As a former mentor Christian is used to me asking him all sorts of random questions, but this time it’s going to be published online. I’d also like to thank you for allowing me to be a technical reviewer in your latest book: Professional SQL Server 2012 Internals and Troubleshooting.
Before we start on the main part of the interview around being an established author, tell us all a little bit about yourself.
I’m 35 years old, married with two great kids, and I run the consulting practice at Coeo — a Microsoft Gold Partner based in the UK with a great deal of expertise in SQL Server. I enjoy supporting SQL Server community events and I’ve co-authored five books on SQL Server.
How did you start in SQL Server?
Sometime around 1998 I was a young, confident contractor focused on optimising NT4 domain environments. I’d transitioned from Novell Netware over the previous couple of years as Microsoft was the new, cool kid in town for managing directory services but I started to feel like I needed to specialise further and Microsoft Exchange 5.5 was the natural evolution of my skills. A contractor friend of mine already knew Exchange and convinced me to pick up SQL Server instead so we’d have all the bases covered — back then the application tier was only really Exchange and SQL Server so I bought a book on SQL Server 6.5 and never looked back!
So, you’re an MVP, MCM and an MCA! Which if these would you say was your biggest accomplishment?
MCA was certainly the hardest so if I had to pick one it would have to be that but it’s definitely the least well known. I’m a big fan of the MCM though and encourage all my team to pursue it which has had a really positive effect for the team and for the business because we now have more SQL Server MCMs than any other Microsoft customer or partner in the world. The best bit about that though is that they all passed the MCM because of the job they do at Coeo every day. Being an MVP is an honour and a privilege but I don’t see it as an accomplishment because I don’t do anything specific just to be an MVP, it’s an award for doing what I do anyway.
How did you first become involved in a book project?
A good friend of mine had been involved in a BizTalk book 6 or 7 years ago and I approached his publisher to say I was interested in writing about SQL Server. A few months later I was invited to join the authoring team for Professional SQL Server 2005 Performance Tuning and that became my first published work. My mum was very proud!
You have been a lead author for a number of books now, how does the role of lead author compare to that of a contributor?
It’s really, really hard and you never appreciate the role of the lead author until you’ve been on both sides of the fence or you write with someone that isn’t good at it. The lead author owns the structure of the book so the chapter titles and themes come from them but a good lead will take a very active role in all the content of the book. If a multi-author book reads like the authors worked on it all together, it’s usually because the lead author has done a good job in editing the chapters to ensure consistency and to add helpful cross-references. The lead author is often the only technical person that reads and edits the whole book. It’s a tough job that has very little visibility but it’s the only way to ensure the project stays true to the original vision.
Being a co-author or contributor also has a lot of challenges as your role can leave you feeling isolated when you’re only involved as you need to be; you might write a chapter early in the project and then not have anything to do for 6 months when all of sudden you get a load of work back on a tight timescale. Technical feedback can also be hard to take during the project when you’re an expert in your field and it takes practice to emotionally detach yourself from it and edit your work to make your points clearer. A technical editor represents the intended audience and while you might disagree with their feedback there’s a good chance your readers might feel the same and you now have an opportunity to pre-empt those concerns by editing your work before it’s published.
How do you go about building a crack team of authors for a book such as Professional SQL Server 2012 Internals and Troubleshooting?
You have to know a lot of good guys that you can trust to work hard and weather the up and downs that are a part of every authoring project. The success of the SQL Server 2008 version of the book helped a lot to recruit the team but the fact that the author list changed so significantly from the last version of the book reflects just how emotionally challenging it is to be an author outside of your day job.
You’ve worked on a couple of different kinds of technical books, is there a particular type of book that is easier to write than others?
No — I think you always feel like the grass is greener. When you have a blank piece of paper you yearn for some structure to help guide you but when you’re given structure it can feel restrictive and less creative. When I wrote for an exam guide it was hard to make basic concepts sound compelling when they didn’t excite me anymore and writing sample exam questions was a horrible experience; creating valid wrong answers is a long, painful process that produces a very unimpressive output.
On a more positive note, I think writing about something you don’t know very well is probably the easiest from a motivational perspective because you’re learning as you go and your enthusiasm seeps into your writing.
Do you think you’ll take a leaf (or possibly a page being a SQL interview) out of Mark Russinovich’s book and write a fiction book?
It’s funny you should mention that, I have a passion for historical fiction and narratives and renaissance Italy is a particular interest of mine. I have an idea for a series of books set in that period that I’m slowing developing but it’s a long term project and doesn’t have a compelling event that is driving a timescale so I think it will be 5 to 10 years before anything solid comes from it.
We’ve spoken at great length before about your writing style and how easy you make it to break down and comprehend complex solutions. What process do you go through to make this happen when explaining a concept?
I like to think it’s because I need things to be simple for me to understand them and once I’ve broken something complex down for myself, writing is just the process of passing it on for other people to benefit from. It works for me and people seem to respond positively to my writing so that’s the process I try and reproduce as often as possible. I also use the “would my Mum understand what I’ve written” test to measure the readability of my work; if you need to be an expert to understand what I’ve written then I’m not doing it right.
I remember you telling me the story of your daughter drawing you a picture of a Princess to put in your book. How do you cope with running a company, having a family and on top of that a major project like a book?
It’s certainly not easy to juggle those priorities. I’m lucky in that writing SQL Server books has a value to my business from a marketing perspective so that helps to justify some of the effort but the hardest part is managing time with your family. Its manageable if you’re very efficient with your time but I find that inspiration for writing comes in bursts and I have to keep going when I’m in the zone so getting your family to buy-in to the end goal is absolutely critical. Ultimately, a writing project has a fixed timescale so it’s not like a hard job that has no definite end but it does take about a year to create and finalize the content which is long time to lose so much free time. I’ve had to write during two family summer holidays which is a really hard thing to do so I try and involve my kids as much as possible and we hunt for Daddy’s book whenever we see a bookshop. If they don’t have it on the shelf, then it “must have sold out”; my kids must think it’s the most popular book ever written
If somebody such as myself wanted to take the jump and go from blogger to author what would you recommend?
Approach a publisher for books that you like and tell them that you’d like to become an author. I’d definitely recommend being an author on someone else’s book for your first project to get a feel for the level of work that one or two chapters requires. Writing severely impacts your free-time and it’s vital that you complete whatever you commit to so start small and give yourself the best chance of success.
Without giving too much away what are your ambitions for the company in the New Year?
I enjoy developing people and helping them to discover and use their strengths to do their best work so I’m looking forward to doing more of that as we continue to grow Coeo this year and hire more great people.
From a company perspective, we’re usually associated with Mission Critical SQL Server platforms but we also do a lot of great work in other areas like Private Cloud and Business Intelligence which we’re less well-known for, so I really want make those projects more visible this year.
Thanks for your time Christian it’s been a pleasure as always, all the best for the New Year.
You can find out more about Christian Bolton at his blog http://sqlblogcasts.com/blogs/christian/
You can find out more about Coeo’s services at http://www.Coeo.com
Following this post from a syndicated source and want to read other interviews in the series? The anchor post for this series can be found here.