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.

Changing Technologies – T-SQL Tuesday

Select <columns> from Some_Table where Condition=’Some Value’

T-SQL Tuesday Topic

The above statement is pretty much the basis of what started my current career. Of course it actually goes back further than that. I have a Computer Science Degree from RPI. So I’ve done programming, learned hardware and more. I even took an Intro to Databases course while at RPI. I still recall the professor talking about IBM and something called Structured Query Language. The book had a line that went something like “while not the most popular database technology, its use may grow in the future.” Boy did it.

When I first started working with SQL Server, it was 4.21 and for a startup. I had a lot to learn. Back then, a lot was by experience. Sometimes I made mistakes. But I learned.

When I started at that startup, if one could write basic queries and backup and restore a database, one was a half-way decent DBA. Knowing how to tune indices was a definite bonus, as was knowing things like how to set up log-shipping and replication.

Back then, besides experience, I learned new stuff two ways: SQL Server Magazine and the SQL Connections conference. Work paid for both. It was worth it. But honestly, there wasn’t too much to learn. But there also weren’t as nearly as many resources as there were today.

Fast forward 30+ years and here I’ve written a book, worked for several startups, regularly write about databases and database related topics, and often presented at User Groups, SQL Saturdays and at the now defunct PASS Summit. Today as a consultant I regularly touch the SQL Server Query Engine, SSAS, SSRS, SSIS, use PowerShell, write the occasional C# and VB.Net, sometimes do work on a Linux machine or VM and more. A lot has changed.

Obviously the technology has changed. So how have I responded? By doing what I said above. This may sound like a tautology or even circular reasoning but it’s true. When I would go to a SQL Saturday, I’d often attend 3-5 different topics. I’d learn something. But then I started presenting. And that forced me to learn. As much as I may like to think I know about a topic, when I go to present about it, I like to ensure I know even more. This forces me to read white papers, other articles and perhaps attend other sessions.

When I’ve written an article, I’ve often had to do a lot of research for it.

So strangely, I would say a bit part of keeping my skills up to date is not just learning from others, but from teaching. Teaching forces me to keep my skills up.

In summation, I’ve responded by learning from others, but also forcing myself to teach myself before I taught others. It’s a feedback loop. The more technology changes, the more I reach out and learn and the more learn, the more I do outreach.

The impetus for this week’s blog was Andy Leonard’s call for a T-SQL Tuesday topic.

This Post is Free!

Yes, seriously, other than a bit of your time, it will cost you nothing to read this post. And you might gain something from it. That can be a good value.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, one of things I do when I’m not doing SQL Server is perform training for those interested in Cave Rescue. I also sometimes blog about it. I have also mentioned that this year I’m organizing the National Cave Rescue Commission‘s national weeklong training class. In addition, since apparently I’m not enough of a masochist I’m also organizing a regional Level 1 only weeklong training class.

Due to generous contributions the NCRC is able to offer scholarships. For the regional weeklong, we are able to offer 4 scholarships of a value of up to $375 each. This covers 1/2 the cost of training. Applications were due Saturday. Now, we’re hoping for 12-20 students, so this means if everyone applied, they’d have between a 1/3-1/5 chance of getting scholarship. Can you guess how many had applied as of Saturday?

Before I answer that, I’ll note my wife used to work as a financial aid director at a local nursing school. They too sometimes offered scholarships. There was one worth I believe $500 that often went unclaimed. Yes, it required a one page essay to be judged to apply. That one page apparently was too high of a barrier for many folks and as a result sometimes it was never awarded. Quite literally a person could have written. “I would like to apply for the scholarship” as their essay and gotten it.

The same thing happened with our regional scholarships. Out of 11 students so far, none applied. This was literally free money sitting on the table. We have decided to extend the scholarship application process until April 23rd and reminded folks they could apply.

Now, some of the students probably can NOT apply, because they are employees of government agencies that sometimes have rules on what outside funds or gifts can be accepted. This actually increases the odds for the other students. And some may feel that their economic status is good enough that they don’t need to and fear they’d take a scholarship away from someone who has more of a need for it. And that’s a position I can definitely appreciate. But my advice to them, “let the scholarship committee make that decision.” If they determine someone is more needing the money, or your need is not enough, they will let you know. And if they do give you a scholarship and you feel guilty, pay it forward. Donate to the fund later on, or give the money you saved to other causes.

Besides essentially free money at the NCRC, I got thinking about the amount of free training I’ve received in the SQL Server community. Yes, I’ve paid for PASS Summit a few times, but even if I had never gone to that, the amount of knowledge I’ve gained for free over the past several years has been amazing. Between SQL Saturdays and User Group meetings, the body of knowledge I’ve been exposed to has been absolutely amazing.

And yet, I know folks who shun such activities. I’m not talking about folks who say, “I can’t make it this month because it’s my kid’s birthday”. I’m talking about folks who claim they never learn anything. I don’t understand how that’s possible given the HUGE range of topics I’ve seen at SQL Saturdays and oh so many other free events. Some folks seem to think only the paid events are worth it. And while PASS Summit had certain unique advantages, the truth is, you can listen to almost all the presenters at various free events too.

Yes, time is not free, and I recognize that. But overall, it still amazes me at the number of folks who overlook the value of free events, or easy to gain scholarships to events. Don’t turn your nose up at free. It can be valuable.

P.S. – for the parents of college bound kids out there, one thing I did in college which netted me a bit of free money. A few days after the semester began, I’d stop by the financial aid office and ask if there was any unclaimed scholarship money I was eligible for. I never netted much, but I did net a few hundred dollars over the years. For 15 minutes of my time, that’s a pretty decent ROI.

SQL Community

First, I want to thank Rie Irish for giving me cause to blog a second time this week. Normally this time would be sent writing up another article for Redgate (yes Kathi I’ve got one more in the works).

Second, I want to add, that up until now I had decided to refrain from writing about the fall of PASS. I knew eventually I probably would, but some good news last night has accelerated that process.

Last night Rie posted to Twitter an announcement about a new initiative by Microsoft to provide a space and tools for the former PASS User Groups. I was thrilled when I saw this and I’ll explain why.

In the past few days there has been a LOT of efforts put forth by various members of the #SQLFamily to create new spaces for the former members of PASS, both individually, and as groups. I’ll admit, I was both heartened by this, but also a little concerned. I was obviously heartened, because as I knew would happen, the members of #SQLFamily have stepped up and tried to fill various needs. This is a great volunteer community! I want to emphasis that. Even weeks ago when I had suggestions forwarded to me that PASS was about to close shop, I felt that the community would go on.

However, my concern was that it would fracture, that various little domains and fiefdoms would develop. Now, this may not necessarily be the worst thing that could happen. A decentralized community might actually be a good idea. For example if we separate the concept of Saturday events from User groups, that might spur innovation and might encourage new ideas to come forth. But, it might also inhibit things for folks who have organized both if they end up having to maintain two mailing lists, two sites, etc. So it’s a mixed bag. That said, if nothing else had happened, I’d take that over having the community completely falling apart.

And even if nothing else had happened, I know my User Group has speakers scheduled out through May of 2021 (and the only reason I haven’t scheduled beyond that is because I’m hoping by June to know if we can do in-person again and if so when). I know that Monica Rathbun has the Hampton Roads SQL Server User Group scheduled out through all of 2021. This is the case with a number of other User Groups. So, no matter what, User Groups would continue.

And there are still SQL Saturdays in the works, by that name or others. So, the community will continue.

But, as I said, my concern was the community might fracture into fiefdoms.

I think the announcement from Microsoft goes a LONG ways to allaying my fears. Yes, it’s just a press announcement with details to be worked out, but it has several things going for it. The biggest is the name behind it: Microsoft. Let’s be honest, the one thing the #SQLFamily has in common is we all work on the Microsoft Data Platform. So, to me, it makes sense that Microsoft be a central focus. Another is it appears this platform will end up providing a lot of the tools community leaders will need, and all in one place. These two facts should help keep the community from fracturing.

Now, I already know there is going to be one huge objection from some: “But it’s Microsoft, they can dictate what we do! We want something independent like PASS was!”

Well, first let me point out, for all its independence, PASS is no more. So independence is no guarantee of perpetual success.

Secondly, please read the release with an open mind. It’s NOT an attempt to recreate PASS. There’s no talk of a Board of Directors, there’s no talk of a main event. It’s very clear, at this stage what it is: a set of centralized resources to sustain the community. Additionally I’ve spoken further with Rie that has given me further confidence in the plan. We will see more over time how the winds blow, but I am comfortable recommending moving forward with this path. And you know what, if it turns out the Microsoft suddenly wants to take things in another direction, #SQLFamily will again do what it needs to for its members.

So, this is NOT “PASS Version II”. It doesn’t attempt to be. Perhaps PASS Version II will come to pass someday. I sort of hope it does. I look forward to another Summit. But for now, I think this is an excellent step forward. I will end by pulling a quote from the release:

Although Microsoft built SQL Server, it’s clear that the passion and dedication from each of you is what makes it thrive.

And I think this is as true today as it was 2 weeks ago.

#SQLFamily

I’ve mentioned this in the past and thought I’d write something quick about it today. The quick is because I’m lacking time, not because the topic isn’t important or worthy of exposition.

Anyone who has spent much time at any PASS events such as SQL Saturday or Pass Summit has an inkling of what #SQLFamily is.

At its base, it’s a group of professionals who all have SQL Server in common. That might be a start, but it’s hardly a good definition. It’s also:

  • Professional contacts
  • LOTS of people willing to give SQL help when you need to solve a problem
  • Folks that will fact check your blog or post
  • It’s the folks willing to step up for a User Group Meeting talk

And that might be enough, but that’s not all it’s also:

  • Someone who loves bicycling as much or more than me.
  • At least one amateur radio operator (and quite the ham in other ways at times)
  • Several with 3D printers making mask band holders and the like
  • Several that sing karaoke
  • Someone who makes more homemade pizza than I do
  • At least one with cute puppies she’s been known to have on her webinars

But, honestly, it doesn’t end there. In this time of Covid it’s been more.

  • It’s been the folks who I get together with on Friday’s for a long-distance social hour
  • It’s the ones I’ve been able to talk about fears of COVID and schooling and kids
  • It’s been the ones I’ve reached out to to make sure they’re ok
  • It’s been the ones that have checked in on me
  • It’s the folks that write blog posts, sometimes daily, about how to support others

In short it really is a family. We’re not together by blood but we still share our thoughts and feelings and support each other. And you know what, right now I’m extremely grateful for that family.

So to my #SQLFamily, if I haven’t said it enough, thank you for who you are and for being there, especially during this time of Covid. I know I’ve needed it. And I really appreciate it.

And I can’t wait to see you all in person again at some point.

P.S. – if you’re shy or don’t think you’re welcome in the family, don’t worry, you are welcome. Pop in, say hi, or even just reach out to one person and say hi or ask for an introduction.

Caving and SQL

Longtime readers know that I spend a lot of my time talking about and teaching caving, more specifically cave rescue, and SQL Server, more specifically the operations side. While in some ways they are very different, there are areas where they overlap. In fact I wrote a book taking lessons from both, and airplane crashes to talk about IT Disaster Management.

Last week is a week where both had an overlap. One of the grottoes in the NSS (think like a SQL User Group) sponsored a talk on Diversity and Inclusion in the caving community. The next day, SQL Pass had a virtual panel on the exact same subject.

Welcoming

Let me start with saying that one thing I appreciate about both communities is that they will welcome pretty much anyone. You show up and ask to be involved and someone will generally point you in the right direction.  In fact several years ago, I heard an Oracle DBA mention how different the SQL community was from his Oracle experience, and how welcoming and sharing we could be.

This is true in the caving community. I recall an incident decades ago where someone from out of town called up a caving friend he found in the NSS memberhsip manual and said, “hey, I hear you go caving every Friday, can I join you?” The answer was of course yes.  I know I can go many places in this country, look up a caver and instantly be pointed to a great restaurant, some great caves and even possibly some crash space to sleep.

So let’s be clear, BOTH communities are very welcoming.

And I hear that a lot when the topic of diversity and inclusion comes along. “Oh we welcome anyone. They just have to ask.”

But…

Well, there’s two issues there and they’re similar in both communities. The less obvious one is that often anyone is welcome, but after that, there’s barriers, some obvious, some less so. Newcomers start to hear the subtle comments, the subtle behaviors. For example, in caving, modesty is often not a big deal. After crawling out of a wet muddy hole, you may think nothing of tearing off your clothes in the parking lot and changing. Perhaps you’re standing behind a car door but that’s about it. It’s second nature, it’s not big deal. But imagine now that you’re the only woman in that group. Sure, you were welcomed into the fold and had a blast caving, how comfortable are you with this sudden lack of modesty? Or you’re a man, but come from a cultural or religious background where modesty is a high premium?

In the SQL world, no one is getting naked in the datacenters (I hope). But, it can be subtle things there too. “Hey dudes, you all want to go out for drinks?” Now many folks will argue, “dudes is gender neutral”. And I think in most cases it’s INTENDED to be. But, turn around and ask them, “are you attracted to dudes?” and suddenly you see there is still a gender attached.  There’s other behaviors to. There’s the classic case of when a manager switched email signatures with one of his reports and how the attitudes of the customers changed, simply based on whose signature was on the email.

So yes, both groups definitely can WELCOME new folks and folks outside of the majority, but do the folks they welcome remain welcomed? From talking to people who aren’t in the majority, the answer I often get is “not much.”

An Interlude

“But Greg, I know….” insert BIPOC or woman or other member of a minority.  “They’re a great DBA” or “They’re a great caver! Really active in the community.”  And you’re right. But you’re also seeing the survivorship bias. In some cases, they did find themselves in a more welcoming space that continued to be welcoming. In some cases you’re seeing the ones who forged on anyway. But think about it, half our population is made up of women. Why aren’t 1/2 our DBAs?  In fact, the number of women in IT is declining! And if you consider the number of women in high school or college who express an interest in IT and compare it to those in in their 30s, you’ll find the number drops. Women are welcome, until they’re not.

In the caving community during an on-line discussion where people of color were speaking up about the barriers they faced, one person, a white male basically said, “there’s no racism in caving, we’ll welcome anyone.”  A POC pointed out that “as a black man in the South, trust me, I do NOT feel safe walking through a field to a cave.”  The white man continued to say, “sure, but there’s no racism in caving” completely dismissing the other responder’s concerns.

There’s Still More…

The final point I want to make however is that “we welcome people” is a necessary, but not sufficient step. Yes, I will say pretty much every caver I know will welcome anyone who shows an interest. But that’s not enough. For one thing, for many communities, simply enjoying the outdoors is something that’s not a large part of their cultural.  This may mean that they’re not even aware that caving is a possibility. Or that even if it is, they may not know how to reach out and find someone to take them caving.

Even if they overcome that hurdle, while caving can be done on the cheap, there is still the matter of getting some clothing, a helmet, some lights. There’s the matter of getting TO the cave.

In the SQL world, yes anyone is welcome to a SQL Saturday, but what if they don’t have a car? Is mass transit an option? What if they are hearing impaired? (I’ve tried unsuccessfully 2 years in a row to try to provide an ASL interpreter for our local SQL Saturday. I’m going to keep trying). What if they’re a single parent? During the work week they may have school and daycare options, but that may not be possible for a SQL Saturday or even an afterhours event. I even had something pointed out to me, during my talk on how to present, that someone in the audience had not realized up until I mentioned it, that I was using a laser pointer. Why? Because they were colorblind and never saw the red dot. It was something that I, a non-colorblind person had never even considered. And now I wonder, how many other colorblind folks had the same issue, but never said anything?

In Conclusion

It’s easy and honestly tempting to say, “hey, we welcome anyone” and think that’s all there is to it. The truth is, it takes a LOT more than that. If nothing else, if you’re like me, an older, cis-het white male, take the time to sit in on various diversity panels and LISTEN. If you’re invited to ask questions or participate, do so, but in a way that acknowledges your position. Try not to project your experiences on to another. Only once have I avoided a field to get to a cave, because the farmer kept his bull there. But I should not project MY lack of fear about crossing a field onto members of the community who HAVE experienced that.

Listen for barriers and work to remove them. Believe others when they mention a barrier. They may not be barriers for you, but they are for others. When you can, try to remove them BEFORE others bring them up. Don’t assume a barrier doesn’t exist because no one mentions it. Don’t say, “is it ok if I use a red laser pointer?” because you’re now putting a colorblind person on the spot and singling them out. That will discourage them. For example find a “software” pointer (on my list of things to do) that will highlight items directly on the screen. This also works great for large rooms where there may be multiple projection screens in use.

If caving, don’t just assume, “oh folks know how to find us” reach out to community groups and ask them if they’re interested and offer to help. (note I did try this this year, but never heard back and because of the impact of Covid, am waiting until next year to try again.)

Don’t take offense. Unless someone says, “hey, Greg, you know you do…” they’re not talking about you specifically, but about an entire system. And no one is expecting you to personally fix the entire system, but simply to work to improve it where you can. It’s a team effort. That said, maybe you do get called out. I had a friend call me out on a tweet I made. She did so privately. And she did so because, she knew I’d listen. I appreciated that. She recognized I was human and I make mistakes and that given the chance, I’ll listen and learn. How can one take offense at that? I saw it has a sign of caring.

Finally realize, none of us are perfect, but we can always strive to do better.

So, today give some thought about how you can not only claim your community, whatever it may be, is welcoming, but what efforts you can make to ensure it is.

 

On a separate note, check out my latest writing for Red-Gate, part II on Parameters in PowerShell.

SQL Saturday Albany 2020

So, another SQL Saturday Albany is in the books. First, I want to thank Ed Pollack and his crew for doing a great job with a changing and challenging landscape.  While I handle the day to day and monthly operations of the Capital Area SQL Server User Group, Ed handles the planning and operations of the SQL Saturday event. While the event itself is only 1 day of the year, I suspect he has the harder job!

This year of course planning was complicated by the fact that the event had to become a virtual event. However, it’s a bit ironic we went virtual because in many ways, the Capital District of NY is probably one of the safer places in the country to have an in-person event. That said, virtual was still by far the right decision.

Lessons Learned

Since more and more SQL Saturdays will be virtual for the foreseeable future, I wanted to take the opportunity to pass on some lessons I learned and some thoughts I have about making them even more successful. Just like the #SQLFamily in general passing on knowledge about SQL Server, I wanted to pass on knowledge learned here.

For Presenters

The topic I presented on was So you want to Present: Tips and Tricks of the Trade. I think it’s important to nurture the next generation of speakers. Over the years I was given a great deal of encouragement and advice from the speakers who came before me and I feel it’s important to pass that on. Normally I give this presentation in person. One of the pieces of advice I really stress in it is to practice beforehand. I take that to heart. I knew going into this SQL Saturday that presenting this remotely would create new challenges. For example, on one slide I talk about moving around on the stage. That doesn’t really apply to virtual presentations. On the other hand, when presenting them in person, I generally don’t have to worry about a “green-screen”. (Turns out for this one I didn’t either, more on that in a moment.)

So I decided to make sure I did a remote run through of this presentation with a friend of mine. I can’t tell you how valuable that was. I found that slides I thought were fine when I practiced by myself didn’t work well when presented remotely. I found that the lack of feedback inhibited me at points (I actually do mention this in the original slide deck). With her feedback, I altered about a 1/2 dozen slides and ended up adding 3-4 more. I think this made for a much better and more cohesive presentation.

Tip #1: Practice your virtual presentation at least once with a remote audience

They don’t have to know the topic or honestly, even have an interest in it. In fact I’d argue it might help if they don’t, this means they can focus more on the delivery and any technical issues than the content itself. Even if you’ve given the talk 100 times in front of a live audience, doing it remotely is different enough that you need feedback.

Tip #2: Know your presentation tool

This one actually came back to bite me and I’m going to have another tip on this later. I did my practice run via Zoom, because that’s what I normally use. I’m used to the built-in Chroma Key (aka green-screen) feature and know how to turn it on and off and to play with it. It turns out that GotoWebinar handles it differently and I didn’t even think about it until I got to that part of my presentation and realized I had never turned it on, and had no idea how to! This meant that this part of my talk didn’t go as well as planned.

Tip #3: Have a friend watch the actual presentation

I actually lucked out here, both my kids got up early (well for them, considering it was a weekend) and watched me present. I’m actually glad I didn’t realize this until the very end or else I might have been more self-conscious. That said, even though I had followed Tip #1 above, they were able to give me more feedback. For example, (and this relates to Tip #2), the demo I did using Prezi was choppy and not great. In addition, my Magnify Screen example that apparently worked in Zoom, did not work in GotoWebinar! This feedback was useful. But even more so, if someone you know and trust is watching in real-time, they can give real-time feedback such as issues with bandwidth, volume levels, etc.

Tip #4: Revise your presentation

Unless your presentation was developed exclusively to be done remotely, I can guarantee that it probably need some changes to make it work better remotely. For example, since most folks will be watching from their computer or phone, you actually may NOT need to magnify the screen such as you would in a live presentation with folks sitting in the back of the room. During another speaker’s presentation, I realized they could have dialed back the magnification they had enabled in SSMS and it would have still been very readable and also presented more information.

You also can’t effectively use a laser pointer to highlight items on the slide-deck.

You might need to add a few slides to better explain a point, or even remove some since they’re no longer relevant. But in general, you can’t just shift and lift a live presentation to become a remote one and have it be as good.

Tip #5: Know your physical setup

This is actually a problem I see at times with in-person presentations, but it’s even more true with virtual ones and it ties to Tip #2 above. If you have multiple screens, understand which one will be shown by the presentation tool. Most, if not all, let you select which screen or even which window is being shared. This can be very important. If you choose to share a particular program window (say PowerPoint) and then try to switch to another window (say SSMS) your audience may not see the new window. Or, and this is very common, if you run PowerPoint in presenter mode where you have the presented slides on one screen, and your thumbnails and notes on another, make sure you know which screen is being shared. I did get this right with GotoWebinar (in part because I knew to look for it) but it wasn’t obvious at first how to do this.

In addition, decide where to put your webcam! If you’re sharing your face (and I’m a fan of it, I think it makes it easier for others to connect to you as a presenter) understand which screen you’ll be looking at the most, otherwise your audience may get an awkward looking view of you always looking off to another screen. And, if you can, try to make “eye contact” through the camera from time to time. In addition, be aware, and this is an issue I’m still trying to address, that you may have glare coming off of your glasses. For example, I need to wear reading glasses at my computer, and even after adjusting the lighting in the room, it became apparent, that the brightness of my screens alone was causing a glare problem. I’ll be working on this!

Also be aware of what may be in the background of your camera. You don’t want to have any embarrassing items showing up on your webcam!

For Organizers

Tip #6: Provide access to the presentation tool a week beforehand

Now, this is partly on me. I didn’t think to ask Ed if I could log into one of the GotoWebinar channels beforehand, I should have. But I’ll go a step further. A lesson I think we learned is that as an organizer, make sure presenters can log in before the big day and that they can practice with the tool. This allows them to learn all the controls before they go live. For example, I didn’t realize until 10 minutes was left in my presentation how to see who the attendees were. At first I could only see folks who had been designated as a panelist or moderator, so I was annoyed I couldn’t see who was simply attending. Finally I realized what I thought was simply a label was in fact a tab I could click on. Had I played with the actual tool earlier in the week I’d have known this far sooner.  So organizers, if you can, arrange time for presenters to log in days before the event.

Tip #7: Have plenty of “Operators”

Every tool may call them by different names but ensure that you have enough folks in each “room” or “channel” who can do things like mute/unmute people, who can ensure the presenter can be heard, etc. When I started my presentation, there was some hitch and there was no one around initially to unmute me. While I considered doing my presentation via interpretive dance or via mime, I decided to not to. Ed was able to jump in and solve the problem. I ended up losing about 10 minutes of time due to this glitch.

Tip #8: Train your “Operators”

This goes back to the two previous tips, make sure your operators have training before the big day. Setup an hour a week before and have them all log in and practice how to unmute or mute presenters, how to pass control to the next operator, etc. Also, you may want to give them a script to read at the start and end of each session. “Good morning. Thank you for signing in. The presenter for this session will be John Doe and he will be talking about parameter sniffing in SQL Server. If you have a question, please enter it in the Q&A window and I will make sure the presenter is aware of it. This session is/isn’t being recorded.” At the end a closing item like, “Thank you for attending. Please remember to join us in Room #1 at 4:45 for the raffle and also when this session ends, there will be a quick feedback survey. Please take the time to fill it out.”

Tip #9: If you can, have a feedback mechanism

While people often don’t fill out the written feedback forms at a SQL Saturday, when they do, they can often be valuable. Try to recreate this for virtual ones.

Tip #10Have a speaker’s channel

I hadn’t given this much thought until I was talking to a fellow speaker, Rie Irish later, and remarked how I missed the interaction with my fellow speakers. She was the one who suggested a speaker’s “channel” or “room” would be a good idea and I have to agree. A private room where speakers can log in, chat with each other, reach out to operators or organizers strikes me as a great idea. I’d highly suggest it.

Tip #11: Have a general open channel

Call this the “hallway” channel if you want, but try to recreate the hallway experience where folks can simply chat with each other. SQL Saturday is very much a social event, so try to leverage that! Let everyone chat together just like they would at an in-person SQL Saturday event.

For Attendees

Tip #12: Use social media

As a speaker or organizer, I love to see folks talking about my talk or event on Twitter and Facebook. Please, share the enthusiasm. Let others know what you’re doing and share your thoughts! This is actually a tip for everyone, but there’s far more attendees than organizers/speakers, so you can do the most!

Tip #13: Ask questions, provide feedback

Every platform used for remote presentations offers some sort of Q&A or feedback. Please, use this. As a virtual speaker, it’s impossible to know if my points are coming across. I want/welcome questions and feedback, both during and after. As great as my talks are, or at least I think they are, it’s impossible to tell without feedback if they’re making an impact. That said, let me apologize right now, if during my talk you tried to ask a question or give feedback, because of my lack of familiarity with the tool and not having the planned operator in the room, I may have missed it.

Tip #14: Attend!

Yes, this sounds obvious, but hey, without you, we’re just talking into a microphone! Just because we can’t be together in person doesn’t mean we should stop learning! Take advantage of this time to attend as many virtual events as you can! With so many being virtual, you can pick ones out of your timezone for example to better fit your schedule, or in different parts of the world! Being physically close is no longer a requirement!

In Closing

Again, I want to reiterate that Ed and his team did a bang-up job with our SQL Saturday and I had a blast and everyone I spoke to had a great time. But of course, doing events virtually is still a new thing and we’re learning. So this is an opportunity to take the lessons from a great event and make yours even better!

I had a really positive experience presenting virtually and look forward to my PASS Summit presentation and an encouraged to put in for more virtual SQL Saturdays after this.

In addition, I’d love to hear what tips you might add.

The Year So Far

Today happens to be the last day of the month and the last day of the quarter. And according to my calendar, it’s the 4th Blursberyday of the month of Holiecouw.

I decided to take a look back at my first post of the year: 2020 in Preview. Wow, a lot has changed in a scant three months. I mentioned I was reading Station Eleven. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world after a world-wide flu pandemic. Little did I know at the time I’d be living that reality a scant 3 months later. Ok, this is not nearly as bad as in the book, but it does give on pause to think. We are living in a time of upheaval and it will be interesting to see how this current pandemic changes social structures for coming years.

I wanted to speak at SQL Saturdays. Well, almost every one I’ve put in for or was planning on putting in for has been cancelled or delayed. So much for that goal. On the other hand, members of the #SQLFamily have been holding Friday afternoon (and other times) Zoom hangouts as sort of a morale boost. So I’ve actually gotten to know a number of my fellow DBAs and fellow speakers, so that’s better.

Fortunately, I’m still working. As a consultant, you realize every meal may be your last meal, so you keep working at it and hoping more meals are coming your way. So far my biggest client shows no sign of slowing down, nor does my second largest client. I’ve been fortunate, I know a number of folks across many industries who have been hit with a temporary or even permanent job loss. This is going to be hard for many.

But, I’ve also been taking the time to do more webinars. Last week I sat in on a Redgate webinar on the state of DevOps that was quite informative. The next day, Kendra Little (also of Redgate) gave the WIT webinar and also talked about DevOps. Both were quite informative and I learned a lot. I look forward to the upcoming Redgate Streamed event.

I’ve been using git more and more. I started using it integrated with Visual Studio about two years ago I think. But, after seeing my son working on a project where he was using it at the command line, I decided it was time to start to do that and now for one client that’s my de facto way of checking in and out changes I’ve been making to the PowerShell scripts I write for them. Next up, more version control for the SQL Scripts. I’ve already written a small deploy script I use to deploy scripts and changes and more importantly to log them. So while that client hasn’t really adopted DevOps, I’m doing my part for my small corner of work.

My next goal is probably starting to learn how to use Docker more. Cathrine Wilhemson’s blog post on that has convinced me it’s time.

And I finally finished binge-watching Haven.

So, the last few weeks haven’t been exactly what I planned for, and the upcoming months won’t be what I planned on either, but it hasn’t been a terrible time. What about you?

P.S. While out biking the other day, a thought dawned on me. Many post-apocalyptic books (such as Station Eleven) have characters using cars, but more like carts, either pulling them themselves or with horses because once the gas runs out, you can’t make more. But I got wondering how having a large number of electric vehicles would play out in such a world. Yes, much of the infrastructure would be gone, but even if you had to carry panels with you (much like Mark Watney in The Martian) you could probably be far more mobile. Hmm…

I don’t see a problem…

Today is the 3rd day of Women’s History Month here in the US and today is Super Tuesday and we have a bunch of older white men and a two women vying for the Democratic ticket.

And yet, I started my reading with a response on a blog of fellow #SQLFamily member, Monica Rathbun that comes down to “I don’t see a problem, therefore it’s your fault and you should change what you’re doing.”

So I want to go back and talk a bit about privilege. But before that I want to talk a bit about my childhood.  I was fortunate in many ways growing up; a good grammar school, the ability to attend a very good high school and fortunately I got into a great college. That said, my family was never rich and I know at times either of my parents were carefully counting pennies. So in some ways I was privileged in others, not so much.

But that’s not the form of privilege that really mattered.  The privileges I was born with were more intangible and can’t be measured by a bank account or resume. They’re more subtle. But today I want to talk about a specific ones: being a man. This is a circumstance of birth. It would apply no matter where I was born in the US and regardless of my economic situation.

What exactly does this mean? For one, it means I don’t recall thinking much about it until college. Yes, I knew about feminism and discrimination before then. My mother was a divorced woman in the ’70s running her own business. She was (and is) someone I am proud of. But in general, discrimination was something I read about, not something I knew.

But then there was the time I was sitting in the backyard of a college girlfriend’s sorority house talking with her and a friend of ours. Our college, RPI, had a ratio of 5 men for every woman that attended, so again, I knew there were problems. But, I didn’t realize what privilege meant until the friend mentioned that she always submitted her papers to her professors with just her first initial and last name.  I was a bit confused. She explained to me that she found she received better grades when her professors didn’t know it was a woman submitting the papers. I was taken aback. Sure, I knew RPI’s ratio was problematic, but I had always assumed that once a woman got into RPI, that for the most part, she was judged on her merit, not her name. I was clearly wrong. (And honestly, even that’s not quite accurate about not being aware. I had a friend who had dropped out of the architecture program 5 years previous, in part because of a sexist professor).

Now, it would have been easy, even trivial to say, “Nah, you’re just imagining it.” I mean I had never seen it happen. I only had her word to take for it after all, compared to my entire life experience of not seeing it.  Well actually I had her and my girlfriend’s word for it since she chimed in too. I choose to believe them. I also, by the way, started to do the same thing with my papers at times. I’m not sure how much thought I really gave it, but I’m pretty sure I figured the more semi-anonymous papers submitted, the harder it would be for professors in general to catch on that perhaps it was women doing it.

Now, I’m sure some readers (and I’m betting mostly the men) are saying, “yeah right” and since most of my readers are geeks, they’re probably thinking, “show me the data.”  That is somewhat fair. So let’s take a look at a shift in orchestras in the US. Up until 1970, the top 5 major symphonies in the US were predominately male with over 95% of the positions held by men. Now, I’m not an expert in music, but I suspect that women like music as much as men. So, obviously something was going on here.  At some point in the 1970s and 80s, most major symphonies made a minor, but very important change: they put the musician behind a screen during the audition. Now the judges knew nothing about the performer and could only judge them on their music. A surprising thing happened. The number women selected for symphonies increased. Removing the ability for bias at an early stage helped close the gender gap.

So, can I prove my friend’s assertion that removing her female sounding first name helped her grades? No. But can I believe it? Yes! Can I believe she and my girlfriend were victims of bias? Certainly.

So let me go back to Monica’s blog. First of all, if you haven’t read it, please do. In fact, given the choice between reading hers and reading mine, read hers. She’s talking from her personal experience. I’m only speaking as a reflection of that. I also want to add that my hope (and goal) here is not to usurp her voice or the voice of any other members of my #SQLFamily, but ideally to bring them to the forefront.

But for a minute, back to my privilege.  I want to mention a few things that my privilege has allowed me to ignore, often without realizing it.

  • I’ve never wondered, “did they select me to speak because I’m a man?”
  • While yes, at SQL Saturdays I’ve tried to dress professionally, I’ve never given thought to “will someone find this too sexy?” or “will someone tell me I should dress a bit sexier.”
  • No one has ever told me, “you should smile more, you’re more handsome that way.”
  • I’ve never once been concerned with if my technical abilities were being judged on the size of certain body parts.
  • I have never thought, “will that person hit on me after I’m done talking?”
  • I’ve never had a woman monologuing during the Q&A instead of actually asking me a question about my presentation.

These may seem like silly things and you may think I’m making them up, but I can assure you that if you ask the women around you, they’ve experienced at least some of these, if not all of them.

Now like Monica, I’m going to present a few good points. I’m very fortunate to be a member of two great communities, #SQLFamily and the National Cave Rescue Commission. However, let me reiterate that neither are perfect. Sexism and bias exist in both communities and I’ve seen it first hand. But I’ve also seen a lot of efforts in both to recognize folks based on their skills, not their genders.

But we can get better. And here I’m going to talk mostly to the men reading this, in part because I think we have to do a lot of lifting.

For example, I’ve caught fellow attendees at SQL Saturdays doing that monologuing thing. If you don’t know what I mean, try this experiment the next time you’re at a SQL Saturday (or honestly any conference, but this is probably more true at technical ones).  Go to an equal number of speakers who identify as male and female and sit in back. Then start to note what happens during questions. While not universally true, in my experience, when it’s a man presenting, most of the questions are actual questions and typically on topic. But, often when it’s a woman presenting, the “question” is often a monologue of sorts. Yes, often it’s in support of the presentation’s topic, but it’s generally the questioner talking about themselves, not them trying to enrich their knowledge by learning from the speaker.

Learn from your mistakes, don’t double-down. I’m going to call-out Rick here on Monica’s post who doubled-down. Not only did he dismiss Randolph’s response, he tossed in a diminutive of Randolph’s name. Now I’ve met Randolph at Summit and Randolph’s a cool person. But even if I didn’t know Randolph, I wouldn’t use a diminutive of their name without their permission.

Recently, I replied to a tweet of a friend mine who is active in the WIT community.  I thought I was being supportive, but her DM to me was basically, “WTF Greg?” My initial response was equally tone deaf. But, she took the time to explain to me why she found my response to her tweet problematic. Now sure, sometimes it’s a blow to ones ego, “but I thought I was being supportive!” But when the person you’re trying to support says they don’t find it supportive, don’t dismiss them and don’t go off in a huff. Accept the fact that they didn’t find support from your efforts. Take it as an opportunity to apologize and to grow. And think of it this way. They had a choice. They could have ignored you completely, or called you out in public and possibly shamed you, or take the time to pull you aside and educate you.  I’m grateful she took her time for the last option.

Almost finally, if you’re reading this and still thinking that gender bias isn’t an issue, or you’re thinking, “but none of the women I know have mentioned this to me” stop and think about it. Maybe they have and you’ve been oblivious or ignored their experiences. Or, and this is perhaps worse, they haven’t mentioned it to you at all. If not, you might want to wonder why.

Finally, as I’ve said, I don’t like to call myself an ally. I’m honored when others consider me such and I strive to me such. But, as I noted before, I’ll make mistakes. I can’t promise to be perfect, I can only promise to try my best and to try to learn from the experience of the great women around me.

P.S. If you do dismiss the experiences of my colleagues, in #SQLFamily or NCRC, please don’t bother attending my talks or discussions.

P.P.S If I ever fail, call me out. I’m continually striving to be a better person.

2020 in Preview

Ok, time for the obligatory dad joke: I can’t see what’s coming in the next year, I genuinely do not have 20/20 vision!

But I suppose my vision looking back was better. So I will try to prognosticate for the coming year and set some goals. I said last year I’m not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions, but I suppose I may have to reassess that claim as this is the second year in a row I’ve gone out on a limb and set goals, and what are goals if not a form of a resolution?

  • I’m going to continue to blog at least once a week. While I hope my readers get something out of it, I also blog for my own personal reasons: it helps me keep my writing and creative juices flowing. If years ago you told me I would have written a book and was blogging I’d have laughed and not believed it. I also would have wondered what blogging was!
  • Related to that, I will continue to writing for Red-Gate. This is a bit different from my blogging. It’s far more technical in nature which requires more effort. Since I’ve set aside an hour a week (and in fact my calendar just reminded me it was time for that hour) I’ve found I’ve been more productive. It’s in part why I wrote 5 articles last year and got 4 published. All so far have been on PowerShell. Generally my approach as been either, “here is a problem I had at a client and how I solved it with PowerShell” or lately it’s been a bit more of “hey, here’s a challenge, let’s see how to do it in PowerShell.” The best example of this last year was my article on using PowerShell to create a countdown timer with a GUI. It’s perhaps not the most productive way to do it, I think other languages and approaches would be easier, but it was a fun challenge and I learned a lot.
  • Extended Events! Or as Grant Fritchey would say #TeamExEvents! I’m a proud member and my goal is to learn more about them and to write more about them this year. It’s just a question of how much. But I’m a convert and a definite fan!
  • Read more blogs on a regular basis. I sporadically read Grant’s and also Monica Rathbun’s and would recommend both. I also sometimes read Cathrine Wilhemsen’s and she’s recently been on a tear with her guide to Azure Data Factories. I’ll admit I haven’t worked with it, but 25 posts in 25 days is an incredible feat and she’s great and knowledgeable on the topic, so I can highly recommend it in any event. I also want to add a few non-technical blogs to the mix. We’ll see.
  • Keep speaking at SQL Saturdays. I have yet to put in for any, but I will. Perhaps I’ll be visiting a city near you!
  • Create a couple of new topics to speak on. I’ve suggested a collaboration with someone and now I have to get off my butt and put together notes and see if they’re still willing to speak with lil’ ol’ me.
  • Speak at SQL Summit. This is an ongoing goal. Someday I’ll achieve it.
  • Have a successful NCRC Weeklong Cave Rescue Seminar here in NY. I’m the site coordinator for it this  year. I’ve got a great team backing me up, but as they say, the “Buck Stops Here”.  Registration is looking great, but until I get hit my goals, I’ll be stressing.
  • Read more! – I received several books for the holidays, including:
    • The Power Broker, I biography of Robert Moses
    • Station Eleven, a fiction  book (and if you’re the one that recommended it to me, please remind me who you are so I can thank you.)
    • Headstrong, 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World

And finally some rather generic goals

  • Love more!
  • Cave more!
  • Hike more!
  • Bike more!
  • Travel!
  • Vote the bastard out!
  • Have fun!

And I’ll conclude with one more dad joke because… that’s the way I roll!

When does a joke become a dad joke?

When it becomes a-parent.

Hey, don’t blame me if you groaned. I warned you it was coming!

Have a great New Year!