Mentoring — another way to pay it forward

This morning, I received my annual email from Syracuse University‘s College of Engineering and Computer Science regarding their mentoring program. I have participated in this for the last couple of years, and I have enjoyed it each time. As I’ve written before, paying it forward is a passion of mine, and I always look forward to this opportunity whenever it comes around. When I saw the email, I couldn’t fill the response form out fast enough.

The university suggests a job shadow program, where a student follows you around the workplace for a day during the university’s winter break. For me, a job shadow is unlikely, since I work in a data-secure office (I doubt that a student would really want to watch me sit at a desk all day long, anyway). In lieu of that, I’ve taken students out to dinner for the past couple of years. It gives me an opportunity to converse and network with students in a relaxed atmosphere. I always enjoy these opportunities; not only do I get a chance to share my experience and wisdom (to my friends reading this: don’t laugh!), I also get an opportunity to learn about what is happening at my alma mater through the students’ perspective, not to mention that hearing about students’ experiences is fascinating.

In addition to the job shadow, the department also implemented a new mentoring program this year. The program provides an opportunity for students to interact with alumni who occupy professional positions. It allows for a number of possible activities, including networking, job shadows, mock interviews, resume reviews, and so on.

I have always found this program to be a great experience. If you’re looking for a way to give something back to your professional community, consider being a mentor to those who have less experience than you do, whether it’s through a school program, your workplace, a professional user group, or whatever such opportunity presents itself. You might find it to be a rewarding experience.

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Where do I best fit in?

I play the piano for Sunday morning church services.  One particular day earlier this year, the choir director and his family were out, and the choir was shorthanded that day.  The cantor was also not there that morning.  We desperately needed someone to step up, and no one was willing to do it.

This is not to disparage the choir, which is made up of wonderful people; that is not the point.  Rather, it got me thinking: what is my role?

Most of the time, my primary role in this group is as accompanist.  However, I’m also the most musically accomplished person in the group, and as a member of a number of ensembles, I’m also probably the most experienced ensemble musician.  Often, when the choir director is not there, leadership duties often falls to me.  The director has, in the past, asked me to lead rehearsals when he is not there.  So I can probably say that my secondary role is backup choir director.

I regularly think about this when I play in the symphonic band as well.  Where do I fit in?  This is not an existential or philosophical question; rather, it serves a purpose: what is my part supposed to be, and how am I supposed to perform it so that it best serves what is required in the piece?  Band is a team sport, and each member has a role to play so that the group functions as a single unit.

The professional workplace environment is no different.  In any organization, all employees are pieces to a larger puzzle.  Each person serves a purpose (and sometimes, multiple purposes).

During my podcast recording a while back, one of the questions I was asked was, “what’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve gotten?”  My answer was something like, “play to your strengths.”  I’ll admit that, since the recording, I’ve come up with several other answers that I wish I’d given, but it’s that particular answer that I want to discuss in this article.

Let me start with an analogy (as the Yankee fan that I am, I’ll go with another baseball — and more specifically — a Yankees team analogy).  Brett Gardner (outfielder) is known for his baserunning, speed, defense, and gritty play.  Aaron Judge (another outfielder) and Gary Sanchez (catcher) are known for their power hitting and penchant for driving in runs.  DJ LeMahieu (infielder) has a penchant for hitting, getting on base, and playing solid defense.  Likewise, each relief pitcher has his strengths that are used for specific situations.  Each ballplayer on a team has a role to play.  Aaron Boone (manager) utilizes each player as to what they’re capable of doing and when to best make use of their strengths depending on each situation.

Everyone has their strengths and capabilities that add value to an organization.  For me, personally, those strengths include technical communication, writing, and design.  To a smaller extent, I am also capable of database work, object-oriented development, analysis, and design.  But my professional strengths are what enable me to come through in the clutch.  And if they are properly nurtured, they can help improve my other (often, lesser) skills as well.

I remember reading a Wall Street Journal interview with Dilbert creator Scott Adams (it was back in the early 1990s; unfortunately, I have not been able to find a link to the article) in which he said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “the best way to be valuable is to learn as much as you can about as many different things as you can.”

A while back, I did a self-assessment of my own skill set, and I made an effort to be honest with myself. While I’ve worked in technology my entire professional career, I discovered that my true strengths weren’t so much in application development — the career path I had been pursuing the entire time — but rather in technical writing and communication.

When I came to that realization, my focus changed. I started moving away from hardcore technical topics and toward subjects geared toward my strengths — technical writing, layout, design, UX/UI, communication, and so on.

This focus manifested itself in my SQL Saturday presentations and my ‘blog articles. While I have enough of a background to maintain a presence within the technical world, my focus is on soft topics that aren’t necessarily technology-related, but are of interest to technical professionals, anyway. Even now, when I do SQL Saturday presentations, I use this analogy to introduce myself: when it comes to my relationship with PASS and SQL Server, “I’m the professor at MIT who teaches English Lit.” This mindset has carried me all the way to a speaking gig at PASS Summit.

Over the course of time, and without even realizing that I was doing it, I’d established my brand. While my official title is still “developer,” this is more of a misnomer (although it can be argued, what am I developing?). I’ve become the technical writing and communications guy. And I’m okay with that.

As I get older and continue to advance in my career, I’ve come to terms with my role and where I best fit on the team. As long as I still play for and contribute to the team, I’m in a good place.

PASS Summit — Making the Most of PASS Summit 2019

Last week, the PASS Professional Development Virtual Group held a webinar about making the most of PASS Summit, led by two friends of mine, Paresh Motiwala and Grant Fritchey. Unfortunately, I missed the webinar when it aired, but they did record and post the webinar to YouTube. Paresh even gives me a shout-out during the presentation, at 6:30 in the recording! (Shameless plug: come check out my session!)

Although PASS Summit is a large conference based mainly (but not entirely) around data topics, it isn’t just about attending sessions. It’s also about networking, learning, and experience. During the hour-long webinar, Paresh and Grant provide tips on how to network, convincing your manager to let you attend (PASS even includes a letter that you can give your boss!), what to expect when you attend, whom you’ll meet, how to stretch your dollar (admittedly, PASS Summit is not cheap to attend), talking with vendors, and so on.

I’ll leave it to you check out the link and leave it to Paresh and Grant to compel you to attend PASS Summit. They do a great job with the webinar, and I encourage you to check it out. It is definitely worth the hour of your time. Watching the video makes me even more excited about attending! Maybe it might be enough to talk you into attending PASS Summit!

Hope to see you in Seattle in November!

References and memorization

I was working on a document, and wanted to toggle the language on MS Word that was used for proofing (I downloaded the template from our UK subsidiary, so it was proofing in UK, not US, English). I couldn’t remember how to do it, so I consulted Google, found my answer, changed the setting, and went along my merry way.

For whatever reason, it got me thinking about Microsoft certification exams (it’s funny how one’s mind works sometimes). It’s been a long time since I took one. What got me thinking was that, when you take a certification exam, you are not allowed to bring any notes or references with you into the testing room (as far as I remember — I’m not sure if that’s still the case now; like I said, it’s been a long time since I took a certification exam).

In this day and age where finding information is as easy as picking up your smartphone, I really believe that memorization is overrated (and, maybe in some cases, even dangerous). I wrote as much a while back, and I still believe that now.

Back when I worked as an adjunct instructor, all my assignments, quizzes, and exams that I gave to students were open-book, open-note. I also told my students that they were allowed to help each other work toward the answers, including during an exam. They were not allowed to outright give each other answers; that constituted cheating and were grounds for failing the exam. Maybe some instructors might scoff at this approach, but my students were very good about adhering to those rules (many of them told me later that they learned more in my class than any other they’d ever taken), and there was a method to my madness.

For one thing, I told my students that the ability to look up and research information was an important skill to have. We, as imperfect human beings, are never going to remember absolutely everything, so to be able to know how find the correct answers is important. Second, when we’re in a working environment, the ability to work together as a team is critical. When you’re working within a team environment, being able to work with others to achieve a common goal is a big deal.

Finally, how many workplaces are going to tell you, “okay, put away all your books and references. You’re going to do this project entirely from memory.” I don’t know about you, but if a manager ever told me to do that, I wouldn’t be able to update and distribute my resume fast enough.

In his SQL Saturday presentation entitled “Why candidates fail the job interview in the first minute,” Thomas Grohser mentions that he does not expect any candidate to be able to know everything. If a candidate says that (s)he “does not know the answer, but here’s how I would go about finding the answer,” then that is a perfectly acceptable answer. More often than not, trying to do everything from memory is a bad and sometimes dangerous approach, and is a bad way of thinking.

We are not perfect. We will never remember everything. And anyone who says that (s)he knows everything is full of crap. Rather than try to brute-force memorize anything and everything, it’s more important to develop skills that teach you how to think and how to find, verify, and process information. If I was a hiring manager, that ability would be vastly more valuable than someone who says that (s)he “knows everything.”

Unite the world

I am usually not one to reblog my own articles, but in light of the events of this past weekend, I thought this was worth a share. What I do know is that I can’t just stand by and say nothing.

Welcome to Ray Kim's 'blog

“Hey you, don’t tell me there’s no hope at all; together we stand; divided, we fall…”
— Pink Floyd, Hey You

“An eye for an eye only makes the world blind.”
— Gandhi

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
— John Lennon, Imagine

“I have a dream…”
— Martin Luther King Jr.

Just for this one article, I am breaking my silence on all things political.

As is much of the country, I am outraged with what has happening at America’s southern border.  I have my opinions regarding the current administration, and what is happening to our country and around the world.

However, that is not the point of this article.  I am not going to write about my politics, my opinions, or my outrage.  Today, I want to write about something else.

It occurred to me this morning that, more than ever, we…

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Paying it forward

Once upon a time, I wanted to be the rockstar in pretty much anything and everything I did, whether it was my job, my extracurricular activities, or my relationships.  I wanted the glory and the recognition.  More importantly, I wanted to be respected for whatever I did.  In my youth, I thought that demonstrating that I was good at whatever I did was the path to glory.

But now that I’m older, that perspective has changed.  I no longer need (or, sometimes, even want) to be the rockstar.  These days, I get a great deal of satisfaction out of helping someone else become the rockstar. While I still try to perform well in whatever I do, it’s more important to me to help everyone around me be better.

This has become a passion of mine. It’s why I’m so passionate about speaking at SQL Saturday. It’s why I take such an interest in technical communication, writing, training, and mentoring. It’s why I continually encourage people to be better. It’s even one of the major reasons why I maintain my ‘blog. While it’s important to make myself better in whatever I do, I think it’s also equally important to make people around you better as well.

I’ve had a number of opportunities to give something back. For the past couple of years, I’ve taken part in a program by my alma mater, Syracuse University, specifically the College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS).  They sponsor a “job shadow” program in which current students are paired with alumni working in various industries. The program typically takes place during winter break, between the fall and spring semesters.

Unfortunately, I work in a data-secure office, so an office shadow tends to be out of the question. (I don’t think students would really be interested in seeing me sit at a desk all day, anyway.)  In lieu of a job shadow, the university suggests other ways to interact with students — over a cup of coffee, lunch, and so on. For the past couple of years, I’ve offered to take students out to dinner. It offers a nice, relaxed atmosphere to chat, not to mention that, since I usually don’t have any commitments after dinner, I’m not constrained by time; I don’t have to worry about being back in the office by a certain time.

I’ve found numerous other ways to pay it forward. During one unemployment stint, I found a part-time position as an instructor at a local business school to hold myself over. I discovered that I enjoyed teaching so much that, even after I found gainful full-time employment, I continued with the teaching job for a few more years. I am heavily involved with my local SQL user group. By giving back to my user group, I can help other people with the same interests. I also wrote a while back about some of my networking activities in which I was able to give back. When you network, you have multiple avenues in which you can pay it forward.

As an old saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. Improvement doesn’t just mean making yourself better. It also means making everyone around you better as well. When you help other people succeed, then we all succeed.

Ranting my frustration about connect requests

This article may seem to go against one of the things that I preach in my ‘blogging presentation, and that is to avoid frustrated rants and “getting it out of your system.” Maybe I should be a little more specific. One should avoid mindless rants in which you angrily spew your passions without any thoughts, and in which you say things that you’ll later regret.

Yes, this article is a rant. However, it is not without thought, and there is a purpose to this post.

As many of my regular followers (both of you) are likely aware, I write and present primarily on professional development topics. I’m not as technically sharp as I once was, but I still contribute to groups such as PASS and SQL Saturday in the form of “soft” topics that are of interest to industry professionals. I’ve started using this analogy during my presentation introductions: “when it comes to my relationship with PASS and SQL Saturday, I’m the professor at MIT who teaches English Lit.”

Among other things — and if you follow my ‘blog and my presentations, you probably already know this — I write a lot about networking. These days, networking is the lifeblood of one’s career path.

However, there is a difference between networking and connecting. Therein lies the heart of my rant. I’ve written before about people who don’t give a crap about actual networking, as well as spam recruiters.

I still get connect requests from these people, and it frustrates me to no end. So with that…

<Rant>
  • If I don’t know who you are, tell me how we’re connected!!! I get a lot of LinkedIn requests from people whom I don’t know from Adam. Some might be people I’ve met from my user group or at a SQL Saturday, but if I’m not friends with you, I didn’t invite you to connect, I don’t interact with you on a semi-regular basis, or we don’t have some kind of common relationship (more on that below), chances are that I’m not going to know or remember who you are. I do NOT connect with random strangers that I don’t know. If you tell me how we’re connected, then I will be happy to connect with you. But if you send me a cold-connect request with no explanation whatsoever — or worse, send me a message where you kiss my ass without explaining how we’re connected (I’ve had that happen before) — then there is about a 98% chance* that I will delete your request. (And if you try to kiss up to me, insult my intelligence, or try to sell me something, that shoots all the way up to 100%.)

    (*If I recognize where you’re from, then there’s a slight chance that I might at least retain the request, not delete it altogether. But if I don’t know you, I still won’t connect until you tell me who you are. Don’t make me have to work to figure out who you are.)
  • I am NOT in a contest to see if I can get the most connections. So you have 3000+ connections. That’s great. But if you ask me for a recommendation, will I know anything about you? Networking is about relationships. If I need a favor (for example, let’s say I lose my job and am looking for a new one), are you willing to help me out? Or are you looking for something for me and are not willing to give anything back? If the answer no to the first question and yes to the latter, then don’t even bother with me.
  • We don’t have to be friends. We just need to have something in common. I don’t expect to be buddies with all my networking connections. Many of these people I will likely not recognize if I bumped into them on the street. Some might even be people with whom I have some kind of conflict. But if we’re both members of the same “family” (e.g. my alma mater, my fraternity, my gym, #SQLFamily, etc.), then I’m more likely to connect with you. If we’re friends, great, but having a networking relationship with acquaintances is okay.

And I have a special rant regarding spam recruiters. I hate spam recruiters passionately. (I once had a bad experience with a spam recruiter — if you really want to hear more about it, I talk about it in the link.) They give legitimate recruiters a bad name. All of the above bullet points about connecting apply, along with these points.

  • I will NOT relocate. If you try to sell me a position that requires me to move, consider your message deleted immediately. I have a home and a life. I have roots where I am, and I will NOT pull them up unless I desperately have to do so. I will NOT even look at any message that tells me about a job in someplace I’ve never heard of or located hundreds of miles from where I live. Every time I see a message like that in my inbox, it goes straight into the trash. I won’t even bother reading what it says.
  • Don’t even bother contacting me about sales or help desk call positions. Although I’m open-minded enough that I’d look into nearly any job depending on the circumstances, there are some positions in which I have absolutely zero interest. I have no interest at all in any type of sales associate or help desk call* position, and I state that very clearly in my LinkedIn overview. (There are a number of other positions as well, but those are the ones about which I get the most emails.) I don’t even know what on my resume says that I have any kind of interest in either position.

    (*I might consider a position that involves managing or supporting a help desk, but again, it depends on the circumstances.)
  • No growth? No dice. I’m always looking to grow. That doesn’t necessarily mean climbing the ladder (although it could mean that). It means improving myself, learning new skills, and possibly even furthering my education. If you don’t offer that, chances are that I won’t budge.

Having gotten that out of my system, I do have some points for legitimate recruiters (some of whom are my friends).

  • I am not actively looking for a position (at least not as of this article), but I do look passively. If something that looks interesting drops in my lap, I’d be stupid to at least not look into it. And if it’s something that works for me — whether it’s an increase in salary or an upward move — then who knows?
  • No, I won’t relocate, but… I do enjoy traveling, so I give bonus points for a position in which I get to do some traveling. Also, I would consider a position where I can work from home full-time, even if the prospective employer is located hundreds of miles away.
</Rant>

Okay. That’s out of my system. I feel better now.