Tim Mitchell
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Some Thoughts on Community, Leadership, and Continuous Improvement

communityThe SQL Server community is just awesome. I can’t say that enough. I may sound like a broken record when I keep repeating these things, but I owe a great deal to the community. I’ve worked hard in my career, but I am certain I would not be where I am today were it not for the connections and relationships I’ve built as part of this community. In my SQL Family, I’ve found a support network of people who, like me, are trying to improve themselves as professionals and help others do the same.

On Community

For those not involved with it, it’s probably hard to understand the level of connection we have. “Why help other people succeed? After all, if my peers are successful, doesn’t that make it more difficult for me to climb to the top?” I can understand why someone might ask that about our community. But I’ve found that there is tremendous value in giving back and helping others. Over the past several years, I’ve spent hundreds of hours traveling to and presenting at conferences, creating content to share with others, and mentoring. I’ve gotten back many times over what I’ve put into it. Teaching others has helped me to learn more (yes, it really does work that way), and I’ve built many relationships as a result of my involvement. The bottom line is that time spent contributing to a growing community is beneficial to not just to the recipients, but to the contributor as well.

There is a reason that we label it as SQL Family.  We learn, grow, and share life together, much like a real family. Very often it’s a beautiful thing.

Occasionally, though, there is friction – just like in a real family. Passion spills over into anger. Hurtful words are exchanged, and relationships are damaged. Although these negative situations happen relatively infrequently, when they do, they are very often destructive to camaraderie we work so hard to build. Even worse, when arguments and allegations are aired publicly on social media, it gets even worse – that’s the stuff that can permanently impact reputations and careers. Though I always enjoy talking about the good side of community, I see the opportunity for us to get better at ironing out our differences.

On Leadership

I have a unique perspective on community leadership. I spent several years as a “regular” member of the community, volunteering where I could but not working in the leadership. Later, I spent four years on the board of directors for my local SQL Server user group and another two years co-leading a virtual BI group. Over the years, I’ve also held a number of volunteer and leadership roles in other nontechnical circles. The point is that I’ve experienced community from the perspectives of a member and a leader, and I can empathize with those in leadership as well as their community constituents.

Working in a volunteer leadership is too often a thankless job. Hard work and positive results receive far too little attention, while any dissension about strategy, methods, or expectations is voiced loudly and, all too often, impolitely. I suppose it’s a sign of the times that folks are more comfortable criticizing leadership publicly but indirectly instead of contacting them personally to voice concerns or get answers.

On the flip side, my time working in volunteer leadership helped me to understand that it is far too easy for leaders to fall into a rut in which you lose touch with the very constituency you are elected to serve. During my final year of serving on my local user group board, I felt a bit disconnected with the members of the user group despite the fact that I was consistently busy with user group business. It’s a difficult balance, to be sure. From the perspective of the community members, it’s not hard to detect when leaders lose touch with their community. Questions go unanswered, concerns are unaddressed, and a chasm between “us” (the community) and “them” (the leadership) slowly emerges.

These issues are not uncommon. But this doesn’t have to be a terminal condition. What’s the key to moving past this? It’s a very uncomplicated formula. Here it is:

Conversation.

Talk to people. I don’t mean just via Twitter or a blog post, but really reach out them personally and try to understand their perspective. Assume that their motives are pure until proven otherwise. Personal dialog is the only way to get past this disconnect between community and leadership.

With almost clocklike regularity, there is some measure of conflict in our community every year. Community board elections and the speaker selection processes for big conferences always seem to draw ire from at least a few people. I truly do appreciate the fact that people are passionate enough about these processes to express concern. However, sometimes passion gets the better of people; too often, those concerns are broadcast on social media for all to see. While there is a time to express such grievances loudly and publicly, it should rarely be the first step one takes.

A few years ago, I had some questions about how speakers had been selected for a given event, and I wanted to get answers from the leadership. I took a unique approach to get these answers: I picked up the telephone and reached out to folks via personal emails. Conversations, not public rants. Real dialog, not angry shouts into a megaphone. And during those conversations, a funny thing happened. I got to understand the perspectives of others a little better. I learned more about the process with which I had concerns. I offered some suggestions on things to explore to improve the process and volunteered to help be a part of the solution.

On Continuous Improvement

I believe we – all of us – must continue to ask how we can improve our community.

  • How can we help new, local speakers grow into experienced, regional (or even national) speakers?
  • How can we increase transparency in our community operations (local user groups, regional associations, and international organizations) to build trust?
  • How can we make this community a welcoming place for all data professionals to better themselves?

There are constructive ways to explore all of these. Keeping the lines of communication open is the first step in that improvement. As leaders, we must keep in frequent contact with our community to understand the needs and challenges and how to address those. As community members, we must understand that leaders are trying to address the needs of a broad and diverse population, and should celebrate group achievements even when they don’t benefit us individually. Collectively, we must be patient with others and allow them to make occasional well-intended mistakes in the interest of bettering the community.

Our SQL Server community is a fantastic place to grow one’s career. There are myriad opportunities for data professionals to grow and learn at their own pace. We’ve certainly got areas in which we can and should improve, but I like where we have been and where we are going.

About the Author

Tim Mitchell
Tim Mitchell is a business intelligence and SSIS consultant who specializes in getting rid of data pain points. Need help with data warehousing, ETL, reporting, or SSIS training? Contact Tim here: TimMitchell.net/contact

4 Comments on "Some Thoughts on Community, Leadership, and Continuous Improvement"

  1. Dumb question: do you feel the same way about traditional politics? Should folks talk to their Senators first before tweeting about their thoughts or feelings?

    And then a followup: if you feel differently about that, why?

    • Hey Brent, that’s a fair question. In concept, I think we should take the same approach with governmental leaders as we do for community leaders. And for local politics (city, county, perhaps even state) – yes, this is a far better approach than just venting online.

      I’d love to say the same holds true for national politics, but the community approach I suggest doesn’t scale well when there are millions of constituents for each leader. I’ve reached out to my national representatives on numerous issues through the years, but have never gotten more than a form letter from a staffer in reply. I get it, though – I’m one of probably hundreds of folks who contact them each week. It would be great to get a personal reply, but I understand the steep challenge in doing so.

      For our community, though, it’s far easier to get a personal response. The leaders I refer to are the same folks I see at SQL Saturdays, chat with on Twitter, and at my local user group. They’re accessible, they’re nearby, and with few exceptions, they’re willing to discuss the issues.

      tl:dr; I don’t *feel* differently about handling politics in the same way, but I recognize the challenges of scale for politics at the national scale.

      • Yeah, I used to agree, but it works in the other direction, too. Do I need to email all of the BoD members every time I have a question? That’s kinda painful, especially when I’m not clear on who I should bother and who I shouldn’t. I’ve tried emailing info@pass, but the response rate on that has been pretty disappointing.

        I wish there was just one point of contact where we could send an email and get a response. Got any ideas?

        • It’s certainly a two-way street. When those of us in the community commit to helping by staying informed and giving feedback, those in leadership must follow through by making that process easy, transparent, and clear that the input has been received. At the risk of sounding cliché, our community has to meet in the middle here.

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