This month, to mark the 20th anniversary of BrentOzar.com, I’m stepping back and looking at the big picture rather than blogging about database problems & solutions like I usually do.
It wouldn’t be a good navel-gazing series without a couple thousands words looking inward at myself.
When I first got started writing online, I was writing for myself. I blogged because it was enjoyable. I just liked writing. (I still do.)
10 years ago, I wanted to be 3 things.
In the late 2000s, I started thinking more about branding. I joined Quest Software in 2008, and I spent a lot of time working with the marketing team. Smart, friendly people like Christian Hasker, Andy Grant, and Heather Eichmann got me to think more about how my blog looked to someone who was just walking in the front door for the first time, so to speak.
I went through a branding exercise to come up with 3 words to describe my online persona, and I came up with:
- Technical – I wanted to write technical details about the real-world problems I ran into and how to solve them. This sounds obvious in retrospect, given the blog that you’re reading, but in the early years, my writing was all over the place, like buying pantyhose to build a turtle tank filter.
- Approachable – I wanted readers to feel like they could talk to me about my work and their own database problems. I didn’t want to seem like I was locked in an ivory tower.
- Likable – I wanted readers to laugh, enjoy their time with me, and come back for more.
I repeated that mantra over and over. I stopped writing stuff that wasn’t technical, I showed up on every social media platform, I got to know everybody I could in the SQL Server community, and I tried to write content everybody would love, universally. My SQL 2008 R2 Review post was a good example of what I aimed for during this period.
Over time, I gave up on approachable.
I realized that being approachable meant that people would actually approach me. That sounds great in theory, but there were an endless stream of people who wanted me to do their work.
I don’t remember the first time I got an email that said something like, “My client needs me to do ___, please walk me through it.” I wish I’d have had a video of me reading those words. Was I dumbfounded? Suspicious? I don’t remember the first time, but wow, did those emails come in like crazy over the years.
While I wanted to be both approachable and likable, I had zero interest in doing someone else’s job for free and being taken advantage of. At first, I kinda politely said, “That’s a great idea for a blog post. I’ll make a note of that and touch on it at some point in the future.” I pretty quickly abandoned that and just used a set of GMail canned responses.
I still wanted to be approachable, but…I didn’t want that to be one of my 3 core branding words. If that was one of the first things people thought about when they thought of me, they would bring me every tiny problem for free as if I was their virtual coworker, and I simply couldn’t afford to do that. I wouldn’t have any family time left.
Over time, I gave up on likable too.
Let’s be honest here, dear reader, because you know me pretty well: we both know I’m sarcastic.
It was easy to keep the sarcasm toned down in blog posts because I’m a huge believer in scheduling posts ahead of time. If I click Schedule instead of Post, then I have more time to think over the contents. I’ll come back to a post a day or a week later, contemplate the contents, and then take out the sharpest humor.
As I started spending more time on social media, especially Twitter, the sarcasm shone right through. I would see a tweet, respond sarcastically immediately, and then regret it a day later. (Or not.) I can sit here and say, “That person deserved a sharp reply so they could see the error of their ways,” but we’re talking about me here, and the problem is that I’m sarcastic.
Microsoft would bring out a feature that didn’t make any sense, and I’d tweet about it sarcastically. The Professional Association for SQL Server would shoot themselves in the foot again, and I’d take to social media with some witty banter. The problem was that I was gradually offending a lot of people in my industry: they might forget about their bad decision, but they wouldn’t forget the way I’d tweeted publicly about it.
A big part of the problem: my metrics. I viewed the blog as the big megaphone (because I’ve got over 100K email subscribers and tons of web hits), and Twitter as the quieter water cooler chat, ephemeral stuff. However, someone took me aside one day and said, “You realize you’ve got more than twice the Twitter followers of anybody else in our industry – it’s not even close – and when you say something kinda casually on Twitter, tens of thousands of people can hear it?” That sounds like a humblebrag, but it’s not: I’m humbleashamed. Twitter was a big megaphone too, and as I looked back, I felt really bad about the way I’d used it over the years because it worked against the likable goal. (Those last few words are important, though.)
That moment caused me to rethink the “likable” part of my branding.
I could have pivoted and said, “I’m gonna turn this ship around, and be genuinely likable again online.” But the reality is that the damage was done: nobody in the industry was ever gonna see me as Mother Theresa, and let’s be honest: I’m not Mother Theresa. I can’t market something I’m not. (I mean, I could. But that goes against my core values.) Lemme zoom way out for a second.
Your life is like a blank white canvas.
Whether we’re talking about your career, your job skills, a relationship, your online reputation, whatever, the same concept applies: you start with an empty canvas. Over time, every action you take fills that canvas in, painting a picture.
From time to time, you need to step back and survey your work. Are you painting the right picture? Have you been obsessing over a tiny detail that doesn’t really matter? Do you need to take some major corrective actions? Is there anything you need to paint over? Do you need to change your approach to the rest of the canvas given what you’ve painted so far?
Let’s take job skills, for example. I got started in hotels, then used my hotel experience as a developer & sysadmin for hotel companies. I used that experience to become a database administrator, and filled in more space with work in virtualization, storage, cloud, startups, etc. As long as I kept building on top of that same picture, I could make it better and better over time.
You don’t really get another canvas.
If you want to start painting a different picture, you can take the space you have left and start there – but you only have so much time and mental space. Your new work is going to be heavily influenced by the work you’ve already done on that canvas. If you hit reset on your skills and try a totally different industry, you might paint a smaller, better picture for yourself – for however you define “better” – but it’s going to be smaller in scope. (My Dad did that, starting over as a nurse after decades in business, and I’ve always admired the work and dedication that it required.)
Similarly, branding is like that: if you’ve built up a large online following that sees you a certain way, and you wanna change it, you’ve already got a partially-filled-in canvas. Plus, you gotta keep in mind that you painted this stuff: it’s your style. You might just want to accept yourself for who you are and run with it.
A Dita Von Teese quote helped me decide.
Around the same time I was having the epiphany around the “likable” part of my branding, I saw this:
That quote right there changed my life.
It rang so true for me because I thought back about my experience with sp_Blitz. When I first launched it, there were a few people who griped, “It’s free as in beer, but not free as in speech – it’s not really open source.” When I open sourced it with the MIT license, they griped, “He’s still collecting emails to download it.” When I put it on Github, they griped, “Well, it still has his name in it.” I wanted them to like me, but it was never good enough, and I had to stop beating myself up. Some people just aren’t going to like me and what I do, full stop, and Dita’s quote taught me that that’s okay.
I thought about the people that I admired at the time, and for every one of ’em, there were plenty of haters. But who cares? *I* liked them, and so did hundreds of thousands (or millions) of other people. They made my life more enjoyable and they taught me things. There’s no such thing as a media personality that everyone likes. (I used to think Oprah was an exception – everybody likes Oprah, right? – but the aftermath of the Harry and Meghan interview taught me that even Oprah has her haters.)
In 2016, I came up with 3 new attributes.
When you’re writing code or managing a project, you need to know where you’re going. Blogging, writing presentations, and live streaming is no different: you need to understand the end result you want to achieve, and have a meaningful path to get there. So in 2016, I revisited my branding words to come up with a new strategy for myself, and I came up with:
Technical – no changes here. I do share lifestyle & business stuff on my Instagram, my TikTok, and Ozar.me, but those are just hobbiesfor my own fulfillment, kinda like how blogging was for me back in the early 2000s.
- Pain-relieving – I really work hard to focus my training and consulting on the most urgent, most relevant things that will make your SQL Server pains go away. I’m rarely about learning just for the sake of learning: the things you spend time learning and doing need to immediately pay off in a happier SQL Server.
- To the point – your time is valuable, and so is mine. We’re both going to cut through the BS as quickly as possible in order to get what we both need to succeed. I want you to be able to stop working with me as quickly as possible so that you can go back to shipping value for your customers or your own career. The faster I can get your server fixed or get the right knowledge into your brain, the better.
(And, uh, this blog post is none of those three. But look, I’m allowed to go off-topic here now and then. This is the 20th anniversary of BrentOzar.com, and I warned you that this series would be navel-gazing.)
The last one is the biggest change over the last 10 years.
I’ll use an easy, obvious example: Microsoft’s certifications have been a waste of your time and money for years. They’ve changed the certification paths, branding, and names so many times that there’s no market awareness and no value to your career. The only time you should invest your precious time in those is if your company is picking up the tab, they allow you to study during work hours, and they require the cert. Those certs are just garbage, and they’re not going to become the next hot commodity. You’re not suddenly going to be an in-demand professional just because you crammed and got some irrelevant cert.
I’m not saying you’re not allowed to waste time. I love wasting time – I spend hours on TikTok, hahaha. We just need to be clear on what’s a waste of time, and what’s marketed to you as something productive and valuable for your career – when it’s really just a waste of time. (I’m picking on Microsoft certifications here, but the same holds true for lots of things that I pan.)
Yes, this means people who, say, sell Microsoft certifications aren’t going to like me. It took me years of self-examination to realize that I really shouldn’t care what those people say anyway: I don’t respect them at all, period, full stop. I actively disrespect them because they’re wasting your time and money, and that really pisses me off, dear reader.
When I say dear reader, I mean the core set of readers around here who are struggling to succeed while maintainining a work/life balance. You, the kind of people who stick around to the end of a blog post like this, the ones who have been reading this blog for years, who regularly find me in your Google search results and click on the links because you know I’ll get you an answer quickly, the ones who leverage the First Responder Kit to do your jobs better and faster.
If I think someone on a live stream is wasting YOUR time disrespectfully, I cut straight to the chase and tell them. I talked about my sarcasm on social media – I think it comes through much more strongly during my Twitch & YouTube live streams. For example, if someone comes to a free class and they didn’t follow the instructions in the prerequisites, they’re going to get a quick, to-the-point instruction that they didn’t do their homework, and we’re moving on. I’m not here for them – I’m here for you, dear reader.
Like peaches and Dita Von Teese, I’m not for everybody.
And I’m okay with that.