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K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.

Working for/with High Caliber Folks

Within a couple of days of each other, both Andy Leonard (@AndyLeonard) and Paul Randal (@PaulRandal) tweeted about possible job opportunities which would entail working with them. Here they are  

This got me to thinking about working with/for high caliber folks. Andy and Paul are both SQL Server MVPs. Andy is well-known for his SSIS prowess and bringing design patterns to solutions (translation: he is a true application / enterprise architect). Paul? He only had a hand in writing key aspects of the product and managing other folks who did likewise. Needless to say, working with these two should be like drinking from the firehose, to borrow an expression. I know some probably saw one or both of the opportunities and went, "Dream job!" while others went, "I couldn't handle it!" And I'm sure there were reactions that varied somewhere in between these two extreme views. And as I was thinking, my mind wandered off to Mike Walsh, who used to work for Andy Kelly. Mike credits Andy with teaching him how to be a professional caliber DBA.

I haven't had the pleasure of working for such high caliber folks with respect to SQL Server, but I have in ministry. One of my mentors is Dr. Tom Fillinger, and the years I spent working under him as a children's minister were challenging (in the best way possible). In the SQL Server world it's about knowing your craft well. In ministry it's the same thing. I knew that because that's common sense. But how exactly do you approach ministry, how do you ensure that you do so with standards and expectations, and how do you measure how you're doing, especially when talking about an age group (bed babies through elementary school) where obvious growth tends to show only much later in life, were areas we focused on and dug into. There was also the constant reminder that ministry wasn't just about numbers and results. Yes, those are important. But ministry is about people. It's about caring for them and loving them and encouraging them and finding ways to reach them. And ministry is about what you believe. You have to stay true to that. And while all of that is common sense stuff, it's the HOW that Tom taught me that has been so key to my development in ministry. Quite simply, his example has stood as a constant challenge to reach for. That example, by the way, almost discouraged me from signing on in children's ministry. I could tell right away that Tom was one of those high caliber folks. And so naturally the thoughts of, "Can I do this?" and "Will I survive his expectations?" came up. But I was sure of my calling and sure that this is what I wanted to do. So I became children's minister, grew tremendously, and served in that role until I felt the calling to move to a different challenge.

When it comes to IT, things aren't very different. Most folks, when faced with the prospect of working with high caliber folks, start to doubt. That's a natural response. In Mike's case, he didn't know what he was getting into with Andy Kelly (and here Andy would likely quip, "Does anyone?"). But most folks who would have seen Paul's or Andy Leonard's tweets do know. And it can be very easy to talk oneself out of trying because of the magnitude of the people involved. If that sounds like you, stop it. Working for Tom was the most challenging time in ministry I had at that point in my life. It grew me tremendously to be able to take on youth ministry. When I left the Air Force, that was what I wanted to do: be a youth minister. Now, having the experience of almost 10 years where I wasn't a youth minister, but serving in other roles (mostly children's ministry), I understand I wasn't ready back then. There are days when I doubt I'm up to the task now, but I remember that with Tom, those days of doubt always turned out to be awesome learning and growing experiences.

This is the way it is when you work with high caliber folks, regardless of the field. But we have a tendency to let the reputation discourage us. That's the wrong attitude. The right attitude is to look at the opportunity for what it is. Yes, it'll be hard work. But approach it right and it should be a time of solid growth. Even taking the interview (since only one person will get each job) should be a learning experience because it shows what they are looking for which you don't know. And that tells you what to go look at in more detail if that's the field you wish to continue in. That's useful information if you want to grow your career. Also, these opportunities also represent chances to build relationships with these kinds of high caliber folks. During the time I worked with Tom, I had the opportunity to build a solid relationship with him. I still seek him out for advice quite frequently. If you get the job with a high caliber person, use the time wisely to not only learn your craft better, but also to build a good relationship with said person. Even after you both have moved on to other opportunities, the relationship should still be there.

Oh yeah, and lest I forget, working with a high caliber person can teach you to be a high caliber person yourself. A lot was made out of how, during the Olympics, Kobe Bryant showed others, like Carmelo and Lebron, how he worked and how he pushed himself. In football the same was said about Jerry Rice. In baseball it was Nolan Ryan and his bucket of rice. You see how they work. You see how they process information. You see what makes them high-caliber. And that should give you ideas of how to be likewise. I know Tom's example challenges me every time I sit down with a theology book or every time I try to think of a new idea for a ministry I'm a part of. That's what high caliber people do: they continue to challenge you to be high caliber like them. And that's yet another reason to want to work with or for them.

Comments

Posted by Steve Jones on 12 March 2010

Excellent post, and while I don't think that you should shoot for every high caliber job when you aren't remotely qualified, it's worth aiming above where you think your current skills are at this time.

Posted by K. Brian Kelley on 12 March 2010

Steve, good point. If your skills are suspect, then getting some experience first is important. Otherwise, the opportunity, if you did manage to land it, won't pay off and be worth your time.

Posted by Jack Corbett on 12 March 2010

Great post.  Because I know both guys I'd be concerned I wouldn't pass the interview, but hoping I did because I know I'd learn a lot.  There aren't too many opportunities I'd relocate for, but to work with one of those guys, yeah I'd relocate.

Posted by Jeremiah Peschka on 13 March 2010

Am I the only person who isn't wowed by "celebrity" professionals?

People become masters of their craft by applying themselves both at work and outside of work. They're the people who realize that it's important to understand how and why something works. They're diligent, they're studious, and they understand the value of learning.

Yes, Paul Randal knows far more about the internal nasty, slimy, parts of DBCC than I'll ever want or need to know. And yes, Andy knows far more about SSIS that I ever care to think about. But there are also many things that I know that both of them don't.

Skill is a product of experience and effort.

Posted by Brent Ozar on 13 March 2010

I'd be careful - make sure you understand the difference between having a skill versus teaching that skill.  I've known some phenomenal IT people who could solve anything you threw their way - right up until you asked them to explain what they just did in layman's terms.  Some people don't enjoy teaching or collaborating.  Some people don't want to be slowed down.  Some folks just don't like talking.  Put just as much value in the person's ability to teach as you do their skills.  Paul and Andy are great examples of people who know how to teach as well as execute.

Posted by K. Brian Kelley on 13 March 2010

Brent, you have a good point, but you can still get out a lot of high caliber people even if they aren't naturally teachers. Part of it is learning that you can meet their expectations (and exceed your own). Another part is seeing how they operate and picking up why they are different. Sure, you can read it. But until it's demonstrated in the flesh in front of you, it may not "click."

And Jeremiah, you aren't alone, but realize that most folks are awed by working with folks they consider ahead of them in ability and talent. It often takes a little bit to realize that you can perform at a higher level, even if you're naturally cocky. That's why it's surprising when rookies have break out performances in sports. Yes, it happens. Every sport seems to have an outstanding rookie every year. Question is, out of how many rookies, though? And that's the key.

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