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.

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Pursuing postgraduate education, part 2

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

Satchel Paige

“Moving me down the highway, rolling me down the highway, moving ahead so life won’t pass me by…”

Jim Croce

Only a couple of days after posting about pursuing additional education, some interesting things have come up.

In my previous article, I mentioned that my biggest stumbling block was financial, with schedule being the second biggest blocker. I may have discovered a solution to both issues. I did a little homework on Western Governors University. I had heard of WGU before — I have a friend who’s an alum — but I dismissed it, thinking it was a for-profit enterprise. (I’ll also confess that the possibility of it being a diploma mill also crossed my mind, but knowing my friend, who wouldn’t waste his time with that kind of scam, dispelled those thoughts.) As it turns out, WGU, is not-for-profit, accredited, and is 100% online. It’s a learn-at-your-own-pace program, and the price tag is affordable. I’m looking into possibly pursuing an MS in IT Management. I submitted a form saying that I was interested in more information, and I set up a phone appointment to speak with an enrollment counselor next week. We’ll see how it goes!

I also thought about other reasons as to why I want to do this.

For one thing, I feel like I need a new challenge. I wrote before about stepping out of your comfort zone to move ahead. Although this program is affordable and at my own pace, it nonetheless would still tax my financial and schedule resources. Additionally, despite all that I’ve accomplished professionally up to this point, I still feel that I am capable of accomplishing more. Not only would the degree itself fulfill that, but the potential return on investment includes opening more career doors.

Second, there’s a matter of keeping myself professionally relevant. I’ve written many times before that I’ve made an entire career out of adapting to my environment. As technology, job requirements, and our own skill sets change, so must we change along with them. Eugene Meidinger has written and presented about how difficult, if not impossible, it is to keep up with technology. As I come to terms with my own skill sets, I realize that I need to adapt in order to make myself more professionally valuable.

People often wonder what they need to do in order to get ahead, or at least maintain status quo. However you do it, I suppose the answer is to just keep moving.

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.

Earth Day

I understand that today is Earth Day. So happy Earth Day!

I am not a tree hugger per se. Having said that, I do try to do my part. I do my best to minimize how often I use single-use plastic bags (and honestly, IMHO, plastic grocery bags are one of the worst things ever invented). Every time I go grocery shopping, I either use my reusable bags (assuming I remember them) or ask for paper. I would be hypocritical if I said I don’t use plastic bags at all, because I occasionally do, but I, for one, would not be saddened to see them disappear altogether. I try not to use plastic straws (again, like single-use plastic bags, I do use them once in a while, but I try to minimize their use, and likewise, I wouldn’t mind seeing plastic straws disappear, either). I recycle whatever I can; indeed, on most trash days, our recycling bin often contains more than our garbage bin. I’ve tried to take other steps as well; when my wife and I built our house, I made it a point to get a tankless water heater and to check EnergyStar ratings on all our appliances.

In other words, when it comes to the environment, I am not perfect. I try to do what I can, but I still have plenty of room for improvement.

I’ll spare you from a lecture about global warming, trash, or unsustainability; that’s not what this is about. I’ll leave it to you to do your homework about increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, industry releasing pollutants, or whales ingesting pounds of plastic. Rather, I’m looking to raise awareness that we can — and must — do better. A lot of people don’t think that what they do makes a difference. The thing is, little things all add up. If we each do our part, we’ll come out okay.

I’d like to see people take an extra step today to celebrate Earth day — maybe something as simple as using one less plastic bag or plastic straw, or something as elaborate as taking part in a neighborhood cleanup. But these efforts shouldn’t be limited to just one day a year. Every day should be Earth Day.

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.

There’s a first for everything

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Lao Tzu

Take a moment and think about your career — where you are now, how far you’ve progressed, and so on. Do you like where you are?

Okay. Now, if you do like where you are, take a moment and think about how you got there. How did you get your start? When was the first time you did (insert the first time you did something to advance your career here)?

For whatever reason (don’t ask me why; I don’t know), I started thinking about first steps in my career. I especially thought about my involvement with SQL Saturday and the steps I took to get here. I’ve written before about how I got my start with SQL Saturday. There were several “first” steps that I took to get to this point. There was my first idea for a presentation. I wanted to take it for a test-drive, so to speak, so I first presented it at a user group meeting. That led me to my first submission to a SQL Saturday event. I enjoyed it so much that it prompted me to submit to my first SQL Saturday out-of-state. I knew almost nobody at this event, so this was stepping out of my comfort zone. (I’ve since become friends with many people I met at this event!) And as they say, the rest is history. That was more than three years ago. I’m still submitting, and now, I’m even getting asked to speak at other events. I’m pretty happy with where this endeavor has taken me so far, but I’m still in the middle of this journey.

First steps don’t just apply to your career. They apply to everything you want to accomplish in life. For example, I’ve been doing CrossFit for over four years now. I’ve come a long way in that time, but there are still a lot of things to accomplish. I wouldn’t be where I am had I not taken that first step into that gym one day.

I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old quote: “there’s a first time for everything.” I’ve taken countless first steps to get to where I am now, and I’m still going. I probably won’t stop taking them until I’m six feet under.

So where do you want to be in your career, or, for that matter, your life? Do you like where you are? What first steps are you going to take to get there? Wherever it is that you want to be, the only way to get there is if you take that first step.

Make goals, not resolutions

My previous post got me thinking about setting goals. I mentioned in my previous article that I hate setting New Year’s “resolutions.” I didn’t want to get into why in that article.

Well, in this article, I want to get into exactly why.

How many of you have made New Year’s resolutions? How many of you made them in years past? How many resolutions did you keep?

If I had to guess, probably not many, if any.

This is why I hate resolutions. They’re almost guaranteed to fail. Case in point: for those of you who go to a gym and work out, how packed is the gym in January? In all likelihood, it’s packed with people who resolved to go to the gym and work out this year.

Now, how many of these people are still at the gym by the end of the year? Or by July? Or even April?

I gave up making resolutions a long time ago. All I was doing was breaking promises to myself. And every time I did so, I just ended up disappointing myself.

Don’t set resolutions. Instead, set goals. If you want to do something to better yourself, setting goals is far superior to making resolutions.

Goals are measurable. Let’s say you make a resolution to lose weight and go to the gym. That’s awfully vague, isn’t it? That can mean almost anything. Let’s say you join a gym on January 1, do one workout, and never go again. You might say you broke your resolution. But did you really? You went once. That counts, doesn’t it?

However, let’s say you set a goal to lose ten pounds by the end of the year. Now you have something to shoot for, and it’s something that can be measured. You can keep track of how much weight you lose until you reach your goal, and you can measure aspects (calories, number of workouts, etc.) that will help you get there.

A goal is a target. In addition to being measurable, a goal gives you something toward which you can aim. You might hit it. You might not. Either way, you gave it a shot. Resolutions, on the other hand, are almost always doomed to fail.

If you miss your goal, that’s okay. When you break a resolution, you feel like you failed. It brings you down. It un-motivates you. However, if you miss a goal, it’s not the end of the world. You can either try again, or reset your goal toward something more manageable.

Speaking of being more manageable…

Goals are adjustable. If you find that a goal is unattainable, you can adjust it so it’s more attainable. And once you reach a goal, you can reset a higher goal, which will make you even better.

Goals can be set any time. Ever make a resolution in July? I didn’t think so. However, you don’t have to wait until the new year to set a goal. You can set them any time you want.

(There are probably a bunch of other reasons that aren’t coming to me right now.)

Personally, I’ve set a few small goals. For one thing, I don’t have much arm strength, so I struggle with any workout routine that involves supporting my own weight with my arms — pull-ups, rope climbs, handstands, etc. I set a goal of doing at least one real pull-up by the end of the year. Also, my home is, admittedly, a cluttered mess (it looks like it belongs on an episode of Hoarders). I told my wife that I would set a goal of decluttering a room at a time — the kitchen within a few weeks, the living room a few weeks after that, and so on.

There are a number of others I’d like to set as well, but I haven’t yet gotten around to setting them. As I go along, I’ll figure out what I need to accomplish, set my goals, and take steps to reach them. Again, I can set goals any time I want. I don’t have to wait until next year.

So what do you want to accomplish? What steps will you take to reach them? Whatever they are, you will be more likely to succeed by setting goals rather than making resolutions and empty promises to yourself.