Blind spots

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today…”
— Bruce Hornsby (or Huey Lewis — whomever you prefer)

“You’re only human; you’re allowed to make your share of mistakes…”
— Billy Joel

One of my favorite books is The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks.  For the benefit of those of you who’ve never read it (spoiler alert: if you’ve never read it and want to, I suggest you stop reading this paragraph and move to the next one, because what I’m about to say doesn’t get revealed until near the end of the book), the book involves a magic sword that has the ability to reveal truth.  When the sword’s magic is invoked, both the wielder and the recipient are forced to confront the truth.

There are many times that I wish I had a Sword of Shannara.  I can think of many people who would benefit from its magical power.  And I put myself at the top of that list.

An incident that occurred last night served to remind me of the blind spots that I have.  I don’t care to talk about the incident (the details aren’t important here, anyway), except that I felt as though I’d taken a big step backwards.  It’s not the first time that I’ve taken a step back, and as much as I try to avoid it, I suspect that it will likely not be the last.

We all have blind spots; it’s a part of being human.  More often than not, we aren’t aware that those blind spots are there — hey, there’s a reason why they’re called “blind” spots.  There is no magic sword to reveal those blind spots.  The best mirror we have for those blind spots is each other, in how we behave and react around one another.  If someone is smiling, laughing, or nodding his or her head around you, you’re probably doing something right.  If that person is frowning, yelling, or criticizing, then probably not.

As much as we try to do our best, inevitably, we will stumble somewhere down the line.  I admit that I’m probably still dwelling on it — I probably wouldn’t be writing this article, otherwise.  I’ll eventually get over it.  All we can do is to recognize our blind spots — once we recognize that they’re there — keep an open mind, learn from our mistakes, and keep moving forward.

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No rest for the unemployed

A while back, I wrote an article that I affectionately refer to as the “job hunter’s survival guide.”  One of the things I mention in the article is to “keep busy.”  In my current state of unemployment, I’ve discovered that I’m busier than I ever thought I would be.

First, there’s the job hunt itself.  I’ve often told people that “looking for a job is a full-time job.”  I have yet to disprove that theory.  My work days have been spent working on my resume, applying to positions, touching base with my networking contacts, interviewing, taking assessment exams, following up on leads and applications, and so on.  That makes for a lot of work, and it makes up a good chunk of my working hours.

Second, there are a number of things with which I’m involved.  I’ve said before that getting involved is a good thing for multiple reasons.  Since my former employer and I parted ways, I’ve been to two SQL Saturdays (including one in which I presented), and am scheduled to present at a third one in July.  I’ve rehearsed with my wind quintet.  I’m involved with my local SQL user group.  I work out at the gym.  I also have a number of things with other groups (such as one of my alumni groups) that I need to address.

Third, even staying at home doesn’t offer a break from my to-do list.  Household chores need to be addressed — I have a long list of items around the house.  We have two cats that want attention.  Those of you who are homeowners understand the struggle.  When you own a house, there’s never a shortage of things to do.

For someone like me, I’m finding a few other things to keep me busy.  If you’re reading this article, you’re looking at one of those things.  A writer — even a ‘blog author — always has something to do if he or she has something to write about.  I also have some presentation ideas that I want to develop; hopefully, you’ll see them soon at a SQL Saturday near you.  In doing so, I’m looking for more opportunities to learn new things and keep myself up-to-date.

Staying busy is a good thing; you don’t want to be idle.  If a prospective employer asks what you did during your downtime, you can list all these things you did to keep yourself busy.  When you’re in the job market, small things like this can give you an edge.

Reinventing yourself

If there’s one thing I’ve managed to develop throughout my professional life, it’s my ability to adjust to my environment.  I’ve practically made a career out of it.  It’s an ability that has managed to keep me sane in tough situations, not to mention that it has enabled me to extend my shelf life long after my role, whether it’s because of an organization’s changing needs or my skill set no longer fits, has become obsolete.

A ballplayer with a long career (yes, here I go again with the baseball analogies) is usually able to do so by developing a new strength after an old one is no longer effective.  For example, pitchers such as C.C. Sabathia or Bartolo Colon have reinvented themselves as finesse pitchers who get batters out using guile and precision, long after their fastballs are no longer effective.  Likewise, a professional who is having difficulty keeping up with modern trends or technology may need to reinvent him or herself in order to remain relevant in the marketplace.

My recent unemployment forced me to take stock of where I am in my career and where I want to be going.  Even before my (now-former) employer let me go, I’d been asking myself some hard questions about who I was.  I had been struggling as a developer, which was making me question whether or not it was what I should — or even wanted — to be doing.  At the same time, I also considered my strengths.  What was I good at doing?  Were these strengths marketable?  Were they skills that I could offer to an organization?  Would I enjoy a position that took advantage of these strengths?

For me, personally, I discovered — or, more accurately, re-discovered — that my strengths were in writing and communication, not software development.  This revelation made me realize several things.  While I enjoyed doing development work, I found that I wasn’t passionate about it.  I was, however, passionate about writing and documentation — to the point that I began steering myself in that direction.  I became openly critical about my company’s documentation (and, in many cases, the lack of).  My SQL Saturday presentations have all been based on writing and communication.  Even in my current job search, my focus has been on positions that emphasize writing and communication over hardcore technical skills.  Having said that, I am also not discounting my technical background; my ideal position is one that takes advantage of that background.  While I am looking for something that focuses on communication, I am looking at my technical background to supplement that skill.

At this point in time, whether or not this strategy lands me a new position remains to be seen.  However, I’ve made some observations.  First, I’ve noticed that prospective employers appear to be more receptive to my approach.  I seem to be getting more and better prospective opportunities, and they are coming quickly.  Second, I’ve noticed that, in conversations and interviews, I am much more confident and assertive.  Third, I’m much more focused in my search — in contrast to job searches in years past, where I would apply to anything and everything that even remotely sounded like a position I could fill.  Finally, as strange as it may seem, I’m finding that I’m actually having more fun with this process.

It’s often been said that when a door closes, another opens.  If a current position or career isn’t working for you, it might be time to take stock and reinvent yourself.  You might discover a new mindset and a new motivation.  You might discover a new passion.  You might even find that reinventing yourself results in a new career path — one that is more satisfying and rewarding than you had ever previously believed.

Be the best you you can be

Ho-Jon: “How can I ever thank you?”
Hawkeye Pierce: “You just go and be the best you you can be.”

“Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned?  I know it sounds absurd, but please tell me who I am…”
— Supertramp, “The Logical Song”

“Who are you?  Who, who, who, who?”
— The Who

At my CrossFit gym last night, we had a tearful good-bye to a friend (one of our members) who was moving out to the western part of the state, along with her husband and children, for a new life.  One thing she said struck me: “I’m not the same person I was when I walked into this place.  How is this new person going to be able to adapt to a new place?  Am I going to be able to find another Ray, or another [name], or another [another name]…?”

I said to her, “all you can do is be you.”

I said that, and I believe that.  But what, exactly, does that mean?

I could probably write an entire book about that (and some people have), but I’ll spare you the gory details.  Besides, I’m no psychologist, and what I say might be worth about as much as a politician’s alt-facts (don’t get me started).  But, since this is a ‘blog article, and I write what I think, well…

For starters, you’re the one person whom you’ll get to know the best.  You know your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, your tastes, your interests, and so on, better than anyone else.  You’re the one person over whom you have complete, 100% control (disclaimer: I am not talking clinically; that is another discussion about which I know nearly nothing).   If you don’t know yourself, if you don’t take stock of who you are, you’ll start having issues.

Knowing yourself leads you to something else: having confidence and faith in yourself.  If you know yourself, you know, for the most part, what you’re capable of doing.  I’m not always sure as to what I’m capable of handling, but I do know myself enough to know what I can do.

This bring me to another thought: being you also means testing your limits.  Testing your limits means stepping outside your comfort zone.  Are you capable of doing more?  Often, you won’t know until you try.  And once you do try, how does it make you feel?  Proud?  Accomplished?  Can you do even better the next time you try?  The point is, you will always be you, but you are never static.  We are always changing.  Who you are now is probably not the same you from years ago.  And who you will be in several years won’t be the same you that you are now.

The world is a scary place.  It is human nature to fear what we don’t know.  But the world around us often defines who we are.  Who we are depends on what kind of cards we’re dealt.  We are often shaped by the changes we face.  And in the end, the way you deal with change is to continue being the same, ever-changing you that you’ve always been.

The checklist manifesto

Some time ago, I came up with a new presentation idea that I tentatively titled “The magic of checklists.”  The idea is to demonstrate how checklists can improve tasks in any organization.  I have a number of ideas regarding this presentation, and I’ll expand upon them in a future ‘blog article.

As preparation for this idea, I assigned myself some homework.  My friend, Greg Moore, recommended a book to read: The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.  I borrowed a copy from the local library and started reading.

The book (which I’m still reading) is turning out to be an excellent read: so much so that I’m considering purchasing my own copy, instead of just relying on the one I borrowed from the library.  (This way, I can use a highlighter and scribble my own notes in the book.). Yes, it reinforces my ideas about using a checklist to improve upon workplace tasks.  But I’m also discovering that there is so much more.  Reading this book has enlightened me on numerous ideas that had never occurred to me.

The book hits upon numerous concepts, each of which is worth an entire presentation in their own right.  Among them: the importance of communication, organizational structure, teamwork, crew/team resource management, keeping an open mind, empowering a team, following instructions, making adjustments, and doing the right thing.  (Since I’m not yet finished with the book, there are likely a number of other concepts I haven’t mentioned that I haven’t yet come across.). When I first picked up the book, my initial thought was, “how much can there be about a simple checklist?”  I’ve since learned that a checklist — any checklist, no matter how small — is not simple.  And while a checklist is an important tool, it is also a big part of an even bigger process.  All the ideas I listed several sentences ago are all part of that process.

I’d like to relay a story I came upon in the book.  David Lee Roth of Van Halen was famously known for canceling concerts if his instructions for leaving a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed in the dressing room were not followed.  Many people — myself included — decried him for these seemingly cockamamie instructions.  However, there was a method to his madness.  It turned out that this was a test.  If that instruction hadn’t been followed, then it was possible that another critical instruction — like, say, installing bracing to ensure the stage didn’t collapse — had not been followed.  (And before you think instructions like these can’t be missed, they can, and they have — sometimes, with disastrous consequences.) It goes to show that there is always more to the story.

Once I finish reading this book and can organize my thoughts, I’ll put out another article and another presentation (hopefully, coming soon to a SQL Saturday near you).  In the meantime, I highly recommend this book.  Maybe it’ll change your perspective the way it has changed mine.

“I lost my job. Now what?!?”

Before any of my friends panic, no, I didn’t actually lose my job (at least not at the time of this article); this is just what I’m using for the title.

Having said that, here’s a little background for what prompted me to write this. A few weeks ago, I saw a Facebook post from a friend of mine. She was (understandably) flustered because her husband had lost his job.  I wanted to help them (and others) out, so I began jotting down my thoughts for this article.  Ironically, I had a Facebook “on this day” memory come up on the very same day that I started jotting down my notes for this article; it turned out that on that day four years ago, I was laid off from a job as well.

Losing your job is always a scary proposition. Very few people (that I know of) wants to be unemployed.  There’s a great deal of uncertainty.  Questions enter your mind; among others: “how long will I be out of work?”  “How will I pay the bills?”  “How will I get by?”

Having been there and done that, I empathize with people who find themselves jobless.  For those of you who find themselves in such a situation, here are some tidbits that helped me through these tough times.

  • Above everything else, control your emotions.  When you lose your job, your emotions run wild.  Most likely, you (understandably) get scared, depressed, angry, frustrated, and so on.  The worst thing you can do is lose control of yourself.  If you need to do so, find a safe way to blow off steam and keep your feelings in check.  It isn’t healthy to keep those emotions bottled up, but at the same time, it is absolutely critical that you keep your head on your shoulders.  Find a healthy way to get those feelings out of your system, but don’t let those feelings control you.
  • Keep a positive attitude.  It is very easy to get down on yourself when you lose a job.  Strangely, the last time I lost my job, I actually felt invigorated.  I looked at it as an opportunity.  It wasn’t so much that I’d lost my employment as much as I was being offered a chance to try something new.  I wrote a while back that a positive attitude can be a powerful thing.  Rather than dwelling in what was, focus on what might be.
  • Take advantage of your free time.  A friend of mine who’d lost his job at one point told me that he took advantage of his suddenly-acquired free time to spend time with his family, play golf, and do things he didn’t have time to do because he was at work.  While he did focus efforts on his job hunt, he also made it a point to balance his time between searching for a job and having fun — which brings me to another thought…
  • Looking for a job is a full-time job.  Back in the good-old “answering help wanted newspaper ad” days, quantity was quality (there might be some recruiters who disagree with me on this, but I digress).  I am, admittedly, old school, so a part of me still subscribes to this mindset.  There were job hunts where I averaged about ten applications a day.  There’s also doing your homework — researching companies and potential employers, sizing them (and yourself — again, more on that in a minute) up, getting addresses, making phone calls, polishing your resume and your cover letters, and so on.  That makes for a lot of time and effort, and it will tire you out.  Make the time for your job hunt endeavors — but don’t forget to balance your life as well.
  • Find something to hold you over.  No, flipping burgers isn’t sexy, but it’s a source of income.  Even minimum wage is better than, say, zero (and it might also be better than unemployment benefits, which, in my experience, usually pays squat).  There is no shame in taking a temp job to hold you over until you land on your feet again.
  • Get involved, and keep yourself busy.  Number one, it’ll get your mind off your situation.  Number two, it’s a chance for you to network (again, I’ll expand on that in a bit).  Number three, you might learn something new that would make you marketable.  For more thoughts on getting involved, check out my article on getting involved with user groups, as well as an article I wrote about using your skill set for speaking at conferences.
  • Be honest with yourself.  When I started getting down on myself about my job situation, I asked myself a few questions, including: “where do my strengths lie,” “what am I capable of doing,” and “what do I really want to do?”  I identified my own skill sets and my interests; this, in turn, helped me identify positions for which I was qualified, as well as developing my own professional persona that helped me with interview skills.
  • Be creative.  As part of my job search, as well as a tool for networking, I created business cards for myself.  However, these were no ordinary business cards.  I remembered a scene in Mr. Baseball where Tom Selleck’s character learned that Japanese businessmen networked by exchanging business cards.  He gave them his baseball card.  That got me thinking: “Business card…  baseball card…” and I put the two together.  The result is what you see in the picture below.
    raysbizcardpic
    My networking business card

    The picture is a souvenir photo I got on a trip to Cooperstown (they dressed you up in the uniform of your choice and took your picture with a stadium backdrop).  I took that photo and made it into the business card you see above.  The back side has my contact information, and inside (it’s a folded card) contains a mini-resume with my career information.  I always get great reactions from people when I hand these out; someone even once said to me, “if I was in a position to hire, I’d hire you right now just because of this card!”  People will remember you, and it makes a great conversation piece.

    You don’t have to come up with a baseball-business card (hey, my idea, darn it!), but by all means, tap into your creativity to get yourself noticed!

  • Network, network, network!  Did I mention that you should network?  These days, networking is probably the best way to find a job.  Someone who knows of a job opening can probably tell you about it long before the open position becomes public knowledge.  That extra time could very well be your foot in the door.
  • Take advantage of available resources.  In this day and age of communication, you have no excuse not to make use of social media.  LinkedIn is specifically designed for professionals, and many online resources (including and especially job-hunt and networking resources) ask if you have a LinkedIn account.  If you’re looking, you can’t afford not to have an account.  While Facebook isn’t specifically geared toward professional networking, it is still another resource you can tap.
  • Don’t limit yourself.  Would you consider moving or taking a job outside your geographic area?  Would you consider working from home?  What about a different line of work?  Would you work part-time, odd hours, or a contract position?  If you’re in a jobless situation, you may very well need to keep your options open.

These are just some of my thoughts regarding surviving a jobless situation.  Did I miss anything, or do you disagree with any of my thoughts?  Feel free to comment below.

Keeping up with the Jones (or Gates, or Zuckerbergs…)

In the fast-moving world of technology, it is increasingly important to keep up with technological trends.  What was state of the art a few years ago may already be obsolete now.

I’ve been working in technology since I graduated college many years ago.  I started my professional career as a lowly computer operator, overseeing Informix database backups and working with SCSI drives (that’s “small computer system interface” for those of you who are wondering; I’m not even sure that SCSI is used anymore).  Each of these drive devices was about the size of a desktop PC or even a server.  I don’t remember how much data capacity they held, but I do remember that we did not measure it in GB.

I remember at the time when we took delivery of a one-gigabyte (for emphasis, that’s 1 GB — as in 1024 MB) tape drive that we were going to use for data backups.  We used to take these tiny cassettes, hold them in our hand, and joke, “in my hand, I am holding the Library of Congress.”

My, how times have changed since then.

For me, personally, I’ve had a more difficult time with keeping up with current trends as I get older.  For example, this past year, I was made aware of a relatively new data language called R.  If you’re a data professional, it’s likely something that you’d want to learn (again, there’s that theme about keeping up with trends).  There is a large number of technologies that are getting better, and it is impossible to keep up with all of them.

So how does one keep up with the times?

Personally, I’ve always had a knack for adapting to my environment; it is what has allowed me to survive professionally for so long.  I had been working as a developer for a few years, but when I realized that I was having a difficult time keeping up, I accepted a transition to a different department and a different role last year.  (For those of you who are curious, my role is difficult to describe in three words or fewer; I’ve largely been telling people that my new role is as a “programmer/analyst.”)  Among other things, I had an honest conversation with myself, asking myself what I really wanted to do, what my strengths were, and what I was capable of doing.  My new role better leverages my strengths, and I’ve been busier (and more content) than I’d been in a while.

(It also helps that I consider myself a team player.  When I was offered this role, I was asked if I was okay with it.  My response: “I play for the team.  Whatever you guys need from me, I’ll do.”)

A while back, I wrote about how important it was to get involved with user groups.  I do think it’s important to get involved with things, especially as we get older.  It enables us to learn new things, it’s a great way to network, and it’s a lot of fun.

Change is inevitable.  We need to acknowledge that we are changing, and we need to acknowledge that the world around us is changing.  It is for that reason why we need to stay on top of advancements if we want to survive — both professionally, and personally.