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.

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Companies that adapt and survive

I’m working from home today. As is typical when I work from home, I’m sitting in my living room with my laptop in front of me and the TV on (and, every once in a while, Bernard — our tuxedo cat — curled up on the recliner between my legs). If there’s one thing I’ve learned about working from home, there’s nothing good on TV in the middle of the day on a weekday. To steal a line from Bruce Springsteen, how many channels and nothing on? Thankfully, as I write this, Wimbledon is on ESPN, and Roger Federer is putting on a clinic. (He lost the first set, but since then, has been absolutely dominant.)

Well, obviously, as you might have judged by my article title, I’m not here to talk about TV. So what does TV have to do with this article?

A little while ago, I saw an ad for Western Union. For whatever reason, I started thinking about Western Union’s history: it started out as a telegraph and telegram company. It made me think: in this day and age of internet, social media, and nearly instantaneous mass communication, how has Western Union managed to remain relevant?

I looked up Western Union on Wikipedia. I didn’t take the time to read the entire article, but to make a long story short: Western Union adapted with the times. It stopped delivering telegrams a long time ago, but has since become involved in internet communications, as well as financial services. As their ads bill themselves, they’re “the fastest way to send money.”

Western Union still exists because they changed and adapted with the times.

They’re not the only ones. A number of companies continue to exist because they managed to change with the times. Off the top of my head, The New York Times has de-emphasized their print paper and is largely an online news source. While Apple still produces personal computers, they became much more successful after diversifying and becoming a provider of products such as smartphones and music players, among other things. There are countless other examples as well; at the moment, these are the ones that stand out in my mind.

Even from a personal standpoint — I’ve written about this many times before — I’ve practically made an entire career out of adapting to my environment. Even in one of my very first ‘blog articles, I wrote about how change is inevitable.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Change will happen. The question is, how will you adapt to it? In order to survive, you need to be able to roll with the punches. The environment around you will change. What will you do to adapt?

Who has the final say on a service issue?

I recently registered for Homecoming Weekend at the old alma mater. For me, it’s a reunion year ending in zero, so this year is of particular interest to me. (No, I won’t say which one it is. All I’ll say is, I’m getting old!)

While going through my own information on the Homecoming web site, I noticed a minor error. It wasn’t particularly big, and the error isn’t important in and of itself, but the university wouldn’t let me change it online; I needed to email them to get it fixed.

In response, I received a Jira service request notification indicating that it was in the queue. I knew right away that they were using Jira; we also use it in our office, and the email format and appearance is unmistakable.

The next email I got from them, a couple of hours later, is the graphic you see above, and as someone who’s worked in technology his entire professional career, I found it to be particularly irksome. When I received the message, my immediate thought was, “excuse me, but I am the customer. Who are you to say that my issue is resolved and completed?!?”

Sure enough, when I checked my information again, it still hadn’t been updated. I even tried clearing my cache and refreshing the browser. No dice. I wrote back, saying that I didn’t see the change and asking how long I should wait before I saw it. For all I knew, the web server had to refresh before any data changes appeared, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt. I received an automated message saying the case had been reopened (I was responding to Jira, after all). I didn’t get another response until this morning, when once again, it was marked “Resolved” and “Complete.” When I checked my information again, the change was there. I did not receive any other communications or acknowledgements, other than the automated Jira responses.

In their defense, to me, a department called “Constituent Records” sounds more like a data end-user role, rather than a full-blown IT or DBA role (I could be mistaken), so maybe they weren’t versed in concepts such as tech support, support levels, incident management, or support procedures. Nevertheless, I still found this to be annoying on a couple of levels.

First, it is up to the customer, not the handler, to determine whether or not an issue is resolved. The word “customer” can have a number of connotations*; in an internal organization, the “customer” could be a departmental manager or even your co-worker sitting next to you. To me, the “customer” is the person who initiated the request in the first place. An issue is not resolved until the customer is satisfied with it. It is not up to the handler to determine whether or not an issue is resolved. The handler does not have that right.

(*Side thought: the customer and handler can be one and the same. If I come across an issue that I’m working to resolve, I am both the customer and the handler. Nevertheless, the issue isn’t resolved until I, the customer, is satisfied that I, the handler, took care of it to my — the customer’s — satisfaction.)

Second, as a technical communicator, I was annoyed by the complete lack of communication from the person handling the request. The only communications I received were either comments contained within the Jira ticket or automated responses from Jira itself. Not once did I receive any message asking for any feedback or asking to see if I could see the change. The only messages I received — before I responded saying I didn’t see the change — was an automated Jira response acknowledging that they had received my request, and a second message that it had been resolved and closed. Boom. End of story.

I’m writing this article as a lesson for anyone working in a support role. First, feedback is important. You need to know that you’re handling the issue correctly. “How am I doing?” is a legitimate question to ask. Second, it is not up to you, the handler, to determine whether or not the issue is resolved. That right belongs only to the client — the customer who initiated the request, and whose issue you’re handling.

Burning Out

Reblogging another good article. Steve Jones reminds us that it’s important to maintain a work-life balance.

Voice of the DBA

We tend to work a lot of hours as data professionals, developers, even IT management. It seems that we often are in the office at night, on weekends, and anytime there is a crisis. Even when we don’t have down systems, it seems the pressure to continue to build new features, functions, and ensure systems are operating well leads many of us to work longer hours than the expected 40 hour week. In fact, there are no shortage of companies that expect IT employees to work more than 40 hours every week.

This isn’t limited to IT. Doctors, lawyers, and plenty of other professions put in extra hours at work. Even teachers often do work at home. I’ve seen this first hand this past year with my oldest son teaching 5th grade. He spends a fair amount of time doing work at the kitchen counter, not unlike what I used…

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Three years a ‘blogger — what a long, strange trip it’s been

As of this Friday, I will have been writing my ‘blog for three years. Happy anniversary to me, I suppose!

I originally started my ‘blog to supplement my SQL Saturday presentations, but since then, it’s taken on a life of its own. I’ve written about a number of topics, mostly about professional development. I’ve dabbled a bit in some technical topics such as SQL Server and BI. I’ve even written about networking and the job hunt. As a professional technical communicator, I write a lot about technical writing and communication. Every now and then, I’ll write about something that has nothing to do with professional topics, but might be of interest to professionals, anyway. I write about whatever’s on my mind. In a way, I think of my ‘blog as my own online diary, except that instead of writing a personal journal where the only people who’d see it are myself and anyone who comes across it after I’m dead, I’m writing it for the entire online world to see.

I think a ‘blog can be a good experience for anyone looking to advance his or her career. Indeed, I have a presentation in the works about exactly this topic. As of this article, it’s still a work in progress. I haven’t done much more than create a PowerPoint template and put a few thoughts into it, but I have already submitted it for SQL Saturdays in Albany and Providence. We’ll see if it gets any bites, and hopefully, I’ll be presenting it at a SQL Saturday near you!

(Note: if you’re a ‘blogger, and would like to contribute something about your experience to the presentation, please feel free to mention something in the comments. Maybe I’ll use it in my presentation! Don’t worry, I’ll make sure I give you credit!)

I have some more thoughts about ‘blogging, including things I’ve learned and tips for people who are looking to get started with ‘blogging, but I’ll save those thoughts for another time. (These are all things that I intend to cover in my presentation.) For now, I’ll just say that it’s been a fun three years, and I hope to keep going for many more!

The evolution of statistics

During my lunch break, I was perusing the ESPN website and stumbled across this article. It contemplates whether or not a .300 hitter (in baseball, for those of you who are sports-challenged) is meaningful anymore. As a baseball fan, the article caught my attention. I didn’t read through the entire article (it ended up being a much longer read than I expected — too long for me to read while on a lunch break at work), but from what little I did glean from it, a couple of things struck me.

First, they talk about Mickey Mantle‘s batting average and how important hitting .300 was to him. That struck me a little funny, because (as far as I know — as I said, I didn’t get through the entire article) there was no mention of the fact that he actually finished with a batting average under .300. His career batting average was .298.

The second thing that struck me was (Yankees’ first baseman) Luke Voit saying how he felt that “feel like batting average isn’t a thing now.” Indeed, baseball is a much different game than it was, say ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. Analytics are a big part of statistics these days. A lot of stats that are prevalent now — WAR (wins above replacement), exit velocity, OPS (on-base plus slugging), etc. — didn’t even exist when I was a kid growing up, closely following my Yankees. Back when I was eating and sleeping baseball, hitting was about the triple-crown statistics — batting average, home runs, and runs batted in (RBIs). But now, we have “slash lines,” on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and so on. Even as big of a baseball fan as I am, I haven’t a clue about many of these “new age” stats. I still have no idea what WAR represents, I’m not completely sure as to what the numbers in a slash-line are, and I don’t know what constitutes a respectable OPS.

That got me thinking about how statistics have changed over the years, and whether or not that applies to statistics outside of baseball (or sports, for that matter). Maybe people who study data analytics for a living might know this better than I do, but what business statistics have a different meaning now than they did ten, twenty years ago? Are there any numbers from way back when that I should now take with a grain of salt?

I’m sure there are many examples of this outside of sports, but I struggled to come up with any. Off the top of my head, I remember how a company where I once worked made a big deal out of perfect attendance — to the point that they gave out perfect attendance awards at the end of the year. However, that had to contend with situations such as coming to work when you were sick, and so on. Do you really want someone who’s sick coming into work? These days, workplaces do not want sick people in the office, and with the advent of work-at-home provisions, perfect attendance isn’t so meaningful, anymore. (By the way, my understanding is that company no longer recognizes or rewards “perfect” attendance.)

So I suppose the takeaway is, how well do statistics age? Can they be compared with the same statistics now? What needs to be considered when analyzing statistics from years ago? It’s true that numbers often tell a story, but in order to get the full picture, you also need to understand the full context.

Networking: it’s all about relationships

My last article got me thinking — what and why is networking? What’s it about? How is it supposed to work? It occurred to me that the person who sent me that first LinkedIn request (to which I refer in my previous article) doesn’t get it. She has no clue about what networking is, why it is, and how it works. Networking is not about just saying “I have X number of connections.” “Connecting” is not the same as “networking.” You may have a large number of LinkedIn connections. But are you really networking?

Networking is about building and nurturing relationships — for our purposes, building professional relationships. (I mention “professional” since it’s the main focus here, although solid social relationships often come out of them as well — and they, in turn, strengthen the business relationship. How often do you go out with your coworkers for lunch, a cup of coffee, a drink after work, a ballgame, or — in some rare cases — even a date?) Often, these relationships take time to develop. The stronger the relationship is, the stronger the network is. Subsequently, a good network takes time to develop, often weeks or months, and sometimes even as long as several years.

Granted, the relationship isn’t always social, and many people in a network may be (at best) more acquaintances than friends. There are many people in my network with whom I’ll likely never share so much as a cup of water at the watercooler — and that’s okay. What matters is that the connection is valuable and bidirectional. A network connection is mutually beneficial. I might need a favor from some person, and (s)he might someday need one from me. As long as two people are willing to assist each other in some way, shape, or form — it could be as minor as providing a small piece of advice, or as major as hiring that person for a six-figure executive position — if both sides benefit from the relationship, that is a network.

So how does one establish a network? I’ve touched on this a number of times. I talk about it extensively in my networking presentation. I highly recommend Matt Cushing‘s presentation about networking at a PASS/SQL event. (Amusing side note: as of this article, Matt has given his presentation four times — and I’ve attended all four! I’ll likely make it five-for-five when we hook up again in Virginia Beach. I jokingly told him that he can just start referring to me as “his prop.”) In my previous article, I mention how I connected with the person who sent me the second LinkedIn request I received that weekend. I wrote about how to establish a network online. I also wrote earlier about how common connections can benefit people.

And I’ve mentioned this many times before, but it bears repeating: the person who hired me for my current job is one of my Facebook friends.

Just because you’re “connected” to someone doesn’t mean you have a network. Networking is about relationships, whether they’re casual acquaintances or close friends. The stronger those relationships are, the stronger your network will be. How you nurture those relationships determines how strong your network is. And if you establish a strong network, chances are that you’ll go far in your professional endeavors, whatever they may be.