Giving Blood and Pride Month

I gave blood yesterday. It got me thinking. First, let me show a few screenshots:

male blood donor shot 1

7 Male Donor #1 screen shot

female blood donor shot 1

Female Donor #1 screen shot

Let me interject here I’m using the terms Male and Female based on the criteria I selected in the American Red Cross’s Fast Pass screen. More on why I make that distinction further on. But first two more screen shots.

female blood donor shot 2

Pregnancy question highlighted for female

male blood donor shot 2

No pregnancy question for males

Now, on the face of it, this second set of questions especially almost seems to make sense: I mean if I answered Male early on in the questionnaire, why by asked about a pregnancy? But what I’m asked at the beginning is about my gender, not my actual child-bearing capability. Let me quote from Merriam-Webster:

2-b: the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex

Or from the World Health Organization:

Gender refers to the roles, behaviours, activities, attributes and opportunities that any society considers appropriate for girls and boys, and women and men. Gender interacts with, but is different from, the binary categories of biological sex.

Who can be pregnant?

So above, really what the Red Cross is asking isn’t about my gender, but really my ability to be pregnant. Now, this is a valid medical concern. There are risks they want to avoid in regards to pregnant women, or recently pregnant women giving blood. So their ultimate goal isn’t the problem, but their initial assumption might be. A trans-man might still be able to get pregnant, and a trans-woman might be incapable of getting pregnant (as well as a cis-woman might be incapable.) And this is why I had the caveat above about using the terms male and female. I’m using the terms provided which may not be the most accurate.

Assumptions on risk factors

The first set of images is a problematic in another way: it is making assumptions about risk factors. Now, I think we can all agree that keeping blood borne pathogens such as HIV out of the blood supply is a good one. And yes, while donated blood is tested, it can be even safer if people who know they are HIV or at risk for it can potentially self-select themselves out of the donation process.

But…

Let me show the actual question:

Male Male 3 month contact question

Question 21, for Men

This is an improvement over the older restrictions that were at one year and at one point “any time since 1977”. Think about that. If a man had had sex with another man in 1986, but consistently tested negative for HIV/AIDS for the following 30+ years, they could not give blood under previous rules. By the way, I will make a note here that these rules are NOT set by the American Red Cross, but rather by the FDA. So don’t get too angry at the Red Cross for this.

The argument for a 3 month window apparently was based on the fact that HIV tests now are good enough that they can pick up viral particles after that window (i.e. at say 2 months, you may be infected, but the tests may not detect it.)

Based on the CDC information I found today, in 2018, male-to-male sexual contact resulted in 24,933 new infections. The 2nd highest category was heterosexual contact (note the CDC page doesn’t seem to specify the word sexual there.) So yes, statistically it appears male-male sexual contact is a high-risk category.

But…

I know a number of gay and bisexual men. I don’t inquire about their sexual habits. However, a number are either married or appear to be in monogamous relationships. This means if they want to give blood and not lie on the forms, they have to be celibate for at least 3 months at a time!  But hey if you’re a straight guy and had sex with 4 different women in the last week, no problem, as long as you didn’t pay any of them for sex! I’ll add that more than one gay man I know wants to give blood and based on their actual behavior are in a low risk category, but can’t because of the above question.

Why do I bring all this up at the end of Pride Month and what, if anything does it have to do with database design (something I do try to actually write about from time to time)?

As a cis-het male (assigned at birth and still fits me) it’s easy to be oblivious to the problematic nature of the questions on such an innocuous and arguably well-intended  form. The FDA has certain mandates that the Red Cross (and other blood donation agencies) must follow. And I think the mandates are often well-intended. But, there are probably better ways of approaching the goals, in the examples given above, of helping to rule out higher-risk donations. I’ll be honest, I’m not always sure the best way.  To some extent, it might be as simple as rewording the question. In others, it might be necessary to redesign the database to better reflect the realities of gender and sex, after all bits are cheap.

But I want to tie this into something I’ve said before: diversity in hiring is critical and I think we in the data world need to be aware of this. There are several reasons, but I want to focus on one for now.

Our Databases Model the World as We Know It.

The way we build databases is an attempt to model the world. If we are only aware of two genders, we will build our databases to reflect this. But sometimes we have to stop and ask, “do we even need to ask that question?” For one thing, we potentially add the issue of having to deal with Personally Identifiable Information that we don’t really need.  For another, we can make assumptions: “Oh they’re male, they can’t get pregnant so this drug won’t be an issue.”

Now, I’m fortunate enough to have a number of friends who fall into various places on the LGBTQIA+ (and constantly growing collection of letters) panoply and the more I listen, the more complexity I see in the world and how we record it.

This is not to say that you must go out instantly and hire 20 different DBAs, each representing a different identity. That’s obviously not practical. But, I suspect if your staff is made up of cis-het men, your data models may be suffering and you may not even be aware of it!

So, listen to others when they talk about their experiences, do research, get to know more people with experiences and genders and sexualities different from yours. You’ll learn something and you also might build databases. But more importantly, you’ll get to know some great people and become a better person yourself. Trust me on that.

 

 

 

“Houston, We Have an Opportunity”

This is not quite the famous quote from the movie Apollo 13, one of my favorite movies. And, well we have a problem. But also an opportunity.  I’ll get to the opportunity in a bit, but first, the problem.

My Event and Disappointment

The problem of course is COVID-19. As the end of the week in which I’m writing this, I was scheduled to help host the National Weeklong Cave Rescue training seminar for the NCRC. For years, I and others had been working on the planning of this event. It’s our seminal event and can attract 100 or more people from across the country and occasionally from other countries. Every year we have it in a different state in order to allow our students to train in different cave environments across the country (New York caves are different from Georgia caves which are different from Oregon caves and more) as well as to make it easier for attendees to attend a more local event.

Traditionally, the events held in NY (This would have been the fourth National Seminar) have attracted fewer people than our events in Alabama which is famous for its caves. But this year was different, with lots of marketing and finding a great base camp, we were on track for not only for the largest seminar yet in New York, but for one on par with our largest seminars anywhere.

Then, in February I started to get nervous. I had been following the news and seeing that unlike previous outbreaks of various flus and other diseases, COVID-19 looked like it would be something different. This wasn’t going to pass quite as quickly. This was going to have an impact. As a result, I started to make contingency plans with the rest of my planning staff. I consulted with our Medical Coordinator. I talked to the camp. By March I started to regain some optimism, but I still wasn’t 100% confident we could pull this off. And then, the questions from attendees started to come in. “Are we still having it?” “What are the plans?” etc.  Another week or two later, “I need to cancel. My agency/school/etc won’t cover the cost this year.”  Finally by the start of April, after talking to several of my planning staff and my fellow regional coordinators it became obvious, we could not, in good conscience host a seminar in June. Yes, here in upstate New York the incidence of COVID-19 is dropping quickly. We’re starting the re-opening process. Honestly, if folks came here, I would NOT be worried about them getting infected from a local source.

However, we would have nearly 100 people coming from across the country, including states where the infection rates are climbing. Many would be crammed into planes for hours, or making transfers at airports with other travelers. So, while locally we might be safe; if we held this event, where folks are in classrooms for 3-4 hours a day, then in cars to/from cave and cliff sites and then often in caves for hours, it’s likely we would have become ground zero for a spike in infections. That would not have been a wise nor ethical thing to do. So, we postponed until next year.

I mention all that because of what happened to me about three weeks ago and then the news from last week: 2020 PASS Summit is going Virtual. About three weeks ago I was asked to participate in a meeting with some of the folks who help to run PASS as well as other User Group leaders. The goal was to discuss how to make a Virtual Summit a great experience if it went virtual. This was one of several such meetings and I know a lot of ideas we brought up and discussed. NONE of us were looking forward to PASS 2020 being virtual, but we all agreed that it was better than nothing. And of course, as you’re well aware, last week PASS made the decision, I suspect due in large part for the very same reasons we postponed our cave rescue training event.

Sadness and Disappointment

Mostly I’ve heard, if not happy feedback, at least resigned feedback. People have accepted the reality that PASS will be virtual. I wrote above about my experience with having to postpone our cave rescue training (because it’s so hand’s on, it’s impossible to host it virtually). It was not an easy decision. I’ll admit I was frustrated, hurt, disappointed and more. I and others had put in a LOT of hard work only to have it all delayed. I know the organizers of Summit must be feeling the same way. And I know many of us attendees must feel the same. Sure, Houston is not Seattle and I’ve come to have a particular fondness for Seattle, in part because of an opportunity to see friends there, but I was looking forward to going to Houston this year (as was my wife) and checking out a new city.

One thing that has helped buoy my emotions in regards to our weeklong cave rescue class is that over 1/2 the attendees said, “roll my registration over to next year. I’m still planning on coming!” That was refreshing and unexpected. Honestly, I was hoping for maybe 1/4 of them at best to say so. This gave me hope and the warm fuzzies.

Opportunity

Let me start with stating the obvious: a virtual event will NOT be the same as in-person event. There will most definitely be things missing. Even with attempts that PASS will be making to try to recreate the so-called “Hallway track” of impromptu discussions and hosting other virtual events to mimic the real thing, it won’t be the same. You won’t get to check out the Redgate Booth in person, hang out on the sofa at Minionware, or get your free massage courtesy of VMWare.

20191106_123733

After a great massage courtesy VMWare.

And we’ll miss out on:

20191105_143514

Achievement unlocked: PASS Summit 2019 Selfie with Angela Tidwell!

But, we’ll still have a LOT of great training and vendors will have virtual rooms and more.

So what’s the opportunity? Accessibility!

Here’s the thing, I LOVE PASS Summit. I think it’s a great training and learning opportunity. But let’s face it. It can get expensive, especially when you figure in travel costs, hotel costs and food costs. This year though, most of those costs disappear. This means that when you go to your boss, they have even less of an excuse to say, “sorry it’s not in the budget”.  And honestly, if they DO say that, I would seriously suggest that you consider paying for it out of your own budget. Yes, I realize money might be tight, but after all the wonderful training you can then update your resume and start submitting it to companies that actually invest in training their employees.

I would also add, from my understanding, while convention centers by law ADA accessible, this doesn’t necessarily mean everyone with a disability can attend. There can be non-physical barriers that interfere. Hosting virtually gives more people the ability to “attend” in a way that works for them. It might be in a quiet, darkened room if they’re sensitive to noise and lights. It might be replaying sessions over and over again if they need to hear things in that fashion. It very well could be taking advantage of recorded sessions and the like in ways that I, an able-bodied person isn’t even aware of. So that’s a second way in which it’s accessible.

Now, I know folks are questioning “well if its virtual, why should we pay anything, especially if vendors are still paying a sponsorship fee?” There’s several answers to that and none of them by themselves are complete, but I’ll list some. For one, I haven’t confirmed, but I’m fairly confident that vendors are paying a lot less for sponsorship, because they won’t get the same face to face contact. For another, PASS takes money to run. While we often think of it as a single big weeklong event, there’s planning and effort that goes on throughout the year. This is done by an outside organization that specializes in running organizations like PASS. (Note the PASS Board is still responsible for the decision making that goes on and the direction of PASS as a whole, but day to day operations are generally outsourced. This is far from uncommon. Those costs don’t disappear. There’s other costs that don’t automatically disappear because the event is no longer physical. And of course there are costs that a virtual event has that the physical event doesn’t. Now EVERY single session will be available as a live-stream (as well as recorded for later download) and this requires enough bandwidth and tools to manage them. And it requires people to help coordinate.  Making an event virtual doesn’t automatically make it free to run.

The Future

Now, I know right now I’m on track for hosting the NCRC Weeklong Cave Rescue training event next year at the location we planned on for this year. Our hope of course is that by then COVID-19 will be a manageable problem. But in the meantime, I’ll keep practicing my skills and sharing my knowledge and when and where I can, caving safely. And as always willing to take new folks caving. If you’re interested, just ask!

I don’t know what PASS 2021 Summit will bring or even where it will be. But I know this year we can make the most of the current situation and turn this into an opportunity to turn PASS into something new and more affordable. Yes, it will be different. But we can deal with that. So, register today and let’s have a great PASS 2020 Summit in the meantime!  I look forward to seeing you there. Virtually of course!

“It’s a Jump to the left…

… and then a double-hop to the right.” Or something like that.

I’ve commented before on the fact that I’m a consultant. I enjoy it. People will ask me what I do, and it varies. At one client they refer to their VB app as “the database” and because they found an ad of mine on Google where I talked about database administration, they hired me. About 80% of the work I do for them is actually on the VB app or related, very little is actually what I’d consider traditional database work. But that’s ok, they’re a pleasure to work with and I enjoy the work. Another client I recently worked with, asked me to help them conduct an audit of their web based product and help them with some steps to make it more secure. I was more than happy to help.

And then there’s my largest, by far, client. I actually get to do a fair amount of work that most of my #sqlfamily would recognize as “database work”. But there, perhaps more than any other, I describe my duties as “DBA and other duties as assigned.”  So between the work at this client and all my other clients, I’m often jumping or stepping around stuff.

The Double-Hop

This time though I was asked to double-hop. What is that exactly? It’s an issue that has to do with how Windows can pass security credentials from one server to another. This article, while old, describes it well. This was essentially the situation my client was trying to solve: Users needed to use their Active Directory (AD) Credentials to log into the Reporting Server (RS_Server) and run a report that in turn accessed data on a separate database server (DB_Server), and thus, the double-hop. Now, from my point of view, this isn’t really database work, but since the reporting server talks to the database server it was dropped in my lap under “other duties as assigned.”

Now, honestly, this SHOULD be simple to solve. It wasn’t. One reason was in part because, like many companies, this client has a separate team that handles much of their infrastructure needs, such as AD requests. And they have to go through tickets. To be clear, I support this concept, in theory. In practice, it can often take 2-3 weeks for even simple requests to go through. This meant that my first attempt at solving the double-hop failed. Their IT department did exactly what I requested. Unfortunately there was a typo in my ticket. So it failed. So round two. And round two didn’t work. Nor did round three. At this point though it wasn’t due to typos or mistakes on my end.

I started reading every article I could. My great editor at Red-Gate, Kathi Kellenberger has one, and trust me I wasn’t too shy to ask at that point! But nothing was working. I even asked another DBA at the client (they actually head up a different group and is their lead DBA). She pointed me to one of her people saying, “talk to him, he solved it.” I did, and he hadn’t. His solution was the one we were trying to avoid (basically using a fixed user in the datasource).

Frustration Sets In

I was getting frustrated. Fortunately at this point I started to exploit a loophole in the ticketing process. Since the problem wasn’t being fixed, I was able to keep it open and ended up getting assigned someone from their IT group who was as interested in fixing this as I was. This meant rather than “open a ticket, wait 1-2 weeks, have ticket be closed as complete, test, find out it failed, rinse” we could now actually schedule Zoom sessions and make changes in real-time. AND…. nothing we tried worked.

At this point you’re probably saying, “Yeah, yeah, get to the point. Did you solve it?”  The answer is yes, but I wanted you to feel a bit of my pain first, and I needed to make this post long enough to make it worth posting.

A Solution!

Now, let me say, I wish I could write out an exact recipe card solution for you. For various reasons, I can’t. But bear with me.

Finally, we found an additional resource in the IT group who had solved this before. His first recommendation was yet again, the solutions I mentioned above. He saw they didn’t work, agreed we were trying the right thing. So he said, “well let’s try a solution known as “Resource-based Kerberos Constrained Delegation“. This didn’t work at first either.

But then he suggested that we turn on 128 and 256 bit encryption on the DB_Server SQL account. Bingo that worked. Mostly. More on that in a second.

So here’s the setup we ended up with.

  1. RS_Server – running reporting services under an account domain\RS_Server_Service
  2. DB_Server – running SQL Server under an account domain\DB_Server_Service
  3. Setup some SPNs
    1. MSSQLsvc/DB_Server domain\DB_Server_Service
    2. MSSQLsvc/DB_Server.domain.com domain\DB_Server_Service
    3. Note in this case you do not appear to need one on the RS_Server side.
  4. Run a Powershell script
    1. $FEIdentity1 = Get-ADUser -Identity domain\RS_Server_Service
    2. $BEIdentity = Get-ADUser -Identity domain\DB_Server_Service
    3. Set-ADuser $BEIdentity -PrincipalsAllowedToDelegateToAccount $FEIdentitity1
  5. At this point things should have worked, but they didn’t until we then enabled the encryption options:

    encryption options for Kerberos

    Kerberos Encryption

  6. Then on our test box, things magically worked! Ok, not quite magically, but things worked. We had a solution.

And I was even more ecstatic when later that day, I tested this on a second report server box we had and it too suddenly was working without any changes. And this was a box where we had NOT even setup an SPN for the original double-hop solution, so I was pretty confident that the Resource-based Kerberos Constrained Delegation was working. In addition, in the rsserver.config file, the only authentication enabled was NTLM.

The next step was to try this on a production server. In that case, I did have to reconfigure the service it was running under to use the domain account domain\RS_Server_Service.

And… my test failed.

I was at wit’s end. I couldn’t quite figure out what was different. I checked my service names, my SPNs, the rsserver.config file, and more. Nothing was working. I took a break and came back and had an idea. In the datasource I changed it from:

Data source=DB_Server;Initial Catalog=TestDB

to

Data source=DB_Server.domain.com;Initial Catalog=TestDB

Bingo, it worked! A little digging confirmed my suspicion. This client actually has multiple DNS domains and the ordering and like under the TCP/IP settings was different on this box from the other two boxes. And that made the difference.

Sure enough when I tried deploying to a fourth box, I had the same issue, but changing it to the Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN) solved my issue.

So, my take-aways for this week:

  •  Resource-based Kerberos Constrained Delegation may be a better solution at solving the Double-Hop solution than the solution generally proposed.
  • Once you’ve setup the “target” SQL Server service account and source Reporting Server Service accounts, additional reporting servers can be added to the mix without needing assistance from a domain admin.
  • It appears you still need an SPN (well multiple) for the SQL Server itself.
  • You need to run a PowerShell Script to setup the accounts. Note that if you run it again, it overwrites the old settings, so you need to add ALL of the source accounts in a single step.
  • Depending on your domains security setup, you may need to enable 128/256 bit Kerberos authentication.
  • DNS resolution may determine if you can use just the NetBIOS name or the FQDN in your data sources.
  • This solution will NOT work if you need to cross domains or have more complex setups, but in general, it can be simpler to setup and to maintain, especially if you have limited access to making changes to AD in the first place.
  • My reading indicates this only works on Windows 2012 and beyond. But you shouldn’t be running older versions of Windows in any case!

If I get the time and energy, I may setup a test environment in my home lab to further experiment with this and write up better demos, but for now, use this as you can. Hopefully it’ll save you some of the stress I experienced.

And that’s it from here, back to other duties as assigned.

 

 

Social !Distancing

As some of my #SQFamily knows, Mike Walsh has been hosting a Friday afternoon Zoom “social hour”. It’s a chance for all of us who are social distancing to hang out, chat and basically socialize.

This past Friday, and then Monday night was a real reminder of how much I love my #sqlfamily.  Earlier in the day, my client asked me to come up with a script to back up some SSAS databases. A bit surprising to me, there isn’t the robust built-in support for this like there are for the normal databases. No problem some googling quickly brought me to an article on how to do it using PowerShell by Jana Sattainathan. Now as any of my readers know, I’m a huge fan of PowerShell, so this was a great solution. I had to tweak it a bit for my needs, but not much.  So I was already happy that someone else had done the work for me. For one thing it meant I could finish my day a bit earlier and get on the Zoom call with #SQLFamily.

Well, what do you know, but during the call as we’re talking Kevin Hill happens to mention he’s having trouble with a script to backup SSAS databases. I immediately chimed in, “hey, I’ve got a working script, let me email it to you!”  Ten minutes later he was up and running and contacted me back. Turns out he had found the same article by Jana but got hung up on the fact Get-ChildItem there needs DEFAULT for the $instancename when dealing with the default instance. As most of my readers would understand, usually if you’re referring to the default instance, you don’t need to explicitly reference it. I had encountered this issue writing one of my first articles for RedGate.

So I’d like to say I solved Kevin’s problem, but truth is it really goes back to Jana.

Meanwhile on the call, there was a discussion of the work being done by #SQLFamily for the @FoldingatHome project, being led by Glen Berry I believe. Others, led by Tim Radney are printing clips to help hold N95 masks on. (If I’m leaving out folks or getting names or credit wrong, please let me know).

Monday night we hosted our local SQL Server User Group meeting, but virtually. We had between 9-12 people on line at any time, which is not bad considering that’s about 1/2 of what we usually have in person. We had no specific topic, other than simply catching up on each other and how folks were dealing with the current crisis. Meanwhile I learned of at least one other virtual User Group meeting going on. Our #SQLFamily is still finding a way to share knowledge at this time.

So for all these reasons, I love my #SQLFamily (but still insist they stay at least 6′ away for now!)

Pushing Solutions, not Products

Earlier this week, the governor of New Jersey put out a call for more COBOL programmers. Everything old is new again. Last time I remember such a call was around the year 2000. That said, while I never had the opportunity to learn COBOL, I’m amused by this. It reminds me of a quote I heard in college about Fortran and how one expert didn’t know what language engineers would be programming in in the 21st Century, but they’d call it FORTRAN.

But, I highlight these two languages because the truth is, they are the exception. In reality one has to constantly keep learning. The times, they are a changing as a poet once said. Fortunately for me I’ve been busy during this Covid-19 lockdown, but even still I have free time (some who read my blog may argue too much time!) That said, I’ve been trying to take more time to catch some webinars and to learn new skills.

Over the past few weeks I’ve got a couple of SQL PASS WIT Webinars under my belt. Last week however, I took advantage of Redgate’s Streamed event. (full disclosure: Redgate does pay me for the articles I write for Simpletalk but what I write here is not paid for by Redgate in any way).

There were a lot of great webinars and I did not catch all of them, so please don’t take my lack of mentioning any as a comment on their quality. There were also some I could only listen to partly as I was actually doing work at the time.

First off, I started with Kendra Little‘s session using git for database development. I’m still moving in this direction and it gave me a good insight into what I’m doing right and moreover what I’m doing wrong and how to improve it. I recommend this session to anyone trying to get version control into their database development.

Unfortunately I had to split attention to Grant Fritchey‘s session on learning to effectively use Extended Events (I do have to do billable work from time to time) but did catch some good stuff. Again, if you haven’t played with Extended Events, please do! I recently used them to help debug an issue I was having with a client and their Reporting Server (yes! you can write them for an SSAS instance!) Go Team #ExtEvents.

Andy Mallon’s session on shortcuts for the DBA was excellent and seemed to generate the most feedback in the chat window. I suggest you go to his page and find his print-out for keyboard shortcuts for SSMS. It’ll save you a lot of time. That said, watch the video if you can and see how well Kendra Little did on her “job interview”. (To be fair, I suspect most of us would have done about the same!)

Steve Jone’s session on unit tests was good, at least what I caught of it. Again, client work got in the way. I may go back to specifically watch this one.

After that, I had time to catch Grant Fritchey’s session on SQL Injection. It still amazes me how many programmers STILL write code so susceptible to this. He had a lot of great examples and offered some solutions. Note there’s no single right answer, but there’s definitely a lot of lousy answers.

Friday brought Rob Sewell speaking about SQL Notebooks and using Jupyter. I haven’t used this yet, but it’s on my list for the year.

Again, a great presentation by Grant Fritchey, this time on convincing the DBA to support DevOps. I’m come back to this in a bit.

I think the highlight of Friday was the costumes. In honor of SQLBits which was postponed this year, several of the presenters wore costumes. I think Steve Jones, with his hat, wig, and glasses won in the pure costume category. (You’ll have to check out the videos). But, that said, Kendra took the overall prize with her corgi Freya on her back in a pack. There was just something so wonderful watching her talk about index tuning as she’d casually feed a carrot over her shoulder.

Again there were other sessions and speakers, and even if I didn’t mention them, their presentations were top notch and worth the watch. Again, you can go to: https://www.red-gate.com/hub/events/redgate-events/redgate-streamed/ and catch them o demand. I recommend it.

One of the overarching themes I picked up on was an emphasis on DevOps and using both tools and processes to achieve a successful DevOps environment. Note that I think both are critical. One can have all the best tools, but without good processes, not much will be accomplished. Honestly, one take away I got was I’d rather have good processes and develop my own tools than have tools, but no process. This focus makes sense given Redgates focus on DevOps.  I now in the past I’ve made the mistake of simply thinking of them as a company that sells some cool tools.

I want to close with saying, one thing I appreciate about the #SQLFamily and Redgate does this well, is generally members focus more on solving problems than pushing specific products. I’ve attended more than one webinar hosted by RedGate where other than mentioning them as a sponsor, their name hasn’t come up at all. I’ve seen other members of #SQLFamily do the same thing. They may work for a company that provides tools and solutions, but if you use #sqlhelp on Twitter, you’ll find almost always it’s people there are about solving your problem, not pushing their software or solution.

So that was how I spent part of last week in lock-down. How about you?

P.S. I also made some boule bread to with the homemade chili on Saturday. It was a winner in the Moore House Hold.

 

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…

Life in a Time of Coronavirus

With apologies to Gabriel García Márquez.

Life in the past week has definitely take a turn. We’ve gone from, “this might be bad” to losing about 30% of the market value of the stock market, and basically the country is shutting down.

I’d like to quote R.E.M. and say “It’s end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine” but the truth is more complex. Physically, I feel fine. I don’t think I have the Coronavirus, but of course I can’t say for sure.  I’m not really worried about myself. I’ve been working from home for years and so already had reduced the vector of working in crowded offices. But, of course my wife has been working in an office (though tomorrow her job will become “work from home”) and my son just came home from college for a break of now unknown length and my daughter’s school started a mandatory closure with some sort of undefined “remote teaching”. It’s still unclear what teachers will do what, but I hope by the end of the week they’ll be able to have a more robust teaching rubric in place.

I’ve been thinking a lot about toilet paper lately. We picked up some more rolls, just in case, but we’re far from hoarding (unlike the story of one family of four I read about on Facebook that apparently was caught trying to bypass the rules at a supermarket and buying 16 packs of 24 rolls of toilet paper: yes, they were trying to buy a total of 384 rolls of toilet paper in one day!)

But I’d by lying if I didn’t say there was a certain about of dread on my mind. Things are going to get worse before they get better.  I’ve been monitoring a site out of Johns Hopkins that seems to have accurate and fairly up to date data on the spread of the Coronavirus. The numbers aren’t great.  If the spread continues according to some models, we could be looking at a death toll in the US of 500,000-1 million or more.  These are staggering numbers. Now, to be clear, with social distancing and other measures, I have reason to hope the numbers will be 1/10th of those numbers, but even that’s a good sized number.

And of course there’s the aforementioned drop in the value of the stock market, and I honestly think it will only get worse.  If the worse case death tolls come in, we’re looking at a fundamental shake-up of our economy. Couple that with some of the possible mid-term effects as people face bankruptcy due to income loss and longer term changes that may result as a result of social changes. For example I’ve seen one headline suggesting that cinemas may simply not make a comeback after people stop going and just watch them at home. This is all scary and worrisome. And it’s bigger than toilet paper.

But more importantly, I’ve been thinking about families. I’ve written about this before and I’ve mentioned #SQLFamily. With Social Distancing being the current buzzwords, it’s put a damper on getting together with people. I know it’s so tempting to call up some friends and say, “hey, let’s get together and play games” but that sort of negates the point of social distancing.

My families, virtual and my biological one give me hope and cause to celebrate. On the RPI based chat program I use, Lily, it’s been great to see how one whole discussion is pretty much focused on a fact-based exchange of ideas. Even those of us on separate ends of the political spectrum are basically exchanging facts and mostly keeping emotions in check. This has been a useful place to learn a lot.

And on Twitter and elsewhere, it’s been remarkable to see #SQLFamily come together. Last Friday, and coming again this Friday, one of our members hosted a Zoom Chat where #SQLFamily members could just hang out and chat. Yeah, we talked about TP, and power outages in Johannesburg, and other topics, but it was mostly fun small talk. It was a reminder, that there are real people behind the Twitter handles and tweets. I’ve seen my #SQLFamily members send tweets about the success of their own family members and of their own hopes and fears.

Having gone to a technical college, and usually surrounded by folks who are self-identified geeks, sometimes it can be tempting to think we’re all just emotionless people driven by facts and data, human version of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock or Data, but the reality is, the families I’ve surrounded myself with are an amazing, resilient, group of people. And I think that’s probably true of most of us. It’s tempting to think “my group is special” and in some ways every group is, but at the end of the day, I think what unites us is greater than what separates us. Yes, fortunately I think my virtual families tend to make decisions a bit more based on facts than some groups, but we still share the same humanity deep down.

So, is there a tinge of dread on the horizon of my mind, yes. But I also see the sun rays of hope peaking above the clouds and know that the next weeks, months and possibly year or more will be rough. Some of us may lose loved ones. And I hate to type that, but it’s true. But, life will go on and we’ll find a new normal and we will do so by maintaining our relationships, physical and virtual.

My advice, during these times, reach out, expand your virtual relationships. Find hope and happiness where you can and share your fear, sadness, and sorrow when you need to.

Do small acts of kindness.

And I make the following offer:

If you’re down and need to talk or even just a cheer-up hit me up on twitter @stridergdm or if you know me on Facebook, private message me. If you want to join me on Lily, let me know, I’ll set you up with an account and a client. It’s mostly RPI folks, but not exclusively. If you really need it, we can even to a Zoom chat to talk about anything, from the role of the little known Saturn IV stage to talking about the Hudson River Chain at West Point during the Revolutionary War to recipes for air fryers, I’m there.

I’m going to close with a bit of randomness, because, well I think we need it.

A random cow sighting at a local Walmart.

A random cow sighting at a local Walmart.

 

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.

Bits are cheap

And, as unfortunately as a recent incident in our #SQLFamily community illustrated, apparently at times so is respect.  Bear with me as I relate these two ideas and another incident.

Let me start with a statement that should make more sense by the end of this post: My name is Gregory, but I prefer that you call me Greg. My pronouns are he/him/his.

But first a trip down memory lane. Many of us recall the Y2K issue. This was a direct result of programmers decades ago trying to save bytes in storage (and to a lesser extent memory and CPU cycles) because storage was expensive. By storing dates as just the last two digits of the year, they could cut the storage for years in half. This was important back then because it saved money. But, as many of us recall, as the year 2000 approached, this started to cause more and more problems. (As a point aside, the first example I’m aware of was brought to my attention by a programmer who worked for a bank in 1970. Seems as if they suddenly had issues handling 30 year mortgages!)

Since then of course the cost of storage has dropped and as an industry we’ve moved to storing years as a 4-digit year. No one in today’s day and age would normally question this decision.

But enough of ancient history, let me get to the point of this article: respecting others.

As many readers know, those of us on Twitter will often use the hashtag #SQLFamily.  In the past week I’ve seen two incidents that have illustrated the worst and the best of this family.

In the first case, a member of the community, a woman I had never met, said she was leaving the family, she no longer felt welcome. At an event she had been misgendered not once, but multiple times. For those who aren’t sure what that means, I will, without going into background or details (because they’re not important) say she is a trans-woman. Several people at the event took it upon themselves to refer to her using by male pronouns.

In the most recent case, a fellow speaker, Cathrine Wilhemsen tweeted about how she had been addressed as Cathi and Kathi twice in the previous 24 hours. She says this hasn’t been the only time, but just the most recent and recent enough for her to comment on.

In both cases, part of the problem is that strangers addressed the person in question in a manner that did not respect them; in the first case by not using the proper pronouns and in the second by not using her provided name.

But that’s one part of the problem.  So let’s address that: we have members of the #sqlfamily who don’t respect other members. But, we have another issue, and one that I think is important to address: those who minimize the issue. In the first case, apparently no one called out the folks misgendering the woman.  In a situation like this, a show of support can be as simple as saying something like, “Umm, I think you mean she, not he.”  You can also support the use of pronouns on nametags at events or in the bio descriptions for events.

Remember though, today, bits are cheap. So we can do more. Don’t design your database with a bit field for gender. Make it a table. These are relational databases after all. Have a table for possible gender identifications. Allow for a method to add rows to this table. Have a table for pronouns.  There’s more than you might think and people are often crafting additional ones. While the singular they/them is becoming more popular, it’s NOT the only alternative to he/him, she/hers.

We are data professionals after all. We absolutely should not lock our data into a single view of the world if that worldview is changing. (Note, the world is not changing, there have been multiple genders throughout recorded history.  We’re simply becoming more cognizant of it now.)

In the case of Cathrine being called by another name, keep it simple. Use the name provided, be it in an introduction, on the nametag or other method. Respect the person’s wishes. And do not, as some did on Twitter respond by “well they probably didn’t mean anything” or “eh, just roll with it.” It’s not YOUR name. It’s not YOUR identity. Sure, you might not care if someone calls you Richard, Rick, Ricky or Dick. But another person might. Their name is part of their identity, respect their wishes.  I will add one more note that Cathrine shared with me and that other women have shared with me, it is almost always men that will use nicknames or cute names or similar without prompting.  Yes, fellow men, I’m calling you out. We may not think about it. In fact I would argue we often don’t think about it. It’s something that privilege allows us. But be aware that your attempt to be friendly or familiar is actually often coming off as diminishing and condescending.

Now, despite the failure of some members of #SQLFamily, I want to celebrate the great people in the community. These two incidents have created a lot of responses. I’ve seen at least two great posts, one from Jen McCown and another from Kellyn Gorman. I’m sure there are others. I also have written in the past about being an ally. But in addition, while I’ve seen one or two tweets that have dismissed Cathrine’s tweet, I’ve seen many members rally to the defense of the women in both incidents. And, also very importantly, I’ve seen several tweets from people asking, “how can I help?” or “how can I improve my behavior?” I love that last one. I’m constantly trying to unlearn some of the behaviors I was taught and to be more conscious of what being a white, straight cis-het male brings to the table. We can always learn to do better.

Yes, our #SQLFamily has some members who could and need to do better. That saddens me. Fortunately as I’ve seen, it also has a lot of members actively striving to do better and help others do better. That gladdens me. Let’s all be the latter.

Respect and disk space don’t cost us much. Let’s learn to be respectful of people and to design databases that can also respect the world around us.

P.S. I want to note, I was purposely vague about the first incident because the specifics weren’t important and I did not want to draw more attention to a specific person without their permission. In Cathrine’s case, I made a point of respecting her and exchanged messages with her first to make sure she was ok with me bringing more attention to the incident.

How Much We Know

Last night I had the privilege of introducing Grant Fritchey  as our speaker to our local user group. He works for Redgate who was a sponsor. The topic was on 10 Steps Towards Global Data Compliance.  Between that and a discussion I had with several members during the informal food portion of our meeting I was reminded me of something that’s been on my mind for awhile.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve worked with SQL Server since the 4.21a days. In other words, I’ve worked with SQL Server for a very long time. As a result, I recall when SQL Server was just a database engine. There was a lot to it, but I think it was safe to say that one could justifiably consider themselves an expert in it with a sufficient amount of effort. And as a DBA, our jobs were fairly simple: tune a query here, setup an index update job there, do a restore from backups once in awhile. It wasn’t hard but there was definitely enough to keep a DBA busy.

But, things have changed.  Yes, I still get called upon to tune a query now and then. Perhaps I making sure stats are updated instead of rerunning an index rebuild, and I still get called upon to restore a database now and then. But, now my job includes so much more. Yesterday I was writing a PowerShell script for a client. This script calls an SFTP server, downloads a file, unzips it and then calls a DTSX package to load it into the database.  So now I’m expected to know enough PowerShell to get around. I need to know enough SSIS to write some simple ETL packages. And the reason I was rewriting the PowerShell script was to make it more robust and easier to deploy so that when I build out the DR box for this client, I can more easily drop it in place and maintain it going forward.  Oh, did I mention that we’re looking at setting up an Availability Group using an asynchronous replica in a different data center? And I should mention before we even build that out, I need to consult with the VMWare team to get a couple of quick and dirty VMs setup so I can do some testing.

And that was just Monday.  Today with another client I need to check out the latest build of their application, deploy a new stored procedure, and go over testing it with their main user. Oh, and call another potential client about some possible work with them. And tomorrow, I’ll be putting the finishing touches on another PowerShell article.

So what does this have to do with last night’s meeting on Global Data Compliance? Grant made a point that in a sense Data Compliance (global or otherwise) is a business problem. But guess who will get charged with solving it, or at least portions of it?  Us DBAs.

As I started out saying, years ago it was relatively easy to be an expert in SQL Server. It was basically a single product and the lines tended to be fairly distinct and well drawn between it and other work. Today though, it’s no longer just a database engine. Microsoft correctly calls it a data platform.  Even PASS has gone from being an acronym for Professional Association of SQL Server to simply PASS.

Oh, there are still definitely experts in specific areas of of the Microsoft Data Platform, but I’d say they’re probably more rare now than before.  Many of us are generalists.

I mentioned above too that I’d probably be more likely to update stats than an index these days.  And while I still deal with backups, even just the change to having compression has made that less onerous as I worry less about disk space, network speed and the like. In many ways, the more mundane tasks of SQL Server have become automated or at least simpler and take up less of my time. But that’s not a problem for me, I’m busier than ever.

So, long gone are the days where knowing how to install SQL Server and run a few queries is sufficient. If one wants to work in the data platform, one has to up their game. And personally, I think that’s a good thing. What do you think? How has your job changed over the past decade or more. I’d love to hear your input.