Blog Post

The Long Road


Text of my keynote from SQL Saturday #28

Welcome to SQL Saturday #28 and I'm pleased to be back in Baton Rouge. This is my second time here for the event, and it's as hot and muggy as I remember. At least this year I knew enough to bring a second shirt to wear on the ride over

My theme today is The Long Road.

Life is, to me, a long road and hopefully it will be for most of you as well. That's a metaphor that we see used often for our lives. It's a road that you can plod along, one step at a time, dreading each day, looking down at your feet. Or one that you can skip along, looking at the flowers, enjoying each step as you make it.

This same metaphor can fit your career as well. Most of us will work for over 40 years, close to half our lives, and in that 40 years we'll spend most of our time each week working. Five days a week, sometimes more, working at some craft, some profession. There's nothing wrong with that, but you should enjoy that time, and you should be growing yourself as you move through your career. It's been said that there are three things that really motivate all of us: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Hopefully you can find all three in your career.

I've seen two sayings about the long road metaphor that I think are applicable to our careers. The first saying is that "today is the first day of the rest of your life", implying that it's never too late to get started on whatever it is you want to do, or want to learn.

The other saying is "you'll never be as young as you are today." Also meaning that it's as good a time as it ever will be to start something. That one seems to mean more to me as I get older

One of the things that I really enjoy as I go through life is running. Those of you that follow me on Twitter or Facebook might see me posting something like Day 523 or Day 697. Today is actually day 704, though it won't be official until later today. I run every day, and that number is the consecutive day count.

As I run, I've noticed that there are days when I feel good, when I'm strong and enjoying the run. Those days I look up, and watch the world as I run. I might find myself deep in thought about something at work. Those are the days the run goes quickly, and I'm amazed how far I've gotten.

There are other days when I'm tired, or sore, or in a hurry. Those are the days I look down at my feet, counting steps. It's a struggle when that happens and those are the days I don't necessarily enjoy the run. My aim is to have more good days than bad ones, and to really appreciate the good days when I have them. Or remind myself about the good days when I'm having a bad one.

As I've run, I've tried to learn how to run better. That sounds a little silly if you're not a runner, but it takes time to learn how to run. You have to get in shape, obviously, but you also have to eat right, maybe alter your technique, and learn to find the "zone".

I think you want to approach life, and your career, in the same way. Enjoy the good days, work to build more of them, and strive to have more good days than bad ones.

Hopefully all of you will have a long and prosperous IT career. It can be a career that’s as simple as doing your job every day. There are many people that can do that, even today, by just doing a solid, average, competent job. They go to work every day, relying on the skills that they have learned in the past, content to do a similar level of work every day, and they go home every night to a life outside IT.

There's nothing wrong with that, and if you can do it, that's great. However I'm not sure that's enough, especially for those of us working in technology.

Life is full of risk. In making decisions about how we live our lives, we  intuitively run risk calculations about possible outcomes every day. Can we cross the street before that car arrives, is this jambalaya safe to eat, we make millions of these risk assessments each week.

Some of us lean towards less risk in our choices, some more. And the level of risk we can tolerate is not necessarily consistent in all parts of our lives. I know people that are afraid to gamble $5 at black jack, but they'll happily drive a car along a busy highway at 120mph. Those examples are from my life, by the way.

In our careers, we deal with risk constantly. Is our job safe? Is the way we do our jobs affecting how our boss perceives us. Does the company value our skill enough to invest in our training. Is the company making enough money to avoid layoffs? Are we likely to be let go? Each of these situations introduces some level of risk into our continued employment. We often perceive that as some level of "worry" about our jobs.

And we can't always control the risk in our job. Companies might decide to downsize, cancel a project, or even leave the area. ENI Petroleum, one of the largest oil drilling companies in the US left New Orleans after Katrina. That was a decision that I'm sure did not involve a consultation with the IT staff. Or maybe not even any warning.

An employment change doesn't just happen because of a disaster. We all have seen the changes that IT brings to a company, often eliminating some amount of work being done by people. Sometimes there's other work to be done, but sometimes there isn't and people are let go.

In the news the last few years we've seen that companies might decide to offshore work to save money, or outsource it to another company and downsize, or even onshore it to another part of the country where you can't even apply for the position anymore. I've seen all of those happen, often with a loss of jobs in the local area.

Maybe it's not a cost savings issue. Maybe the owner just decides to move the company. United relocated their headquarters from Seattle to Chicago and not all people were given the choice to move. Lots of non-executive staff lost their jobs, some because of layoffs, some because people didn't want to move. I once worked for a private company, with about 50 people in it. I left, but a few years later the owner decided to move the company out of state, wanting to relocate his family. I'm sure some people  moved, but some wouldn't, and some wouldn't be given a choice.

What does that mean for you? After all, lots of the "bad" situations for your career are out of your control.

Or are they?

You can lower your risk, or mitigate it, by increasing your skills. Each additional skill that you take on, or each time you add depth to your skills, you are making yourself valuable. Or you should be. And you need to make sure that you are adding skills that are relevant to your career, and you ought to make sure your boss knows this. These skills can reduce the chance you're laid off, or increase the chance that you'll easily fnid a new, or even better, job, if something happens to your job.

These skills don't have to be in IT. I'm sure there are some of you that want to pursue a career in some other field. Maybe you want to be a chef and practice at night, doing this IT thing during the day. That's fine and if that's the case, make sure you're picking up relevant skills in cooking that will help you find that dream job. However if it's going to take some time, don't completely neglect  growing your day job.

By coming to events like this SQL Saturday, attending conferences, even reading books and articles online, you are helping grow your skills. These events should increase your value to your employer. Or to a future employer. They show some effort on you part to learn, to become better at your job. They make you more marketable and that should give you some security, and peace of mind, that you can enjoy a long career. That's if you actually are making an effort and learning some new skill.

I've heard people complain about the long hours in IT. The lack of time to work on their skills, no training budget, or just being exhausted. IT is harder than other jobs.

But is it?

Lots of industries require new knowledge on a regular basis. Doctors are required to work on their continuing education every year. Many doctors are constantly struggling to keep up with medical journals, attend seminars, and advance their skills. It doesn't always show up when we visit them, but they are always learning. I'm sure there are slackers, but as a group, doctors and  nurses are devoted to continuing education.

Lawyers as well have constant education requirements. Some of it is driven by regulation, with requirements set by the various state bars. Some of it is driven by business, with the need to understand new laws and court decisions that affect their particular specialty.

Accountants as well must work on their career regularly. Many of them driven by the ever changing tax code, which never seems to get simpler.

I think sometimes that we just think IT is a 9-5 job because of the office environment, but I'm not sure that it is, or should be. Not that I think we should work 100 hours a week like a doctor on call, but that we should be prepared to be flexible, and be prepared to constantly improve our skills.

In IT we typically do not have regulatory requirements, though some of you impacted by HIPPA or SOX might disagree. We do, however, have business requirements that change, and we are driven to learn by constantly changing software and hardware. Often we find ourselves pushed into new areas as companies evolve and look to implement new systems and applications, often built on new platforms.

So we do need to continue to work on our skills, and we ought to embrace that. Developing skill at your craft will benefit you by making your job easier, you'll work faster, and at a higher level of quality if you enhance your skills.

And it's a lot easier if you learn to enjoy what you do. You ought to enjoy the particular Long Road you've chosen to journey down. If you don't, I really urge you to consider changing professions. I know many of you have mortgages or other responsibilities that require you to earn a certain amount of money, but there really is more to life than money. If you really want to do something else in your life, make a plan, sit down with your family, discuss it, and find a way to make it happen. My wife is looking to leave her job at some point and work with horses full time. We're working to get to that point where she can actually do that.

I'll leave you with a short story of someone that continued to work on his craft for years. A man from this part of the country that you might have heard of developed some skill as a musician. He became successful and played over 300 shows a year for 30 years. That's over five days a week every year. Probably not that far from what many people in IT work.

Early in his career, while building his skills, he hauled coal for a living while he playing at night until he could focus on his music. Not the best job in the world, and some of you that don't like your IT role ought to think about that. You have a fairly easy job, physically. Even after gaining success, he continued to work at his craft.

At age 63, still playing many nights a week, he finally had a #1 hit. That song dislodged another band from their 14 consecutive weeks in that slot. Anyone know the group that was dislodged?

It was the Beatles.

Does anyone know the song?

It was Hello Dolly!

The artist?

Louis Armstrong.

You could do the same thing, though perhaps not with the same intensity, but with some level of effort. My business partner is Andy Warren, and he's the founder of SQL Saturday franchise and SQLServerCentral with me. He says that to build a good level of skill in a new technology, you need to devote 100 hours. That's a reasonable level of effort in a year that I think many of you can spend. It's 2 hours a week, 2 hours out of your weekend, concentrating on building a skill. Maybe you don't want to do that every year, but perhaps you can spend 50 hours a year, a little over one week of full time work, growing your skills. If you are in a riskier situation, or want to advance quicker, maybe you want to spend 200 hours and learn two new things fairly well.

Today I would urge you to spend part of your time here on sessions that will help you build stronger, deeper skills that you need in your job right now. Then I'd try to spend some time looking at something that interests you, or might help you get that next job. Maybe something to make you more attractive as an employee, and lower the risk that you'll be out of work or, more likely, that you have to accept a job that you don't like.

And if you still have time, visit a session on something new, something you've never worked with. You might discover that a fascinating way to spend 100 hours in the next year. Or that it's definitely not the way to spend 100 hours.

You are well on the way down your own Long Road in your career. Maybe you are building on your existing skills, or you are working on new ones. Either way, you are taking time out of your busy life, and spending your valuable free time to come here today. I thank you for coming, and applaud you for making the effort.

I wish you the best of luck on the journey down your own Long Road.

Enjoy your day here at SQLSaturday.