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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References and memorization

I was working on a document, and wanted to toggle the language on MS Word that was used for proofing (I downloaded the template from our UK subsidiary, so it was proofing in UK, not US, English). I couldn’t remember how to do it, so I consulted Google, found my answer, changed the setting, and went along my merry way.

For whatever reason, it got me thinking about Microsoft certification exams (it’s funny how one’s mind works sometimes). It’s been a long time since I took one. What got me thinking was that, when you take a certification exam, you are not allowed to bring any notes or references with you into the testing room (as far as I remember — I’m not sure if that’s still the case now; like I said, it’s been a long time since I took a certification exam).

In this day and age where finding information is as easy as picking up your smartphone, I really believe that memorization is overrated (and, maybe in some cases, even dangerous). I wrote as much a while back, and I still believe that now.

Back when I worked as an adjunct instructor, all my assignments, quizzes, and exams that I gave to students were open-book, open-note. I also told my students that they were allowed to help each other work toward the answers, including during an exam. They were not allowed to outright give each other answers; that constituted cheating and were grounds for failing the exam. Maybe some instructors might scoff at this approach, but my students were very good about adhering to those rules (many of them told me later that they learned more in my class than any other they’d ever taken), and there was a method to my madness.

For one thing, I told my students that the ability to look up and research information was an important skill to have. We, as imperfect human beings, are never going to remember absolutely everything, so to be able to know how find the correct answers is important. Second, when we’re in a working environment, the ability to work together as a team is critical. When you’re working within a team environment, being able to work with others to achieve a common goal is a big deal.

Finally, how many workplaces are going to tell you, “okay, put away all your books and references. You’re going to do this project entirely from memory.” I don’t know about you, but if a manager ever told me to do that, I wouldn’t be able to update and distribute my resume fast enough.

In his SQL Saturday presentation entitled “Why candidates fail the job interview in the first minute,” Thomas Grohser mentions that he does not expect any candidate to be able to know everything. If a candidate says that (s)he “does not know the answer, but here’s how I would go about finding the answer,” then that is a perfectly acceptable answer. More often than not, trying to do everything from memory is a bad and sometimes dangerous approach, and is a bad way of thinking.

We are not perfect. We will never remember everything. And anyone who says that (s)he knows everything is full of crap. Rather than try to brute-force memorize anything and everything, it’s more important to develop skills that teach you how to think and how to find, verify, and process information. If I was a hiring manager, that ability would be vastly more valuable than someone who says that (s)he “knows everything.”

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.

The symbiotic relationship between documentation and application development

One of my current projects involves documenting processes for an application that are still under development. As such, much of what I write may change, depending on how processes are changed during the course of development.

At one point, I tested one of the processes so I could determine functionality and document it. In doing so, the process came back with an error message that I wasn’t expecting and didn’t have any user-friendly information, other than a cryptic error code. I contacted one of the developers working on the application and told him what I found. I gave him the error codes I experienced and steps I took to get them. He told me, “you’re coming across bugs that we didn’t even know we had.”

It occurred to me that I was doing more than just documenting the application. I was also acting as a beta tester.

One aspect about writing technical documentation is learning about what you’re writing. In order to write about a process, you need to understand how it works. If you’re documenting an application, the best thing you can do is run the application in a safe environment (such as development or a sandbox), learn how it works, and use it to document steps and capture screens. In doing so, you come across application bugs and even come up with ideas to make the application even better.

I’ve long argued as to the criticality of documentation. It records important information and serves as a reference. However, until this point, it didn’t occur to me that the document development process could have a symbiotic relationship with application development. To me, this adds further fuel to the argument that documentation is critical and required.

Collaboration, cooperation, and competition

This is another article based on stuff that I picked up from SQL Saturday #814.  This time, I’ll talk about Matt Cushing’s presentation about networking.

Whenever I’m speaking at a SQL Saturday, I always make it a point to attend sessions that are similar to mine.  At #814, I met Matt Cushing, who was doing a session on networking.  In fact, our presentations had very similar titles; they both started with “Networking 101.”  That very much caught my attention, and once I finished my own (my presentation was in the time slot immediately before his), I went to his room to catch his presentation.

A big reason why I attend presentations similar to mine is that everyone is different, and will therefore present differently.  Other people will have different perspectives of the same topic.  I want to see these other perspectives.  They might have ideas that will help me enhance my own presentations.  Every time I attend a session in which the topic is relevant to my own, I come across something that either never occurred to me, presents an idea in a different way, or reinforces concepts in my own presentations.  These are important, and they help me make my presentations even better.

Matt gave a great presentation!  I found his own self-assessment on his ‘blog.  I found out that it was Matt’s first-ever SQL Saturday presentation.  I had no idea!  He did a great job with it.  (Matt, if you’re reading this, well done!)  I don’t remember all the points from his session (I’ll need to download his presentation slides), but one takeaway was that “competition is good, cooperation is better.”  (This thought inspired the name of this article you’re reading now.)

This concept of cooperation is applicable to countless situations, and SQL Saturday presentations are no exception.  Many presenters refer to other speakers or other presentations; even in my own presentations, I’ll encourage audience members to go check out other presentations that are similar to my own topic.  (Ed. note: I need to make sure I add a reference to Matt’s presentation in my own slides!)  Matt and I joked that we should encourage SQL Saturday organizers to schedule our sessions back-to-back; we even went as far as to say that we should do a joint presentation.  (Matt, I’m game if you are!)

In a way, Matt is a competitor in that we did similar presentations.  However, we were both able to learn and feed off each other, which enables us both to improve; it’s a win-win for both of us.  Competition is a healthy thing; it drives us to do our best.  But when you cooperate with your competition, there’s no telling what you can accomplish.

Speaking in D.C. in December

I got the official word this morning.  I will be speaking in Washington, DC for SQL Saturday #814 on December 8!

I will be giving the following two presentations:

Hope to see you in the nation’s capital on December 8!

Unite the world

“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 are being divided.  We are identified by our divisions: Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, and so on.  And that is the problem.

There have been studies performed in which individuals identify closely with groups to which they relate.  In these cases, people in groups will defend their groups, no matter what the groups are doing, and regardless of whether the groups’ actions are perceived as being good or bad, right or wrong.

I am not a psychologist, so I won’t pretend that I know anything about these studies (disclosure: I did do research on groupthink when I was in grad school).  Nevertheless, what they seem to reveal is that we relate strongly to the groups to which we relate.  And we will defend our groups, no matter how right or wrong the groups’ actions are.

I do understand the effects of group dynamics.  I say this because I am a sports fan, and few things test our group loyalties more than sports.  I root for the Yankees, Syracuse, and RPI.  As a result, I stand firmly behind my teams, and I tend to hold some contempt for the Red Sox, Mets, Georgetown, Boston College, Union, and Clarkson.  Many of my friends are Red Sox fans (heck, I’m married to one!), Mets fans, Union College, and Clarkson University alumni.  Yes, it is true that we will occasionally trash-talk each other when our teams face off against one another, but at the end of the day, they are just games and entertainment.  I will still sit down with them over a drink and pleasant conversation.

Likewise, I have many friends who are on both sides of the (major party) political aisle.  I have friends of many races, religions (or even atheists), cultures, and creeds.  However, no matter where they stand on their viewpoints, I respect each and every one of them.  And there, I believe, is the difference.  No matter where we stand, we need to listen to and respect the other side.  One of the issues regarding group identification is that we do not listen to the other side.  We lose complete respect and empathy for anyone who is our “opponent.”  That is where communication breaks down, and that is where divisions occur.

What we need is something that unites us.  We are not Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Africans, Asians, white, black, yellow, or brown.

What we are is human.

Nelson Mandela united a divided South Africa behind rugby, a story depicted in the movie Invictus.  What will be our uniting moment?  For those of us in North America, I was thinking about something like the 2026 World Cup, but that is a long way off.

I don’t know what that something is, but we need to find it, and fast.  We are being torn apart by our divisions, and it could potentially kill us.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at our past history regarding wars and conflicts.  The American Civil War comes to mind.

I don’t know how much of a difference writing this article will make.  I am just one voice in the wilderness.  But if writing this contributes to changing the world for the better, then I will have accomplished something.

We now return you to your period of political silence.