BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION and FULL DISCLOSURE: I don’t usually pass my blog entries by my boss before I post them, but I rarely blog so directly about the details of my work experiences. For that reason, and because he and our team figure prominently in this story, I have done so in this case. Therefore, this post is backdated to the date of the events under discussion so that context holds. It was actually posted to the web on 28 January 2007.
This is an anecdotal “day in the life” story. It unfolds at the pace the retelling demands, and thus might require some patience to consume. Believe it or not, I’ve spent time editing it down, but I feel I need to give the reader context in order for the full gravity of some of these events to come through. It was a full and busy day with lots of back-story, so there’s much to tell. I’ve tried my best to be succinct, but you’ve never known me to let three words do the work of fifteen, have you?
Okay, I’ll face it.. this is a long piece of writing. If it doesn’t sustain your interest, I’ll certainly understand.
The subject matter here is unique in the history of the blog. This post relates to SQL Server in only the most tangential sense, yet I believe that it’s of interest and value to my readers. If you feel differently (or even if you don’t), I welcome your feedback. This is new territory for me, so please consider yourself an alpha tester, with commensurate rights of free expression.
This strikes me as a very self-centered piece of writing. There are so many personal pronouns in it that I’m frankly uncomfortable, but I’m chalking that up to the nature of the tale. It’s an alpha, after all. There will be bugs.
I have spun this yarn without violating any of my confidentiality arrangements, which might pose something of a challenge to the detail-oriented. I share these experiences with the sincere conviction that their lessons are contained in what I’ve included. Whatever I’ve excluded is tangential to the points at hand. And potentially vital to my employment. I want to keep writing.
There is no code in this post.
Pull up a chair and let me tell you a story..
WHAT A DAY DAD HAD!
Today I had quite possibly the most bizarre and schizophrenic day of my 30-year professional life. I’m still trying to figure out everything I’ve learned from it, but I’d like to tell you about it while the experience is still fresh in my mind.
I got out of the hospital a week ago. I’ve been ramping up slowly at work this week, spending a couple of hours in the classroom with our Candidates each day while running the session’s first lab simulation from the comfort of my home in the afternoon and evening. I am blessed with generous, supportive, and flexible family and teammates.
I’ve been getting stronger through the week.. something about the restorative powers of my job. I can listen to folks like Don Vilen, Lubor Kollar, and Sunil Agarwal share their expertise, all in the line of duty. If those folks were talking a mile and half from your house, would you burn a precious sick day or would you sit in on the sessions? Since I’m lucky enough to be on-point for this week’s portion of our lab exercise, I can go home when my stamina wanes and immerse myself in the creativity of our Candidates, and let my creativity flow in response to theirs. My old gig was good, but this may be the best job in the world.
Yesterday I managed seven hours in the classroom, and then ran our simulation from home until a little after 11pm. The Candidates’ first deliverable of the simulation was due at 9am this morning.
We’re in the beta rotation for our entire offering, but our approach to this simulation is so new that we’re treating it as an alpha release. In that context, this morning we told the class that we were adding a new session at the end of the day.
We wanted to step out of the simulation and discuss its progress. First, we’d share our reasoning in designing some of its more challenging and unique aspects; then, we’d share insights from running the simulation which might be useful to them in similar real-world scenarios; and finally, we’d open the floor to comments and questions from the class. I emphasized that while we’d appreciate any compliments they’d care to share, it was constructive, actionable criticism that we were really craving. How could we make the lab better? Would they do it again?
As an immersion-level experience, the SQL Ranger program puts many incredible demands on its Candidates. We call them the Ground Rules. Unlike most programs, though, we don’t simply ask people to do these things. We require compliance, and one of our team’s duties is to proactively monitor and enforce the Ground Rules.
Understandably, this is very difficult for many of our Candidates to deal with. So, human nature being what it is, some people try to skirt the rules. It’s unavoidable. Many of them persist even after polite reminders. It’s nothing personal.
When we encountered this phenomenon during our first rotation, the Director of the Ranger program came to our classroom on the morning of the fourth day. Before he spoke to the group, he spoke privately to our team. “I’ll fix this problem,” he said, “don’t worry. I usually do this on the first morning, but since I waited, I’m going to have to deliver this message more forcefully than I usually would.”
Then he read them the riot act.
He was concise, articulate, and totally professional in his presentation, but his passion and the resulting ire were apparent. I’d never before seen this tone in an academic setting. To say the least, his presentation commanded the full attention of his audience.
And it worked. Like a charm. The rest of our first rotation proceeded without further issues. I came to know later the Director has done this more than once; indeed, the approach bears his name in our group folklore.
This time around, we were determined to handle the matter proactively without calling in the Director.
We made our usual announcement Monday morning, with the usual results.
Wednesday morning, my boss made the case for compliance to our Candidates. His was an intensity of a different sort than the Director’s, and yet it was still a very powerful talk of a type atypical in an academic setting. He’s ex-military and carries himself with a soothing air of serene self assurance. This was a command presentation. Non-compliance was no longer an option.
We were hopeful that we had dealt with the issue.
Well, hope springs eternal, until reality intrudes. At 10:30 this morning, our team was added to an ongoing email thread. Our Candidates were still out of compliance with the Ranger Ground Rules in several key aspects, and the time had come: somebody from our team had to channel the Director.
Rapture, I thought. We’ve been offered a grenade to fall on.
I was the only member of our team in the room. Nobody else is here. I’ve been offered a grenade to fall on.
This morning, we told these people we were going to ask them to be honest with us about their experiences in a four-day simulation which was intended to challenge them in new and perhaps difficult ways.
And now, for the good of the program as a whole, we have to inventory their shortcomings for them less than four hours before that conversation.
This has every potential to go poorly.
My panicked stream-of-consciousness over the next couple of minutes centered around finding a credible way to make this presentation without actually taking responsibility for it. This was wrath-for-hire, after all, and I was but the hit-man. While I shared the concerns and frustrations of my teammates, I personally wasn’t anywhere near the overtly-wrathful-in-front-of-a-roomful-of-people stage.
How was I going to do this? I went through a series of free associations too bizarre to recount here, and came up with a metaphor I thought might work.
While all of this was going on “backstage”, our class sessions proceeded towards lunch. We went to the building 40 cafeteria, and who did we happen to run into there but Kimberly Tripp? She invited me to sit down for a couple of minutes with her and her lunch companion, Paul Randal (who by happy coincidence had just finished a presentation to our class).
I’ve known Kim since shortly after I started at Microsoft, and we became friends when our paths happened to cross at a time when there were health issues in both of our families. In addition to being one of the smartest people in the world, Kim is a wonderfully generous person. Once upon a time, I asked her for some career advice. I wanted a career like hers, and I asked her what I could do to get one from where I was at the time. To make a long back-story point short, she gave me some actionable advice, I acted on it, and here I am.
It was great to catch up with Kim and thank her for her help in meeting a big goal, but it was time to get back to work.
So.. what was my metaphor, you ask?
Deal or No Deal has a not-so-ugly secret.
If you’re already familiar with Deal or No Deal, you can skip the next paragraph, which explains the premise of the show (since most of our Candidates are from other countries, I delivered a similar explanation of it to them).
Deal or No Deal is a game show on American television. Each contestant is presented with an array of twenty-six briefcases, each of which contains an amount of money ranging from US $0.01 to US $1,000,000. The contestant picks one of the briefcases to be “theirs”, and then the game begins. They must open several briefcases, each time exposing an amount of money. At pre-determined intervals, the game stops and the host receives a phone call from a mysterious figure called “The Banker”, who is never heard, and seen only in shadows. The Banker offers to buy the contestant’s case. Deal or No Deal refers to the response the contestant is required to make to The Banker’s offer. Deal means the offer is accepted and we go on to the next player; No Deal means we start another cycle of opening briefcases, with another offer coming at its conclusion. The primary “attractions” of the program seem to be the models who handle the briefcases and the drama-laden, one-sided banter between the host, a stand-up comedian, and The Banker, whose variable moods are portrayed as pivotal to the size of the offer.
So what’s the secret? “The Banker” is a dramatic contrivance. The offers are generated by a simple mathematic algorithm based on which dollar amounts have been exposed and which remain concealed. The Banker has nothing to do with the amount of the offer. He’s just there to add drama to the proceedings.
In the Ranger Program, I said, we have a Banker too. But this Banker matters. Our Banker is our Director. This morning we got a call from The Banker, and The Banker is not happy.
And then I read them the riot act.
I tried to adapt to our current circumstances the talk I’d seen the Director give to our first group. I certainly got this group’s attention. Dropping pins would’ve been clearly audible.
And then I was done. As per the script, I left the room when no questions were proffered. I felt as though I had someone else’s adrenaline in my veins. It took me a good half hour to calm down even as my colleagues offered their encouragement, support, and thanks.
When I told my family about this later, my elder son grinned and said, “that must’ve been fun.” Well, Zach, it wasn’t; not remotely. I’ve never done anything like it in my life, and I don’t relish the thought of ever doing it again.
I spent the rest of the afternoon dreading the “lab process” session.
When 5:30 came, I told the class that when we had spoken at 8:30, I didn’t know then that we would also be talking at 1:30. Then we launched the presentation. I occasionally saw some heads nodding in the room, which was encouraging.
When we got to the feedback session, I emphasized that we were craving bad news so we could fix it. I feared we would get toasted; what we got was well-considered suggestions to make the exercise flow more smoothly for future Candidates. The recommendations were open, fair, and constructive, but they were mostly about fit and finish. I bet we’ll implement every one of them.
Every Candidate said they’d do the simulation again. I was thrilled.
After I got home, we got an email from one of the Candidates whom we’d anonymously called out with a “soft skills” issue in the lab process session. It turned out that the “behavior” we’d seen was in fact an artifact of network issues at his temporary housing location. However, he reported, his quirky use of the Outlook client had also contributed to the situation. As a result of this experience, he had already changed his approach to Outlook.
He was worried we’d find his tone defensive. On the contrary; I was ecstatic! Our alpha lab had driven one of our Candidates to make a real-world process change on the same day that the precipitating event occurred! What could make teachers happier? He got an email from me stating as much.
The day ended with me sharing a meal with my family for the first time since the most recent onset of my illness on January 3rd. I even cooked it.
Dad is sad
Very, very sad
He had a bad day
What a day Dad had!
- Hop on Pop (Dr. Seuss)
All in all, what have I learned today?
Creativity and passion are great things. I think I already knew that, so let’s call this an affirmation.
A supportive family and team are wonderful things worthy of constant appreciation. This, too, was an affirmation. I got to live this again today.
I learned that if you can think creatively under circumstances that might lead more towards panic, then amazing things can happen.
I learned that if you are asked by someone else to be wrathful with a group of people that you’re not personally angry with, it’s impossible not to inherit some of the requester’s anger. Leaving the room, walking, and breathing slowly and deeply until I calmed down worked really well. It should be noted, though, that I stayed mentally agitated for about twelve hours. You might want to plan accordingly in similar circumstances.
I learned that if you ever have to do something like this, you must let your family in on it. Expect to be keyed up afterwards. I saw this coming, and that paid big dividends. If my family hadn’t been prepared for the mood I was in, it would’ve been a very rough evening.
I learned that if you give people the chance to surprise you, sometimes they will. Under tough circumstances, our Candidates rose to the challenge in the lab process evaluation and were 100% professional. Good on them.
My colleague, Tim Wolff, was kind enough to tell me that I might’ve managed to be the “good cop” and the “bad cop” all at once. I will treasure that.
All in all, as I said, a bizarre and schizophrenic day on the job.
And a really good one.
Dad is not sad
Dad is glad
Very, very glad