Strong Manager or Weak Manager?

Here’s the link to my editorial on SSC last week. I was pleasantly surprised by the discussion, and was interested to see that rather than strong the word ‘brave’ popped up. That’s interesting to consider, it’s less about technical skills and more about personality, the willingness to fight the hard fights.

Of course the hard part is you don’t know until after you get the job, unless it’s an internal transfer situation (and maybe not even then). You interview them as they interview you and take your best guess, which is fine, it just helps to have thought through ahead of time which things matter most.

Notes From The 2011 Jacksonville Code Camp

In a departure from my usual plan, this year I drove up to Jacksonville mid-morning in time to have a leisurely lunch with my family, and then had them drop me off at the University of North Florida about 1:30 pm. It’s definitely different to arrive in after lunch, all the excitement and chaos is done, now it’s routine. I ran into a few people when I arrived; Bayer White (the organizer), Eric Wisdahl, and Brian McDonald.

I sat through most of a presentation on Continuous Integration by Esteban Garcia (who leads the Orlando .Net Group/ONETUG), one on Office 365 by Joe Homnick (the various licensing models were interesting), and just a bit of the session by Sara Hand on Funding for Startups. I had the last slot of the day and did my short presentation on statistics for a crowd of about 25, good audience participation and quite a few stayed after to ask questions.

That was the day for me, back to family for the evening, stopping at the Apple Store to look around and thinking how smooth the IPads are in operation,something reinforced later in the evening at Barnes & Noble looking at the Color Nook – interesting device and price point,but not quite as responsive (to me at least) at the OS level.

Reflecting on the event on the way home doing an afternoon session worked out well for my schedule, but if I’m not going to be able to stay for the day I think I’ll lean towards morning sessions when I can. I missed seeing the energy and logistics of the first part of the day.

PASS Update #63 (How Do We Rate)

A short update today, following up on an email to the Board from incoming VP of Finance Douglas McDowell who suggested we go through an evaluation process similar to what is done at Charity Navigator.

As far as I can tell we don’t meet their qualifications to be rated, and to be fair we’re not a charity, but I think a lot of our goals are very similar. The idea behind the ratings is to give those who are thinking about donating confidence that the money will do some good. Clearly any organization has a certain amount of overhead, but it’s easy for it to turn into 98% overhead while paying a CEO a whole lot of money. For PASS it’s a different model, sponsors ‘give’ us money as long as we provide an audience of good prospects, so the rating has more value to our members – are we doing good with the money we earn from sponsors?

Let me change course for a minute.

I find a lot of people get hung up on whether PASS is a business or not. It’s never that simple, for PASS or any non-profit. You have to hire employees, pay office rent, train people, retain people, buy computers,etc,etc. In the early stages it’s easy to run super lean (think the early days of SQLSaturday when it was me and my spare time), then you mature and your expenses go up sharply as you build an organization. Then you typically expect overhead type expenses to stabilize. It’s possible that you hit additional change points after that, but really the key decision is whenever you grow or want to add a service is to go through the process of deciding whether to add overhead or reduce services in some area.

Here’s an example. We recently hired Karla Landrum as one of two “community” people on our full time staff. Let’s say she was hired with the expectation of coaching and overseeing 50 SQLSats per year. Let’s say that for 2012 we project 75. At that point we either reduce the amount of work per event, or we look at hiring a second person that might be (initially) only 50% utilized.

I’m always skeptical of hiring more staff, in any business. We all end up with our share of TPS reports and assorted things that if you take the time to value them, at some point you realize aren’t as valuable as you thought they were. In a for-profit that’s a much easier calculation, you say “does this help me make money?” and then you decide. In a non profit it’s harder, we need to make money (raise funds) but once we cover our overhead, we’re looking for ways to spend (reinvest) in things that are good for our members.

So back to rating and measuring.

How much do we “give back” right now and what’s a fair way to measure that? Is it a percentage of our total budget, which if I had to guess might be as little as 5% if you looked at direct community staff plus sponsor dollars we send to event plus related costs. Or should it be x% of “profit”?

I don’t know. The Charity Navigator people have done a lot of work to figure it out. We should go ask them, or someone similar, to come evaluate us and help us understand how we rate. Maybe we’ll rate well, maybe not, either way, the right question to ask is “how do we do better next year?” and then work on it. We can then do an annual or bi-annual reassessment and see if we’re making progress.

I think about how that ties in to transparency – its powerful. Kudos to Douglas for raising the idea and I hope he makes it a cornerstone of his term managing finance for PASS.

What I’ve Been Up To Lately

I ran into a friend at a recent event and during the discussion he asked what I was doing lately because he couldn’t tell from my blog. Good comment, and reminds me how easy it is to forget to discuss what seems obvious.

Last year my restlessness hit a new high. Training was starting to feel like a grind and it was hard to put any energy into it. That wasn’t something that happened overnight, and in hindsight I should have done something about it sooner. A lot of factors involved in that, and now with the passage of time I understand them better than I did then.

Toward the end of last year it was clear that it was time to do something different, but wasn’t sure what that should be. As often happens a friend reached out to me in November asking for some help with a client and while initially it didn’t seem interesting, it was the culture of the client that intrigued me and we negotiated a very flexible work schedule. For the first time in years I was more consultant than trainer and it was nice to be solving problems and maybe more importantly to me, to be back on a team of people that were fun to work with.

Early this year I added a second client and then a third, so I had some variety in my week and not all my eggs in one basket. Interesting work if not always challenging, but doing some good, and my open ended plan was to continue through the end of the year. It was tiring at times, but at the same time felt like I was recharging. Good stuff.

In June I got a call from someone I worked with years ago, asking if I would come help with a project. It was immediately interesting because it was someone I tremendously respect. The role was complex. It would require my full attention,meaning I would have to give up other clients,it would involve no hands on time with SQL Server (or any other technology), I would own delivering a major corporate goal, would have no direct reports, and most of the interim deliverables of the goal had yet to be defined. If that seems oblique it’s by design, not much of what it involves is something I can blog about.

It was a nine to twelve month commitment, and one that for the first time in a long time would take me away from SQL and databases. I thought about it for a few days and decided that perhaps this was the industrial strength challenge I’d been needing, so I set up a transition plan and as I write this I’m 6 weeks into the new project. It’s been challenging, interesting, and feels like a good change.

That’s it for now. Is this a course change or merely a detour? I don’t know. As I think about how much I’ve changed over the years one of the things that seems constant is that I like walking the harder and less obvious path, betting that it will pay off in some interesting way at some point. It will be interesting to see where this path takes me.

PASS Update #62

Our most recent Board meeting was Aug 11 & 12 in Ft Lauderdale (located so we could attend SQLSaturday on Saturday). The week started with our management company deciding to change plans and attend by phone instead of in person. In person meetings are where we hope collaboration gets done, having anyone on the phone is a distraction more than a help. More importantly, this decision was made without input from the Board, a troubling precedent.

We did accomplish some good during the meeting. We finally passed the 2012 budget after we got answers for Allen Kinsel on some areas where he wasn’t clear on how some totals were reached, and that included reviewing the salary rates for various staff positions.

The budget process also made clear how easy it is to fail as a board member. I’ve tried to be diligent during the two previous years I’ve voted on budgets, but this year I asked for some numbers and just didn’t have time to follow up as I should have. Allen Kinsel dug in and found some areas that needed review, and to be honest it embarrassed me. Not often I get outworked, and this was work that needed to be done. We’re talking – again – about how to do a better job on this process next year, and Douglas presented a rough draft of that process towards the end of the meeting. For all that it is good to have a budget done.

Another win was appointing three non-voting international members to our Board. James Rowland-Jones, Rob Farley, and Raoul Illyés were selected following a meeting held in Sweden to discuss PASS and our international efforts. I don’t think we’ve got notes from that meeting posted, but it was a huge win for us,lots of good stuff to help us grow into other countries,and I’m thrilled that they are joining us.

We discussed doing more to support precons at SQLSaturday, something I believe fits well into our ‘farm club’ system. It was hard to get a consensus on this, but in the end there is money budgeted to do more and I’ll be working on that effort between now and the Summit. (Note to SQLSaturday leads, it will be optional but interesting!)

Friday afternoon I did my brief presentation on the role of committees in moving from a mostly tactical role to a more strategic/some tactical role. At a high level everyone was interested, so after we wrapped up at 3 pm we did an hour workshop with Bill Graziano, Allen Kinsel, Geoff Hiten, Mark Ginnebaugh, and Tom LaRock, and based on that we’re kicking around a trial implementation for a single committee. More on that soon.

We wrapped up the official meeting around 4 pm on Friday.

Defining Your Culture

Imagine that you take over a team, department, maybe even a whole company, and as you look around at how things are done and how people are treated you decide that the culture isn’t what you want it to be. That doesn’t mean the current culture is bad, just that it doesn’t – from your view – fit the needs of the company going forward.

How do you change it?

It often starts with the mission statement, but that can at best be only a start. It’s too vague, too lofty to define the culture. At some point you have to decide which values (behaviors) you want, and whether you’re willing to live up to them.

Imagine that you believe in work/life balance and want that for your team. What do you do when an incident happens while your key person is on vacation, do you call them? What do you do when someone needs to leave early for a parent teacher meeting and you need them at the office that day? Or the person who is working 50 hours a week to clean up a long standing mess on their own, do you force them to work less?

Not only do you have to think those through before you can decree it’s now part of the culture, but you have to be able to explain what you mean to your team. Your team has heard most of it before and will tend to be mildly pessimistic followed by a “we will see” approach. Every single time one of these little scenarios come up they will look to see if you’re walking the walk. Miss one and you’re done.

That’s right, a single bad call,maybe even a good and fair call from a business perspective can destroy the good you’ve done and sabotage your culture. If that seems like a lot of pressure…it is.

It’s one of the reasons I think it’s simpler and safer (and less powerful) to build the culture through action than decree,because it reverses the equation. Every time you take the time to right a wrong, to pull someone back from working too much over time, even when you are willing to call it a day at 5 pm when the world seems like it’s on fire – you win, and you build the culture.

It’s a hard game to win. It’s the game worth winning.

Networking Dinner at the PASS Summit 2011

We’re repeating our event this year, a low key no sponsor dinner for those that arrive early and want to enjoy dinner with old friends and new ones. We’re having it on Monday night this year, and it will start at 6:30 pm (though one of us will be there from 6 pm on) at Lowell’s on the water front.

We had a great time last year, a lot of people showed up, Steve Jones & I tried to say hello and get people seated, and then we let the networking magic happen. It was a quiet yet lively evening. You’ve got to eat dinner somewhere, why not a long quiet dinner where you can start the week by talking with some new people that share your profession?

Registering will help us make sure we have enough seats and service staff, here’s the link:

Hope to see you there!

Writing Your Resume

There’s a  lot of info out there about putting together a resume, and I probably can’t add a lot, but I reviewed a resume for a friend recently and of the notes I sent back, I wanted to share a couple here:

  • Tell them what you want to do. Are you a DBA. An ETL developer? What job do you want? Most people try to make their target very general and I think it’s a mistake.
  • Tell them what you know how to do. Don’t assume they know what you’re good at. Don’t worry about what you don’t know, tell them what you’ve been doing, what you can do for them.

Formatting, spell check, all of that matters, but try these two tests at the end.

You Are Allowed to Care About Whatever You Want

I wanted to write this because its often overlooked. I care about things that may not interest you, things that may interest you, things that you may totally despise. And vice versa. As individuals that’s fine, we live our lives and move on.

In a group setting it’s harder. Imagine you have a colleague who cares about the height of the cubes in a new office, and you don’t care. It’s easy to dismiss it as ridiculous, but you just don’t have the same point of view. Respect requires that they at least get a chance to air their views, and that you don’t belittle those views.

It’s not always easy to do. It is worth learning.


Micromanaging is one of those words that evokes an instant negative image. Certainly there are times when it happens, but it’s surprisingly hard to define well. Maybe a very rough high level definition is “excessive oversight”.

Most of the time on the management side it happens due to inexperience, a lack of faith in employees (for reasons real or perceived), or because they’ve moved up through the ranks and they want to see details, they know how it’s supposed to be done. Forgivable, something you work on throughout a career – it’s an easy trap to fall into.

The other side of this is that employees (and consultants) will tend to yell micromanagement if you want to see any level of detail. Wanting to see into a process isn’t micromanaging. Wanting to see into it every day probably is. It’s hard for a manager to get hit with this charge. You know it’s an easy trap to fall into, so the instinct is to back off, and the result is that you lose control.

Just because someone says you’re micromanaging doesn’t mean you are. It’s healthy and correct to take a look at processes occasionally, review time versus benefit. What made sense a year ago may not now if you have a choice between doing it differently or not doing it at all.

Don’t be afraid to look into processes, time management, and all the rest. Get into it, see if there are changes you want made,document how you want it done,then move on. After that it’s a simple matter to do a 5 minute look to see if that process is being followed (and you should do that).

It’s a tough balance, but try for balance. If you’re always in the details or never in the details, maybe it’s worth revisiting your own balance.