Symphonic/concert band performance, 4/27/19

For those of you who are interested in seeing me do something other than a SQL Saturday presentation, the concert band in which I perform will be performing at the Association of Concert Bands (ACB) Convention in northern New Jersey on Saturday, April 27!

We will be performing at 3:00 at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton in Woodcliff Lake, NJ.

This is an opportunity to catch me in an environment that involves my biggest extracurricular activity outside of my work. Come on out and catch a good concert!

Hope to see you a week from Saturday!

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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.

College is important… but so are trades

My wife and I built (well, okay, not literally) our house in which we’re currently living. While it was under construction, I went to visit the site roughly every other day. I wanted to check on progress and make sure there weren’t any issues. Besides that, I enjoyed watching the structure go up.

I remember at one point talking to one of the house builders. I commended him and his workers. I remember mentioning something about how fun the work looked, and how much I was learning by watching the process. I also recall thinking about how fun it could be to build houses for a living.

This morning, I stumbled across this article that talked about the stigma of choosing trade school over college. It made me think about current career mindsets, enough to the point where I felt compelled to write this article.

How many stories have you heard where a person went to work in a white-collar profession, decided that (s)he didn’t enjoy it, and changed careers? I’m a fan of Food Network shows such as Beat Bobby Flay, and I often hear stories from aspiring chefs who’ve said things like “I worked on Wall Street for years, didn’t like it, realized that my real passion was cooking, and became a chef.”

There are countless stories of people who were pushed (often by their parents) toward careers that they didn’t want. (Disclosure: I, myself, was one of them, but that story goes outside the scope of this one; that might be another story for another time, if I ever feel compelled to write it. All I’ll say for now is that I eventually made it work, and I’m much happier for having done so.)

We need doctors, engineers, writers, architects, and teachers. These are professionals that require college degrees. We also need framers, linespeople, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, food service workers, and construction workers. These professions might not require college degrees, but they are skilled workers, and they are just as important.

The German education system includes the Gymnasium, which is akin to our standard college preparatory high school. However, for people not looking to attend college, people have the option of attending a Hauptschule or a Realschule. High school programs in the US most often act as preparation for college, and those people who do so are perceived as being successful. Here in New York state, BOCES programs serve a similar purpose to hauptschules and realschules in that they provide education services, including vocational education, to students who struggle with the college prep route.

Just because people don’t pursue the traditional college route doesn’t make them unskilled. I’ve watched plumbers, electricians, and welders at work, and I can tell you that I couldn’t do a lot of what they do. I’m not saying that I’m not capable of it; I’m just saying that I don’t have the skill sets that they worked hard to have, just as much as I have the skill sets that I have.

Chris Bell, one of my friends on the SQL Saturday circuit, once gave me a great piece of advice. He told me, “the definition of an expert is someone who knows something that you don’t.” I’ve never forgotten that tidbit.

So why is there such a stigma attached to people who pursue the vo-tech route? I’m not an expert, but if I ventured a guess, I’d say that people tend to look down on those who aren’t as skilled in various aspects — people who tend to pursue vocational education. But maybe some people just don’t want to go the college route.

Not everyone is cut out for college. Maybe some people aren’t interested in pursuing a degree. Maybe some people feel their skills are better suited elsewhere. Maybe some people have a learning disability that prevents them from academic pursuits, but have other skills in which they can be employed. Whatever the reason, there should be no shame in pursuing vocational training. People should pursue careers that suit them — and if they’re happy in their chosen professions, then we’re all better off for it.

The perfect workspace

My client office is in the process of redesigning and rebuilding the office space. The old environment was the traditional “cubicle farm,” along with individual offices used by managers. The new environment — still a work in progress — eliminates the cubicles and utilizes a more open office environment. Each worker who is not a director will have a desk — and not much more.

I have mixed feelings about the new setup. For over a year, space has been an issue; there had been talk about moving to a larger office. The new setup maximizes the use of space. The office spaces have a sleek, modern new look; it looks like a brand-new workspace (which it is), and the new furnishings appear comfortable and attractive. A part of me looks forward to relocating to a clean and shiny new desk. At the same time, it also leaves something to be desired; privacy is non-existent, I have no place to hang my jacket (I do NOT like putting it on the back of my chair), and seeing that many of us participate in virtual meetings through our computers, it could potentially get noisy.

Throughout my professional career, I’ve had a variety of workspaces. In my first job out of college, I didn’t even have a desk of my own; my “workspace” was a data center. Granted, I didn’t do a lot of “sitting at a desk” at that job; much of what I did involved roaming around the data center. Nevertheless, I wasn’t too happy that I didn’t have a space that I could call my own. My next job (and for many jobs afterward), I had my own cubicle. I once had an office (that I shared with another guy) with its own window and door. (I even bought a small dorm-sized cube refrigerator that we shared.) Other times, I worked (as I do now) in an open shared office space. And every once in a while when the need arises (daytime appointment, illness, bad weather, etc.), I’ll work at home in my own living room, sitting in my recliner with the TV on, my laptop, and (sometimes) Bernard — our tuxedo cat and my co-worker for that day — in front of me.

I wrote in an earlier article that I believe a comfortable workspace is important. (For the sake of context, “comfortable” means “I feel good in my workspace,” as opposed to “I love my job.”) Most of my waking hours during a typical week, I am in my workspace; for all intents and purposes, it is my home away from home. If I spend so much time at my workspace, I want it to be comfortable.

What makes a perfect workspace? It depends on the person. Personally, I like having multiple large monitors, a comfortable adjustable chair (that I always adjust to its highest position), a place to hang my coat (again, NOT on the back of my chair), some type of climate control (I usually prefer it cooler, so I usually have a small fan at my desk), a little space where I can put my wife’s picture on my desk and a Syracuse pennant on the wall, and a little bit of privacy while still maintaining some face time with my co-workers. Even those requirements have changed over the years; at one point or another, I would’ve wanted a door that closed, a window with a view, and a place where I could put a small refrigerator. As time passed, those features became less important to me.

No workspace will ever be “perfect.” No matter how comfortable you make your work environment, there will always be some kind of flaw. Nevertheless, it should be a place where you’re comfortable while being productive. Consider it your “home” when you’re at work — because that’s essentially what it is.

Make goals, not resolutions

My previous post got me thinking about setting goals. I mentioned in my previous article that I hate setting New Year’s “resolutions.” I didn’t want to get into why in that article.

Well, in this article, I want to get into exactly why.

How many of you have made New Year’s resolutions? How many of you made them in years past? How many resolutions did you keep?

If I had to guess, probably not many, if any.

This is why I hate resolutions. They’re almost guaranteed to fail. Case in point: for those of you who go to a gym and work out, how packed is the gym in January? In all likelihood, it’s packed with people who resolved to go to the gym and work out this year.

Now, how many of these people are still at the gym by the end of the year? Or by July? Or even April?

I gave up making resolutions a long time ago. All I was doing was breaking promises to myself. And every time I did so, I just ended up disappointing myself.

Don’t set resolutions. Instead, set goals. If you want to do something to better yourself, setting goals is far superior to making resolutions.

Goals are measurable. Let’s say you make a resolution to lose weight and go to the gym. That’s awfully vague, isn’t it? That can mean almost anything. Let’s say you join a gym on January 1, do one workout, and never go again. You might say you broke your resolution. But did you really? You went once. That counts, doesn’t it?

However, let’s say you set a goal to lose ten pounds by the end of the year. Now you have something to shoot for, and it’s something that can be measured. You can keep track of how much weight you lose until you reach your goal, and you can measure aspects (calories, number of workouts, etc.) that will help you get there.

A goal is a target. In addition to being measurable, a goal gives you something toward which you can aim. You might hit it. You might not. Either way, you gave it a shot. Resolutions, on the other hand, are almost always doomed to fail.

If you miss your goal, that’s okay. When you break a resolution, you feel like you failed. It brings you down. It un-motivates you. However, if you miss a goal, it’s not the end of the world. You can either try again, or reset your goal toward something more manageable.

Speaking of being more manageable…

Goals are adjustable. If you find that a goal is unattainable, you can adjust it so it’s more attainable. And once you reach a goal, you can reset a higher goal, which will make you even better.

Goals can be set any time. Ever make a resolution in July? I didn’t think so. However, you don’t have to wait until the new year to set a goal. You can set them any time you want.

(There are probably a bunch of other reasons that aren’t coming to me right now.)

Personally, I’ve set a few small goals. For one thing, I don’t have much arm strength, so I struggle with any workout routine that involves supporting my own weight with my arms — pull-ups, rope climbs, handstands, etc. I set a goal of doing at least one real pull-up by the end of the year. Also, my home is, admittedly, a cluttered mess (it looks like it belongs on an episode of Hoarders). I told my wife that I would set a goal of decluttering a room at a time — the kitchen within a few weeks, the living room a few weeks after that, and so on.

There are a number of others I’d like to set as well, but I haven’t yet gotten around to setting them. As I go along, I’ll figure out what I need to accomplish, set my goals, and take steps to reach them. Again, I can set goals any time I want. I don’t have to wait until next year.

So what do you want to accomplish? What steps will you take to reach them? Whatever they are, you will be more likely to succeed by setting goals rather than making resolutions and empty promises to yourself.

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.