Mentoring — another way to pay it forward

This morning, I received my annual email from Syracuse University‘s College of Engineering and Computer Science regarding their mentoring program. I have participated in this for the last couple of years, and I have enjoyed it each time. As I’ve written before, paying it forward is a passion of mine, and I always look forward to this opportunity whenever it comes around. When I saw the email, I couldn’t fill the response form out fast enough.

The university suggests a job shadow program, where a student follows you around the workplace for a day during the university’s winter break. For me, a job shadow is unlikely, since I work in a data-secure office (I doubt that a student would really want to watch me sit at a desk all day long, anyway). In lieu of that, I’ve taken students out to dinner for the past couple of years. It gives me an opportunity to converse and network with students in a relaxed atmosphere. I always enjoy these opportunities; not only do I get a chance to share my experience and wisdom (to my friends reading this: don’t laugh!), I also get an opportunity to learn about what is happening at my alma mater through the students’ perspective, not to mention that hearing about students’ experiences is fascinating.

In addition to the job shadow, the department also implemented a new mentoring program this year. The program provides an opportunity for students to interact with alumni who occupy professional positions. It allows for a number of possible activities, including networking, job shadows, mock interviews, resume reviews, and so on.

I have always found this program to be a great experience. If you’re looking for a way to give something back to your professional community, consider being a mentor to those who have less experience than you do, whether it’s through a school program, your workplace, a professional user group, or whatever such opportunity presents itself. You might find it to be a rewarding experience.

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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.

Learning to Stop Being a Hero

Steve Jones posted what I think is a good read, and I wanted to share.

Voice of the DBA

A few weeks ago I re-published a piece on whether we might be giving too much of ourselves for our employers. At the time I was on holiday with my family and since this was a popular piece years ago, I decided to run it again. I was surprised at the response, with quite a few individuals writing about their experiences in their current positions.

A good friend of mine read the editorial and then sent me a link to a post by Paul Cunningham that looks at the IT hero. This talks about some of the ways in which we put ourselves out as employees. It’s a good read, and it’s certainly something to think about when you look for a new job. When I talk about finding a dream job, I’m not talking about a specific job or career path, but rather, what’s the right fit…

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Diversifying your skill sets

Years ago, I remember reading a Wall Street Journal interview with Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams who said something to the effect of, “the way to be successful is to know as much as you can about as many different things as you can.” The article came out sometime in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find that article, and I’m unable to find it online, so you’ll just have to take me at my word — for what that’s worth.

For whatever reason, that sentiment has always stuck with me, and is evident in many activities in which I’m involved. In my musical endeavors, I play four different instruments (piano, clarinet, mallet percussion, and saxophone), and my music tastes run a fairly wide range (classical, jazz, adult contemporary, progressive/classic rock). As I’ve often written before, I am involved with CrossFit, which involves multiple movements and workouts; workouts are varied and are almost never performed twice in a row. As a baseball fan, I’ve always been appreciative of “utility” players such as Ben Zobrist who can play different positions in the infield and the outfield, allowing him to be plugged into nearly any lineup and reducing the need for multiple bench players.

This mindset has also manifested itself within my professional endeavors as well. I’ve practically made an entire career out of adapting to my environment, and a major reason for that is because I am capable of holding my own (if not being an expert) in a number of different areas. My main professional strength may be my technical writing and documentation, but it is not my only skill set. I am also capable of tasks that include (among other things) SQL Server, T-SQL scripting, object-oriented programming, UX/UI, and scripting on both the client and server sides, just to name a few. Granted, I’m not necessarily an expert in many of these skills — indeed, I sometimes describe myself as “knowing enough to be dangerous” — but in most cases, I’m able to hold my own. Maybe a better description for myself is “knows enough to be able to get it done.”

Such a diverse skill set has proven to be invaluable. Throughout my career, I’ve been able to comfortably handle a wide variety of tasks (the infamous “other duties as assigned”). It’s allowed me opportunities that I likely wouldn’t have otherwise had. I recently was assigned responsibility for a small but significant database role — a role I was assigned because I have SQL experience. Having these diverse skills have allowed me to adapt to my changing work environment.

Additionally, different skill sets are rarely, if ever, segregated; rather, they compliment each other. Cross-pollination between skills is nearly universal. A developer often needs to connect his or her application to a data source, in which case a background in databases is invaluable. The ability to communicate often helps a technologist to help an end user — a point that I often make in my presentation about talking to “non-techies.” In my experience with documentation and technical writing, I’ve found that my background with coding and databases has been invaluable for my documentation projects.

So to the aspiring career professional who asks me where (s)he should focus his or her skills, my response is… don’t. Although it might be okay to focus on an area of expertise, don’t ignore other skill sets. It will enrich your background, and your career will be all the better for it.

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.