#PASSSummit2020 part 3: My second full day #PASSSummit #PASSVirtualSummit

As I write this, I have the Day 2 Keynote about SQL Ecosystem and Innovation on in the background, but I’m not paying a lot of attention to it. There’s a lot of technical information that goes beyond my scope of knowledge and interest. And that’s okay. I might not be paying a lot of attention, but I have no doubt that there are others who are hanging on to every word.

I slept late this morning (which, unfortunately, with my current state of unemployment, is a bad habit I’ve fallen into, and is one I need to address). Unfortunately, I missed some sessions because of it (indicated by the activity on my Twitter feed). The good thing about PASS Virtual Summit is that many of these sessions are recorded, and I’ll be able to access any sessions that interest me but am unable to attend. (Even when I am present for sessions, a number of interesting sessions often run concurrently, so this phenomena is not uncommon.)

I sat in on a panel discussion this morning about building your brand. I figured it would be a good one for me, with trying to do things with my LLC while looking for new employment. It was more a Q&A session than a presentation, but there were many good questions asked, the panelists had some good answers, and I ended up getting a lot out of it.

As I mentioned yesterday, I moderated the Introverts Birds Of a Feather session. There were a few people on the session, and we had some really good discussion.

I think one thing that is worth emphasizing is that one of the biggest reasons why I attend events such as PASS Summit and SQL Saturday is the networking. Professional networking is important for building relationships with colleagues (for those of you who are not regular readers, I even have an entire presentation I do about professional networking, and I’ve written literally hundreds of ‘blog articles about networking.) However, I’ve also made lots of friends through my involvement with PASS, and these events represent opportunities for #SQLFamily to get together. I miss these people dearly, and I relish any opportunity I can get to get together with these people.

For the second year in a row, I will be monitoring the Storytelling & Visualization Birds Of A Feather table!

PASS Virtual Summit offers plenty of opportunities to network virtually. Tonight at 6:00 pm (EST), I will be monitoring another Birds of a Feather networking room; this time, it will be the Storytelling & Visualization room. (Note: this is the same table I monitored at last year’s PASS Summit!) If you’re around and online, feel free to stop by and chat me up!

There are some other sessions this afternoon that interest me, including some lightning talks that I might try to attend (hi, Steve Jones!). And of course, tomorrow (the last day of PASS Summit), it will be my turn to present!

See you around Summit!

Bad web forms — how to drive people away from your site

I’ve come across my share of bad design, and I’m sure you have as well. I’ve especially come across some egregious examples as a job applicant.

I came across one that particularly set me off. While poking around Indeed, I found a technical writer position for GitLab that interested me. Of course, most people who work in IT are familiar with GitLab, so they have a reputation. I read through the description, and it sounded interesting, so I clicked the button to “apply on company site.”

The subsequent link took me to this page.

The page talks about the technical writer roles and responsibilities. It talks about the hiring process, it includes a salary calculator, and it even talks about benefits, including stock options.

Nowhere on the page was there any link to actually apply for the position!!!

If you don’t believe me, check out the link and see for yourself. No wonder why they need technical writers. I understand and appreciate GitHub’s reputation in the IT community, but this page is seriously making me question whether or not I really want to work for them.

GitHub is far from being the only offender. I came across another page that, even after they asked me to upload my resume, it still asked me to manually input my work experience. (Even worse, these were required fields; there was no way around this. What if you’re a student with no work experience?) After I hit Submit, it came back and told me there were errors. It had cleared out all the dates I’d entered (I had entered months and years), and it insisted that I entered days. Seriously, raise your hand if you actually remember what day you started or ended a job from years ago. I have enough trouble just remembering the month or year. It made me question how well their automated formatting really worked (if it worked at all). Once I filled those in (with the best guesses for days), it told me there was another error. I clicked the message, expecting it to show me where the error was. Nope. It just told me there was an error. I had to search the entire page to figure out what it was complaining about.

I’ve come across too many forms like this during my job hunt. I also remember coming across some very badly designed forms years ago from previous job hunts — some that were so badly designed that they discouraged me from applying for the jobs.

I’ve talked about making documentation easier for the end user, and this is far from the only article I’ve written about how bad design is a detriment to anyone who needs to follow instructions. UX/UI needs to be as painless as possible for the end user. If you’re a vendor, bad design can drive away customers. If you’re an employer, you run the risk of discouraging qualified applicants.

Like good documentation, good form design needs to be well-thought-out and well-designed. Don’t be the organization that lost customers because your forms were too arduous to use.

Social media: should I stay or should I go?

I don’t think I have to mention just how prevalent social media is these days. If you’re reading this ‘blog, most likely you’re engaged in some form of social media. Terms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are a regular part of daily life these days. It’s gotten to the point that these terms have become verbs (e.g. “Facebook it”). Even I’ll tell people that “the best way to get a hold of me is on Facebook,” and I’m the first to admit that I generally can’t go a day without checking my Facebook app on my phone.

In these times of divisiveness, security concerns, and ‘bots, I’ve also seen a number of friends say, “I’m closing my Facebook account” or “I’m shutting down my LinkedIn.” I’m often saddened by these, because one of my main reasons for maintaining Facebook (which I’ll expand upon in a moment) is to easily keep in touch with friends and family. Any time a friend says that (s)he is shutting down his or her account is a contact that I lose. It doesn’t mean that (s)he is no longer a friend; it just means that it’s a little more difficult to keep in touch with that person.

However, a lot of people are (understandably) turned off by the negativity and political discourse that are pervasive on social media. People have written articles about how much better their lives have become after shutting down social media. I completely understand how people are disillusioned by what they see on social media.

So I get it when people ask this question about social media: should I stay or should I go?

I’ll give the standard DBA answer*: “it depends.”

(*For those who don’t understand the reference, the widespread joke among data professionals and IT people is “it depends” is the standard response when they are asked just about any question.)

Not satisfied with that answer? Let me expand on it.

I don’t think I need to get into why people want to leave social media; there are too many obvious examples of that out in the wild (and maybe a few not-so-obvious examples, such as data security and privacy, and the “need” — a very stupid reason, in my opinion — to maintain social status). People are getting stressed out over these issues. I certainly understand why people want to leave social media, and I won’t decry them for it. So instead, I’ll talk about some reasons why you might want to stay.

Like just about anything else, social media is a tool, a piece of software developed for a purpose. Mostly, that purpose is communication. People have been talking about the shrinking world for years. Social media contributes to the world shrinking even further.

I mentioned earlier that I maintain my Facebook account so that I can easily stay in touch with friends and family. It is the primary reason why I first joined Facebook, and it is why, even despite all the issues that come with it, I maintain my account today. Humans are social animals, and more often than not, humans need to maintain social contact with one another, especially so these days with the COVID-19 pandemic. I enjoy talking to people and keeping in touch with friends, so for me, personally, these reasons outweigh all the problems and tribulations that come with Facebook, and maintaining my account is worthwhile.

Some people seem to think they have to maintain some level of status on social media, like trying to compete in some type of popularity contest. Personally, I think this is one of the biggest bullshit reasons to be on social media. I could not care less about how popular I am. I’ll post about personal news that’s happening in my life, something on my mind that I want to get off my chest, ask a question about an issue I can’t seem to solve on my own, or occasionally express an opinion (although I do try to avoid anything having to do with politics; personally, I despise politics passionately). If you’re on social media to maintain social standing, I think you’re on it for the wrong reason. (Trying to sell yourself is a different matter; I’ll get into that shortly.) If I don’t care about my social standing (and I don’t), then I don’t have to concern myself with maintaining it on social media.

That is why I want to be on social media. However, I also think there are reasons why you should be on social media.

Love it or hate it, social media is prevalent in our society today, and I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon. Because so many people use social media, it’s probably the single largest and most effective communication device in the world.

I think you have to be on social media if you’re at all serious about any of the following: marketing, networking, sales, job hunting, problem solving, news and information (not the fake kind, but I digress), running a business, customer service, recruiting, and maybe a lot of other things I haven’t thought about — essentially, anything that involves communication on a large scale. Most business sites that sell products or services include links to “like us on (insert your favorite social medium here).” Many job applications include a form field for your LinkedIn profile, a sign that they take it seriously. Organizations such as PASS make extensive use of media such as Twitter to communicate with their members. I’ve also written before about online networking; I won’t rehash that here.

One of the big complaints I often hear is that people are sick of being bombarded with ads and politics. Facebook (and other media, I’m sure) does include tools to suppress things you don’t want to see; for example, there are tools to “hide” or “block all from (name of account).” There are a number of such tools available. I won’t get into them right now, but I will say that using them has made my online experience much more palatable.

So should you maintain a social media presence or not? These are the reasons why, despite their issues, I continue to do so. Social media are communication tools. How — and whether you decide — to use them is completely up to you.

My company logo on a shirt

I was poking around VistaPrint‘s website the other day (this is the site I use to make my business cards). Of course, with any business that sells promotional items, I was greeted with the proverbial “try your logo on this product” popup window.

One of the items that came up was shirt designs. I decided to have some fun with it, and came up with the design that you see above.

I thought it came out pretty well! I decided to order two shirts, one for my wife and one for myself. I plan to wear it whenever I go to the gym and whenever I attend networking events, or events where I’m presenting, such as SQL Saturday.

If you like this shirt, you can order one, too; just click this link! I’m not getting any money for shirt sales. My payment is you walking around advertising my business!

Alas, I don’t yet have a large marketing budget where I can buy a hundred shirts and give them out for free. Hopefully I’ll get to that point, but I’m not quite there yet.

Selling your business on LinkedIn

Yesterday, I got into a conversation with a friend of mine who told me that he disagreed with me about my LinkedIn networking practices. He, like me, has his own business. He told me why he disagreed with me, and what he told me was very intriguing.

I’ve been using LinkedIn primarily as a networking tool, and I continue to use it as such. That said, LinkedIn can be used for a number of purposes, including one that hadn’t occurred to me — and that reason was why my friend disagreed with me.

“As a small business,” he said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I don’t have a lot of money to spend on things like marketing and advertising. I read what you wrote about not connecting with someone because she was into sales and you’re not. The thing is, when you own a business, by default, you’re a sales person. It’s great that you’re networking on LinkedIn, but how much are you going to sell to your existing network? You shouldn’t just be connecting with people you already know. What you should be doing is selling your business to people you don’t know. LinkedIn is, essentially, a free advertising tool.”

He definitely has a point. When I was working for an employer, I used LinkedIn primarily as a networking tool, but that narrative changed when I became a business owner. Before, I was looking to maintain contacts as a source of “hive mind” knowledge, public speaking opportunities, and potential job leads in the event that I lost my job (which, I did). Now that I own my own business, I also need to generate leads for my business. LinkedIn can help me do that.

So to my friend, if you’re reading this (which he probably is — he did say that he reads my ‘blog), thank you for that insight. I’ve long said that networking is about building relationships, which it still is. Those relationships also extend to selling your business as well.

Networking your business

As I come up on two months of my LLC being in business, I’m learning a lot of things as I go along. A lot of it is the boring administrative stuff that comes with running your own business. But another thing I’m finding out is how critical it is to network when running your own business.

As of today, I currently have two clients, and I’m hoping to pick up some more. What’s important is how I got those clients. I got them both by networking. One was a friend with whom I worked at a previous job, while the other was introduced to me through a mutual friend. To me, this drives home the point of just how critical networking can be if you’re running your own business.

I started looking into business networking resources, and came across this article. Of course, the article lists groups such as BNI (which, I understand, is a very good group; however, I’m not sure if I’m ready to pay the steep membership fee just yet. Maybe at some point down the road, when I’m better established). It also lists groups that didn’t occur to me, such as the local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and Kiwanis. I also found a link for local Meetup groups (this link lists groups local to me here in the Albany, NY area; you might want to check similar groups for where you’re located). I am going to make it a point to look into these resources and see if I can tap into them.

I also spoke to a friend who also has his own consulting business about possibly establishing some kind of relationship that would be mutually beneficial to both of our businesses. While neither of us had work for the other, we agreed that some kind of business relationship could be beneficial for both of us. We might look into something later down the line.

Of course, there are the other resources that I’ve been preaching all along, such as user groups and conferences.

I’ve written before about how important networking is for an individual’s career. I’m also discovering that networking is important for business as well. It might very well be key for keeping your business afloat.

The power of a single, simple presentation — oh, the places you can go!

This morning, my Facebook memories feed told me that I did a presentation at my local user group five years ago today (this isn’t the first time I’ve written about this). I did a presentation about how to speak the language of technology to those who don’t understand it.

Little did I know at the time that that simple little presentation would end up taking me places.

I had applied to speak at our local SQL Saturday using that presentation, and I wanted to use our user group meeting as a trial run. That evening, I learned a few things about myself.

  • I enjoyed public speaking and presenting.
  • I was good at it (or so I was told).
  • I have a passion for teaching. This was not news to me, but my experience reinforced that passion.

Not only was that presentation accepted for our local SQL Saturday, I have since given that presentation eleven times — including at PASS Summit, and most recently, at a SQL Saturday this past February, just before the COVID-19 crisis hit.

Since I did my presentation at my local user group five years ago, I’ve spoken at a total of twenty-three (and counting) SQL Saturdays, seven in-person user group meetings (including one that was not local), three online virtual user group presentations, a podcast, and PASS Summit. I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel and to make friends because of my experiences!

And those are just my speaking engagements. I’ve also had some other things that have happened, indirectly, because of that presentation.

  • I started a ‘blog about professional development topics (this very ‘blog that you’re reading right now).
  • I’ve gotten a better sense of my own professional skill sets and gained more confidence in them.
  • I’ve started my own business, something that I previously never thought I would ever do.
  • Even though I lost my job, I have much more confidence in my own abilities and career prospects.
  • My professional network has become much stronger.

I credit all of this to that one, simple presentation that I gave at a user group meeting five years ago today.

So consider joining a user group and doing a presentation. You never know where it could lead.

Building my company — what I’ve learned (so far)

My new LLC is now just a little over a month old, but in this short time, things have started moving! I had already been working with one client; this particular client was what prompted me to start my LLC in the first place. This morning, I reached a verbal agreement with a second client! While I’ll stop short of saying that my job hunt is over — I haven’t yet declared it as such — this particular client has enough work for me to keep me busy for a while. It might be enough to sustain me so that I can keep food on my table and a roof over my head (and maybe even more). There might be something to this self-employment thing after all!

That said, this is all still new territory for me. When it comes to owning and running my own business, I’m still getting my feet wet. I’m still tinkering with my website. I spent some time on the phone today with my bank where I’m still trying to establish my business account. There were some issues with my application, but they appear to be resolved, and my new account should be active within a few days. I also created a new Facebook page for my business; you can check it out here! (This article, by the way, will be the first ‘blog post to appear on my new page!) I also finalized newspaper publications for my LLC; it turns out that New York — my home state — is one of three states that requires an LLC to post a legal notice in its home newspapers. The law says that I need to place the notice in two papers — one daily and one weekly — that service my home county. They need to appear for six weeks — after which I need to file another piece of paperwork called a Certificate of Publication.

Let me go back to the bank account and mention one of my issues for a moment. I had been told that, if I’m a single-person LLC with no other employees, I can use my own social security number for tax purposes, which is true. However, the bank still requires an Employer Identification Number (EIN). The bank was kind enough to supply me with a link where I could easily apply for and obtain an EIN in a few minutes.

Several weeks ago, if you’d told me that I was going to start my own business, I would have laughed at you. At the time, I said that I didn’t know the first thing about starting my own business. Yet here I am, doing it! I’ve said before that getting ahead means stepping out out of your comfort zone. I still have a lot to learn, but in the past month, I’ve learned quite a bit. While I’m not yet ready to declare my job hunt over, I’m seeing enough happen with my new business to think that I might be able to make this work!

Stay tuned!

Going into business for myself, part 2

Earlier, I wrote about the possibility of going into business for myself. That idea is gaining traction.

This is uncharted territory for me. I’ve thought about being self-employed before, but I lacked the knowledge, motivation, and focus about how to approach it, not to mention that the timing just didn’t feel right. Well, now that I’ve reached a possible crossroad in my professional career, the moment now feels right to attack this.

I will mention that there is a precedent within my own family for this. My parents — who are both now retired — owned their own businesses, as do my siblings. I guess it runs in the family, and now it’s my turn!

Last night, I had a meeting with a friend who’s in the business of consulting small businesses. Her website is here, if you want to check it out; I’m listing it here both (1) for my own reference, and (2) to send referrals her way. Drop Lisa a line, and tell her I sent you!

Per her advice, she told me to hire a CPA. It just so happens that I have a friend who’s a CPA. I have a phone appointment with him later this morning.

I spent yesterday afternoon writing up a business plan. I looked into articles about writing business plans, and came across this. I used this (note: link downloads a Word document) as an example to formulate my own. After running my plan past Lisa and asking for her feedback, she gave me suggestions for improving it. I’m still tweaking it as of this morning.

One question that I had: as an individual business owner, how much can I pay myself from my business? I Googled the question, and as it turns out, the question is not as uncommon as I think.

I’ve started working on a website for my business. It’s currently a work-in-progress; I’ll reveal it once it’s closer to completion.

I even have my first client already lined up! I told my friend (and client-to-be) what I was doing, and he had some advice (he, himself, is also a small business owner) and words of encouragement for me.

I will say that, even though I’m looking into doing this, it’s entirely possible that my endeavor might not be enough to pay my bills (at least not at first). So as I’m pursuing this course, I’m still hunting for new employment.

So, the ball is rolling on my endeavor. If the pieces fall in the right places, it’s entirely possible that my new employer will be… myself!

Coming up with ‘blog article ideas

Ever come up with a great topic about which to write an article? Do you have something on your mind that you want to get out of your system? Did you just learn something new and profound? Or is there some topic about which you don’t know but are trying to learn? Did you pick up some useful tidbit that you want to set aside for later use? Did you come across something you want to share?

I could keep going with this, but I’d rather not write a rambling paragraph that will eventually bore you; besides, I think you have the idea. I’d guess that one of the most common questions when trying to write a ‘blog is, “what do I write about?”

For me, personally, a lot of my ideas just pop into my head (including for this very article that you’re reading right now). If I think the idea is profound enough that it might help other people, I’ll start writing about it. Other times, I’ll come up with some idea, jot it down in a post, and save it for later. I have 100+ such draft articles; whether or not they ever see the light of day remains to be seen.

There are a number of things to consider when coming up with draft article ideas (and I dedicate several slides to this very topic in my ‘blogging presentation). If you’re trying to come up with things to write about, here are some thoughts that might help get you going.

  • What’s on my mind? It might sound obvious, but a lot of my ‘blog article ideas come from random thoughts that just happen to pop into my head. They’ll come from random sources — something I’m working on, something I’m watching, reading, or listening to, a question that someone asks, and so on. Every now and then, they’re thoughts that I think might help someone out. That can make great article fodder, so make sure you at least make a note of it. It happens more often that you might think; I’ve surprised myself at the number of ‘blog articles I’ve written that started as just random thoughts in my head.
  • I know something you don’t know — and I’m willing to share! Chris Bell, one of my friends on the SQL Saturday speakers circuit, once told me something profound, and it’s something I haven’t forgotten. He said, “an expert is someone who knows something that you don’t.”

    I’ve been a working professional for a long time now (I won’t say how long!), and I’ve learned a lot in my experience. I think I have some knowledge in at least a few subjects, and what I think can potentially help other people. Helping other people is one of my great passions, and if something that I know helps someone else, then I’ve accomplished something.
  • I just learned something new! Some people seem to have a misconception that you need to be an expert at something to write a ‘blog. Wrong! If you’re learning something new, keeping an online journal about what you learn is one of the best reasons to maintain a ‘blog! You’ll be able to see for yourself just how much you learn. Additionally, if you’re actively seeking new employment, it shows potential employers that you’re learning something, and that you have the ability to learn. Not only that, it shows off your expertise in terms of what you’ve learned. That’s something that hiring managers like to see!
  • I don’t want to forget this. Let me write it down. One of those people you could help is yourself. Matt Cushing tells a story in his networking presentation about the time he was trying to solve a problem, and he found the answer to it… in his own ‘blog! He had written an article about the very thing he was trying to solve, and found the answer in his article that he had forgotten about!

    As Matt says in his presentation, “a ‘blog can serve as your own personal Google.” A ‘blog can serve as scratch notes to yourself, and it might even help others in the process.
  • Bring people in. Don’t drive them away. You want people to read your ‘blog, don’t you? Like anyone else, I have thoughts and opinions about a lot of things, but I won’t ‘blog about a lot of them. I generally avoid any topic that’s divisive. You will almost never, if ever, see me discuss politics or religion on my ‘blog (I despise talking about politics, anyway). If I want to talk about religion, I’ll go to church. If I want to learn about politics, I’ll read The New York Times. Unless your ‘blog is specifically about those hot-button topics, they are more likely to drive people away than bring them in. I will not touch them on my ‘blog.
  • Avoid posting anything that is overly-sensitive or qualifies as “TMI,” unless it’s relevant to your topic. People generally don’t want to hear about your last trip to your gastroenterologist. Stuff like that isn’t typically what ‘bloggers write about. However, if some anecdote comes out of it — “my appointment taught me a lesson that applies to my professional life,” for example — maybe then, it’d be appropriate to write about it. However, be careful about it — make sure that what you write is appropriate for your audience. Nobody wants to read the details of your last trip to the bathroom while you had the bad case of diarrhea.
  • It’s okay to go off-topic once in a while. At the time of this article, Steve Jones of SSC is taking a sabbatical from his job (a nice little perk that he has available to him). During his time away from work, he has been ‘blogging about his daily exploits, which include skiing, learning to play guitar, and working around his ranch. I’ve been enjoying his posts, and I even told him that I was living vicariously through his posts.

    I’ll occasionally post an article that has nothing to do with my job, technical communication, or professional development. I’ll sometimes write about my extracurricular activities — my music endeavors (I play four different instruments), my workouts (I am an active Crossfitter), and so on. If you maintain a ‘blog about professional topics, it’s okay to post something off-topic now and then. It shows you have other interests, and it shows that you have a life outside of work. It shows that you’re human.

There are numerous other ways to generate ideas for ‘blog fodder. Feel free to comment below with your favorites. Hopefully, these thoughts are enough to help you get your own ‘blog going.