Jan 232014

Pro Tip: If you’re a recruiter and sending out mass emails about positions you’re trying to fill, do yourself a favor and make sure you’re not accidentally including other things, like a letter of reprimand from your boss. The names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent, but here’s the email I received yesterday:

My name is Frank Schlawmeyer and I am a Sr. Executive Recruiter for B.O. Associates, a premier search firm representing major clients in the Chicago area. I discovered your information while sourcing for an opportunity we have as a SQL Server DBA for a major e-commerce company in the Chicagoland area. This is a full-time permanent DBA role and requires experience as both an operational / production DBA and must have experience with T-SQL.

Your background is impressive and I would appreciate an opportunity to speak with you regarding your work history in relation to this role. If you are interested, please send me an updated copy of your resume. I can be reached via telephone at <redacted> or via email at <redacted>. If you are not interested, please feel free to forward this information on to anyone that you feel may be a fit.

For your reference here is a link to the job description: <redacted>

Thank you in advance for your time and I am looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Frank Schlawmeyer
Sr. Executive Recruiter
B.O. Associates

Looks like a pretty standard recruiter email. But wait, there’s more! I’m so glad I scrolled down because I found this gem:

From: Otto Oberkuchen
To: Frank Schlawmeyer
Subject: calls?


You have 2 submittals that were done yesterday yet only 5 calls so far today. It is extremely hard for me to manage the others and push them on calls when they see a senior person like yourself getting away with that. It would be different if you were making tons of placements but without that it makes it tough. Any thought on how I should reply when they ask that? Don’t make it a topic of discussion out there either. This is going to be a year of “No Excuses And All Successes”!! Thanks

Otto Oberkuchen
B.O. Associates

Ouch. “No Excuses and All Successes” sounds like an incredibly understanding and flexible management methodology to me. I’m sure it’s working out great for them, especially since this isn’t the first time I’ve had an interesting encounter with this particular agency. I’ll be sure to add this company to my list of places I hope to work someday, right after an apiary. (And if you know me, you know I will run away if I even think there’s a stinging insect nearby.)

Sadly, this also isn’t the first time I’ve received emails I shouldn’t have seen. A little proofreading could have gone a long way here – it takes only a few seconds to give an email a once-over before sending it. I’ve worked that step into my routine to help avoid situations just like this one.

Help Frank Out

I really do feel for Frank, and he did say “If you are not interested, please feel free to forward this information on to anyone that you feel may be a fit.” So, if you’re interested in this position, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to get you in touch with Frank.

Maybe he can fill this position and have one more success (and one less excuse) to take back to Otto!

Dec 102013

This post is part of the DBA JumpStart series being written by myself and 19 other professionals from the SQL Server community and coordinated by John Sansom (@SQLBrit). It has been compiled into a free eBook, which can be found here. Be sure to download a copy!

If you could give an aspiring DBA just one piece of advice what would it be?

My favorite thought on this topic is don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are one of the ways that we learn. Make a lot of them, and you’ll have many opportunities to learn. Really.

I hear the term “expert” thrown around a lot, occasionally even in contexts I agree with. To me, an expert is someone that’s found an incredible number of ways to break things, and has used those experiences to their advantage. They have figured out how to fix everything that they have broken, and even more importantly, they know how to avoid breaking things in the future. Whenever something goes awry, the worst possible outcome is to not learn anything from it. So long as this isn’t the case, you can always make at least some good come from a sticky situation.

This is not to say that you should go out making mistakes or breaking things. Creating problems in a production environment is still a very bad idea that could have a negative impact on your career. These mistakes are best made in development or (even better) a local sandbox instance. Practice everything there before making changes in production. Even more importantly, take some time and think about all the different things that can go wrong. If possible, make those situations happen in your DBA environment and then figure out the best way to recover from them.

Along those lines, not being afraid to make mistakes also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for them. Even if they are inconvenient, simple actions such as making sure backups are up-to-date and on hand before launching a change can be the difference between looking like a rockstar for recovering gracefully from an unforeseen issue, and having egg on your face.

Nov 212013

There was an interesting debate on Twitter the other day over whether or not it’s important for an interviewee to know what a company does, or if they should just know whatever technology the job description calls for and nothing else. Jen McCown blogged about it in detail and included a lot of comments.

There are definitely valid points on both sides, but in general I think it’s always a good idea to know what you’re potentially getting yourself into before you head to an interview. This way, should you find there’s something about the position you object to beforehand, you can save both yourself and the interviewer a lot of time by canceling.

Even more importantly, taking the time to learn a little about the company and what they do shows your interviewer(s) that you are really interested in the position, and may separate you from the other candidates. If someone is faced with two similarly-qualified applicants and one of them put forth the extra effort to do some research about the company in advance, which candidate looks better?

True story: back when my brother was a senior in high school he was applying for all the local scholarships he could find, one of which was offered by the local Masonic Lodge. They decided to bring him in, and I can remember him mentioning to my father one morning that the interview was later that afternoon. My dad asked if he knew anything at all about the masons, and if not, maybe he should look up some facts about them. Adam heeded my father’s advice before heading off to be interviewed.

A few days later, the Worshipful Master (awesome title!) called my brother to say they decided to award him the scholarship. This of course was awesome and we were all very happy, but even more entertaining was why they decided to award it to him.

It turns out they only invited 2 people in for interviews, and one of the questions they asked was “What do you know about the Masons?” Adam came prepared, and said he knew they were one of the oldest fraternal organizations in the world, and that several U.S. Presidents, including George Washington, were all Masons as well.

They said the other candidate, when asked the same question, replied something along the lines of “You guys are a cult, right?”

So if you want the job, or the scholarship, or for whatever reason find yourself needing to impress someone, do your homework ahead of time.

Oct 232013

I was extremely fortunate to be able to present at the PASS Summit this year. It was an amazing and energizing time, despite getting about 15 hours of sleep the entire week. Much like last year, here are some of my thoughts and highlights in no particular order:

  • Pusateri Christmas Summit (circa 2000)

    I love community. Really, I do. I’ve always loved getting people together to have a great time, whatever we happened to be doing. Back in high school my brother and I would have a huge Christmas party every year and invite all our friends. We’d also be sure to cram everyone into a photo – quite the challenge in my parents’ small basement. I don’t think PASS Summit is all that different. It’s a giant group getting together to share our knowledge with others and have a great time while we’re at it. Sure it’s a little bigger and a single photo of everyone isn’t possible, but the motivation is the same. To me what makes PASS events like the Summit special is the way we all revel in community. It’s the little things like the Community Zone, an area loaded with beanbag chairs and power outlets so people can hang out, charge their gadgets, get help with a technical problem, or just get to know each other. The sessions are important and valuable, but even moreso is the opportunity to catch up with old friends and make new ones. If I need to skip a session or two to do that, I don’t feel the least bit guilty.

  • Charlotte is pretty cool. I love Seattle and had a great time there last year, but Charlotte provided a nice change of scenery and showed me an excellent time too. I wish I had more free time to explore the city, but everything I saw about it I enjoyed. The weather was mild, the downtown easy to navigate, and I’ve never seen crosswalks with longer signals in my life! 50 seconds to cross a 4-lane road is amazing – I’m used to Chicago, where the “don’t walk” signal is usually flashing by the time you make it halfway across the street.
  • There’s always plenty to do. I can’t imagine going to a conference and returning to my hotel room once sessions are over for the day. Thanks to #sqlfamily, that’s never been an option. There’s more than “enough” things to do – there’s too much! Between the PASS-organized events like the volunteer appreciation party (this year at the NASCAR Hall of Fame) and the exhibitor reception, or the plethora of events organized by community members and sponsors such as the #SQLRunnetworking dinner, or SQLKaraoke. I like sleep, but not during summit week. I don’t think I got back to my hotel before 2am any night.
  • Community Zone Photo

    Chillin’ at the Community Zone

    The content was amazing. Once again, my biggest problem with sessions was simply determining which ones to attend in person. Buying the recordings is something I highly recommend, not only because you can watch all the sessions, but also because it’s much easier to absorb material when you can hit “pause”.

  • I’m getting better at names and faces. Last year I did a pretty good job of making a fool of myself a few times. I like to think I did way better this time: the vast majority of people that I couldn’t identify were actually ones I’ve never met in person before. I got to meet tons of people for the first time this year, and I don’t think it’s fair to list names as I will undoubtedly be leaving people out.
  • My wife wasn’t there. You’re probably thinking that I’m saying this in the “SWEET! I’m on my own for the week!” sense, but not the case. Early in the week I was fortunate to meet Cathrine Wilhelmsen (@cathrinew). A few of us started hanging out at the social events each night, and shortly thereafter the comments started rolling in about how nice it was that I brought my wife with. Wha? I didn’t realize it at first, but several other people pointed out that Cathrine has a certain resemblance to my wife. See for yourself.
  • It’s the best week for twitter. Ever. Twitter is a great way to communicate with groups most of the time, but it really shines at events like this. It’s an amazing tool for keeping in touch with all your friends and finding out where everyone is. It’s also extremely enlightening during keynote sessions. I can’t fathom attending the summit (or any other tech conference) without it.
  • Presenting at PASS Summit is somewhat nerve-wracking. It really shouldn’t scare me – I’ve been getting up and speaking in front of people for over 10 years. Back in college it was things like the Physics Van, and more recently it’s at user groups and SQL Saturdays, but summit is different. Why? Because for the first time in my life, people were paying something to see me. Sure it was indirectly – they’re paying to attend the conference and then choosing my talk as opposed to forking over cash for a ticket with my name on it, but still I felt extremely obligated to put on an excellent session. Thankfully once I got started everything seemed to fall into place. And much like when I speak at a user group or SQL Saturday, I can’t wait to do it again!
  • MCM Photo

    All of the Microsoft Certified Masters we could gather for a photo.

    Being asked to autograph a book is surreal. Yep, I co-authored a book. I have a post all about it coming up in the queue, but to briefly summarize, I contributed a chapter to Tribal SQL, a project started by the Midnight DBAs, and published by Red Gate. Red Gate was kind enough to do a launch event at the summit, distribute free copies, and have a signing for all the authors that were present. It was a ton of fun to see people so excited about something I contributed to.

  • It’s not possible without sponsors. Even though the summit isn’t free, the costs of putting on such an event are so massive that it still wouldn’t be possible without sponsors. A huge thank-you to all the vendors and organizations that had a booth in the exhibition hall or contributed in any way. Probably the best way to show your appreciation – and this goes for any conference – is to spend some time in the exhibit hall, talk with them, and let them scan your badge. Yeah, you’ll get some emails from them, but nothing you can’t stop later if you’re not interested. Many vendors determine the “value” of a conference by how many people they make contact with. If they don’t get enough foot traffic they may not be likely to come back.
  • Thank you to SQL Sentry! I don’t like singling out sponsors – all are important, and many go to great lengths to sponsor a wide variety of SQL Server community events throughout the year. But I feel a special shout-out to SQL Sentry is warranted this time. Charlotte is their home, and they went above and beyond to make all of us feel welcome. They also arranged for the free shuttle trolleys all around town, distributed maps of trolley routes and points of interest, sponsored the #SQLRun, and probably did a bunch more things I’m not even aware of. I’m very happy that my workplace is a customer of theirs because I know how much they support this community that I love.

That’s all for this time. I can’t wait to do it all over again in 2014!

Sep 052013

There have already been several posts on this topic, but I feel compelled to add my thoughts to the mix.

MCM LogoFor years I told myself only half-jokingly that by the time I became a Microsoft Certified Master, MCMs would either be a dime-a-dozen, or nobody would care. This past weekend Microsoft fulfilled this prophecy and announced they are retiring their most advanced certification programs: Microsoft Certified Master (MCM), Microsoft Certified Solutions Master (MCSM) which was supposedly replacing it, and Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA). People already holding these certifications will be allowed to retain their credentials, but the exams will no longer be offered after October 1, 2013. At this time, there is no replacement for these certifications.

While extremely disappointed, I am now at peace with the fact that the decision has been made and nothing is going to change it. After taking a few days to think about it all, here are a few of my thoughts, in no particular order.

Why retire these programs?

According to the announcement: “The IT industry is changing rapidly and we will continue to evaluate the certification and training needs of the industry to determine if there’s a different certification needed for the pinnacle of our program.”

That’s obviously the PR-approved statement. The most believable actual reasons that have been offered center around a) the program losing too much money, and b) too few people earning these certifications. Tim Sneath, Senior Director of Microsoft Learning, touched on both of these points in his reply to a Microsoft Connect item that was opened in response. There is much speculation as to why these programs were retired, but in all honesty we’ll probably never know.

The one comment of Tim’s that I found most eye-opening was that only 0.08% of all MCSE-certified individuals have these top-level certifications. He said “it just hasn’t gained the traction we hoped for.” I have to wonder what amount of traction they were hoping for. 5 percent? 10 Percent? More? I didn’t realize a certain number of people had to attain the certification in order to make it valid. If a pre-determined quota of people don’t get top marks on a final exam, does that mean no student can? This vaguely reminds me of the “everyone is special” mentality. As soon as everyone is special, nobody is. If everyone had a master-level certification, there would be no point to it.

Why tell us in the middle of the night?

I’ve always considered the tactic of doing something in the middle of the night in an attempt to avoid backlash to be particularly shameful. That being said, here in Chicago we are experts at it. In my lifetime we’ve had a mayor take the oath of office in the parking lot of an abandoned restaurant at 4:00 AM. Not to be outdone, the next mayor took it upon himself to destroy an airport under cover of night.

I received the announcement email from Microsoft at 12:04 AM on Saturday. I realize that 12:04 AM here in Chicago is the middle of the day on the other side of the World, but an unscientific poll I conducted tells me that the majority of people affected by this are based in the US, and it was the middle of the night here. The middle of the night on a three-day weekend, no less. Was this to be upfront and transparent? Of course not – it was to give the maximum amount of time for tempers to calm down before everyone headed back to work on Tuesday.

C’mon Microsoft – you owe us a little better than that. If you know there will be strong reactions to a decision, why insult us all by announcing it at midnight? Do you really think some of your most proficient users are stupid enough to forget about something over a holiday weekend?

One month of notice, really?

The last day anyone can take the advanced certification exams is now October 1, 2013. That’s a whole month of notice. That’s just mean. I understand a cutoff is necessary and no matter what it is people are going to be upset, but there are better ways to do it, especially when it was made clear long ago that these exams were going away at the end of 2013. In fact as I type this the MCM page on the MS Learning site still says “You will have until January 1, 2014 to take or retake your knowledge and lab exams for your MCM Directory, SQL, Exchange, and Lync certifications…” Did moving the date up 3 months really make that big of a difference?

Even the TechNet retirement got an entire year of notice. I blogged about that one too, and I’m sure that affected way more people than this announcement does, but at least no TechNet subscribers can argue that they weren’t given reasonable warning.

In this case I feel like the rug was pulled out from under a whole lot of people. I spent hundreds of hours preparing for the exams and taking (and re-taking!) them, and I know I’m not alone. To find out in the middle of preparing that you now have one month to pass the test or else never become an MCM – that’s brutal. Especially because as I said in a previous post, I’m pretty sure most people don’t pass it on their first try.

MCITP/MCSE is now the top certification?

Without a master-level certification, the new terminal degree for SQL Server is the MCITP for SQL Server 2008 and MCSE for SQL Server 2012. I don’t want to diminish the value of these certifications, as many people work hard to earn them legitimately, however there are always individuals that ruin things for everyone. When you can buy a book, read it for a week or two, and then pass the test without ever touching a SQL Server, the certification can be perceived to have less value. I’ve interviewed several people who held SQL Server MCITPs and could not answer simple questions such as “what is a trigger?” or “please list two recovery models.” And a certification that allows this is now the absolute best-of-the-best that can be awarded for SQL Server knowledge? That’s a problem. People falling under that category are a big reason why so many in the industry don’t believe in certifications at all.

It kind of reminds me of how my Scoutmaster used to talk about the now-discontinued Boy Scout merit badge for sheep farming. Apparently you could earn it without ever having set foot on a farm or laying eyes on a sheep. What made the MCM special was the lab exam requirement, where you had to prove your skills by completing objectives in different scenarios. No amount of written test questions will ever replace having to demonstrate you know how to recover a badly broken database while the clock is ticking. I have to imagine the same could be said for farming sheep.

Fading into obscurity

The MCM is a certification that many employers don’t even know about: so few people have it that it’s not always on the radar. Just a few weeks ago I was talking with a recruiter who congratulated me on becoming a Microsoft Certified Master – they made it sound like they understood what the certification entailed. They then followed that up by asking if I’m comfortable performing backups, restores, and working with T-SQL, because “we have a position you might be qualified for even though you don’t have the 10 years of experience our client has requested.”

I fear that even fewer will know about the MCM certification now that it’s no longer offered and there’s no comparable replacement. Explaining it to people will be even harder once it’s removed from the Microsoft Learning website. I’m always happy to help others understand what the MCM is, but I worry that its value will only go down as fewer employers recognize the idea of hiring an MCM as a possibility.

Giving thanks

If there is a silver lining to be had here, I suppose it is that there’s a chance of a pinnacle-level certification program being created again sometime in the future. Tim Sneath eluded to this in his post I linked to above, so I certainly hope it becomes a reality at some point.

Finally, I’m very proud to be part of a wonderful community of DBAs who all do a tremendous job of supporting each other, both in our careers and also in other aspects of our lives. I would like to thank a few individuals who have been particularly helpful in my MCM journey:

Chuck Rummel (@crummel4) – without whom I might not even be a DBA today. Chuck interviewed me for my first job out of college, and while I spent my first few years as a developer, he made sure I landed a spot on his team as soon as one was available.

Brent Ozar (@brento) – not only has Brent’s blog been immensely helpful, but Brent was the speaker at the first PASS chapter meeting I ever attended. I reached out to him shortly thereafter and with his encouragement I joined twitter, started speaking and blogging, and the rest is history. Brent’s blog series about his MCM experience first made me realize that I wanted to earn that certification as well.

Ted Krueger (@onpnt) – Ted has always had my back. When I think back to my first-ever presentation at SQL Saturday Iowa City in 2010, Ted cared enough to sit through my talk and give me lots of encouragement afterwards. I shudder to think about how terrible that session went, but after talking to Ted, I felt way better and had lots of tips for how to improve things going forward.

Kimberly Tripp (@KimberlyLTripp) and Paul Randal (@PaulRandal) – Kimberly and Paul’s blogs are not only tremendous resources for those wanting to learn SQL Server internals, but they are basically required reading for those studying for the MCM. Their company, SQLskills, puts on phenomenal training that I was fortunate enough to be able to attend back in 2010. Additionally they have put up with countless questions from me over the past few years.

Final thoughts

Taking away the ability to earn the MCM/MCSM/MCA doesn’t mean there will no longer be plenty of professionals who are highly skilled in Microsoft technologies – there will be new ones every day. However there will no longer be an easy way to separate the “good” from the “elite”. By cutting off these certification programs, Microsoft effectively stopped accepting applications for their “A-Team” – that group of people you can count on when you’re in deep trouble and desperately in need of help.

Hopefully MS quickly recognizes the need to identify these individuals and will resurrect the program in some way or create a new equivalent. Until then, those looking for such people will just have to follow the advice of one of my favorite childhood TV shows:

“If you have a problem – If no one else can help – and if you can find them – maybe you can hire an MCM (or MCA)”