I’m just like you, except I’m from your future. Lemme rewind a few years and explain.
My Job Search Five Years Ago
In 2005, I was working from home doing database administration, coding, and Classic ASP. I absolutely loved my coworkers, but I was burned out, and the company was in rough financial shape. They’d missed a couple of paychecks, and I decided I needed to make a change.
After months of careful searching, I went to work for a consulting company because I had this idyllic image of consultants; I saw them as the best of the best, hired guns who were called in when the situation was really dire. At my company, we’d had a couple of situations where we’d cried out, “We’re in over our heads! Bring in the consultants!” People in suits rolled in with briefcases, asked questions, and gave us answers that sounded pretty good at the time. I naively thought I’d be working with an elite squad of gurus who could help me take my skills to the next level. Data warehouse project in dire need of T-SQL skills? I’m in – sign me up. The client’s BI team had been building the data warehouse for the last two years. Two months before it was set to go live, they all simultaneously quit, leaving no documentation behind.
Consulting wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
My instructions were to report to the client’s office, share a cubicle with my fellow consultants, don’t touch anything, don’t talk to the client, and look busy. My whole purpose on the payroll was to bill hours. The project plan called for a DBA, therefore the company could bill for DBA hours without me really doing anything. My salary was less than the company’s billable rate, so I made money for them just by sitting there, and of course they wanted me to sit there for a lot more than 40 hours per week.
I had to bite my tongue while my project manager made one horrendous design decision after another. (“Let’s store both the natural and surrogate keys in the fact tables, and index all combinations of both of them.”) The manager made Dilbert’s boss look brilliant – and friendly to boot. This guy scowled at us openly, insulted us in front of the client, and began setting us up for failure. He didn’t expect us to finish on time, so he told the client and the consulting company that he’d been stuck with incompetent employees, and surely he could fix everything given a few months and much smarter staff.
We delivered on time thanks to two factors:
- A hurricane closed the client’s office for a couple of weeks, buying us time
- We threw out everything the manager did, and rewrote the whole thing from scratch in the last 3 weeks
When we crossed the finish line, I thought the worst was over, and we’d be off to another project. Not so much – it turned out the client was happy with our work, so they extended our contracts and wanted us to build more features. Since I was generating money, the consulting company refused to move me to another project.
Calgon, Take Me Away
I’d screwed up, and I wanted out. Bad. So I started looking for jobs somewhere else, and …
I couldn’t find anything.
I got turned down again and again. No college degree. Not enough experience. Too much experience. No clustering experience. No replication experience. When I finally found a gig, I took it out of desperation because I was so miserable with Manager From Hell. Things were so bad, I took a job where a dozen people worked in a 20×20 room in school-style desks with barely enough space for a keyboard and mouse. If anybody needed help (or a good time), they could reach out their arms in any direction and touch a coworker.
At the last minute (literally the day before I was supposed to show up for work), the client made me an offer instead. I was overjoyed, because the client’s staff were some of the coolest people I knew. Unfortunately, the salary wasn’t really fair. The HR department knew they had me in a corner, and they had all the bargaining power. I made a counteroffer, they didn’t accept, and I signed on with their original offer.
Taking that offer, underpaid or not, was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I loved that job, I loved my coworkers, and I couldn’t have asked for a better manager. The money worked itself out over time as I proved myself, but I was lucky. It’s very rare that a company will say, “You’re worth more than we expected, and we’d like to reward you for that.”
Finding The Community
In 2007, the company sent me to my first PASS Summit where I had a weeklong Eureka moment. I was stunned that so many people had the same job, same needs, and same challenges as me. I sat through sessions, looked up at the presenters, and thought to myself, “I could do that.” I’m comfortable in front of crowds, I’ve done internal training for years, and I’d learned a lot of nasty lessons about IT. I heard attendees asking very junior-level questions and said to myself, “Self, there are people here that could use your help.”
At that Summit, nobody knew who I was. I’d been blogging for years, but I didn’t really promote myself. I just wrote about stuff that interested me, like my Perfmon tutorial, how to use VSS for SQL Server source control, and SQL Server’s “in recovery” database icon. Some of those posts were hits, but the vast majority sank into obscurity.
In November 2007, I made conscious decisions to:
- Start working hard on my blog
- Start doing presentations at my user group
- Get way, way outside of my comfort zone and work with non-IT people
Each Saturday & Sunday morning, before Erika woke up, I spent 4-6 hours writing posts, crafting presentations, and talking to vendors. I built up a great working relationship with the marketing folks at Quest, and I wrote a few things for them like the Top 10 Things DBAs Need to Know About Storage and the Top 10 Things DBAs Didn’t Know LiteSpeed Can Do. Sense a theme with the titles? That’s because I was reading more about marketing, and marketing folks know that people love top ten lists.
Doing this stuff took time out of my personal life, but I was determined to make an investment in my career. I didn’t want to have another really crappy job search, bouncing from headhunter to headhunter, having to re-prove that I wasn’t an idiot and that I was worth money.
My Job Search Two Years Ago
I would still be working for that same company today (and I still consult for them), but we had to move cities. In early 2008, Erika was offered an air traffic controller position in Houston, and the government hiring process is notoriously fickle. If you turn down a city, you might not get an offer again for years. Working in ATC was a lifelong dream for her, and her dreams are my dreams, so we moved. Unfortunately, my employer didn’t allow telecommuting, but they were gracious enough to let me telecommute until I found a new position.
After getting burned with the consulting gig, I looked long and hard for the perfect job. It had only been a few months since I’d decided to focus on marketing, so those efforts hadn’t paid off yet. Nobody knew who I was, and nobody was calling me with job offers. I had my blog URL on my resume, but nobody ever said they’d read it. I asked all the toughest interview questions, and I eventually found a production DBA job that looked perfect. I liked the managers, the responsibilities, the pay, the hours, everything. I thought I’d be there for ten years or more. I knew myself well enough to know I didn’t want to go into management, and this company would let me be a pure database guy for life. They’d had really bad turnover in the DBA team, but it sounded like people were just getting experience and then going on to bigger jobs, so that didn’t concern me.
The very first day on the job, I knew I’d made a horrible mistake. At this very, very successful financial company, the staff had 14″ CRT monitors, 3-4 year old laptops with 1GB memory, and no pagers. If one of your servers went bump in the night, the only way you found out was when you came in the next morning. They didn’t even have coffee or water. If you wanted something to drink, you had to hoof it down the elevators and go to Starbucks. You’d better hope none of your servers had problems during that time, either, because your coworkers didn’t have a way to reach you aside from your personal cell phone.
After three weeks of shocking revelations about how the basics weren’t in place, I went to my managers and laid out my concerns. I basically said, “There’s no way I can succeed here, and I can see why people are leaving. I know how big this company is, and I know you can’t turn this ship around quickly, so I’m going to bail before both of us get invested in this.” The company wasn’t happy, but they understood.
The headhunter went ballistic. She summoned me to her office building for a meeting with her manager. I was as mellow as I could be given the circumstances – when they asked if I wanted anything to drink, I said, “Yes, could I get a bottle of water? I’m going to work after this, and they don’t have anything to drink, so that’d really help out a lot.” They laughed, easing the tension, but they still beat the hell out of me. They threatened me, said I’d be put on a list and I’d never work in this business again. They said the only way they’d help me find work was if I tendered my resignation immediately, which I did – and then they gave me the old, “We’ll call you, don’t call us.”
No Job, No Prospects – But Blogging Came Through
I’d only recently moved back to Houston at that point, and I had no local network whatsoever. I hustled harder than I’ve ever hustled before.
I happened to have a whitepaper in progress at Quest, so I mentioned to them, “Hey, don’t publish that for 2-3 weeks. It says I work for ___, but by the time it hits the press, I’m going to have another employer. If you can hold off, I’ll give you the new company name.”
Unbelievably, they said, “Wanna come work for us?” Do developers love cursors? Hell yeah! They didn’t technically have an open job position, but in the backs of their minds, they’d wanted to create something for a community evangelist type of person. The only way I got this job was because:
- I worked hard on my blog
- I did a presentation every couple of months (either at local user groups or for vendor webcasts)
- I actively reached out to users trying to help
- I actively reached out to vendors to help them too
I was nowhere, nowhere near anything you’d call a “rock star” in the SQL Server world. Quest just saw a future in me and placed a bet on it. They weren’t betting on my SQL Server skills – they were betting that I’d continue working hard on my communications skills. I didn’t need to learn new ways of putting indexes on tables, for example; I needed to figure out better ways to teach other people how to do it. I was already good at helping people individually, but I needed to get better at scaling. I had to find out how to reach more people with less work.
I started by hanging out with a totally different crowd of people. I started coworking at the Caroline Collective in Houston, a space for freelancers of all sorts. The time I spent there taught me more about marketing, small business, and communications than I could possibly explain. Coworking teaches you soft skills by osmosis; you’re constantly around people doing cool things outside of your specialty, and you can’t help but pick up new ideas and techniques. I realized that I needed to pay closer attention to what non-SQL people were doing, and apply that stuff to my own work.
Bustin’ My Hump: PASS Summit 2008
Preparing for the 2008 PASS Summit, I submitted abstracts, and – they were turned down. Doh! I kept presenting, doing webcasts for Quest, going to user groups, and polishing my delivery. In Seattle, some presenter didn’t show up at the last minute, and Kevin Kline asked if I’d be willing to present in their place. I jumped – no, I leaped – at the chance. I did my first PASS Summit presentation! I believe that was the best way to do a presentation, too, because I wasn’t nervous during the run-up to the Summit. I just jumped in at the last minute, did a presentation I knew well, and nothing caught fire.
I also worked hard to improve my blogging by modeling it after blogs I admired. When I attended the Summit keynotes, I liveblogged them the same way Engadget liveblogs Apple keynotes. I figured if I was a reader, I would want that kind of minute-by-minute coverage, and nobody else was doing it. It was hard work, and I didn’t get to enjoy the keynote the same way other attendees did, but I was doing a service to PASS, my readers, and thereby to Quest too.
I attended Jimmy May’s presentation on partition alignment and loved it. Douglas Chrystall (a SQL guru at Quest) and I approached Jimmy afterward, talked to him, and thanked him for his excellent session.
Becoming a Rock Star: 2009-2010
Months later, when Jimmy was approached to write a storage chapter for a book, he said he didn’t have time – but he recommended me. Next thing you know, I had my name on a book. That would never have happened if I hadn’t gone to the Summit and approached people I admired.
When the PASS 2009 call for abstracts came out, I submitted a few, and I got accepted. At the Summit, I got my first autograph request, and it wasn’t even my book! Later, I made the Best of PASS list. I promptly fell out of my chair.
I went to the Microsoft Certified Master program, and I laughed when one of the other candidates asked, “Why do all the instructors know you?” I joked that I’m huge on MySpace, but the reality is that they don’t know me because I’m good with databases or I’m so darned attractive. They know me because I communicate – I’ve got a blog, I’m on Twitter, and I reach out to interact with people all the time. That’s all. Nothing more.
Every month, I get at least 3-4 job offers from strangers. They all read something like, “We love your blog and your videos, we love your personality, and we can tell that you’ve got the knowledge to solve our problems. Will you work for us?” It’s an awesome position to be in, and as a result, my weekends are chock full o’ consulting work. I’m able to set my rates because we both know I can solve their problems quickly.
You Can Do It. We Can Help.
Three years ago, nobody knew who I was, and I had to struggle to make it to the top of the resume pile. I bet you feel that way right now too. I bet you worry about whether or not you could find another job. I know a lot of you talk to me about looking for another job or the interview process, because you’re not happy where you’re at. You’re dealing with miserable managers or coworkers, too much work, or a crappy environment. You look at “rock star” people as different somehow, like we were born with silver spoons in our mouths.
You already have the technical skills you need to get a better job.
You just need to build the soft skills.
On Allen Kinsel’s blog post about PASS speaker evaluations, a comment from Jay Taylor made me stop to think, and prompted this entire blog post:
“At a recent programming event I attended, a SQL speaker spent the first five minutes telling us that he would never have applied to speak had he known that Rock Star 1 and Rock Star 2 and Rock Star 3 were going to be speaking at the same event. Yet after he unburdened himself of hero worship and personal inadequacy and so forth, he gave one of the best presentations I’ve seen – coherent structure, strong examples, understandable metaphors.”
He’s completely right. Personally, I still suffer from issues of hero worship and personal inadequacy. The night before SQL Server events, there’s usually a speaker dinner event packed full of really smart people. I look around the room and think, “Wow, I’d love to know what he knows, and I sure wish I could do what she does.” It just never ends – you always look up to people you admire, and you always think they’re somehow different. The reality is that the people you admire are writing, presenting, and webcasting because they want to help you. They don’t just want to help you technically – they want to help you personally, too.
There’s not a competition in the SQL Server world to be the biggest rock star. Paul Randal isn’t hoarding DBCC knowledge to keep it from you. Itzik Ben Gan isn’t keeping his T-SQL tricks under a mattress. I’m not shielding my monitor so you don’t figure out my l33t blogging skillz. The people you see as rock stars aren’t trying to hog the mike – they’re trying to teach you to sing, and we take huge pride in seeing more people succeed.
Right now, you could write or present about something you learned the hard way, and people would think you’re a rock star. But you’re still struggling to get a better job, a better speaking slot, or a speaking slot period, right? You think that Other People are the ones who get book offers, or Other People are the ones who get paid to speak. You’re wrong.
Stop thinking you’re inadequate, and start working on the things that are really holding you back. You, too, can be a rock star a lot faster than you think, and all of us onstage are trying to bring you up with us.
How to Get Started
Become a Presenter, Change Your Life – Kendra Little explains why there’s no obvious ROI, but instead shares what you actually get.
How to Write a Conference Abstract – Your goal isn’t to get everybody in. It’s to keep the wrong people out.
How to Deliver a Killer Technical Presentation – My start-to-finish post with tons of tips.
What Makes a Good Conference Session? – Does every session require a packed room? Demos? Slides?
How to Rehearse a Presentation – It’s not just about standing in front of a mirror or memorizing your lines.
Dealing with Presentation Criticism – Know the keys to getting useful feedback and what to do with it.
Choosing a Presentation Tool – There’s more than just PowerPoint and demos.
How to Get Readers to Pay Attention – Your abstract needs to hit ’em hard.
51 Questions About Your Conference Submission – What pain is bringing the attendee to this session? How are they going to relieve that pain when they get back to the office? If a teacher graded your presentation, would you get an A?