Looking Back

This is a reblog of a post from my friend, Steve Jones. He touches on a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and one that I strongly believe is crucially important.

Nearly all of my SQL Saturday presentations have revolved around documentation and technical communication. Technology may have changed over the years, but the importance of documentation has not. I strongly believe that documentation is getting to the point where it is being dangerously ignored, something that we, as technical professionals, cannot afford to do.

Voice of the DBA

Someone sent me this post on 40 years of programming. It’s a read that laments a few things and complains about many others. Most of the thoughts are opinions, and as such, you may or may not see validity in them. I suspect most of you, like me, see some things are mostly true and some as just false. Since I’ve been in this business for nearly 30 years, many of the comments bring back memories and thoughts about my career as well.

One of the things I do lament is the declining quality of documentation. I’ve seen the volume and detail decline over the years. I wouldn’t want to go back to paper, but I would like to see better examples and more complete examination of the ins and outs of the various functions and features. Far too often I find that there are examples, explanations, or behaviors…

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So, what’s in it for me… I mean, the company?

The Facebook “Your Memories” feature can sometimes be an interesting thing.  Yesterday, this memory from four years ago came up on my Facebook feed, and it’s one I want to share.

I think I’ve discovered the secret to great interviews — and I’m sharing this for the benefit of other job seekers like me.

Based on some resources that I’ve read (including “What Color Is Your Parachute?”), most job seekers go to an interview wanting to know, “what’s in it for me?” What they *should* be doing is asking the company, “what’s in it for them?” In other words, ask the company what they want and what you can do to fulfill it. Sell yourself on the precept of what value you bring to the company.

For the past two days, I’ve gone into interviews with this mindset, and it has served me well. It’s one of the reasons why I feel like I aced yesterday’s interview. Also, during this morning’s interview, I asked the question, “what are intergroup dynamics like? What other groups do you work with, how are the relationships, and what can I do to improve them?” When I asked that, I saw nods around the room that said, “that’s a good question!”

It’s too soon to say whether or not I landed either job, but I feel like I interviewed well, and I feel like I have a fighting chance.

Ever since I had this revelation four years ago, I’ve used this approach in every single job interview.  I won’t say that I aced every single job interview — I didn’t — but this mindset has made for better interviewing on my part.

Let me back up a little before I delve into this further.  It’s been often said that you should never not ask questions at a job interview.  Asking questions demonstrates that you’re interested in the job.  I’ve heard stories where a job candidate completely blew the interview simply because he or she did not ask any questions.  Not asking questions demonstrates that you’re indifferent toward the company or the job.

That said, it’s also important to ask the right questions.  Never ask about salary or benefits (as a general rule, I believe that you should never talk about salary or benefits, unless the interviewer brings it up).  If at all possible, try to avoid questions that ask, “what’s in it for me.”  Instead, ask questions that demonstrate, “how can I help you.”

Employers are nearly always looking for value, and their employees are no exception.  When interviewing potential candidates, they look to see what kind of value the candidates offer.  For me, I go to every job interview with a number of questions that I’ve formulated in advance — questions that demonstrate I’m interested, and I want to help.  For example, one question I always ask is, “what issues does the company or organization face, and how can I help address them?”  I’m asking what I can do for them.  It shows that I’m interested, and it shows that I’m willing to lend a hand.

For your reference, I found this information in my local library.  A couple of books I would recommend include the most recent edition of What Color Is Your Parachute? and Best Questions to Ask On Your Interview.  Among other things, these books provide ideas for questions for you to take with you to the interview.  Much of this information is also available on the internet; do a search and see what you can find.

I would also consider attending seminars and conferences, if you are able to do so.  For example, Thomas Grohser, one of my friends on the SQL Saturday speaker’s circuit, has a presentation called “Why candidates fail the job interview in the first minute.”  I’ve sat in on his presentation, and I would recommend it to any job seeker.

I won’t say that this mindset guarantees that you’ll get the job, but it will increase your chances.  This approach shows the interviewer that you’re interested, and you can add value to the organization.

Best of luck to you in your interview.

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.

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.

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.

Be the best you you can be

Ho-Jon: “How can I ever thank you?”
Hawkeye Pierce: “You just go and be the best you you can be.”

“Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned?  I know it sounds absurd, but please tell me who I am…”
— Supertramp, “The Logical Song”

“Who are you?  Who, who, who, who?”
— The Who

At my CrossFit gym last night, we had a tearful good-bye to a friend (one of our members) who was moving out to the western part of the state, along with her husband and children, for a new life.  One thing she said struck me: “I’m not the same person I was when I walked into this place.  How is this new person going to be able to adapt to a new place?  Am I going to be able to find another Ray, or another [name], or another [another name]…?”

I said to her, “all you can do is be you.”

I said that, and I believe that.  But what, exactly, does that mean?

I could probably write an entire book about that (and some people have), but I’ll spare you the gory details.  Besides, I’m no psychologist, and what I say might be worth about as much as a politician’s alt-facts (don’t get me started).  But, since this is a ‘blog article, and I write what I think, well…

For starters, you’re the one person whom you’ll get to know the best.  You know your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, your tastes, your interests, and so on, better than anyone else.  You’re the one person over whom you have complete, 100% control (disclaimer: I am not talking clinically; that is another discussion about which I know nearly nothing).   If you don’t know yourself, if you don’t take stock of who you are, you’ll start having issues.

Knowing yourself leads you to something else: having confidence and faith in yourself.  If you know yourself, you know, for the most part, what you’re capable of doing.  I’m not always sure as to what I’m capable of handling, but I do know myself enough to know what I can do.

This bring me to another thought: being you also means testing your limits.  Testing your limits means stepping outside your comfort zone.  Are you capable of doing more?  Often, you won’t know until you try.  And once you do try, how does it make you feel?  Proud?  Accomplished?  Can you do even better the next time you try?  The point is, you will always be you, but you are never static.  We are always changing.  Who you are now is probably not the same you from years ago.  And who you will be in several years won’t be the same you that you are now.

The world is a scary place.  It is human nature to fear what we don’t know.  But the world around us often defines who we are.  Who we are depends on what kind of cards we’re dealt.  We are often shaped by the changes we face.  And in the end, the way you deal with change is to continue being the same, ever-changing you that you’ve always been.

The checklist manifesto

Some time ago, I came up with a new presentation idea that I tentatively titled “The magic of checklists.”  The idea is to demonstrate how checklists can improve tasks in any organization.  I have a number of ideas regarding this presentation, and I’ll expand upon them in a future ‘blog article.

As preparation for this idea, I assigned myself some homework.  My friend, Greg Moore, recommended a book to read: The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.  I borrowed a copy from the local library and started reading.

The book (which I’m still reading) is turning out to be an excellent read: so much so that I’m considering purchasing my own copy, instead of just relying on the one I borrowed from the library.  (This way, I can use a highlighter and scribble my own notes in the book.). Yes, it reinforces my ideas about using a checklist to improve upon workplace tasks.  But I’m also discovering that there is so much more.  Reading this book has enlightened me on numerous ideas that had never occurred to me.

The book hits upon numerous concepts, each of which is worth an entire presentation in their own right.  Among them: the importance of communication, organizational structure, teamwork, crew/team resource management, keeping an open mind, empowering a team, following instructions, making adjustments, and doing the right thing.  (Since I’m not yet finished with the book, there are likely a number of other concepts I haven’t mentioned that I haven’t yet come across.). When I first picked up the book, my initial thought was, “how much can there be about a simple checklist?”  I’ve since learned that a checklist — any checklist, no matter how small — is not simple.  And while a checklist is an important tool, it is also a big part of an even bigger process.  All the ideas I listed several sentences ago are all part of that process.

I’d like to relay a story I came upon in the book.  David Lee Roth of Van Halen was famously known for canceling concerts if his instructions for leaving a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed in the dressing room were not followed.  Many people — myself included — decried him for these seemingly cockamamie instructions.  However, there was a method to his madness.  It turned out that this was a test.  If that instruction hadn’t been followed, then it was possible that another critical instruction — like, say, installing bracing to ensure the stage didn’t collapse — had not been followed.  (And before you think instructions like these can’t be missed, they can, and they have — sometimes, with disastrous consequences.) It goes to show that there is always more to the story.

Once I finish reading this book and can organize my thoughts, I’ll put out another article and another presentation (hopefully, coming soon to a SQL Saturday near you).  In the meantime, I highly recommend this book.  Maybe it’ll change your perspective the way it has changed mine.