The Winding Road

This is the text and images from my keynote talk at SQL Saturday #90 in Oklahoma City on August 27, 2011.

This is my boss, Neil Davidson. He runs Red Gate Software as one of the two join CEOs for the company.


About a year and a half ago he wanted to learn to draw better. He has this desire to improve himself, learn new things, and try new ideas which seems to be a trait of some very successful people I know. Many people have a bucket list of sorts,


which is often a collection of things you’d like to do before you die, but it seems that there are some very successful people that make a constant effort to challenge themselves in different ways to improve their lives as they go through them, not just visiting some place or experiencing some event. They work to actively get better.


Perhaps most well known personal challenge recently is from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who sets himself a new challenge each year. Last year he learned Chinese for an hour a day, and this year he is determined to only eat meat that he’s killed. Why he chose this, I’m not sure. This idea of challenging oneself seems to lead to self improvement and often more success, even when your personal challenge isn’t related to your career or business. I’m not sure what Zuckerberg is learning this year, but that’s what he’s chosen.


At an event in Seattle, my boss saw a drawing challenge, and decided to take it. You can see that when he took the challenge, he had a lot of room for improvement. Compared to what I’d draw as self portrait, however, it’s pretty good. Here’s a more recent attempt.


You can see his skill has improved quite a bit. This isn’t a bad likeness, but I’m guessing that my boss was going for something a little more like this:


Over time, he has improved his skills. He continues to practice and as you can see with this drawing, he’s gotten much better.


It’s one of the ones from this past summer, a drawing of someone he knows. That’s not bad, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this challenge works out for him over time and how his skills improve. He wanted to draw a picture every day in 2010 and was successful and is still going strong. he has a blog where he posts all manner of sketches and drawings of people and places, and some of them are very good.

However, when he started drawing, I’m sure that what he saw in the mirror, or in a picture, or as his subject wasn’t what he ended up putting down on paper. He had this goal of taking something he saw and reproducing it accurately on paper. There was a plan of drawing the head first, or the hands, or the body, or some part of his subject accurately and then moving on to the next part.

What you put on paper isn’t necessarily an accurate representation, especially when you have limited talent. You have to adjust your expectations, or your goal, in order to accomplish something and as you gain skill and improve your abilities, you stretch you goals further and perhaps begin to reach your original target.

Or maybe you set a new target. In art you might change from trying to produce a photorealistic drawing to one that is a more of a courtroom sketch or a caricature or something other type of art that suits your style and ability.

At each state of my boss’s journey, as he’s gained some skill, the images that he sees probably still aren’t those that he ends up posting online. The image in his mind and the final product grow closer together over time, but I am guessing it is both the image he expects to draw, as well as the drawing he makes, that have changed from his original expectations. The journey that Mr. Davidson is on to improve his skills in this area is constantly changing, and probably unlike the one he had originally planned.

I’m not even sure that you could plan this type of journey in detail at the start. You could take some type of formal classroom training, progressing in specific ways towards your goal of becoming a better artist. Even then I suspect that your progress in a class would be different than any other people in the class and would still lead you in new directions as you learned more.

What Neil did add was a set schedule that allowed for regular effort, regular practice, hopefully improvement in skill, and modification to his goals where he felt it was warranted, in essence revealing the next step on the journey as he progressed along it.

The journey along the path to improving skill is constantly changing. it’s a winding road, one that you can’t see very far down, but one on which you continue to move down if you make the effort.

Let me tell you another story. This one is a bit of my journey. Like many of you, I had dreams as a kid of playing sports,


or being a rock star,


or being some kind of James Bond, FBI agent, or other hero in the world.


At different times in my life, I had different dreams, and slowly over time many of those dreams died. That is a little sad, but it is also part of life. In my case it was a part of growing up and learning about myself, what I liked, and what I could do.

I learned about my limitations. That kid in little league who had success at a young age realized that he wasn’t naturally gifted as a an athlete, at least not gifted to the level that would earn him a living in professional sports.


The budding rock star realized that he wasn’t super talented, couldn’t sing in key, and wasn’t willing to toil in obscurity, playing in bars, living on the road, and hoping that he would be rewarded with some type of record contract.


And the young man realized that the life of a spy, or FBI agent, or any type of law enforcement career isn’t nearly as glamorous as so many movies make it out to be.

Police Officer and Doughnut

In all of those cases, it wasn’t so much that the dream died, but that I learned more about the dream i was pursuing as well as more about myself. I didn’t always realize that I was learning something about myself. Most of the time I thought I was making a choice.


Most of the time I thought I was making the decision to go one way instead of another at The metaphorical fork in the road. That is what I was doing, but I didn’t always realize that I was learning more about myself at the same time.

As my life progressed, I found new dreams. I started working with computers in high school.


I learned to program and enjoyed it so much that I went to college to study computer science. I was sure that I’d make a living with computers somehow, and perhaps even make a lot of money. This was the time of the "Star Wars" defense budgets, and my plan was to go to work as a highly paid programmer at a defense contractor.


However it was also the mid-80s, the time of mergers and acquisitions, the time when banks were being deregulated and fortunes were being made on Wall Street. I had started college at Syracuse University but left to return to my native Virginia. It was a lot less expensive, and a lot warmer. At Virginia I studied economics and finance.


I found myself drawn into the dream of working in New York at some type of investment bank. For two years I learned a lot about money, finance, and accounting. I prepared myself to interview with investment banks during my senior year. I was sure I’d work 100 hours a week for a bank for a couple years and make a lot of money. I would then go back to school, earn an MBA, and then make even more money as an executive at some large corporation.

However early in my senior year, my life changed.


I’d started playing rugby at Virginia and in late September, we were having a practice. I was the scrum half and my job was to pick the ball out of the scrum and start the play by throwing it to the players on the wing.

I didn’t do that. When you play rugby, the scrum half has the option to fake a throw, drawing the defenders toward the wing and then duck inside them, running with the ball. Theoretically a quick scrum half can gain quite a bit of yardage that way. I was pretty quick, but not quick enough. The opposing scrum half was a little quicker, following me around the pile and tackling me with the help of a few of his friends.


I ended up getting tackled on my left shoulder, separating it and spending the next 12 weeks in a sling. No surgery, but no rugby, no writing as I was left handed, and I ended up taking quite a few oral exams that semester.

That also changed my life.


I decided that I didn’t want to work in an office 100 hours a week. I didn’t want to be so focused on money that I forgot about my health. I decided to go back to my native Virginia Beach, spend a year tending bar and enjoying life. Just before I graduated college , I had finally rehabbed my shoulder to the point where I could do a pain free push up, which was a milestone for me and made me realize I had made a good decision. After I spent the summer tending bar, I became bored and realized that it wasn’t the life for me.

I started graduate school, going back to study computer engineering. I decided to go back to work in the technology field, which I had loved, and seemed to have better hours. It was a simpler world back then. I ended up with an internship at the local power company.


I learned a lot and got promoted, but hated the commute. I wandered into SQL Server at this point and realized I really liked databases. I met the company’s SQL Server DBA who made a lot of money, and I moved in that direction. I went on to a small company, running their IT operation and building SQL Server applications. I enjoyed that job, but wanted to have a chance to be a part of the Internet boom that was happening in the mid 90s.


I moved to Colorado. I worked for a couple small companies, and one big one, always looking for a better situation. Along the way I had gotten married and had three kids, and my priorities changed. The startup companies were exciting, but being away from my small children wasn’t ideal. My first job in Denver resulted in me sleeping in my office about once a month to work on some issue, thanks to SQL Server 6.5 and some poor VB developers for that one. How many of you have ever kept a blanket and pillow in your office? I did, and didn’t enjoy it. At that company I also traveled quite a bit, including flying to New York one morning for a meeting and then flying back to Denver that night. I think that explained my reluctance to travel for quite a few years.


Eventually I realized that while I didn’t mind working hard, I really wanted a stable job, at a company that wasn’t struggling to find it’s identity and trying new ideas to create business every other month. I ended up at JD Edwards, as an Operations DBA and I enjoyed it. However the transition to People soft didn’t sit will with me and that was the trigger that sent me to my current job.

SSC 1024x768

At all of the jobs, during all the dreams from childhood through college, the one thing I never thought I’d be was a writer. I hated writing all through high school and college, avoiding classes that required essays and hating the classes that I couldn’t avoid. I wasn’t a great documentation person as a developer, but I was forced to do it at a few jobs and I learned the value of it.

I learned early on that there was a wealth of information on the Internet and in magazines that could help me with my job. I also learned that a lot of that information wasn’t beyond me. In many cases, it wasn’t code that was a lot more complex than code I’d written. When I came to Denver, I came alone, leaving my wife and two kids in Virginia to sell our house. I had a lot of spare time, worked a lot, and wasn’t a party person, so when I saw an offer to write an article, I jumped at it. I think I got paid $110 for that first article, but it might as well have been a $1mm to me. Having someone pay me to write something was amazing.

I published articles for a few places and eventually went to found SQLServerCentral with a few partners. We grew and reached the a point where we needed to sell the company or have someone work fulltime for the company. Of the three of us, my wife was the only spouse that worked and provided benefits, so I got the chance to try it. I started writing those daily editorials shortly thereafter, which have become one of the things about my job I like the most.

I couldn’t have predicted the choices that led me to the place I am now when I was in high school, college, or even as recently as a decade ago. At each fork in the road, I chose the path that seemed to make the most sense to me.


* However over the years I think I’ve come to think that it wasn’t a fork that I often came to. It has happened in my life, but not often.


Most of the time it was the choice to continue along the way I are going, or take an exit. Most of our choices are between continuing on the way we are going, or taking a chance on a different road.


I called this talk the Winding Road, which is a bit of a metaphor for living one’s life. There are any number of proverbs that talk about following a road or a path. There’s the journey of a thousand steps beginning with the first one.


There’s the single set of footprints on life’s journey


* Then there’s the career path. Climbing the corporate ladder:


Or even the classic path that we should follow as we progress in our careers.


In all of these cases, there is a progression along a journey. Over time you move towards some goal. It may or not be specified, and it may or may not be known at the beginning of the journey, but it is the movement along a path of sorts. We might see most of the path, but often I think we see only a short section of the road we are on in our lives and don’t know where we will end up until we progress further along.

Unfortunately I think that most of us don’t have a clear career path in mind when we start, a path that goes from step 1 to step 2 to step 2. Many of us may not even have a clear path now.


Most likely we have a complex series of choices to make, leading us down a more complex series of roads. It might lead us in ways that are unexpected.

It may have dead ends or seem like we don’t have any good choices.


Or it may just be confusing


In any case, it’s a journey we have to work through. We have to learn about ourselves, learn what we like, and more importantly, what we don’t like. This is our life, and this is our career. It is up to each of you to choose the journey that fits your life, your goals, and your desires.

That’s hard to do, and it only comes with some maturity and self-awareness when we are honest with ourselves. We have to really think about what we love at each point in our life when we can make a decision. It’s easy to let money cloud our decisions in this area. Money is important, it provides for our families and allows us to enjoy some things in life, but it’s not the most important thing. I’ve never met anyone that was happy by always choosing their next job by the raise it offered them. Not to say that you can’t, or shouldn’t, want to make money, but it ought to be a by product of the career you choose.

There rally is so much more to life than money, and as I get older, I believe that more and more. I learned in my 30s that it was better to choose the best overall job for me. I valued the people I worked with, the environment, and the location more than the money. I learned that sacrificing some of those things had a real cost, one that can’t often be replaced by money. I learned to place a price on those things that impacted my life. I’ve sacrificed fifteen thousand dollars of salary to avoiding commuting to the other side of town. I wouldn’t take a job now with people I disliked because it would wear on my every day, like a rock in my shoe. I realize that I spend a lot of my life at work and money can’t replace the enjoyment and happiness that come from spending time doing something you enjoy. That’s a lesson I hope most of you have learned.

I know it’s not that simple, and in the short term we all have responsibilities to meet, bills to pay, and we might need a certain level of income. However think about what that really costs you in your enjoyment of life, and think about whether it’s worth the trade. With a few years of effort, I’d hope that all of you could find the job that you want, and learn to live with the level of income it provides.


The last thing I want to talk about is Drive. This is a great book by Daniel Pink. It talks about the things that motivate us, and it’s a very interesting read. It taught me a few things about myself and what’s important to me. I think it’s a book I’d give to all my future managers in the hope that they might run their department or company in a better way. My bosses have read it and love it.

The book talks about three things that are important to motivating people. The things are mastery, autonomy, and purpose. I would encourage you to read the book and see if you learn which things might motivate you along your path in life.


Mastery is the desire to be good at something, and I think everyone wants to be good at their work. The quality of work is more important to some people than others, but everyone wants to do a good work that they can take pride in. There have been numerous studies that show when people are challenged and like their work, they often enjoy the job and produce good work. When they don’t, they leave. If you don’t like your job, think about whether it’s the company, or the job. If it’s the latter, think about changing careers. If it’s the former, think about finding a better company.

Mastery isn’t about being the superstar. It isn’t about being one of the best in your field. Aim for that if you want, but mastery is really about regular improvement in your skills. It’s about getting better at your craft. Today you should find one thing, learn one thing that you can use in your career over the next few months. Find something that you can use to expand or improve the way you do your job.


Autonomy means the ability to do the work in your own way. Making some decisions about how to accomplish tasks, and the ability to set your own schedule. That can be hard in some jobs, and I think a lack of autonomy creates friction and stress in many companies. This section alone might be worth sending to your manager, but remember that you should earn privilege of some autonomy as well. Learn to be better at your job, and gain the trust that you can make good decisions. Whether that’s a design decision in a schema or managing your own hours to ensure work is done. Prove you can handle the responsibility and then push to get assigned the responsibility.


The last item is purpose. At first I thought this was a little silly, after all, is work the place to find some purpose? I’ve come to think it is. This isn’t a higher purpose like a calling to serve in your religion or help humanity. Instead it’s a simpler version of seeing your work having value. That the accomplishments you have every week or month are put to some use in the company. They are appreciated by someone else. Without that, our lives have an emptiness that makes it hard to go to work each day.

Life is a journey for all of us, and while I hope it’s one that lasts many years for each of us, it’s also very short. We want to make the most of our time on that journey. Just as we want to be efficient at our jobs, getting the work done as quick as we can, we want to try and move our careers forward.

We don’t always know which direction we want to go, or which direction will improve our career, but that shouldn’t stop us from moving forward. Choose an area that interests you and make a plan. Learn more on your own, look for projects at work in that area, or even build a sample implementation on your own. Move forward, without being afraid to modify your plan as you learn more about yourself.

Take advantage of SQL Saturday today to start your own journey down the road that will be the rest of your career.

Thanks for coming.

Rocky Mountain Tech Trifecta v3.0 Keynote

I had the main room keynote at the recent Rocky Mountain Tech Trifecta v3.0 in Denver. Jeff Certain & Ben Hoelting had the beginner track keynote, and I was sorry I missed that. I would have liked to see them talk.

However I had enough stress with my own keynote, especially with this being the first time my wife has seen me speak. Despite all my talks over the years, she’s never managed to get to one, usually because of some scheduling issue. My kids have all seen me, and even been on stage, but not her. So she came down, sat in the front row, and had me stressed.

I forgot to record it, which I regret, but here’s the text of the talk. I’ve included the slides in the places where I showed them on screen.


Welcome to the Rocky Mountain Tech Trifecta v3.0. This is my third year attending and I am very happy to see this event doing well and even growing.  This year there are some new technologies and tracks, like the beginner track where you can get a goo grounding in some technology that you may never have experienced, or don’t get the chance ton use at work.

My name is Steve Jones and I started my career, like many of you, by working in a technical field, learning new types of software, and moving from company to company across about ten years. In that time I have watched technology grow and expand in my life, especially this "Internet thing".

One of the most amazing things is how the Internet has now grown from a useful tool in colleges to an essential part of our lives. When I was in college, the Internet was this private network between colleges and the government. We had limited email, only able to contact a few people I knew. There were discussions in newsgroups on Usenet, with only about 500 groups, and there was the barest beginning of the world wide web. I still remember the http protocol being introduced and using Lynx, a text browser, to navigate from page to page on the World Wide Web. I started communicating with 300 baud modems, and I used to watch characters paint across the screen on my computer, getting a page of data in a minute.

Today email is the primary way I contact millions of people and there are tens of thousands of newsgroups and probably just as many forums.  One thing that really stands out for me in technology is how I’ve gone from phones with dials and cords


to  this shiny new iPhone that I love, at least now that it’s on the Verizon network.


Now my phone downloads a hundred times that much data almost anywhere in the country in a fraction of the time and I use my phone much more often for data transfer than I use it for voice.


As my career advanced I learned one very interesting thing. I could advance in my field, find better jobs, and grow my salary, just by working on my skills. This is probably true in many other fields, but it seems that the pace of change in technology and the constant influx of new products to work with means we can do this faster than in other fields. We truly have the ability to dramatically affect our careers for the better with a little effort on our part.

This is no different than the advancement that






or any other professional can achieve by learning more about their craft and improving their skills. Unlike those other fields, I think we are a little closer to a meritocracy in technology. In those jobs your "connections" and network seem to matter a bit more than your skills. Those connections are still important in technology, but not nearly as much. If you demonstrate some skill and talent, it can make up for the lack of connections in many cases. At least up to a point.

Today I want to talk to you about your career, and professional development. Ely Lucas organized this event and when he asked me to do this keynote, he told me two things.  One was that I needed to fill 60 minutes, and the other was that I should talk about professional development. Don’t worry, I won’t keep you here for 60 whole minutes. I’ll leave  you a few more minutes to go get a cup of coffee or find a restroom before the first session, but I do hope I leave you with some good reasons to continue to work on your own professional development after today. Or maybe even inspire you to motivate others back at your job to do the same.


During my career, I have learned that taking control of my career, and taking responsibility for my career, has allowed me to find better jobs, advance to more senior positions, and make more money at my jobs  than I would ever have thought possible.  It took me many years to realize that, but now it seems that each month more and more technical professionals are realizing that there is value in making professional development a regular habit. They are also asking for help in doing so. That’s one of the reasons that so many of us are here today at the Tech Trifecta. We are here to work on our careers.


Four years ago, my business partner and I started a free event called SQL Saturday. Its a one day free training event format for SQL Server professionals and there have been over 60 events in the last four years, with more scheduled all across the country this year. As these events have matured, its been interesting to see that more and more of these events include some Professional Development talks, sometimes having 2 or 3 sessions during the day. I suspect before long we will even see a professional development track.


A few weeks ago, SQL Saturday #66 took place in Colorado Springs. One of the great things that Chris Shaw organized at that event were dedicated networking exercises. There was time scheduled in between the various technical sessions and it was used to help people meet and network with other data professionals in an organized fashion. Not only were they learning technical information that day, but they were also building their network and working on their soft skills. It was fun for everyone, and inspiring to me to see people not only taking a Saturday away from their families to learn something technical, but also willing to work on those other skills that could help them improve their career.

It’s great that so many of you are doing the same thing here today, taking a Saturday out of your life to come down here and learn something.  You could be skiing,


relaxing with your family,


working around the house,


or doing any number of other things


that would be a break from your job. But you’re here, and you ought to be proud of the fact that you are here, making an effort to improve yourself.


Why spend time on professional development? After all you are already here today, on a Saturday, trying to learn something. That’s great, but in a time when so many employers are not making any contribution to your career, I think you ought to be making a dedicated and organized plan for working on your career. I’ve got three reasons for you that I’m going to talk about and hopefully convince you that it’s worth the effort. These reasons are employment, freedom, and purpose, and I’m going to talk about what I mean with each one of them.


imageMy son bought a science fiction book recently called The Unincorporated Man. It’s a science fiction book about the future, and the story follows a cryogenically frozen billionaire who wakes up to find that the world has changed. He was frozen in a world like ours and awakens 300 years in the future to a world where everyone in the future is incorporated. At birth each person is incorporated, and just like in business today, the corporation of each person is divided up into shares.  These "shares" are owned partially by you, partially by your parents, partially by the government and, here is the kicker, often by investors. You usually sell shares to pay for education or to borrow money, and then those investors that own your shares have a say in how you live. Your salary pays your dividends and your value is based on how the world perceives your performance. Those investors might force you to take jobs you don’t like, limit your vacation, or something else in an effort to increase your value, and hence, their return. People end up spending much of their lives working  to try and "buy back" enough of their shares to become free. Once you can own 51% of yourself, you are essentially free and in control of your own life. It’s a great read, and a fascinating potential future. It’s also a little scary.

When I talk about employment, I want you to think of your employment as you working for your own corporation. Unlike in the book, however, you own all your own shares. This means that you are the person that your corporation ultimately has to answer to. If that’s the case, then do you, as a shareholder, think your corporation is being run the way you want it? Is it performing as well as it can? Is it making the decisions that will allow it to be more successful in the future?

Right now all of you should really be considering yourself as running your own corporation that employs you. In today’s world, you really are working for yourself, and selling your services to your employer. Your skills are your products, and your salary is your revenue.

Some of you might get lucky enough to contract with one employer for your career, but the majority of us won’t. The majority of us will end up working for a variety of companies during the course of our lives. Our "corporation" will subcontract to many other companies over its life.


We might be loyal to the company that is paying us, just as we might be loyal to Safeway or King Soopers for our groceries or to any other business for their products. As long as we feel we are getting a fair business transaction, we will be loyal. But when it is not a good deal for both sides, then we ought to be able to take our business elsewhere. If you have the same attitude with your job, then you can more objectively view the business deal with your employer, and look to take your business elsewhere when the value for your services isn’t there.


And if we consider ourselves self employed, then shouldn’t we be working to make sure that we make the "deals" that are best for our own corporation? Shouldn’t we be trying to grow our corporation and increase the revenue we get for our products? Or make our products better? Shouldn’t we be doing business with the companies that we want to do business with?


When you interview, you are making a pitch for the company to buy your services, and your skills. Just like a salesman visiting your company selling any other product. You ought to view it that way, and also take the attitude that you need to interview the company to be sure it’s the place you want to work. Make sure it’s the company that you want to do business with. You want your decision to take a job to be a win-win situation.

You might need a job, and need to take one quickly, but you should try not to put yourself in this position. When one side is desperate in a transaction, they get taken advantage of. that’s how bad business deals get done between corporations, and it’s also how people end up in crappy jobs.


If you spend time working on your career, improving your skills, and taking the responsibility to ensure that you are building a better product, and a better career, you will have more choices in where you work, and what you do. Hopefully you also minimize, or even eliminate, the time you spend without a job. And hopefully you have the chance to pick and choose the work that interests you most.


You will have more opportunities, and that’s all we can really ask for in a free market. The opportunity for us to do business with who we want.

Finding better employment, by your definition of what that means, is the first reason you should spend time on professional development.


We live in a free country, with certain inalienable rights listed in our Declaration of Independence


and guaranteed by the US Constitution.


Free speech, freedom of religion and more. In a capitalist society, as we have in the US, we also have the freedom to choose to study what interests us, pick a trade, and then pursue it. We can also careers change at any time, or even move to live in another part of the world.  We can choose to start our own business if we like, or even stop working if we can afford it.  We have a lot of freedom with regards to how we choose to earn a living, and while there are some rules and regulations about how you go about practicing some crafts, those are mostly built around ensuring that someone cannot misrepresent themselves about their qualifications.


Medical doctors are licensed to that know they have had some amount of training in their specialty and passed some basic competency tests. No guarantees they will make you feel better, but at least you know they have some training.

As I mentioned earlier, technology is very close to a meritocracy. Your skills in many ways will define what work you get to do, what projects you are assigned, and who is willing to hire you. The better your skills, the better the job, the more complex the work, and the higher the pay. I know we always seem to find people that don’t seem to be qualified working in technology, but that’s OK. To me that’s an opportunity that person to learn and grow, or for someone that is more skilled to get that job.


Professional development time is mostly your own time. Your employer might fund some efforts that he or she finds valuable for your position. You might get SAN training, or a class on the next version of Exchange from your employer, and that’s fine. However your PD time is your own, and you should spend it learning about one of two things.

Learn what will advance you in your career field, or

Learn about the field you would like to move into

You have the freedom to choose how you spend your Professional Development time, and the time you spend on Professional Development gives you the freedom to move further into your field, or move into a different field. The freedom you have in choosing how to spend your Professional Development time lets you follow your heart. You have the opportunity to learn about anything that interests you, inside of your field or outside of it.  You have the freedom to look for work for another company.

The older I get, the more valuable freedom is to me. I realize that Life is short, and I don’t want to spend my life working on a career, or in a job, that I don’t enjoy. 

Note: At this point, I deviated from the script. I told people that it’s rare that you get the chance to be on stage, giving a talk with loved ones in the audience and so I took a moment to recognize my wife in the audience and thank her for all the support that she’s given me in my career. She got a nice round of applause.


My wife works in the mobility/cellular phone industry right now, but she really wants to train horses for a living.  In the short term, which might be the next few years, she’s a little "stuck" in her current job. However we spend time and money every year improving her skills, and I support her in doing the "professional development" she needs to do in order to be a horse trainer some day. I know she’ll get there at some point, and I am sure she’ll be ready for her next career with all the work and training she is doing now.


Ten years ago, I started a publishing business. I was a database guy and technical writer, but I wanted to grow my career, get better jobs, raises, become better known in my field and earn some extra money. That grew into a full time job, and has allowed me the freedom to work from home, and set my own schedule. I ski over 20 days a year, often during the work week. I spend a lot of time with my kids, taking them to and picking them up from school. I had the freedom to direct my business as I saw fit, and also, more importantly, turn down deals that I didn’t like.

I spent a lot of my PD time over the years at night, on weekends, like my wife does now, building skills for a side business. Along the way that work helped me get better jobs and eventually gave me more freedom in my life than I ever imagined.

You can earn your own freedom as well. Just make the effort.



Purpose is an interesting notion.  I read about this in the book Drive and at first didn’t seem to think this had a place in business, or in managing’s one career. After all, purpose typically seems to be reserved for  those people serving a higher power, 


or working at a non-profit organization or towards some "greater good" in the world.


This used to conjure up images of idealists to me, people working for Greenpeace


or the Sierra Club.


Not to denigrate those organizations, which the work they find to be important, but I used to think that purpose mattered to those people for whom the profit motive is not a big consideration. 

People like monks copying books in ancient times,


the police or firemen working for low pay,


or even the people working at the local food bank for little or no salary.


These were the people that were working towards a purpose in life.

However now I’m not sure that’s true.  As I have thought about this more and more, I was convinced that most people need to feel that their work has some purpose in order for them to really enjoy the work.


Why do you look for a new job? Sometimes it’s money, but studies have shown that when people look for a new job it’s often because there is usually something missing in their current job. They don’t like the people, or don’t feel challenged. There is some root cause other than money that causes people to look for a change. However there’s another cause that often comes up. People don’t think that their work matters, or doesn’t have a "purpose". They don’t feel that their efforts are appreciated by some wider group of people.  They feel their work is the digital equivalent of someone carrying a clipboard around all day without actually accomplishing anything.


There are definitely times I have felt that way, and wondered if I was just pushing bits around the wires without making any kind of difference at my company. I’m sure many of you feel that way as well, and to me, that’s a sign that I am either not working on something that matters to me, and the company doesn’t value my work. It doesn’t really matter which one it is missing, because this is a sign to me that I need to think about making a change in my life.

I would argue it’s the same for most of you. You need to feel useful with a purpose or you won’t enjoy your job. Purpose can be as simple as ensuring your servers run with a high uptime, or you have built a useful process at work. It can be building software that millions of people use, or maybe just a web page you created for your Mom. Purpose is something you define in your career in the way that gives your work some meaning.

That purpose will also change over time as You will grow and change, even evolve as you grow up and go through your career. The things that are important at 16 will not be important to you are 22. And those things Will not be important at 28, 40, or 65.


At 16, where you need any job just to earn money for gas or to pay for dinner on a date,  you take any job. You don’t really consider this a career, but you never know what will happen.


At 22, after you’ve made some investment you starting a career, after college, a stint in the military, or just having worked for a few years, you want to get a job that earns more money, but also starts to develop a career.


At 28, you’ll have some experience, maybe starting a family, and you might look at a different kind of job than you 22. Maybe you want more money, but maybe you also want better hours. Perhaps you have a child, or three, and your priorities change.


At 40, you might be reconsidering your choice of career. 


A midlife crisis isn’t always about your choice of spouse. There are many people that start to rethink the work they have chosen to do in their life.  I’d like to think that no one is so invested or trapped by their career at 40 that they can’t change, especially in technology. If you make an effort to work on the career you want, whether that’s in your field or not, you can look to move into a new area. Hopefully at this age you have learned enough about yourself to make a better decision about what might provide you not only with a paycheck, but also a purpose that is important to you.


At 60, you might find purpose is becoming even more important as the  knowledge of your mortality sinks in.


It might be the birth of grand kids that remind you that your own children are adults.


It might be the loss of friends, or even idols,


at an earlier than expected age. Purpose often becomes even more important as you get older, with less of a need for a high paycheck, a lot of life ahead, and less responsibilities to your immediate family. This is the time when many people find they have a desire to give back to their world,


their community, which has helped them get through life to this point.


At any age, at any time in your life when you find your priorities changing, you will often find that you are looking for something else in your life. It’s a new chapter in your life when a new purpose becomes important to you. That doesn’t have to be some higher purpose that serves mankind. It could be that higher purpose, but it could also be satisfaction from helping your company build better products and earning more revenue. It can be the effort you make to help someone else you work with, making their job better, easier, or more enjoyable. It could be the change that makes your life better for you. Whatever it is, having purpose makes your work more enjoyable, and often more meaningful and it’s up to you to find what gives you that purpose.


The opportunities and chances for you to pursue your purpose are sometimes the result of luck, but often they are the result of hard work.  That hard work is the professional development that you do inside, and outside, of the job that pays you.

Professional Development

There is no formula for professional development that I can give you to spell out exactly what steps to take, in what order, and how often. No book can give you a recipe, or a process, or a checklist that tells you how to grow your career. It’s different for everyone and just like parenting, it’s a skill you learn as you go along.


The advice I can give you to help you build your own plan is simple: do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.

Try to develop the skills in the areas that interest you, or will help you advance your career in some way. Pick the challenges that you find interesting, work on the problems that you think make a difference. Choose the things that have a positive impact on finding the job, gaining the freedom, or fulfilling the purpose that is important to you.

Make sure you tackle your professional development at a pace that suits your life at that time. That pace will change throughout your life, growing and shrinking as the other parts of your life become more or less important. Remember, we work to live, we don’t live to work.

If you can do more Professional Development this year, do it. If you need to do less, then do less. If you want to stay in your field, learn how to get better at your craft. If you want to move to another field, spend time building your skills in that area. You get to set the schedule that works for you.

Make a plan and work on it, but don’t be afraid to change that plan, and don’t be afraid to question your decisions periodically. Don’t change every week or month, but a few times a year question yourself. Enlist the advice and opinions of your trusted friends and family. Consider their opinions and then make, or modify, your plans.

Life is short, too short to do the things you don’t enjoy. However life should also be long and enjoyable. You ought to be investing in yourself for the future, finding the time to build the career that allows you to enjoy your time on this planet.

Thank you for listening, and thanks for coming to the Rocky Mountain Tech Trifecta, v3. Enjoy your day, and I hope you learn something to move you forward in your career.

Steve Jones

The Long Road

Text of my keynote from SQL Saturday #28

Welcome to SQL Saturday #28 and I’m pleased to be back in Baton Rouge. This is my second time here for the event, and it’s as hot and muggy as I remember. At least this year I knew enough to bring a second shirt to wear on the ride over

My theme today is The Long Road.

Life is, to me, a long road and hopefully it will be for most of you as well. That’s a metaphor that we see used often for our lives. It’s a road that you can plod along, one step at a time, dreading each day, looking down at your feet. Or one that you can skip along, looking at the flowers, enjoying each step as you make it.

This same metaphor can fit your career as well. Most of us will work for over 40 years, close to half our lives, and in that 40 years we’ll spend most of our time each week working. Five days a week, sometimes more, working at some craft, some profession. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you should enjoy that time, and you should be growing yourself as you move through your career. It’s been said that there are three things that really motivate all of us: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Hopefully you can find all three in your career.

I’ve seen two sayings about the long road metaphor that I think are applicable to our careers. The first saying is that "today is the first day of the rest of your life", implying that it’s never too late to get started on whatever it is you want to do, or want to learn.

The other saying is "you’ll never be as young as you are today." Also meaning that it’s as good a time as it ever will be to start something. That one seems to mean more to me as I get older

One of the things that I really enjoy as I go through life is running. Those of you that follow me on Twitter or Facebook might see me posting something like Day 523 or Day 697. Today is actually day 704, though it won’t be official until later today. I run every day, and that number is the consecutive day count.

As I run, I’ve noticed that there are days when I feel good, when I’m strong and enjoying the run. Those days I look up, and watch the world as I run. I might find myself deep in thought about something at work. Those are the days the run goes quickly, and I’m amazed how far I’ve gotten.

There are other days when I’m tired, or sore, or in a hurry. Those are the days I look down at my feet, counting steps. It’s a struggle when that happens and those are the days I don’t necessarily enjoy the run. My aim is to have more good days than bad ones, and to really appreciate the good days when I have them. Or remind myself about the good days when I’m having a bad one.

As I’ve run, I’ve tried to learn how to run better. That sounds a little silly if you’re not a runner, but it takes time to learn how to run. You have to get in shape, obviously, but you also have to eat right, maybe alter your technique, and learn to find the "zone".

I think you want to approach life, and your career, in the same way. Enjoy the good days, work to build more of them, and strive to have more good days than bad ones.

Hopefully all of you will have a long and prosperous IT career. It can be a career that’s as simple as doing your job every day. There are many people that can do that, even today, by just doing a solid, average, competent job. They go to work every day, relying on the skills that they have learned in the past, content to do a similar level of work every day, and they go home every night to a life outside IT.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and if you can do it, that’s great. However I’m not sure that’s enough, especially for those of us working in technology.

Life is full of risk. In making decisions about how we live our lives, we  intuitively run risk calculations about possible outcomes every day. Can we cross the street before that car arrives, is this jambalaya safe to eat, we make millions of these risk assessments each week.

Some of us lean towards less risk in our choices, some more. And the level of risk we can tolerate is not necessarily consistent in all parts of our lives. I know people that are afraid to gamble $5 at black jack, but they’ll happily drive a car along a busy highway at 120mph. Those examples are from my life, by the way.

In our careers, we deal with risk constantly. Is our job safe? Is the way we do our jobs affecting how our boss perceives us. Does the company value our skill enough to invest in our training. Is the company making enough money to avoid layoffs? Are we likely to be let go? Each of these situations introduces some level of risk into our continued employment. We often perceive that as some level of "worry" about our jobs.

And we can’t always control the risk in our job. Companies might decide to downsize, cancel a project, or even leave the area. ENI Petroleum, one of the largest oil drilling companies in the US left New Orleans after Katrina. That was a decision that I’m sure did not involve a consultation with the IT staff. Or maybe not even any warning.

An employment change doesn’t just happen because of a disaster. We all have seen the changes that IT brings to a company, often eliminating some amount of work being done by people. Sometimes there’s other work to be done, but sometimes there isn’t and people are let go.

In the news the last few years we’ve seen that companies might decide to offshore work to save money, or outsource it to another company and downsize, or even onshore it to another part of the country where you can’t even apply for the position anymore. I’ve seen all of those happen, often with a loss of jobs in the local area.

Maybe it’s not a cost savings issue. Maybe the owner just decides to move the company. United relocated their headquarters from Seattle to Chicago and not all people were given the choice to move. Lots of non-executive staff lost their jobs, some because of layoffs, some because people didn’t want to move. I once worked for a private company, with about 50 people in it. I left, but a few years later the owner decided to move the company out of state, wanting to relocate his family. I’m sure some people  moved, but some wouldn’t, and some wouldn’t be given a choice.

What does that mean for you? After all, lots of the "bad" situations for your career are out of your control.

Or are they?

You can lower your risk, or mitigate it, by increasing your skills. Each additional skill that you take on, or each time you add depth to your skills, you are making yourself valuable. Or you should be. And you need to make sure that you are adding skills that are relevant to your career, and you ought to make sure your boss knows this. These skills can reduce the chance you’re laid off, or increase the chance that you’ll easily fnid a new, or even better, job, if something happens to your job.

These skills don’t have to be in IT. I’m sure there are some of you that want to pursue a career in some other field. Maybe you want to be a chef and practice at night, doing this IT thing during the day. That’s fine and if that’s the case, make sure you’re picking up relevant skills in cooking that will help you find that dream job. However if it’s going to take some time, don’t completely neglect  growing your day job.

By coming to events like this SQL Saturday, attending conferences, even reading books and articles online, you are helping grow your skills. These events should increase your value to your employer. Or to a future employer. They show some effort on you part to learn, to become better at your job. They make you more marketable and that should give you some security, and peace of mind, that you can enjoy a long career. That’s if you actually are making an effort and learning some new skill.

I’ve heard people complain about the long hours in IT. The lack of time to work on their skills, no training budget, or just being exhausted. IT is harder than other jobs.

But is it?

Lots of industries require new knowledge on a regular basis. Doctors are required to work on their continuing education every year. Many doctors are constantly struggling to keep up with medical journals, attend seminars, and advance their skills. It doesn’t always show up when we visit them, but they are always learning. I’m sure there are slackers, but as a group, doctors and  nurses are devoted to continuing education.

Lawyers as well have constant education requirements. Some of it is driven by regulation, with requirements set by the various state bars. Some of it is driven by business, with the need to understand new laws and court decisions that affect their particular specialty.

Accountants as well must work on their career regularly. Many of them driven by the ever changing tax code, which never seems to get simpler.

I think sometimes that we just think IT is a 9-5 job because of the office environment, but I’m not sure that it is, or should be. Not that I think we should work 100 hours a week like a doctor on call, but that we should be prepared to be flexible, and be prepared to constantly improve our skills.

In IT we typically do not have regulatory requirements, though some of you impacted by HIPPA or SOX might disagree. We do, however, have business requirements that change, and we are driven to learn by constantly changing software and hardware. Often we find ourselves pushed into new areas as companies evolve and look to implement new systems and applications, often built on new platforms.

So we do need to continue to work on our skills, and we ought to embrace that. Developing skill at your craft will benefit you by making your job easier, you’ll work faster, and at a higher level of quality if you enhance your skills.

And it’s a lot easier if you learn to enjoy what you do. You ought to enjoy the particular Long Road you’ve chosen to journey down. If you don’t, I really urge you to consider changing professions. I know many of you have mortgages or other responsibilities that require you to earn a certain amount of money, but there really is more to life than money. If you really want to do something else in your life, make a plan, sit down with your family, discuss it, and find a way to make it happen. My wife is looking to leave her job at some point and work with horses full time. We’re working to get to that point where she can actually do that.

I’ll leave you with a short story of someone that continued to work on his craft for years. A man from this part of the country that you might have heard of developed some skill as a musician. He became successful and played over 300 shows a year for 30 years. That’s over five days a week every year. Probably not that far from what many people in IT work.

Early in his career, while building his skills, he hauled coal for a living while he playing at night until he could focus on his music. Not the best job in the world, and some of you that don’t like your IT role ought to think about that. You have a fairly easy job, physically. Even after gaining success, he continued to work at his craft.

At age 63, still playing many nights a week, he finally had a #1 hit. That song dislodged another band from their 14 consecutive weeks in that slot. Anyone know the group that was dislodged?

It was the Beatles.

Does anyone know the song?

It was Hello Dolly!

The artist?

Louis Armstrong.

You could do the same thing, though perhaps not with the same intensity, but with some level of effort. My business partner is Andy Warren, and he’s the founder of SQL Saturday franchise and SQLServerCentral with me. He says that to build a good level of skill in a new technology, you need to devote 100 hours. That’s a reasonable level of effort in a year that I think many of you can spend. It’s 2 hours a week, 2 hours out of your weekend, concentrating on building a skill. Maybe you don’t want to do that every year, but perhaps you can spend 50 hours a year, a little over one week of full time work, growing your skills. If you are in a riskier situation, or want to advance quicker, maybe you want to spend 200 hours and learn two new things fairly well.

Today I would urge you to spend part of your time here on sessions that will help you build stronger, deeper skills that you need in your job right now. Then I’d try to spend some time looking at something that interests you, or might help you get that next job. Maybe something to make you more attractive as an employee, and lower the risk that you’ll be out of work or, more likely, that you have to accept a job that you don’t like.

And if you still have time, visit a session on something new, something you’ve never worked with. You might discover that a fascinating way to spend 100 hours in the next year. Or that it’s definitely not the way to spend 100 hours.

You are well on the way down your own Long Road in your career. Maybe you are building on your existing skills, or you are working on new ones. Either way, you are taking time out of your busy life, and spending your valuable free time to come here today. I thank you for coming, and applaud you for making the effort.

I wish you the best of luck on the journey down your own Long Road.

Enjoy your day here at SQLSaturday.