The joys and benefits of volunteering

This afternoon, I took part in an STC panel discussion about volunteering — how to volunteer, where opportunities exist, and so on. (A recording of the webinar will be made available; once it is, I’ll post a link to it.)

Those of you who know me well know how involved I’ve been with volunteering. To name a few, I’ve spoken for SQL Saturday and Data Saturday conferences. I’m part of the leadership team for my local SQL user group. I’m a section leader, board member, and secretary for the symphonic concert band in which I play. I play the piano for a local church. I even serve as a mentor for my fraternity and my alma mater. I lend my talents to a wide variety of groups and organizations, and it’s among some of the most rewarding endeavors in which I take part.

Why volunteer? You rarely, if ever, get paid for doing volunteer work, after all. Well, at least you don’t get paid with money. That said, you get paid in a number of ways that don’t directly involve money.

Let’s start with the satisfaction that you’ve gotten something done. I take part in a number of activities. All of these activities need behind-the-scenes work to keep them viable. Who’s going to do the work? After all, most of these positions are not paid, full-time opportunities, and tasks have to be done, including (but not limited to) organizing meetings, finding meeting or event space, scheduling, publicizing events, taking care of participants, paying any necessary bills or fees, and so on. Someone has to do the work. More often than not, that work is performed by volunteers.

Do you want to learn something new, or gain a new skill? Volunteering is a great way to do it. These groups all need tasks to be done, and volunteering is a relatively low-risk way to get experience with those tasks. It becomes a win-win for everyone; you gain new experience, and a group gets their tasks done.

That said, keep in mind that once you take on a task, you also take on a responsibility. Groups look to make sure work is performed, and once you volunteer to do that work, they are counting on you to make sure it gets done. Even if you’re not getting paid to perform the work, any volunteer opportunity should be treated with the same responsibility and respect as a job.

As with any job, you might struggle if you’ve never done it before or are unsure as to what to do. Treat it as you would any job. Use resources at your disposal (e.g. the internet) to get it done. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re struggling. And don’t be afraid to say no. Volunteering should be a rewarding, even fun, experience. If you find that you’re frustrated or overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to either turn down the opportunity or pass it off to someone who can get it done. It isn’t worth the stress.

I mentioned above that volunteers don’t get directly paid with money. Indirectly, however, is another story! If you’re looking for work experience, volunteer work looks great on a resume! Maybe you built and maintained a group’s website, managed their finances, taught constituents, organized events, or served as an officer. Even if you weren’t paid to do them, it counts as work experience, which is something that appeals to potential employers.

And if you’re looking to meet people and expand your network, volunteering is a great way to do it. By volunteering, you interact with people in whatever activities you’re involved, which expands your network. Speaking personally, I’ve met many people and made many friends from my involvement with SQL Saturday and other related opportunities. This involvement has helped me to grow, both professionally and personally.

Additionally, when you work with others, you learn people skills, including teamwork, collaboration, communication, delegating tasks, leadership, and so on. And if you feel any trepidation about your skill sets, these people skills might just improve your confidence as well.

So if you’re looking to learn new things, gain more experience, and make new friends, consider volunteering. The rewards you reap can be life-changing.

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.

Support your local user group

I’m involved with a number of local groups.  I participate regularly with my local SQL Server user group and my local Albany UX group.  I occasionally attend events held by my local college alumni group.  And I hold a leadership position within the local community symphonic band with which I play.  Additionally, there are several other local groups with which I would like to be involved; only lack of time keeps me from getting involved with more of them.

Why is it important to get involved with local user groups?  There are many good reasons.

  1. It’s a free resource for learning.  Both my SQL and UX groups regularly include a presentation about some topic at their meetings.  These presentations provide me with an opportunity to learn something new.
  2. It’s an opportunity for you to get involved and to give back to the community.  I am a musician in my spare time.  My involvement with music groups give me a chance to share my talents with the rest of the world.  Likewise, I’ve become a presenter with my SQL group (more on that in a minute).  Through my user group, I have an opportunity to share my knowledge and my thoughts.
  3. It’s an opportunity to grow.  Years ago, I started attending SQL Saturday, a series of SQL-centric technical conferences that are held at various locations.  I wanted to contribute to these conferences, but I wasn’t sure how.  I gave some presentations at my local SQL group.  I took those presentations, submitted them to SQL Saturday conferences, and was accepted.  I now regularly submit to and speak at SQL Saturdays around the Northeast United States.
  4. It’s a chance to network and make new friends.  I have made a significant number of friends through my involvement with user groups.  These are people with whom I feel comfortable getting together, having dinner, inviting to parties, playing games, going to ballgames, and so on.  From a professional perspective, it’s also a great opportunity to network.  It’s entirely possible that user group involvement could lead to professional opportunities and job leads.  You never know.  Speaking of professional opportunities and job leads…
  5. It looks good on a resume.  Getting involved with user groups demonstrates that you are genuinely interested in something.  That’s something that might appeal to potential employers.
  6. You become involved with something bigger than yourself.  Doesn’t it feel good to be part of a team?  When you’re involved with a user group, you can point to it and proudly say, “I’m a part of that!”
  7. It’s fun!  I’ve often told my wife that band practice “isn’t just a hobby; it’s therapy.”  I’ve often gone to rehearsal angry about something, and by the end of rehearsal, I’ll completely forget about what it is that upset me.  These user groups are something I enjoy, and it makes for great therapy.

These are some of the reasons.  Are there any others?  Feel free to add by commenting!

So go out there, find a user group that interests you, and get involved.  Chances are that it might lead to something.  You never know!