It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Steve Jones recently asked: what were your best days at work, and what was your worst?  He also issued a challenge to write about our typical days at work.  In terms of writing about a typical workday, I have the first of four (per Steve’s challenge instructions) draft articles warming up in the bullpen; hopefully, I’ll crank that one out sometime within the next week or so.  But in the meantime, for this article, I want to take a moment to address the best and worst days.

In terms of the worst day, I don’t think there is any contest.  I think it’s pretty safe to say that 9/11 was my worst day at work.  (For the benefit of those of you who don’t feel like clicking my article link, I worked for a company that had an office in the World Trade Center — when 9/11 happened.)

In terms of the best days, however, that requires a little more thought.  It’s not that I haven’t had any great days — that isn’t true — it’s just that there are a number of them, and having been a working professional for (cough! cough!!!) years, trying to pick out a few that stand out over the years is difficult for me to do.  So what I’ll do is pick out a few project victories that I’ve had over the course of my career.  Granted, I’m picking these from the top of my head, and there very well might be others that were more significant that I’m not remembering right now, but for purposes of this exercise, I’ll write about some projects with which I was involved and take a measure of pride.

I’ll start with a project related to the worst day that I mentioned above.  One of my tasks was to maintain an inventory of the servers in our data centers.  For a long time, this was a tediously manual task.  I went through our data centers with a clipboard, checking to see what servers were in each rack, noting any changes and adding new servers and racks that I found.  I drew a map of each room in Visio, even going as far as to count the floor tiles so that I could draw them to scale.  I populated the maps with boxes representing server racks and came up with a naming scheme directly tied into a row-and-column location scheme, making it possible to identify and label each rack so they’d be easy to find.  Included with the maps was a listing of servers within each rack.  I maintained the Visio file on my PC, making sure it was backed up to a departmental file server, and keeping hardcopies in each server room as a reference for various IT workers.

Because this was a manual process, the maps were never completely accurate — I have no doubt that new servers were continually added in-between map updates — and it was a tedious process.  All the while, I kept thinking, “there has to be a better way to do this.”  Sure enough, I found one!

I discovered that all our servers included a product called Insight Manager.  Among other things, it included the ability to collect server BIOS information and store it in a format suitable for importing into a database such as SQL Server.  Using the Insight Manager data structure as a template, I set up a SQL Server database on one of our departmental servers and created a system that enabled it to import data from any server on demand through Insight Manager.  I now had a central database with server data that could be updated at any given time!

Of course, data isn’t information unless it can be interpreted and understood, so the next step was to create an interface for it.  I was responsible for maintaining a departmental intranet site; although it was an internal intranet, I treated it as though it was a full-blown web site.  I created a web site to display the server data stored in my back-end.  I took my Visio server room maps and created image files from them.  From the image files, I created image maps that enabled a user to click a server rack on the map, drilling down to a list of servers in that rack.  Clicking on a server displayed data for that server — serial numbers, IP addresses, applications, and so on.

My server inventory system, which I previously had to update manually, was now automated!

This project was a major milestone for my career.  It was my first significant foray into SQL Server.  (At that time, I hadn’t yet learned about data normalization; had I known about it, I could’ve made the back-end even better.)  It gave me some experience with image maps, HTML, and classic ASP (the technology used on that intranet server at that time).  Most of all, it was my first taste of what it was like to be a web applications developer.

Memories of this project also reminded me of another good day I had on the job.  One particular day, I traveled to remote offices in Yorktown Heights and Middletown to survey their data centers for the server inventory system that I just described.  I hopped into my truck (I owned a small Toyota pickup truck at the time) and drove to Yorktown.  It was a gorgeous picture-perfect day; the sun was out and it was comfortably warm with low humidity.  It was comfortable enough that I left the air conditioner turned off and drove the entire trip with my windows rolled all the way down.  It was the kind of day where I wished I owned a convertible!  My route between the Yorktown and Middletown offices took me through the Bear Mountain area, including traversing the Hudson River over the Bear Mountain Bridge.  If you’ve never driven through that area of New York State, it is an absolutely picturesque and beautiful drive.  The entire trip was so fun and relaxing that it did not feel like a business trip at all; I actually felt as though I was on a vacation!

Finally, I want to talk about one last project in which I had a hand.  In one of my first jobs out of college (my second job out of school, actually), I was responsible for supporting my company’s document imaging system at a client site (a client that eventually ended up hiring me directly).  One of the system’s components was a WORM optical platter jukebox that was in constant use and occasionally needed operations maintenance, which ranged from simple tasks such as inserting an optical platter to complex ones such as restarting it when it locked up.  The device had to be operational 24/7, even at hours when we were not in the office.

I was tasked with putting together a small set of instructions — nothing big, just a few pages — that explained how to perform these tasks, including the correct way to insert a platter, what to do when (unfortunately, not if) the machine stopped working, and so on.  It needed to be written in such a way that the night maintenance staff could maintain the device.  So I sat down in front of my PC with a blank MS Word file and said to myself, “if I was a member of the night staff, what would I want to read that would enable me to perform these tasks?”

I had intended for the document to be a simple three to four page quick reference.  As I wrote and came up with more ideas that would help the readers who would be using it (including the innovative — for me — use of illustrations), the document kept getting bigger and bigger.  I don’t remember how big it eventually became, but I think it was somewhere in the ballpark of thirty pages.  I had absolutely zero technical writing experience at the time; I wrote the document completely by instinct.  I didn’t really know what I was doing; I just did things (illustrations, headers, subject organizations, etc.) that made sense to me.

The final product was a huge success — so much so, in fact, that management developed a training program based around this document.

A couple of years later, I discovered that nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute had a Masters degree program in technical communication (note: I am not entirely sure if the program still exists).  I had been interested in pursuing a graduate degree, and I thought the program sounded interesting, so I decided to apply.  During my application interview with the faculty, I brought along a copy of that operational jukebox document I’d written.  I explained that I’d written the document completely by instinct and with no knowledge or experience in technical writing whatsoever.  The faculty seemed to be impressed with my effort on that project.

I was accepted into the program.  I now have an MS from RPI hanging on my home office wall and listed on my resume.

This article ended up being a lot longer than I expected.  Looking back on this exercise that Steve assigned, I suppose my good days at work were more significant than I thought.  These projects were major events that ended up shaping this professional career.  I suppose the moral of the story is not to underestimate job achievements.  You never know where they might lead!

SQL Saturday #741 Albany — the debrief

Once again, we had another great SQL Saturday here in Albany this past weekend!  I don’t know how many people attended, but by my estimate, we had well over two-hundred people.  I had a great time (as usual), and it serves to remind me why this is one of my favorite events.

My own presentation went very well!  I had nine people attend my session.  Two people (not including myself) were in the room when I started, but more people started filing in after I began my presentation.  Everyone I spoke with told me it was a great presentation, and I got nothing but positive feedback!

I did, however, get one piece of feedback that I did not expect.  I spoke with a number of people who did not attend my presentation, and one who almost skipped it (but ended up coming, anyway).  They all told me the same thing: they read my presentation title and automatically assumed that my talk was about computer networking, not business networking.  Had they known that, they all told me, they would have been there.  So I missed out on a potentially larger audience, simply because of my presentation title.

My initial reaction was frustration.  Mt first thought was, “read the presentation abstract, people!”  I didn’t want to change it; I liked the title and thought it was clever (I’d taken it from one of my ‘blog articles with the same name).  At the same time, I also couldn’t ignore the feedback; it’s human nature to judge a book by its cover (or, in the case, the title), and first impressions are important.  So, reluctantly, I renamed my presentation.  At the same time, I also made a slight tweak to my presentation slides; I removed one slide that did not serve much purpose during my presentation.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a great event without talking about other great presentations.  I attended James Serra‘s session on presenting.  I’m always looking to improve upon my own presentation skills, and I got a lot out of James’ presentation (as always).  Not only did I pick up a few new tips, he also reinforced some points that I use in my own presentations.  This is always good to hear; it legitimizes things that I discuss.  I also sat in on a less serious presentation by Thomas Grohser.  At the end of the day, a little humor is a good thing.  James and Thomas are both excellent speakers, and I always recommend them.  I’d also heard great things about a session I’d missed presented by my friend, Deborah Melkin, another wonderful speaker that I highly recommend.

Unfortunately, part of the reason why I missed Deborah’s session (and others) was an issue that needed my attention.  When I arrived at the event site that morning, one of my tires went flat.  I didn’t have the time to address it, and I didn’t feel much like dealing with it, especially on a warm and humid day.  Fortunately, I have a AAA membership.  Let me tell you about how handy that became that afternoon.

Of course, there were also the events around SQL Saturday.  Friday night was the speaker’s dinner.  It was held at a Mediterranean restaurant about ten minutes away from my office.  I’ve driven past this place many times, and had no idea that it was there.  It was a good place, and I’m going to keep it in mind!  The closing and accompanying raffles are always fun.  My wife’s name was actually drawn for a prize!  Unfortunately, she couldn’t claim it, simply because she was not there, and the rules stipulate that you need to be present to win!  (Some people said that I should claim it by proxy, but at the same time, rules are rules!)  The post-event party was held at a place across the street, a great opportunity to mix and mingle with fellow speakers and event volunteers in a loose and casual atmosphere!

All in all, it was a great event!  This is one of my favorite events, and I look forward to doing this again next year!

SQL Saturday #741, Albany, NY — Come to upstate New York!

On Saturday, July 28 (a week from tomorrow as I write this), our local Albany-area SQL user group will host our fifth SQL Saturday!  I have participated in all five; I worked as a volunteer at the first one, and I presented at the other four (including next Saturday).  This is one of my favorite events, and I look forward to it every single year!

This year, I am debuting a brand-new presentation: “Networking: it isn’t just for breakfast anymore,” based upon my ‘blog article of the same name.  (An alternate name for it could be “Networking 101: networking for beginners.”)  This presentation is primarily for people who want to get better at networking but don’t know how to do it, although seasoned veterans might be able to get something out of it as well.  It’s one of the first sessions of the day (8:30 am!), so come early!

As much as I promote my own presentations, mine is not the only one on the docket.  There are many wonderful speakers and presentations being given at this event, and I encourage you to come out and check out as many as you can that interest you!

SQL Saturday is always a great time, a great opportunity for free learning, and a great opportunity to network with data professionals.  The Capital District region here in upstate New York has been my home for many years.  I hope to see you here in my home turf!

#BI101: Some SQL Saturday speakers to check out

This is part of a series of articles in which I’m trying to teach myself about BI.  Any related articles I write are preceded with “#BI101” in the title.

As a speaker on the SQL Saturday circuit, I’ve had the honor and privilege of having met, connected with, and even befriended a number of experts in SQL, data, and BI.  If you can get to get to a SQL Saturday, you can also have that opportunity.

In a couple of weeks (July 28), we will be hosting SQL Saturday here in Albany, NY.  I was going through the schedule, and noticed a number of speakers on the docket who will be talking about various BI topics.  I’ve attended a lot of their sessions, and I recommend these speakers highly!

(Note: for purposes of this article, I am limiting this list to BI topics, although these speakers may be giving other presentations as well.)

SQL Saturday is a great free learning resource, a great opportunity to network, and is always a good time!  If you’re looking to learn about BI or other data-related or professional topics, go check out a SQL Saturday event near you!

Humble beginnings

Once again, the Facebook “On This Day” memory feature shows it can be a curious thing.  And again, this is one I wanted to share.

The picture you see above showed up on my Facebook memories feed this morning.  Three years ago today, I gave a presentation at my local SQL Server user group meeting.  I had come up with a presentation idea that I thought would be of interest to my user group, as well as other technical professionals.  I jotted down some notes, put it into a presentation, and presented it at my local user group.

About a month later, I gave this very same presentation at our local SQL Saturday.  It was my first SQL Saturday presentation!

I was curious as to how other events would take to my presentation.  Later that year, I submitted it to, and was accepted at, another SQL Saturday.  It was my second time speaking at SQL Saturday, my first time speaking at an event in “foreign territory,” and my first SQL Saturday — speaking or attending — outside of New York State.

Since that humble beginning, I’ve spoken at 13 (soon to be 14) SQL Saturdays at seven different cities around the northeastern United States.  Thanks to this endeavor, I’ve traveled around the region, met a lot of great people, expanded my professional profile, started a ‘blog (that you’re reading right now!), enhanced my career, gained more confidence, improved my presentation skills, and become a better person.  This all came about because of these conferences and from this simple start three years ago.

I hope I’ll be doing many more!  Happy three year anniversary to me!

My hometown SQL Saturday: I’m speaking, July 28

I just got the official word that I will be speaking at my hometown SQL Saturday.

As of right now, I don’t know which presentation(s) I’m doing; I only know that I am speaking!

Come join us at UAlbany on July 28!  Go the link above to register, and mark your calendars!

SQL Saturday #714, Philadelphia

Last week, I received word that I’ve been selected to speak at SQL Saturday #714, Philadelphia (the actual location is Blue Bell, PA, which is outside of Philadelphia) on April 21!

At this time, I don’t yet know what I will be presenting.  When I do, I’ll post them to another ‘blog article.

Hope to see you there!

Coming soon: SQL Saturday #723, Rochester, NY

This afternoon, I received the following email:

There are only a few days remaining before your presentation at SQLSaturday #723 on Saturday, March 24, 2018 and we want to make a last push to bring in new attendees and remind those that have already signed up. Just a quick blog post, update on LinkedIn, or a tweet on Twitter is all we need.

Okay.  I will oblige!

Come out and check out SQL Saturday #723 in Rochester, NY on March 24 (as I write this, it’s a week from this Saturday)!

I will be doing the following two presentations:

  • I lost my job! Now what?!? A survival guide for the unemployed 

    You’ve just been told by HR that you are no longer a part of their organization. You’ve been kicked to the curb. You are now living in the no-man’s land called unemployment.

    Unemployment is a scary situation. You’re dealing with emotions and uncertainty. You don’t know if you’ll be out of work for days, weeks, or months.

    Fortunately, unemployment is survivable. In this session, I’ll share my own experiences (and perhaps we’ll talk about some of yours) with unemployment, and how I managed to get through the tough times. We’ll discuss emotional impact, the job hunt, and things you can do to get yourself through this tough time. Hopefully, you’ll land on your feet once again before long!

  • Disaster Documents: The role of documentation in disaster recovery
    I was an employee of a company that had an office in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Prior to that infamous date, I had written several departmental documents that ended up being critical to our recovery. In this presentation, I provide a narrative of what happened in the weeks following 9/11, and how documentation played a role in getting the organization back on its feet.

    While other disaster recovery presentations talk about strategies, plans, and techniques, this presentation focuses on the documentation itself. We will discuss the documents we had and how they were used in our recovery. We will also discuss what documents we didn’t have, and how they could have made the process better.

SQL Saturday is always a good time!  Come out and check it out.  And if you come to my presentations, feel free to say hi!

SQL Saturday #694, Providence

This morning, I saw a ‘blog post from my friend, Greg Moore, who wrote about his upcoming presentations at SQL Saturday in Washington, DC this Saturday.  Greg is an excellent presenter, and I always recommend his presentations anytime.

It also made me realize a few things.  First, my own SQL Saturday presentations are coming up quickly — this Saturday (December 9), in fact.  Warning: dates in calendar are closer than they appear!  So I figured I should do more to promote my own presentations.  Come hear me speak at SQL Saturday #694 in Providence, RI.  I will be giving the following two presentations:

Providence SQL Saturday is a special one for me.  I first spoke at Providence two years ago, and it represented a couple of milestones.  First, it was the first SQL Saturday I ever attended that was outside New York State.  The first ones I attended were all in New York City (and to this day, I still try to attend that one whenever I can, regardless of whether or not I’m speaking) or in Albany.  Second, it was only the second time that I had ever presented at a SQL Saturday.  The first was earlier that summer, when I spoke at my hometown SQL Saturday in Albany, NY.  In fact, the presentation I gave — talking to non-techies — is the same one that I will be giving this Saturday.  I’ve since added to it and polished it a bit.  Hopefully, this presentation will go even better than the last time I gave it in Providence two years ago!

If you’ve never been to a SQL Saturday, check it out.  It’s a great day of learning (and it’s free — although there’s usually a nominal fee for lunch), it’s a great opportunity to network with industry colleagues, and it’s a fun social event (seriously, it is)!  I look forward to every SQL Saturday that I attend, and this Saturday should be no different.

Hope to see you there!

Upcoming SQL Saturday dates for me

Looks like my SQL Saturday schedule will be busy!  Here are my upcoming dates (and I admit that I’m writing this for my own reference as much as anything else).

Scheduled to speak

I am scheduled to speak at the following event:

Presentation abstracts submitted

I submitted my presentations to these events; no guarantee that I will be picked to speak at any of these, but you never know:

Save the date

Event that is on the calendar, but not yet scheduled (hence, there’s no link to it yet); I intend to submit to it when it goes live:

  • July 28, 2018: Albany, NY (my hometown SQL Saturday!)

SQL Saturday is a great, free conference for anyone who wants to learn more about SQL Server.  Many interesting topics are presented, it’s a great opportunity to network, and it’s a lot of fun!

Hope to see people there!