What is Your Focus?

When was the last time you booked a trip through a Travel Agent? Rented a Video from an actual person? Have you ever seen a Milkman Telephone Operator, or Elevator Operator except in classic movies?

Why do I ask? Well, technology is eliminating the first two jobs, and the last three are practically extinct. Which way is your skill set headed?

Several years ago, my career was going in that direction. I was a Made2Manage expert and used Visual FoxPro to create reports, customize the system, etc. I had skills, but they were very difficult to leverage in the job market. I saw the writing on the wall, made changes, and I urge you to do the same.

Focus on Skills With Staying Power

Invest your time developing skills in technologies that are not going to be obsolete or completely change every year. In my case, my skills were focused on obsolete technologies like Visual FoxPro Programming and Reporting, which was a dead end.

I initially switched my focus to T-SQL and Visual Basic programming, then eventually to Data Warehousing, and Microsoft Business Intelligence (SSIS, SSRS, SSAS). As others have mentioned, T-SQL is relatively static, and since Data Warehouse design concepts are technology agnostic they’re also unlikely to change radically. Microsoft has invested a fortune in it’s Business Intelligence products and has an immense customer base.

Keep in mind that these were my choices and aren’t necessarily for you. Just make sure that your choices have staying power as well.

Focus on Skills That Fascinate You

Gotta Love Your Job

While presenting at M2M’s premier conference last year, an audience member asked me how I felt about being a M2M Administrator. I answered with a joke,


It’s a lot like working at a sewage treatment plant. You’ll always have a job that pays relatively well, but you always go home smelling like crap.

Like most jokes, it’s funny because there’s an element of truth. It’s not enough to focus on a specific skill because it has staying power, you need to figure out what you love to do. Practicing a skill you find fascinating increases your learning rate and leads to a more enjoyable life as well.

Narrow Your Focus

In a past life, I taught high school biology and one of the concepts was Specialization vs. Generalization. In terms of Biology, organisms that specialize are more efficient (like humans) whereas organisms which are more generalized (like Bacteria) have greater survivability in times of calamity. The same is true for IT Skills. You can’t be excellent at everything, there is simply too much to know. Andy Leonard (Blog/Twitter) is probably not an expert in Disaster Recovery and Performance Tuning and Paul Randal (Blog/Twitter) can’t create world class SSIS packages.

However, a narrow focus fosters greater skill and that results in greater efficiency. This generally results in a higher rate of pay as well. Conversely, a generalist with average skills in several areas might seem to have a higher survivability in times of trouble. The generalist can work anywhere, whereas your average company cannot hire Brent Ozar (Blog/Twitter) to be their IT guy.

While this may have been an issue at one time, the Internet has largely negated it. The top people in these fields will always have work and in my opinion, they will always be worth more than a good generalist. Now I realize that every job requires a certain amount of undesirable tasks. Perhaps you dislike checking backups, error logs, etc. I’m not suggesting that you stop doing that, but do your best to spend the bulk of your time working on specific skills to achieve mastery.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine recently about this and he told me, “I do specialize, I specialize on [name of his company here].” He’s banking on being indispensable and that his job security will carry him in this tough economic climate. Hate to burst your bubble, but….

There is No Job Security

Nobody is indispensable, and you shouldn’t want to be. The company survived before you started there, and they will find a way to do without you. They may have to spend more money or limp along with substandard service, but they don’t need you. Besides, in my experience being considered mission critical is more of a hindrance than a benefit. If you are absolutely necessary in your current role, you cannot be promoted and your skills may stagnate.

Focus on Skills in Demand

Back in the 70’s and 80’s Racquetball was a hot sport, and while I was in college, I used to work out with a Professional Racquetball Player. The popularity of racquetball has dropped since then, and Rocky Carson, the current top pro, claims to earn six figure income from winnings and endorsements. Meanwhile Tiger Woods, another non-team athlete, earns nearly 1000 times as much. Is Tiger really 1000 times the athlete as Rocky? Maybe and maybe not, but I’d argue that the primary difference is the demand of their respective sports.

Being the world’s best Tiddlywinks player doesn’t matter much if you can’t make money doing it, unless of course you aren’t trying to make a career out of it. I’m just saying that if Turbo Pascal and C# .NET both fascinate you, I’d go with C# .NET.

Focus On Networking

Something I learned a few years ago is that I always need to network. People come and go from your work, community, and personal lives so you need to be in a constant state of expansion. Don’t start networking when you need a job, a mature network should already be in place beforehand. Notice that when I say networking, I’m not talking about prowling sites like Monster or Dice and I’m not suggesting that you should perpetually look for a new job. Networking is about making friends, sharing technical information, helping others, etc.

Although I respect both men a great deal, ultimately I’d rather end up like Thomas Edison than Nikola Tesla. Both were undoubtedly brilliant, but Tesla died in obscurity, alone and penniless.

Focus On Soft Skills

Anybody can learn to take backups, use Reporting Services, or write T-SQL code. If you’re reading this, you’re smart and want to succeed. However, the geek stereotype is that we’re often socially awkward, don’t relate well to people, and don’t express ourselves well in both verbal and written form. These are the kinds of skills that we all should focus on because they’re considered rare in our profession. To paraphrase an old saying:

If we’re running from Zombies, I don’t need to outrun the Zombies. I only need to outrun you.

Having participated in many interviews recently, soft skills are often much more important than the hard skills. If you give a good, motivated junior DBA a job, his technical skills will quickly improve. If you hire a Senior DBA with the stereotypical personality challenges, is he likely to become Dale Carnegie-esque at the same rate?

So, how do you get the soft skills? Well, the same way you can gain all of of the skills I’ve already mentioned.

Focus on Community Involvement

Geoff Hiten, Grant Fritchey, and Buck Woody at the 2010 Summit

There are so many benefits to being active in the community. You can make great friends and learn so much from other PASS Community members. Many of us blog and present at the regional and local level, and some of us act as personal mentors to more junior DBAs.

Get involved. Attend meetings, blog, and present. This will help you learn those soft skills, and become known for them. You can’t achieve these skills overnight, but if you want to jump start the process, you should….

Focus on Going to the Pass 2011 Summit

The PASS Summit is the premier event for SQL Server Professionals. You can network with the best and brightest. Get help with your technical problems, sometimes from the people who created the technologies. If your employer will send you, that’s great. If not then bite the bullet and pay your own way as I did last year.

I’m registering today and you should too, because today is the last day to take advantage of the $600 early bird discount. You may find that it’s one of the best things to happen to your career. I did last year.

I urge you to take the time to examine your focus and where it’s leading you. This is your life, your career, and your future.

I hope you’ll make the most of it and that I’ll see you at this year’s PASS Summit.

Find ways to change focus that are good for you and the employer, or find a new employer. This is your life.

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