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.

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!

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.

Developing an introductory presentation to SQL Server

So far, all of my SQL Saturday presentations have been professional development talks — “soft topics,” as they’re often described. I don’t present about technical topics, but I do present topics that are of interest to technology (and perhaps other) professionals.

This is not to say that I don’t have technical skills. I do have a background in development and databases, but as I often introduce myself during my SQL Saturday presentations, I probably fall under the category of “knows enough SQL to be dangerous.” I am neither a SQL expert nor an MVP. While I am knowledgeable about SQL Server, I likely won’t be doing any presentations about power BI, data compression, or data security anytime soon.

I can, however, discuss rudimentary topics about SQL Server that might be of interest to people who are just getting started with SQL Server. When I first started my ‘blog, I wrote some articles about how to get started with SQL Server. As my ‘blog (and my professional life) has evolved, I’ve been moving more toward the soft topics about which I’m more knowledgeable and tend to present, and away from the hardcore technological topics.

An idea that has been in the back of my mind for some time is to develop presentations geared toward people who are just getting started with SQL Server and even databases in general. This idea is not new; I’ve toyed with it for a while, and only lack of time has kept me from developing it further.

One observation I’ve made during my frequent trips to SQL Saturday events is that many of the presentations are geared more toward “seasoned” SQL personnel; that is, people who already have some background knowledge of SQL Server and its workings. They are all very good topics, but for a person who is just getting started, they can be overwhelming — as is often described, a proverbial “drink from a firehose.”

There does seem to be a market for this idea. I’ve spoken to Grant Fritchey a few times about my idea, and he has encouraged me to pursue it. One thing that was mentioned to me was that part of the reason why many SQL Saturday presentations tend to be more advanced is that the presenters themselves are fairly advanced. A lot of them are SQL experts and MVPs, and are presenting topics at a much higher level from where a SQL beginner would need to start. It would be akin to asking a college professor to teach kindergarten.

Grant even suggested that I make these presentations into an entire precon — as there is way too much material to cover in a single SQL Saturday presentation. This is an idea that intrigues me, and it’s something that I’m interested in developing. It’s just a matter of me taking the time to sit down and putting it together.

I have a few reasons for writing this article. Among them are a form of self-encouragement to pursue this endeavor and a forum to list some of my thoughts. On the latter, I wanted to list a few topic ideas listed so that I can refer to and develop it as I go along.

Some of the topics I would cover would likely include the following.

  • A general high-level introduction to SQL Server and databases in general
  • Basics of T-SQL
  • An introduction to relational tables
  • Basics of data normalization
  • An introduction to database applications

I’m sure there are some other topics that haven’t occurred to me. If you have any suggestions, feel free to list them below in the comments.

This is an idea that has been kicking around my head for at least a few years. Maybe sometime, I’ll actually sit down and start working on it. Hopefully, that sometime will be soon.

A user group is a good place to start

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

Earlier this week, a friend at my CrossFit gym (and who has become more interested SQL Saturday and my SQL user group) asked me if I thought a talk about Excel would make a good topic for SQL Saturday.  I said, why not?  If it’s a talk that data professionals would find interesting, then it would make for a good talk.  I encouraged him to attend our next user group meeting and talk to our group chair about scheduling a presentation.

I’ve written before about how local user groups are a wonderful thing.  It is a great place to network and socialize.  It is a free educational source.  And if you’re looking to get started in a public speaking forum, your local user group is a great place to start.

I attended my first SQL Saturday in 2010, and I knew from the very start that I wanted to be involved in it.  Our local SQL user group was borne from that trip (Dan Bowlin — one of our co-founders — and I met on the train going to that event).  I came up with a presentation idea that I developed and “tried out” at a user group meeting.  I submitted that presentation to a few SQL Saturdays.

That user group presentation was in 2015.  I’ve been speaking at SQL Saturdays ever since then.

If you’re interested in getting into speaking, if you want to meet new people who share your interests, or even if you just want to learn something new, go find a local user group that matches your interests and check it out.  You’ll find it to be a great place to kickstart your endeavors, and it could lead to bigger things.

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.