Happy holidays!

A little humor for your holiday!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Memories of Pan Am 103

Today represents a somber anniversary. I’m reblogging an article I wrote back in August in which I talk about what I was doing exactly thirty years ago today.

Welcome to Ray Kim's 'blog

(Photo source: Wikipedia)

There are moments in your life when you remember exactly what you were doing as though it happened yesterday, even if it happened many years ago.  I previously wrote about what I was doing on 9/11.  Likewise, I remember other events, such as the Challenger disaster (I was a freshman at Syracuse having lunch in my dorm dining hall).  In this article, I want to write about another such fateful day.

Yesterday, with only a day to go before Syracuse opens its football season at Western Michigan, I went poking around a couple of websites for more information about the upcoming game.  I went to the Daily Orange‘s website, and in doing so, I stumbled upon this article, which I was not expecting to see.  As soon as I saw it, memories from nearly thirty years ago suddenly came back to me.

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The toxic work environment

I recently had someone tell me about an incident that reminded me about hostile work environments. All I will say is that the person in question is a family member. (I am purposely being vague; she works in a small office, and any additional description or detail could identify her or her employer. All I will reveal is that she was stabbed in the back by a coworker.)

Granted, in a large company, the prudent move would be to talk to your chain of command and possibly even file a complaint with HR. However, this office has fewer than ten employees; I don’t think it even has an HR person. What do you do then?

She told me that she wanted to take the high road and stay in the office to fight this person; as she put it, “I don’t want (this person) to win.” I told her, you need to update your resume. If (this person) causes you that much stress, and your work environment is that toxic, then (this person) has already won.

As vaguely as I’m trying to describe this, I also wanted to write about it because I think it’s a very important point. Toxic work environments are one of the top reasons (if not the top reason) why people leave jobs. I, myself, have left jobs because of abusive managers or coworkers; I remember one position where the CEO was so verbally abusive that I actively pushed my resume and took the first offer I got. I was absolutely miserable working for that person, and I could not leave that place fast enough.

Professionally, one of the worst things you can do is continue working in a toxic work culture. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s not fun. It brings down your workplace morale, which, in turn, leads to unproductive stress, resentment, and a number of health issues (both physical and mental).

Those of us who are working professionals (that is, excluding full-time students and retirees) spend most of our waking hours at the office. (For those of you who don’t actually work in an “office” — construction workers and professional athletes, for example — for purposes of this article, construction sites and athletic facilities count as your “office.”) My workspace is effectively my home away from home, so I want it to be comfortable as possible. Many workers — myself included — will often decorate their workspaces with a few touches to reflect their personalities; I’ll usually have my wife’s picture on my desk and a Syracuse Orange poster or pennant on the wall. If I’m working on something mundane, I’ll often put on headphones and listen to music, or if the Yankees are playing a rare weekday day game, I’ll tune in and listen to the ballgame while I work.

I’m a big believer that a happy and comfortable worker is a productive worker (this might seem to contradict my earlier article about being comfortable, but that is a completely different context that isn’t applicable here). You don’t want or need anything in the office that brings you down, and you don’t want to be constantly looking over your shoulder.

If a situation arises that disrupts your productive routine, you need to deal with it. If it’s something that can be addressed relatively straightforwardly — say, talking to your supervisor or HR — then take whatever steps are necessary to do so. But if it’s a situation where the workplace culture and environment are infected, then it’s probably time to send out your resume.

Microsoft: a great place to work

“That is nice work if you can get it, and you can get it, if you try…”

— George and Ira Gershwin

This is the last (for now, unless I come up with anything else — which is entirely possible) article that came out of my experience last weekend with SQL Saturday #814.

After last Saturday’s conference, George Walters and a few of his Microsoft coworkers held a session on what was billed as “Diversity, Inclusion and Careers at Microsoft” (or something to that effect).  Unfortunately, I missed about the first half of the session (I had to run up to the speaker’s room to get my stuff out of there before they locked it up), so I’m unable to comment on the “diversity and inclusion” part.  Speaking as an Asian-American, that’s unfortunate, since it sounded like something that could potentially appeal to me.

I want to emphasize again that I am not actively seeking new employment.  However, I’ll also admit that I do look passively.  If something drops in my lap, or if I come across something that looks interesting, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least look into it.  Besides, George is a friend, and I wanted to at least see what it was about (not to mention make the rounds with my friends before I left the conference).  (And on top of that, they had free pizza!)

From my perspective, it seemed like a Microsoft recruitment pitch (and I say that in a good way).  They discussed opportunities at Microsoft, what was needed to apply, what they looked for, what the work environment was like, and so on.  There were good questions and good discussion among the crowd in attendance, and I even contributed some suggestions of my own.

For me, one of the big takeaways was the description of the work culture.  If you decide you’re not happy with your career direction at Microsoft, they’ll work with you to figure out a path that works for you.  It seems like there’s something for everyone there.  Since I’m at an age where I’m probably closer to retirement than from my college graduation, the idea of finding a good fit appeals to me.  (On the other hand, that thought would probably also appeal to a recent grad as well.)  And I’ll also say that a lot of what the Microsoft reps said didn’t sound too bad, either.

While I’m happy in my current position, it won’t last forever (and besides, things can happen suddenly and unexpectedly — I’ve had that happen before).  So it doesn’t hurt to keep your eyes and ears open.  And when it comes to potential employers, you can probably do worse than Microsoft.

Collaboration, cooperation, and competition

This is another article based on stuff that I picked up from SQL Saturday #814.  This time, I’ll talk about Matt Cushing’s presentation about networking.

Whenever I’m speaking at a SQL Saturday, I always make it a point to attend sessions that are similar to mine.  At #814, I met Matt Cushing, who was doing a session on networking.  In fact, our presentations had very similar titles; they both started with “Networking 101.”  That very much caught my attention, and once I finished my own (my presentation was in the time slot immediately before his), I went to his room to catch his presentation.

A big reason why I attend presentations similar to mine is that everyone is different, and will therefore present differently.  Other people will have different perspectives of the same topic.  I want to see these other perspectives.  They might have ideas that will help me enhance my own presentations.  Every time I attend a session in which the topic is relevant to my own, I come across something that either never occurred to me, presents an idea in a different way, or reinforces concepts in my own presentations.  These are important, and they help me make my presentations even better.

Matt gave a great presentation!  I found his own self-assessment on his ‘blog.  I found out that it was Matt’s first-ever SQL Saturday presentation.  I had no idea!  He did a great job with it.  (Matt, if you’re reading this, well done!)  I don’t remember all the points from his session (I’ll need to download his presentation slides), but one takeaway was that “competition is good, cooperation is better.”  (This thought inspired the name of this article you’re reading now.)

This concept of cooperation is applicable to countless situations, and SQL Saturday presentations are no exception.  Many presenters refer to other speakers or other presentations; even in my own presentations, I’ll encourage audience members to go check out other presentations that are similar to my own topic.  (Ed. note: I need to make sure I add a reference to Matt’s presentation in my own slides!)  Matt and I joked that we should encourage SQL Saturday organizers to schedule our sessions back-to-back; we even went as far as to say that we should do a joint presentation.  (Matt, I’m game if you are!)

In a way, Matt is a competitor in that we did similar presentations.  However, we were both able to learn and feed off each other, which enables us both to improve; it’s a win-win for both of us.  Competition is a healthy thing; it drives us to do our best.  But when you cooperate with your competition, there’s no telling what you can accomplish.

Dashboard design = UX/UI

This is another article that was borne from my experience at SQL Saturday #814.

When I went to my room to get ready for my first presentation of the day, I walked in on the tail end of Kevin Feasel‘s presentation about dashboard visualization techniques.  I caught about the last ten minutes of his session.

And from those ten minutes, I regret not having sat through his session.

Kevin’s presentation focused on dashboard layout and design.  In the short time in which I saw his last few slides, he showed off his impressions of a badly-designed dashboard, and talked about what not to do.  In other words, he was talking about UX/UI — a subject near and dear to my heart.  It reminded me of the article I wrote about poor design a while back.

I wish I had read through the presentation schedule more clearly.  That was definitely a presentation that I would have liked to have seen.  In my defense, during that time slot, I was sitting in the speaker’s room getting ready to do my own presentation.  But I would have gladly spent that time sitting through a presentation that interests me — and this one definitely qualified.

I’ve attended a number of SQL Saturdays, and I’ve crossed paths with Kevin a few times.  If we’re both attending a SQL Saturday, and Kevin is doing this presentation again, I’ll make sure that I’m there.  I don’t want to miss it a second time.

“So what, exactly, are you doing in IT?”

“Aside from mediocre marks in his freshman literature courses — even MIT wanted people to be literate, but evidently Peter Zimmer didn’t care for poetry — the kid was straight A.” (bold type added for emphasis)

— Excerpt from The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy

As I mentioned before, a lot of things came out of SQL Saturday #814 — enough that I have enough ‘blog article material for at least a few days.  This is the first of those articles.

At the Friday night speaker’s dinner, Eugene Meidinger asked me what I thought was a very good and valid question.  I’m paraphrasing what he said, but he asked me something like this.

“I’ve been reading some of your ‘blog articles.”  (Ed. note: hey, someone reads my ‘blog!)  “Most of your articles don’t have anything to do with SQL.  Do you ever write anything about SQL?  How did you get involved with SQL Saturday?  Are you one of those people who just happened to latch on to SQL or hang out with SQL people?”

The answer is not simple.  This article is my attempt to answer his questions.

To answer his first question, yes, I have written about SQL, but it’s been a while.  For his (or anyone else’s) reference, here are some of the SQL articles that I wrote.

Yes, I do have experience in SQL Server.  However, I am not a SQL MVP, nor do I consider myself a SQL expert.  As I describe myself, “I fall under the category of knowing enough SQL to be dangerous.”  (Or, as I like to think of it, I know enough SQL to be able to do the job.)  Although I don’t know enough to be able to talk about advanced SQL techniques, I can discuss beginner-level SQL topics that can help people just getting started in SQL.  I’ve been meaning to write and present more beginner SQL-related topics, but (primarily) lack of time has kept me from getting them done.

(I’m also at a bit of a disadvantage because I currently work in an Oracle, not a SQL Server, environment.)

I won’t rehash how I got involved with SQL Saturday (I’ve already done that; I’ll leave it to you to check the link and read it for yourself).  I’ll just simply say that, although I don’t talk extensively about SQL topics, I’ve learned that there is still a place for me within an endeavor such as SQL Saturday.

When I first started my ‘blog, I intended for it to supplement my SQL Saturday presentations.  Since then, however, it seems to have taken on a life of its own.  It’s become a forum for me to express my thoughts in a way that they’d be helpful for both myself and for other people, especially anyone pursuing professional careers.

One thing that has come out of these efforts is that, professionally, I’m finding myself more and more.  I’ve had to come to terms with my own level of technological knowledge and expertise.  For years, I’ve been seeking positions in programming and application development.  But a funny thing happened along the way.  I discovered that while I do enjoy coding, I wasn’t passionate about it.  I wasn’t willing to spend late nights and downtime doing more with it or to immerse myself in it.  As soon as I came to that realization, that was when I realized that I should look into something else.

And as soon as I came to that realization, good things started happening for me.  I became happier and more confident in my career direction.  I started getting more and better opportunities.

It also made me realize that, despite all my jokes about being an odd man out because I was “not a SQL expert,” there is still a place for me in SQL Saturday.  No, I may not be presenting SQL or data topics, but I am still making important presentation contributions to the database and IT communities.

Back when I worked at Blue Cross in the late 90s and early 2000s, I fulfilled a role in which I supplied server staff with information they needed to do their jobs.  As I describe it, my job was to “support the support staff.”  It’s only within the last few years that I really appreciate just how important of a role that was.

Ironically, although Eugene asked me the original question, it was one of his own presentations that made me come to this realization.  The increasing difficulty of keeping pace with technological trends contributed to my waning passion about some technological topics.  I mentioned a while back in a podcast that I thought it was important to play to your strengths.  By focusing on something about which you’re really passionate — in my case, it’s technical communication — there’s no telling how far you can go.

So Eugene, if you happen to be reading this, hopefully this answers your questions and gives you a perspective of where I’m coming from.  (Good to see you this past weekend, by the way!)  And for anyone else reading this, hopefully this will inspire you to reflect upon your own interests and skill sets, and provide you with a sense of guidance as you pursue your career interests.