Reflections, setbacks, and accomplishments

“Here’s to the new year.  May she be a damn sight better than the old one, and may we all be home before she’s over.”
— Col. Sherman T. Potter

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
— Walt Disney

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today…”
— Bruce Hornsby (or Huey Lewis, depending on which version you prefer…)

It is the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  I have the week off from work as I write this, which gives me plenty of time to think.  Okay, granted, I haven’t been doing a lot of thinking — or very much else, for that matter — during this past week.  Everyone, after all, needs to take some time to rest and relax.  So, I’ll be the first to confess that, while I should probably take advantage of the week to take care of tasks I can’t normally do because of work, a good chunk of it has been spent watching TV, especially old movies, college football, and college basketball.

Nevertheless, now that 2017 is coming to a close, I did take a few moments — well, at least long enough to write this article, anyway — to look upon this past year, and to think about what’s ahead.  Among other things: I celebrated a milestone birthday back in January (hey, I made it to another one!), I lost one job and picked up another (better one!) in a short amount of time, I’m being recognized for accomplishments in my new job, I spoke at four more SQL Saturdays (including a couple of new presentations), I’ve made new friends, I’ve gotten better at CrossFit (among my CrossFit accomplishments, I successfully completed this year’s Holiday Rowing Challenge), and (if you count this article), I’ve written thirty-five ‘blog articles this year.  (That’s almost three a month, for those of you who are keeping count.)

Of course, life is about yin and yang; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  I’d be lying if I said this year was all wine and roses; I’ve had my share of setbacks as well.  Nobody enjoys setbacks; they can be painful and embarrassing.  But they’re important as well.  You can’t have good without bad, happiness without sadness, joy without pain.  But setbacks also serve a purpose: they remind us that we are not perfect (hey, nobody’s perfect, and since I’m nobody…!) and that no matter how well we perform, there is always room for improvement.

So now that 2018 is around the corner, keep moving ahead.  Make it better than 2017!

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Writing blind

“Life is like a sewer.  What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”
— unknown

As a technical writer, one thing I often request is access to the product — whether it’s a web site, application, device, tool, etc. — that I’m writing about.  In order for me to write something about a product, I need to know what the product is, how it works, and how to use it.

Unlike, say, a novelist or a creative writer, technical writing topics usually do not originate from the writer, but from something or someone else, such as a process, procedure, or product.  In order for the writer to produce a good, quality document, he or she must know about it — what it is, why it’s significant, what it looks like, how to use it, potential issues, and so on.

What happens, however, when the only resource you have is someone else’s description?  Moreso, what happens when that person is (by his or her own admission) not a writer?  (There’s a reason why this person gave you this project in the first place.)  I recently worked on a small side project that reminded me just how important this is.  Granted, it was only a small and minor project, but it did remind me about just how critical it is for a writer to understand the subject.

Imagine the following situation: you need to add more windshield washer fluid to your car.  You open the hood and see different caps.  You know there are caps for washer fluid, engine coolant, oil, and so on.  However, they are not clearly marked (as far as you can see), and you don’t know which one is which.  Opening the wrong cap and filling it with the wrong fluid will damage your car.  You call a friend who tells you to look for a plastic reservoir filled with blue liquid.  Trouble is, there are two of them (one is washer fluid, the other is coolant).  Your friend tells you to look for something that looks like a windshield on the cap.  Okay, you see something that looks like it might be a window with a wiper going across it.  That’s it.

Sound frustrating?  These are the kinds of situations that technical writers and communicators deal with regularly and on a much larger scale.  In order to write a technical document, the writer must have a source of good data — whether it’s hands-on experience, pictures, data graphs, good descriptions, etc. — in order to write a quality document.  A bad or inaccurate source of data will often result in a bad document.

Developers, coders, and data professionals have a name for this kind of situation: garbage in, garbage out.  In order for data to be processed into information (I won’t get into it now, but there is a difference between data and information — that’s another topic for another time), you need to have good data to start.  Bad data results in bad and inaccurate information.

Writers cannot read minds.  Unless a subject matter expert (SME) can properly convey his or her idea (and it almost never happens on the first go-around), it might take several iterations and lots of SME-writer interaction before the draft is correct.

Professional chefs have a term for ensuring everything is set up and in place before cooking: mise en place (pronounced “MEES-in-plahs”).  While the technology sector does not use the same terminology, the principle still applies: make sure things are in place and ideas are properly conveyed before information processing (including documentation) can occur.  Otherwise, trash at the beginning of the process will likely result in trash at the end.

Happy (insert name of your favorite holiday)

There’s a meme that goes around Facebook, usually around the holiday season.  I’ve commented on this on Facebook before, but I thought it was worthwhile to put this into a ‘blog article.

The meme appears in many different ways, but the gist of it goes something like this: “If you’re Christian, feel free to wish me Merry Christmas.  If you’re Jewish, feel free to wish me Happy Chanukah.  If you’re African-American, feel free to wish me Joyous Kwanzaa.  If you’re something else, feel free to wish me holiday greetings in whatever your beliefs or culture allow, or simply wish me Happy Holidays.  I won’t be offended.  I’ll be happy that you took the time to say something nice to me.”

I agree with the sentiment 100%, but I also want to take it a step further.

We are a multicultural world, with many points of view, religions, beliefs, and mores.  What might be strange to one culture might be everyday life in another.  Many of us enjoy traveling to exotic countries and cultures, mostly to experience other worlds that aren’t our own.  As foreign travelers, we want to know what it’s like to be part of that culture.  Visitors to Hawai’i, for example, want to receive leis, eat poi and poke, wear Hawaiian shirts, and learn to play the ukulele.  (By the way, one thing I learned from my Hawai’i trip several years ago is that the correct pronunciation is OO-ku-lay-lay, not YOU-ku-lay-lay.)  I think this is a good and healthy thing; it allows us to understand, experience, and appreciate what it’s like to be part of something that is not our own.  This, in turn, enhances our knowledge and understanding of each other.  And when we’re accepted into the culture, it makes us feel pretty good.

I regularly say, “feel free to wish me a Happy (whatever your preferred holiday is).  Not only will I not be offended, I will actually be flattered that you think enough of me to wish me well from the standpoint of your culture, religion, more, or belief.”

I’ve had deeply religious people tell me they’d “pray for me” (and I do NOT mean in a spiteful or sarcastic way) or ask me if “I would pray with them.”  Granted, I am not a religious person; although I do attend church, I consider myself more spiritual than religious.  But when I get asked this, I have absolutely no problem with it (in fact, I’ll join them more often than not).  Even though my beliefs are not necessarily the same as theirs, being invited to join them makes me feel pretty good.  And taking part acknowledges that I respect their belief.

So if you happen to see me around the holidays, feel free to wish me a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Happy Diwali, Ramadan Kareem, Peace to You, Live Long and Prosper, Happy Holidays, or whatever you prefer.  I will thank you for it!  After all, sending happy greetings and best wishes to another person is what it’s all about, regardless of what you believe.

SQL Saturday #694, Providence

This morning, I saw a ‘blog post from my friend, Greg Moore, who wrote about his upcoming presentations at SQL Saturday in Washington, DC this Saturday.  Greg is an excellent presenter, and I always recommend his presentations anytime.

It also made me realize a few things.  First, my own SQL Saturday presentations are coming up quickly — this Saturday (December 9), in fact.  Warning: dates in calendar are closer than they appear!  So I figured I should do more to promote my own presentations.  Come hear me speak at SQL Saturday #694 in Providence, RI.  I will be giving the following two presentations:

Providence SQL Saturday is a special one for me.  I first spoke at Providence two years ago, and it represented a couple of milestones.  First, it was the first SQL Saturday I ever attended that was outside New York State.  The first ones I attended were all in New York City (and to this day, I still try to attend that one whenever I can, regardless of whether or not I’m speaking) or in Albany.  Second, it was only the second time that I had ever presented at a SQL Saturday.  The first was earlier that summer, when I spoke at my hometown SQL Saturday in Albany, NY.  In fact, the presentation I gave — talking to non-techies — is the same one that I will be giving this Saturday.  I’ve since added to it and polished it a bit.  Hopefully, this presentation will go even better than the last time I gave it in Providence two years ago!

If you’ve never been to a SQL Saturday, check it out.  It’s a great day of learning (and it’s free — although there’s usually a nominal fee for lunch), it’s a great opportunity to network with industry colleagues, and it’s a fun social event (seriously, it is)!  I look forward to every SQL Saturday that I attend, and this Saturday should be no different.

Hope to see you there!

Upcoming SQL Saturday dates for me

Looks like my SQL Saturday schedule will be busy!  Here are my upcoming dates (and I admit that I’m writing this for my own reference as much as anything else).

Scheduled to speak

I am scheduled to speak at the following event:

Presentation abstracts submitted

I submitted my presentations to these events; no guarantee that I will be picked to speak at any of these, but you never know:

Save the date

Event that is on the calendar, but not yet scheduled (hence, there’s no link to it yet); I intend to submit to it when it goes live:

  • July 28, 2018: Albany, NY (my hometown SQL Saturday!)

SQL Saturday is a great, free conference for anyone who wants to learn more about SQL Server.  Many interesting topics are presented, it’s a great opportunity to network, and it’s a lot of fun!

Hope to see people there!