Clothes make the network

Yesterday was an ordinary Monday. I got up, showered, and got dressed. I picked out a golf shirt with a Microsoft logo on it. The shirt read, “Microsoft Application Developer.” It reflected a certification credential that I held that was long since obsolete. (I got my MCAD certification back when .NET was version 1.1.) Maybe some hardcore developers might not like that I wear the shirt, since it’s an older credential, and I don’t do a lot of application development work these days, but nevertheless, I still like the shirt.

Per my morning routine, I stopped at Cumberland Farms to get myself coffee and something for breakfast. The fellow behind the counter — whom I see regularly — saw my shirt and commented on it. He told me that he had a degree in IT security and was looking for opportunities. I gave him my business card and told him, drop me a line. Sure enough, he sent me an email last night. I responded back, telling him to check out our user group meeting on Monday evening and our upcoming SQL Saturday next month. I was happy to see that he RSVPed to our user group meeting. And I hope that he registers for SQL Saturday.

And this happened because I happened to wear my Microsoft shirt yesterday.

This wasn’t the first time that what I was wearing started a conversation, and it won’t be the last. I mention in my networking presentation that your own clothing can often be a conversation piece. I’ve gotten into countless conversations about databases, sports, my fraternity, my alma mater, CrossFit, music, and TV shows — all because of what I was wearing.

And in case you’re thinking that it was just because of polo shirts, T-shirts, and baseball caps, I’ve gotten into conversations because of my tie or lapel pin.

So if you’re looking to connect with people, consider what you wear. It might just be enough to break the ice.

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Monthly CASSUG meeting — June 2019

Greetings, data enthusiasts!

This is a reminder that our June CASSUG meeting will take place on Monday, June 10, 5:30 pm, in the Datto (formerly Autotask) cafeteria!

Our guest speaker is Susan Lundberg!  Her talk is titled: “Why should networking be important to you?”

For more information, and to RSVP, go to our Meetup link at http://meetu.ps/e/GBPlt/7fcp0/f

Thanks to our sponsors, Datto/Autotask, Capital Tech Search, and CommerceHub for making this event possible!

A tale of two LinkedIn requests

Over the weekend (specifically, while I was at SQL Saturday Philadelphia), I received two different LinkedIn connect requests. The two requests were polar opposites, and I thought they were worthwhile writing about in this article.

As a technical professional, I often receive “cold-call” connect requests or emails. I am very wary and picky about with whom I connect; indeed, I’ve written before about spam recruiters. The problem has become so pervasive that I included this note at the top of my LinkedIn profile summary: “If you want to connect with me, please indicate how we’re connected; otherwise, I will ignore or delete your request. I do NOT accept unsolicited connect requests from people I don’t know.”

In my networking presentation, I include a section on “how to break the ice” — that is, how to initiate a networking contact with someone you don’t know. The two requests I received were perfect case studies as to what to do — and what NOT to do.

I’ll start with the one that describes what not to do. I received a “cold-call” connect request from someone who sent me the following note. Keep in mind that I do not know this person.

“I’m always looking to build my network with great people and would be delighted to have you in my network. I hope you’ll consider connecting!”

(name withheld)

If you’ve attended my presentation, or if you’ve downloaded or perused my PowerPoint slides, you’ll know that I include a section of what not to do. This person’s email checked off one of the boxes in that category: brown-nosing/sucking up/kissing up. The message was canned, impersonal, and insincere. Not only that, but she gave absolutely no indication as to how we’re connected or if we have any kind of (business) relationship. She gave me absolutely no reason for me to connect with her. “Wanting to build my network with great people” is NOT a reason for me to connect with you!!! Not only did she not give me a reason to connect, the tone of her message insulted my intelligence. This message is a perfect example of how NOT to establish a networking contact.

(And in case you’re wondering, I deleted this person’s request immediately.)

On the other side of the coin, I received this message from someone who attended my SQL Saturday presentation this past weekend. Again, I did not know this person. However…

“I really enjoyed your presentation on technical writing at SQL Saturday today! The tie challenge was a really interesting way to get the point across. I’d like to stay in touch and maybe pick your brain about tech writing again at some point in the future.”

(name also withheld)

(Note: the “tie challenge” refers to a demo in my presentation. If you haven’t seen my presentation, I’m not telling you what it is. You’ll have to attend to find out! 🙂 )

To the person who wrote this email (if you’re reading this): nice job! The message was sincere, complimentary (“I enjoyed the presentation”), referred to specific things (so I knew she attended my presentation; therefore, we have a connection of some type), and asked to potentially continue a conversation (“maybe pick your brain”). This is a perfect example as to how to initiate contact and break the ice. I was happy to connect with this person, and I did.

(P.S. I might use your message as an example the next time I give my networking presentation!)

If you want to establish a networking contact, you need to be sincere and give the person a reason to connect. Make the person feel valued. This applies to any networking situation, regardless of whether it’s face-to-face or online. Following this guideline will ensure that your networking efforts are much more successful.

I network. What’s your superpower?

I had some things happen just within the past week that reminded me about the power of networking, and just how well-connected I actually am.

At my CrossFit gym last week, one member of the racquetball club (which occupies the same building as the CrossFit gym) and whom I knew from a previous job, told me he might be looking to move on. I told him to connect with me over LinkedIn, which he did.

The other day, another friend from another former job also told me he was looking, and was wondering if I knew anyone whom he could contact about opportunities. I told him to email me his resume, along with an email and phone number where he wouldn’t mind being contacted by recruiters, and a quick description of the position he was seeking. I took his information and submitted a referral to several recruiters I know, most of whom said they would reach out to him.

And last night, I was contacted by my fraternity chapter, telling me that one of their recent graduates was looking into a technology career, and was wondering if I had any insights. We connected and chatted via email, and I told him to connect with me on both LinkedIn and Facebook. Additionally, about a month ago, I signed up for a mentoring program, also organized by my fraternity, and I was assigned a pledge (I believe the politically-correct term they’re using these days is “membership candidate” — sorry, I’m old school) as my mentee. A little while ago as I was writing this, I made arrangements to meet with both of them tomorrow afternoon, so I’ll be taking a quick day trip out to Syracuse tomorrow. (As an added bonus, tomorrow is Syracuse’s Spring Game, which gives me another reason to make the trip.)

(I have a number of other experiences involving mentoring and paying it forward that I’ve been meaning to write up in a yet-to-be-written ‘blog article, but I haven’t yet gotten around to it. Stay tuned.)

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s four different people connected to me through three different ways (well, four if you count that one of those contacts is connected through both my gym and a former job). That represents just a small fraction of my network. My network extends a lot further than that (last I checked, I had more than five hundred LinkedIn connections), which enables me to connect these people with many more.

Networking is a powerful tool when it comes to advancing your career. Whether you’re looking to make a move, learn something new, or improve your standing, you need to actively network. You never know where it might lead.

Jobs That Beat The Caring Out Of You

“The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Unknown

Before I get into this article, let me say that this appears to be a thread going around today (on April Fool’s Day, no less). I decided to add to the chorus.

But before I do, here are the other articles (all with the same title) that inspired me to write this. I especially list Jen first, since she appears to be the one who started this thread.

Feel free to read their stories. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Okay, now I’ll add on with my own story. This involves the company where I worked before I latched on with my current one. For reasons that I think are obvious, I will not name the company (I’ll simply refer to it as “The Company” — and I think capitalizing even that is giving it too much credit), nor will I describe who they are or what they do, other than that they’re a software company. I will leave it at that. Those of you who know me well will likely know the organization to which I refer. Everyone else… well, you’ll just have to play along.

So here’s the scoop. Essentially, I was fired from The Company.

I suppose a little background story is in order.

I’ll start at the beginning. I was hired at The Company as an application developer. I was hired because I have experience with classic ASP — an old technology that isn’t widely used anymore. It seemed like a good place, and I was looking forward to getting started with The Company. Indeed, the people were friendly, and I am still friends with many of them to this day.

Nevertheless, there were warning signs from Day One, and I didn’t pay heed. Only now through hindsight do I recognize those signs.

The first sign: my very first day on the job, I was poking around the application. My very first question: “where is the documentation for this?”

And people looked at me as though I had two heads.

There was absolutely no code documentation anywhere. It simply did not exist. It barely even existed as code comments, and even those were rare. I was expected to understand how the code worked just by looking at it and remembering how it all worked as I went through it — without writing anything down. I’ll say it again for emphasis: I was expected to be able to do this.

That should have been a major red flag there. But there’s more.

There appeared to be a lot of employee turnover at The Company. People seemed to come and go on a regular basis. As I would tell people years later, “this place didn’t just have high turnover, they had a revolving door.” This was another major red flag.

It seemed like a fun place to work. Once a year, they closed the office for a day for a company picnic. It included a golf outing, food and games. Every year around the holidays, they would have a holiday party where they would give out large prizes (including cash bonuses and TVs), and The Company even sprung for a hotel for the night. They would do it again in late winter or early spring, and refer to it as a “blow off steam” party. They regularly had a massage therapist come to the office once in a while to give free massages. I even remember one day where The Company achieved a major success (it was either a successful release or gained a major client — I don’t remember which), and to celebrate, they had girls walking up and down the aisles with trays of hors d’oeuvres. I didn’t even need to eat lunch that day. Indeed, it seemed like a party atmosphere, and they made it out to be a fun workplace.

(I’m guessing that, at this point, those of you who know me know who “The Company” is.)

However, looks can be deceiving. And a “fun party” workplace doesn’t do much for one’s career.

To say that I struggled as a developer is an understatement. I couldn’t grasp a lot of what The Company was doing in their applications. I did my best to keep up, but the lack of documentation was a major stumbling block. I started to doubt my own coding skills — and a lot of that doubt still continues to this day. It’s one of the major reasons why I’ve been moving away from my technical skill sets. I do enjoy writing code, but that experience made me question whether or not I was really cut out to be a developer. At one point in my career, I was hoping to do more as a developer, but my harrowing experience with The Company has since dashed those aspirations.

Let me go back to the part about lack of documentation. I made it clear to management that I had a Master’s degree in technical communication and professional experience as a technical writer. I let them know that I was willing to take on documentation duties, and offered my services as such. They had a company Wiki that was underused, and only a few people had access to it. I asked for, and got, access, and documented what I could, which wasn’t much.

There were clients asking for a system administration guide. I saw what they were sending out. My opinion of the document — the only good place where it could’ve been used was the bathroom. The document was absolutely horrific. It had absolutely no structure whatsoever, and it was impossible to read. It basically looked like a bunch of scratch notes just thrown together into a Word doc that was given to clients — which was pretty much what it was. The excuse I got was, “these people are techies just like us. They don’t need formal or good documentation.”

I offered to rewrite the system admin guide, and I did what I could. I threw out the old guide and rewrote the entire thing. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an infinite improvement over what they had before.

The Company insisted on an addendum to the system admin guide. They insisted on sending out a document — which they insisted on writing in Excel (!!!!!!!!) — out to clients. They sent it out without review, and likewise, it was horribly written.

The Company wasn’t just disinterested in documentation. They were openly hostile to it.

The Company had absolutely no interest in developing their employees. The prevailing attitude was, you don’t need to develop your skills. You’re going to do what we need, you’re going to do it our way, and you’re going to do it well.

Now, I’ve practically made an entire career out of adjusting to my environment. When I realized that I wasn’t going to make the grade there as a developer, I offered my skill sets in other areas, especially in communication. I offered to write full-time. Eventually, they moved me to an area where I was responsible for client software releases. They were showing me that they had no interest in me and my development. They didn’t care about what I wanted. They just wanted something from me — something I could’ve offered, had I been in a decent, nurturing working environment — which this was definitely not.

I was called to HR and told that I was on probation. I had (I think it was) sixty days to shape up. So I worked harder. I worked on improving the quality of my work. I picked up the pace.

I should note that two things happened around this time.

First, I updated and actively (and discreetly) pushed my resume. I had gotten to the point that I was absolutely miserable working there, and wanted to leave as soon as I could. I wanted it to be on my terms, not The Company’s.

Second, I wrote this article. I could see the handwriting on the wall.

Several weeks later, I was called into HR again. I was told I was being let go. They noted the effort I was putting in, but said I was not improving my skill sets they way they wanted.

Not once during my probation period was I told that that was what they wanted me to improve. Not once.

I was cordial during my interview with HR. I asked questions like, “well, how will such-and-such be handled after I leave?” That was the face I gave them. In the back of my head, I was silently saying things to them that I cannot repeat in this article.

There is actually some more details to my story, but I don’t want to discuss them. By now, I think you have the gist.

I told myself then and there that I would never recommend The Company to anyone ever. I didn’t burn bridges with them; they burned them with me. The Company effectively discouraged me from pursuing positions as a developer. I could’ve been a lot more in my career than I am now, and The Company took that away from me.

I have since spoken with other people who experienced The Company, and every one, to a person, has said similar things. One of them went as far as to say, “I hope The Company goes out of business.”

So I suppose the moral of the story is to beware of bad places to work. If you’re not careful, they could adversely affect your career.

SQL Saturday #855 Albany announced!

The Capital Area SQL Server User Group (CASSUG) is pleased to announce that, for the sixth time, we will host SQL Saturday #855, Albany on July 20!

For additional information, to register for the event, or to submit a presentation, click the link above!

I’ve already submitted presentations, but I will be there, regardless of whether or not I’m picked to speak!

Hope to see you there!

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.