Feeling Good but…

I think it would be fair to say that like everyone, I’m a bit sick of Covid (thankfully not sick from it.) I just got my booster on Friday and then I’m hearing about the Omicron variant.

I submitted talks for SQLBits in the UK for next year, hoping to present in person. And I’m hearing about numbers rising.

I’m planning a mini-vacation/cave rescue training trip to Hawai’i next year and making sure everything is refundable. Just in case.

So I’m feeling god but…

At the start of each year, I set some financial goals for myself. Some include what things I may pay off, save, or how I’ll spend it (now admittedly most of those are fixed, such as knowing I’ll tax property taxes, etc.) As a contractor I also set a couple of various goals for new work and how much I’ll hopefully earn in the coming year. I find these are important as they help keep me focused and moving forward.

The good news is, financially I’ve hit all my goals, and then some, this year. The downside, with that, and with Covid continually popping up its ugly head, I’ve lost some of my motivation for the rest of the year.

Fortunately, this has freed up some time for some projects around the house. Almost two years ago, with help from the kids, I started on a project to replace some leaking pipes and replace the resulting damaged drywall in the basement. I’m proud to say I’ve finally gotten around to taping and painting the drywall in the basement and patching around where I put in the new bathroom fan. Things get done, albeit slowly.

I’m also feeling good because a major project for one of my clients is mostly completed. But it also came very close to burning me out and I’ll admit I even considered walking away from the client over it. The strange part is that it wasn’t a particularly complicated project, though it did involve a combination of SQL, PowerShell, and using a product called Pentaho. Technically it was fairly straightforward. But, for awhile, the project management was absent and the then lead was actually another agency who, I think it’s safe to say didn’t clearly understand the full scope of the project. With the addition of the client adding their own PM and working with a different agency taking over a bunch of the work, things have gone much more smoothly. Now we’re simply dealing with small niggling details that got missed before.

What kept me from walking away (besides it being my largest client) was a sense of responsibility to the client. Without my efforts, I think the project would have easily been set back a month as they would have had to bring someone else up to speed on my efforts.

Now the upside is that because of the overtime required (and it’s still ongoing) I met my financial goals for the year (and hence now have time for the house projects). So that’s a good thing.

But it did highlight how frustrating being a single-person consulting agency can be at times. It’s made me re-evaluate my goals for 2022. I’ll be writing more about this in a future blog, but it has got me thinking more about getting back to working for an company as a full-time employee, ideally in a management position. Strangely one thing I’ve come to realize is I actually enjoy making decisions and I enjoy managing. I sort of miss it.

And perhaps after nearly 2 years of Covid (and nearly a decade of pure consulting), it’s time I get out of the house more and travel a bit and interact face to face with people.

We’ll see.

But that’s it for today. I’m feeling good but…

P.S. One thing I did finally accomplish is submitting my latest article to Redgate’s Simple-Talk.

Feeling Older

This is probably far from the last time I’m going to write on the subject, and certainly not as in depth as I plan to someday, but this past week made me feel past my prime.

While in many ways I believe age is just a number, the truth is, it does change us. While I am still very active, such as biking a century ride last year, still caving and teaching cave rescue, the reality is, the body and mind are slowing.

I’ve been working with SQL Server in one form or another since 4.21. I’ve spoken at PASS Summit, I’ve presented at more SQL Saturdays and User Groups than I can remember. I’ve published a book and numerous Red Gate articles and I’ve mentored more than a few people over the decades. I’ve worked at two start-ups (not counting mergers and acquisitions) and been a consultant before, between and after those gigs.

So I think I can safely say I’m comfortable with my credentials.

That said, the past week really made me consider if it was time to hang up my cap, or at least change caps again. I won’t go into details, other than to say a particularly stressful project for one of my clients reached a major milestone. I’m actually just one small cog in a much bigger piece of the project, but it’s a fairly important cog. And, it had issues. Now, I’ll put on my shoulders that a bit was due to issues with my code and some assumptions I had made. Most of the issues actually stemmed at a far higher level and with another consultant agency working on the project. Let’s just say that GIGO still thrives. But some of it I realized was, I was slightly off my game, and I think a bit of brain fog was involved. I don’t know if that was age related, simply a result of being cooped up for well over the last year due to Covid or what.

Regardless, the culmination of all that and other issues, some personal, started to come to a head. By Friday I was seriously wondering how much more I had left in the tank, physically and mentally.

Today I will admit I’m in a better place. The last major piece of code I needed to get working finally succeeded in production last night and the GIGO problems seem to be disappearing.

But that was after a long weekend of introspection about where I’m headed. I am at that age where retirement is no longer some far off nebulous goal, but an actual reality I have to consider. I’ve always known I’ll probably never truly retire; I do enjoy being busy and working too much. However, I have for several years now done the delicate balance between making sure I hit certain target goals for income and actually enjoying my work. Last week that balance was way off. I need to get it back.

This is my long-winded way of saying that for the first time in years, I’m honestly not sure what I’ll be doing a year from now. Perhaps I’ll still be consulting in my current form and enjoying it. Perhaps I’ll go back to a full-time 9-5 gig; I have come to realize, I deeply miss the management side of work. For my two stints as a full-time employee I was a manager and honestly, I loved that. I miss it. Perhaps I’ll be consulting in a very different way going forward. Maybe I’ll invest in real-estate. Perhaps become a vagabond teaching cave rescue across the country (this last one is not as far fetched as it sounds, I am planning on teaching at least 2 if not 3 different classes next year.)

But I think change is coming again. It’s the season.

Time Crawls On

There’s a crevice at the top of a ridge, about 18.5 miles from my house as the crow flies. And as time flies, it’s been in my life for 36 or 37 years.

The crevice is locally known as The Snow Hole because it retains snow late into the year. Decades ago it had snow through August and sometimes beyond. Unfortunately the time for that is long past due the overall temperatures increasing a day or two.

I first visited this in the Spring of ’84 or ’85. I honestly can’t recall which year. As part of the Outdoor Education club or “OE” as we called it in high school, we did an overnight trip. The instructor liked to challenge us and in this particular case we literally arrived at a random parking lot at the base of a ridge and were purposely given a vague map and told to find a particular peak to camp on. With some bushwhacking we made it to the top of the ridge, struck south and arrived at the peak with a gorgeous view. We camped there and then the next day headed north, crossed a road, and eventually arrived at a crack in the ground full of snow. We explored the crack and I’m sure threw a few snowballs at each other. The crack has sheer walls on three sides and a walkable slope on the west side. At the very top of that slope there is a hole in the ground. Alas, no hobbit lived in it, but it was large enough to wiggle into and with some effort find oneself completely underground. It wasn’t much of a cave, but it was there. (Arguably, by some definitions, because one never got beyond what’s known as the twilight zone, it’s not really a cave, but to us, it was a cave.)

We hiked back to the road and in the parking lot there, not the one we started at, we packed up the vehicles and headed home. At the time, I honestly had no clue where we had gone. But I knew it was fun.

It was a couple of years later, I was now in college, when I joined the Rensselaer Outing Club on a day hike to Berlin Mountain. We drove east from campus and arrived at a parking lot. We unloaded and hiked south. I was having a mild sense of deja vu, but I wasn’t sure why. Several miles later, we arrived at the top of Berlin Mountain and I instantly recognized the view. I had camped there. To our east was Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts. I had returned.

On a later hike, we headed north to the Snowhole. This was the first of many return trips to both locations, the most recent being a hike this past weekend to the Snowhole with my wife.

As we headed north, I was trying to remember my last time there and I want to say close to a decade ago. As I move on in my years and I revisit locations from the past, I try to recall what they were like years ago. In some cases my memories are clouded and faded, in others though, I know my memories are accurate but the places have changed. Both were true on the hike in. In this case, there are two rather open spots about 2/3rds of the way in where one has gorgeous views. Or, more accurately had. The areas themselves are open, but the trees just downhill have continued to grow over the decades and now block much of the view.

View north of Berlin Mountain in the distance, but numerous trees in the foreground blocking much of the view. Taken from the Taconic Crest Trail on the way to the Snowhole.
Decades ago, you could see far more!

And as I mentioned above, the snow doesn’t persist as long in the Snowhole as it used it. But the Snowhole itself hasn’t changed much. Oh, I’m sure a rock or two has fallen since then, more leaves have filled the bottom and decade and I think there’s a bit of a subsistence at the bottom that’s opened up a bit, but overall it’s the same.

And one thing waiting there was that cave. For whatever reason I had not reentered that cave since my first time. This time I decided to do so. I’ve talked about in the past how sometimes we remember caves being bigger than they actually are. Well, in this case I swear the entrance was larger than I remember. I do think in fact the rock had shifted a bit, so perhaps it had been smaller in the past, but in any event, in this case I was able to crawl in without much effort. And the cave itself was deeper and far larger than I recall. Unlike most caves in New York, this is not a solutional cave formed by the breakdown of limestone. Instead, it’s really more of a breakdown cave, where as other stuff erodes away or shifts the layers of rock shift, break, or otherwise move. In my memory, the cave was about 6′ long and just enough to turn around in and peep out a much smaller window near the entrance. Now, it was probably a good 12′-15′ feet long and it dropped down about 6′. Technically I could probably have crawled over a ledge and down just enough to get out of the twilight zone. It truly is a cave, at least now. And it’s one of those rare cases where it’s far larger than I remember. I don’t know in this case if it’s just my memory, or if the cave had changed. It didn’t matter.

After a few minutes I crawled back out and started to do the math. That’s when I realized it had been nearly 40 years since I had last crawled in there. I do hope it’s not another 40 before I crawl in again.

And Now the Good News…

The good news is my 2005 Subaru only needed some very minor repairs to get it back on the road so my son can take it to college. This is in contrast to the local dealer telling me last year that it had significant leaks and there was no way for it to pass inspection. I didn’t really believe their diagnosis, but figured they knew what they were talking about and ended up buying a 2015 Subaru last fall.

So why am I telling you about my car ownership? Because this is sort of a follow-up to my post from last week on decision making. After posting it and getting several positive comments, I realized it was actually a bit incomplete and decided I need to write a follow-up. You see, I sort of ignored a huge fact in my last post and it’s both generic and personal. The fact is, decision making in the abstract is easy, it’s when it gets personal it can get far harder. Generically this applies to everyone. Personally, last week I was struggling with the decision about my car repairs and realizing the emotional factors involved.

One of my favorite TV dramas of all time addresses this problem in a few episodes, the most clear one being Mr. Willis of Ohio where President Bartlet explains to his daughter Zoey the real concern:

My getting killed would be bad enough, but that is not the nightmare scenario. The nightmare scenario, sweetheart, is *you* getting kidnapped. You go out to a bar or a party in some club and you get up to go to the restroom and somebody comes from behind and puts their hand across your mouth and whisks you out the back door. You’re so petrified you don’t even notice the bodies of a few Secret Service agents lying on the ground with bullet holes in their heads. Then you’re whisked away in a car. It’s a big party with lots of noise and lots of people coming and going, and it’s a half hour before someone says, “Hey, where’s Zoey?” Another fifteen minutes before the first phone call. It’s another hour and a half before anyone even *thinks* to shut down all the airports. Now we’re off to the races. You’re tied to a chair in a cargo shack somewhere in the middle of Uganda and I am told that I have 72 hours to get Israel to free 460 terrorist prisoners. So I’m on the phone pleading with Be Yabin and he’s saying: “I’m sorry, Mr. President, but Israel simply does not negotiate with terrorists, period. It’s the only way we can survive.” So now we got a new problem because this country no longer has a Commander-in-chief, it has a father who’s out of his mind because his little girl is in a shack somewhere in Uganda with a gun to her head. Do you get it?

The West Wing: Mister Willis of Ohio.

This later becomes a plot point in a later season where basically this scenario gets played out and President Bartlet decides to invoke the 25th Amendment and temporarily steps aside (which, in my opinion leads to some great scenes with John Goodman who proves his acting chops include more than comedy).

The point is, he realizes he can be the President, or a father, but at times he can’t be both. And now back to my 2005 Subaru.

Last year when I thought I was facing over $3000 in repairs, it was a fairly easy decision to not get it repaired. I thought in the back of my mind that perhaps I’d make it a Covid project with my kids and do the work over the summer. As both the summer and my motivation slowly ran away, I realized this wasn’t going to happen.

That said, I still harbored an interesting in getting the car fixed, even though economically it didn’t seem to make sense. Thinking about it, I realized that several factors were driving my decision, one of which of course was it gave my son a car for his final time at college. But also, honestly, it was a fun car to drive. In some ways far more fun than my current Subaru (but I love the bells and whistles of my current car). But there was another factor, my dad had essentially helped me buy the car, just months before he got ill and passed away. There was a distinct emotional attachment to the car. It was looming larger than I had cared to admit.

But recently a new wrinkle appeared. Due to the Covid pandemic, there has been a distinct uptick in the price and value of used cars. A recent search of Subarus in a similar age range showed them now being sold for close to $4000. Suddenly putting that much money into an old car wasn’t an entirely bad idea. But again, I had to wonder, “was it worth it?”

I decided to take a “wait and see” attitude and got it insured and registered and took it to a local mechanic I’m starting to use more and more. I told him basically “Hey, if we can get it inspected without doing all the work, let’s do it.”

A few hours later he called me back. He had bad news. He couldn’t pass it. But, not because it needed the work the dealer had claimed. But because I had forgotten that the battery had recently died and I had had to jump it and recharge the battery. This meant the computer data on emissions wasn’t sufficient and it wouldn’t pass. Fortunately, this is an easy cure: drive it for around 100 miles. With that, it should pass!

I got lucky this time. I could get the car on the road for very little cost. The whole emotional attachment part could go away, at least for now. So what would I have done? Thinking about it, I suspect, since honestly, we had the money, and having the extra car would be useful and because of the increase in car prices I’d have gone ahead with it.

But what about bigger decisions? Fortunately I’ll never be in the position that writers put President Bartlet in. But, there are other situations where emotions might come into play. In cave rescue there’s a skill called a “pick-off” which can be used to help rescue a patient who is stuck on rope. We used to teach it at our standard weeklong cave rescue course and require proficiency in it to pass one of the upper levels. It can be very useful and if your patient is conscious and cooperative, it’s not hard to do. If they’re unconscious however, it can be very hard to do and in fact can be quite dangerous. If you do it wrong, you can also end up stuck on the rope with no way to go up or down. This can be fatal. I know of at least one situation where a friend tried to rescue another friend stuck on a rope in a cave in a waterfall. Both died. He didn’t have the skills (or honestly the best equipment to do so) and allowed his emotions to cloud his decision making. It’s easy to say that here, sitting in my nice dry office when I don’t hear a friend dying. In rescue, one of the hardest decisions one has to make is when to stop a rescue. It’s not easy and emotions and emotional attachments can come into play. But one has to look at the overall picture and try to not let emotions cloud ones decision making process.

As an aside, an excellent look at a real-life scenario where a climber had to cut the rope of his buddy: Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. I highly recommend it.

So, what is the take-away here?

When making decisions, there are often personal and emotional factors that come into play. Sometimes one can allow them (in my case with the car, it’s just money), in others (such as a pick-off) one might allow them, but probably shouldn’t, and if you’re President of the US, you probably should avail yourself of a way out so that your emotions don’t cloud your decision making process. Actually, even if you’re not President of the United States with a kidnapped daughter, I would recommend either turning the decision making process over to another competent person, or at least searching out the input of several folks, ideally ones without the same emotional biases as you, and getting a consensus of opinion. Ultimately though, be aware of the factors going into your decision and the possible consequences.

That’s it for now, until I decide to write another post about this topic.

Let’s Start with the bad news…

Last Thursday I had to send out an email that started with this line. I had to tell over 4 dozen students that the upcoming Cave Rescue training had to be cancelled due to the ongoing uptick in Covid infections.

Long-time readers of this blog are probably aware of the history of this class. In short, it was originally scheduled for last June. Last February we decided to postpone it to this June. This past February, based on where we thought the infection curve would be and vaccinations would be, the decision was made to postpone the major event to late August and do a much smaller, more limited event in June.

In hindsight, one could say, “well you should have had the National Class in June.” Most of our folks would have been vaccinated and the infection rate in June was extremely low.

And the reality is, we might find in the next 12 days or so before the class was scheduled a dramatic drop in the infection curve.

Since the Training Coordinator and I made the decision to cancel, I have received numerous emails expressing sympathy for all the hard work I had put in and how disappointed I must be. I appreciate them, but the truth is, I’m not disappointed or upset. And I’m definitely not second-guessing the decisions that got us here.

The thing is, despite an earlier post, I’m generally comfortable with making decisions and even enjoy making them at times. One thing to keep in mind, especially with decisions like this, is that one makes them based on the information one has available at the time. Back in February, when the decision was made to postpone, we didn’t know that the vaccination rate would be as high as it would be by May. We also didn’t know that there would be such a huge surge in infections in August. Had we known that, we’d have made a different decision.

The other factor that can help is to not make decisions in a vacuum. Ultimately, this seminar was my responsibility and I was the one who made the recommendation to our Board back in February to delay. While there was a vote and decision and vote by them, ultimately my input was a big factor there. (It was unlikely that the BORC would have rejected my advice to delay). In this most recent decision to outright cancel, it came down to the Training Coordinator and I. Neither decision was made in a vacuum (that can lead to bad decision making and also means less information is available) but ultimately the decision and responsibility came down to one or two people.

There were two overriding factors that led to this decision. One was a very practical factor. A number of our students and instructors simply had to cancel. Either they felt the risk was too great, or in several cases, their employers had revoked their time off since they were needed at work to help handle the impact of the ongoing rate of infections. So we simply were facing the fact that we were having a diminishing number of instructors and students and that fact alone was causing us to cancel portions of the seminar.

And the other was: we are charged with training and doing so in a safe environment. As the covid spike gets larger, we felt we could not do a training in a way we felt that was safe.

I’ll admit, had we gone ahead with the training I’d have been a nervous wreck for at least two weeks after the seminar until we knew we were safe (or not) from Covid.

Yes, it’s disappointing that we had to cancel, but I know it was the right decision. And I know each decision was the right one that led to this point.

It’s often tempting to second guess decisions. While at times it can be useful to review what went into making a decision, I would caution against dwelling on decisions.

So to review:

  • Remind yourself, decisions made in the past are generally made on the best information at the time. Don’t revaluate them based on information not available at that time.
  • When possible, get input from multiple people, but have a clear process for making the decision and at times that’s best done by one or two people.
  • Generally, decide towards safety. In our case, there was no pressing reason to lower our safety standards.
  • Also, it can be important to remember no matter how much effort or work was put in in the past, not to count that in the decision. A LOT of work has gone into planning this upcoming training. But that doesn’t change the factors that are currently in play. This is the sunk-cost fallacy. That work is done. But new factors determined the decision.
  • Don’t live in the past. Move forward.
  • Get vaccinated. (that has nothing to do with decision making, but is a good idea).

Close to the Edge

I had initially decided I wasn’t going to say much about Simone Biles’ decision to drop out of my of her Olympic events, but then I realized, when I had started this blog, one of the things I wanted to focus on was how we make decisions and how our brains work at times.

But before I comment on Biles’ choice, I want to delve a bit into what we teach in our cave rescue training. We have a core 3 levels and much of our training involves rigging of ropes, patient packaging, and patient extraction. In other words, all hands on activities that require certain skills and training. A typical weeklong class will have over 80 hours of training. This means by the time a person completes the core levels, they will have spend over 240 hours in training.

But the thing is, many rescues don’t require any of that. I’ve done rescues where there was absolutely no rigging involved. But there is one component that is involved in all rescues, but we spend less than an hour on: psychological considerations. Every rescue involves at least two parties, the person being rescued, and the rescuer. And this means that their mental statuses are involved. Now, I’ll admit in perhaps the vast majority of rescues the mental status of the rescuee or the rescuer aren’t really issues or a problem, but they exist.

I bring this up because of two incidents that come to mind in my caving career, both that involve how our brains work, or more specifically in these cases, my brain. The first involves a body recovery and the second just a simple caving trip.

About 20 years ago we had an unfortunate incident where a local caver became trapped while underwater and drowned. Recovery operations already have a different feel and tempo than rescue operations. There’s generally very little urgency and you have to deal with family members and others who are struggling with the death of a loved one. The mood is far more somber. The death occurred on a Monday night. It wasn’t until Wednesday night that we were able to free Rob. I wasn’t in the cave when he was finally extricated. But the word came out that they needed people to help transport him to the surface. One of the folks in charge, a friend came to me and asked, “Greg, can you do this?” I had to stop and think. I appreciated that she was asking. I knew that “No” would be a perfectly fine answer and she wouldn’t think any less of me. Not everyone is psychologically equipped to deal with a dead body so close up, especially when it’s someone they know. An important part of what went into my decision was making sure I’d be a help to the team and not a burden. I didn’t want to freeze up or otherwise hinder things. I ultimately answered “Yes” because in part, I felt he should be accompanied by someone who knew him on his final journey to the surface and felt confident I wouldn’t slow things down.

The second incident was a simple caving trip. A friend and I were rigging the entrance to a pit known as Cemetery Pit. Our choice of rigging involved wrapping our rope around a large boulder and tying a figure 8 knot in it. Between the two of us we have tied a figure 8 knot 1000s of times. It’s our go-to knot for most things. Yet, because of the way the rope was laying around the rock, the angle of the one of the ropes forming the loop just didn’t look right to me. I was pretty confident I had it right, but when you’re about to rappel 150′ into a cave “pretty confident” really isn’t quite good enough. So I asked my buddy to take a look at it. He had the same reaction as me, “I think that’s right, but I’m not 100% sure. I’ll retie it.” He retied it and his results still didn’t look quite right. We both made a few attempts at it and each one didn’t quite look right. I believe we ended up tying something else that did look right and we had 100% confidence in. In retrospect, I’m suspect we had it right the first time (and subsequent times) but our brains suddenly had a case of the yips, or perhaps the caving version of the twisties

What do these have to do with Simone Biles? Two things: she was a team member who did the right thing, and who suffered from a sudden lack of confidence, or as they call it in gymnastics, the twisties.

I’m going to deal with the twisties first. Now, I haven’t done any gymnastics since grammar school, but I did have an incident once while diving/playing in the water that I suspect was similar. I had jumped off the diving board, probably doing a flip of some sort, and found myself tumbling underwater. This was an experience I normally enjoyed. I love the freedom water gives and twisting and gyrating underwater. But this time was different. When I stopped, I realized I had no idea which way was the surface. There was a moment of panic before I realized I still had enough air in my lungs that if I just waited I’d float to the surface. But I had for a moment lost my complete kinesthetic sense. I have to imagine this is similar what happened to Biles. In my case, the consequences was simply a moment of panic, then a simple wait to rise to the surface. In her case, having seen some of her moves and listening to some of the commentators, I’ve come to realize that in the case of a gymnast, such a loss can result in severe injury. This article illustrates several such examples. Similarly, if we had not been able to tie rigging we felt safe on, we might have aborted our trip because a mistake could be fatal. Sometimes our brains simply get into that state where up is down and left is right and it’s not simple to fix that. So, in that aspect, I think she made the right decision, as has any person caving (or in another activity) who has turned back because they’ve lost confidence in their rigging or skills. Better to be safe and come back another day than be sorry.

In terms of being a member of a team, she also made the right choice. She could have said, “Well I’m the GOAT, I’m going to compete no matter what” but because of her state of mind, probably not performed at her best and pulled back on some of her more extreme moves ( thus reducing her points totals) and very likely not won medals. But, by pulling out, and she opened up spots for other members of the team, such as Mykayla Skinner to step up. In a world where Biles had forced herself to compete, my guess is due to the twisties, she would not have medaled on the vault, and Skinner would have never had the chance to compete, which means the US would not have won Silver in the vault. Sometimes being a team player means stepping aside so others can do the job. In my case of the body recovery, had I not felt comfortable in my ability to carry out my task, I would have rightly stepped aside.

I have to give Simone Biles a lot of credit. The weight of the world, or at least the US was on her shoulders. She was expected to perform at levels that no one else has reached. She also knows that few gymnasts at her level compete late into their 20s. This may be her last Olympics. All the pressure was on her to compete. But had she done so, she risked serious injury and very well may have kept the US from winning as many gymnastic medals as they did. I respected her before, but I have to admit I have even more respect for her now. She really is the GOAT.

Coping

I’m going to be a bit more open than I usually am in my blog posts. I think it’s time for a bit of transparency.

Let me start by saying that overall, despite the impact of Covid, the last 15 or so months have not been terrible for me. Far from it. In fact I’ve been very fortunate. So this post isn’t a rant or a series of complaints. It’s really a short reflection.

Last year for example, I biked more than I had in years, and in fact did my first century ride since college. I presented at PASS Summit for the first time, albeit virtually. I got to spend more time with my kids. Fortunately, no one close to me had a serious case of COVID nor died from it (though I had friends and former coworkers who did lose people close to them).

I even managed to organize and pull off a cave rescue training class late last summer. And of course just pulled off another weeklong course this month, and will help with another one in late August.

So overall, it’s been a pretty decent 15 months.

But lately I’ve noticed things aren’t necessarily where I want them to be. My motivation levels have been off. I’ve got at least 3-4 ideas for more articles for Redgate. But, I find myself finding reasons to put off writing them. I’ve got a few other projects that I haven’t made progress on. I need to finish tiling a backsplash in my bathroom, patch a hole in the wall in the downstairs bathroom from when I put in a fan, and a few more.

But honestly, the idea of launching into such projects just makes me go “bleah”.

I think too some of the frustration in my inability to attract new clients like I was hoping to this year has put me into the “bleah” mode, and of course in a vicious cycle caused me to put less effort into attracting new clients.

But, ultimately, I’m writing this post not because I’m looking for sympathy or for comfort, but ironically for the exact opposite reason. I find that often people hide the state of their emotional well-being and put on a happy fa├žade, especially on social media, and as a result everyone goes around thinking that everyone else is doing better than they are themselves doing. So, I’m saying, “hey, I’m doing great, but you know what, there are days when life is ‘bleah’ and it’s ok. And if you’re having such days, or even worse, you’re not alone.”

Postscript: I want to add, if you haven’t, check out Steve Jones blog, he’s been daily posting a bunch of coping suggestions. I don’t read them every day, and I suspect Steve would agree with me that take what works for you and ignore the ones that don’t is the way to go. In part his posts helped inspire this one.

“We’re up to plan F”

I managed to skip two weeks of writing, which is unusual for me, but I was busy with other business, primarily last week leading an NCRC weeklong class of cave rescue for Level 1 students. I had previously lead such a class over three weekends last year, and have helped teach the Level 2 class multiple times. Originally this past week was supposed to be our National weeklong class, but back in February we had agreed to postpone it due to the unknown status of the ongoing Covid pandemic. However, due to a huge demand and the success of vaccinations, we decided to do a “Regional” Class just limited to Level 1 students. This would help handle the pent up demand, create students for the Level 2 class that would be at National, and to do sort of a test run of our facilities before the much larger National.

There’s an old saying that no plan survives the first contact with the enemy. In cave rescue this is particularly true. It also appears to be true in cave rescue training classes!

The first hitch was the drive up the the camp we were using. The road had been stripped down to the base dirt level and they were doing construction. Not a huge issue, just a dusty one. But for cavers, dust is just mud without the water. But this would come into play later in the week.

Once at the camp, as I was settling in and confirming the facilities, the first thing I noticed was that the scissors lift we had used to rig ropes in the gym last time was gone. A few texts and I learned it had only been on loan to the camp the past two years and was no longer available. This presented our first real challenge. How to get ropes up over the beams 20-30′ in the air.

But shortly after I realized I had a far greater issue. The custom made rigging plates we use to tie off the end of the ropes to the posts were still sitting in my garage at home. I had completely forgotten them. This was resolved by a well timed call to an instructor heading towards the camp, who via a longer detour then he expected, was able to get them. Fortunately, had that call waited another 5 minutes, his detour would have probably doubled. So the timing was decent.

I figured the week was off to a good start at that point! Honestly though, we solved the problems and moved on. I went to bed fairly relaxed.

All went well until Monday. This was the day we were supposed to do activities on the cliffs. Several weeks ago, my son and I, along with two others had gone to the cliffs, which were on the same property as the camp, but accessible only by leaving the camp and accessing from a public road, in order to clear away debris and do other work to make them usable. I was excited to show them off. Unfortunately, due to the weather forecast of impending thunderstorms all day we made the decision to revise our schedule and move cliff day to the next day. There went Plan A. Plan B became “go the next day.”

On Tuesday I and a couple of other instructors got in my car to head to the cliffs in advance of the students so we could scope things out and plan the activities. We literally got to the bottom of the road from the main entrance to the camp where we were going to turn on to the road under construction, only to find a the road closed there with a gaping ditch dug across it. So much for Plan B. We went back to the camp, told students to hang on and then I headed out again, hoping to basically take a loop around and approach the access road to the cliffs from the opposite direction. After about a 3 mile detour we came to the other end of the road and found it closed there. Despite trying to sweet talk the flag person, we couldn’t get past (we could have lied and said we lived on the road, but after 8-10 other cars would have arrived in a caravan saying the same thing we thought that might be suspicious). There went Plan C. We called an instructor back at the camp and headed back.

We got there and turns out an instructor had already come up with Plan D, which was to see if we could access the cliffs by crossing a field the camp owned and going through the woods. It might involve some hiking, but it might be doable. While there are dirt-bike paths, there’s nothing there that worked for us. So that plan fell apart. We were up to Plan E now. Plan E was proposed to further swap some training, but we realized that would impact our schedule too much. Now on to Plan F. For Plan F, we decided to head to a local cave which we thought would have some suitable cliffs outside.

That worked. It would out quite well actually. We lost maybe an hour to 90 minutes with all the plans, but we ultimately came upon a plan that worked. We were able to teach the skills we wanted and accomplish our educational objectives.

Often we wake up with a plan in our heads for what we will do that day. Most days those plans work out. But, then there are the days where we have to adapt. Things go sideways. Something breaks, or something doesn’t go as planned. In the NCRC we have an unofficial motto, Semper Gumby – “Always be Flexible”. Sometimes you have to completely change plans (cancelling due to the threat of thunderstorms), others you may have to try to adapt (finding other possible routes to the cliffs) and finally you may need to reconsider how to meet your objectives in a new way (finding different cliffs).

My advice, don’t lock yourself into only one solution. It’s a recipe for failure.

Take 5 Minutes

This weekend I had the pleasure of moderating Brandon Leach‘s session at Data Saturday Southwest. The topic was “A DBA’s Guide to the Proper Handling of Corruption”. There were some great takeaways and if you get a chance, I recommend you catch it the next time he presents it.

But there was one thing that stood out that he mentioned that I wanted to write about: taking 5 minutes in an emergency. The idea is that sometimes the best thing you can do in an emergency is take 5 minutes. Doing this can save a lot of time and effort down the road.

Now, obviously, there are times when you can’t take 5 minutes. If you’re in an airplane and you lose both engines on takeoff while departing La Guardia, you don’t have 5 minutes. If your office is on fire, I would not suggest taking 5 minutes before deciding to leave the building. But other than the immediate life-threatening emergencies, I’m a huge fan of taking 5 minutes. Or as I’ve put it, “make yourself a cup of tea.” (note I don’t drink tea!) Or have a cookie!

Years ago, when the web was young (and I was younger) I wrote sort of a first-aid quiz web-page. Nothing fancy or formal, just a bunch of questions with hyperlinks to the bottom. It was self-graded. I don’t recall the exact wording of one of the questions but it was something along the lines of “You’re hiking and someone stumbles and breaks their leg, how long should you wait before you run off to get help.” The answer was basically “after you make some tea.”

This came about after hearing a talk from Dr. Frank Hubbell, the founder of SOLO talk about an incident in the White Mountains of New Hampshire where the leader of a Boy Scout troop passed out during breakfast. Immediately two scouts started to run down the trail to get help. While doing so, one slipped and fell off a bridge and broke his leg. Turns out the leader simply had passed out from low blood sugar and once he woke up and had some breakfast was fine. The pour scout with the broken leg though wasn’t quite so fine. If they had waited 5 minutes, the outcome would have been different.

The above is an example of what some call “Go Fever”. Our adrenaline starts pumping and we feel like we have to do something. Sitting still can feel very unnatural. This can happen even when we know rationally it’s NOT an emergency. Years ago during a mock cave rescue training exercise, a student was so pumped up that he started to back up and ran his car into another student’s motorcycle. There was zero reason to rush, and yet he had let go fever hit him.

Taking the extra 5 minutes has a number of benefits. It gives you the opportunity to catch your breath and organize the thoughts in your head. It gives you time to collect more data. It also sometimes gives the situation itself time to resolve.

But, and Brandon touched upon this a bit, and I’ve talked about it in my own talk “Who’s Flying the Plane”, often for this, you need strong support from management. Management obviously wants problems fixed, as quickly as possible. This often means management puts pressure on us IT folks to jump into action. This can lead to bad outcomes. I once had a manager who told my team (without me realizing it at the time) to reboot a SQL Server because it was acting very slowly. This was while I was in the middle of remotely trying to diagnosis it. Not only did this not solve the problem, it made things worse because a rebooting server is exactly 100% not responsive, but even when it comes up, it has to load a lot of pages into cache and will have a slow response after reboot. And in this case, as I was pretty sure would happen, the reboot didn’t solve the problem (we were hitting a flaw in our code that was resulting in huge table scans). While non-fatal, taking an extra 5 minutes would have eliminated that outage and gotten us that much closer to solving the problem.

Brandon also gave a great example of a corrupted index and how easy it can be to solve. If your boss is pressuring you for a solution NOW and you don’t have the opportunity to take those 5 minutes, you might make a poor decision that leads to a larger issue.

My take away for today is three fold:

  1. Be prepared to take 5 minutes in an emergency
  2. Take 5 minutes today, to talk to your manager about taking 5 minutes in an emergency. Let them know NOW that you plan on taking those 5 minutes to calm down, regroup, maybe discuss with others what’s going on and THEN you will respond. This isn’t you being a slacker or ignoring the impact on the business, but you being proactive to ensure you don’t make a hasty decision that has a larger impact. It’s far easier to have this conversation today, than in the middle of a crisis.
  3. If you’re a manager, tell your reports, that you expect them to take 5 minutes in an emergency.

“It’s Just a Simple Change”

How often have we heard those words? Or used them ourselves?

“Oh this is just a simple change, it won’t break a thing.” And then all hell breaks lose.

Yet, we also hear the reverse at times. “This is pretty complex, I’ll be surprised if it works the first time, or if it doesn’t break something.” And yet then nothing bad seems to happen.

We may observe this, but we don’t necessarily stop to think about the why. I’ve seen this happen a lot in IT, but honestly, I’ve seen this happen elsewhere and often when we read about accidents in areas such as caving, this also holds true.

I argue that in this case the perception is often true. Let me put in one caveat. There’s definitely a bias in our memory where we don’t recall all the times where simple things don’t break things, but the times it does, it really stands out.

The truth is, whenever we deal with complex systems, even simple changes aren’t so simple. But we assume they are and then are surprised when they have side effects. “Oh updating that path here won’t break anything. I only call it one place, and I’ll update that.” And you’re good. But what you didn’t realize was another developer liked your script, so made a copy and is using it for their own purposes and now their code breaks because of the new path. So your simple change isn’t so simple.

Contrast that to the complex change. I’m in the middle up refactoring a stored procedure. It’s complex. I suspect it’ll break something in production. But, honestly, it probably won’t. Not because I’m am awesome T-SQL developer, but, because of our paranoia, we’ll be testing this in UAT quite a bit. In other words, our paranoia drives our testing to a higher level.

I think it behooves us to treat even simple changes with more respect than we do and test them.

In the world of caving we use something called SRT – Single Rope Technique. This is the method we use for ascending and descending a rope. When ascending, if you put your gear on wrong at the bottom, generally there’s no real risk other than possible embarrassment. After all, you’re standing on the ground. But obviously a the top, it’s critical to put your equipment on correctly, lest your first step be your last. Similarly, we practice something known as a change-over; changing from ascending to descending, or descending to ascending while on rope. When changing from climbing to descending you want to make sure you do it correctly lest you find yourself descending at 9.8m/s^2. To prevent accidents, we ingrain in students “load and test your descent device before removing your other attachment point.” Basically, while you’re still secured to something at the top, or to your ascending devices if you’re partway up the rope, put your entire weight on your descent device and lower yourself 1-2″. If you succeed, great, then you can detach yourself from whatever you are attached to at the top, or remove your ascending devices. If somehow you’ve screwed something up and the descent device comes off the top or otherwise fails, you’ve got a backup.

Now, I will interject, getting on rope at the top of a pit, or a changeover is something an experienced caver will have done possibly 100s if not 1000s of times. It’s “a simple change”. Yet we still do the test because a single failure can be fatal. And I have in fact seen a person fail to properly test their descent device. And moreover, this wasn’t in a cave, or other dark or cramped space. It was in broad daylight on the edge of the RPI Student Union! This was about as simple as it could get! Fortunately he heard it start to fail and grabbed the concrete railing for dear life. In this particular case a failure most likely would not have been fatal, but would have caused serious injury.

So, despite having gotten on rope 100s of times myself, I ALWAYS test. It’s a simple change. But the test is also simple and there’s no reason to skip it.

The morale of the story, even your simple changes should be tested, lest you find they’re not so simple, or their failures aren’t so minor.