Take care of yourself first

I very recently had a revelation that aroused a great deal of stress and anxiety in myself. (I won’t get into the specifics right now, but it’s very possible that I might discuss it more later, when — or if — the time is right.) It was bad enough that I ended up not feeling well yesterday, and it carried over into today. I woke up this morning feeling dizzy and abnormally chilly, even though I didn’t feel any other physical symptoms. I also felt extremely anxious and overwhelmed. I went back and forth with my coworker, suggesting that I’d be in late. The feedback I received was, stay home. If it’s something that will effect your focus and concentration, then it’s probably best to take care of it before coming in.

I decided to heed that advice, and am taking steps to take care of myself today (I’m trying to make some phone calls even as I write this article).

This would not be the first time that something like this has taken me down. I wrote that over a year ago, during the height of the pandemic, anxiety led me to the point of ignoring my own well-being to the point that I ended up becoming physically sick, and landing in the hospital.

As I get older, I am becoming more acutely aware that issues with my mindset can be just as big as a roadblock as being physically sick. They can affect your concentration, your focus, and even everyday activities. And if you don’t take the time to address them, they can be an impediment to any progress you try to make.

So take the time to take care of yourself, before you get in over your head.

Your User Manual

As a technical writer, anything that mentions “manual” (or “documentation”, for that matter) tends to catch my eye. I suppose it’s an occupational hazard. But when I saw this post from my friend, Steve Jones, it made me take notice.

I’m reblogging this for my own personal reference as much as anything else. Suppose you had a set of instructions for yourself? How would it read?

I might try this exercise for myself at some point, but for the moment, read Steve’s article, and see if you can come up with your own manual for yourself.

Voice of the DBA

Many of us have spent time looking through manuals or the documentation for some software or product. I know I’m on the MS docs site regularly for work, and there is no shortage of times I’ve used various manuals to help me fix something around the house. We usually use a manual when we want to learn how something is supposed to work, or how to get it to do what we want.

I saw a post on a personal user manual that I thought was a good idea for some people, maybe many people. This isn’t a manual for how you should live your life or work, but rather, how others might interact with you. This manual describes how you work, what motivates you, stimulates you, what pleases you, and even the environment in which are most productive.

Whether or not this is something you might give to co-workers…

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Make time for your art

This pic above showed up in a Facebook meme, and it spoke volumes to me. To sum up my thoughts in only a few words, I’m an artist.

Okay, I suppose some context is in order; after all, I am writing this as a ‘blog article.

For the benefit of those of you who don’t know me, I’m a musician in my spare time. I started playing the piano when I was seven, the clarinet when I was eight, and I taught myself how to play mallet percussion and the saxophone when I was in high school. I grew up learning how to play classical piano, and I picked up a taste for jazz and classic rock along the way. I played well enough that I easily could have been a music major had I chosen to do so; alas, my parents wouldn’t let me.

I also started writing my own music when I was in high school. I started out writing piano compositions (think John Tesh-like new age piano music) without lyrics. One day, I said to myself, “what would happen if I wrote lyrics for my music?” The result was a song called If She Only Knew. I ended up writing more songs; you can hear many of them on my songwriter’s page (you can even purchase my music on the page or on iTunes). I still have more music that I haven’t finished recording (alas, trying to coordinate time with friends who can actually sing is a major blocker, not to mention that life happens), and it’s only within the past few years that I’ve started writing again, after a long layoff of many years (like I said, life happens).

When I first started writing, I was an isolated, naïve, and lonely kid who hadn’t been exposed to a lot in the big wide world. As such, much of what I wrote was stuff that was on my mind that I was unable to express in words. Music was — and still is — the perfect outlet for me; it enabled me to convey what I was otherwise unable to express.

The pandemic over the past few years has stressed me out in many different ways, as I’m sure it has for many people. Under these circumstances, it’s especially important to maintain your mental health; indeed, it was why I ended up in the hospital last year. We are not robots, so it’s important to maintain some kind of relief valve to release the pressure. This is a huge (although not the only) reason why the arts are important. (I could also talk about how art trains us to think critically and creatively, but that goes beyond the scope of this article.) The arts allow us to express ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to in the corporate, business, and high-tech world.

Art can take many forms. For me, it’s in my music. For others, it can involve drawing, sculpture, painting, glass-blowing, creative writing, poetry, sewing, video production, theater, collecting, cooking, and so on. (You could also make the case that sports and athletics are an art.) You don’t necessarily even have to be good at it. I once got into a lengthy argument with a friend who said that a picture created with animal feces was not art. What he didn’t understand was that art doesn’t necessarily have to be good or tasteful; it just has to be something that’s expressed, even if it’s (literally, in this case) a piece of crap.

I think art is critically important (I’ve argued that we should be teaching STEAM, not STEM). It’s important for us to develop as well-rounded individuals. And it provides us with a creative outlet that we desperately need to release stress, especially in our current world that is full of it.

Dealing with mental wellness and stress

Last year, I wrote about how stress landed me in the hospital. The fact that the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with my job loss, created a large amount of stress over the course of that year. Because of that stress, I stopped taking care of myself. And because of that, I got sick and ended up in the hospital.

That was last year. After more than a year, I managed to gain employment again.

Well, the cycle begins again. Lately, I’ve been dealing with enormous stress; not from one source, but from several. Much of it is deeply personal, so I won’t write anything specific about them. What I will say is that recent events triggered them, affecting me in numerous ways, including my job performance.

Unfortunately, because my job performance was affected, I was told yesterday that I was being let go. Although I was disappointed by the news, it also did not surprise me. My manager had to make a decision, and I didn’t want to be the one bogging down the team. Quite frankly, if our roles were reversed, I likely would’ve made the same decision.

That said, I believe that in order to truly fix a problem, you need to address the root of the problem. I mentioned that I was dealing with multiple sources of stress. I felt I was getting burned out, and that burnout was what ultimately led me to losing my job. But while work stress may have contributed to my issue, I considered that to be a symptom, not the root cause.

Indeed, my job issue wasn’t the only symptom I was seeing. I’ve been feeling a great deal of anxiety. Even activities that I usually enjoy, and am even passionate about, were affected. There were nights where I was scheduled to attend music rehearsals and CrossFit classes — two activities that I usually enjoy — and I had no motivation to go. That’s when I made the decision to contact EAP and get help. They set me up with an online counseling program (my first therapy session was this morning). Additionally, I reconnected with a local psychology practice with whom I’ve worked in the past.

I’ve long stressed the importance of your mental, psychological, and emotional well-being. In my lost job presentation, the very first thing I address is your emotional well-being. You need to get a hold of yourself before you can effectively move forward. If it means (safely) getting it out of your system, talking to friends, finding distractions (such as your favorite activities), or getting professional help, then do it. The online counseling offered by my EAP includes three free sessions, and I decided that I should take advantage of that.

Mental well-being is getting more attention within the fields of technology. My friend Tracy Boggiano does an excellent presentation about mental health in IT (a link to it is available on her website). Steve Jones also posts daily articles about how to cope with various issues. And while I can’t think of articles off the top of my head (if you know of any, feel free to list them in the comments below), I believe there are articles that discuss mental health within the technology industry.

There has long been a stigma attached to mental health. The fact is, mental health deals with exactly that: your health. If you feel that you might not be in “the right frame of mind,” or something might be bothering you, or you feel as though you’re acting peculiarly, don’t keep it to yourself. Get help. Go talk to someone, preferably someone who’s in a position to best help you (such as a mental health professional). These people are there to help resolve your issue(s), or at least come up with an effective way to cope with them. Once you get your mental health under control, many other things — your job performance, your thought processes, your relationships, how you approach life, and so on — will fall into place.

Now, in the meantime, if anyone has any job leads, feel free to send them my way…

User testing is important — for documentation

Any application developer will (and should) tell you how important end user testing is for their product development. It’s an important part of the development lifecycle. Developers need to know if their applications actually work, if they work the way they’re intended, and if their interfaces can actually be used. Without user testing, developers put blind faith in what they produce, and they have to assume that their applications are perfect every time, all the time — which, as we all know, always happens. User testing is critical in ensuring that you create a quality product.

So how often does your documentation go through user testing?

I’ve said many times that document development needs to go through the same steps as application development, and this is one of those steps. It is (sadly) common for documentation to be released without being checked for accuracy or usability. This is another way in which document development gets absolutely no respect, whatsoever.

If you’ve written, say, a set of instructions, one of the best things you can do is to give it to someone to make sure (s)he can follow it. How (s)he follows it readily tells you how well it was (or wasn’t) written, what does and doesn’t work, what adjustments need to be made, and so on.

It may not even entirely be the wording that needs adjustment. How easily did the person find information within the document? Was it there but not easily found? Was it overlooked? User testing not only can determine content accuracy, it can also serve the same purpose as UX/UI in that it can determine how effective object placement and document layout is.

And like application development, user testing your documentation determines what adjustments need to be made before it’s released. Additionally, user testing isn’t just critical for development; it’s important for document maintenance as well. Documentation that hasn’t been adjusted for changed environments makes for inaccurate information. Much of that can be caught through user testing.

I’ve said time and again that document development needs to be treated the same way as application development. User testing is an important step in that life cycle. It determines that your document quality is improved when it is released. Without it, you run the risk of releasing bad, poor quality, or inaccurate documentation.

October CASSUG Monthly Meeting #Networking @CASSUG_Albany #SQLServer #UserGroups

Greetings, data enthusiasts!

Our October meeting will again be online. NOTE: you MUST RSVP to this Meetup at https://www.meetup.com/Capital-Area-SQL-Server-User-Group/events/281203246/ to view the Zoom URL!

Our October speaker is Josephine Bush!

Topic: SQL Auditing

Our online meeting schedule is as follows:

  • 6:00: General chat, discussion, and announcements
  • 6:30: Presentation

We usually wrap up between 7:30 PM and 8:00 PM.

Please RSVP to this Meetup, then use the online event URL to join (note: you MUST RSVP for the URL to be visible). We will send out a meeting password as we get closer to the event.

Thanks to our sponsor, Datto, for making this event possible!

When is “good enough” good enough?

If there’s one thing that I struggle with (and I’ll bet the house that I am not alone), it’s determining when something I’m working on is at a point where it’s “good enough for government work” (as the saying goes). Whenever I work on anything — whether it’s a work task or an extracurricular project — I always want to put in my best effort. As my personal mantra often goes, always put in your best effort — I don’t care if you clean toilets for a living. Ideally, my goal is perfection every time.

The problem is, perfection is an unrealistic standard. I’ve written about this before, and I still believe it. We’re human, after all, and a big part of being human is that we are rarely, if ever, perfect. I’ve often said that perfection as a goal is okay, but perfection as a standard is unacceptable. Sure, every once in a while, a bowler will bowl a 300 game, or a baseball pitcher will pitch a perfect game, but neither can be expected to do so every time out. Setting perfection as a standard is impossible, and anyone who sets perfection as a standard really needs to rethink their priorities.

For me, this is a constant struggle. I want to do the best job possible every time. However, there are often factors that work against me: deadlines, schedules, task management, work load, lack of knowledge or experience, fatigue, and so on. Additionally, my work often coincides with something else; a teammate is often counting on my part in order for him or her to proceed with their task. We don’t work in a vacuum; we’re often part of a team, and we need to work together. This is true even if you’re an individual contractor; your customer often expects to see results.

So how do you measure when something is “good enough?” This is often subjective and hard to answer, but I’ll take a crack at it.

I’ll use one of my favorite (and oft used) examples: baseball. As I mentioned above, a pitcher isn’t perfect every time. He’ll often give up a few hits and walks. He might even give up home runs on occasion. But was his performance good enough for his team to win? A play-by-play announcer will sometimes say, “he didn’t have his best stuff tonight, but he kept his team in the game, and it was good enough to get his team the win.”

So with that, I’ll often use measures like these: did my team get the win? Did my teammate (or customer) get what (s)he needed from me in order to do what they needed? Did my efforts meet the requirements? Did my teammate accept my results? Did my efforts get the job done? And, most importantly to me, did I give it my best effort, given any impediments (time constraints, fatigue, degree of difficulty, experience — or lack of — with the task, etc.) that might be in my way?

If I’m able to answer yes to questions like these, then in all likelihood, I can say yes, my efforts were good enough.

Never assume it’s obvious

When I was in college, I remember a professor who seemed fond of saying “it’s intuitively obvious.” I don’t remember a lot from that professor (other than that he was a good professor and a good man), but I vaguely remember my classmates making fun of that line, partially because he used it often, and partially because it often was not “intuitively obvious.”

How many of you remember way back when the “this beverage is hot” warning labels started appearing on coffee cups? Many of us (myself included) ridiculed it, responding with, “duh!” But of course, there is usually a good reason behind the story. Now the hot beverage warning label is ubiquitous on nearly all hot beverage cups, and most of us don’t give it a second thought.

I was reminded of this yesterday as I worked on a project. I won’t go into the details (I don’t like to share details of an in-house work project), so I’ll give you the high-altitude view of it. I’ve been trying to solve a problem where multiple people are asking IT Support for assistance, and IT Support is overwhelmed by requests. IT Support does have a website where many of these questions can be answered, but it seems that people either don’t know it exists or don’t know enough to look for the answers there.

I went poking through the website. It did seem to have the tools necessary to answer many questions, as well as resolve a few issues I’m working on. It then occurred to me — the very fact that I was poking around the site to figure out how it worked. In other words, it wasn’t entirely obvious as to how to get the answers from the site. It occurred to me that what was missing was a user guide for the site. I’ve been pitching it to several people, as I believe it’s a good idea, and I think it will resolve a number of problems. Nevertheless, I’ve gotten a little bit of pushback, along the lines of, “of course it’s obvious how to use it,” and “we have links everywhere that explains how it works.” (Also, IT Support, as just about any department, tends to get somewhat protective — understandably so — of its assets and material.)

So if it’s so obvious, then why are you getting overwhelmed with questions?

As a technical writer, “never assume it’s obvious” is one of my biggest mantras, and I think it should be for anyone involved with technical communication, UX/UI design, teaching, or documentation. Simple instructions can often be overlooked (how many times do I have to say that reading is work?!?), and people from other cultures may not always understand the language or context that you’re writing, so that’s something else to consider.

Never, ever, assume anything is obvious — because more often than not, it isn’t.

Improvement through rewriting

If you’re an application developer (or at least you used to be one, like me), how many times have you come across an old piece of code that you wrote and said to yourself, “what the f*%k was I thinking?!?” You say to yourself, I can write that much better now than I did back then, and your instinct is go back and change everything that you’d previously written.

The same holds true for documentation. I recently had an experience that reminded me of that.

I was updating my slide deck for my upcoming SQL Saturday talk this Saturday. I thought my slides were in pretty good shape, but I wanted to go through them to ensure that everything was still fresh and up-to-date. Besides, the organizers at SQL/Data Saturday LA sent me a link to their PowerPoint template, and I figured that I should use it for my slide deck for Saturday.

Indeed, when I went through my slide deck, I was hit with a case of “what the hell was I thinking?” Many of my statements and references were outdated. I found that I could rewrite much of what I’d originally written, making them more efficient and readable. Some items were unnecessary, and I eliminated them altogether.

I spent a couple of days rewriting my slides. When I was finished, I discovered that I liked the new slides much better than my old ones. I took the new slides and made some minor modifications (mainly removing the SQL Saturday LA branding so that it was more generic). If you’d like to see them, you can download them from my Presentations page.

So the moral of the story is, no matter how good you think something is, it can always be better. Don’t be afraid to review and edit something you’ve created. You might find that you like your new version even better.

(P.S. check out my presentation this Saturday!)

The right frame of mind is important for your overall health

I’ve been holding off on writing about this, but what happened to me is an important story to tell, and a cautionary tale for others who might be going through the same thing.

The photo you see above is me lying in a hospital bed about a month ago. And I want to tell you how I got there.

I have made no secret about how much the experiences of the past year have stressed me out. When I keep a regular schedule (and when I’m working), I have a routine that I maintain. And as long as I stick to the routine, I tend to do pretty well. If my routine gets upset, that’s when I get into trouble.

Well, the stress that I’ve endured upset my routine. My sleep schedule had been irregular. And I’ve been doing a terrible job of taking care of myself. The pandemic closure, in the early months, shut down gyms, which meant that I stopped going to CrossFit (which had been part of my routine). To make up for it, I started doing a Couch to 5K program. I had been doing pretty well with that program, until about halfway through, I was beset with injuries which also upset my (now new) routine. (The injuries were bad enough that I ended up going to PT to address them.) My extracurricular schedule, also part of my routine, had been disrupted because of the pandemic. I was stressed and overwhelmed. Things that I used to enjoy now suddenly seemed like a chore. To sum it all up, I had stopped taking care of myself.

About a month ago, I started having problems eating. Twice within two weeks, I got sick after eating. After the second time, my wife insisted that I go to the ER. Upon being examined, I was told, “we’re admitting you.”

For the sake of my personal privacy, I won’t say what it was that I had, except that it was not COVID. I will say that I remained in the hospital for a week. I barely ate anything during that week. My only diet was bags of IV solution that they sent through my system.

That was not a pleasant experience. I would not recommend that to anyone.

I have been home from the hospital for almost three weeks. I am slowly (emphasis on slowly) getting back to normal. Even as of this article, although I feel much better than I did, I still have not recovered 100%. My energy level is not what it was, and I get tired easily. And it all came about because I had become overwhelmed and had stopped taking care of myself.

The moral of this story is that your emotional and psychological well-being is just as important as your physical one; in fact, it can directly affect it. Your morale is important; in fact, it’s one of the things that I address in my job hunt presentation.

So take it from me. Take care of your mental well-being, and make sure you’re in the right frame of mind. Do what you need to do to roll with the punches. If you need to occasionally let off steam, do so. Get help if you need to. Get yourself to where you need to be, mentally and psychologically. Once you do that, you’ll be able to take care of yourself. Don’t end up like I did last month, and spend a week in a hospital bed.