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.

Unite the world

“Hey you, don’t tell me there’s no hope at all; together we stand; divided, we fall…”
— Pink Floyd, Hey You

“An eye for an eye only makes the world blind.”
— Gandhi

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
— John Lennon, Imagine

“I have a dream…”
— Martin Luther King Jr.

Just for this one article, I am breaking my silence on all things political.

As is much of the country, I am outraged with what has happening at America’s southern border.  I have my opinions regarding the current administration, and what is happening to our country and around the world.

However, that is not the point of this article.  I am not going to write about my politics, my opinions, or my outrage.  Today, I want to write about something else.

It occurred to me this morning that, more than ever, we are being divided.  We are identified by our divisions: Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, and so on.  And that is the problem.

There have been studies performed in which individuals identify closely with groups to which they relate.  In these cases, people in groups will defend their groups, no matter what the groups are doing, and regardless of whether the groups’ actions are perceived as being good or bad, right or wrong.

I am not a psychologist, so I won’t pretend that I know anything about these studies (disclosure: I did do research on groupthink when I was in grad school).  Nevertheless, what they seem to reveal is that we relate strongly to the groups to which we relate.  And we will defend our groups, no matter how right or wrong the groups’ actions are.

I do understand the effects of group dynamics.  I say this because I am a sports fan, and few things test our group loyalties more than sports.  I root for the Yankees, Syracuse, and RPI.  As a result, I stand firmly behind my teams, and I tend to hold some contempt for the Red Sox, Mets, Georgetown, Boston College, Union, and Clarkson.  Many of my friends are Red Sox fans (heck, I’m married to one!), Mets fans, Union College, and Clarkson University alumni.  Yes, it is true that we will occasionally trash-talk each other when our teams face off against one another, but at the end of the day, they are just games and entertainment.  I will still sit down with them over a drink and pleasant conversation.

Likewise, I have many friends who are on both sides of the (major party) political aisle.  I have friends of many races, religions (or even atheists), cultures, and creeds.  However, no matter where they stand on their viewpoints, I respect each and every one of them.  And there, I believe, is the difference.  No matter where we stand, we need to listen to and respect the other side.  One of the issues regarding group identification is that we do not listen to the other side.  We lose complete respect and empathy for anyone who is our “opponent.”  That is where communication breaks down, and that is where divisions occur.

What we need is something that unites us.  We are not Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Africans, Asians, white, black, yellow, or brown.

What we are is human.

Nelson Mandela united a divided South Africa behind rugby, a story depicted in the movie Invictus.  What will be our uniting moment?  For those of us in North America, I was thinking about something like the 2026 World Cup, but that is a long way off.

I don’t know what that something is, but we need to find it, and fast.  We are being torn apart by our divisions, and it could potentially kill us.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at our past history regarding wars and conflicts.  The American Civil War comes to mind.

I don’t know how much of a difference writing this article will make.  I am just one voice in the wilderness.  But if writing this contributes to changing the world for the better, then I will have accomplished something.

We now return you to your period of political silence.

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.

What music taught me about being a professional

They say learning music improves cognitive skills, and I definitely understand the correlation.  I’ve been playing music my entire life.  Reading a score is like a computer reading a program; there are notes (that correlate to instructions), dynamics (attributes), repeats and D.S./D.C. instructions (loops), and so on.  (If you want to take the programming analogy further, you could say that each movement in a suite is either a function or an object.)

However, that is likely another article for another time.  What I want to talk about is my involvement in music, and some of the lessons learned throughout my life.  Granted, not everyone is a musician.  For the purposes of this article, I could easily replace the word “music” with “sports.”  These lessons aren’t necessarily about the science of music; rather, it’s how my experience in music shaped my life and, eventually, my professional development.   It’s about being a part of something bigger than myself, and how I’ve been able to contribute.  Many other people likely had these same experiences playing sports; it just so happens that my experience was in music instead of sports.

Anyway, for the context of this article, some personal history about my musical background is in order.  I started learning the piano when I was 7, and I picked up the clarinet when I was 8.

In my school district, second graders were offered the chance to learn an instrument, which was determined by your skill in recorder lessons.  You had your first and second choices of instruments.  The saxophone was actually my first choice; the clarinet was second.  I don’t remember why, but they wouldn’t let me take up the saxophone, so I ended up on clarinet.  As it turned out, I became pretty good at the clarinet — good enough that it provided me with opportunities later down the road.

Lesson learned: just because your first choice doesn’t work out doesn’t mean opportunity doesn’t exist.

XmasSax

I ended up learning how to play saxophone years later, when I was in high school.  I actually discovered that it was easier for a clarinetist to learn saxophone than it was for a sax player to learn clarinet.

Lesson learned: sometimes, things happen for a reason.

Like just about any typical kid, I hated to practice.  (Admittedly, I still do!)  But as time went on, I realized that the only way I was going to get better was to work on it on my own time.  So I worked at it, and got better.

Lessons learned: practice makes perfect, and preparation is everything.

As a kid growing up, my piano teacher lived next door.  To get to my lessons, all I had to do was climb over the bluestone fence that separated our properties.  Every year, we had an end-of-year recital at our local community college.  (I remember looking forward to the post-recital reception — hey, cookies! — the most.)  Every year, I felt nervous about getting on stage to perform — a feeling that lessened each year.  I suppose it was a sign of my growing confidence in something that I enjoyed and was able to do fairly well.

By my senior year in high school (and my final recital), my fellow seniors asked me to present our piano teacher with flowers as a “thank you for putting up with us everything you did.”  (I told them I wouldn’t do it unless they were on stage with me; they obliged.)

To this day, I’m not entirely sure why my fellow seniors picked me to be the spokesperson, but they saw something in me that I didn’t.  By that time, I’d gotten comfortable with performing on stage, but I felt pretty nervous when my friends appointed me to make that presentation.

Lesson learned: to be successful, you need to step out of your comfort zone.

My school’s marching band had built quite a reputation.  In 1973 (?), they were selected to perform halftime at a New York Jets game.  The Jets still played at old Shea Stadium, and the weather that day was, to put it mildly, not nice.  Despite the weather, the band took the field at halftime.  The play-by-play man said on national TV, “this is probably the bravest marching band in all of America” (or something to that effect — they actually showed halftime shows on TV back then)  In 1976, they were selected to perform at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  In 1980, they were featured in a commercial for Pepsi-Cola.  I remember watching that commercial as a wide-eyed kid and proclaiming, “I’m going to be in that band.”

Lesson learned: sometimes, you need a dream — or a goal.

Ray_OCS_MarchingBand

I was supposed to play clarinet in my high school band, but my freshman year, the band got a brand new set of marching bells.  Because I played the piano, I was one of the few people in the band who knew his way around a keyboard.  So guess who got the job of playing the new set of bells?  I was already getting praise for my musical prowess, but somehow, playing the bells gave me a whole new prominence with the rest of the band.  Had I stayed on clarinet, I would’ve been just another face among about a dozen other clarinet players.  I played the bells for three years before I switched back to clarinet.  But the bells gave me new experience that I was able to parlay into mallet percussion opportunities later in future groups.

Lesson learned: if an opportunity arises, jump on it.  You never know where it might lead.

I played in my high school band for four years, and ended up doing quite a bit with them.  I marched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1981 (yes, I am visible in the video link; you can see me in the percussion section playing the bells at 0:22).  We performed halftime for a couple of New York Giants games.  We were in the stands for the infamous snow plow game (the Patriots would not let us on the field because of the snow; we performed The Star Spangled Banner from the stands and left the game before halftime, so we never got to see the field goal).  We played pregame for a couple of Yankee games (I remember standing in center field, playing my music, and thinking to myself, “wow, I am playing in center field in Yankee Stadium!”).

My last game as a member of my high school marching band was a Giants game.  I remember thinking that it would be the last time I’d step on a football field with a marching band.  Little did I know at the time that I would end up attending a college that had a marching band.

Ray_SUMB_Parents_Wknd

College was a whole new experience (as it usually is for any kid coming out of high school).  Here I was, a small town kid going to a large university that happened to play NCAA Division I sports.  And as is often the case of most major college football schools, the school had a marching band.

When you’re in high school, and you become really good at something, you tend to think you’re hot stuff.  You’re a big fish in a small pond.  But for me, in going to a large school like Syracuse University, the pond suddenly got a heck of a lot bigger.  Suddenly, here were a bunch of people who could do the same things that I could — sometimes, even better.  For me, however, it set the bar higher.  I was determined to do well in a band of over two hundred people.  And for four years, I felt proud to be part of that team.

Lessons learned: you get better by setting the bar higher.  Be a team player; your contributions make a difference.

Even after I graduated from Syracuse and moved to the Albany area, I continued to play my music (and I still do).  More opportunities came up.  I joined a few large ensembles.  I became an accompanist for a church.  I’ve written songs and created some demos.  I got paid to play for weddings.  I found a bar in downtown Albany where I could play for a few extra bucks.  I was asked to accompany students, instrumentalists, and show productions.  And through all these opportunities, I still continue to improve and grow as a musician, as a professional, and as a person.  I continue to enjoy what I do.  And I intend to keep playing for a long time to come.

Lessons learned: never stop doing what you love.  You’re never too old.  Share what you love with the world.

Play on!