Document maintenance is critical

I had two appointments this past week.  The first was one for my car to get my oil change and to make sure everything was in good working order (it was).  A couple of days later, I had a dentist appointment.  It was a routine cleaning (I also had a procedure done — one that I’d been putting off for a while).  While the two appointments were for different reasons, they both served the same purpose: to perform maintenance.

Just about everything, especially anything mechanical, is going to break down over time.  Maintenance ensures that things remain in good working order.  But when we think about maintenance, we usually think about car repair, roadwork, furnaces, and water heaters.

I’m sure many people in tech industries consider periodic hardware and software maintenance.  Hardware can break down.  Drives crash occasionally.  CPUs are upgraded to keep pace with emerging technology and to support software.  Speaking of software, bug fixes are constantly made.  There’s also the matter of security; virus software definitions are constantly updated, and operating system patches are distributed to ensure computers are safe.

But here’s another question: when was the last time you maintained your documentation?  Does your documentation, which was written for, say, Version 1.0, reflect what is in Version 2.0?

The trouble with documentation, even the best-written documentation, is that it can become obsolete over time.  Processes and systems change.  Interfaces are redesigned.  Steps become more efficient, or in some cases, even eliminated.  Change happens.  It’s one of the sure things in life.  Documentation should also change as well.  How often has your help desk received calls from frustrated customers saying things like, “your instructions say ‘press the red button,’ but there’s no red button on the interface!”

If your product changes — and it inevitably will — your instructions should change with it.  It’s important that systems are maintained.  Your documentation should be maintained as well.

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Reflections, setbacks, and accomplishments

“Here’s to the new year.  May she be a damn sight better than the old one, and may we all be home before she’s over.”
— Col. Sherman T. Potter

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
— Walt Disney

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today…”
— Bruce Hornsby (or Huey Lewis, depending on which version you prefer…)

It is the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  I have the week off from work as I write this, which gives me plenty of time to think.  Okay, granted, I haven’t been doing a lot of thinking — or very much else, for that matter — during this past week.  Everyone, after all, needs to take some time to rest and relax.  So, I’ll be the first to confess that, while I should probably take advantage of the week to take care of tasks I can’t normally do because of work, a good chunk of it has been spent watching TV, especially old movies, college football, and college basketball.

Nevertheless, now that 2017 is coming to a close, I did take a few moments — well, at least long enough to write this article, anyway — to look upon this past year, and to think about what’s ahead.  Among other things: I celebrated a milestone birthday back in January (hey, I made it to another one!), I lost one job and picked up another (better one!) in a short amount of time, I’m being recognized for accomplishments in my new job, I spoke at four more SQL Saturdays (including a couple of new presentations), I’ve made new friends, I’ve gotten better at CrossFit (among my CrossFit accomplishments, I successfully completed this year’s Holiday Rowing Challenge), and (if you count this article), I’ve written thirty-five ‘blog articles this year.  (That’s almost three a month, for those of you who are keeping count.)

Of course, life is about yin and yang; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  I’d be lying if I said this year was all wine and roses; I’ve had my share of setbacks as well.  Nobody enjoys setbacks; they can be painful and embarrassing.  But they’re important as well.  You can’t have good without bad, happiness without sadness, joy without pain.  But setbacks also serve a purpose: they remind us that we are not perfect (hey, nobody’s perfect, and since I’m nobody…!) and that no matter how well we perform, there is always room for improvement.

So now that 2018 is around the corner, keep moving ahead.  Make it better than 2017!

Time is Precious

My friend, Steve Jones, wrote this article, and it is well worth the read (most of his articles are), even if you’re not a technology professional. If you care about your craft — no matter what it is — set aside a little bit of time to improve upon it.

Voice of the DBA

I’ll hear people constantly say they don’t have time to work on their career. They can’t attend a UG meeting to network. They can’t spare a minute to go through a Stairway Series. They have family commitments, kids, hobbies, volunteer activities, spiritual needs, and more. That’s not even counting all the work they need to get done as a part of their job. When can they spend time on R or Machine Learning or CosmosDB or anything else?

I get it. My life is chaotic as well, with deadlines and a pile of work that never goes away. I sometimes dread travel and vacation because that means my work piles up on either side of those events. This is on top of commitments to keep up on chores at home (I have cooking and laundry), fix things at the ranch, spend time with kids, get date nights with my…

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Blind spots

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today…”
— Bruce Hornsby (or Huey Lewis — whomever you prefer)

“You’re only human; you’re allowed to make your share of mistakes…”
— Billy Joel

One of my favorite books is The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks.  For the benefit of those of you who’ve never read it (spoiler alert: if you’ve never read it and want to, I suggest you stop reading this paragraph and move to the next one, because what I’m about to say doesn’t get revealed until near the end of the book), the book involves a magic sword that has the ability to reveal truth.  When the sword’s magic is invoked, both the wielder and the recipient are forced to confront the truth.

There are many times that I wish I had a Sword of Shannara.  I can think of many people who would benefit from its magical power.  And I put myself at the top of that list.

An incident that occurred last night served to remind me of the blind spots that I have.  I don’t care to talk about the incident (the details aren’t important here, anyway), except that I felt as though I’d taken a big step backwards.  It’s not the first time that I’ve taken a step back, and as much as I try to avoid it, I suspect that it will likely not be the last.

We all have blind spots; it’s a part of being human.  More often than not, we aren’t aware that those blind spots are there — hey, there’s a reason why they’re called “blind” spots.  There is no magic sword to reveal those blind spots.  The best mirror we have for those blind spots is each other, in how we behave and react around one another.  If someone is smiling, laughing, or nodding his or her head around you, you’re probably doing something right.  If that person is frowning, yelling, or criticizing, then probably not.

As much as we try to do our best, inevitably, we will stumble somewhere down the line.  I admit that I’m probably still dwelling on it — I probably wouldn’t be writing this article, otherwise.  I’ll eventually get over it.  All we can do is to recognize our blind spots — once we recognize that they’re there — keep an open mind, learn from our mistakes, and keep moving forward.

Reinventing yourself

If there’s one thing I’ve managed to develop throughout my professional life, it’s my ability to adjust to my environment.  I’ve practically made a career out of it.  It’s an ability that has managed to keep me sane in tough situations, not to mention that it has enabled me to extend my shelf life long after my role, whether it’s because of an organization’s changing needs or my skill set no longer fits, has become obsolete.

A ballplayer with a long career (yes, here I go again with the baseball analogies) is usually able to do so by developing a new strength after an old one is no longer effective.  For example, pitchers such as C.C. Sabathia or Bartolo Colon have reinvented themselves as finesse pitchers who get batters out using guile and precision, long after their fastballs are no longer effective.  Likewise, a professional who is having difficulty keeping up with modern trends or technology may need to reinvent him or herself in order to remain relevant in the marketplace.

My recent unemployment forced me to take stock of where I am in my career and where I want to be going.  Even before my (now-former) employer let me go, I’d been asking myself some hard questions about who I was.  I had been struggling as a developer, which was making me question whether or not it was what I should — or even wanted — to be doing.  At the same time, I also considered my strengths.  What was I good at doing?  Were these strengths marketable?  Were they skills that I could offer to an organization?  Would I enjoy a position that took advantage of these strengths?

For me, personally, I discovered — or, more accurately, re-discovered — that my strengths were in writing and communication, not software development.  This revelation made me realize several things.  While I enjoyed doing development work, I found that I wasn’t passionate about it.  I was, however, passionate about writing and documentation — to the point that I began steering myself in that direction.  I became openly critical about my company’s documentation (and, in many cases, the lack of).  My SQL Saturday presentations have all been based on writing and communication.  Even in my current job search, my focus has been on positions that emphasize writing and communication over hardcore technical skills.  Having said that, I am also not discounting my technical background; my ideal position is one that takes advantage of that background.  While I am looking for something that focuses on communication, I am looking at my technical background to supplement that skill.

At this point in time, whether or not this strategy lands me a new position remains to be seen.  However, I’ve made some observations.  First, I’ve noticed that prospective employers appear to be more receptive to my approach.  I seem to be getting more and better prospective opportunities, and they are coming quickly.  Second, I’ve noticed that, in conversations and interviews, I am much more confident and assertive.  Third, I’m much more focused in my search — in contrast to job searches in years past, where I would apply to anything and everything that even remotely sounded like a position I could fill.  Finally, as strange as it may seem, I’m finding that I’m actually having more fun with this process.

It’s often been said that when a door closes, another opens.  If a current position or career isn’t working for you, it might be time to take stock and reinvent yourself.  You might discover a new mindset and a new motivation.  You might discover a new passion.  You might even find that reinventing yourself results in a new career path — one that is more satisfying and rewarding than you had ever previously believed.

Throwing out memories

Yesterday, I got into a conversation with someone about getting rid of stuff.  (I have no idea how we got into that conversation.)  I told her that I was a self-admitted pack rat, and (like many other people, I’m sure) I had a tough time with getting rid of things.  How many of you have tried to clean out your closet, your attic, or your basement, come across an item, and have said either “oh that holds fond memories” or “I might need that later”?  I’d bet that if I asked that question in a crowded room, almost every hand would be raised.

She said something profound: “Everything has a story.  When I get rid of something, if, say, I’m giving something away, I’ll tell that person the story behind it.  For example, let’s say I’m getting rid of a dress.  I’ll say, ‘oh, I wore that dress for a friend’s wedding,’ or whatever the story is behind it.  Once I tell the story, I can let it go.”

She gave me some advice: “If you’re getting rid of something, tell someone about it — even if all you do is write it down somewhere.  Even if no one ever reads it, at least the memory is preserved.”

It’s hard to let go.  We place a lot of value in things, whether they’re people, relationships, or inanimate objects.  If something is valuable to you, you gain an attachment to it.  The stronger the attachment, the more difficult it is to let it go.

So the next time you’re getting rid of stuff, tell someone about it — even if you just write it down.  You might find it easier to part ways.

Keeping up — revisited


(Source: dilbert.com)

At SQL Saturday #615, I had the pleasure of sitting through a session by Eugene Meidinger titled “Drinking From the Firehose: a Guide to Keeping Up with Technology.”  His presentation brought to mind my earlier ‘blog article about struggling to keep up with technology, and he also mentioned a few things that didn’t occur to me.  I won’t rehash his presentation — I didn’t ask him for permission to use it, and I don’t want to step on his toes — but I do want to mention a few points he brought up.  (I was actually hoping he would have an article on this topic to which I could link, but I wasn’t able to find one on his ‘blog.)

The first point he makes is that keeping up with technology is impossible.  He points out that “keeping up is ill-defined.”  What, exactly, does it mean to keep up with technology?  It’s such a vague, gray area.  He mentions that you are never “done,” and keeping up is more an emotional issue than a goal.  He also mentions that the rate of change is accelerating.  How can you keep pace with something that is always getting faster?  It can’t be done.

Eugene talks about what he calls “the contradiction of learning.”  To add value, we need to specialize, but to avoid being irrelevant, we need to generalize.  Personally, I’ve based my career on being a jack-of-all-trades, but I’ve also discovered that employers are looking for experts in a single area.  That is difficult in and of itself.  If you specialize in an area, who is to say that it will be relevant down the line?  When I was in college, COBOL was a big deal, and many employers were looking for people who were well-versed in COBOL.  When was the last time you saw a job listing for a COBOL programmer?  On the other hand, SQL has been around for quite some time, and there seems to be no shortage of SQL positions.  So how do you know which technology should warrant your focus?  It’s hard to predict.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into Eugene’s presentation; it’s his presentation, not mine, and I don’t want to take too much away from him.  (His presentation slides are available at the link to his SQL Saturday presentation above, if you want to read more.)  If you ever have an opportunity to catch his presentation, I encourage you to do so.