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.

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PASS Summit — Getting the initial lay of the land

Now that the schedule for PASS Summit has been released, I can plan a little more. I now know that I will be speaking on Friday, November 8 (the last day of the conference) at 8 am. Mind you, that’s Pacific time. Hopefully, by that day, my body won’t be completely acclimated to the time change from the East Coast.

I also found out the room in which I will be speaking. I will be presenting in Room 400.

With that, I went to the Washington State Convention Center’s website and looked for a building map. I found a page that includes a virtual view of some (not all) of the areas within the building, as well as a downloadable map PDF (note: clicking this link automatically downloads the PDF to your drive). So if I’m reading the map correctly, it looks like my room is by the Skybridge Lobby, right around the corner from the elevators. Looks easy enough. One thing that was mildly disappointing for me is that the room appears to be smaller than I expected. From what I can gather, it doesn’t appear to be much larger than the lecture rooms at UAlbany (where our user group holds SQL Saturday). However, more people will be attending PASS Summit than SQL Saturday, so I’m hoping for more people in my room.

There are a number of fun activities around PASS Summit — it’s not just about attending sessions! As a first-time attendee, I signed up for the buddy program, which pairs first-timers with experienced attendees so that we don’t feel so lost! I understand that there are a number of other activities as well — including a morning SQL three mile run*, games nights, and karaoke nights. I’ll be paying attention to the activities page as we get closer to the date; it sounds like there’ll be a lot of fun stuff, and I don’t want to miss out!

(*Look, I may be a CrossFitter, but I still don’t enjoy running! My understanding is that it’s a “leisurely” morning run to get some exercise in; it’s not a race. We’ll see whether or not I decide to take part!)

I know that a number of friends will be attending; Matt Cushing, for one, told me that he would sign up to be a buddy for the buddy program. (I have mixed feeling about possibly getting assigned to him; on the one hand, at least I’d be paired with someone I know; on the other, there’s something to be said about making a new friend. After all, a major part about attending PASS Summit is networking!) I expect to see a number of friends whom I know from the SQL Saturday speaking circuit. Also, Ed Pollack, another friend and a colleague from my local user group, is also presenting. In any case, I should know enough people attending that I won’t feel totally alone!

One of the activities they do is something called Speaker Idol. If you just read that and thought “American Idol,” yes, it’s exactly what it is, only for SQL speakers. If you’re wondering how it might go, check out this YouTube link of last year’s winner! (Go ahead, check out the video! Trust me on this!)

And in case you’re wondering, no, I don’t intend to sign up for Speaker Idol (at least not this year)!

As I continue looking into preparing for this year’s upcoming PASS Summit, I find myself getting more excited about my trip out to Seattle in November. Less than three months to go!

PASS Summit, travel plans, #SQLFamily, and Twitter chatter

It’s three months away, and I’m counting the days.

My prep work for my very first PASS Summit continues. I’m still waiting to hear as to whether or not my PowerPoint slides are accepted and good to go, or if I need to make any tweaks to them. I’m waiting to announce my presentation schedule (per PASS rules, I’m not allowed to announce it until they do). (Edit: the schedule has been released! I’m speaking on Friday, November 8 at 8 am PST!) There has been plenty of chatter on Twitter (which I’ll get to in a little bit) in regards to the approaching event.

I did have one setback, which didn’t make me happy. I had originally scheduled my flight home for the morning on Saturday, November 9 (which reminds me — travel tip — I discovered that it was actually cheaper for me to buy two one-way tickets, not one round-trip ticket). Per the advice of nearly everyone who’s been to PASS Summit before me (especially Matt Cushing), I was told that I should stay through Friday night and book my flight home for Saturday. I took that advice to heart, and booked a flight back to the East Coast for Saturday morning.

Unfortunately for me, American had other ideas. My flight, which was originally supposed to be 8 am on Saturday, was switched to 10 pm on Friday. To put it mildly, that did NOT make me happy. I fired back to American with a very angry email — my wife practically had to force me to NOT use any — let’s just say — colorful language in my message. I looked into changing my flight. The available options fell into one of two categories: either the schedule didn’t work for me, or the airfare was absolutely ridiculous. There was no in-between. (And if that wasn’t enough, I have something going on that Monday, which precludes me needing to be home at a reasonable time.) So, for the moment, it appears the best option is for me to keep the flight to which I’ve been switched.

It is exactly for reasons like this why I’ve come to hate flying. It is also one of the biggest reasons why I prefer taking Amtrak. I seriously considered it for this trip, but rejected it because of schedule constraints. I do love traveling by train, and believe me, I would’ve enjoyed taking 3-4 days to take a train across the country, but that’s a luxury that I just don’t have for this trip. (I’ve toyed with the idea of taking the train cross-country as a vacation idea — i.e. I wouldn’t be taking the train to get to a vacation. I’d be taking the train as the vacation! Maybe someday…)

And in addition, American Airlines has been dropped to my list of “airlines of last resort” (if I ever bother flying with them again at all).

Anyway, as I mentioned above, Twitter has been very active in regard to PASS Summit. I reluctantly joined Twitter last month. I didn’t want to join, but it’s the medium of choice for just about everyone involved with PASS, and my acceptance as a PASS Summit speaker pretty much forced my hand.

I posted my frustration at American Airlines on Twitter, and as a first-time PASS Summit attendee, asked #SQLFamily for their advice. A number of people told me that it wouldn’t be a big deal. Sea-Tac Airport would likely be busy on Friday night (which was one of the big reasons why I booked Saturday in the first place), but multiple people, including Matt Cushing and Grant Fritchey, told me that PASS generally doesn’t schedule events for Friday night. Mostly, what I’d miss is the opportunity to get together with #SQLFamily friends. And therein lies the rub.

The flight switch also affects other plans. I sent a message to my AirBnB host saying that my stay might end up being one night shorter than I planned. I want to wait a while before making that determination — for all I know, American might switch it back to Saturday. Dear airline industry: it’s not like we travelers have plans or anything like that. I swear that some of the things they pull are downright criminal. I’ll say it again: there’s a reason why I prefer Amtrak.

In any case, my plans continue to roll along. It should be fun! November will arrive before I know it.

The case for non-local user groups

Ever buy something online, then become inundated by emails from that vendor? Of course you do.

I’ve attended numerous out-of-town events, mainly SQL Saturdays, and every once in a while, a user group (I spoke at one earlier this year). Of course, once I was subscribed to their mailing lists, I’d start getting email from them.

I used to unsubscribe from some of these lists (why, for example, should I maintain a mailing for the Pittsburgh user group when it’s an eight-hour drive away). But it occurred to me not long ago that maintaining these mailings might be a good idea (in fact, I might even re-subscribe to some of these mailing lists).

I’ve extolled the benefits of getting involved with your local user groups. But why would you want to bother with groups that aren’t local? Well, here are some reasons to do so.

  • You receive news about activities in that area. Of all SQL Saturdays I’ve attended, I’ve probably attended New York City‘s the most, going all the way back to 2010 (long before I became a speaker). I travel to NYC fairly often (well okay, maybe more like once in a while — not as often as I used to, but still often enough to know my way around), so events in the City (as we upstate New Yorkers refer to it) tend to interest me. Maintaining contact with the NYC user group (and others) provides me with information regarding activities in the area.
  • It’s a form of networking. Staying connected with non-local user groups expands your reach. You’ll get news and announcements from the remote group, and in turn, maintain contacts with people involved with it.
  • You can get an idea about how other groups operate. I’m heavily involved with my local user group, so I have a pretty good idea as to its inner workings. Seeing what other groups do gives us ideas that we might like to implement within our own group.
  • Are you relocating? If you’re looking for opportunities beyond your area, a user group in your location of interest may be a good place to start. You can connect with people who know the area, and you can get information regarding job opportunities, where to live, and so on.
  • If you happen to be in the neighborhood… If you’re visiting a particular location, and the user group local to that area is meeting while you’re there, why not attend? You’ll get all the benefits that I listed above (and maybe some others that didn’t occur to me). If you’re a speaker, maybe they’ll even schedule you to speak while you’re in town.

While you might not be able to attend events for a user group that is not geographically local to you, it doesn’t necessarily preclude being involved with them. Just because a user group is not nearby doesn’t mean you can’t get involved with it.

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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Characteristics of good recruiters

I’ve written some articles about spam recruiters. To put it very bluntly, spam recruiters are evil. They do not work for your best interests; they are just looking to make a buck. And it’s a pervasive problem. Do a Google search for “recruiter spam” and take a look at all the hits that come up. Quite frankly, I hate them. I’ve had bad experiences with them. I’ve done plenty of ranting about them. Every time I get an email from a spam recruiter, it goes right into the trash.

“Okay, Ray,” you might say. “We get it. You hate recruiter spam. So what do you think makes a good recruiter?”

That’s a fair question. Let’s talk about that.

I’ll say that I have a number of friends who are recruiters. I have very good relationships with many of them. There are many good recruiters out there who make good networking contacts. I can easily drop them a line to say “what’s up?” Every now and then, they’ll send messages like, “I’m looking to fill such-and-such position. Can you help me out?” If I know someone, I’ll gladly pass names along. If I have a good relationship with a recruiter, I make sure that I maintain it — even if I’m not actively looking for a new position.

So in my mind, here are some of the things that make a good recruiter.

  • A good recruiter takes the time to get to know you. As I wrote before, networking is about relationships. (S)he will sit down with you and ask what you want in an ideal position, how you work, your strengths, what you like, and so on. (S)he will also critique your resume and provide some advice based on what you tell him or her. More often than not, these discussions are more conversational, not necessarily a full-blown interview (although it might not hurt a prospective candidate to treat it as such).

    In my consulting position, I regularly have lunch with my consulting firm contact — who is himself a recruiter — about every couple of months. We’ll discuss a variety of things — how’re things going, what’s going on, etc. I enjoy these conversations that I have with him; they make me feel as though he’s looking out for me — which he is.

    Simply put, a good recruiter looks to establish a relationship with you. You are not just another number to him or her.
  • A good recruiter is honest with you. I’ve had conversations with recruiters who’ve said, “I don’t have anything that’s a good fit for you right now.” That’s okay. If (s)he doesn’t have a position that’s a good match for me, then it is what it is. (S)he will not try to force you into a position that is not a good fit.

    I have a friend — a recruiter — who is brutally honest with her clients. She has given me comments about my resume and job hunt activities in the past that I haven’t necessarily wanted to hear, but when it came down to it, I realized that she was often right. She doesn’t want to steer her clients wrong, and wants to make sure they end up in a good situation. I have some friends who’ve been placed by her, and they all attest that she is a great recruiter.
  • A good recruiter doesn’t spam you. Rather, (s)he’ll ask for favors. I often get emails from my recruiter friends saying something like, “we are looking to fill (insert name of position here). If you’re interested, or if you know someone, please let me know.”

    What’s the difference between this request and a spammer? These emails come from people with whom I have an established relationship. As I’ve written before, networking is bidirectional and symbiotic. They’ve helped me with my job search. In turn, they’re likely looking for a favor from me. Maybe I know someone who can help them. And as I wrote above, they’ve taken the time to get to know me. They know what I look for, and they know the kind of professionals with whom I likely associate. Contrast that to spam recruiters, who send you emails based on keywords that they find in your resume or your LinkedIn profile. A legitimate recruiter is someone with whom you’ve established a measure of trust.

    Speaking of trust…
  • A good recruiter is someone you trust. Can you trust that a recruiter acts in your best interest? Is (s)he someone you feel is reliable? Do you feel comfortable talking to your recruiter? If you’re looking for a position, do you feel that (s)he will place you in the best possible position? Is (s)he open and honest with you? Do you accept his or her feedback?

    If the answer to these is yes, then you have a good recruiter you can trust.

These are some of the characteristics that I feel make a good recruiter (and if you have any more that I’ve left out, feel free to add them below in the comments section). Good recruiters are good people with whom to establish relationships — even if you’re not looking for a job — and may very well be some of the best networking contacts you could have.

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.