Where do I best fit in?

I play the piano for Sunday morning church services.  One particular day earlier this year, the choir director and his family were out, and the choir was shorthanded that day.  The cantor was also not there that morning.  We desperately needed someone to step up, and no one was willing to do it.

This is not to disparage the choir, which is made up of wonderful people; that is not the point.  Rather, it got me thinking: what is my role?

Most of the time, my primary role in this group is as accompanist.  However, I’m also the most musically accomplished person in the group, and as a member of a number of ensembles, I’m also probably the most experienced ensemble musician.  Often, when the choir director is not there, leadership duties often falls to me.  The director has, in the past, asked me to lead rehearsals when he is not there.  So I can probably say that my secondary role is backup choir director.

I regularly think about this when I play in the symphonic band as well.  Where do I fit in?  This is not an existential or philosophical question; rather, it serves a purpose: what is my part supposed to be, and how am I supposed to perform it so that it best serves what is required in the piece?  Band is a team sport, and each member has a role to play so that the group functions as a single unit.

The professional workplace environment is no different.  In any organization, all employees are pieces to a larger puzzle.  Each person serves a purpose (and sometimes, multiple purposes).

During my podcast recording a while back, one of the questions I was asked was, “what’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve gotten?”  My answer was something like, “play to your strengths.”  I’ll admit that, since the recording, I’ve come up with several other answers that I wish I’d given, but it’s that particular answer that I want to discuss in this article.

Let me start with an analogy (as the Yankee fan that I am, I’ll go with another baseball — and more specifically — a Yankees team analogy).  Brett Gardner (outfielder) is known for his baserunning, speed, defense, and gritty play.  Aaron Judge (another outfielder) and Gary Sanchez (catcher) are known for their power hitting and penchant for driving in runs.  DJ LeMahieu (infielder) has a penchant for hitting, getting on base, and playing solid defense.  Likewise, each relief pitcher has his strengths that are used for specific situations.  Each ballplayer on a team has a role to play.  Aaron Boone (manager) utilizes each player as to what they’re capable of doing and when to best make use of their strengths depending on each situation.

Everyone has their strengths and capabilities that add value to an organization.  For me, personally, those strengths include technical communication, writing, and design.  To a smaller extent, I am also capable of database work, object-oriented development, analysis, and design.  But my professional strengths are what enable me to come through in the clutch.  And if they are properly nurtured, they can help improve my other (often, lesser) skills as well.

I remember reading a Wall Street Journal interview with Dilbert creator Scott Adams (it was back in the early 1990s; unfortunately, I have not been able to find a link to the article) in which he said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “the best way to be valuable is to learn as much as you can about as many different things as you can.”

A while back, I did a self-assessment of my own skill set, and I made an effort to be honest with myself. While I’ve worked in technology my entire professional career, I discovered that my true strengths weren’t so much in application development — the career path I had been pursuing the entire time — but rather in technical writing and communication.

When I came to that realization, my focus changed. I started moving away from hardcore technical topics and toward subjects geared toward my strengths — technical writing, layout, design, UX/UI, communication, and so on.

This focus manifested itself in my SQL Saturday presentations and my ‘blog articles. While I have enough of a background to maintain a presence within the technical world, my focus is on soft topics that aren’t necessarily technology-related, but are of interest to technical professionals, anyway. Even now, when I do SQL Saturday presentations, I use this analogy to introduce myself: when it comes to my relationship with PASS and SQL Server, “I’m the professor at MIT who teaches English Lit.” This mindset has carried me all the way to a speaking gig at PASS Summit.

Over the course of time, and without even realizing that I was doing it, I’d established my brand. While my official title is still “developer,” this is more of a misnomer (although it can be argued, what am I developing?). I’ve become the technical writing and communications guy. And I’m okay with that.

As I get older and continue to advance in my career, I’ve come to terms with my role and where I best fit on the team. As long as I still play for and contribute to the team, I’m in a good place.

Paying it forward

Once upon a time, I wanted to be the rockstar in pretty much anything and everything I did, whether it was my job, my extracurricular activities, or my relationships.  I wanted the glory and the recognition.  More importantly, I wanted to be respected for whatever I did.  In my youth, I thought that demonstrating that I was good at whatever I did was the path to glory.

But now that I’m older, that perspective has changed.  I no longer need (or, sometimes, even want) to be the rockstar.  These days, I get a great deal of satisfaction out of helping someone else become the rockstar. While I still try to perform well in whatever I do, it’s more important to me to help everyone around me be better.

This has become a passion of mine. It’s why I’m so passionate about speaking at SQL Saturday. It’s why I take such an interest in technical communication, writing, training, and mentoring. It’s why I continually encourage people to be better. It’s even one of the major reasons why I maintain my ‘blog. While it’s important to make myself better in whatever I do, I think it’s also equally important to make people around you better as well.

I’ve had a number of opportunities to give something back. For the past couple of years, I’ve taken part in a program by my alma mater, Syracuse University, specifically the College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS).  They sponsor a “job shadow” program in which current students are paired with alumni working in various industries. The program typically takes place during winter break, between the fall and spring semesters.

Unfortunately, I work in a data-secure office, so an office shadow tends to be out of the question. (I don’t think students would really be interested in seeing me sit at a desk all day, anyway.)  In lieu of a job shadow, the university suggests other ways to interact with students — over a cup of coffee, lunch, and so on. For the past couple of years, I’ve offered to take students out to dinner. It offers a nice, relaxed atmosphere to chat, not to mention that, since I usually don’t have any commitments after dinner, I’m not constrained by time; I don’t have to worry about being back in the office by a certain time.

I’ve found numerous other ways to pay it forward. During one unemployment stint, I found a part-time position as an instructor at a local business school to hold myself over. I discovered that I enjoyed teaching so much that, even after I found gainful full-time employment, I continued with the teaching job for a few more years. I am heavily involved with my local SQL user group. By giving back to my user group, I can help other people with the same interests. I also wrote a while back about some of my networking activities in which I was able to give back. When you network, you have multiple avenues in which you can pay it forward.

As an old saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. Improvement doesn’t just mean making yourself better. It also means making everyone around you better as well. When you help other people succeed, then we all succeed.

The craft of online business networking

I recently had a friend text me to say she was looking for new employment, and wanted to know if I had any ideas.  I gave her my thoughts, mentioned some resources (I even dropped a name), and told her that she should network on LinkedIn and Facebook.  She told me that she was rarely, if ever, on LinkedIn, and the idea of using Facebook for professional networking had never occurred to her.

What she told me prompted me to write this article.

A couple of things that she said struck me.  First, despite the fact that she wanted to find new employment and was interested in getting connected, she almost never used LinkedIn.  Second, the idea of professional networking on Facebook never occurred to her.

I will mention that my friend in question is my age (we went to high school together) and is not as technically savvy as I am.  Although many people of my generation have largely embraced technology and social media, it’s not unusual or uncommon to find people who haven’t.  Nevertheless, in my position, I take using online communication for granted, so it surprised me that someone would not even think about using a tool such as LinkedIn or Facebook for her job search.

My thought was, Facebook is a highly popular application that connects large numbers of people.  How does someone not know to network through Facebook?  I’m not talking about how to network on Facebook, but rather just the simple fact that you can network on Facebook.

I should reiterate that I have personal experience with this; I got my current job through a Facebook contact.

I am a big believer that, in this day and age of social media, networking online is absolutely critical for surviving in today’s professional market.  A lot of business is conducted through email and text messages; indeed, applications such as Slack have become highly prevalent in business.  Even in one of my previous jobs, Skype was used extensively for work-related purposes.  I have even seen job applications that ask for your LinkedIn account, an indication that businesses take it seriously.

With the use of electronic media in business so prevalent, and with the popularity of social networks such as Facebook, it makes sense that online networking is critical for professional survival.

With that, here are some of my thoughts in regard to online networking.  This is not a comprehensive list; indeed, there may be a number of things I might be leaving out.  By all means, I encourage you to dig deeper into this (which you should be doing, anyway) and check out what others have to say about online networking.

One thing I should note: I talk mainly about LinkedIn, Facebook, and ‘blogs because those are the forums with which I am the most familiar.  This is not to discount other forms of social media (e.g. Google+, Twitter, etc.); if you use other platforms, then by all means, knock yourself out.

Online networking is still networking.  Think about what networking is.  It is a phenomenon where a person establishes a relationship — for purposes of this topic, a professional relationship — with another person.  Networking is a two-way street; the relationship is mutually beneficial to both parties.

When I was in college (which predates the internet — yes, I’m old!), we talked with people online using a system called the BITNET.  I actually made a number of friends by talking to them over BITNET; in fact, I am still friends with several of them to this day.

Networking online does not change the nature of what networking is.  Tools such as LinkedIn and Facebook are exactly that: tools.  They are used to facilitate networking, and if used properly, they can help foster and nurture those relationships.

Online networking expands your reach.  I maintain my Facebook account so I can keep family and friends in the loop as to what’s going on in my life.  Many of these people are located all around the country, and even around the world; I even have friends as far away as Sweden, Israel, and Pakistan.

I’ve written before about how involvement in local user groups is a good thing.  It is, but one limitation of it is geography; your reach goes as far as people live from the group site.  Online networking has no such limitation.  Maintaining an online presence means you can network with people anywhere.

Additionally, an online presence doesn’t just expand your network geographically; it can also expand it numerically as well.  Online networking ensures that you will be seen by more people than those with whom you would contact either face-to-face or over the phone.

Networking — whether it’s online or real life — takes time.  If you’ve been involved in some kind of relationship — whether it’s friendship, romantic, or professional — you know that it takes time to establish.

This is also the case with online (or any) networking.  Just because you’ve created a LinkedIn account and connected with, say, five different people does not mean you have an online networking presence.  Establishing a good network takes time — sometimes months, possibly even years.  If you’re looking for a job today, you can’t just start a LinkedIn account now, connect to a few people, and suddenly have an interview tomorrow.  It doesn’t work that way.  Networking is a long-term investment of time and effort.

You can join groups in Facebook and LinkedIn.  How many and what kinds of groups are you connected to on Facebook and LinkedIn?  Did it ever occur to you that those groups represent people who have similar interests to you?  This sounds familiar.  I think there’s a term for that.  I think it’s called…  let me think…  networking!

Online groups are not that different from physical user groups (okay, maybe you have to get your own coffee and snacks).  If you’re involved with an online group, you are already connected to a bunch of people who have the same interests that you do!

Network with people you know.  I get plenty of connect requests from people I don’t know.  Some of them are spam recruiters.  I make it clear on my LinkedIn summary that I only connect with people I know, and if they tell me how we’re connected or where we’ve met, then I’d be more likely to connect.  But if someone just sends me a request to connect, and I have no clue as to whom (s)he is, the request will likely end up in the trash.

Case in point: not long ago, someone who I didn’t know asked to connect.  However, he also included a note that he was the editor for the podcast I did a while back.  Ah, okay!  We have a connection!  I was happy to connect with him.

Remember, networking is a two-way street.  If someone connecting with you is looking to get something from you but is not willing to do anything in return, that is not networking; that is someone taking advantage of you.  If you don’t trust the other person, don’t connect with him or her.

Keep your information up-to-date.  You can pretty much keep your entire resume on LinkedIn (and Facebook as well, although it isn’t really used for that purpose).  I find it much easier to maintain my information and accomplishments on LinkedIn than I do constantly having to update my resume.  Additionally, when I do need to update my resume, I can use my LinkedIn information as a reference.

However, it’s not just a matter of your resume information.  It makes a good resource for my next point, which is…

What you know matters.  There is a reason why I maintain this ‘blog and include links to it on both my Facebook and LinkedIn.  I’m letting people know about what I think, what I’m learning, what I’m working on, and so on.  This is all stuff that (hopefully) is valuable to other people, not to mention that it looks good on a resume.

People can look at your LinkedIn profile and get an idea of what you know.  How often have recruiters found you by looking at your profile?  If you post what you know, it can help with connecting to other professionals.

Post about your accomplishments!  You just got a promotion because you figured out a complex problem!  You just got a full ride to Harvard!  You won your robotics competition!  Congratulations!  These are accomplishments that people like to hear about, and it’s possible that they might help land your next big thing.  Go ahead and post about them on LinkedIn, Facebook, or your ‘blog.  Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn!

The hive mind is a useful thing.  How many times have you posted on Facebook, “hey hive mind, I need your help on…”?  Did it ever occur to you that the same problem-solving tactic can be used professionally as well?  Your network is a source of knowledge.  It’s entirely possible that someone, somewhere, might have an answer to your problem.

How many times have to posted to a forum such as SQLServerCentral, 4GuysFromRolla, or StackOverflow looking for an answer to a problem?  You’re posting your issue to a wide audience, hoping that someone will have an answer.  An online network is useful in serving that purpose.

Above all, be yourself.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I shouldn’t try to be someone I’m not.  I’ve written before about how difficult it is to keep up with current trends.  Maybe it’s time to reinvent yourself.  Figure out who you are and stick with it.  Don’t waste your time trying to build up your online persona into someone you’re not.

Even online, etiquette matters.  People are more likely to networking with people they like.  Maintaining good etiquette goes a long way in accomplishing that.

There are some things you shouldn’t post online.  Do you really want the entire world, much less, professional contacts, to know all about the multi-keg drunk fest you had with your buddies?  What about the sordid details of the night that you had with the girl or guy you picked up the other night?  Granted, these are extreme examples, but nevertheless, there are some things I wouldn’t even want to share with my best friends, much less, business contacts.  This should be common sense, but it’s amazing (and not in a good way) how many people don’t think about this.

As I stated before, it’s entirely possible that your next manager or business contact could be one of your Facebook friends.  While it’s probably safe to post pictures of your vacation, your kids, or your cats, there are some things that you just shouldn’t post online.

While we’re on the subject of inappropriate things online…

There are pitfalls.  As much as I extol the virtues of online networking, it is not perfect, either.  Data security can be an issue.  There are spammers looking to scam you or make a fast buck.  People establish fake accounts for questionable purposes.  In this day and age of “fake” news, misinformation can spread like wildfire.

Despite the pitfalls that can come with online networking, they should not discourage you from establishing an online presence.  Used wisely and intelligently, online networking can enhance your career.

If you want to be more effective with professional networking, especially in this electronic interconnected age, you need to be able to do it online.  Making use of social media can go a long way in extending your networking reach.

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.

SQL Saturday #797 — I’m coming to Boston

Happy Monday, all!  </sarcasm>

This is a reminder that I am speaking at SQL Saturday #797, Boston (actually, Burlington, MA) this coming Saturday, Sept. 22!

I will be doing my (still relatively new) presentation about networking, entitled “Networking 101: Building professional relationships” (or, the presentation previously known as “Networking: it isn’t just for breakfast anymore”).  We will discuss why networking is critical for your career, how to go about doing it, and some resources to check out.  You will even have an opportunity to do some networking within the confines of our room.  You might even leave this session with new networking contacts you didn’t previously have!

I’ll see you in Burlington this Saturday!

Speaking near Beantown

sqlsaturday-logo

I got an email last night announcing that SQL Saturday #813 Boston — BI Edition has been scheduled for March 30, 2019.  I went ahead and submitted my presentations.

Because the Boston Microsoft office (despite the name, it’s actually in Burlington, MA, about twelve miles northwest of Boston) is a smaller facility, events such as SQL Saturday tend to be smaller; it’s more difficult to be accepted as a speaker, and a wait list for attendees is not uncommon.  Nevertheless, if I am accepted to speak at SQL Saturday #813 (far from a sure thing), that is potentially three trips I’ll make to Burlington within a span of seven months.  I am already scheduled to speak at SQL Saturday #797 on September 22 (a week from this Saturday as I write this) and at a New England SQL User Group meeting on February 13.  SQL Saturday #813 would make it trip #3.

Despite the fact that the Boston area tends to be hostile territory for a Yankee fan like me, I look forward to my upcoming trips.  I’m hoping to make it three trips in seven months.

Hope to see you there!

The importance of maintaining a LinkedIn account

My own presentation and a lightning talk by Paresh Motiwala from our SQL Saturday this past July got me thinking about my own LinkedIn account.  I’ve been going through the activities feed fairly regularly, making sure my ‘blog articles are posted, getting an idea of how many people see (much less, actually read) my articles, and to get occasional updates as to what my contacts are doing.  But it also occurred to me that it’s been a while since I did a full-fledged inventory of my own LinkedIn account.  I’ve written before about the importance of maintaining documentation, and my own LinkedIn profile is no exception.

Why inventory my LinkedIn account?  To answer this, I suppose I should explain why I have a LinkedIn account at all.

I’ll admit that I’m usually a lot more active on LinkedIn if I’m looking for a job.  I don’t know the statistics as to how people use LinkedIn, but it wouldn’t surprise me if job hunting is the number one reason.  Nevertheless, I try to check my LinkedIn fairly regularly, regardless of whether or not I’m looking for new employment.

I should note that, as of this article, I am not actively looking for employment.  That said, I still think it’s important to maintain my LinkedIn account.

Probably my biggest reason for maintaining a LinkedIn account is networking.  I’ve written before about the importance of networking in your professional lifetime.  I have an entire presentation about networking.  LinkedIn provides a tool for maintaining my networking contacts and staying in touch with them.  I’ve often said that one of my main reasons for maintaining my Facebook account is to keep in touch with family and friends, and to keep them up to date with whatever is happening in my life.  LinkedIn mostly serves the same purpose, with the primary difference being that the context is professional, not personal.

If you’re job hunting, a LinkedIn account is invaluable (I would even go as far as to say it’s necessary).  I came across an article (on LinkedIn, of course!) that stated about 85% of jobs were filled through networking.  I can personally attest to this; the person who hired me for my current job is connected to me through both Facebook and LinkedIn.

If you’re not convinced that LinkedIn is necessary for effective job hunting, imagine this scenario.  You’re a hiring manager who’s looking to fill one position, and is looking over two nearly identical resumes.  Both people are qualified for the position.  You decide that you want to know more about them.  You see that one has a LinkedIn profile.  The other does not.  Guess which one will have the advantage.

I’ve seen job applications that ask for your LinkedIn profile URL.  That tells me that employers take LinkedIn pretty seriously.

I said earlier that I am currently not actively seeking new employment.  However, I didn’t mention anything about passively looking.  Although I am content in my current position, I would be remiss if I didn’t keep my eyes and ears open for my next big thing, whether it’s a step up in my position or my salary.

I attended a SQL Saturday presentation by my friend, James Serra, about how to build your career.  One of the takeaways from his presentation was not to get comfortable if you want to get ahead — a point that prompted me to write about it in another ‘blog article.  Granted, I enjoy what I do, and I’m sure I could remain in my position for some time, but I’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity that represents a major step up and is right up my alley.

So, I started going through my own LinkedIn profile.  First, I went through my contacts to make sure it was up-to-date.  I started by going through the last SQL Saturday schedule, looking through the speaker profiles to see who else had LinkedIn accounts (those who have one are noted by a LinkedIn icon under their names), and checking to make sure I was connected to them.  I should note that I did not do this with all the speakers, but mainly the ones I know reasonably well and with whom I feel comfortable connecting.

Going through the “People you may know” feature, I was surprised to find a number of people whom I know but was not already connected on LinkedIn.  I sent them invitations to connect with me.  As of this article, about ten of them have accepted my invitation within the past week.  More will be coming, I’m sure.

I also looked at my own summary and realized that it’s not really a “summary” — that is, it should be a list of highlights and fairly easy to read.  I have some ideas in my head as to how to rewrite it; I have not yet done so as of this article.  Nevertheless, my personal professional summary will definitely get some tweaking sometime in the days ahead.

Whenever I assemble a new presentation, I make sure that it is listed under my Publications section.  It indicates that I am active with my presentations.  Demonstrating that you are doing something to enhance your background (in this case, staying active with my SQL Saturday presentations) is always a good thing.

I also solicit recommendations from people.  Maintaining recommendations on your LinkedIn enhances your profile.  And I make it a point to reciprocate when someone leaves me a recommendation.  This is a key point of networking; networking is a two-way street.  If someone does you a favor, make sure you do the same.

Maintaining LinkedIn is critical for your professional career.  I only talked about a few reasons for maintaining your account; there are many more that I didn’t mention.  (Out of curiosity, I Google-searched “reasons to maintain linkedin account” and a number of links showed up.)  In this day and age where maintaining an online presence is nearly expected, LinkedIn might make the difference in advancing your career.