Soft Skills: Controlling your career

I came across this article on SSC by David Poole titled “Soft Skills: Controlling your career.” It spoke to me in a big way, as it pretty much sums up my career in a nutshell. It’s a good read, and I encourage you to go click the link.

I’ve said before that I’ve made an entire career out of adapting to my environment. Soft skills are the key to being able to adapt.

All of my SQL Saturday presentations revolve around soft skills. I’ve been asked before about why I speak at SQL Saturday, when my talks don’t talk about data topics. The fact is, soft skills are important. You can know everything there is to know about data storage systems, recursive structures, or nuclear physics, but often, soft skills are ultimately what sets you apart.

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.

Unite the world

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

Welcome to Ray Kim's 'blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paying it forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m a twit… I mean, I’m on Twitter

Okay, I’m a lemming. I finally caved.

For years, I’ve assiduously avoided Twitter. As I’ve been telling people, “I refuse to twit (sic).” I’ve never felt the need for it, I’ve never felt compelled to join it (to be honest, the hype surrounding it did more to repel me from it than make me want to use it), and I’ve been trying to stay away from it. It was enough that I was already on Facebook (and, for professional reasons, LinkedIn). I didn’t feel any need to join the Twitterverse.

Events over the past few weeks changed that. First, as I announced earlier this month, I was accepted to speak at PASS Summit. Second, I finally succumbed to peer pressure from friends such as Deborah Melkin and Matt Cushing. Third, I wanted to connect with #sqlfamily — which is entirely on Twitter.

Mostly, it was the PASS Summit deal that finally pushed me to do so. Twitter is the medium of choice for a great majority of people involved with PASS and SQL Saturday. Since this is my first PASS Summit, I needed a way to contact people if I needed to do so. And since nearly every speaker there is on Twitter, well…

So, therefore, it is with great trepidation and reluctance that, last week, I finally broke down and created a Twitter account. I’ve been sitting on it for a week, and really only made it publically known this past weekend at Albany SQL Saturday.

I’m still trying to figure out how to use the thing. Deb Melkin mentioned to me this past weekend that there were some hashtags that I should’ve used with my first tweet — at which point, she turned to some of our colleagues and said, “he’ll get the hang of it. We’ll teach him!”

I honestly don’t know how much I’ll be using the thing. I already use Facebook to post about my personal life, and I use my LinkedIn for professional endeavors, so I don’t really feel a need to do either on Twitter. I’ve connected my ‘blog to it, so you’ll see my articles on it whenever I post one. Beyond that, we’ll see.

So if you really feel a need to follow me, my Twitter profile is PianoRayK.

I’ll see you out there in the Twitterverse…

You gotta do you first

This morning, per my typical Monday morning, I stopped at Cumberland Farms for my morning coffee. The fellow behind the counter — I’ve written about him before — was understandably disappointed. We’ve been talking about his career and things to help get him jump-started. He had been looking forward to attending our SQL Saturday this past weekend (which went very well — I’ll write more about that in a separate article), and was excited about it every time we spoke.

As it turned out, fate had other plans for him. He had a family emergency he had to address, and was unable to attend SQL Saturday. He sent me a LinkedIn message and was very apologetic. I told him, no apology necessary. Things happen. I told him this morning, “you gotta do you first.”

This is effectively true no matter what we do. Important events come up, and it’s really disappointing when you miss them. Missed opportunities are always unfortunate. But sometimes, sh*t happens. An emergency that involves you or your family always outweighs any once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that might come up. But you can always come up with opportunities. You can only live your life once.

As for my friend’s missed SQL Saturday opportunity, I told him of three more upcoming SQL Saturdays all within a three hour drive or train ride: Providence, Boston, and New York City. Although he missed this weekend’s opportunity, I passed along three more.

Generally, most of us work to live, not live to work. Careers may be important, but our selves and our family are the foundation upon which they stand. You need to take care of yourself and your family first. If something happens to you or your family, anything else is pretty much a moot point. You won’t be able to take care of anything else if you don’t do you first.

Companies that adapt and survive

I’m working from home today. As is typical when I work from home, I’m sitting in my living room with my laptop in front of me and the TV on (and, every once in a while, Bernard — our tuxedo cat — curled up on the recliner between my legs). If there’s one thing I’ve learned about working from home, there’s nothing good on TV in the middle of the day on a weekday. To steal a line from Bruce Springsteen, how many channels and nothing on? Thankfully, as I write this, Wimbledon is on ESPN, and Roger Federer is putting on a clinic. (He lost the first set, but since then, has been absolutely dominant.)

Well, obviously, as you might have judged by my article title, I’m not here to talk about TV. So what does TV have to do with this article?

A little while ago, I saw an ad for Western Union. For whatever reason, I started thinking about Western Union’s history: it started out as a telegraph and telegram company. It made me think: in this day and age of internet, social media, and nearly instantaneous mass communication, how has Western Union managed to remain relevant?

I looked up Western Union on Wikipedia. I didn’t take the time to read the entire article, but to make a long story short: Western Union adapted with the times. It stopped delivering telegrams a long time ago, but has since become involved in internet communications, as well as financial services. As their ads bill themselves, they’re “the fastest way to send money.”

Western Union still exists because they changed and adapted with the times.

They’re not the only ones. A number of companies continue to exist because they managed to change with the times. Off the top of my head, The New York Times has de-emphasized their print paper and is largely an online news source. While Apple still produces personal computers, they became much more successful after diversifying and becoming a provider of products such as smartphones and music players, among other things. There are countless other examples as well; at the moment, these are the ones that stand out in my mind.

Even from a personal standpoint — I’ve written about this many times before — I’ve practically made an entire career out of adapting to my environment. Even in one of my very first ‘blog articles, I wrote about how change is inevitable.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Change will happen. The question is, how will you adapt to it? In order to survive, you need to be able to roll with the punches. The environment around you will change. What will you do to adapt?