Why we do what we do

This month, Andy Leonard (@andyleonard) asks why do we do what do. He talks about the fact that money is rarely the only reason people become entrepreneurs, and challenges us to to explain what makes us get up in the morning.

Money is definitely not the driving force in my life. I do feel a burden of providing for my family, and don’t feel like money has ever really been a thing going spare, but I also see money as a tool to bless others rather than as something to hold onto.

For me, I created LobsterPot Solutions to help people. It’s a vehicle so I can serve people in whatever ways that I can – typically through consulting about their data, be it strategy, analytics, intelligence, data integrity, whatever. I feel like people could always do what they do better if only they had better data, if they didn’t have to worry about it, or if they could ask questions of it… all stuff that I can help with. And I have employees because it increases the reach I can have. It means we can help more people.

Of course, the company does have to be financially viable. And the employees need to be looked after in whatever ways they need. This takes money. But all of it is to provide a service to people, to help enable those people through data. Our customers do good things, whether they’re in government agencies, or health care, or charities, or mining, or whatever it is – and they’re trying to do the best they can do. So if we can help them make that best a little better, then we’re doing something right.

That’s my why.

@rob_farley

Automation and monitoring – can’t have one without the other

Automation is totally necessary. Otherwise, you’ll be going slightly mad over time, and you’re stuck in your job. I’m not even sure you can afford to take holidays if the stuff you do isn’t automated. Maybe you can train someone else to do it while you’re away, and over those two weeks they’ll wonder why you haven’t automated and then they’ll automate it for you. At that point you’re really in trouble. If someone’s going to automate what you do, that someone should be you.

One reason why people seem reluctant to automate things is about wanting to be sure that the task was done correctly each time. It’s like they don’t trust that something ran successfully unless it’s been eyeballed by someone.

So you automate that too! Otherwise you’ve just changed your job from doing the thing to checking the thing.

And to check that your checking is still working right… well you get the picture. At some point you need to have something eyeballed, but you can roll more and more checks into the one spot, and you can eyeball a report that says “Yup, all 1523 things worked today, and 0 of them failed”. Then go and have a larger impact in your world. You’ve already done those 1523 checks today.

Garry Bargsley asks us what we’re proud that we’ve automated and what our go-to tech for automation is.

Well, these days that tech is PowerShell.

PowerShell because you can do so much with it.

PowerShell because you can schedule it in a variety of ways, including SQL Agent and WIndows Task Scheduler.

PowerShell because it’s so easy to handle errors, using trap or try/catch, which helps with that monitoring.

In fact, it’s been PowerShell for a lot of years now.

It doesn’t matter whether I’m kicking off process for ETL, or running some executable, or some T-SQL, or what. PowerShell just handles it. I can use it to loop through datasets, or work in batches. I can manipulate files and use Azure just as easily as anything else, and it’s all straightforward, and easy enough to teach people about.

Sure, I remember my Unix days, and the power that scripting gave you, but I feel like that was so hard to read, so very obfuscated, compared to the PowerShell. If you’re new to PowerShell and it seems complicated – trust me it’s way simpler than handling everything as text. Go ahead and automate things you do!

But again, you need to monitor it all,. You need to be pushing Success and Failure statuses back to some central repository and report on them. It doesn’t matter how you’re automating your stuff, you need to report on it. Otherwise, someone’s going to ask why it’s not working, and you don’t want to be in the dark.

Oh, and my favourite thing that I’ve automated was probably a bunch of Azure ML stuff, because it was so simple and delivered really meaningful stuff to my customer.

@rob_farley

People I influence

This month’s writing task is to describe a time when we influenced someone. Thanks to Jason Brimhall (@sqlrnnr) for hosting. I should’ve got this post completed before now – it’s already nearly an hour past the end of T-SQL Tuesday in the GMT time zone – first time I’ve missed the deadline, but I think grace will hold out until Tuesday is over everywhere in the world.

I’d like to think I influence a lot of people – I’m a community leader (hosted the local SQL UG since 2005) and long-time MVP – but I’m also not comfortable thinking about whether I have influence or not. I can think of people that I hope I influence, but I also wouldn’t want to suggest anyone, just in case I’m wrong!

But there is definitely one group of people that I think I influence, and that is my employees. Over the ten years I’ve had the company there is quite a list of people that I’ve employed. There have been as many as seven in the company at one time, and while we do have turnover, there aren’t too many more than seven that have been with me at some point.

Now, sure I pay these people a salary, so they have to adhere to the company culture to a large degree, but I hire people to increase the reach that I can have, and serve more customers. To that end, it’s important that I influence my employees to be the best they can be in that service, making sure that the company is both viable and effective, leaving a positive impact on the data stories of our customers.

Every one of my current employees, and the vast majority of my former employees, are conference presenters and involved actively in the community. For a while now, I’ve thought that I would rather employ MVPs than be one myself (although I hope this doesn’t actually cause me to lose my status), and I have often looked for opportunity to get my team in front of people. At SQLSaturday Perth a few months ago, all four of us presented (by far the most). At Difinity in 2017, no company – not event Microsoft – had more presenters than us. Recently, my former employee Heidi Hasting did amazingly well at Speaker Idol at the PASS Summit, although presenting is something she’s only got into since leaving the company.

Needless to say, I’m tremendously proud of my employees. They’re all brilliant.

Hopefully I’ve been an influence in their brilliance, although I suspect they were there already.

@rob_farley

Non-SQL technologies

This month, Mala Mahadevan (@sqlmal) challenges us to write about technology to learn that isn’t SQL. Interesting topic – I feel like there are quite a number of technologies that I feel I know outside the SQL space, but I had to give some thought to what I should encourage people to learn.

PowerShell was an obvious one – arguably, any command-line scripting. The number of times that people need to do things with files, or have some automated process, or need to do some old-fashioned grepping, but don’t feel confident enough to spin up a PowerShell window… it beggars belief. It’s incredibly useful and anyone technical should be across it. General data folk probably don’t need to jump right into creating their own cmdlets, but they should definitely know about ripping into files, looping, all that.

To help get you started in that, I wrote something a bit over a year ago at https://sqlperformance.com/2017/09/sql-performance/need-to-know-powershell 

The other technology I can’t go past is Excel.

Excel because it’s the data environment that regular business people know, and you should know it at least as well as them.

They’ll want you to give them copies of data in Excel (tip: ask them what they will do with that data once you’ve given it to them!), they will create charts with Excel, they will give you data in Excel (another tip: learn about MDS and let them use Excel to maintain data stored within MDS), and they will implement their business logic there. Essentially, it’s where they do Data Analytics. Make sure you can read their Excel expressions / formulae, and the VBA code they write, and understand pivot tables, and so on. It will become a useful tool for you as well, because you can generate Excel spreadsheets through SSRS now (so long as you understand what SSRS will do around merged cells if you haven’t taken care).

And Excel can lead you onto teaching them about Power Pivot, Power BI, and Analysis Services. Your Excel experts can become expert data modellers, and you can be raising the next generation of data scientists.

So those are my two suggestions for non-SQL technologies – PowerShell and Excel. They’re not new, but they are set to stay significant for some time. If you don’t have them, you’re missing some serious foundations.

@rob_farley

Where projects often go wrong

I don’t write about our customers in a negative way. I just don’t. I don’t ever want a customer (or potential customer) to see what I’ve written about someone else and to worry about what I might be saying about them. So I don’t tweet about the times when something’s driving me crazy, or about code that I’m seeing – I don’t even tweet about the times that I’ve tuned a process from 15 minutes down to a second or two in case someone considers that I’ve just broadcast that they had a process that was taking 15 minutes.

But I do write for T-SQL Tuesday every month. Without fail. And this month, the topic is failed projects. Thanks to Jeff Mlakar (@jmlakar) for hosting.

And so I want to write about something I see which commonly makes projects fail, and that is:

A misaligned expectations and feedback loop

There’s a blog post I often show to customers that dates back to 2006. It’s Kathy Sierra’s post called “Don’t Make The Demo Look Too Done“, and it brings out a lot of good points.

The gist of it is that customer expectations largely depend on how finished the demo looks, because they don’t see what’s happening behind the scenes. They’re measuring the completeness of the project based on the tip of the iceberg, and not really listening to any commentary about how much work there is to do beneath the surface. I was thinking of putting a picture here of an iceberg, but I think you can imagine. You know what’s going on out-of-sight of the customer, and how the user interface is just a small part. It’s just that the customer might not, and will imagine, and either get excited about how much progress they think has been made or concerned about how little progress seems to have happened.

Kathy also brings out the fact that the depth of feedback will tend to be based around how complete the thing appears to be. If I asked for feedback on this post, you might say “You know, you really should’ve put a good picture of an iceberg in that last paragraph”. Or you’ll point out the fact that I have a mispelled word in this sentence. You probably won’t tell me whether you think Kathy’s post is a good way of making my argument, or whether I should continue to write blog posts every month. You’ll probably assume that the window for that is gone. (Of course, having said this, there are four types of comments that will almost certainly appear below – no prizes for the bleeding obvious.)

As a consultant who tends to get involved in customers’ businesses, not just their data (because honestly – there’s a reason why it’s called “Business Intelligence”), I do sometimes find myself saying “Now, please tell me if the opportunity for this level of feedback has passed…”, and then asking questions that probably belonged much earlier in the project. I’ll then see people taking deep breaths and wondering whether they should’ve either not invited me to that meeting or perhaps got me into meetings back when the opportunity for that level of feedback hadn’t passed.

Project-wise, I see that developers, whether database developers or user interface developers or whatever, tend to work based on their understanding of how things work, and customers won’t ask certain questions until they see how things actually look. Because before then, they don’t really get a sense that it’s being worked on. And then suddenly things look like they’re done, and they feel that the window for deeper feedback has passed them by. As much as I love the rich visuals available with Power BI, the speed with which data can be presented (and the same occurs even in SSRS) can often cause people to give the wrong level of feedback early on, and only later look at fundamental questions like whether the metrics that are being shown are being measured in the right way for the business.

All of this can lead to projects which are poorly estimated.

Customers will feel like things are going well if they’re seeing things that look pretty, and developers will become unstuck when they realise that they didn’t have key pieces of information early on because they hadn’t asked for feedback at the right times.

Sadly, there’s no easy solution, except to manage both sides better. Customer expectations need to be managed to make sure that they have a good picture of where things are at, and developers need to be managed to make sure that stories are being presented in ways that invite the right level of feedback. Methodologies can help, including rapid prototyping (although this should also be taken with salt because prototypes can often form the top of an iceberg and mislead – everyone should understand that prototypes are designed to be learned from and thrown away), but ultimately it’s about perspective and empathy. By understanding the difficulties faced by each side, a technical manager ought to be able to manage the expectations of both customers and developers, and advocate for the other in getting the right level of feedback needed at each point along the way.

It doesn’t surprise me that our T-SQL Tuesday host Jeff sees continuing behaviour around poor project estimation. I see it too. I’m guilty of misjudging the quality of feedback that I’ll need.

And I frequently show Kathy’s blog post to the customers and developers that I interact with, in the hope that we can all improve and get better estimations going forward.

@rob_farley

Triggers – good or bad?

Long time readers might remember my posts from years ago about implementing Table-Valued Parameters in SQL 2005, or about TVPs in SSIS, and think that I have some interesting views about triggers. I’m not sure whether Steve Jones (@way0utwest) knew this when he decided on this month’s T-SQL Tuesday topic, but either way, it’s been a long time and triggers are worth talking about.

They’re worth talking about because people misunderstand them and misuse them. And therefore they are hated.

Triggers are code that is executed when something in the database happens, such as an insert, delete, or update for DML triggers, or created, dropped, and so on for DDL triggers. The event ‘triggers’ the action, hence the name (but don’t get me started about the fact that the ‘trigger’ is not the thing that does the triggering; it’s the action).

And therein lies the problem. Someone does something which seems to be innocent, but then finds that some code has started executing, and the innocence of their tiny operation is lost. And who knows what awful things are done!? And all within the same transaction as your innocent little update…

But the problem isn’t what they do, it’s that you didn’t know it was there. Just like asbestos.

People complain about nested triggers, about triggers that are overly complex, about triggers which do too many things… but stored procedures have all these faults too. It’s just that you knew that the stored procedure was there, and you didn’t know that the trigger was there.

I wish that triggers were more visible inside the tools (Management Studio / Operations Studio / Visual Studio), right alongside stored procedures and procedural functions (those ones that use BEGIN & END and are bad, rather than inline functions). They’re code and should be treated as such.

Once you start to see triggers as code, and particularly if you use INSTEAD OF triggers rather than AFTER triggers, you can start to see them as being not dissimilar to stored procedures that have access to handy internal tables. In those two posts I linked to at the start, I show ways you can use triggers to effectively have table-valued parameters without user-defined table types. I think this is really handy and somewhat elegant, except that the code isn’t obvious. Of course you can document them, and find ways to let your DBAs know they’re there… but still they will be considered semi-visible, and be nefarious by default.

Like many features of technology, they will be used by well-meaning developers, and often the impact will be negative rather than positive. You may not be able to change the fact that they’re used without refactoring major parts of the architecture (again, like asbestos), but there are some things you can do:

1. Be pragmatic. Accept that you will come across systems that use triggers. Don’t overreact or ask that developers be fired – remember that you’ve seen worse.

2. Document them. Make sure that you don’t forget they’re there, and that those that come after you can discover them easily.

3. Learn to appreciate the power of them. I’m not saying you should start implementing them, unless you’re pushing data around using SSIS and are wishing you had TVPs, but you could look at them as being like stored procedures and appreciate that they could be an elegant solution.

4. Tune them. You tune the stored procedures in your system, and you can tune the triggers too. Every bad thing you come across is an opportunity to demonstrate your strength as a DBA.

Thanks again to Steve for hosting this month’s T-SQL Tuesday. For more on triggers, go and check out the other posts this month. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether triggers are good or bad – I think it’ll depend on how they’ve been done.

@rob_farley

Developing a new niche for presenting

This year I wanted to set a goal for coming up with a new range of topics to present on.

As much as I think a large portion of the SQL community need to learn more about Joins (and to start looking at them differently in terms of the functionality they’re providing) and Sargability (in general!), two talks that I did at last year’s Data Platform Summit in Bengaluru, I was feeling like they were topics I’d done quite a lot over the years. And they’d been recorded a few times, which made me feel like I maybe wasn’t providing as much value to attendees as I would’ve liked.

Coming up with ideas was looking like it was going to be hard. I had definitely hit a brick wall (thanks for hosting, Wayne!).

You see, I wanted to come up with something different.

These days I have introduced Cognitive Services and AI into the topics I teach about, but teaching courses feels different (to me, at least) than presenting at conferences. Nothing is jumping out at me yet in that area. I spent a bit of time looking, but nothing felt right.

And then I found myself remembering SQLBits.

At SQLBits, I was in a weird mood. My (UK-based) grandmother had died about a day before, while I was en route to see her. I was emotionally exhausted and also had grief to deal with, but figured I would go to the event anyway. I saw friends from the SQL community, played around with a few magic tricks, and decided to do a very different type of presentation – one without a computer. Not just slide-free, but technology-free (apart from the microphone I was wearing). It wasn’t brave of me – the word is probably ‘stupid’. You can watch it here if you want, but essentially I used large pieces of paper and a thick pen. I got people up from the audience, put them in groups, moved them around, and distracted the people in the room from the bounds of a typical presentation. I think I mostly pulled it off.

At SQL Saturday in Melbourne I gave a talk about index internals, with the goal of explaining how indexes work and why your index choices can affect the ways that your queries run, the space that they take, and more. And again, I did it without a computer. I wrote on flip charts, and got people up from the audience to hold them. My original plan was to stick them on the wall, but the audience participation worked nicely, and I’m sure I pulled it off.

I presented in these styles because I found myself wanting to do something different with the topics that I was already doing. I wasn’t developing a new niche of topic, just a new style. I had given up trying to think of a new topic, but still wanted to do something different. I’d done slideless talks, and whiteboard sessions using OneNote, but this was new.

And this is going to be my niche. It’s not a new topic niche, just a new presentation niche. I’ll spend a bit of time exploring it, I think – coming up with different ways to explain the stuff you potentially already know.

So over the next year (or more), I might not come up with topics that are entirely new, but I want to present them in ways you might not have seen before. I want to come up with entirely new topic areas every couple of years still, but in the meantime, I can take audiences in different directions. It might not work for everyone, but if it works out for most, then that’s good enough for me.

I didn’t break through my that brick wall that I’d hit. It’s still there, and it’s still made of brick, but I’m looking at it from a different angle now. Sometimes the best way through a wall is simply to take a step back, and walk around it a different way.

@rob_farley

Code I couldn’t live without

This month’s writing assignment is to describe code I wouldn’t want to live without, and Bert (thanks for hosting, by the way!) actually says “that you’ve written”. Well, that last point made me think, because the examples I’m most likely to wish I had with me are all ones that I can find easily enough online, and are very unlikely to have been written by me.

The most obvious one that I think of that I wrote and have used multiple times and was really frustrated when I couldn’t find it when I needed it was one that I’ve used remarkably rarely in comparison – being a warehouse date table with a bunch of computed columns (in fact, every column except one called ActualDate was calculated, and persisted of course). I’d taken the time to work out all the nuances of nondeterminism to make sure that it worked correctly, handling financial years and English month&day names, and variations around the start of the week, and all kinds of things.

…but it felt very multidimensional-centric, and I haven’t used it in quite a while.

It was hard to find another example, but I’m going to go with the example that I use to demonstrate the pain of NOLOCK. Because I’ve typed this fresh lots of times, and I find it’s still very compelling. So I’ll write it for you again.

A case against NOLOCK

I’m going to create a table and insert exactly 1 million rows. This particular table will be a clustered index, and will contain 1 million GUIDs.

Next I prove that there a million rows.

Now without inserting or deleting any rows, I’m going to shuffle them.

And if while this is happening, I count the rows in a different session, I have to wait for that query to finish.

But what if I use NOLOCK?

I run this over and over, to demonstrate the results that come out.

I don’t have to wait for the answer, but the number it gives me is…

…WRONG!

That’s right, I won’t get the correct answer until the first query is finished. At least, I’m very unlikely to.

Of course it’s exaggerating what happens in real life, but I find it makes the point.

@rob_farley

Azure SQL Database

Björn Peters challenges us this month to write about Azure SQL Database, describing all our experiences and opinions about it. I’m not sure either you, the reader, or I, the writer, have enough time for that, so I’m going to give you a quick version.

…and that is – yes, you should be using it.

Yes, because I think you should embrace Azure SQL Database. For all kinds of reasons.

Not least, because this week the SQL to probably my favourite movie is being released. I haven’t seen it yet, but from the trailers, I’m going to assume that Mr Incredible feels like he’s been left on the shelf while Elastigirl (not even branded as “Mrs Incredible”) goes out to save the world. That’s all I know (okay, except that Jack-Jack is discovering his powers), and I won’t be updating this post with any further information once I’ve seen it.

You see, in the first movie, the supers have been forced to retire and join the real world. As their secret identities become their only identities, they lose touch with who they are. Edna tells Helen to show Bob that she remembers who he is, because he feels like the world has forgotten. The kid on the tricycle doesn’t know what he’s waiting for from Bob – something amazing, he guesses. Bob is too…

Of course, Bob gets hired by Mirage, and gets to relive the glory days, discovering purpose again briefly. But it’s short-lived as it turns out Syndrome is developing technology to give everyone superpowers. And when everyone’s super, no one will be.

This is a fear that I think many database professionals have been dealing with in recent times, as the cloud has become increasingly prevalent. Infrastructure as as Service takes away the need to buy hardware. Platform as a Service takes away the need to install SQL Server. As for NoSQL, well, that’s about as blunt as it gets. Those superpowers that database professionals have developed over the years are being taken away as the world comes to realise that it’s better to put those duties in the hands of cloud providers like Microsoft.

I’m not saying that Microsoft is like Syndrome – keen to be a sidekick but only until they can grow into a nemesis, destined to try to steal our children until we throw a car at them (okay, I think that analogy falls down fairly quickly) – I’m saying that in this time of rapid technological advancement, which isn’t about to slow down, trying to hold onto the past is pointless. In the movie, if Syndrome didn’t develop that technology, someone else would have done. Hopefully they wouldn’t have used it to make the supers redundant, but rather to develop the supers (which I suspect is a theme in Incredibles II). I think it’s interesting that at the climax of the first movie, the family leverage technology to beat the giant evil robot. They can’t do it by themselves, but need to leverage the technology to be stronger.

We need to leverage technology, and not get depressed about the fact that the world is changing. Learn to use Azure SQL Database, rather than shying away from it. Understand the great things that you can do with it, and how it will enhance your environment. This technology is not to try to make you redundant, it’s to help you beat problems you didn’t have to fight before.

So remember who you are. Confront your problem. Fight. Win. And call me when you get back, darling, I enjoy our visits.

@rob_farley

Getting started as a presenter

For me, the trick to getting started in presenting in the technical community was to find something which made sense to me, but that other people found hard. I think from memory, the first thing that I presented was a .Net thing – maybe AJAX? – and I explored the things that people typically found hard, showing why it was easier than they expected.

…and it was no different to telling a story to a group of people at a barbecue, or around the water cooler.

Let me use Sargability as an example, and show you how the water cooler conversation goes:

 

Person 1: Rob, why did you change my query this morning?

Me: Because it was performing badly, and all you needed to do to fix that was to apply a dateadd on getdate() instead, of doing a datediff between your column and getdate().

Person 1: But why should that make a difference?

Me: Well, you have an index on your column, not on the difference between your column and now.

Person 2 (see – there’s a group!): Yeah nah, I saw the plan, and that index was being used.

Me: Sure, but it was a Scan, not a Seek. It was having to work out the datediff on every row and see if it was small enough.

 

…and you see you have the basis of a presentation. If you can explain it to a few people, and find ways to help them understand it, you can explain it to a larger group.

You might be fine about demonstrating a concept to a co-worker on your computer – so there’s the demo section of your presentation. You don’t need to use slides (I don’t!) to present to a crowd, you just need to see how to explain things in a way that they can connect to – addressing their problems and giving them confidence in your solution.

I think the trick to being confident on stage is to know that you’re the expert who has the answer they want. When you have an abstract that explains what scenario you’re trying to solve, people are coming along to listen just like they’d gather around your desk to listen. They want to know the answer, and they’re on your side. They’re not trying to beat you down – they genuinely want to learn. You might have the odd person in the crowd who wants to argue that they’re the real expert, but if you know your stuff, you can disarm them with things like “I love that you’ve pointed out that the index does get used, because you’re right, it does! Just having that index helps a lot – but I want to show you how to use that index in a better way.”

You can work off the people in the room the same way you can work off the people around your desk. When someone at your desk says “Hang on, what did you do there?”, you know that you should be more careful when explaining that to a bigger room, and invite them to come along the journey with you.

Presenting is a great way to give back to the community, and that’s why I’ve written this piece for T-SQL Tuesday this month. The community wants to learn from you – so let them do just that!

@rob_farley