worried about day-to-day failures – small mistakes that everyone makes.  I worried that I’d say or do something stupid out of ignorance, and that would be the thing I would forever be remembered for.  It rarely works that way.  In most cases, a person’s career is not measured by their biggest misstep; rather, it is an aggregate of every success and failure – and the attitude they have about those successes and failures.  Failing on the job is a part of the growth process.  As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  A misstep is only a failure if you don’t learn from it.

jackYou can’t be an expert in everything.

During my first year in IT, I was convinced that I was going to be some kind of technical demigod, and I set out to learn everything about everything – programming, databases, network administration, routing and switching, even Microsoft Access.  You name the technology from the late 1990s, and I probably had a book on it – and intended to master it.  There’s nothing wrong with learning, and to this day I still work regularly to learn about areas outside of my own specialization.  But I wish I’d known back then that maintaining deep expertise in so many different technical topics is exceedingly difficult if not impossible.  I wish I had realized that there’s far more demand for someone who does just a few things, but does them better than 98% of other practitioners of the same craft.

Don’t just have goals. Have a next set of goals.

There was a time fairly recently where I was stuck in the mud.  I was still doing the work I enjoyed, but for a time I was doing it without a real purpose.  Why?  I had met all of the career goals I had set years ago, and I was working largely without a personal charter.  While that’s a great problem to have, I really hadn’t planned for the contingency of completing those objectives.  I wish I could go back and tell myself to be a bit more optimistic about my goals, and to list out another set to be met later, and another after that, and so forth.  Like anything else, goals should be flexible enough to allow you to adapt to changes in the marketplace and your own desires and place in life.  Those goals will be different for everyone, but whatever they are for you, those milestones are critical for measuring progress and challenging yourself to press onward.

Your technical skills don’t matter as much as you think they do.

miltonIn the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was still a great deal of truth behind the antisocial geek stereotype.  One could be a reasonably successful technologist and stay hidden away from the front lines of end user interaction.  And I fell into that trap for a while, spending virtually no time honing my interpersonal or speaking skills and just working to refine my technical abilities.  While the ability to deliver technical solutions is important, being able to talk to people (both one on one as well as in a presentation setting) and understand their business and its pain points is critical for the success of the modern technologist.  I’d love to go back and tell my younger self: Continue to work on your technical skills, but get out of the server room occasionally and talk to people.  Learn about their jobs, and what causes them grief.  Understand how to not just build technical components, but how to solve real business problems.

And to keep things going, I’m going to tag a few people to get their input on this.  I’d like to hear what Marc Beacom, Reeves Smith, and John Sterrett have to say on this topic.

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.

Are you really an expert?

salesmanThrough the course of my career, I’ve spent time on both sides of the job interview table, which has given me an empathy for both job interviewees as well as their interviewers.  The former wants to put his best foot forward to demonstrate (or at least talk about) his most appealing attributes, while the latter seeks to find the best fit for the position while pitching her employer to qualified candidates.  On both sides of the table, folks do their best to paint their respective positions in the best light while (hopefully) remaining truthful.

Although the interviewing process can be stressful for interviewers, it’s particularly hard on the interviewees.  After all, they are the ones who will be most directly impacted by any hiring decision.  Have a bad interview and you’re going nowhere; nail the interview and you could reach a major career milestone.  As such, there’s a lot of pressure to make yourself appear to be the best candidate you can be.  Often, candidates will use superlative terms to describe themselves:

  • I am an expert in XYZ software.
  • I have senior level skills in widget making.
  • I have an advanced proficiency in flux capacitor maintenance.
  • I am a thought leader in the field of bacon curation.

There are a lot of very smart folks out there, a number of whom truly are experts.  But increasingly, my experience in this area has taught me that there are many candidates who apply to themselves label including expert, senior, and specialist, simply as a selling point without having real basis for such an assertion.  When candidates use these terms recklessly in their résumés and in interview conversations, they are setting themselves up for a hard landing at some point in the future.

Fake it ‘til you make it?

Describing oneself using superlative language can impress an interviewer, in some cases.  Take for example the typical corporate interview scenario, in which one sits first with interviewers from Human Resources.  The interviewer may or may not have specific knowledge about the field in which the candidate specializes.  A skilled interviewee will pick up on this, and may be compelled to dazzle the interviewer with buzzwords while describing his own skillset as superior.  And if he’s very lucky, he’ll get a second interview with an interviewer who assumes that HR has done the necessary vetting, and may not ask the necessary in-depth questions to weed out the unqualified candidate.

Although unlikely, it’s possible for a candidate to bluff his entire way through the interview process all the way to the job offer.  Even if things get that far, it’s still going to turn out badly for both sides.  When a person describes himself as an expert, such strong language sets an expectation for job performance.   Portraying oneself as an expert implies deep knowledge in the topic, good decision-making skills in the field of expertise, and a history of success.  When the expectations greatly exceed the actual results, it’s going to turn out badly for the “expert”.

The phrase “fake it ‘til you make it” often comes up when pitching oneself for work.  Although this might work at lower skill levels, it’s much harder to fake being an expert when it comes time to actually do the work.

Having conducted technical interviews with scores of candidates, I can tell you that those who described themselves as experts in a particular discipline usually got extra scrutiny in their self-described areas of specialization.  Many of them did quite well upon inquiry, but a disheartening number of folks who claimed to have superior skills in a particular area had a difficult time answering even the most basic questions.

Experts are made, not born

Becoming recognized as a thought leader in a particular area doesn’t come by applying a label to oneself.  It’s been written many times that it takes about 10,000 hours – about five working years – of doing something to truly become an expert in it.  Some things will take far less time to master (Minesweeper) while others require much more (neurosurgery).

With that in mind, don’t try to sell yourself as an expert if you aren’t.  Remember that there are other attributes on which you can rely that have a great deal of appeal to employers.  For example, if I’m looking for someone with senior level skills in a particular discipline, I might consider a candidate with midlevel skills who also demonstrates a great deal of enthusiasm and a strong desire and aptitude to learn.   And don’t forget: attitude, attitude, attitude.  Most hiring managers would choose someone with good skills and a great attitude than a jerk with tons of experience.

Sell yourself

Don’t take the advice in this post to mean that you shouldn’t talk yourself up to a potential employer.  Job interviewing is nothing more than sales: you’re trying to sell yourself to the company doing the hiring, and the employer is trying to decide if they want to “buy” what you’re selling (and hopefully, they’re trying to sell you on the company as well).  However, there is a difference between selling yourself, and selling yourself as something you’re not.  If you’re going to describe yourself as an expert in your field, make certain that the label is accurate.

As an aside, I’ve found that a large number of thought leaders in my field do not even describe themselves as experts.  The smartest folks out there realize that there’s still much left to learn in every vocation, and often refrain from labeling themselves as experts for fear of implying that they know everything there is to know.

Conclusion

The job interview process relies on trust and some measure of faith.  A candidate who unduly purports himself to be an expert is bound to be discovered at some point, and the later the discovery the worse the results tend to be.  Put your best foot forward during the interview process, but don’t sell yourself as an expert if you’ve not yet earned that distinction.

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!