Want to get ahead? Don’t get comfortable

“Moving me down the highway, rolling me down the highway, moving ahead so life won’t pass me by…”
— Jim Croce, “I Got A Name”

“It’s important to be able to make mistakes.  If you don’t make mistakes, it means you’re not trying.”
— Wynton Marsalis

“Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”
— Satchel Paige

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
— unknown

Late last Friday afternoon, our manager stopped by our workspace for a chat.  Some of it was just small talk, but he also wanted to give us a reminder of something, which is what I want to write about here.  I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist of what he said went something like this.

“We want you to develop personally and professionally,” he said (or something to that effect).  “The way you do that is to take on tasks that you know nothing about.  Volunteer to do things you wouldn’t typically volunteer.  If you see a support ticket, don’t worry about looking to see whether or not you know what it is or if you know how to handle it.  Just take the responsibility.  That’s how you develop.  If you want to move ahead, you need to step out of your comfort zone.”

Indeed, these are words to live by, and it isn’t the first time I’ve heard this.  I have had countless experiences where I’ve been told that I need to step out of my comfort zone in order to improve.  In my music experiences, especially in my ensemble performance experience, I’ve often been told by good music directors that I need to attempt playing challenging passages to get better.  When I first started doing CrossFit, one question we were asked was, “would you rather be comfortable or uncomfortable?”  The point was that in order to get better, some discomfort would be involved.  I also remember one of the points of emphasis back when I took a Dale Carnegie course; each week would involve stepping a little more out of our comfort zone.  We would do this gradually each week until we reached a point where we had drastically improved from where we had started.

Falling into a rut is common, and while it happens in all different facets of life, it is especially easy to do in the workplace.  Sometimes, the work environment can slow down, and you have a tendency to fall into a routine.  I’ve had this happen more often than I want to admit, and more often than not, I’m not even aware that I’m doing it.  Every once in a while, a pep talk or some kind of a jolt (such as a kick in the butt — whether it’s from someone else or myself) reminds me that I need to branch out and try new things if I want to get (and stay) ahead.  I am well-aware that I need to step out of my comfort zone to get ahead, but I am also the first to admit that I will sometimes forget about this, myself.

Too often, I see people who fall into ruts themselves, and who have no desire to step out of their comfort zones.  As much as I try to tell these people to at least try to do something about it, they insist on remaining where they are.  These people strive for mediocrity, which is a major pet peeve of mine, and something for which I have no tolerance or respect.  People want to remain in their “happy place,” but what I don’t understand is how these same expect to get ahead, yet refuse to leave their comfort zones to do it.  These people will be stuck in a rut forever, and they have no right to complain about it.

Everyone has a dream, or at least some kind of goal they want to achieve.  The fact is, if you want to reach that goal, or at least take steps toward it (whether you reach it or not), you need to get uncomfortable to do it.

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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.

Birth of a user group

At SQL Saturday in New York City yesterday, I debuted a brand-new presentation: So you want to be a SQL Saturday speaker?  Although only two people showed up, they were very receptive and engaging, which is exactly what I want out of my presentations.  As someone once said, the size of the audience doesn’t matter; just play your best.

What I found fascinating, however, was the interaction between the two gentlemen.  Both were from Long Island.  They traded contact information, and started discussing the idea of creating a SQL user group around there.

It brought to mind a memory from eight years earlier.  It was in 2010.  I was traveling down to New York for my very first SQL Saturday.  I had exchanged messages with someone on a SQLServerCentral.com forum about the conference; he was also coming from the Albany area, and was attending the same conference.  We met on the train, we talked, and we discussed the idea of creating a user group in the Albany area.

The gentleman was Dan Bowlin.  Our forum conversation from eight years ago is still on SSC, and can be found here.  We became friends, and we still remain friends to this day (although Dan no longer lives in the Albany area; he took a job down in Connecticut a couple of years ago).  The group we ended up founding is now CASSUG (Capital Area SQL Server User Group).  We didn’t know what we were getting into with our initial foray into this endavor, but CASSUG now has a few hundred members, holds meetings every month, and hosts its own SQL Saturday (our next one is coming up in July).  From a simple beginning, a user group was born!

I’ve written before about the benefits of user groups.  I’m hoping that this dialog between these two gentlemen leads to the creation of another one.  And I hope to hear about meetings for the Long Island SQL Server User Group (LISSUG) sometime soon!

Maybe they’ll even invite me down as a guest speaker sometime!

Who owns the email?

A while back, one of my work colleagues asked a very interesting question.

“When we send out an email, who owns the copyright?  Is it the owners of the data (i.e. individual clients), or is it the owners of the email (i.e. our employer)?”

He continued to lay out the scenario: “Send it to Client 1. Employee at Client 1 leaks the contents of the email; (our company) has to then cede coypright (sic) to the report so that they can distribute it internall?” (sic)

His final comment: “Imagine if (other companies) did that: ‘You wrote this with Office 365, Microsoft Owns (sic) the copyright'”

That’s a good question.  It’s one to which I don’t have an answer.  To be honest, I don’t have the knowledge or background to be able to answer it.  (Maybe someone who understands legal procedure or copyright law can answer it better than I can; if so, please feel free to comment.)  But I do think it’s an important one, nevertheless.

Email is probably one of the least secure forms of electronic communication.  It is often said that email should be treated like postcards, where anyone and everyone who touches it can read it.  It’s something I always keep in mind whenever I send email.  I refuse to send critical data (passwords, PHI, financial data, etc.) over email.  If I do have a need to send critical data, I’ll look for a way to do it securely, whether it’s data encryption, secure channels, direct messaging (which may not entirely be secure), or even face-to-face communication.  Data security is a big deal (too big to cover in just a single article), and each news item about data breaches becomes a bigger focus (as of this article, the Facebook data scandal is one of the biggest and most recent; sadly, I do not believe that this will be the biggest, nor the last, such breach).

If someone told me that I had to answer this question (and mind you, this is my opinion; do NOT quote me or state this as fact), the original author (or any data content copyright holder) owns any copyrights.  If I sent a song lyric over email, whomever it was that wrote the lyric would own that copyright, but I would own anything that I wrote (that is, something that came from my head — intellectual property — and not from someone else).  The purpose of a copyright, after all, is to protect intellectual property.  However, given email’s open and unsecure nature, original thoughts posted to an email should probably be considered to be public domain.  (That said, if an email sender cites some data source, has he or she committed a copyright violation?  I won’t take the time to discuss that now, but that might be another topic for another time.)

Despite email’s security concerns, it is still a useful tool, and is pretty much ubiquitous throughout our daily lives.  So long as we keep in mind that it isn’t secure, and we can keep our communication habits in context, it is a technology that will likely not disappear anytime soon.

The mystique of March Madness


(Photo source: sports.cbslocal.com)

It’s March, which means college sports junkies are in nirvana.  As I write this article, the first of the First Four games of the NCAA tournament are on the TV in front of me.

For the benefit of those of you who either live under a rock, know nothing about sports, or refer to all things sports generically as “sportsball,” a brief primer: “March Madness” (a.k.a. “the big dance”) is a reference to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, where 68 schools compete for the national championship in a single-elimination tournament format.  It generates a great deal of excitement for students, alumni, and sports fans.  It creates a conversation topic as millions of people fill out tournament brackets, trying to predict (mostly, in vain) the outcome of all tournament matchups.  To put it mildly, March Madness is a huge deal.

I played in a pep band for a power conference NCAA Division 1 school, so my sports loyalty and school spirit are, to put it mildly, very strong.  (Side note: GO ORANGE!!!)  Those of you who know people associated with college pep bands realize that our school spirit tends to run deep (this might be another article for another time).  I’ve had friends and colleagues comment that they almost never see me without wearing an article of Syracuse gear.

However, I was spoiled at Syracuse.  We are a major conference school.  When I was a student at SU, we expected to make the NCAA tournament every year.  Anything less than a tournament bid was a disappointment; for us, NIT stood for “Not In the Tournament.”  Our ultimate goal was, and still is, to win the tournament, finally reaching the NCAA basketball summit in 2003.

There are 351 schools (as of this article) that play NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball.  68 of them make the NCAA tournament.  That’s 19% of NCAA membership.  Of those 351 schools, there are 42 schools that have never played in the NCAA tournament.  (That number had dropped by one from 43, after Lipscomb won their conference tournament this year to make it for the first time.)

I currently live in a metropolitan area that hosts two Division 1 basketball schools (Siena and UAlbany), both mid-major conference schools.  Unlike the power conferences, the mid-majors usually don’t harbor realistic expectations of winning the national championship.  For them, just making the tournament is a big deal, never mind actually winning it all.

This is a frequent conversation topic with my friend, Jim, who is an alumnus of the University of Maine (and one of the 42 schools that, as of 2018, has never made the tournament).  He has told me that he dreams of watching the selection show and seeing Maine appear in the bracket.  I understand his sentiment; for him, it is a source of school spirit and regional pride.  Seeing your school’s name come up for a major sporting event in front of a national audience is a source of pride and excitement.

Only one school will win the national championship; the other 350 will be left saying “wait ’til next year.”  For the vast majority of those schools, the possibility of winning the championship is far-fetched.  But for the 68 schools that make the tournament, it’s the idea that you have the opportunity to play for a championship, regardless of your team’s odds of winning it.  It’s like playing the lottery; as long as you get a ticket, there’s a possibility, no matter how small, that you could win it.  This is the mystique of March Madness; the majority of schools in the tournament likely will not win it, but they at least have the opportunity to compete for the big prize.

Reaping what you sow

I originally started my ‘blog to supplement my SQL Saturday presentations (among other things).  I’ll admit that I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into with this endeavor, but one thing that was in the back of my mind what that my efforts might lead to bigger and better things.  It’s still too early to know whether or not I’m near that goal (I’m not there yet), but I’m seeing signs that I might at least be heading in the right direction.

I previously mentioned that I was invited to record a podcast for SQL Data Partners.  That podcast is scheduled to air tomorrow — when it does, I’ll post a link to it!  (Update: my podcast is now online!)  I was excited to do that podcast; recording it was a lot of fun (although there were a couple of things that I wish I’d said differently — that’s another article for another time), and it made me feel pretty good that I was being recognized for a skill that’s right in my wheelhouse.

I’m also seeing subtle indications that my skills are being recognized.  In my current job, people are increasingly referring to me and asking me questions about documentation, writing, and communication-related issues.  On the SQL Saturday circuit, I feel as though I’m treated as an equal among other speakers, despite the fact that I’m not necessarily an expert in SQL.  I’ll admit that I’m somewhat humbled when I think about the fact that I’m sharing space with SQL MVPs.  My presentations may focus on soft professional development (rather than hardcore technical) topics, but these people make me feel like a fellow professional and one of their peers — and that makes me feel pretty good!

There are many resources you can tap to get yourself going.  I highly recommend an article by James Serra where he discusses how to advance your career by ‘blogging.  I also suggest a SQL Saturday presentation by Mike Hays where he talks about creating a technical ‘blog.  They are both excellent presenters, and I recommend attending their presentations if you have such an opportunity!

There are a number of ways to refine and practice your skill sets.  Activities such as writing ‘blog articles, taking part in a user group, speaking about topics in your field, answering questions in an online forum, taking courses, and so on, provides a solid foundation for the skills you want to establish.  It’ll take time, but if you make the time and effort to develop and enrich your skills, your efforts will eventually bear fruit.

Keeping up with technology — revisited (again!)

A while back, I referred to Eugene Meidinger‘s SQL Saturday presentation about keeping up with technology.  I came across his ‘blog article where he talks about exactly that.  It’s a very good read, and he gives an excellent presentation.

Eugene will be giving this presentation in Rochester on March 24, which happens to be the same SQL Saturday where I’ll be speaking! </plug>

Hope to see people there!