First drafts are ugly

“The secret to life is editing. Write that down. Okay, now cross it out.”

William Safire, 1990 Syracuse University commencement speech

“No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”

William Forrester (Sean Connery), Finding Forrester

“Just do it.”

Nike

I will confess that this article is a reminder to myself as much as anything else.

Raise your hand if you’re a writer, and whatever it is you’re writing has to be perfect the first time around. Yeah, me too.

How many times have you tried writing something, but in doing so, you hit a wall (a.k.a. writer’s block) because you don’t quite know how to put something in writing? Or how often have you written a first draft, only to take a second look at it a second time and say, “what a piece of s**t!”

(And speaking as someone with application development experience, this happens with writing code, too. Don’t think that this is limited to just documentation. This is yet another example of how technical writing and application development are related.)

Someone (I don’t know whom) once said, “one of the stupidest phrases ever coined is, ‘get it right the first time.’ It’s almost never done right the first time!” In all likelihood, you need to go through several iterations — review, editing, rewriting, etc. — before a draft is ready for public consumption. It’s called a “draft” for a reason.

The fact is, nobody has to see what you write the first time around. If you’re trying to get started on a document, just write what’s on your mind, and worry about making it look nice later.

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Want to get started with speaking? Try your local user group!

Usually around this time of the month — a week before (my user group‘s) monthly meeting — I’d be posting an announcement about our upcoming meeting.

I still will do so — as soon as I find out who’s speaking.

As I write this, I’m guessing that our speaker will be Greg Moore, but I’m not completely sure. One way or another, I’ll post an announcement later today.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s article.

Have you ever wanted to speak publically or do presentations? Consider doing so at a local user group. It’s the perfect place to do so!

There are many advantages about speaking at a local user group. If you’re a first-time speaker, it’s an opportunity to practice your presentation skills. If you’ve been a part of a user group for some time, you can do so in front of a familiar audience. If it’s your first time at a particular user group, it can serve as an introduction to the group. Either way, it’s a wonderful experience that is generally less pressure than presenting for the first time at, say, a SQL Saturday.

I’ve told this story plenty of times. In 2015, I came up with a presentation idea that I first presented at my user group. I had been involved with this user group for a while, I was among friends, and I felt comfortable about presenting to this group. Ever since that initial experience, I’ve spoken at several SQL Saturdays, and this coming November, I will be doing that same presentation for PASS Summit! My experience with speaking has also passively helped my career in numerous ways, including (but not limited to) expanding my network and improving my own professional self-confidence. I’ve come a long way since that initial start!

And if you’re still not completely comfortable with speaking, but still have an interest in doing so, there are other resources available to get you started. Look into groups or courses such as Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie. (Disclosure: I have friends who are involved with Toastmasters, and I, myself, am a Dale Carnegie grad.)

If you’re interested in speaking, consider starting at your local user group. You never know where a small start could lead!

P.S. if you’d like to speak for our user group, feel free to drop us a line!

Coming up with presentation ideas

As a followup to yesterday’s article, I thought it might be fitting to talk about presentation ideas.

Despite the fact that I speak regularly at SQL Saturday, none of my presentations (up to this point) have anything to do with SQL Server or even anything data-related. My topics revolve mostly around documentation and communication. So how do I go about coming up with presentation topics?

To answer this, I suppose I should go back to the beginning, and (re-)tell the tale as to how I got involved.

Back when I was primarily a SQL Saturday attendee, I knew I wanted to get involved. The question was, how? At the time, I looked around at the people attending the event, and I said to myself, “these people probably know more about SQL Server than I do. What can I present that these people would find interesting?”

In the early days of our user group (I was one of the original co-founders and members), we sought out speakers to present. I thought about data-related topics. I even took a turn one meeting where we were encouraged to bring up SQL-related issues as discussion topics. But when it came to ideas for data-related topics, I kept coming up empty.

I thought about a time at one of my jobs where I became an accidental customer service analyst. As a developer, I was not allowed to speak with end-users, but one day, I received a phone call from a user. It turned out that he had gotten my number from someone who was not supposed to give out my number. I was able to walk him through and satisfactorily resolve his issue. In fact, I did such a good job with it that, from that point forward, I became one of the few developer/analysts who was allowed to talk to customers. It made me realize that I had a knack of being able to discuss technology with end-users without being condescending to them.

During one user group meeting, I jotted some notes down. By the end of the meeting, I had come up with enough material for a presentation. I ran my idea past my fellow user group attendees, all of whom said, “that would make a great presentation!”

I worked on the presentation and presented it at a user group meeting.

Four years later, I will be giving that same presentation at PASS Summit! I’ve come a long way!

While that ended up being a good presentation, I’ve tried not to rest on my laurels. I still try to come up with new presentation ideas. I’ve come up with several since then, and I’m still trying to come up with more.

When I think about presentation ideas, I generally keep these thoughts in mind.

  • Is it a topic that attendees will find interesting?
  • Is it unique?
  • Is it something about which I’m knowledgeable, and I feel comfortable talking about?
  • Is it something I can present within an hour? And do I need to cut it back to an hour, or do I need to fill it in to an hour?

I still remember a piece of advice that Chris Bell, a DBA and fellow SQL Saturday speaker, once told me: “an expert is someone who knows something that you don’t.” That was profound advice, and I’ve never forgotten it. So far, it’s served me well in my speaking endeavors.

So if you struggle to come up with presentation ideas (like I do!), hopefully this will help you get the ball rolling. I look forward to seeing your presentation soon!

PASS Summit and Election Day

Important public service announcement…

Election Day falls during PASS Summit.

I just filled out an application for an absentee ballot. If you’re attending PASS Summit and are eligible to vote, I suggest you do the same! Contact your local board of elections for more information.

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.”

Ranting my frustration about connect requests

This article may seem to go against one of the things that I preach in my ‘blogging presentation, and that is to avoid frustrated rants and “getting it out of your system.” Maybe I should be a little more specific. One should avoid mindless rants in which you angrily spew your passions without any thoughts, and in which you say things that you’ll later regret.

Yes, this article is a rant. However, it is not without thought, and there is a purpose to this post.

As many of my regular followers (both of you) are likely aware, I write and present primarily on professional development topics. I’m not as technically sharp as I once was, but I still contribute to groups such as PASS and SQL Saturday in the form of “soft” topics that are of interest to industry professionals. I’ve started using this analogy during my presentation introductions: “when it comes to my relationship with PASS and SQL Saturday, I’m the professor at MIT who teaches English Lit.”

Among other things — and if you follow my ‘blog and my presentations, you probably already know this — I write a lot about networking. These days, networking is the lifeblood of one’s career path.

However, there is a difference between networking and connecting. Therein lies the heart of my rant. I’ve written before about people who don’t give a crap about actual networking, as well as spam recruiters.

I still get connect requests from these people, and it frustrates me to no end. So with that…

<Rant>
  • If I don’t know who you are, tell me how we’re connected!!! I get a lot of LinkedIn requests from people whom I don’t know from Adam. Some might be people I’ve met from my user group or at a SQL Saturday, but if I’m not friends with you, I didn’t invite you to connect, I don’t interact with you on a semi-regular basis, or we don’t have some kind of common relationship (more on that below), chances are that I’m not going to know or remember who you are. I do NOT connect with random strangers that I don’t know. If you tell me how we’re connected, then I will be happy to connect with you. But if you send me a cold-connect request with no explanation whatsoever — or worse, send me a message where you kiss my ass without explaining how we’re connected (I’ve had that happen before) — then there is about a 98% chance* that I will delete your request. (And if you try to kiss up to me, insult my intelligence, or try to sell me something, that shoots all the way up to 100%.)

    (*If I recognize where you’re from, then there’s a slight chance that I might at least retain the request, not delete it altogether. But if I don’t know you, I still won’t connect until you tell me who you are. Don’t make me have to work to figure out who you are.)
  • I am NOT in a contest to see if I can get the most connections. So you have 3000+ connections. That’s great. But if you ask me for a recommendation, will I know anything about you? Networking is about relationships. If I need a favor (for example, let’s say I lose my job and am looking for a new one), are you willing to help me out? Or are you looking for something for me and are not willing to give anything back? If the answer no to the first question and yes to the latter, then don’t even bother with me.
  • We don’t have to be friends. We just need to have something in common. I don’t expect to be buddies with all my networking connections. Many of these people I will likely not recognize if I bumped into them on the street. Some might even be people with whom I have some kind of conflict. But if we’re both members of the same “family” (e.g. my alma mater, my fraternity, my gym, #SQLFamily, etc.), then I’m more likely to connect with you. If we’re friends, great, but having a networking relationship with acquaintances is okay.

And I have a special rant regarding spam recruiters. I hate spam recruiters passionately. (I once had a bad experience with a spam recruiter — if you really want to hear more about it, I talk about it in the link.) They give legitimate recruiters a bad name. All of the above bullet points about connecting apply, along with these points.

  • I will NOT relocate. If you try to sell me a position that requires me to move, consider your message deleted immediately. I have a home and a life. I have roots where I am, and I will NOT pull them up unless I desperately have to do so. I will NOT even look at any message that tells me about a job in someplace I’ve never heard of or located hundreds of miles from where I live. Every time I see a message like that in my inbox, it goes straight into the trash. I won’t even bother reading what it says.
  • Don’t even bother contacting me about sales or help desk call positions. Although I’m open-minded enough that I’d look into nearly any job depending on the circumstances, there are some positions in which I have absolutely zero interest. I have no interest at all in any type of sales associate or help desk call* position, and I state that very clearly in my LinkedIn overview. (There are a number of other positions as well, but those are the ones about which I get the most emails.) I don’t even know what on my resume says that I have any kind of interest in either position.

    (*I might consider a position that involves managing or supporting a help desk, but again, it depends on the circumstances.)
  • No growth? No dice. I’m always looking to grow. That doesn’t necessarily mean climbing the ladder (although it could mean that). It means improving myself, learning new skills, and possibly even furthering my education. If you don’t offer that, chances are that I won’t budge.

Having gotten that out of my system, I do have some points for legitimate recruiters (some of whom are my friends).

  • I am not actively looking for a position (at least not as of this article), but I do look passively. If something that looks interesting drops in my lap, I’d be stupid to at least not look into it. And if it’s something that works for me — whether it’s an increase in salary or an upward move — then who knows?
  • No, I won’t relocate, but… I do enjoy traveling, so I give bonus points for a position in which I get to do some traveling. Also, I would consider a position where I can work from home full-time, even if the prospective employer is located hundreds of miles away.
</Rant>

Okay. That’s out of my system. I feel better now.

Getting past the first draft

“No thinking — that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”

William Forrester (Sean Connery), Finding Forrester (via IMDb)

“The secret to life is editing. Write that down. Okay, now cross it out.”

William Safire, 1990 Syracuse University commencement speech

“What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”

Burton Rascoe

“Just do it.”

Nike

I wrote before that technical writer’s block is a thing. There have been more times than I care to admit where I’ve spent a good chunk of my day just staring at the blank Word template sitting on the screen in front of me.

I recently spent time struggling with such a document. I was assigned to document one of our applications, and I have to admit that I’m having a really tough time with it. Sometimes, one of the hardest things to do in writing (or just about any other endeavor, for that matter — writing software code and songs comes to mind) is simply getting started. I got to the point where I took the advice of William Forrester/Sean Connery and Nike, whose quotes you see above, and “just did it.”

I went through the application (ed. note: see my earlier article about playing with an application) and just started grabbing a few semi-random screen captures. I pasted the screen shots into my Word document, thinking maybe they’d be valuable to use in the document somewhere later. As I went through the functionality in the application, I wrote a few descriptive comments to go along with my screen captures.

That may very well have been the spark that I needed. As I continue this exercise, I’m finding that my document is starting to gain a semblance of structure. In the back of my head, I’m starting to get an idea of how the document will be organized. At some point, I’ll take what I’ve “thrown together” and try to figure out how to make the pieces fit.

This approach doesn’t always work. There are some circumstances where you want to plan it out — you don’t want to just haphazardly throw a building together, for example. But in some cases where creativity is more important than advance planning, mindlessly trying something might just be the spark you need to get yourself going.