Revisiting The West Wing

Sometimes spending some time with your spouse watching TV is right up there with comfort food, the challenge is often finding something that you’ll both find interesting and relaxing. We watched West Wing when it was originally aired, and somewhere along the line acquired the entire set of DVD’s which sat on the shelf unused until earlier this year when we just couldn’t anything interesting on the 100 or so channels we get on local cable. This post is just about watching TV, not politics.

Watching it again over many months, with no commercials and already knowing the characters and the main story line was interesting. Lots of little things were noticed for the first time, or maybe noticed before and weren’t as interesting then. I was struck by the camera work as always, the long walking and talking shots that I suspect aren’t easy to do well. But more, it was interesting to watch it evolve. Interesting to to see the occasional uneven writing, the playing for ratings during sweeps and the end of season cliff hanger, things that happen in all TV shows, but somehow didn’t detract enough to lose the focus – the characters.

As someone that writes here, I wonder at the challenges of trying to do that kind of writing, consistently. It looks like a lot of fun, until you think about being graded each week by a few million viewers!

There are some interesting characters in the story, of which perhaps my favorite is Leo because he’s the father/mentor figure, so much so that you wonder how much was acting and how much was John Spencer the man. In particular the story line where he explains what it’s like to be alcoholic is amazing, and worth watching.

There’s also some stuff in the show about politics and leadership and collaboration that is worth watching for it’s educational value. Now I know that West Wing is an interpretation of the real world at best, and whether it’s 50% accurate or 95%, who knows? But I see scenes and decision points illustrated that match my own experiences, enough that I watch the interpretation and think..do I agree? Was that good leadership? How could it be done better?

It’s also interesting to wonder, should I just stop thinking and just enjoy, do I need to seek lessons even when watching TV? I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not going to take much of anything on TV for granted without verifying, so it seems like it makes sense to think on things while it’s happening, both to learn and to participate in the entertainment.

Whether you watch WW or something else, you might try grabbing a few seasons of something and watching it. For me it’s much like reading a favorite book again, the new small discoveries that add to the delight, and sometimes the feeling of growth and change as you see things differently now than you did the time before.

Don’t Take me (too) Literally

Years ago I was part of a heated discussion about the ability/inclination of a team I was on to build a requested feature. The ‘other team’ insisted on 100% accuracy, something that just wasn’t possible – a point we considered both obvious and easy to demonstrate, and we wanted to understand what to do in the cases where we couldn’t get the answer. For a variety of reasons this ended up with someone literally yelling at me that “you know we didn’t mean 100%!”. Me, puzzled, thinking (and maybe yelling back…) “how would I know that when you say 100% you don’t mean 100%?”.

It helped to realize that it was a communication problem, but it was clarified in an instant later in the day when a very senior person in the organization said to me that “you guys are so literal, but we (business people) just aren’t like that”. That is a basic truth in our business. We in IT need precision, we expect it, and we tend to give it, but for a business, 100% availability often means 100% between 9 am and 5 pm not counting breaks. It taught me to repeat back what I heard – not the words, but what I thought they had told me. Just doing that revealed that a good third of the time we had not communicated. Fixing that, or making progress, increased the success rate and decreased the frustration. Obvious? Maybe. Easy. No.

But the thing I didn’t understand was a bit like a bad logic puzzle. If A is always literal and B is never literal, shouldn’t it be easier for B to understand A? Or let’s say that A is learning a second language, only knows some of the words, and has to listen hard to hear the words. B is fully fluent. Doesn’t B soon realize that A just can’t follow fast sentences with words they don’t know?

Understanding the difference was an epiphany, but I’ve always felt like it was more of a failure on their side than mine.

Until recently. I sent out an email to some people I work with with. I’d like to think I communicate reasonably well, but I also communicate a lot, and it’s the rare email that I really polish and obsess over. I try to state my thoughts and intent, send it off, and then move into discussion mode. That’s not always the right technique, but not every email is a million dollar proposal, you just can’t polish every email you send.

One of the replies was essentially admonishing me for using imprecise language, for not 100% clearly expressing things. And I swear, what I was thinking was “you knew very well what I meant”. Holy cow, I’ve changed sides!

The language indeed could have been better, but I think the other person also did know what I meant. Should I have written it better. Yes. Sure. Absolutely. Is it wrong to ask for clarification? No. Of course not. Etc. But…there is a difference between expecting reasonable clarity, asking for clarification, and expecting the equivalent of source code in conversations.

What I’ve realized is that I’m in the middle of the pack, more or less. I’m far more literal in both speaking and listening than many, but I’ve not as literal as some. It’s a smaller lesson, but I wish I had learned it sooner, which I suppose is true of all lessons.

Think on that, and I’ll be following up with another lesson I’ve learned about my communication skills in the next few days.

Do You Have Influence? Part 3

I talked about the basics of Influence in Part 1 and Part 2, today I’m trying something harder, showing you how to deliberately use your hard won influence to evoke change. Earning influence is perhaps not simple, but it’s an easy enough formula to understand. The risk is low. Not zero, but if you’re reasonably self aware and self filtering you can build influence. How long it takes depends on a lot of factors of course, but eventually you achieve some amount of influence.

I like to say that influence is a lot like karma, you bank it against the day you need to spend it. Much like money, you can’t take it with you. But…when you decide to spend it, you do so knowing that the power of your brand allows you to exert influence (the good part of this) and that the very act of doing so places your entire store of hard won influence at risk (the bad part). Taking the risk requires a measure of courage, or a lack of understanding that the risk is being taken, or, I suppose, a lack of interest in any fallout that results.

Let’s say that you write a blog post trying to cause a change and let’s assume that it’s a cause that most of those that follow your blog will have some interest in. You can use one of four strategies:

  • Try to influence your readers to in turn influence decision makers
  • Apply pressure directly to the decision makers in direct fashion
  • A mixture of both
  • Rant

Note: In practice the fifth option is to reach out directly and privately to the person you wish to influence, which I recommend, but it doesn’t always have the power of other options.

The first strategy of trying to get your readers to influence decisions makers is what all good groups (unions for example) do when they have an item up for discussion. They reach out to their members, explain the situation, and ask them to take action and explain what action to take. It’s not submitting a boilerplate email, but it does structure a response. Whether they listen depends on:

  • Do you have influence with them in this particular area?
  • Does it seem to be inline with what they know and expect of you?
  • Is the call to action reasonable (time, money, etc)
  • Whether they even read it

Next, we can write to apply pressure to a decision maker. Instead of emailing them, which may or may not cause a response, we write it publicly. No one wants to be taken to task by name in a public area, fairly or not, and so it’s more likely to cause a response. Not always a good one, but a response. It can be written obliquely (a technique I recommend) and it certainly shouldn’t be an outright attack (unless all other options exhausted!).

Should you combine them? To a degree they always are, but there isn’t a simple answer beyond that. Just remember you’re withdrawing from the karma bank, mind the balance.

So what about rants? Rants are unfocused calls for change, however reasonably stated. If you want to cause change don’t do anything without an understanding of how your action might lead to change. Don’t be ambiguous, state exactly what change you think is needed.

If you think about it, I’m describing politics and civic participation. If we want change, we start learning on someone that can help cause that change. We email them, we get others to email them, we start a petition, and we try to get news coverage. If we’re a little bigger we get a professional lobbyist (someone with influence) to lease us their influence.

My take; don’t do this lightly or in a hurry. If you’re going to try to cause change in whatever area, take the time to understand the issues from all perspectives, figure out who the players are, and what is a realistic amount of change. You’re trying to find the tipping point, the place where you can push most effectively.

Blogging about solving problems looks easy by comparison doesn’t it?

Orlando – Reminder to Register for SQLSaturday #49

We’re less than 30 days out from SQLSaturday #49 and we’re working hard on the logistics. Speaker gifts ordered, lanyards this year instead of stick on badges, Jack working on a deal with our after party location for great appetizers, and all the rest of the stuff that goes into making things run smoothly (or as close as we can get!).

It’s being held this year at Seminole State College (formerly Seminole Community College) in Lake Mary, the same location we’ve used the last two years. You can register to attend at www.sqlsaturday.com/49/register.aspx. Attendance is free, lunch is $10 for a boxed lunch from Jason’s Deli or you can bring your own.

In addition, we’re proud to be hosting a seminar on database design by MVP Louis Davidson on October 15 for the amazingly low price of $99. Details on the seminar are listed at www.sqlsaturday.com/49/default.aspx, or you can register directly at https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=RGELRX7Z4P38Y.

Have a question about it? Use Twitter tag #sqlsat49, or drop a note to sqlsaturday49@sqlsaturday.com, and we’ll get back to you!

SQLRally After Hours

One of the things we’re trying to do at SQLRally (May 2011 in Orlando!) is support and grow the social events that happen after the close of the official program. How do we do that? I’ve got a couple ideas, hope you’ll send more:

  • Provide an ‘after hours’ page on the SQLRally web site (coming soon!) where attendees can view/list events that they want publicized (Denny Cherry has done something similar for the 2010 PASS Summit, a nice service)
  • We start talking now about having these events and some guesses around what the official program looks like.

That’s it? As I write it I’m wishing there was more, but I’m also not sure there should be. We want to get people thinking about it from the time they sign up about the after hours stuff, whether it’s browsing the list or creating an event of their own.

On Wed (the pre-con) say, we’re planning no ‘official’ events after 6 pm. On Thurs we’re expecting the schedule to run through 7:30 pm, and on Friday we’ll have nothing after 6 pm – as of right now that, but I don’t expect it to change much. We’re hoping that we’ll have an ‘official’ networking event from 5:30 to 7:30 on Thursday.

That leaves a lot of time to explore Orlando and to meet people you want to meet – or refresh relationships already built. With an expected 600 attendees I’ll be there are plenty of diverse interests. If you’re planning to attend start thinking about your interests and what kind of mini event you might organize – maybe it’s a photo walk, maybe it’s an airboat ride, maybe it’s just a dinner at Emeril’s. I bet you can find a few people that would be thrilled to meet someone new and have some fun after hours.

The challenge I have at these events is that there are a lot of people I know, lots of friends, and I want to spend time with all of them. Worth doing, but it’s easy to wind up with a lot of speakers and bloggers off in their own groups and not meeting new people. Here’s my suggestion – make Wed and Thurs evening about meeting new people, make Friday night the night we fall back into our comfort zones and hang out with old friends. It’s not necessarily all old friends or new, but think about it, set a goal for yourself of meeting some new people – it’s worth doing.

On Vacation

I’ve hit that point where it feels like I need to work longer and harder to keep up, which is the signal for me that I need a break. I’ve got a couple meetings later today, and then I’m offline for the rest of the week to recharge, no big plans, just doing a few things around the house and as disconnected as I can manage. See you next Monday.

PASS Update #43

Last Friday saw the end of the 2010 PASS election and it was very nice to find out I had been re-elected, with Douglas McDowell (also re-elected) and Allen Kinsel being the other two winners. We had more than 1000 ballots cast, about twice what we had last year. Aside from the not minor pain associated with the nominating process I was pleased with the changes we made. Better messaging, following reminders to vote, Election HQ, more transparency – all were things we did in response to the review of the 2009 election. We also had an incredible set of applicants this year which I view as a positive and promising sign of our growth. I hope we can field the same or better next year. Thank you to everyone who voted and in particular to everyone who applied for the Board!

I’ve waited a while to post some notes on changes I’d like to see and now that the election is complete I’ll list them:

  • We have to have the debate about values – what makes a qualified nominee? There is a disconnect there that has to be fixed. I believe there should be a minimum set of qualifications, but I think there are multiple paths to get there.
  • Depending on what changes we make, we need to revisit again our transparency settings. I think more rather than less is probably the right way to go, but just as in last year we can back test ideas to see how various scenarios would work
  • We have to find a better way to identify “qualified voters”. A side affect of moving to free membership is that we don’t do a good job of this.
  • We need to look at the questions asked by the community and decide if any should move into the main application. We need to make sure new questions are posted to Twitter and/or email notify the candidates. I’d also like to see the results cross tabbed to make it easy to compare and contrast.
  • We need to evolve campaigning. Aside from answering posted questions I really did no campaigning. That’s not because I didn’t think I needed to, rather I wasn’t sure how I should do it in a way acceptable to me and to you. A part of that question is I thought – maybe just me – that even with all the interviews it was hard to tell candidates apart based solely on written answers and interviews. It’s worth doing, but I think ultimately meeting people in person gives them the best reasons to vote or not for a candidate.
  • We may not get the election perfect next year, but we should not repeat mistakes from this year. I’m not opposed to perfection, but it’s hard to achieve. I’d like to see the community vet the proposed process for 2011 early and deeply.

A week or so ago at the September 2010 Board Meeting we started the process of making the changes. Rick Bolesta is heading up a small committee to make recommendations back to the Board on how to field the actual committee that will revisit the election process. That may sound convoluted, but this oversight committee (which I’ve joined) is tasked with suggesting who should be the chairman, what scope they have, time frame, resources, and expected deliverables. Once the Board feels like we’ve got all that identified then we’ll set up the election review committee to actually go through the entire process and recommend changes.

My hope is that we’ll pick a Board alumni (former Board member) to head the committee, someone who has seen both sides and can manage a lot of diverse ideas and opinions. To that I hope we’ll add a small group of community members with different views; someone who thinks no change is needed, someone who wants to remove the Nomcom and/or the qualifications, someone in the middle. They should each represent a segment of the community and go back to them for discussion, and over the course of whatever amount of time reach a plan that if less than perfect, is something we can all agree on for 2011.

In other areas I’m continuing to work on SQLSaturday stuff and SQLRally, the latter taking up a good chunk of time but hopefully will slow down as we get closer to opening registration during the week of the 2010 PASS Summit. I’m also slowly drafting some ideas for transparency across the organization and should have something for review prior to the Summit – not a simple task, trying to figure out what matters and what doesn’t, what to do when someone doesn’t like to write, and more.

SQLSaturday Event Leaders – Reserve Your Date for H1 2011

We’ll try to push this out through multiple channels, we’re trying to forecast dates to give those thinking about events (but not yet committed) visibility into which areas/dates are already committed. We won’t set up the event until you submit the formal event request, this is only to reserve the date. We’re also using this to try to make sure we have sponsor funds available for as many events as possible through the end of the PASS fiscal year (June 30, 2011). Send a note to Sanj at PASS HQ, or just post a comment here and I’ll follow up with you.

CakeWrecks

Recently I had a student point me to CakeWrecks, a blog about good cakes gone bad.The post from today has cakes where the baker/maker took the instructions a bit literally, one example where they wanted a cake and flowers, and on the cake spelled out is….”and flowers”. Being very much the not-professional baker I can identity with the wreck portion, having at least once frosted a cake without letting it cool, and then watching the layers slowly slide off in a cake landslide.