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Some thoughts of your typical data shepherd / data plumber / data dance teacher sort of person.


SQL Grillen 2018
SQL Grillen 2018

This post is just some reflections on my experience on speaking, as part of the newcomer track at SQL Grillen 2018

Pre SQL Grillen

This is the first part of this post is written on Tuesday 19th June 2018 only 3 days to go before the session. My current feelings are rather to say the least nervous.  Added to that is a considerable feeling of imposter syndrome.  At this time my thoughts and feelings are these -:

Rehearsals - without a doubt, going over the presentation multiple times has helped so much more than anticipated.  Whilst at this point the words that are going to be used have been repeated many times.  They are in my mind.  As each slide comes up, there is little doubt in my mind what I'm going to say or how. 

Less is more - the amount of material that came out of my research into the topic, not all of it has made it into the presentation.  So, what made it in is just what is required to get my point across.  Which has upsides and downsides.  It should make the session better, more focused, and if people ask questions after the session then other examples and illustrations will spring to mind.  On the downside there is part of me that feels like my audience is not getting all that I want to get across.  Then again there are only 60 mins which is more than enough for most people. 

Imposter Syndrome - not sure what can be said about this.  It seems natural, there are many presenters who feel the same.  Right now, the best strategy seems to be to focus on the presentation.  The goal of the presentation to help one person take one thing away from the session.  Who that person is at this moment I do not know.  So if just one person takes one thing away that I will count as a win.   That person might just be me, which is also good.

Mentor - SQL Grillen, did an awesome job with the new comer's track.  Assigning each person, a mentor, for me, I was very luck and have been assigned Cathrine Wilhelmsen as my mentor.  Her insights and attention to detail was invaluable in so many ways.  Cathrine made excellent suggestions and helped me to see the presentation from the point of view of a non-native English speaker's.  Most importantly just generally very encouraging :->

Post SQL Grillen

Phew! OMG! That was soooo scary! Can I try that again? 

Back in Sunny Glasgow.  Now looking to see what lessons I can learn, and other thoughts spring into my mind. 

Bunny in the headlights - It's easy to forget that as a speaker that I felt front and centre.  That is to say, everyone can see you and knows you're a speaker, thats how I saw it.  Even better or worse, each of the new speakers was given an orange apron to wear.  The other speakers had different colours.  For me, it was a strange feeling not in a bad way, more that I am usually part of the audience.  On reflection its not a bad thing, all part of the learning experience. 

Rehearsals – This really worked for me I was able to sit at the speaker's table check my equipment worked, run over my presentation quickly and that was me ready to go.  Doing so many rehearsals (and not having any demos) meant for me that I knew what I was going to say and all the notes I needed were on the slide deck.  Sitting at the speaker's desk was scary, with so many people who I have seen speak before.  At least I was able to make it to a session before I was due to present.  Which allowed me to relax and listen to the awesome trio of Rob Sewell (@sqldbawithbeard), Chrissy LeMaire (@cl) and Cláudio Silva (@ClaudioESSilva) talk about the new dbaChecks module

The Presentation - nervous? YES!  Waiting for the session to start was the worst part.  Having seen some advice from Brent Ozar I had some music playing (that only I could hear) only thing was I had to resist dancing around.  Knowing the presentation allowed me to concentrate on other things.  

Audience – making sure I spoke to the whole audience front row to back, both sides, making eye contact with everyone, looking at their body language, to see if my points hit home 

Pace - at some points my pace was a little faster than should be, I felt able to vary according to the material and audience reactions.  

Body language - both my own to ensure I got points across.  More importantly the body language of the audience.  Was the audience looking at the slide, or looking at me, did they react how I expected?

The Audience - Think about this afterwards, there were so many more people than I would have even dared hoped for.  My guess was about 30 people, some of the people I recognized, my colleagues from Scotland, Craig Porteous, Paul Broadwith, and of course Cathrine :->, and Grant Fritchey aka "The Scary Dba" (yes really!).  Somethings seemed to work really well, like the acronyms game, and my alternative job description, yes you had to be there to get the point. 

Feedback - for me this was the hardest part.  The best that I had expected something like "Meh".

What I did not expect was people saying how well I had done.  Grant Fritchey who attended my session, congratulated me on my presentation, even tweeting about as well.  Then Alexander Arvidsson also congratulated me on the presentation, his kind and encouraging words can be found in this blog post.  Catherine was very generous with her compliments  and encouraged me to review the feedback, which was complimentary and insightful.

Improvements

Finishing - needs more rehearsing, so that the presentation finishes on more of a high, at least from my point of view. 

Timing – instead of using a stopwatch, I used a countdown timer.  At several points, I was trying to see how much time had elapsed.  As my notes had time elapsed at key points.  The countdown timer did not make it easier for me to see the time elapsed.

Hard work – Over the years I have been fortunate enough to see many people speak who make it look so easy.  Having done it now, its like a swan look they look graceful and elegant as it glides across the water's surface.  Yet hidden away underneath the water are the webbed feet working really hard all the time.  That’s my experience of presenting, making it look easy requires a lot of hard work, which remains unseen, the way is should be.

Last point is to thank the SQL Grillen team.  William Durkin, who does an amazing job of making everyone feel welcome.  Ben Weissman for creating and picking the speakers for the newcomers track.  There are as l know so many more in the SQL Grillen team, thank you to all.

Next

There are some ideas which are being considered.  Where, when and what who knows, watch this space.


We all make mistakes
It happens to us all.  Speaking personally, I do not want to admit to them, or in some cases, I keep making the same ones.  Yes, we all make mistakes its part of life.  In my experience, these can become war stories.  When you talk about the time you <insert horror story here>.  Yes, and I am putting up my hand to say that like anyone else I have made mistakes, some days it feels like that I have made more mistakes than done things right!

What's so hard about making mistakes for me?  The embarrassment of it, maybe I did not know something, or yes that thing that I did well, yes, I did know better.  It's not easy for me to admit mistakes.  Just ask my long-suffering partner (thank goodness, she does not read my blog!).  Yes, I do like to be right and do it the right way.  Admitting that I was wrong, or did something stupid, takes it out of me, it's not easy. 

Hopefully, in my professional life, I am a little better at dealing with my mistakes.  A few years ago, one of my jobs was with a large consultancy company.  I was the person responsible for producing reports for the service desk.  From time to time there were errors with the reports that I was responsible for producing.  During that time, I developed a strategy which I still use to deal with mistakes. 

1) Take responsibility 
It's not easy to put your hand to say you have made a mistake.  On the other hand, how to do you learn from mistakes?  For me, part of growing is learning to take the bad with the good.  Also personally speaking I have more respect for someone who has what it takes to say when they have made a mistake.  Even if you have not made the mistake you find, then take make it your responsibility to fix that mistake.   If I do this then my primary focus is to get the issue resolved and move on.  Finger pointing or the blaming someone is not part of this.
 
2) Find the challenge  
What when wrong?  How did it happen?  Be able to explain what happened, in simple non-technical language that anyone can understand.   Also be confident that you can explain in technical terms to your peers.

3) Fix it 
Get your hands dirty, get involved in fixing the issue.   Help find a solution to rectify the challenge or work with the people fixing the challenge if you can.  For me, I have and do still learn so much just from fixing mistakes. 

4) Prevent it! 
Better to have a fence at the cliff edge than a hospital at the bottom.  What will stop it happening the mistake happening again?  An extra check of something, a checklist of things to do in the same situation. 

Is there something I missed, do you have a different strategy.  Maybe you disagree? Let me know, every day is school day for me :-)


Speaking the same language

We all communicate with each other, some more than most, in our house if my partner is not talking to me there is something wrong.  It's not usual for the misunderstanding to be something I might have said (or done).  Communicating with each other verbally is something that we learn to do from an early age.  We learn what words mean, their power, what they can do for us, what to say, and what not to say.


There have been times I have had the pleasure of going to the local garage and speaking to the mechanic regarding whatever challenge is with the car.  The mechanic would explain the issue to me, using words which I have to say that wished I understood. It is entirely possible that there is a "big end" in our car just do not ask me where it is or what it does.  Or that the timing belt is very important to make the engine run properly.


Every industry, profession, hobby, has their own language.  This often makes it easy for professionals to communicate with each other often in a form of shorthand which can sound foreign to someone else even if they speak the same language.  Working in the IT industry this is something I am very aware of.  If someone asks me what I do for a job what do I say?  I might say that I am a BI professional, working primarily with the MS SQL server stack, sometimes using SSIS, and SSRS.  I write a variety of CRUD scripts in TSQL and I do some query optimisation.  If the person asking is not an IT professional who works in my specific area of expertise, most of my explanation would have sounded like I had spoken in a different language.

What I now say is my job involves three things, data shepherding, data grooming, and data dressage.  I might expand a little on these to explain that l move data from one place to another ensuring none of the data gets lost as we move it.  Some of the data might need to be polished or groomed to fit in its new home.  Then I train data to perform and dance in a way that others can understand it better.  What I try to do is use words which people who are do not work with databases can understand and relate to.


When I speak to clients one thing I try to remember is to use words that anyone can understand.  If I introduce technical concepts or acronyms in the conversation I will try to make time to explain them.  Or use analogies that are simple and easy to understand.  This is not an easy thing to do, it is our job to make IT simple and easy to use.  There might be lots of complicated moving parts behind the scenes.  Like a car, we have a simple dashboard, underneath are lots of complicated moving parts that just work.  The hard work of maintaining and fixing those parts I happily leave to the experts.


Personally, I see our job is to make our customers task as simple as it can be.  We should present challenges, technical details in a language our customers can easily understand.  As Einstein is quoted as saying “make everything as simple as possible but no simpler”.  One excellent example of this is by Brent Ozar when explaining implications of RTO & RPO here -> https://www.brentozar.com/archive/2014/05/new-high-availability-planning-worksheet/.  The worksheet sets out the terms in language everyone can understand, even better by drawing attention to the targets, so everyone knows what to expect.

Is this easy, or simple?  No, it is not.  Having said that which expert do you feel most comfortable with? would happily go back to time and again?  The one that speaks to you in words and terms you can easily understand.  Or one that uses language and words that are sometimes not easy to follow or understand?  The choice for me is easy and simple, which is why I work that little bit hard to make it as easy as possible for my customers to understand me.


Microsoft Certification Pros and Cons
This post is a follow-up to the Glasgow SQL server user group meeting on 17th January 2017.

Microsoft offer a very wide variety of certification you can get an overview here on this page,  There really is something for everyone. Like many things in life, there are good points and bad points to everything.  What l intend to do is share some experiences and maybe some tips picked up along the way.

Why should you study for a certificate?

There are as many different reasons as people taking the exams.  Many people have found it helps them to carry out their day job better.  When l started to study for Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012/2014.  I was fairly certain that l had fairly good T-SQL skills, studying the course caused me to explore and learn in much greater depth topics l had just looked at yet not studied in depth. The next exam Administering Microsoft SQL Server 2012/2014 Databases has been of great benefit to helping me understand the internals of SQL server.  Allowing me to talk with more confidence to technical staff.  Having had to study and master various skills, this has given me more confidence to expand and increase my knowledge.

Whilst nothing can beat experience having a certificate can also improve the chances when looking for a new job.  If an interviewer is looking at two evenly matched candidates, one without a certificate one with a certificate.  Personally speaking, if l was the person making the decision then the person with the certificate would the one whom l would recommend getting the job.  By studying and passing the exam the candidate has demonstrated, initiative, self-motivation, and a genuine desire for technology.  At least that's my opinion.  In one case l know of a colleague whom l work with, who said one the reasons they were offered a job was due to the fact that had studied and passed two exams, which were relevant to the role they applied for.

Craig Porteous spoke to some recruiters he knows and asked them some questions about their view of certification.  So these thoughts are directly from those who make hiring decisions.

What weight do you put on certifications when hiring? 
1) A lot. With two otherwise comparable candidates, the one with certifications wins in my mind.
2) A lot, think it shows that candidates are focused in developing their career.
3) For a technical role I see it as essential 

Do you encourage the pursuit of certifications by your team?
1) Yes
2) Yes
3) Yes

Do you see any downsides/negative aspects to certifications?
1) No, none at all. 
2) Some of the accreditation's could be more hands on focused. 
3) Cost (retaining skilled up workers)

With staff who have completed certifications, do you see any differences in working practice etc to those who haven’t? 
1) Yes. People working towards certifications are more engaged with technology and tend to apply their learning in the work environment, sharing their knowledge and improving the overall team dynamic leading to improved productivity.
2) It really depends on the individual so don’t think it’s a fair comparison. Better way to look at it is how doing accreditations adds value to that person in regards technical ability and confidence.
3) Last example was a infrastructure type. Stuck him on a sccm course. A,month later our sccm world upgraded. A year later he left and now heads up sccm at dell secure works in the US . For me a benefit – I get a sccm upgrade from a capable engineer. They get a badge they can use to get their career upgraded. Win win.

One reason l have heard for not doing any certification is the cost.  My personal point of view on this is that l am investing in myself.  If l learn a new skill gain or learn some new techniques.  Yes, the company l am working for will benefit which is excellent news for them.  If l choose to move to another role with a different company, then those skills transfer with me.  Those skills l have invested both my time and (more importantly very often) my money in they are mine.  So my choice is to invest in myself as l believe that the return on investment (ROI) is excellent.

Resources
 
So you have decided to study for certification, what resources are there available?  The following list is just suggestions, based on largely on my experience and some others.

Books

 If you are planning to take the data platform exams then l would strongly suggest investing in the books for the relevant exam. For example, this one is for the 70-461 exam. The book covers all the topics that could be questioned in the exam. There is an accompanying CD has an electronic copy of the book and practice exam questions.   One series of books which I used whilst studying for 70-461 exam Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012/14 was series titled 2 Joes.  The purpose of the books is to take a complete beginner through all the skills required to pass the exam.  Personally l found this is the best explanation of how to query xml data using TSQL.  They where for me worth the investment. 

Training Sites

CBT Nuggets - an excellent resource, the videos l viewed for my 70-462 exam were really helpful.  As part of the training package l signed up for included exam questions which l also found where excellent.  More expensive that other sites, you have access to all the courses.  Really worth considering if want to maximize your study time.

Udemy - with this provider you purchase one course at a time which allows you "lifetime access" to the course.  When the courses are on sale, the prices are low.  The quality of the courses can vary, so have a look a the reviews on the course before purchasing.  Personally, l found the 70-463 covered the basics well, on the other hand, it did not go into sufficient detail for the exam questions.

Pluralsight - this is a well know training site (ok l have heard the name in quite a few place) there are lists of videos for specific certifications.  The quaility of the courses l have watched were of a very high quality.

Microsoft Virtual Academy - its Free, which is not always a recommendation.  That said the quality of the courses that l have viewed have been excellent.   For the exams search for jump start videos, which are a really good jumping off point to start your studying.  So excellent hints and tips in the videos from people who passed and training people for the exams.

SQL Bits - apart from being one of the best SQL conferences in Europe.  The organizers have given back to the SQL community by recording some of the sessions and making the available for FREE on their website.  To find what you are looking for might take a bit of searching, most topics will have at least one video on them.

YouTube - there are a lot of videos uploaded on a wide variety of topics.  There will be some searching to find the topic you are looking.  On the downside the quality of content is variable.   Ranging from the excellent to the not so good.

Blog posts - again this will require some searching.  It has in my experience, been worth the time and energy required.  One author whilst studying for the 70-463 exam blogged about what she was learning as they went along.

Passing the exams

What is required to pass the exams?  Practice and lots of it!  One of the keys that are borne out by other people who passed the exams is the practice exams.  These exam questions will not be exactly like the exam questions.  What they will do is get in the way of thinking when doing the exams.  Reading exam questions to see the question, examining multiple choice questions for the correct answer.  Best way to get practice is to get hold of practice exam questions and take the exam.  There are a number of providers which will allow you to purchase them, MeasureUp, CBTNuggets and others. They will not be exactly the same as the exam questions you take when you go into the exam room. On the other hand they will give you practice at answering the questions.  If you pay attention to the score at the end of the practice exam you will also be able to see where you need to improve.

The questions are designed quite deliberately to test your knowledge, well you would not want them to be too easy ?  This article from Pluralsight has some excellent examples of the format of the type of question you will be answering in the exam.  If you are really interested in how the question are constructed and methodology behind them, this video from Pluralsight has an interview with someone who designs the exams.

All that remains to say if you have decided to study for a certification, good luck and happy studying.


“I get knocked down, But l get up again You are never gonna to keep me down…”
First, be warned there will be some spelling and grammatically errors.  This post is rough and ready as it comes.  Ok what is this about, l want to document and relate some of the challenges l will have overcome as the person who has started the Glasgow SQL server group.  Like most things l have attempted in my life, l have failed, that is not stopped me.  So l am going to try and share my experiences and lessons on starting / running an SQL server user group.  The sole reason is hopefully someone, somewhere will be helped by reading about my challenges (mistakes)

Ok first the bad news.  This evening was the first group meeting, time 7pm, location a coffee bar in Glasgow.  Attendees, me and my shadow (as in nobody).  Not the best start l agree, after waiting for 30 mins with my sign on the table, l decided to call it a night.  Not feeling in the best of moods l was pondering what next.  When some song lyrics popped in my head, “I get knocked down, But l get up again You are never gonna to keep me down…” the chorus from Tubthumping by Chumbawamba. So that’s what l listened to repeatedly on the way home.

So how did l get here, and what could l have done better?

Take action more quickly
- the idea occurred to me whilst at my first SQL bits conference three years ago.  It took until last years SQL Bits (2016) conference to tweet about it to see what interest there was, it was re-tweeted however no signs of interest.  On the upside, l met two people from Glasgow who hopefully will be involved the user group.

Do not wait – the longer l waited bigger the challenge became!

Make use of all the opportunities you can find – l did set up an event on Meetup.com that has been really positive (more of that in another post).  What l have not done is to contact all my professional contacts in Linked in to spread the word.  I could have used twitter more, to date l have not set up a facebook group, or set up an event on Eventbrite.com.

Positive’s – the two people whom l met at the 2016 SQL bits conference will hopefully be involved in future events and yes they let me know they could not make tonight.   The Trello board l have set up to record ideas and suggestions has worked really well.  There a wealth of ideas and suggestions of what we can do and suggestions on item to be actioned.  Whilst waiting for people come tonight l have made a list of actions l am going to take next.  That can wait till my next post.

Next steps – meetings will be arranged, scheduled and publicised in as many ways and places are possible.  I shall be making use of my contacts to spread the word of this event.
Parting thoughts.  

Following one my most epic failures which l shared with someone, who understood.  He gave me a card with this quote
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Theodore Roosevelt

It’s not easy to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and keep going.  That’s what makes some people that little bit different....


Thank you

This post is just a quick thank you to everyone who re-tweeted about the Glasgow SQL server group. Also to those who tweeted words of encouragement. It has been my privilege to see what a unique group the SQL server community is watching and hearing the encouragement and care passed on by this SQL server community. To receive, it is very humbling. So thank you to everyone it was and is much appreciated.


A picture can be worth > 1000 words
It's been a interesting time in my new role which l have been in for about 12 months now.  The product l get to work with is fantastic in so many ways for the end user.  The way that is configured allows it to be changed and moulded to fit the users wishes (within reason).  The downside to this is that there is a lot of complexity. 

The team l work with has responsibility for migrating data from our clients existing system to our system.  Speaking for myself, this can be a bit of a Rubik's Cube puzzle of what bit of data goes where and how.  Which speaking as a data geek can be fun.  Its taken me a while to understand both the product and the data model that supports the product and l am still learning very day!

Whilst working on a migration for one client, the form in which we received the data was a set of a large number of spreadsheets.  The information was spread over several spreadsheets mapping the data had been done by my colleague.  During a regular telephone conference with the client, we released that the client was not completely clear on how the data was being mapped from the spreadsheets to the application.  The spreadsheet view was a in a form they as the client understood and trusted (think trusted blanket).   Where as the application was still new shiny complicated and cold.  So my colleague took some screenshots of the spreadsheets, and of the application of where the data was being mapped to.  Using Google Diagrams, they drew some lines showing where values on the spreadsheet was placed in the application.  This was then passed to the client to review.

During the next telephone conference, the client was delighted with this simple diagram.  What my colleague had done was to delight and reassure the client at the same time.  They received from both the client and our own team praise for we saw as a simple task.

As l write this post l am creating some diagrams for another client we are working with.  One their requests was for a data dictionary for the views we provide for reporting.   The data dictionary was to include primary and foreign keys including which tables the foreign keys referenced. I was tasked with this bit of work, which l duly delivered to the client, it when down well.  The client then asked could be do some Entity Relationship Diagrams, with the object names and foreign keys.

At first l did not think this was going to be of much benefit.  All the required information was in the data dictionary after all.  Once l had completed the first one l had to say that my mind was changed.  Even though l had a good grasp of the data model, mapping the data dictionary to the ERD diagram was not as easy and simple as l first thought.  Even worst than that first l was enjoying the process, secondly l was learning as l went along.  Another of our regular meetings came round again.  So l had completed a rough draft of two diagrams, so l presented them.

During the updates l presented the two diagrams, explaining that they where intended primarily for non-technical users who might be required to do some work on reporting.  Much to my surprise the client was delighted, and related that these would prove to be very useful to all users.

The take away for me is that even the simplest scruffiest diagram (back of a paper napkin) can communicate so much more than we might appreciate.  As adults we spend much of time, complicating verbally.  We should from time to time get the crayons out and just draw lines, circles, shapes.  It might be possible to explain in words something.  Yet l am reminded of the simple diagram of joins that has cemented firmly in my mind SQL joins (http://blog.codinghorror.com/a-visual-explanation-of-sql-joins/).  To this day, when l am thinking of a left or right join, that diagram pops into my head.  This says to me that what l need to remember its not how l communicate something, more that l communicate it in a way the client can readily (or instantly) understand.  Sometimes a picture is worth more than a thousand words.