Reinventing yourself

If there’s one thing I’ve managed to develop throughout my professional life, it’s my ability to adjust to my environment.  I’ve practically made a career out of it.  It’s an ability that has managed to keep me sane in tough situations, not to mention that it has enabled me to extend my shelf life long after my role, whether it’s because of an organization’s changing needs or my skill set no longer fits, has become obsolete.

A ballplayer with a long career (yes, here I go again with the baseball analogies) is usually able to do so by developing a new strength after an old one is no longer effective.  For example, pitchers such as C.C. Sabathia or Bartolo Colon have reinvented themselves as finesse pitchers who get batters out using guile and precision, long after their fastballs are no longer effective.  Likewise, a professional who is having difficulty keeping up with modern trends or technology may need to reinvent him or herself in order to remain relevant in the marketplace.

My recent unemployment forced me to take stock of where I am in my career and where I want to be going.  Even before my (now-former) employer let me go, I’d been asking myself some hard questions about who I was.  I had been struggling as a developer, which was making me question whether or not it was what I should — or even wanted — to be doing.  At the same time, I also considered my strengths.  What was I good at doing?  Were these strengths marketable?  Were they skills that I could offer to an organization?  Would I enjoy a position that took advantage of these strengths?

For me, personally, I discovered — or, more accurately, re-discovered — that my strengths were in writing and communication, not software development.  This revelation made me realize several things.  While I enjoyed doing development work, I found that I wasn’t passionate about it.  I was, however, passionate about writing and documentation — to the point that I began steering myself in that direction.  I became openly critical about my company’s documentation (and, in many cases, the lack of).  My SQL Saturday presentations have all been based on writing and communication.  Even in my current job search, my focus has been on positions that emphasize writing and communication over hardcore technical skills.  Having said that, I am also not discounting my technical background; my ideal position is one that takes advantage of that background.  While I am looking for something that focuses on communication, I am looking at my technical background to supplement that skill.

At this point in time, whether or not this strategy lands me a new position remains to be seen.  However, I’ve made some observations.  First, I’ve noticed that prospective employers appear to be more receptive to my approach.  I seem to be getting more and better prospective opportunities, and they are coming quickly.  Second, I’ve noticed that, in conversations and interviews, I am much more confident and assertive.  Third, I’m much more focused in my search — in contrast to job searches in years past, where I would apply to anything and everything that even remotely sounded like a position I could fill.  Finally, as strange as it may seem, I’m finding that I’m actually having more fun with this process.

It’s often been said that when a door closes, another opens.  If a current position or career isn’t working for you, it might be time to take stock and reinvent yourself.  You might discover a new mindset and a new motivation.  You might discover a new passion.  You might even find that reinventing yourself results in a new career path — one that is more satisfying and rewarding than you had ever previously believed.

SQL Saturday #638, Philadelphia

This coming Saturday, June 3, I will be speaking at SQL Saturday #638, Philadelphia (okay, it’s actually in a town called Whitpain Township, not Philadelphia, but that’s what they call the event, so…)!

I will be giving the following two presentations:

  • Tech Writing for Techies: A Primer — Documentation is one of the most critical, yet most blatantly ignored and disrespected tasks when it comes to technology. Businesses and technical professionals ignore documentation at their own risk. This session discusses what tech writing and documentation is about and why it’s critical for business. It also explores possible reasons for why it’s ignored, how documentation can be improved, and how “non-writers” can contribute to the process.
  • Disaster Documents: The role of documentation in disaster recovery — I was an employee of a company that had an office in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Prior to that infamous date, I had written several departmental documents that ended up being critical to our recovery. In this presentation, I provide a narrative of what happened in the weeks following 9/11, and how documentation played a role in getting the organization back on its feet.

    While other disaster recovery presentations talk about strategies, plans, and techniques, this presentation focuses on the documentation itself. We will discuss the documents we had and how they were used in our recovery. We will also discuss what documents we didn’t have, and how they could have made the process better.

Hope to see you there!

Throwing out memories

Yesterday, I got into a conversation with someone about getting rid of stuff.  (I have no idea how we got into that conversation.)  I told her that I was a self-admitted pack rat, and (like many other people, I’m sure) I had a tough time with getting rid of things.  How many of you have tried to clean out your closet, your attic, or your basement, come across an item, and have said either “oh that holds fond memories” or “I might need that later”?  I’d bet that if I asked that question in a crowded room, almost every hand would be raised.

She said something profound: “Everything has a story.  When I get rid of something, if, say, I’m giving something away, I’ll tell that person the story behind it.  For example, let’s say I’m getting rid of a dress.  I’ll say, ‘oh, I wore that dress for a friend’s wedding,’ or whatever the story is behind it.  Once I tell the story, I can let it go.”

She gave me some advice: “If you’re getting rid of something, tell someone about it — even if all you do is write it down somewhere.  Even if no one ever reads it, at least the memory is preserved.”

It’s hard to let go.  We place a lot of value in things, whether they’re people, relationships, or inanimate objects.  If something is valuable to you, you gain an attachment to it.  The stronger the attachment, the more difficult it is to let it go.

So the next time you’re getting rid of stuff, tell someone about it — even if you just write it down.  You might find it easier to part ways.

Keeping up — revisited


(Source: dilbert.com)

At SQL Saturday #615, I had the pleasure of sitting through a session by Eugene Meidinger titled “Drinking From the Firehose: a Guide to Keeping Up with Technology.”  His presentation brought to mind my earlier ‘blog article about struggling to keep up with technology, and he also mentioned a few things that didn’t occur to me.  I won’t rehash his presentation — I didn’t ask him for permission to use it, and I don’t want to step on his toes — but I do want to mention a few points he brought up.  (I was actually hoping he would have an article on this topic to which I could link, but I wasn’t able to find one on his ‘blog.)

The first point he makes is that keeping up with technology is impossible.  He points out that “keeping up is ill-defined.”  What, exactly, does it mean to keep up with technology?  It’s such a vague, gray area.  He mentions that you are never “done,” and keeping up is more an emotional issue than a goal.  He also mentions that the rate of change is accelerating.  How can you keep pace with something that is always getting faster?  It can’t be done.

Eugene talks about what he calls “the contradiction of learning.”  To add value, we need to specialize, but to avoid being irrelevant, we need to generalize.  Personally, I’ve based my career on being a jack-of-all-trades, but I’ve also discovered that employers are looking for experts in a single area.  That is difficult in and of itself.  If you specialize in an area, who is to say that it will be relevant down the line?  When I was in college, COBOL was a big deal, and many employers were looking for people who were well-versed in COBOL.  When was the last time you saw a job listing for a COBOL programmer?  On the other hand, SQL has been around for quite some time, and there seems to be no shortage of SQL positions.  So how do you know which technology should warrant your focus?  It’s hard to predict.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into Eugene’s presentation; it’s his presentation, not mine, and I don’t want to take too much away from him.  (His presentation slides are available at the link to his SQL Saturday presentation above, if you want to read more.)  If you ever have an opportunity to catch his presentation, I encourage you to do so.

Free agency

Well, after posting an article only a month ago about losing a job, I am now in that position myself.  I was officially dismissed from my position this afternoon.

Yes, I am, admittedly, a little down, but at the same time, I also feel a measure of freedom — the type where I feel like I can spread my wings and fly.  I feel good about my prospects, and I’m sure that I will be landing on my feet soon.

So, time for me to practice what I preach.

Don’t be afraid to screw up

“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying.”
— Wynton Marsalis

“I get knocked down, but I get up again; you’re never gonna keep me down…”
— Chumbawamba

“You’re only human; you’re allowed to make your share of mistakes…”
— Billy Joel

“It’s not how we fall.  It’s how we get back up again.”
— Patrick Ness

It’s been said that (baseball) pitchers need to have short memories.  Whenever a pitcher makes a mistake — say, gives up a home run — he needs to shake it off — forget about it and move on to the next batter.

That being said, he needs to remember it as well.  He needs to figure out what he did wrong (e.g. “okay, he likes the fastball down and away”) and remember not to make that same mistake the next time that batter comes up to hit.  In other words, he learns from his mistake.

This pretty much happens to all of us.  We’re human.  We’re not perfect.  We’re going to make mistakes.  The issue is when we become afraid of those mistakes.  We become so afraid of mistakes that it discourages us from doing things.

Let me make one thing clear.  I’m not talking about people who willfully make mistakes, don’t care, or strive for mediocrity (which, by the way, is a huge pet peeve of mine, and one that I do not tolerate.  That’s another ‘blog post for another time).  I’m talking about people who genuinely care about what they’re doing, who want to do a good job or get better, and are putting in an effort to reach that goal.

As a part-time musician who holds a leadership position, this particularly troubles me when it comes to making music.  Someone doesn’t want to play something because he or she is afraid of screwing up.  Why?  Music is an area where it makes the most sense to make mistakes.  The time spent practicing or rehearsing music is when making mistakes makes the most sense.  It’s called practice for a reason.  It’s time spent to address areas that need to be improved — hence, why it’s important to make mistakes.  Mistakes tell us what needs work or what needs to be addressed.  Mistakes are why we rehearse.  We don’t — and shouldn’t — practice what we’re doing right; we need to practice what we’re doing wrong.

When it comes to music, I attribute part of it to stage fright.  People don’t want to make mistakes in front of other people.  I say, who cares?  So what if you make a mistake?  What’s going to happen?  Are people going to think less of you?  In all likelihood, probably not.  For what it’s worth, I’ve heard — and even seen — professional musicians make mistakes during concerts or live performances.  More often than not, they’ll keep going as if nothing happened.  No big deal.  It’s funny, but I lost my fear of performing (or speaking) in front of groups a long time ago.  I attribute it to realizing that making a mistake isn’t the end of the world.

The same holds true on the job.  Many of us are afraid to make mistakes at work.  Why?  Are we going to get fired?  Unless the mistake is either (1) very large, or (2) numerous, it’s unlikely.  How many of you have had bad days at work?  It happens sometimes.  How many of you have lost your job because of them?  I suspect, not many.

The thing is, we always want to be better at something.  Getting better means getting out of our comfort zone.  When that happens, we’re going to make mistakes.  I’ve often said that “perfection as a goal is okay.  Perfection as a standard is not.”  We’re not built for perfection.  That’s what being human is all about.  Someone once said that “one of the worst quotes ever coined is ‘get it right the first time.’  It’s stupid, because almost nobody ever gets it right the first time.”

Well, someone might say, “what about a profession where you can’t afford to make mistakes, where making a mistake can cost lives, such as doctors and airline pilots?”

For this, I point out a couple of things.  First, there’s a reason why jobs like that require extensive training and practice.  Pilots practice in simulators.  Doctors practice on cadavers and dummies.  In both cases (and probably others as well), students are closely supervised.  These days, virtual reality contributes to these practice scenarios as well.  And even then, mistakes will be made during practice.  Second, professions such as these are becoming increasingly reliant on checklists.  Checklists decrease the probability of mistakes, and are becoming increasingly prevalent in numerous professions.  (I have an idea for a presentation and a ‘blog article about checklists; hopefully, this will be coming soon.)

The ability to make mistakes is important.  We learn from them.  We get better because of them.  They make us stronger.  And once you can address them, overcome them, learn how to recover from them, or eliminate them, chances are that people will say that you’re the master at your craft, whatever that craft may be.