Culture and Performance

Most people in management seem to believe that culture matters in a company. I know some don’t, and I’ve worked for a few of those people, whichi s never an enjoyable experience. As the world seems to change to more and more knowledge work for people in technology, it seems that businesses are starting to realize that the way their employees feel about the company can have a direct impact on the company’s bottom line.

There’s an article about culture and motivation in the Harvard Business Review that I think does a good job of looking at how well people perform when they have various motivations. The authors talk about the six reasons why people work, each of which can drive motivation in a different way. Some are positive motivators, some are negative, and it’s good to be aware of the differences.

This ties into culture in that the way your organization is built. The culture that pervades the company can really determine how employees are motivated. More negative motivators result in less performance, especially creative performance, from employees.

I don’t think that building a great team and getting the most from people is necessarily this simple. Different people respond differently to a culture, and the same person might even respond differently at different times in their employment. However I do think that you can look to adjust the way you fit each employee in, with the work you assign, the support you give, and the demands that you make on them.

The mark of a good manager is that they find ways to treat each employee differently, in a way that suits them best, while maintaining a core set of values and rules for the entire organization.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

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I’ve been fascinated by Moneyball and the efforts made in sports to assemble good teams using data more than opinions. I used to think about baseball more, but lately I’ve been intrigued by American football. There are challenges in assembling a team, with the constraints of a limited budget, existing contracts that cannot be changed, and the fact that one player isn’t a replacement for another, even when they have similar skill sets.

That got me thinking that we could do this with our development teams. Certainly the skills that each of posses might be closer to one another than athletes, but that doesn’t change the need to have a variety of skills on a project. We need someone that writes great T-SQL, someone that can manage front end code, someone that can build and provision environments, someone to help test.

I know that many of you can do all these things, but do you want to? Maybe more important, is it a good use of your skills as a developer to manage restores or schedule index maintenance? Those are tasks that might provide a welcome break, but they aren’t necessarily the tasks that I want you to be responsible for or even spend time performing.

There is also the very, very high likelihood that the people hired in your environment have different levels of skills. In a group of T-SQL developers, or SSIS package builders, or any other group that each of you can learn from the others. And you should learn from others, since it’s entirely likely that some of you will leave, and others will need to handle the load left behind. After all, the next person hired is as likely to be the weakest team member as the strongest.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 2.0MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

Crafting Your Resume

Your resume of CV is often the first glance that a hiring manager gets about your career. Even if you’ve been recommended by a friend or current employee, often a manager requires some summary of who you as a few paragraphs on a screen that they can study.

I have my own advice, but this post from a manager at StackOverflow covers quite a few of the same things I recommend. I certainly agree with the first section, writing for humans. Over and over again I hear from people that make hiring decisions that they spend 30-60 seconds on a resume to get an impression.

One minute. You should set a timer for one minute and let someone read your resume. Then take it away and ask the person for their impressions of what you know. In fact, maybe that’s a great icebreaker at a user group meeting or SQL Saturday. Find someone that hires others, or is an experienced person in your industry, and ask them to do just that.

We learn a lot from experimenting and seeing what works well and what doesn’t. Many of us solve problems in code and realize later that we could rewrite things more efficiently. Why not do that with our resumes? We certainly can control how we present ourselves, be interesting, and more importantly, don’t waste the reader’s time.

You get one minute, or less, to make a good impression, so spend some time crafting your resume. Control your brand and ensure that you let people know who you are. Do your best to communicate the skills you have, the things you do well, and the ways in which you are a good employee. Most of us will change jobs at some point, so why not be prepared to present yourself in the best possible way you can by working on your resume now.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio (2.4MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn. feed

The Advent of Code

In early December, I ran across a post from Jeremiah Peschka on practicing your coding skills. Apart from the points made about practicing skills, he referenced a site called the Advent of Code. It’s a site that uses a Christmas theme and a little gaming to get people to solve programming problems. I mentioned it on my blog, and across a few weeks, a few people in the SQL Server community started working on the problems in SQL.

Probably like most people that started this, I didn’t finish in December. In fact, I didn’t work on problems most days because life got in the way. However I haven’t given up. Around vacations and other events, I’ve continued to work on solving the problems in multiple ways, using different languages. I’ve tackled problems in Python, PowerShell, and T-SQL.

I’d urge you to give some sort of programming challenge a try, mostly just to gain some practice in building algorithms and investigating the ways in which you can solve problems with software. If nothing else, the exercises challenge your brain and exercise your mind.

I’m considering working on something like this for SQLServerCentral next year, with a series of complex problems that you can work on to practice your T-SQL and SQL Server skills. I don’t think I’ll make it an Advent of T-SQL for Christmas, but I do think having a series of challenging problems is a good way to drive your learning.

If you’ve got suggestions for other programming exercises, feel free to pass them along.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 2.0MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

100 Hours

How long does it take someone to learn to be good at building software in some language? I’m sure many of you have heard of the 10,000 rule that notes the truly gifted in a field need 10,000 hours of practice to become experts and master their craft. There’s some debate about how true that is, but certainly becoming an expert takes tremendous dedication, certainly years of time.

I ran across a piece that referenced a slightly shorter rule, the 100 hour rule. The rule is fairly simple: “for most disciplines, it only takes one hundred hours of active learning to become much more competent than an absolute beginner.”

One hundred hours is nothing. That’s a long week or two of active learning to get good at something. But how good? If we look at software development, what can you accomplish in 100 hours? After all, absolute beginner is a low bar. That’s the level my Mom is at and I’m not sure how much I could teach her beyond “Hello, world” in a few hours. Even in 100 hours, I’m not sure she could solve many problems.

The good thing is that most of us aren’t absolute beginners, especially in software. We have frames of reference for many parts of how computers work. I suspect that 100 hours of deliberate, guided, practical (meaning typing and practicing skills), would turn lots of people into a good junior developer, maybe even a mid level developer. I think many senior developers would be very competent in a new language in a few hundred hours, because they’d learn the syntax translation quickly and then start understanding the tips, tricks, and gotchas that experts in that language might know. The algorithms and problem solving skills are often the same between languages.

For most of us looking to grow our careers and improve our technology skills, I would guess we could learn a new skill every year, becoming competent, with 100 hours of practice. Reading books and articles is good, but the hands on practice is most important, and that’s what really drives home active learning. That’s something I’d encourage many of you do, with exercises, puzzles, or maybe even start a small project that help you learn. It will help your career, by improving skills, and might even be fun along the way.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 2.5MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

Happy New Year 2016

Happy New Year from everyone here at SQLServerCentral and Redgate Software!

I do hope you’re not working, and enjoying a start to 2016. If you do happen to read this, I hope you are relaxing and have a big smile on your face.

This year we’ve got a new version of SQL Server coming, and I’m sure lots of exciting new technologies we’ll see released. It’s a new beginning, and a chance to move forward. With that in mind, a simple question today.

What new technology, language, or skill do you want to improve in 2016?

Today is a great day to make a resolution and start growing your skills, for fun or profit, in 2016.

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 1.3MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

Are We Suckers?

I written about learning to say no. I’ve noted that we must find a balance in life with work. I try to encourage you to work hard, get better at your job, and bring value to your employer. I certainly know there are plenty of employees that coast along in their jobs, doing often less than what I would consider the minimum. I’m hoping that more and more of you are trying to do better.

However, when I read pieces like this one where a CEO wonders why employees don’t work harder, I get frustrated by managers that don’t seem to understand that work is merely work for many of us. We enjoy it, we want to do well, but it’s just a part of our lives. We have other things in life that we love and are more important than work.

However I also know there are plenty of you that go the extra mile. You routinely work outside the normal business hours to solve problems, or just deploy changes to system. I’ve been there, and I’ve wondered why I’d bother working from 11pm Sat – 4am Sun for “routine maintenance” if I wasn’t being paid an hourly wage. This week, what do you think about this?

Are we suckers for working extra hours?

I know plenty of people enjoy the work, and they rise to the challenge of responding in a crisis. One of the hardest things I had to manage was getting people to go home and rest when faced with an extended crisis. It seems I had no shortage of employees that wanted to work 30, 40 or more hours in a row, and I’d argue to send them home to rest because I’d need them to work tomorrow night.

I think that we should make an honest effort to give our employers value. We should do the work assigned, perhaps do it better today than yesterday, and be flexible when more work is needed. I also think employers should do the same thing. Extra hours at work should be extra time off. Compensation should relate to to performance, but not hours worked. Sacrifice by employees should be met with sacrifice by employers.

In other words, just like my balance between work and life, there should be a balance between employers and employees with each side respecting the other.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 2.3MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

The Years of Experience

I heard Tim Ford say recently that the years of experience don’t matter as much as what you do with them.

That’s a great quote. It’s also one that goes along with the idea that there is no shortage of people that mistake 5 years at a job for 5 years of experience. It’s highly likely that many people really get 6 months of experience and repeat those same skills for years, because that’s what the job requires. Unless you have a dynamic, changing environment, one that experiments and regularly looks to upgrade systems, it’s hard to get those years of experience without changing jobs.

That’s a conundrum. Do you want to change jobs to get new experiences and grow? Some people become consultants for this reason. Others regularly look to move on to a new company, sometimes sacrificing benefits, short commutes, or something else to grow their careers. However plenty of people prefer to stick with an organization, whether that’s because loyalty, a great set of coworkers, security, or nature of the work being accomplished. Many people will stick with a job as long as they can.

In those cases, I do believe that you can still do something with your years and grow experience. Continue to learn, experiment, and suggest changes where they fit. Learn to write the complex T-SQL that’s needed in older SQL Server 2005/2008 systems, but spend a bit of time also learning how Window functions in SQL Server 2012+ run more efficiently. Rebuild reports in PowerBI, and see if your organization can see the benefits of investing in one new thing this year. Even if your company won’t make changes, imagine what you’d do if they ever change their minds.

Above all, practice your skills. Rewrite old processes and squeeze out more performance. Automate things in your job, whether you use PoSh or VBScript, when you can make gains in productivity, you can create time. Time that’s valuable in helping you learn. Even if you can’t get your code deployed, will will have the satisfaction of improving your skills, and knowing you can make a difference if you ever get the chance.

I realize many of you are busy. I realize that learning about R or Kimball data warehousing might be seem to be pointless because your organization will never use the technology. I get it, and I don’t disagree. However I hope to inspire you to try to enjoy technology. Jump on Twitter with the #sqlfamily and gain some motivation with what others are doing, or have them cheer you on as you learn. You might be surprised what you can do with your years when you find something you enjoy and get support from others that share your excitement about computing.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 3.0MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

Are We Engineers?

This is probably a topic that is regularly debated in programming forums, but it’s still one that I think is worth revisiting regularly as our industry evolves. For those of us that write code, that develop software, are we engineers?

That’s the topic of a piece in the more mainstream media. It’s a bit of an attack on the software industry in general, noting that engineers are typically certified and regulated. They are subject to continuing education and apprenticeship. While certainly many of us continue to learn, it’s very informal, and not structured. Our education certainly isn’t certified in any meaningful way, though we often aren’t even really liable for our work. The cost of bad code is usually a job, with another one often easily found.

Engineering is defined as:  the work of designing and creating large structures (such as roads and bridges) or new products or systems by using scientific methods. By that definition, I think we are engineers. We use scientific methods, primarily the hypothesis, test, (usually) fail, change the hypothesis. The hypothesis we use are lines of code, which are often wrong and need work to get fixed. A additional definition includes: the design and manufacture of complex products <software engineering>. That’s us. Even the most trivial application today is likely seen as complex by layman. If most of us bothered to dig into the libraries we use, we might see them as very complex.

We certainly aren’t engineers in terms of the formal knowledge and liability that exists in our profession. There is little, often because we can fix problems quickly. Or maybe because even if our systems fail, issues can be undone by additional work. That’s not always true, but it does seem as though those systems which are costly when they fail (medical, financial systems), have some recourse available to those affected. Not always, but there isn’t always recourse in the analog world.

I wonder if we’ll get to the point where we require some evaluation or measurement of skills (or code) from software engineers for certain disciplines. My guess is not, as the world of software changes too quickly, and allows for too many different scales of acceptable performance to really certify anything. My guess is the world will continue to struggle with determining the liability and responsibility of software failure as we depend more and more on computing infrastructure in our world.

Likely this is an argument that will never end.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 3.1MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

Building Better Communication Skills

This editorial was originally published on Jan 11, 2011. It is being re-run as Steve is on vacation.

I think that one of the most valuable skills that someone in technology can have is the ability to communicate with others. It doesn’t matter whether you write code, rack servers, or sit in meetings with business people, it is important that you find a way to express clearly what you want, need, or would expect from someone else. If you can’t, you will find that you often struggle to get anything accomplished in an efficient manner.

It’s possible that you can get by with verbal communications in many instances, but it seems that so much gets done by written communications of some sort. Especially these days where it seems that so much of the interaction between people takes place through email, IM, or even Twitter. We are constantly using some form of written text to convey information between each other.

However it seems that many people don’t place a premium on building better writing skills. When I talk to many people at SQL Saturdays, most of them are hesitant to try something like blogging. The most common complaint: I hate writing.

But we have to do it constantly at work and working on your writing skills will not only help you to communicate better, but it will also help you learn to better organize your own thoughts. You will have a better understanding of the logical thought process, which might even help you build better code.

Steve Jones