Category Archives: Soft Skills

Lessons learned from being self-employed, 3 months in

Back in September, I quit my job to work for myself. While I don’t have any regrets, I’ve certainly been doing a lot of thinking. I’ve been thinking about what this job means for me and where I’m going next. Being self-employed has been full of surprises. This recent comic by Alex Norris sums things up well:

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So what have I learned  so far?

You are soft, squishy and frail

I quit my job for a number of reasons. Partly because I felt like I was stagnating and busy supporting legacy applications. Partly because I was feeling stressed out and overworked. My weight has been steadily increasing for the past year as well as my A1C. It was time for something to change.

I mention this because trying to jump from one stressful situation to another can compound issues. Changing jobs is one source of stress. Working for yourself is another source of stress. Working from home for the first time is another source of stress. When you add these all up, the biggest hurdle I’ve run into is acknowledging my own limitations. When you work for yourself, self-care and self-management become the most important skills you can have.

I’ve never been good about acknowledging my own needs. I hate the phrase “self-care”. To me it evokes images of decadent bath soaps and floral scented candles. But a lot of it comes down to sacrificing the immediate for the prudent. Exercising, sleeping, taking breaks, eating health, etc. It involves being humble enough to acknowledge that having needs doesn’t make you weak. It involves acknowledging that you are soft, squishy and frail.

The consequences of not taking care of yourself are amplified when you are self-employed. When you have a normal job, you have to get dressed and go to work, whether you feel like it or not. In contrast, if you have a bad day working from home, you might feel demotivated and get less done the next day, and so on and so on. When you work for yourself, all the guard rails come off.

When I first made the switch, I found myself going into a depressive episode. My third course wasn’t paying out yet, I didn’t know if I would find work, and I was in a difficult contract negotiation with a potential client. Things are going much better now, but the specter still looms as the days get shorter here in Pittsburgh.

Working from home is utterly lonely

I’m naturally an introvert. If you and I have a conversation, it’s like a little taxi meter starts running. I may deeply, deeply enjoy the conversation and find it incredibly exciting, but it still taxes my energy levels. Small talk even more so. Imagine that every time someone chatted about the weather, you had to pay the same price as a Lyft ride to go 4 blocks. That’s how I feel about small talk.

That being said, we are still social creatures, and even introverts need human interaction. Especially so when you need to think through new situations, new problems. One of the things I realized attending PASS Summit is that I need social interaction to thrive. So now I spend a lot more time on Twitter and am part of a peer group of authors. I work down at the library whenever I have the chance.

Your brain is dumb and thinks you are are work

Working whenever you want is a terrible, terrible idea. While you, intelligent person, may understand the idea of working whenever you want, your brain is dumb and now thinks you are at work all the time. On top of that, now you have to make the regular decision “Do I want to work or take a nap?”. Set regular office hours and stick to them.

In addition to that, if possible get a separate office space. I have a separate room, but right now I use the same laptop for everything. Eventually I’ll buy a computer just for work. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to use my PS4 more and get out of the office when I’m not working.

It is important to make as many dividing lines between home space and work space as you can. Same for delineating leisure time and work time. If you don’t, it all becomes a blur and you feel this vague dissatisfaction.

You will work too much, too little and for long periods of time

Never underestimate the power of social norms and peer pressure. At a normal job, you are much more likely come and work for the normal set of hours. But when you work at home, it’s really easy to work a 6 hour day. It’s also easy kick yourself for doing this, and work on the weekends to try to compensate.

Some weeks you might work 30 hours and some weeks you might work 50. Here’s a recent 50 hour week.

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This “flexibility” is at times convenient, but in the long run it isn’t wise. Because your success depends entirely on you, there is the temptation is there to work more and more. This is especially true when you are just trying to get things going. Again, setting office hours and sticking to them is important.

Another issue I’m running into now, is that I no longer have a good reason to take breaks. At my old job, I’d get up, walk around, get a drink, chat with coworkers. Because I was doing a lot of task switching, it was easy to find good times to take breaks.

Now, I’m working much larger chunks which means I have to force myself to take breaks. Currently I’m forcing myself to follow the pomodoro method, taking 5 minute breaks every half-hour whether I feel like it or not. This has helped me focus more and has made work less of a blur.

This goes back to the self-care and self-management thing. I feel utterly silly forcing myself to take breaks and walk around. Like some child that needs to be reminded, “Okay, now get up and stretch!”. But productivity isn’t a natural state of affairs, at least it isn’t for me. And if I want to be successful in my new job, I’m going to need to keep my ego in check.

Time is money and money takes time

When you start to work for yourself, you are going to think about money. A lot. And if you don’t, it’ll make you think about it. I’ve overdrafted on my bank account 3 times now, and each time I feel like an idiot. It’s not that we don’t have the money. The problem is we have 4 different bank accounts that need consolidated.

This was never a problem before. First we always had enough savings to cover any expenses. Second, I had a paycheck coming in every 2 weeks. Now that I work for myself, the expenses still go out monthly, but income doesn’t come in every 2 weeks.

Every dollar is a hustle and a hassle

The first reason you starting thinking about money more is because it’s no longer guaranteed.  I underestimated how convenient it was to have money coming in on a regular basis. It was so much easier to budget for the household and plan expenses. Now I have to bust out excel and do cashflow planning. You’ll notice how jagged the big spikes are.

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That downward trend will keep happening regardless of what I do. But those spikes up only happen if I make them happen. It feels very much like this Sisyphean task of pushing our savings boulder up the hill and then it rolls back down.

People take forever to pay you

Not only do you have to think about doing work to get money, but you have to think about when it will come in.  $2,000 today can be worth a lot more than $4,000 in six months. On the one end of the extreme, I have a customer that prepays me for 40 hour blocks of work at a 20% discount.

At the other end of the extreme, my courses pay out quarterly plus net 30. This means for the course I released in mid-October I won’t see any royalties until late January. When you are worrying about paying the bills today, this is a nightmare. But the courses are lucrative over the long term, so I need to make sure I keep making courses.

Another factor is unexpected delays. Delays with agreeing to a contract. Delays with agreeing to the scope. Delays with the customer changing their mind on a piece of work. You can never count on a future piece of income until the check is signed and in the mail.

The distance between action and result gets longer

When you work a 9-to-5 kind of job. You put in a certain number of hours every week and get paid a certain number of dollars every two weeks. Even if you are a salaried employee, the distance between inputs and outputs is pretty straightforward. When you are freelance, everything gets murky.

First, a lot of the work that I do has long term deadlines. If am making a course, I will work on that course for 4-6 months and not see any money until it is completed. If I’m writing a paid article, the cycle is shorter but there is still a delay.

Now, for customers that I bill time and material, it’s a lot simpler in theory. But the sales cycle to get that customer is still a numbers game. Everything in the sales cycle is like buying little tiny lottery tickets with your time and energy. You have no idea which one will pay off, so you buy a lot of lottery tickets.

To start with is marketing. Marketing is the act of realizing that most people, by default, have no idea who you are and don’t care. I spend an hour every week writing my newsletter. What’s the dollar value on that? No idea. When will it pay off? Maybe years down the road. Every newsletter issue is a tiny, tiny lottery ticket.

Once people know you exists, you have to deal with the sales process. First you have to talk with people that might be interested in your services, a.k.a. leads. Then you narrow them down to people who are actually interested in your services, a.k.a qualified leads. Finally, you have to scope the project, submit a proposal, and hope it gets accepted. Once you do the work, you go back and hope they have more work for you.

This cycle can take weeks or even months. Tiny, tiny lottery tickets. So much of sales and working for yourself is playing the marshmallow game. Do you eat one marshmallow now, or do you wait and hope for two later?

Your skillset and your job role get blurry

When I initially made the switch to freelance, I thought I was going to become a fulltime course author. As I picked up consulting work to help pay the bills, I’m realizing that a blend probably makes more sense. So I would use course authoring to provide a stable base of income and use consulting to stay sharp.

Off-brand consultants

If you are going to do consulting, you have to deal with another piece of marketing called branding. If marketing is making sure people know you exist, branding is deciding what you want to be known for. I’ve written before that people pay for specialization. This is doubly so in consulting. A recent customer told me, “If I’m going to pay you, I need to make sure you know more than my team.”

This has two consequences. First, is that any work you do that’s off-brand is time you could be spending going deeper on what you want to be known for. For example, I’m doing Xamarin development for my old employer. This helps pay the bills today, but is taking away from Power BI work I could be doing to grow my expertise.

The second consequence is that your training plan becomes more forward looking. In my prior job, my learning was heavily driven by my immediate tasks. At times this lead to a learning plan that was a mile wide and an inch deep. Now, my learning is driven by where I want to go as a person, as a business, and as a brand. For me that means learning more about SSAS, data modelling, and good report design. Not C#, not Docker, not PowerShell, not Kubernetes.

Don’t get me wrong, those are all exciting and powerful technologies that are going to be extremely important over the next 5 years. But as a consultant, the benefit of specializing is much higher than normal. Once you are established, then you can start to branch out more.

Learning soft skills is hard

But wait, it’s not so clean cut. We were only talking about technical skills. But when you work for yourself, there are an array of soft skills you need to learn. The first are business skills: reading contracts, marketing, sales, accounting. There are a ton of things you just never had to deal with as a regular employee.

The other set of soft-skills are what you normally think of: writing, communication, time management, etc.These become more important when you work for yourself. So much of consulting is being able to build relationships and communicate clearly. So much of working from home is being able to manage your time and your focus.

Summary

Like I said, I don’t regret the decision to work for myself. It gave me a soft landing from my last job and is giving me the time to think about what I want my career to look like. But it is a lot of new things to learn and is, at times, overwhelming. Right now I don’t know if this is something I’ll be doing for the next decade, or it is more of a gap year. We’ll see!

How I deal with depression

Content warning: depression, suicide

Matthew Roche recently blogged about his struggles with mental illness. I applaud his courage, because it’s easy to worry what people will think about you. More recently, a member of the SQL Community took her life, and frankly the thought scares the shit out of me. It scares me, because some day that could be me. In fact, it’s been a recent point of discussion with me and my wife.

I write this post because I hope that if you are struggling with these feelings, you will get help. Please do something, because there are people that love you and would be devastated if you left this world. Here is what depression looks like and what I do to stave it off.

What is depression?

The English language does us a disservice in that the word for what is a crippling mental illness is the same word we use casually for being bummed out or sad. And while there is a spectrum, with things such as dysthymia or anhedonia (lack of pleasure), depression is often accompanied with what are called cognitive distortions.

If you think “I’m a failure”, that is a cognitive distortion, that is just factually wrong. You may have failed at a thing, but we are multifaceted, changing people. Depression is a matter of being disconnected with the reality at hand.

So what does the difference look like? We all get sad sometimes. Sadness is a good thing, grief is a good thing. These are healthy responses to difficulties in life. Victor Frankl, when writing about being in a concentration camp wrote, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior” . To never feel sadness or grief would be abnormal.

Here is a picture of what healthy grief looks like:

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Depression is very different. It is an auto-immune disorder of the mind. It is very commonly accompanied with negative thoughts that are pervasive, persistent and pessimistic. Common themes are feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and suicidal ideation.

Here is a picture of what depression feels like:

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If you are uncertain if you are depressed, take this depression checklist. It’ll take 5 minutes and may reveal something you are uncomfortable admitting. I took it just took it now, you and today I am a 14 out of 100, or mild depression. There have been days when it’s been in the mid 30’s, or moderate depression.

Open Source Mental Health performed a survey of 1570 people in technology.  Of those who answered the questions, 78% indicated they had a mental illness and around 70% of those indicated that they had a mood disorder such as depression or bipolar. We work in a field that often requires us to be on call or can make stressful demands on our lives. It’s more common than you might think.

It needs treated

I have a disease that requires daily treatment and medicine. My body doesn’t produce the chemicals I need. If I don’t treat it on a regular basis and monitor myself, someday I might die. That disease is called diabetes.

That’s right, I take insulin because my body stopped producing it years ago. I don’t think of myself of weak or less than because my body doesn’t work the way it should. Depression is often the same. Something has gone wrong in the brain. It could be a chemical imbalance, traumatic childhood events, or just a naturally lower set point for mood.

Whatever the cause, it still needs treated. It can be hard to admit and feel like a failing. I’m a guy, and I hate, hate, hate feeling like a burden to anyone. I hate asking for help. So much so, that when I was diagnosed with diabetes in the hospital, I told my now wife that I’d understand if she broke up with me. She just about slapped me. Boy was I dumb.

Get help. Please.

How I treat depression

Here are the ways I treat my depression:

Medication. Every single day, I take 10mg of Lexapro. I avoided it for a long time, I’ve heard horror stories about psych meds. I tried everything else, but eventually I decided I needed to take medicine.

The first month was hell and it takes 6 weeks to kick in. I had dry mouth and wanted to crawl out of my skin. After that my body acclimated, and the bleaker side of depression went away. I didn’t feels as dark and lethargic and hopeless. I still had negative thoughts and burnout, but I didn’t feel hopeless anymore. Many people have to try multiple medications to find one that works for them.

Exercise. The second most effective thing I’ve found to treat my depression is exercise, especially cardio exercise. I have to exercise every day, even if I’m sick. If I go a week without getting exercise, I start to get a resumption of symptoms. Exercise is as important as any of my other medications.

Sleep. Sleep is massively critical to good mental health. Sometimes I track my negative thoughts using a tally counter. A bad night’s sleep can double the number of negative thoughts I have in a given day. You wouldn’t give a SQL server 4 gigs of ram, why would you give your brain 4 hours of sleep and expect it to function properly.

Light. I hate the winters in Pittsburgh. It’s dark when you leave for work and it’s dark when you come home. I feel my symptoms most severely during the winter time. To deal with that I have lights everywhere. I have light alarm clocks, I have blue therapy lights to blast 1000 lux at my eyes and wake me up. I’ve even put hue lights in my room so my whole room lights up in the morning. The most effective thing is to just go outside, however.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. One of the most effective therapies is Cognitive Behavior Therapy. In short it identifies that it’s not just events that cause our emotional reactions, but also our beliefs about them. If you partner, come home late you could happy or sad depending on your beliefs.

CBT can be learned from books and I’ve found it to be effective. It feels a lot like having to catch your negative thoughts and then do a complex algebra problem, but I’ve gotten much better at labeling my automatic negative thoughts.

Meditation. Something new I’m trying is meditation. Those negative thoughts, or ruminations, can be hard to catch sometimes. They are like little mosquito bites. Independently, very small. But if you have 150 mosquito bites in a day, they add up. Meditation helps me catch myself and implement the CBT. I use the 10% Happier app and recommend the audio book. It’s fantastic and totally secular, if that’s your preference.

Biofeedback. Sometimes I count my negative thoughts with a physical tally counter. I think this week it was something like 30 -> 26 -> 22 -> 6 -> 7 -> 5 . I’ve had days where is was between 100 and 200. That’s a negative thought every few minutes.

I found that when I actually count them, I make more of an effort to catch myself and think healthier thoughts. Instead of thinking “I’m a failure” I think “I feel embarrassed.” Instead of thinking, “I hate myself”, I think “I feel scared and socially anxious.”

Social interaction. Depression is an isolating disease and IT can be an isolating job. Social interaction get’s us out of our heads and can be a source of support. Even just being at the library and near people can be helpful.

Talk therapy. While I’m not currently in therapy, I was for a while. I found it useful to be in a non-judgmental environment and have someone else I could bounce things off of.

Summary

While I have been in no way cured, there are a number of things I do to treat myself. There are a multitude of options you can take and a plethora of resources out there. Some of them may not work, but many of them are worth trying.

T-SQL Tuesday #107: Death March

This month’s T-SQL Tuesday invitation is to write about a project that went horribly wrong. And hoo-boy, do I have a project that comes to mind.

My biggest project was my biggest failure

The biggest project I ever worked on, that I ever led, was also my biggest failure. In many ways it has defined the early trajectory of my career and shaped what I value in my new career.

About 8 months into my previous job, my boss wanted us to move to a different ERP system. This would allow us to consolidate 5-6 different pieces of software into a single piece of software. The theoretical business benefits would be quite significant. No longer would we need to have this awkward patchwork of integrations between different line-of-business applications. And while we eventually did it, I consider it the biggest personal failure of my career. So what went wrong?

The software was built in-house

So the first issue was that the software was built in-house by another company in the same industry. Imagine, for example, if a large bakery had created an ERP system and another large bakery wanted to move to that system. Sounds great, right? Well, you run into two issues in that scenario.

First, a bakery is not an independent software vendor. Programming, by definition, is not their core competency. Which means that you may run into fragility or issues that you wouldn’t run into with a commercial piece of software. It also means that there isn’t going to be any documentation on migrating to the software or implementing it. Why would there be. If you built software for one company, why would you create scaffolding to move other companies onto it?

Second, not every business is the same. A lot of the fundamentals are the same, but you will run into many edge cases. We do invoices this way. They do workorders this way. We handle purchase orders this way. They handle inventory that way.

The way that I think about it is like a sea shell. It’s this intricate curve that’s grown over time, organically, to fit that creature. If you just try to fit a different snail or mollusk in that shell, it may not work out.

I was not qualified

This was my second real job ever and I had been working less than 2 years in the industry. I always tell people the jobs said .net / SQL developer, and it turned out to be a lot more SQL and a lot more DBA.

When I started that job, I didn’t know what a stored procedure was. I didn’t know what a view was. 8 months later, when this project started, I had never done any large scale integrations or migrations. At that point I had done some small integrations between pairs of systems, but nothing nearly at this scale.

Add on top of that the need to staff up and add someone to the team. So, about  year in to my new job I was also now a manager.

The software stack was older and different

Because this software had started way back in the Apple II days and grown over time, much of the technology stack was quite old. The application was built on VB6, MySQL, Classic ASP, Crystal Reports 9 and Adobe Flex. This presented challenges in getting it up and running, as well migrating to it.

Migrating data from SQL server is a giant pain. MySQL workbench has an import wizard, which works decently well, but it can be a bit of tedious process. Later I was able to set up linked servers, but that involved looking up strange property settings and forcing char padding on MySQL.

The software made a lot of assumptions

Because it was homegrown, the software made a lot of assumptions about the data. Project numbers under 1000 were reserved for certain pay codes. Half of the columns would crash the software if they had null values. A lot of the tables had to be populated for the application to even run.

So, so, so much of the process was modify a view, migrate the data, see what blows up, repeat. This is a big part of what made the weekly data load so painful. So much of the migration work was sheer trial and error.

Migrating ERP systems requires understanding 2 businesses

Migrating from one ERP system to another in this case require understanding the business that created the software and the business intending to use the software. This is a lot of learning and a lot of weird edge cases. I think I deeply underestimated the sheer complexity of running a business and all the departments therein.

When we deployed, there was a whole chunk of functionality we hadn’t implemented because “certificate of work” meant one thing to use and something totally different to the other company. They whole system updated maintenance cycles based on these certificates, whereas we had assumed they we merely customer deliverables and thus optional.

What would I have done differently?

Ultimately the project took 13 months instead of the estimated 8, and even then that was only because I decided for us to have a hard cutoff at the calendar year. So, if I could travel back in time, what would I have told my younger self?

  • Tighten the feedback loop. Migrating the data from one system to another was a largely manual process and quite painful, so we only did it maybe a week. Near the end I had started automating the process. In retrospect, I should have made it a nightly process.
  • Learn SSIS and BIML. So much of the pain came from the slow turnaround cycle. I suspect that if I had learned SSIS, I could have made things into a daily or even hourly migration process and saved so much time.
  • Read Rapid Development. I wish I had a better idea of what I needed to know from the outset. Rapid Development was a revolutionary book for me and had so much good advice in it.
  • Identify a measurable list of use cases. When we made the cut-over, a number of basic things did not work because we hadn’t tested them. What would have been smart would be to have a checklist that we could run through before hand to test the use cases.
  • Don’t take it personally. I was young and I treated things outside of my control as my responsibility. I was sore for a long time about how things went, and I thought too much on how that reflected on me and my abilities.

So now what?

Even to this day, I’ve got a certain amount of skittishness around the idea of large projects. There is a whole suite of soft-skills, of methodologies involved in making sure an IT project is successful, and I’ve learned the hard way what happens when you don’t have those skills.

For now, I’m excited to focus on course authoring and projects where I just need to create content.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a favorite quote of mine:

Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.

Doing the bare minimum to stop toxic behavior

I recently saw on Twitter some abusive behavior, and I know that Twitter and trolls go together like peanut butter and jelly, but for whatever reason I’m angry. Maybe because I know the person who was abused, maybe because the abuser is a part of our community. I don’t know. But I’m feeling angry.

I want to do something, but there’s not much I can really do at this point. The abuser has deleted his account and I’ve already said my piece online. So, I thought I’d write a blog post about doing the bare minimum. For you, this post is likely to be utterly banal (“Well duh”), somehow offensive (“You are being too politically correct”), or both (“That’s your minimum? You can do better Eugene.”).

Well, damn it all and fire the cannons. I’m angryblogging.

Step 1. Be a safe person

The person you have the most control over is yourself. The person you have the least control over are abusive people, especially narcissists, psychopaths and anyone else who doesn’t feel a healthy sense of shame. So the most effective thing you can do is be a safer person.

Safe people apologize. Learn to apologize, practice apologizing, and understand that apologies are more than saying I’m sorry. In the book Apology Languages, the author breaks and apology down into 5 different parts.

    1. Expressing regret. “I’m sorry.”
    2. Accepting responsibility. “What I did was wrong.”
    3. Making restitution. “How can I make amends?”
    4. Genuinely repenting. “I won’t let this happen again.”
    5. Requesting forgiveness. “Will you forgive me?”

We all know how to say I’m sorry. It’s a cliché of mothers forcing small children to apologize, but often what’s more effective is putting your money where your mouth is. It’s taken a lot of practice for me to be able to say, “What I did was wrong, full stop.”, without needing to explain my motivation. Being safe takes practice.

Safe people listen, without always trying to solve the problem. Sometimes the other person just needs to be heard. Sometimes by trying to fix a problem you can accidently take away someone’s agency. I often ask my wife, “Do you want to vent or do you want advice?”. Her response is 50/50 each way.

Sometimes it’s not about the nail:

Safe people empathize and validate. I was in a really bad relationship once, and one of the things I understood later was the other person never said, “I can see why you’d feel that way.” They never said, “That’s understandable.” They never said, “I would feel the same way, in your shoes.” Validate the person’s feelings.

Toxic people are often unwilling or unable to empathize. For narcissists in particular, it presents a threat to their sense of self. Even worse, many do something called gaslighting, where you make the person question their own senses. Validation is a antidote to gaslighting. Let people know they aren’t crazy.

Step 2. Be aware of different experiences

I’ve written bad emails, angry emails. I’ve gotten in a feud with a co-worker. I’ve been stressed and blown up on people. And never once has someone told me I’m “too emotional”.

I’ve presented dozens of times and never once has some given the feedback that I should “smile more” or “present in lingerie”.

I’ve walked down many streets and I’ve never been catcalled or sexually harassed. I’ve never had to worry if someone was following me around. I’ve never had to run up to someone and say “help me, I’m being harassed.”

And all of this presents a challenge for me, because it makes it harder for me to empathize with women and their lived experiences. Because some experiences are so incongruous with my entire life that there is this cognitive dissonance. This dissonance can be quite uncomfortable.

It’s means that by default, certain experiences feel less credible because I’m never lived them. I don’t want to believe the crap people endure. Some of it seems too horrible to be true.

So that means I have work at it. I have to listen to the stories of other people and have a willingness to feel uncomfortable. The default is me minimizing and invalidating the experiences of others because they don’t match up with mine. So I have to do better than the default.

Step 3. Be alert

An embarrassing story: in the last year, I had the opportunity to stop some harassment in person and I didn’t. It wasn’t because I was scared or unwilling. No, it’s because I wasn’t paying attention.

I take martial arts and if someone was beating another person, I’d like to think I’d intervene. I haven’t been tested on that and hopefully never will, but I’m pretty confidant I’d jump in. But harassment can be subtle, almost invisible. And so I didn’t jump in.

In this case, nothing in the conversation was harassing. Nothing offensive was said. But something felt off. The non-verbals were screaming at me. And I didn’t hear them because I wasn’t listening.

You know when you cook some food and it’s 2 days expired and it smells off? Not moldy or anything, it looks perfectly fine, but you eat it and feel sick an hour later? Harassment and abuse can be like that. Nothing blatantly wrong but in your gut you know that something isn’t right.

Being able to stop harassment requires being alert and being aware. If you are someone like me who doesn’t worry about getting harassed personally, doesn’t get harassed regularly, this can take work. I never want to miss the signs ever again.

Step 4. Speak up. Step in. Intervene.

I hate conflict. I am a people pleaser. I have poor boundaries. So the idea of stepping in the middle of something gives me shivers.

I don’t like getting involved in Twitter fights, I don’t think they accomplish much. I don’t like the mob mentality on Twitter and online. When I think about the dog-pile culture on Twitter, I worry someday I’m going to say something tone deaf and lose my job over it. I say stupid things a lot.

But you know what? Say something. Do something. Step in.

I’m not encouraging people to put themselves in danger or incur abuse themselves. But for many of us that’s not a serious risk. I’m 6’ 2’’ and practice self-defense. I can afford to intervene in a conversation. My safety is not at risk.

Stepping in might mean just being physically present and making knowing eye contact. It might involve saying “Sir, that behavior is inappropriate.” It might involve entering the conversation and asking pointed questions that belies the true intentions of the abuser.

Online it might mean calling out bad behavior. Saying, “This is unacceptable.” or “This is harassment.” It doesn’t require being some internet crusader or dog-piling. You have a line personally, and you know in your gut if something crosses that line. You know in your gut something is wrong. If something is wrong, then say something.

I’ll say it again. I hate conflict. I’m a people pleaser. I have poor boundaries. But I’m working on speaking up more when I see something that I feel is harassment or abuse.

And remember, calling out bad behavior is not just about shaming the abuser. They aren’t likely to listen to you anyway. It’s about letting the victim know that they are seen, they are heard and they are not crazy. It’s about setting a standard for everyone else. There is a saying that “locks keep honest people honest”. Healthy accountability keeps everyone honest.

On doing more than the bare minimum

I’m not saying that we should all aim for just minimum. If your bare minimum is more than this, awesome. I’m not trying to encourage doing less. But for people like myself, the minimum is not the default. The minimum is a destination, not the starting point. Let’s change that.

What I’m trying to say is there are small, simple things we can all do without making a big leap out of our comfort zone. And that minimum bar is getting higher every year and we should all be aware of that. Times, they are a changin’.

Angryblogging, out.

T-SQL Tuesday #98: Learning Troubleshooting from Games

 

TSQLTues

This week’s T-SQL Tuesday is about a time that you solved a difficult technical problem. Unfortunately my brain doesn’t store events that way, so I can’t think of any good stories. Instead, I want to talk briefly about how games have made me a better programmer and a better troubleshooter.

Map-making in TFC

TFC Boxart.png

The first game I want to talk about is Team Fortress Classic. It’s a team based shooter from the late 90’s. I used to play this game all the time. But I did even more than that, I would make custom levels to play on with other people.

Mapmaking for TFC, was generally a simple process. You would create simple polyhedrons and then apply textures/patterns to them. Then you would place non-terrain objects, called entities, inside of your terrain. Everything is pretty straightforward…until you get a leak.

A leak is when the outside of the level is accessible to the inside of the level. Imagine you are building a spaceship or a submarine, if you have a leak it just won’t work. The challenge is that the level editor won’t tell you where you have a leak1. So how do you solve it?

In my case, you encase half the level in solid rock, so to speak. I would just make a big cube and cover up half of the level. If the level compiled, I knew my leak was somewhere in that half. Then I just kept repeating with smaller and smaller cubes.

I do the same thing all the time in my professional life. I’ll comment whole swathes of code. I’ll jump to half-way to the data pipeline to see where the error starts. TFC taught me to keep cutting the problem in half until I find it.

Guessing the secrets of the universe with Zendo

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Undoubtedly proof that I was destined to be a programmer, one of my favorite board games ever is Zendo. It was actually one of my nicknames in college. It’s got a silly theme about discerning if something has the Buddha nature. In reality, it boils down to one player making up a rule, and everyone else trying to determine what the rule is.

If it sounds easy, I dare you to play something similar over at the New York Times. Chances are you are going to get it wrong.

The biggest thing Zendo taught me, was fighting against confirmation bias. It taught me to ask “What would prove my theory wrong”. Good troubleshooting involves guessing a cause, determining a test that will give you new information, and then running that test.

That test might be running a simpler version of a query that’s failing. It might mean adding a breakpoint to your code and inspecting variables.

Learning how to think systematically about this sort of thing has been tremendously useful.

Learning outside of programming

Troubleshooting is very often a set of skills and approaches that don’t need to do anything with technology per-se. I think looking at how we can get these skills in other places, like games can be very useful.

Speaking of other sources, there are two book I can recommend wholeheartedly. The first is How to Solve It which is about how to solve mathematical problems, but it provide a number of ways to break down a problem or approach it from different angles. The second is called Conceptual Blockbusting. It focuses on the nebulous issue of how we think about problem solving. It’s very much a book about thinking and I definitely enjoyed it.

Footnotes

1 Only after writing this blog post did I find an article explaining out to get the level editor to tell you exactly were the leak is. Sigh.

Keeping up with Technology: a Guide to Drinking from the Firehose

I often ask people with more experience than me “How do you stay relevant in our field?”. I joke that I live in perennial fear of being replaced someday, by a 22 year-old with no family commitments. Really, it’s a joke. Really, it’s a fear.

So, let’s talk about how to keep up with technology.

 First, we must grieve.

So here’s the secret to keeping up with technology. You can’t.

There are too many technologies, too many features, too many updates:

  • SQL Server 2017 is coming out this year.
  • Big data technologies are so numerous as to be indistinguishable from Pokemon.
  • PowerBI ships features on a weekly basis.
  • Worst of all, you’ve got NoSQL which is literally the mathematical dual of SQL. It’s everything that SQL isn’t, by definition!

It’s all too much.

This realization is likely to be expressed in the 5 stages of grief.

  • Denial. Other people can keep up, why can’t I? I’m learning tons of stuff all the time! This is easy.
  • Anger. Why they heck are they making releases every month!? When did Microsoft go agile? I thought SQL Server versions every 2 years was bad enough.
  • Bargaining.  Okay, maybe if I stick to core SQL stuff, I’ll be fine. Hadoop seems like a fad. And Azure is never going to be popular with my  company.
  • Depression. This is impossible. I’m going to lose my job when I’m 40 years old and arthritis starts kicking in.
  • Acceptance. There’s more happening than I can ever learn, but Hacker News doesn’t define my success as an IT professional.

This post isn’t about doing the impossible. It’s about making the most of your resources. That’s something that you can do.

Are you asking the right questions?

I would like to propose that it’s not about keep up with technology at all. This is a second-order goal, a proxy of sorts. Really, there are two questions at the heart of things:

  1. How do I keep my job?
  2. How do I keep my friends?

This is why technology causes so much angst. We want to learn enough that we can put food on the table; and we want to do it in short enough time that it doesn’t destroy our personal lives.

Next, we must think.

In order to get ahold of the the problem, let’s use some analogies: investments and radioactive decay.

How learning is like investing

Do you have a retirement account? If so, do you invest primarily in stocks or bonds? Why?

If you are at all young, the you invest primarily in stocks. That’s because stocks have a higher rate of growth than bond. You are trying to outrun inflation, where the value of your money is steadily decreasing. This is like your current knowledge becoming outdated. All that vb6 coding knowledge is like a pile of cash in your mattress. When I was a kid, $20 was a lot of money.

The next question  is, do you invest in just one stock, like Apple? No, you diversify your portfolio. High growth stocks go up, on average. Some however, tank. High growth means high volatility. A good example is Apache Flex. It used to be a really promising application platform, until Steve Jobs killed Flash.

So we’ve got two risks to our learning portfolio: Losing value in our existing knowledge, and making the wrong choices for our new knowledge. These different risks have different mitigation strategies.

Specialization and generalization

These comparisons to bonds and stocks relates to the challenges of specialization versus generalization. We specializes to pay the bills. We generalize to keep our jobs.

Specialization is how we get paid. The reason anyone pays us is because we have skills or knowledge that is not quickly acquired. The reason consultants like David Klee make gobs of money is that they have taken a subject, like virtualizing SQL, and have gotten really  good at it. To get paid more than minimum wage you are going to need some level of specialization.

Generalization is how we get paid in 10 years. You need to be specialized to get paid right now, it’s a short term investment. However, that investment decays, just like the value of money in your mattress. To get paid a decade from now, you need to broaden your horizons. If you are a data person, it might mean learning R and python. It might mean learning Azure. Heck, it might mean PowerShell and Docker.

The tension here is that you need both. You need paid now AND in 10 years. Kevin Feasel talks about trying to find that right balance. I’m not here to tell you what that balance is. What’s important is that each has different constraints. Specialization requires focus. Generalization requires time. More on that later.

How learning is like radioactive decay

Let’s take another approach.

Our knowledge has a limited shelf-life. Allen White said, in the SQL Data Partners podcast, that you have to retool yourself every 5 years. In college, I remember joking that half of what you knew would be useless in 5 years.

Well, what if we took that literally? How would we model that? How would we think about that?

In nuclear physics, there is the idea of a half-life.  You have radioactive material that decays in half every X units of time. Why not apply this concept to IT? The half-life in this example then would be 5 years.

So the next question is this: if half of what you learn is either irrelevant or forgotten in 5 years, how much do you need to learn in a given year, to keep steady? Let’s ask our friends at Wolphram Alpha.

image

If x is our rate of decay and our half-life is 5 years, we can work backwards from that and solve for x. In this case, x equals 87%.

So, what that means is that if today you know 100 relevant things, then a year from now you’ll only know 87 relevant things. That’s like going from a solid A+ to a weak B+. You just lost a whole grade!  Not good.

Below is a curve showing what this model looks like over 10 years.

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Changing the math

Well, this isn’t great. What if I want to know 120 things? How can we do that? One option is to learn more things.

Learn more things

If normally we have to learn 13 things each year, then we have to learn another 20 things on top of that. Or, if you are patient, you can learn an extra 4 things each year, and eventually  you will get there.

image

Slow the decay

Another option is to change the rate of decay. Instead of learning more things each year, what if we didn’t have as much decay? If we can slow that rate of decay just a little bit, to a half-life a 6 years instead of 5 years, we’ll have the same effect. That means that instead of brute-forcing things, we might be able to be smarter.

What does this all mean?

So that gives a path forward. We need to either

  1. Increase the number of relevant things you can learn each year
  2. Or, decrease the rate of decay for relevant knowledge

These are the only three knobs we have. Either learn more stuff, learn the right stuff, or learn stuff that lasts longer. Let’s investigate all three.

How do we fix this?

Learning more things

So one solution to our dilemma is to brute force it. Let’s just learn more things and hope that they are the right ones. To do that, we can look at our inputs and constraints.

What are the constraints that affect our learning? There are 3 big ones I can think of:

  1. Time
  2. Energy
  3. Money

If we can increase any one of these, then we might be able to increase how much we can learn in a week.

Time

So, lets say we decide to go the simple route and go for volume.  You’ve got a 168 hours in a week. You can’t make any more hours, and if you try to use all of them in a week, you are going to need some amphetamines.

So, if we can’t create more hours, how can we make more time? One option would be to cut out other activities. If you are willing to quit watching TV or playing video games, that frees up more time for learning. You could use a service like toggl.com to do a time audit and see where all of your time goes.

There is a limit to going down that path, however. You need to sleep. You need to have a social life. You need to have some fun. Like we said, you want to keep your job and keep your friends.

Multitasking

Another option is to multi-task. There is a lot of learning you can do that while doing other things. Things like podcasts are more about exposure than mastery. You can still get value out of them, even while mildly distracted. There are a number of times you could listen to a podcast:

  • Commuting
  • Exercising
  • Washing dishes

This is a way to take back time you are spending on other things without giving up all your free time.

5 minute learning

Another way of reusing your time is taking advantage of those weird breaks in time. Those breaks that are too small to get anything meaningful done. The 15 minutes at the doctor’s office. The 5 minutes waiting for a meeting.

Feed readers are a great way to take advantage of these weird units of time. With Feedly, I’m able to to read a blog article during the 5 minutes I’m waiting. This is way more useful than playing candy crush or reading twitter.

Focus/energy

Okay, so let’s say you’ve managed to find more time in the day. Unfortunately, not all learning takes the same amount of energy. Reading Twitter is mindless. Configuring a homelab requires focus. Listening to a podcast is mindless. Making a presentation takes focus.

One way of getting more focus is to prioritize the harder learning for when you naturally have focus. For some people this is early morning. For many people this is the weekend. I know that after a long day of work, I’m wiped out.

Part of that is learning to take care of yourself. Eat healthy. Exercise. Get sleep. Focus is so easy to destroy by poor lifestyle.

Finally, if you schedule time consistently and push everything out, you can have more focus. I also find having a separate office/learning space helps with this too. Cut out the distractions. Install StayFocusd for Chrome to block timewasters.

Money

If you are anything like me, money is your most plentiful resource of all 3. When I was kid, I had no money at all, but tons of time. When I was in college, I had pretty much no money, and a good bit less time. Now that I have been working for a while, that equation has flipped. I’ve got plenty of money, but no time to use it.

If you are an average DBA, you make plenty of money. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for DBA’s is $85,000. The median for all occupations is $37,000. Think about that, that’s like 2.5x as much.

Now you may say “Hey, I don’t live in San Francisco.” or “Hey, I just got started.” Let’s take those factors into account. The market here in Pittsburgh is terrible, salary-wise. Even if you are just getting started in the field, you are probably making at least  40K.

image

Let’s do a little math on this. If you make 40K per year, you make roughly  $20 per hour. that means your time is worth $20 per hour. If you can spend $5-10 to save an hour of your time, do it.

If a $50 book saves your 5 hours of Googling, buy it. If a Pluralsight subscription saves you 30 hours per year of frustration, buy the subscription. Don’t be afraid to spend money to save yourself time and energy.

Consider budgeting your money

If you don’t feel like you have a lot of money, I would deeply urge you to start budgeting. I used to look at my checking account to see if I had money. Then if there was money there, I would spend it. This would work until my car insurance bill would come in, and suddenly I needed $600. And just as suddenly, I didn’t have nearly as much money as I thought

Get a budgeting program. There’s some free one’s out there, but I use You Need a Budget.

Learning the right things

So we covered how to learn more things. An alternative is to learn the right things. If you learn the right thing, you’ve have less wasted effort.

Lean on curation

Sturgeon’s law says that 90% of anything is crap. That’s certainly true of learning materials. Not only is there a lot of bad training out there, but there’s a lot of content in general that just isn’t relevant. It’s cool that someone wrote an OS in Rust, but it’s probably not relevant to your job in any significant way.

If you are time poor or focus poor, you need a gatekeeper so the flood of possibilities doesn’t overwhelm you. This means depending on curation.

That curator could be you, first off. One of the reason I suggest a feed reader over Twitter is that you are able to heavily curate the content that hits your eyes. You are the one picking the blogs to read instead of the pachinko ball machine of social media and fate. You are the one deciding what’s relevant to you.

Another options is to depend on professionals in the field that you trust. Find people to follow that consistently have good material or recommendations.

The third option is to pay money. Sure, there’s some paid crap out there. But general it does act as a quality filter. Things like written books and video libraries are far less likely to be total crap, because those things have editors and investors and such. Someone was being paid to make sure it was worth making. Additionally, the author worked hard to condense the knowledge into a concise format. Be willing to pay money.

Having a plan

Okay, so now you are investing your time and energy into quality materials, but are you learning the right things? Are you learning the things that are right for you? You need to have a career plan. You need 1 and 3 year goals. Otherwise your career plan will be a spread out mess.

Figure out where you want to focus, figure out where you want to go. Pick a specialization. More of what you learn will be relevant if you know what that is.

Learning things that last longer

Okay, so we are learning more things and more of the right things. But we still have the problem that our knowledge is decaying whether from atrophy or irrelevance. This is the last step in the funnel and the last thing we can optimize.

Improving retention

One way to keep ahold of knowledge for longer is to lean on active learning. If something goes in through your eyes and ears and back out your fingers and mouth, you will retain it for longer.

If you want to specialize and go deeper, you need to do things like blogging, presenting,coding, etc. Reading isn’t enough. Writing isn’t enough. if you truly want to learn, you have to do.

Reddit and hacker news are good for exposure to a topic, but exposure fades quickly. Use exposure to get a lay of the land, then go deep once you find the right things to learn. If you focus on mastery, you are going to learn things in a way that last longer.

Avoiding planned obsolescence

Another issue is that certain areas of knowledge just have a faster rate of decay. Some of these are facts tied to a specific version of a technology. Another thing are unproven technologies that might turn out to just be fads. Big data is still in this phase, where there are so many technologies that will be gone forever in 5 years.

People change far more slowly than technologies, so skills relating to them last far longer. Soft skills never go out of style. Communications skills never go out of style. If you learn how to write an abstract today, that knowledge will still be relevant 40 years from now.

The fundamentals last longer too. The core basics of computer science are far more establish than this weeks JS framework. If you have solid underpinnings, you can take your knowledge of C++ to Go, for example. If you understand how a ACID and CAP theorem, The new consistency models of Cosmos DB will make sense. Under understanding of one layer beneath will allow you to jump to new technologies far quicker.

Putting it all together

To summarize what we talked about:

  • Take advantage of multitasking to get back more time. Listen to podcasts while you drive or exercise.
    • Invest in a pod catcher. I use itunes and an iPod nano.
    • Invest in a feed reader. I use Feedly.
  • Take care of yourself, physically. Diet, sleep and exercise will all improve focus.
  • Schedule time to maintain focus. Treat focus as your most precious resource. Don’t browse twitter when you are firing on all cylinders.
  • Be willing to spend money on curation. There is a good chance that you have more money than time or focus. Be willing to spend money to avoid wasting time.
  • Understand exposure versus mastery. Spend your time on exposure and your focus on mastery.
  • Pick a specialization. Have a plan on what technologies you need to go deep on. You won’t get there by accident.
  • Learn things that last. Learn the fundamentals. Learn internals. Learn people skills. Do home labs.

How to write a good abstract for GroupBy.org

Recently, I’ve been going through a lot of the presentations for GroupBy.org. I’m trying to provide as much feedback as I can, because I think good feedback is hard work. A lot of the existing comments are along the lines of “This looks cool!”, which does not provide much direction. As a presenter myself, I’m a big fan of receiving actionable criticism. It’s the only way I will grow as a presenter.

This post is going to cover some general guidance for making a fantastic abstract. It’s targeted at the GroupBy.org site, but much of the advice is broadly applicable

You should write like you fight

When you edit your abstract, you should be relentless, you should be merciless. Every sentence should dance. Every sentence should sing. Every word owes you rent, and you are here to collect. You, my friend, have neither time nor patience for any freeloaders. If anything does not enhance your message, ditch it. This ain’t a charity, kids.

You should write like your life is on the line.

You should write like you fight. This is not a joke. This is not hyperbole. Because someday, your life, your ability to provide for your family, will depend on your ability to communicate clearly. Someday one of these things will happen to you:

  1. Your company will get bought, and you will have to explain “what do you do around here?”
  2. You will be out of a job and need to write an amazing cover letter
  3. You will need to summarize what you’ve done this year and why you deserve that raise
  4. Something will go horribly wrong at work, and it will be your job to write the retrospective
  5. Your coworker will cross a line, and you will need to stand up for yourself in a polite, professional way.

Are you ready for that day? If you are writing half-hearted abstracts today, you are probably half-hearted emails and cover letters. If you aren’t writing like your life it on the line today, then you aren’t preparing for when it actually is. We practice when the stakes are low, so we are ready for the day that they aren’t.

What martial arts teaches us about good writing

I do martial arts every week. Not because I’m a particularly aggressive or athletic person. I do it because it helped me lose weight and because it keeps me healthy. I lost 70lbs in large part to martial arts, so I think I owe it some respect and deference. In a very real sense, it has changed my life forever.

In my school, everything we do is preparing us for a fight that hopefully never happens. The goal isn’t to get into these scenarios, but to be prepared should the worst ever happens. Learning how to give a solid punch doesn’t make me cocky and reckless, it makes me humble and cautious. This is because I know how quickly a fight can fall apart; I know how much a punch to the face hurts.

In martial arts, specifically, we practice moves hundreds and thousands of times. We refine and we focus until it’s reflex. Because trust me, when you are scared and under pressure, all of your form goes to crap. When I participated in my only tournament, I got hit really hard on the chin. Hard enough that my ears were ringing and they had to check if I was okay. It was because I was scared. It was because under pressure, I forgot all of my form. It was because good form wasn’t reflexive for me.

Good form should be reflexive

We practice things over and over, when the stakes are low, so we don’t have to think when the stakes are deadly. I can’t say this enough times. This is how lives are saved.

When you write an abstract, you are practicing for when it really matters. In martial arts, if you don’t practice keeping your fists up when there is no danger, you’ll get sucker punched when there is. Trust me, I know from experience.

Good form comes from intentional, relentless practice. Edit, edit, edit. Please, for your own sake.

How to write a great abstract

So what makes a good abstract? What makes good form? I think there are a number of fundamental things that people regularly miss.

Dear presenter, why do I care?

Your first sentence should tell me why I care. Why do I want to attend your presentation? Don’t assume that just because you think it’s important that I agree with you. You have to persuade me. You have to explicitly communicate how it benefits me.

Your whole abstract should hang on this premise. If a sentence does not in some way help answer this question, cut it. If it isn’t abundantly clear, rework it.

So how do I communicate this? There are a number of ways:

  • Give them a headache. Tell them what problems they have.
  • Give them a solution. Tell them how this talk will solve those problems.
  • Tell them how they will grow. People want an immediate payoff. Explain how they will be better for watching your presentation.
  • Don’t assume it’s important. Show me why your topic is important.

If you can answer why people should care, you will be a step ahead.

Figure out your audience. Narrow it.

Who is your audience? Who cares about your topic?

Did you figure it out? Great, now narrow it. Audience statements are often too broad to begin with. Ask yourself, “Who would be really excited to watch your presentation?”. Make them your target audience. Don’t feel that you have to cater to everyone.

Curiosity is almost a terrible audience goal. Find people who have a need and fill it.

Additionally, who isn’t your audience? There should be people who you don’t want to attend your presentation. This concept is often more helpful than knowing your target audience. Don’t be afraid to exclude people. A broader target leads to a muddled message.

In the agile world, there is idea of personas. Use them. Let’s say that Susan is a fictional person who really wants to watch your presentation.

  1. Who is she?
  2. Why is she super pumped about your presentation?
  3. How do you communicate this to her, efficiently?
  4. What things does she already know? What new things is she going to learn?
  5. Who isn’t she?

If you can paint a vivid picture of this person, your abstract will be better for it. Even better, your presentation will improve too.

Get your level right

Relating to the item above, figure out what level your presentation is. Is it for total newbs? Then make sure you have a lot of introductory content. Be very clear about what you are assuming they already know. Write it out on a piece of paper. Don’t assume. Don’t assume.

Is this more of a 300-level practical presentation? Well then “curiosity” had better be nowhere in your target audience. Make sure you elaborate the detailed content that you will cover. Make it clear that they will take something practical away from this.

I’ve seen a number of abstracts that try to split the difference and just muddy the waters. Pick an audience and stick with it. Decisions aren’t decisions until you give something up. You have to make a choice. Who are you targeting? Be clear about this and your viewers will thank you for it.

Put the bottom line up front

Get to the point right away. Explain your general thesis in the first couple of sentences. Explain why the reader cares in the first few sentences. You can include all the detail later on. This is a matter of being respectful to your reader, who is a busy person. Don’t waste their time.

In journalism, this is called inverted pyramid style. The professionals use this method. You should too.

To summarize, If you can’t sell me in a tweet, you’ve lost me as a reader. Keep it tight. You can add the details later.

Make your prose scannable

People don’t read the internet like a book. People scan. They’ve done eyetracking studies where they literally watch people’s eye movement. Keep your prose tight and short. Use technical writing techniques.

  1. Keep your sentences short. Break up run-on sentences. Avoid sentences more than 15 words, like the plague.
  2. Use bullet lists, where possible. These are GREAT for scanning text.
  3. Use multiple paragraphs. You have the space, use multiple paragraphs for multiple purposes.
  4. Have a structure. I personally like the 3 paragraph structure of
    1. “Why do I care?”
    2. “What will we cover?”
    3. “What will I take away from this?”
  5. Use action verbs. Avoid is, was, became, etc.
  6. Use a little formatting. Unlike most events, you have full control of your formatting. Use it.

If you can’t see the flow of your text from 10 feet away, reconsider how your have structured your text. Blobs don’t scan well.

I got sucker-punched via email this week, but I was ready

So at the beginning of this week, I got thrown under the bus. In large part, it was my own fault. I had, in fact, missed deadlines that delayed a colleague’s work. That part was true.

The part that was the sucker punch was that he contradicted with an earlier conversation. When the author and I spoke, it sounded like his deliverables were being blocked by time constraints as well. I was late, but I offered to rush Friday morning so he could get his weekend part done on time. He indicated that there were other factors holding things up, that there was no point in rushing.

So now I’m in a situation where I thought everything was fine, but instead my boss is getting a surprise email, Monday morning. An email indicating that the project is being delayed a week, solely because of me. One hour before the manager’s meeting. Ugh.

So my boss sends me a one sentence email. “Did we know about this?”

The advantage of being ready

So now I have half an hour to lay out a timeline of events, and give my side of things. And because I practice my writing, I was able to write this:

Even with a heavy blur and shrink you can see the structure. It’s got the bottom line up front. Everything you really need to know is in the first 4 sentences.

Again, I want to be clear. It was my fault for missing deadlines. It was my fault for not communicating that to my boss. I’m not some victim here.

But I did receive a surprise, and I was ready for it. Because I practice my form daily. And you should too. Write good abstracts. Write good emails. Practice, practice, practice.

Keep your fists up folks, it’ll guard your chin. Otherwise it’ll hurt like hell, and your ears will be ringing. I know from personal experience.

 Summary

Write your abstracts like your life depends on communicating clearly and efficiently. Determine a targeted audience and tell them why they should care. Keep it tight, keep it scannable. Edit, edit, edit. Practice, practice, practice.

Good luck!