Dealing With Too Many Voices

When I was a DBA (and, to a lesser extent, now as well) I frequently got into a scenario where I’d have multiple groups clamoring at me to accomplish a request from them on short notice. This sometimes became a problem, such as when there was only x hours in the day and I needed y hours to finish everything that folks were requesting. Or, when I had multiple people demanding immediate service (that never happens, right? Oh wait, it just happened today, that’s why I’m writing this. #Facepalm). Earlier in my career I would tend to get worked up, let my blood pressure go up, and perhaps engage in some creatively worded conversations with the people competing for my time. But after realizing that (a) this really wasn’t helping things, since people still want what they want; (b) all the yelling wasn’t helping my health, I came up with a couple rules on how to handle these, let’s say, explosive situations. In both cases, they’re remarkably effective at both alleviating the confusion over relative priority and lowering my stress level.

First: don’t even try to work out on your own which request is more important. Sure, you can ask questions and try and rank things in your mind according to things like which client things are for, how long things take, etc. Ultimately though, you’re going to be wrong in someone’s eyes and that someone is going to be unhappy with it. And moreover, unless you’re a manager, you’re not paid to determine things like that. You’re paid to get things done and write code, period.

Second: let the competing groups do just that – compete! Send an e-mail to the various requestors stating something like this:

Hi there folks, this is your friendly neighborhood (DBA | Architect | Database Developer) speaking. I thank you all for putting in your requests to me, and I acknowledge that each of you has requested that I handle them immediately. Unfortunately I can only work on one task at a time (unless someone’s developed cloning technology, which would be super!), so I will be doing these in the order which they were received. Before you begin thinking of arguments to get me on your side, I will warn you that this decision is not mine to make, so please do not send me justification of why you need to come first. If you feel that your request should take priority, please work with the owner(s) of those requests in front of yours to adjust their priority. If you all can amicably agree to shuffle things around I’m happy to oblige. I’ve listed the relevant work items below in order along with their owners. If I do not hear back I will assume you are all fine with this and will proceed in the order shown. Thanks!

Let the various people battle among themselves for the lead. Yes, this can sometimes get a little bloody, so you should probably check with your boss to make sure this is allowed before doing it. Which brings us to our third point…

Third: let your boss handle it. Managers are paid to, well, manage! If people cannot agree peaceably (or otherwise) on a pecking order, let your boss hear each of their cases and then tell you what to do. This will take the pressure off you to make a decision that is clearly one at a level above yours. Certainly your boss may (and perhaps should) ask for your input in the matter, but the decision should rest with them.

Since I’ve put the above rules in place I’ve never been more than slightly annoyed when these situations inevitably come along. It may not stop (or even lower) the volume of whining coming your way, but it will let you deflect and delegate all the stressful aspects of the problem.

You Only Have So Much Time – Use It Wisely

Hello there blogosphere… been awhile since I posted!

What’s that you say? Did I lose my motivation? Why no, actually, I’ve been extremely motivated lately. Just not to blog.

You see, I came to a realization shortly after my last post: I’ve only got so many hours in a day, so I’d better use them as best I can. I love blogging; really, I do! But I love spending time with my family more. I love working on our drafty old house, tilling the garden, seeing some tangible results of my work. For some reason, I am finding myself really hung up on the whole idea of producing things with physical presence. For example, for Christmas I spent hours building the simplest little wooden toy for my son. I’m not a natural and not very experienced at that sort of thing, so it was not easy work. But I found immense enjoyment in it, and the look on his face when he saw it come out of the box was nothing short of priceless.

Perhaps this is why I haven’t been blogging much. Writing is wonderful, but if I’m going to be brutally honest, I’d much rather write science fiction than SQL Server. Please don’t misunderstand me; I love my work and learning about SQL Server. When I’m on the job I eat, sleep, and breathe it. I’d say you’d be pressed to find someone more passionate and focused than I am during those 8-10 hours on Monday through Friday. But when work is done, I want it to be done.

Capture

The above picture is something that really had some profound impact on my perspective. For a while I felt like I was floundering in my personal life. Things never seemed to really get done. I had my lists, and I was reviewing them, but I lacked focus. I never felt like I had much time to get things done. So, I decided to see just how much time I really had.

Using a simple Excel sheet, I laid out my week, then blocked out sections in color for things I knew I had to do. Green is sleeping, yellow is work, and blue is meals. And when I saw what was left, I was shocked. My feeling that I never had enough time to get stuff done? Boy was I right. Comparatively speaking, my “discretionary” time (that is, the time during which I pretty much choose what I do) was quite small.

Obviously, short of quitting my job or getting less sleep (and believe me, you don’t want to see me in zombie mode), there was no way to increase the time available to me. So instead, I chose to be more deliberate with how I spend what time I have. I sat down and thought long and hard about what is important to me. After awhile, I came up with a list, and while work and SQL Server were definitely on there, they weren’t as high up as I’d have thought. So, I made the conscious choice not to write on this blog, while doing other things.

That word, “conscious”, is a very important one. Whereas in previous hiatuses, the lack of postings was more about my lack of motivation, this one was more about doing what was important to me. And I hope that in sharing this, I might encourage others to do the same. J.R.R. Tolkein famously wrote “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” So, if you find yourself mindlessly wandering through your personal life, as I did, stop wandering, and start deciding.

Now don’t fret, dear reader, for I am not abandoning this blog. I’m still going to write, even about SQL Server! But at the same time, I’m going to spend a good bit of time on other things, like writing that novel that’s been sitting at one chapter for over a year now, or tending to my garden (because c’mon, who doesn’t love fresh-from-the-ground veggies?). I hope you’ll stay with me, because I do think I’m still going to write interesting stuff; just a little more diverse than previously. I’m going to work on getting category-specific feeds up, so if you like, you can just subscribe to those that interest you. I also plan on trying to write a few articles for the likes of SQL Server Central or Simple Talk.

The Importance of Making Junk

I was just sitting here looking over some old code projects of mine, and thinking “Man this stuff is junk. How’d I write this?! And why’d I waste my time on it?” These included a Java library for parsing tweets for data mining (boy that was going to be a great open source project), my first .NET application that was for work and used Microsoft Access as a back-end, and various other half-started works that never really took hold. At first this was rather discouraging, since it reminded me of my genetic pre-disposition to not following through on my projects (a topic for another day for sure).

Then it hit me: it’s only by writing all this crap (and believe me, most of it really is steaming piles of crap), trying out different routes and ideas, and ultimately letting them fall off that I’ve been able to improve my skills as much as I have. Picture the proverbial writer sitting at the typewriter with a pile of crumpled papers next to them, head in hands. But then, one day, something clicks, and out comes a masterpiece.

It’s not important that all we produce is wonderful, glittery, and perfect. No, what’s really crucial is that we keep going and pushing ourselves, especially when it seems like all we churn out is junk. That junk is gold, because it’s what teaches us to do better. As long as we keep learning from our mistakes and bad ideas, then we grow as professionals and human beings. And sooner or later, you might just produce that golden egg.

The Power of Having Everything In Front Of You

Today was my first day back from work after nearly a week off.  Surprisingly, I had only around 300 e-mails to process in my inbox; I usually receive that amount each day, not counting automated alerts and the like.  After reviewing everything and making sure all my lists were up to date, I began working on what was the most important, urgent matter at the time.

By about 9:30AM, several fires had appeared on the horizon.  Each demanded much attention from my team, and it quickly became obvious that my day would not be very productive, at least from the perspective of crossing off a lot of items.

In the past situations such as this would cause my blood pressure to rise almost instantly.  Not because of any physical danger (“When Servers Attack” anyone?), but because subconsciously, I immediately began worrying about what I was not doing.  That is, if I was spending all my effort to correct some immediate problem, what was getting implicitly pushed off?

So what happened today?  Certainly at first, I felt a slight twinge and a brief rise in my pulse.  But after taking a breath and calmly reviewing everything in my “Next Actions” list, I was able to definitely know that I was indeed directing my time appropriately.  The feeling was one I am certainly not used to!

This state of being was possible only because of the following pre-existing conditions:

  1. I have been incredibly good in terms of making sure that each and every possible “open loop” is in my trusted system, no matter how small or how insignificant it may seem.
  2. I have developed the habit that whenever one of those “it needs to be done now” (usually stated by whomever reports the problem) type of problems hits my plate, I do the following:
    1. Use soothing words and a little empathic listening to get the person to remain calm.
    2. Ask pointed questions about the true severity of the issue. How many, what’s the workaround, etc.
    3. Take note of all the information for future reference. Moleskins are great for this.
    4. Politely let the person know that I am going to review the problem with my team and get back to them when more information is available, and as soon as time permits.
    5. If I believe the problem is truly urgent, I’ll immediately decide on a next action and put it in my list. Otherwise, I’ll throw some reminder into my “in bin” for later perusal.
  3. I review my lists with near religious regularity, constantly reminding myself to not lose sight of the larger picture.

All of these combine to enable me to do my daily work with agility and perspective, such that at any given point, I feel very confident that I am doing exactly what  I should be.

The most difficult part?  Maintaining an even keel and and objective frame of reference in the face of perpetual problems.  That is a skill that I am still very much honing, and one that can only be developed through daily practice and a strong sense of your emotions.

How do you maintain a broad view of your responsibilities, while still responding to the fires that fall on you unexpectedly?