Summit Recap

As many of my readers know, last week was the 2021 PASS Data Community Summit hosted by Redgate. In the past I would have travelled to Seattle to attend in person. Last year, due to Covid the Summit became a virtual event. I was a bit disappointed since I had finally been selected to present and was looking forward to doing so in person. I ended up presenting virtually. That alone would have been disappointing enough, but there were other issues and basically the underlying structure that supported PASS and its structure went belly-up and declared bankruptcy.

More Thoughts on Last Year’s Summit

My recap last year was positive but I have to be honest now. I was certainly trying to put a good spin on things. The truth is, I was more frustrated than I originally let on. I’m still not only grossly disappointed by the poor closed-captioning, I’m still a bit offended. I’m as guilty as anyone for probably not being inclusive enough when it comes to things like color-blindness, difficulty of hearing, etc, but to know that the organization had weeks to get good closed-captioning done, and didn’t still offends me.

I was also extremely insulted when weeks before the Summit, User Group leaders were asked to pony up money to attend. A benefit of doing the work of leading a User Group has traditionally been a free ticket to Summit. To have that change weeks or just a few months before Summit, especially one that was going virtual definitely felt like a bait and switch.

This and some behind the scenes factors in regards to PASS had left a bitter taste in my mouth. Then of course we finally got word that PASS as an organization was no more.

There were wails of anguish, and rending of garments, and wearing of sackcloth. (ok, I may be overdramatizing a bit). But I was hopeful. As I stated then, PASS really is the community. It’s the people. And they’re some of the best people I’ve known professionally: #sqlfamily.

This Year’s Summit

So, on to Summit this year. Within months of the demise of the former structure, Redgate announced it was buying the intellectual property associated with PASS. Microsoft in the meantime was rolling out tools to help the user groups. Steve Jones was working on SQL Saturday. Things were looking good. I was hopeful.

Redgate announced the Pass Data Community Summit would happen, albeit virtually. I was excited and looking forward to it. That said, I’ll admit I did not put in to speak this year. I just didn’t have the motivation. This was a mark on me, not on Redgate’s efforts. Redgate also announced that while the precons would cost money, the Summit itself would be free. Last year there was a lot of discussion about charging for a virtual summit and while I defended the concept a bit, because there are still enormous costs associated, I also was not a fan of it, because I knew it would be a hard sell to managers. I think I was proven right there. The very preliminary numbers I heard for attendance this year appear to have FAR outpaced the numbers for last year. I think that’s a good sign.

So, enough rambling, what about Summit this year?

First two criticisms

I common complaint, and one I knew I was guilty of, was it was unclear that for many sessions one was supposed to watch the recorded session first and then attend what was essentially a live Q&A. I know for the first presentation I attended on Wednesday, even the presenter, who was in the Q&A was confused by this. I’ll admit, I never did figure out how to watch the recorded sessions beforehand.

The second was, I didn’t discover the Spatial.Chat system until the 2nd day, and that was only because I am a Friend of Redgate had received a specific email inviting me to a private chat.

Now, partly, I will put the blame for the above two criticisms squarely on myself for probably not reading the emails in enough detail. But, it does seem others had the same issue and perhaps more succinct, clear links or emails might have helped. I honestly don’t know.

The Positives

That said, despite the above criticisms, I really enjoyed Summit and in a huge part because once I learned about the Spatial.chat system and how to use it, I for the first time, felt like I was in a virtual space that closely mimicked real life. The idea of being able to move closer to people to hear them better, or to move away if I wanted to focus on some work but still be “part of the crowd” worked REALLY well. Trying to translate a physical presence into a virtual one is often tough, but I think the Spatial.Chat stuff worked really well. I found myself hanging out there more than anything else.

Since I never did figure out how to watch recorded stuff before the live Q&A, I focused on the actually live sessions and they did NOT disappoint. As usual, while folks talk about how great the social atmosphere is at Summit, the truth is we tell our bosses we go for the technical content and it was topnotch as expected. Once again great content!

I also really enjoyed the Keynotes this year. I’ll admit, because of jetlag and because I’m often up late talking with the college friends whose house I crash at while in Seattle, I am often late to the keynotes (if I make it at all) and sometimes doze off in the large, warm dark room. This year, none of that happened. I was entertained and really enjoyed them. I especially enjoyed Brent Ozar‘s Keynote on Friday and the impact of the Cloud on ones career.

I think this year’s Summit overall felt more positive for a number of reasons. For one, I think many of us are finally hoping to see a light at the end of the Covid Tunnel. For another, I think most of us are far more hopeful about the overall #SQLFamily community and future PASS Summits than we were a year ago. Finally, I think we just all felt the need to socialize again, albeit it virtually.

Redgate has already announced next year’s summit will be in Seattle again next year, but will be a hybrid event. I will be very curious to see how that works, but I can tell you right now I’m already budgeting to attend in person.

  • End note: I am a Friend of Redgate and write for their Simple-Talk blog. That said, in this case Redgate isn’t paying for my thoughts and my thoughts are my own.

Impact and Legacy

One of my favorite movies for many reasons is Dead Poet’s Society. Robin Williams is excellent in this role. Shortly after his death, Apple repurposed a short segment that I’ve always loved where he quotes my favorite poet, Walt Whitman: What will your verse be?

“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” – Walt Whitman.

I’ve been thinking more about my legacy and the legacy of others and this week seemed a good time to muse on that. This is the week that in the past many of us would travel to Seattle (or in years before my time, other cities) and gather at PASS SQL Summit. This year things area bit different, but Pass Data Community Summit is happening, albeit remotely. Though at times like this, I can’t but help think of and riff on a line from the Passover Seder, “Perhaps next year in Seattle.” So in any case #SQLFamily is on my mind. And here’s my thoughts on the impact of some individuals.

Let me start with saying this is FAR from a comprehensive list of the people who have had an impact on me. If I didn’t name you, that’s more an oversight on my part and please don’t take it as a slight. And there’s really very little order to this.

Grant Fritchey – I’m sure I remember my meeting with Grant better than he remembers meeting me (is oft the case when a presenter or instructor teaches so many) but it was at a SQL Saturday in Boston where I first heard him speak, in this case on HIPAA. From there I learned not only more about SQL but about #SQLFamily itself and how important this community truly was.

Rie Irish – I want to say it was a SQL Saturday in Philadelphia, but I could be wrong. I was one of two men in her talk  Let Her Finish: Supporting Women’s Voices in Technology. Turns out the other was a friend she had asked to attend. I still wish more men had attended, it’s still a great topic. Rie has helped me be more aware of diversity issues in this community and called me out at least once or twice when I needed it. She’ll be speaking at my user group in a few months and can’t wait.

Andy Mallon – There’s just something infectious about being around Andy that no matter what my mood makes me want to smile.

Bob Ward – Despite him being a Dallas Cowboys fan, he’s an all-around good guy. More seriously, despite how hard he works for Microsoft, he always takes time out to speak to the community and I’ve been honored to have him speak at my local User Group more than once. And despite the general advice to “not type during a demo” he’s brave enough (or crazy enough) to pull out the debugger and debug SQL Server live!

Kathi Kellenberger aka Aunt Kathi – At my first Summit I attended a talk by her on writing a book. What a long strange trip it’s been since then. I wrote my first book and numerous articles for Redgate since then. And yes, I did say first book. I have ideas for others.

Jen and Sean McGowan – Not only have I spent plenty of time on their coach in their booth at Summit, I still find Sean’s class on regexp usage in SSMS, especially for find and replace to be one of the more useful technical skills I’ve learned that arguably isn’t really T-SQL specific.

Tracy Boggiano – For being their during Covid and for making me more aware of mental health issues. And I’m proud to say I’ve got her first ever signature on a book she co-authored with Grant Fritchey!

David Klee – My go to man on certain subjects who knows more about VMWare tuning than I’ll ever hope, let alone want to know. His current Twitter profile picture is a bit misleading, as it suggests a rather sedate, mild-mannered person, but the reality is there’s a mischievous streak there.

Deborah Melkin – I first saw her speak at our Albany SQL Saturday and was immediately impressed, especially as it was her first SQL Saturday. I immediately cornered her and didn’t so much ask as told her to prepare a topic to present to our user group. She happily obliged. One of the aspects I really like about her presentations is she can take a topic that may appear to be a 100 level topic, but still have something new to teach to experienced DBAs.

Andy Yun – I of course now can’t mention Deborah without bringing up Andy’s name. We first met at a SQL Saturday Chicago where I had a blast. At the time it was my most western SQL Saturday gig (since surpassed by two in Colorado Springs). Always helpful and just fun to be around.

Steve Jones – If nothing else, his Daily Coping Blog posts have been a light in my day (even I only skim them). That said, I honestly, don’t know how he gets time to write so much AND do actual work!

Hamish Watson – Despite being literally half a world away, great fun to be around and has shared his great chocolate me, and for that alone he gets a mention.

There are so many more folks that have had an impact: Monica Rathbun, Chris Bell and Gigi Bell, Andy Levy, John Morehouse, Matt Gordon, Kimberly Tripp, and so many more. If I’ve left a name off, I apologize. Honestly, there are dozens of members of the #SQLFamily that have had an impact on me. The only folks I’m not intentionally naming are folks local to me, simply because I want to focus on the larger, worldwide community as a whole. The folks local to me hopefully already know how important they are.

In years past, I’d be looking forward to seeing many of them in person at Summit, but this year the best I can do is perhaps see them virtually and remember them this way.

You may notice a theme too: the impact hasn’t always been directly database related. While it’s true I’ve learned some great database tips from everyone above, their impact has been larger than that. And all of the above folks are more than simply folks who “work on the Microsoft Data Platform”. They’re folks who have lives outside of that. Some rock-climb, some run up buildings, some love to cook, others love to bake, others love to work on their houses, or love to talk about their dogs or cats. And I care about all of them

They’ve each introduced a verse (or more) into the powerful play of both #SQLFamily and to my life. And I’m eternally grateful. Thank you.

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.

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.