Category Archives: Managing

Quarterly Goals

Over time I’ve settled on quarterly goals as the best way to focus on the stuff I most want to get done. I still think about my long term goals and I still have to do short term planning, but quarterly goals work out to be the most useful measure when explaining my goals to anyone else, including my family. This past quarter I had two things I wanted to get done, but one of them had to get done, and by mid quarter even my daughters could tell you about my goal and why some things were getting pushed aside. Not all goals have make or break deadlines and goals can always be adjusted (carefully), but they clarify the expenditure of time, money, and energy.  Sometimes a deadline is real, painful though it may be!

I will probably end up the year with about 3-1/2 quarters worth of goals because I tend to lose a few days planning the next quarter. I could be more rigid on this and when I’m managing at work I am (because cadence matters), but for my home/career there is a little more room for flexibility. Getting stuff done matters. Getting 100% of what is possible done isn’t a goal worth pursuing though, and there is nothing wrong with saying this quarter has no goals either.

I’m still thinking on my goals for this quarter. There is some writing I need to get done and I need to finish the SQLSaturday Orlando marketing plan and I’ll be presenting at oPASS and I need to plan summer vacation and I have an idea that I’ve been thinking on for a while and a book project that is lagging too. I’ll decide in another day or two, but right now I think it will be a quarter with 2 or 3 goals of similar size, with the total hours being something that won’t impact life at home much.

It’s still early in Q2, what will you get done this quarter?

Meetings In Glass Houses

If you’ve followed my writing for a while you’ll know I’m a fan of translucency (transparency) in most things business. Right now I’m working next to a meeting room that has glass walls – talk about transparency! It seems like a good idea, it lets in a lot of light and makes it feel more open, but it is a strange experience to glance over and watch people pay attention (and not) during a meeting and to imagine the tone based on body language and facial expression. For those in the meeting it’s also easy to get distracted, especially if there is someone sitting outside the room that is trying to distract you – not that I’m recommending you engage in such behavior of course.

Review: Tell Me How I’m Doing

I found Tell Me How I’m Doing by Richard L. Williams at the local library. It’s a book about giving feedback, told as a story. To condense a lot, the technique they teach is to think of everyone having a ‘feedback bucket’ that has holes in the bottom. If a manager doesn’t put enough feedback in, the bucket runs dry. The story was surprisingly effective at demonstrating how powerful the lack of feedback (or poorly given feedback) can be. It also shows that feedback at work isn’t much different than feedback at home – both are about people after all.

I’ve always struggled to provide good feedback and struggled to provide enough of it. I don’t know that I’ve fixed that entirely, but it helped me reframe my views so that I’m a lot more conscious of the need to deliver feedback in a manner and volume suitable to the person. It’s $14 new at Amazon, worth buying.

Review: The Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox by Jerry Harvey is not a new book, written in 1988. It’s part of some reading I’m doing for a project. The book is about management and is a series of stories/essays.  It’s not a book I’d recommend to a first time or first level manager, but for all that it had two really interesting stories:

  • The Abilene Paradox is about, sort of, group decisions. A family is sitting on the front porch in Texas, hot, bored. Someone suggests going to Abilene some distance away for dinner and everyone opts in. When they get home after a so-so meal and a long hot drive they realize that no one had wanted to go, they just went because they thought everyone else wanted to go.
  • The other is about Captain Asoh, a pilot for Japan Airlines in 1968 who was headed for the airport in San Francisco but instead landed 2-1/2 miles out in the Bay. All lined up with the runway, smooth landing, just 2.5 miles short in the water. No injuries, the plan was salvaged. The story, perhaps true – I like to think so – is that when Captain Asoh testified about the incident his response was ‘Asoh f***ed up’. We don’t see that kind of honest and accountability often enough.

Some of the other essays are ok, at least one I had to skip over because it was comparing something to Nazi behavior. I saw the intent, but it was just over the top for me.

Still, it was worth reading just for the two points above.

PASS Summit 2013 Report #14

More quick notes, it was a busy day:

  • I saw down with PASS Board Rick Bolesta after the keynote to discuss his fifteen years of service. I’ll be publishing that interview sometime next week.
  • Lunch today was ok, not as good as yesterday.
  • I had a chance to interview the PASS Officers today at 2 pm. I’ll try to get those notes finished and posted in the morning.
  • At 3 pm I held an informal discussion about mentoring and some ideas I had for how it might be done at the local group level. That turned into a really good discussion, and that turned into a chance to do a trial run right there in the community zone.  Hard to describe in a few sentences, but thanks to a great group of people I got to do 8 iterations of a 5 minute approach to mentoring at a user group over the course of two hours. Lots more on this soon!
  • After that I took a break, networked some, and then walked back to the hotel to drop off my bag
  • Tonight was community appreciate night at the Nascar Hall of Fame. It’s connected to the Convention Center, a very nice set up. Good variety of food and plenty of it. Well organized. I think it felt less hectic than Gameworks in Seattle. I stayed for over 2 hours, then spent some time after that chatting with some first timers and then some friends.
  • I always like to ask the first timers if the Summit lived up to their expectations. We tend to talk about the event with such enthusiasm I worry about expectations being too high. Both people I talked to said it exceeded their expectations. Can’t ask for better.
  • I spoke with quite a few vendors today, all said that everything was going well and that being in Charlotte had not resulted in any problems for them.

I just finished packing up, amazingly it wraps up tomorrow. Before then I’ve got a few more people to see, I’ll be sitting in on the Board Q&A tomorrow, and I’ll be making time to watch Rick Bolesta do his presentation on leadership. I’m flying home tomorrow night and it’s less than a 2 hour flight to the same time zone. The only thing better would be having it in Orlando!

Need Recommendations on Being a Better Listener

This past weekend I’ve been reading The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Shafir, part of my ongoing efforts to be better at many things and also part of research for an upcoming project. The book was a good starting point for me, with some ideas on the different types of listening and how mindfulness and listening are related.

I’d like to think I’m a reasonably ok listener (I scored 17 on the quiz in the book, in the ok to good range), but I’m also prone to three listening failures (probably more, but three is a start!):

  • Talking too much
  • Getting distracted (especially in slow moving meetings)
  • Offering advice

All of those are hard. Not all conversations should be evenly balanced, sometimes you’re sharing knowledge or ideas, and sometimes it’s just enthusiasm for a topic that carries me.  I need to remember to think about what the balance should be and adjust accordingly. Not being distracted – extra hard – the book mentions that we think faster than people talk, so in that mental idle time we tend to wander. Taking notes/minutes for my own use has been the best helper for me in group settings and I need to make sure I do that consistently. Offering advice, where to start? I think I want to make sure I’m sticking to coaching or ‘look out for that pothole’ messages. I’ve learned to avoid advice on emotional issues, that is usually just listening time.

I’m looking for other resources on good listening in a business context. Web, book, video, if you’ve found something that helped you be a better listener I hope you’ll post a comment (or contact me via email/LinkedIn/Twitter) and if you have time, also a bit about how you came to find that resource and how much difference is made in improving your listening skills.

Interview Candidates for Skills, Aptitude, Maybe Both

Over the years I’ve been primary a skills interviewer. In theory I know what skills are needed and in theory I want to hire someone that can do a hundred percent of those on day one. The other technique is aptitude hiring – asking questions that can reveal the interest and ability to learn new skills quickly. Typically this is used when you can’t find the find the match you want on the skills, but it’s also common when you want to move someone within the organization into a new role, or if you just want to ‘build your own’ from scratch – perhaps an intern or recent college graduate.

Aptitude is often the most frustrating part for the candidate. They know they can learn almost anything, why can’t you hire them? In a lot of cases you will agree with the aptitude, but you need someone that can provide some value on day one. It’s the ‘how do I become a DBA’ conversation (or how to become most anything else) that we struggle with as an industry.

If you think about it some, most hires are rarely all of one method or the other. Maybe you need someone that can do SSIS and clustering, but you find candidates that have only one of the two skills. You think about the candidates, think about the ‘real’ daily work, think about which skill is harder to learn, and then you hire for skills plus aptitude.

Looking back I think I’ve long understand the value of looking for a subset of skills plus aptitude. In general I start with skills to try to find a perfect match, if I can’t find perfect then I start factoring in aptitude, all the way own to hiring someone with zero skill and what I think is 100% aptitude. I think I probably try too hard to match skills, yet I struggle to think why that is bad. Why wouldn’t I go for the perfect match to start with, all things being equal? I need to think on that.

Over the years I’ve seen aptitude hires do well. I hired a Java developer to do .Net work and in months he was as good or better than anyone I had on the team – he just had to map the concepts and libraries in his head. I’ve trained Oracle DBA’s to do SQL Server and it’s the same, mapping concepts (to be fair, it’s easier to go from Oracle to SQL than vice versa due to the great tools we have).  I’ve also lived it, being hired for aptitude over skills more than once, including my very first job as a SQL Server DBA.

Some questions you might ask/think about:

  • What is the most recent skill they learned on their own? How did they learn it? How long did it take?
  • Do they seem experienced and confident enough to survive not being 100% capable on day one?
  • Of the skills they don’t have which are most important and how long would you expect it to take someone to learn them?
  • Are you willing to invest money in training for them? Willing to live with the less than full productivity for some amount of time (probably months or more)?
  • Will your boss support an aptitude hire? Will your team? Your customers?
  • Can you structure the hire in such a way that you don’t end up with someone that never quite gets to where you need them to be? Contract to hire is a good option. Reduced salary with a raise/promotion based on some list of learning might be an option too.

Interviewing and hiring is never easy, but evaluating candidates on skills and experience as you interview may give you better options when you get to the point of making a decision.

Review: The Phoenix Project

Back in April Steve Jones mentioned reading a review of The Phoenix Project by mutual friend Thomas LaRock. It’s a book about IT written as a story that covers the trials and mishaps that all of us will identify with – corrupted data, SAN failure, too many projects, unrealistic demands, etc. The goal is to teach some ideas about how to manage IT more effectively, borrowing from proven techniques in manufacturing. The book doesn’t quite give you a formula, I wish it did. It does point you in what I consider the right direction on a lot of key topics, among my favorites are:

  • How and why to do change management well (not just pro forma change management)
  • Breaking out of the trap of the one indispensable person bottlenecking everything
  • Limiting work in progress (WIP). In my opinion limiting WIP is the lesson to learn

This is a good book to read if you’re thinking of moving into management. It’s a great book to read if you aspire to VP or higher – like it or not, that’s a whole different set of challenges and this is one book (you’ll need more) that help you understand those challenges. I think it’s a good book for a spouse to read, enough of a story to keep them interested while giving them a better idea of the chaos we often live. I don’t know if business leaders will read it – it would be worth recommending it to them and then having a follow up conversation about it.

What if you’re a working DBA, should you read this? I think you should. It’s a reminder that even our leaders don’t always have the right answers (and know it), a reminder that our leaders worry about jobs and careers and money as much as any of us, and it will get you thinking about the real challenge of spinning about 57 simultaneous plates and how that filters down to the teams.

Maybe the biggest win for the book is it shows us that we’re not alone – most of our companies have the same kinds of issues and it’s because they are hard to solve. Not unsolvable, just hard to solve.

I hope you read it, it’s worth the time.

Moving The Bottleneck

Most of you probably get that there will always be a bottleneck in a system. You implement a fix in one place, now something else becomes the constraint. The hard lesson to learn is that there is point of diminishing returns on optimizing (anything). Doesn’t mean you should stop, just that you should think about whether the possible gain is worth chasing. Perf tuning 101, right?

All of that flew through my head recently on a drive-through trip to McDonalds for iced tea. Recently it had been torn down and rebuilt, though the old building seemed perfectly good to me. Overall the new building is different in three big ways:

  • The playplace (where my kids have spent a lot of hours) was seriously downsized
  • The interior is more upscale
  • It has the dual drive-through lanes for taking orders

Interesting to think about what drove those changes. Too much work maintaining the playplace, not enough paying birthday parties? On the inside, maybe it’s to get some of the Starbucks business or the informal meeting place? The drive through lanes seem like the big win. I’ve sat on the side and watched, they definitely can move more people through using that set up (wonder if anyone has tried 3 lanes?).

Where’s the bottleneck? We stopped for tea at lunch time on a weekday and as soon as we moved forward to pay we could see it – traffic trying to make the right-turn-only onto a busy highway wasn’t working too well. Finally someone from McDonalds stepped out to try to wave people on when the road was clear. Not sure that is a good plan, but it helped and we went on with the day.

Does that mean the two lane drive up is a bad idea, a poor optimization? Not to me. It’s a very good optimization most of the time, it’s only at the highest peak times that there is a risk of a new bottleneck – road traffic – becoming the limiting factor. That’s life in the real world. No matter how much optimize when the load gets really heavy we may hit new issues, issues that we could only see if we had taken care of all the smaller bottlenecks first.

Sometimes performance tuning is indexes and hints and all the rest. Sometimes it’s re-imagining the problem and that isn’t easy. Go find a two-lane drive through fast food place, go through and order something to live it, then pull back around and park, watch a while. What could you do to move more vehicles through in the same amount of time?

PASS Security Virtual Chapter & Security Topics at PASS Summit

I just saw a post from Brian Kelley about the new PASS Security Virtual Chapter launching and the first presentation (by Brian on encryption) is tomorrow. That seems like a great step after the observations Brian made back in May about there only being one security topic at the Summit this year.

It also makes me think about the concept of track chairs and how sessions get selected for the Summit. I’d like to see the virtual chapters consulted on whether they think there is enough/right focused content on the schedule based on what they see going on in their chapters. Not perfect and shouldn’t be the only criteria, but it would be a great way to get another point of view on the mix of content.