Communication lessons from air disasters

I’ve always had a morbid fascination for air disasters.  (Don’t ask me why; I have no idea.)  I’m fascinated by shows such as Air Disasters, Why Planes Crash,  and Mayday: Air Disasters.  Whenever I hear about a plane going down, I’ll start thinking about what happened, clues, what might have caused it, and so on.  There are times when I think I should have gotten a job with the NTSB.

Greg Moore has some publications in which he talks about lessons learned from aircraft accidents; his book partially discusses these lessons.  He also has an excellent SQL Saturday presentation titled “Who’s Flying The Plane?” which talks about lessons learned from air disasters and how they can apply to IT.  Go check it out if you have a chance; Greg gives a great presentation!

For the purposes of this article, however, I want to concentrate on a particular topic: how communication — or, the lack of — either contributed to or was the root cause of a disaster.

Last night, I watched an episode of Air Disasters that talked about the plane crash that took the life of professional golfer Payne Stewart. The plane went down after the cabin depressurized (the cause of which was never determined), the crew became incapacitated, and the plane ran out of fuel. What made it interesting to me was that bad documentation might have been one of the contributing factors to the accident. After the cabin lost pressure, the crew likely consulted a checklist, as is standard procedure for nearly any cockpit activity or incident. The checklist was poorly written and unclear. What should have been the very first instruction was, “put on your oxygen mask.” It was not. By the time the crew got to that instruction, it was too late; they were overcome by hypoxia.

It reminded me of a tenet that I preach in my documentation presentation: if, in a step-by-step instruction, an instruction cannot be understood within a few seconds, it has failed.

I also remember another Air Disasters episode that focused on Avianca Flight 52.  In January of 1990, the plane, a Boeing 707 carrying 158 people, crashed on approach to Kennedy Airport in New York after running out of fuel, killing 73 people.  There were numerous communication issues during the flight.  Had any one of them been addressed, chances are the disaster never would have occurred.

How often have you been involved in some kind of activity where things were miscommunicated?  How well did those activities go?  I’m guessing that they didn’t go well.  How often have they happened when deadlines were approaching?  What was the mood of your organization?  I’ll guess that it was likely one of high stress and low morale.  And during that time, how smoothly did things go?  Probably not very.  I’ll bet that plenty of mistakes were made.

I’m painting this picture within a business environment.  Imagine what these conditions are like when people’s lives are at stake.

The number of disasters that have occurred from poor communication are countless; entire studies have been dedicated to the subject.  Indeed, numerous solutions and subcategories related to miscommunication have been devised.  The airline industry developed the process of crew resource management.  Extensive research has been done on the phenomenon known as groupthinkEven simple measures such as checklists have been studied and implemented.

The moral of the story: good communication, including documentation, is critical. The consequences of it can have adverse effects. At best, bad communication can disrupt your business. At worst, it can cost lives.

What goes into organizing a #SQLSaturday? From the words of #SQLFamily

As my friends and regular ‘blog readers are likely aware, I am a frequent speaker at SQL Saturday. SQL Saturday has shaped my professional life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I’ve traveled to many events, learned about data topics and professional development, gained public speaking experience, become more prolific with my writing (this very ‘blog you’re reading came about because of SQL Saturday!), and met lots of great people, many of whom have become my friends. #SQLFamily is a real thing!

SQL Saturday is put together by a lot of people, and it starts with an organizer. For this article, I asked some of my friends who have organized SQL Saturday events if they could share their experiences. This article is in an “interview” Q&A format. I came up with a list of fifteen questions, and they were gracious enough to answer! Their responses are below.

Let me introduce my friends who responded. Thank you all for taking part!

1. Everyone has a “first-time” experience with SQL Saturday.  Where and when was your first?

Thomas Grohser: I am originally from Austria in Europe and I did a lot of other PASS formats (mostly SQL Rally and Summit) before my first SQL Saturday in 2013 in New Haven, CT.

Back then I was “just” a speaker, but in 2020 I am one of the co-organizers of this event. I am guessing all is coming full circle.

I don’t know if I ever been at a SQL Saturday before that as an attendee.

Ed Pollack: My first SQL Saturday was Rochester in 2011.  I went to every session I could and had a blast meeting so many new people.

Steve Jones: I may be a bit of an outsider, but my first exposure was talking about the concept and then helping Andy Warren plan SQL Saturday #1 remotely. We talked through the things that he needed to do and then had a retrospective afterward.

Most speakers were local back then, and the first event I attended was SQL Saturday #8 in Orlando as a speaker. I was amazed so many people showed up to listen to us talk about SQL Server on a Saturday.

Andy Levy: My first SQL Saturday was as an attendee at the Rochester event in 2012. It was the second SQL Saturday Rochester had hosted and I had just been clued into the PASS community in the previous couple months. Walking into it, I had no idea what to expect. I just sort of absorbed everything I could in the sessions I attended, not realizing at the time that the real value was in meeting and talking to people.

2. How did you become a SQL Saturday organizer (if it isn’t already answered under Q1)?  When did you realize that you wanted to be involved?

Thomas Grohser: I started out as a speaker, and over time began to help on the actual day of the events before and after my sessions(s). Then I got one of the NYC SQL Server user groups thrown into my lap and the second group kind of stopped doing things so I kind of got stuck with organizing one (and I also kind of liked the challenge).

Ed Pollack: As I traveled to more and more SQL Saturdays, the 3+ hour drive to each began to wear on me.  I wanted a local event that offered tech training and none like this existed anywhere near Albany.  My hope was that proximity to other cities would help draw in both speakers and a crowd.

Steve Jones: I first decided to organize a SQL Saturday as a concept. After talking with many organizers and the PASS staff, I was a bit disconcerted with the one-upsmanship that was taking place and the struggles of many events to raise thousands of dollars. Instead, Carlos Bossy and I decided to run a minimal event. We worked to keep our event under $650, with a cap of about 80 people. It was a success, and I’d like to do it again.

Andy Levy: I didn’t really plan on it. Starting with my second Rochester SQL Saturday (2013), I started getting more and more involved with volunteering. After a few years, I was asked if I wanted to take point on the event, I accepted, and here we are.

3. What is your job title or role, and does your position influence how SQL Saturday is organized?  If so, how?

Thomas Grohser: Infrastructure Architect.

I consult mostly for large corporations on SQL Server infrastructure, security, availability, and deployment automation.

I am lucky that both my employer and my clients see the benefit of the SQL Server community and support my activity. But my day-to-day skills are not a lot of help in organizing a SQL Saturday.

Ed Pollack: I’m a senior DBA, but that has little bearing on organizing a SQL Saturday.  Coordinating a SQL Saturday is about collecting expertise from all other the place and getting them on board with and attending your event.

Steve Jones: Advocate for Redgate Software. I talk to customers and potential customers about the software we build. In terms of a SQL Saturday, I have some flexibility since my company exhibits at some events. In my case, this event wasn’t related to my company, and I met with others and ran the event on my own time.

Andy Levy: My title is Database Administrator, but I don’t think what I do day to day at work significantly influences how the event is organized. I just want to bring quality content for data professionals to Rochester.

4. As those of us familiar with SQL Saturday know, schedules are usually organized along tracks (analytics, DB development, BI, professional development, etc.).  How are those determined when you plan an event?

Thomas Grohser: I first made a list of what I was interested in (I know, selfish, but hey, I might get something out of it) and then looked at about a dozen other recent SQL Saturdays and what categories they selected. The final list was a combination of the both.

Ed Pollack: The tracks are loosely defined based on what attendees ask for and how sessions logically organize themselves.

Steve Jones: In our case, we had a limitation of 3 rooms. We decided to simplify things and we planned out two tracks before we picked speakers. Our goals were a beginner to intermediate growth track and then a more general track, all in the BI area as our event was a BI version of SQL Saturday. We did this partially to support University students and partially to provide a more structured approach to BI for some attendees that might be new to the field.

Andy Levy: The one constant in our track planning the past few years has been Professional Development. The others are more fluid, but we always aim for having a Professional Development available in every schedule block. (Ed. note: as someone who presents mainly professional development topics — woo-hoo!)

5. How do you select speakers?  What do you take into account when deciding who will present?

Thomas Grohser: I selected mostly sessions, not speakers (every speaker got at least one session).

I did three rounds of grading.

Round one: I just looked at the title (no speaker name, no abstract) and graded it  — / – / 0 / + / ++  which translates to NOOO / No / Maybe / Yes / YESSS

Round two: I just looked at the abstract (no speaker, no title) and did the same grading.

Elimination: I removed all sessions that had 3 or more from the list.

Round three: I took all sessions with 4 (+) and put them on the schedule.

From the remaining sessions, I took the highest graded session from each speaker that did not have at least one talk yet.

From the remaining sessions I filled all remaining slots with the sessions having the most (+) and fewest (-).

I keep filling with sessions from that order every time a speaker canceled.

(Ed. note: Thomas told me that this grading system was how I ended up with three sessions at SQL Saturday #912! 🙂 )

Ed Pollack: We select what we believe to be the best sessions, but also need to juggle topics to ensure that there is a wide variety and that there are not five sessions on the same topic.  This is a challenging decision-making process and we often are forced to turn away speakers and sessions because of the need to build a well-balanced schedule.

Steve Jones: We picked topics first and then choose speakers that we thought would do a good job. Our goal was to use mostly local speakers, and we did,  usually choosing those we had seen present. We took a chance on a few speakers, gambling they would do a good job based on some internet research. Jonathan Stewart was one that we didn’t know anything about, but we’d heard good things and liked his topic. He did a fantastic job.

Andy Levy: Selecting sessions is more difficult than selecting speakers. We want to make sure we’re bringing fresh content to our attendees each year, with a good variety. If we can find several sessions with a common thread, a natural progression where each session builds upon the one before it, we’ll often look at those as a single “block” and schedule accordingly.

6. Pre-con sessions — same question as Q5: how are they determined?  What is taken into account?

Thomas Grohser: I was not involved in that part.

Ed Pollack: This is a far more in-depth process as the stakes are much higher.  Precon speakers cannot cancel and there is no wiggle-room on quality.  We accept precon speakers that we know will show up, do an amazing precon, and draw in attendees to SQL Saturday.  Similar to SQL Saturday, we often get multiple precons for the same topic and will be forced to choose one over the other as we cannot run multiple precons that appeal to the same audience.

Steve Jones: None. We decided not to deal with this as it increases complexity and budget.

7. Venues are a major part of planning.  Among other things, location, size, costs, lodging, and availability are factors.  How do you choose your venue, and what do you take into account?

Thomas Grohser: I was in New York. I have only one choice: the MTC (Microsoft Technology Center) in Time Square. Everything else is too expensive. We asked for the first available date after May 1st  and got October 6th.  🙂

Ed Pollack: We chose a big venue.  It costs money, which is a downside, but it provides unlimited space for sessions, sponsors, and event logistics.  Lodging is nearby and it’s very easy to get to UAlbany.

Steve Jones: We wanted to find a free space to keep the cost down. We reached out to contacts at local universities, and ended up partnering with Denver University, in the continuing education department. We started this over six months before our event, having a quarterly meeting over lunch (we provided one, they the other) and discussing how we could work together to better educate people. I know Andy Warren in Orlando does this with his local university, usually meeting with them 2-3 times a year as a social event to maintain a connection.

Andy Levy: We’ve always hosted SQL Saturday Rochester at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). How we landed there in the early years, I honestly don’t know (I wasn’t involved with planning the first two years). But they’ve been a terrific partner and sponsor for the event and without them, I think we’d have a very hard time running the event every year. Being a technology-focused institution of higher learning, and the particular building we’re hosted in being the home of Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, it’s a great setup for SQL Saturday. We use regular classrooms with good projectors, every modern A/V connection you can think of, and excellent internet connectivity.

With Rochester some very large businesses and research facilities in the area in addition to several colleges and universities, every major hotel chain is represented nearby.

8. Organizing a SQL Saturday undoubtedly takes up a lot of time!  How do you balance that with all your other commitments — work, family, extracurriculars, etc.?

Thomas Grohser: You need to do it as a group. We started as four, and three of us made it to the finish line. Each one does the assigned tasks and then you coordinate once a week.

We split it this way:

  • Sponsors / Attendees and PASS
  • Speakers / Schedule / Signs / Rooms
  • Precon / Food

We all did some “marketing”. This setup gave each one of us a reasonable amount of work (< ½ h per day) leading up to the event and full day of action the day before and the actual day.

Ed Pollack: I have recruited a group of amazing volunteers to help with sponsors, marketing, event logistics, and more!  Without them, this would be impossible to plan while maintaining my sanity!

Steve Jones: The smaller the event, the less time and effort. Removing items like the pre-con, shirts, etc. reduced all this effort. We had 4-5 long lunch meetings for planning where we worked out the schedule, discussed details and then kept notes. Across a few weeks, we communicated at night to ensure we were organized, sent emails to speakers and volunteers, and kept working on the event slowly. It helped that we had a minimal event and we were organized people. With two of us running things, that lowers the overhead of effort and communication as well. This wasn’t too hard to fit in around family/hobby/etc. time, but it was an effort. Since then, we haven’t been able to do this again as our schedules have been too busy at different times. I think we would need to be sure that we could dedicate spare time every week for 3 months to run this again. Finding that time has been difficult.

Andy Levy: If I’m being completely honest, I balance them pretty poorly in the final weeks before the event. Obsessing over weather impacting travel plans and attendance, ensuring sponsor packages have arrived, the registration counts, getting resources reserved at the venue, etc. I’ve been known to sit off in a corner at a Cub Scout/Boy Scout meeting working through SQL Saturday administrative stuff.

9. SQL Saturday doesn’t happen without vendor or sponsor support.  How do you go about getting that support?  How do you keep them engaged?

Thomas Grohser: Honestly, all we did is used the PASS-provided website to send out a communication to previous sponsors and they contacted us. The main work was adjusting the sponsorship levels to the needs (some wanted a sponsored session, some not, some wanted to provide material, some not…).

Ed Pollack: Local sponsors are key.  We maintain a set of local sponsors that know us and who have been supporting us for a long time.  These are local companies that see SQL Saturday as a great way to advertise, market, and recruit.  Without them, we would not be able to put on SQL Saturday!

Steve Jones: We avoided this with the PASS Global sponsorship. We received $500 from PASS/Microsoft and then accidentally got $150 because we didn’t close down the sponsorship pages when the event went live. As a result, we didn’t have to worry about vendors.

Finding vendor support is hard, and it can be a time sink for many larger vendors with 100 SQL Saturdays a year. PASS and other organizers can help you with larger vendors, but I always encourage people to work with local companies when they can. Talk to recruiting and consulting companies. Take some time to have lunch or short meetings with them. Reach out to colleges, especially those serving adults, and work with them for sponsorship. This is a personal part of the event and it takes time across time to keep them engaged. We did continue to meet with the college a few times before the event and once afterwards to talk about how things went. Ultimately, they have continued to support the larger Denver SQL Saturday each year.

Andy Levy: Sponsorship is the perennial challenge for smaller SQL Saturdays. We rarely get sponsorship from local companies. We just have not managed to solve the puzzle of how to reach them. So, we’re more dependent upon national-level sponsors, often ones that we have pre-existing relationships with through other channels. When we hear suggestions from sponsors for things that they’d like to see, we give them strong consideration.

10. Let’s talk about volunteers, who are also a big part of SQL Saturday (and often don’t get the credit they deserve).  Where do they come from, and what kinds of things do they do?

Thomas Grohser: I “volunteered” a few of my co-workers and they paid it forward by “volunteering” some of their family members (BTW a great way to teach your teenage kids what work is).

Again the PASS website’s opt-in as volunteer after a single call for help during the user group meeting before the event added more volunteers than we needed.

Ed Pollack: Volunteers come from all over!  Some are members of our local user group, others are students at a local university.  Others are attendees that check off the box to volunteer.  Some are speakers, sponsors, or members of PASS.  The diversity of the group is its greatest asset! They handle much of the on-the-ground work at SQL Saturday, from setting up food to staffing the registration table, and cleanup.  Their contributions are huge and I do everything I possibly can to thank them for their invaluable help!

Steve Jones: These are usually friends or acquaintances from the UG or other sources. In our case, we have a strong community in Denver and 4-5 friends that signed up to come and were happy to handle tasks on the day of the event (signs, carrying supplies, etc.).

I think the key is reaching out to people, giving them something specific you’d like them to do, thanking them, and ensuring that you aren’t overburdening any one person.

Andy Levy: We put out a call for volunteers both to our registered attendees and our user group. For day-of assistance (registration, room monitors, generally helping speakers and attendees), our volunteer wrangler Kim works with folks who have offered to help and always finds a few more.

11. Of course, attendees usually expect to be fed!  Most (if not all) SQL Saturdays I’ve attended charge a nominal fee for lunch.  How are food and beverage arrangements usually handled at your event?

Thomas Grohser: Since we are locked in with the MTC in Time Square, we are also locked in with the choice of one of the three “approved” catering companies. This, and an SUV full of soda cans and snacks from Costco kept all people well-fed, and the leftovers went to a nearby shelter.

Ed Pollack: We order our own breakfast (donuts/bagels) and lunch (subs & snacks).  Breakfast we pick up and manage ourselves whereas lunch is delivered to SQL Saturday.  All of the supplies we need are purchased ahead of time in bulk and transported to the event by volunteers, such as cups, napkins, drinks, and so on.  We also purchased large coffee urns for the user group to brew our own coffee.  This is far cheaper and easier than making runs to coffee shops and paying hefty prices for that much coffee on the day of SQL Saturday.  We always have a highly caffeinated volunteer that is happy to keep the coffee supply operational 🙂

Steve Jones: In our case, we decided to forego food. The venue was a block from the edge of campus with numerous restaurants, so we allowed 90 minutes for lunch and encouraged people to go in small groups. I tried this years ago at the PASS Summit, bundling people into groups of 4 and sending them to restaurants and it worked well. Here the cost and overhead of lunch was removed with this effort. We did purchase some breakfast food, snacks, and coffee for the morning and water for throughout the day.

I could actually encourage some smaller events to try this as well.

Andy Levy: Matt takes care of this piece of our event. He has a caterer he knows and they take care of lunch, the big coffee pots that fuel every event. He also makes sure that our speakers have food and drink in the ready room.

12. Each locale offers its unique culture or environment, and one of the things I love about SQL Saturday is that it often reflects that culture.  What are some of the things that make your event unique?

Thomas Grohser: I do not believe the NYC SQL Saturday was special. (Ed. note: I beg to differ! 🙂 )

Ed Pollack: Our venue is 100% unique and special to us.  UAlbany provides an amazing location in the summer, with lots of space and access to the fountain right outside of the conference area.  We also have the best volunteer team out there and they make our event both special and a joy to run!

Steve Jones: In our case we were on a college campus and aimed for a BI focused crowd. We had a variety of attendees, many of whom didn’t come to the local user group meeting and I hadn’t met before. Overall, the small size made this a more intimate setting.

Andy Levy: The looming spectre of a blizzard. 🙂

13. I, personally, work in an Oracle environment (yes, it’s true), and most of my coworkers think SQL Saturday doesn’t apply to them (believe me, I’ve tried).  As an organizer, what would you say to people (especially data professionals) who don’t think SQL Saturday is for them?

Thomas Grohser: From a community perspective:

It’s an event for the SQL Server community. The content should help newbies get started and old timers to deepen their knowledge. All the good SQL Saturdays also have professional development tracks and sessions just touching concepts and ideas. So even an Oracle DBA should be able to have a great day. If they don’t want to, it’s not my job to force them.

From an organizer perspective:

Instead of bringing your reluctant Oracle DBA, bring your manager, CIO, CTO.  The sponsors will love to talk to them.

Ed Pollack: While SQL Saturday is billed as a SQL Server/Microsoft event, most sessions are not technology-specific.  Many topics such as analytics, data science, database design, professional development, and hardware architecture are platform agnostic and can apply to anyone.  Since SQL Saturday is free, it’s an easy sell to anyone on the fence about attending: Free breakfast, lunch, training, and prizes…what more can you ask for?

Steve Jones: The world is expanding and there are always generic sessions on data topics. I would encourage people to look at the schedule and decide for themselves. I’d actually like to see more non-SQL specific topics presented and spread throughout the day.

Andy Levy: I encourage anyone who works in any tech-adjacent role, data or otherwise, to attend a SQL Saturday. The professional development sessions aren’t technology-specific at all. The networking opportunities are great. If you drop in on a random session, you just might learn something new. Better yet, it may spark an idea or some interest, something you never even knew existed previously.

14. Like any large-scale event, SQL Saturday almost never goes off without a hitch.  Are there any memorable mishaps that occurred, and how were they handled?

Thomas Grohser: Unfortunately there is a size limit on emails so I have to shorten the list:

Projector not working → No problem we have a spare room for exactly that case → Nobody can find the key → All attendees gathered around a 24” monitor till someone found the key

The venue was supposed to let us in at 7:30 am, The first session was scheduled for 8:30 am, they opened the doors at 8:45

Ed Pollack: We had lunch show up a half hour late one year.  The delivery person got lost and didn’t call for help.  After rushing to find us, they forgot the vegetarian food!  We had a few dozen angry attendees that were looking for veggie food and didn’t have it (yet).  We sent a few volunteers to the restaurant to pick up the remaining food and return with it as quickly as they could.  The end result was some attendees that were unhappy, but we did our best to talk to them and let them know the problem would be solved shortly.  Some good customer service goes a long way towards softening the blow of mistakes or mishaps at what is always a busy day.

Steve Jones: Nothing for us.

Andy Levy: In my experience, the best way to handle mishaps is to not talk about them to a wide audience unless you have to. Remain flexible and be prepared to improvise; if you can adjust to accommodate a mishap, people don’t have to know there was one in the first place.

Be accountable for what happens, admit your faults where applicable, don’t throw people under the bus, and do your best to make amends when necessary.

15. Finally, any other thoughts, ideas, issues, or comments that you think should be mentioned that I didn’t think to ask?

Thomas Grohser: The toughest part is at the very beginning: You need to find a date, a venue and get the date approved from PASS. This is not easy, with all the rules around when and where another SQL Saturday can be at the same time.

Ed Pollack: Attend SQL Saturday.  Consider speaking and volunteering.  It’s a great way to learn new things, problem-solve, meet new people, advance your career, and have fun!

Steve Jones: I think the idea of large events is nice, but they come with a large amount of overhead and effort. They take a toll on organizers and can be hard to maintain over time. I’d much prefer to get smaller events, and have more of them. I think a 100-150 person event is more sustainable and likely to be much easier and cheaper to run. I hope that more communities will think about focusing on easier/smaller events, fewer tracks, and try to do 2 a year rather than one large one. Focus each in a data related area, keep things simple, and remember most people are looking for some learning and inspiration, not necessarily a big party.


I thoroughly enjoyed putting this article together! Thanks, Thomas, Ed, Steve, and Andy for taking part!

For those of you reading this, I encourage you to check out their ‘blog or article links (at the top of this article).

Thanks again!

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.

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.”

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.

The symbiotic relationship between documentation and application development

One of my current projects involves documenting processes for an application that are still under development. As such, much of what I write may change, depending on how processes are changed during the course of development.

At one point, I tested one of the processes so I could determine functionality and document it. In doing so, the process came back with an error message that I wasn’t expecting and didn’t have any user-friendly information, other than a cryptic error code. I contacted one of the developers working on the application and told him what I found. I gave him the error codes I experienced and steps I took to get them. He told me, “you’re coming across bugs that we didn’t even know we had.”

It occurred to me that I was doing more than just documenting the application. I was also acting as a beta tester.

One aspect about writing technical documentation is learning about what you’re writing. In order to write about a process, you need to understand how it works. If you’re documenting an application, the best thing you can do is run the application in a safe environment (such as development or a sandbox), learn how it works, and use it to document steps and capture screens. In doing so, you come across application bugs and even come up with ideas to make the application even better.

I’ve long argued as to the criticality of documentation. It records important information and serves as a reference. However, until this point, it didn’t occur to me that the document development process could have a symbiotic relationship with application development. To me, this adds further fuel to the argument that documentation is critical and required.

Collaboration, cooperation, and competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking in D.C. in December

I got the official word this morning.  I will be speaking in Washington, DC for SQL Saturday #814 on December 8!

I will be giving the following two presentations:

Hope to see you in the nation’s capital on December 8!

Unite the world

“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 are being divided.  We are identified by our divisions: Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, and so on.  And that is the problem.

There have been studies performed in which individuals identify closely with groups to which they relate.  In these cases, people in groups will defend their groups, no matter what the groups are doing, and regardless of whether the groups’ actions are perceived as being good or bad, right or wrong.

I am not a psychologist, so I won’t pretend that I know anything about these studies (disclosure: I did do research on groupthink when I was in grad school).  Nevertheless, what they seem to reveal is that we relate strongly to the groups to which we relate.  And we will defend our groups, no matter how right or wrong the groups’ actions are.

I do understand the effects of group dynamics.  I say this because I am a sports fan, and few things test our group loyalties more than sports.  I root for the Yankees, Syracuse, and RPI.  As a result, I stand firmly behind my teams, and I tend to hold some contempt for the Red Sox, Mets, Georgetown, Boston College, Union, and Clarkson.  Many of my friends are Red Sox fans (heck, I’m married to one!), Mets fans, Union College, and Clarkson University alumni.  Yes, it is true that we will occasionally trash-talk each other when our teams face off against one another, but at the end of the day, they are just games and entertainment.  I will still sit down with them over a drink and pleasant conversation.

Likewise, I have many friends who are on both sides of the (major party) political aisle.  I have friends of many races, religions (or even atheists), cultures, and creeds.  However, no matter where they stand on their viewpoints, I respect each and every one of them.  And there, I believe, is the difference.  No matter where we stand, we need to listen to and respect the other side.  One of the issues regarding group identification is that we do not listen to the other side.  We lose complete respect and empathy for anyone who is our “opponent.”  That is where communication breaks down, and that is where divisions occur.

What we need is something that unites us.  We are not Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Africans, Asians, white, black, yellow, or brown.

What we are is human.

Nelson Mandela united a divided South Africa behind rugby, a story depicted in the movie Invictus.  What will be our uniting moment?  For those of us in North America, I was thinking about something like the 2026 World Cup, but that is a long way off.

I don’t know what that something is, but we need to find it, and fast.  We are being torn apart by our divisions, and it could potentially kill us.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at our past history regarding wars and conflicts.  The American Civil War comes to mind.

I don’t know how much of a difference writing this article will make.  I am just one voice in the wilderness.  But if writing this contributes to changing the world for the better, then I will have accomplished something.

We now return you to your period of political silence.