Author Archive

Technical Presentation Tips from a Keyboard Player – Part 1

Playing Keys

Playing Keys

Now, don’t get confused. While the blog explicitly says “bass player,” the fact is that I have gone back to playing the keyboard since this past summer. I have been privileged to play during Sunday services for myChurch here in Ottawa. Being a part of a great team of musicians and singers is really a wonderful opportunity for me to express my gifts and talents while serving God in a creative way. 

The last quarter of the year is usually the busiest time for me with regards to my speaking schedule. I usually call it my personal conference season – from the annual PASS Summit conference in Seattle, Live360 events in Orlando to the small user group meetings and SharePoint Saturday events happening within the last quarter of almost every year. Those who know me understand the amount of time, effort and resources that I put into preparing and delivering my presentations. And, I love going thru all of the work required to deliver a great presentation.

As a jazz musician myself, I find parallels in how artists think about their craft – how they prepare and deliver their art to the audience. Presentation expert Garr Reynolds (Twitter | blog), a jazz drummer  himself, wrote about how jazz relates to communication and presentations. I thought I’d share some of the things that I do both as a keyboard player and a technical presenter to deliver great technical presentations. If you are a technical professional – systems engineer, developer, database administrator, network engineer, etc. – looking to explore the world of presenting and speaking at events, read on.

      1. Really know your content. No, seriously, you have got to know your content really well. As a keyboard player, as soon as I get the list of songs from my musical director, I listen to it repeatedly – in the car, on my MP3 player, my phone, my laptop, etc. I remember having to use cassette tapes almost 20 years ago and repeatedly play and rewind songs until I can barely hear them. I listen repeatedly until it becomes LSS. Likewise, as a presenter, you should know your content really well that you can talk about it for hours non-stop. Since SQL Server high availability and disaster recovery is what I specialize on, I can talk about it for hours during whiteboard sessions, consulting engagements and, yes, even presentations.
      2. List and gather your props. Props are objects used on stage by actors during a performance. As a keyboard player, I have my trusty old Korg X50 music synthesizer that I use for basic playing. Earlier this year, I got introduced to the world of software synthesizers (synths) and started using Mainstage for the Mac. That means that I now have to carry both my MacBook and my Korg X50 during practices and performance. These in addition to the audio cables, audio digital interface, power adapters, etc. that go with playing keyboard using software synths. As a technical presenter, list down all of the things that you need during your presentation – be it the clicker for your presentation, a laptop running Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote, the demo workstation to show how things work, a USB thumb drive that contains a backup copy of your slides, etc. But here’s a secret that both great musicians and presenters know by heart. Legendary American jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane once said, “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.” It’s not about the tools that you use but rather how you use the tools that you have to deliver the message in a very sincere way.
      3. Organize your content. So, you’ve done your research, collected as much resources as you can, gathered all of the facts, included references, etc. You’ve got everything that you need to write an entire book. Unfortunately, you’re not writing a book (or in our context, producing an album.) You can only put so much content in your music and your presentation with the given amount of time you need to deliver it. When I search for information about a song that I need to play, I try to answer these basic questions:
        • FOUNDATION: “What really needs to be there?” Any piece of music will have melody which is identified by the chords and scales. This is a must and should not be  compromised. Similarly, a technical content needs to have the foundational information. Without the foundational information, the audience will get lost along the way. If advanced concepts need to be covered, don’t assume that everyone in the audience would know it but rather build it in implicitly without them knowing it. It’s like having kids do complex calculus by starting off with basic math.
        • THEME: “What message am I trying to convey?” Did you think that music is just an arrangement of notes organized to make you feel something when you hear it? Music is an expression of one’s self. That’s why there are lyrics that pertain to love, amusement, anger, etc. and they resonate within you when you hear them. That’s why there are theme songs for movies and advertisements. A technical presentation is no different. And that starts with the abstract. The abstract gives the audience a roadmap of what to expect in your content. This is also the reason why we have to really think about writing the abstract because it sets the audience up for the right expectations.
        • STORY:How does my story look like?” The best music that you will hear are the ones that have stories embedded within them. One example that I could think of is that of Bob Carlisle’s Butterfly Kisses.  Take a moment to listen to that song. It touches our heart because it resonates within us. Similarly, a technical presentation needs to have some story wrapped within it so that the attendees can connect with the presenter on a personal level. This is a very tough item to consider and, honestly, I still struggle with this even after more than 15 years of presenting.  I think because technical professionals are so wrapped within the confines of their work environment that it’s hard to find the emotional connection with servers and databases (although I know a few folks who fell in love with their database server that they wouldn’t want to replace them.)  But let me assure you that there is always a story that you can find and relate to your topic if you search hard enough, even if it isn’t our own story. One of the best story that I tell in my disaster recovery presentations was that of having to personally endure the effects of the second largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century.
        • TRIM:What can I exclude?” Great musicians know which notes NOT to play. Great leaders know which tasks NOT to do. “Are you saying that I just wasted all of that time and effort researching content that I am supposed to throw away?” Well, I didn’t say anything about throwing away content. All I said was EXCLUDE. It’s interesting to listen to music that consists of only 4 notes instead of 10. But those 4 notes are properly selected to sometimes produce sound that is way better than having 10 notes. In the same way, pick a handful of ideas from the content that you’ve already researched that your audience would consider the most important ones. Focus is key here. You would be surprised at how much your audience will appreciate the level of focus that you put into your content once your presentation is over. Oh, and about that content that you’ve researched? That will come in handy during the Q & A portion. It may end up being a topic for a blog post. In fact, you’re reading one right now.
        • GRAVY:What can I include that may not be as important but would spice up the content even more?” I keep this to a minimum as much as I can. In fact, I only consider this once I have addressed the first four. You can call this your Easter egg or embellishment. When playing a piece of music, I usually try to squeeze in an unusual chord or tone that would make the sound even better with anyone barely even noticing it unless it was recorded and intentionally analyzed. I do it mostly for fun and experimentation without leading the listeners away from enjoying the music. I do the same thing with my technical presentations – be it a picture in the slide deck or a text in my sample code that I’m demonstrating. People who are aware may be able to pick it up but don’t sweat it if nobody doesn’t. This is for me because I want to make delivering presentations fun.

Did I say “part 1” in the title? That’s because there really is a lot to consider whether you’re an aspiring musician or a technical presenter. We’ll continue on in the next blog post where I’ll talk about the other things that I do to deliver great presentations. You might want to hang in there a bit until the final part where I explain the process behind all of these. Stay tuned.


That Awkward Feeling Of Being A Noob

Have you ever tried using your left hand to write if you’re right-handed? Or maybe tried driving on the right side of the road? Recall the first time you’ve tried riding a bicycle or learned how to skate (I have to admit that I still don’t know how.) How did that feel? Here’s what’s worse. You’re trying a totally different approach related to your area of expertise. Like the accountant learning how to use TurboTax for the first time.  He knows the spreadsheet in-and-out but just couldn’t get the software’s user interface. This reminded me of how users reacted to Microsoft Office 2007 when it first came out. And because change is constant and inevitable, we’ll always feel like a noob. ALWAYS. And it feels awkward. ALWAYS.

But just like learning how to ride a bicycle, we get used to it. The awkward feeling starts to go away and we start feeling confident. When you’re riding your bicycle without holding the handle bars, you never think about how many times you’ve fallen off or the number of scratches you got. You probably couldn’t even remember. You went from being a noob to being an expert and riding the bicycle no longer feels awkward. You now feel great about it. But it definitely took a lot of trying it out and getting used to it. The path from being a noob to becoming an expert is never an easy one. That, in fact, was the thesis of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and the idea behind the 10,000 hours road to expertise. With the right investment of time and effort, anyone can move past the feeling of awkwardness fairly quickly.

But I think it’s more than the awkward feeling of being a noob. Behind all of that is the feeling of PRIDE. Admitting that you have to throw away all of your efforts and investments does feel a bit awkward. And that feeling where you suddenly have to slide down the ranks from up top all the way back to the bottom. When experts feel that they’re back to being a noob. And because they’ve gotten used to the feeling of being an expert, they no longer want to go back and re-experience how it all started – the fear, anxiety, and frustration that comes with it.

Didn’t I say that change is constant and inevitable? This means we have to get used to being a noob because we will always have to learn something new. But we need to put our pride aside or we’ll never get past this awkward feeling.

Now, go ahead and ride that bicycle.

The Power Of A Half-Hour

Time Keeper 1

Time Keeper 1 by EdwinMSarmiento

Being a consultant sometimes is like drinking from a fire hose. There’s always something new to learn and you have to learn it fast. Unfortunately, we only have 24 hours in a day. I bet you’ve always wanted more hours to get more things done. There have been a lot of books and articles written on strategies to learning new things. However, it takes time to master a subject. And this is what’s frustrating sometimes. I know I get frustrated when I can’t do things right the first time. I remember feeling like a student driver when I tried driving on the other side of the road.

The best approach to mastering a subject is to think of it as a fruit-bearing tree. You don’t expect to get an apple from a seedling. We nurture the seedling until it grows into a tree and eventually bears fruit. Consistently. It’s ridiculous to think that pouring 5 gallons of water on the seedling will cause it to grow immediately. That only happens in cartoons and computer graphics-driven movies. You start with watering the seedling with a small cup. Consistently.

And that’s how the power of the half-hour comes into play. There’s a lot we can do in a half-hour – read a book, exercise, learn a new skill, etc.  It’s simply a matter of getting it in our calendar and making it a priority. Start by having a goal. Then, decide how you want to achieve that goal. Put in those half-hour investments. Consistently. It’s frustrating at first but you’ll be surprised at the benefits. Just don’t be in a rush. Greatness doesn’t happen overnight. But it does occur in small fragments of half-hour chunks invested consistently over time.

What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG)

In order to carry a positive action we must develop here a positive vision.
– Dalai Lama – 

My first introduction to this acronym was during my junior year in high school. My best friend got his very first personal computer loaded with Microsoft Windows 3.1. He was bragging about his expensive new toy and mentioning acronyms that I have never heard before, WYSIWYG being one of them. It didn’t take long for me to realize that he was actually talking about something on the computer screen to look like the final product. I thought it was just going to be one of those acronyms that I will have to deal with if I pursue a career in technology.

Fast forward several years later, I was with my wife and kids at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, FL. My kids wanted to try out the Transformers 3D ride just for fun. I knew what it was about because of my early exposure to the world of virtual reality so I wasn’t really that excited. Plus, I’m not a big fan of theme parks nor rides but since my kids insisted, I obliged. I’ve read different reviews about the ride experience so I knew what to expect. However, I was really surprised. The special effects (particularly the visual ones) are remarkable. They make you feel like you are indeed a part of the whole Autobot/Decepticon war. During that experience, I’ve learned several valuable lessons that I didn’t realize were applicable to both leadership and personal life. And I’ve never thought theme park rides can teach you a few leadership lessons.

  1. The unexpected can and will happen. Outside of the ride, I could hear people screaming – both as an expression of excitement and fear. It’s hard to judge based on the sound because they’re a mix of both. So, I made a conclusion based on what I heard: this might be a scary ride. As I was handed out a pair of 3D eyeglass, I expected 3D visual effects but certainly not the heat from Starscream’s engine exhaust nor the splash of water from Bumblebee’s run across a puddle. It’s the same thing in life. We can only prepare for so much but we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. I remember a quote from the TV series Prison Break, “Preparation can only take us so far. After that, we have to take leaps of faith. We must be able to face and accept the unexpected when and as they happen.
  2. Eerie sounds are not as scary as you think they are. Didn’t I already tell you about the people screaming? They sounded scary when I heard them.  So, I reacted based on what I heard. I got scared (laugh at me all you want but I really did feel scared.) I was scared as I hopped into the ride as I could hear the screams growing louder. But I was surprised to know that they weren’t screaming because they were scared, they were screaming because they were having fun. The acoustics of the ride made it sound like they were scared when they actually weren’t. Don’t we all face the same issues when confronting our fears based on what other people say? “Oh, the stock market is volatile and the whole economy is going to crash. I feel inadequate and everyone thinks I’m a loser.” Maybe we’re not listening to the right sounds after all and we need to discipline our ears.
  3.  What you see is what you get. The 3D glasses made the experience really great. But it also amplified the emotions I felt. I saw the ride falling off a cliff as Bumblebee pulls it away from Megatron, I felt like I was falling. I saw metal chips flying towards me as Optimus Prime hits Megatron real hard, I avoided them real quick. My reactions and emotions were intense. But these are all virtual, they don’t exist. I wasn’t falling off a cliff, I was seeing the ride as if it was falling off a cliff. So, I respond,with a mix of thrill and fear. As my youngest once said after a roller coaster ride, “it felt like his heart was coming out of his chest and back.” Same thing in life. We look at the bad things that happen to or around us. How do we respond? We get scared, afraid, restless. What’ worse is we let these things settle in our mind’s eye. We think of them as we sleep, as we eat, even as we talk to others. We even verbalize them until we start to believe that they are true. That is why the Bible recommends not dwelling on the negatives but rather focusing on the positives. Because at the end of the day, we really get what we see.

As we got off the ride, I couldn’t help but ask my kids what they think about the ride. They were exhilarated and felt thrilled. I guess I needed to learn something from my kids as well. All they did was to enjoy the ride. So, I did a little experiment. I asked them if we can do it again. And, since I was wearing eyeglasses, I had a good excuse to not look at the 3D visual effects. And guess what I found out. When I looked at the 3D visual effects, I felt the same feelings I did during the first time I hopped on to the ride. But when I didn’t, I just felt the ride moving. That reduced the fear (and, unfortunately, the excitement as well.) Which really proves the point – what we see is what we get.

As we are still in the early weeks of this new year, we need to ask ourselves this question: Are we expecting a great year ahead of us or do we just want to maintain the status quo? Remember, what you see or decide to look at is eventually what you’ll get.

The Value of Engaging In Conversation Thru Feedback

I’ve been very busy with speaking and presenting at different events this year alone. As a speaker, I value great feedback especially when I know that I can take it to improve myself. While events and conference organizers provide feedback forms in both paper-based and online formats, I make it a point to ask attendees for their personal feedback after my presentations.

At the last PASS Summit in Charlotte, NC, I spent some time at the Community Zone to engage attendees in some conversation. Both first timers and alumni have their own different perspectives about the event. I was specifically interested in what the first time attendees had to say so I scanned name tags to see if they were indeed first timers. Conversations after conversations, my question simply boiled down to a single theme: How was the PASS Summit experience for you? The responses were similar, ranging from “Great” to “Wonderful,” but that wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I knew for a fact that these would be the common responses. That wasn’t the goal. The goal was to find out what specific details led them to saying it was a great experience.

I like asking WHY questions (Michael Hyatt wrote a blog post about 7 Suggestions for Asking More Powerful Questions.) Apart from the fact that I’m just really curious, the WHY questions lead to more WHY questions. This triggers the one answering the question to really think about and articulate their response. It also engages the individual in a conversation. Let’s be honest, we all feel like we have something to say. We sometimes just need an opportunity to be heard. That’s what I try to accomplish whenever I ask for (and provide) feedback. When I asked the conference attendees why they consider it a great experience, they started telling stories about their experience on how they felt being at home in a group of complete strangers. For the event organizers, this is a more detailed feedback about knowing that the feeling of community is something of importance to the attendees. Of course, my curiosity didn’t stop there. I asked what specific event that made them feel that way – Community Zone, speakers, SQLKaraoke, SQLRun, etc. These are just a handful of events happening within the context of the main event. Everyone of them made the attendees feel like they were a part of a bigger community.

Unfortunately, these types of detailed feedback go unaccounted for. Feedback forms are not made equal. What’s worse is that a lot of feedback forms are designed to capture scores and not engage in conversation. The challenge I see here is that it is difficult to automate the process of capturing meaningful feedback in free text format. Imagine trying to read every single comment from thousands of attendees. Even businesses who try to capture feedback from their customers have this challenge (Aaron Bertrand (blog | Twitter) provided some insights on the PASS Summit feedback for speakers.) What’s more important is to think about gathering (and providing) feedback in a way that engages conversation. Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, was known for visiting stores and asking employees how they feel about the store and asking for suggestions to improve operations. While he could have afforded to pay consulting companies to design and implement the perfect feedback form, he opted to have a conversation. No scores nor numbers, just conversations and stories that he took from those he talked to.

Beyond scores and ratings, providing and gathering feedback should be a conversation. And when the conversation starts, meaningful insights emerge. No amount of business intelligence technologies can substitute for the insights gathered during meaningful conversations. What’s more, relationships are built which, for me, are the most important factor in the overall feedback system.

I So Hate … Leaving My #SQLFamily


Leaving the station by TJook

The cab driver was waiting for me to get in while my wife and kids are still giving me “the hugs and kisses.” He was commenting on the fact that my kids – ages 9 and 11 – still feel very comfortable of giving us hugs and kisses whereas his 3-year-old can’t even be bothered while playing with his iPad. To which, I responded, “I hate leaving but travelling is part of my job.

This past week puts another PASS Community Summit in the books. This happens to be the world’s largest and most intensive technical training conference for SQL Server and BI professionals. Its amazing how active the members of the SQL Server community have been throughout the week, tweeting and talking about their experiences – even after midnight.  I have had the privilege of volunteering every time I attend this event. I even wrote a series of blog posts for first time attendees on how to maximize their attendance at the event. Part of that preparation is getting assimilated to the #SQLFamily. I talked about building meaningful relationships at the PASS Summit in a previous blog post where the conversation transcends beyond Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or email. We hang out during events, sometimes even outside of events – #SQLKaraoke, #PASSPrayers, #SQLRun, PhotoWalks, and a whole lot more activities. This brings the community members closer to each other beyond the usual T-SQL conversations and the references to BigData and BI. It is indeed like the biggest and most intimate family reunion you’ve ever experienced.

I’ve asked a lot of first time attendees what they think about the PASS Summit experience. The common responses were “amazing” and “awesome.”  To which, I asked follow-up questions like, “what made it awesome?” One first time attendee commented, “I feel like I’ve found an extended family.” Another one responded, “I feel like I belong here.” I pointed to some of the attendees giving hugs and high-fives and told them that this is a common thing among members of the SQL Server community, especially during events like this. They were a bit shocked at first but slowly have gotten used to it throughout the week. It’s no wonder some of them felt similar to how I did come Friday. It was time to say goodbye.

I spent the entire week catching up with friends and folks that I have met at previous events. Some I have considered very good friends, others like part of my extended family (I always refer to Pinal Dave as my half-brother from a previous life.)  Still, a week is not enough. But it was time well spent.

As I race back to the parking space to grab my rental car, I was stopped more than ten times to say goodbye to my #SQLFamily. I was glad that I had a flight to catch, otherwise, I could have stayed longer. I was coming home to my real family. However, I felt the same way when I was leaving home a couple of days earlier. I hate to leave. But it is part of my job – leaving my family so I could share the love to those who need it in my workplace. When I teach and mentor a junior DBA in my team, that is because I received the same love and care from my newly found family. When I face difficult challenges resolving a database performance issue, I face it with confidence and courage knowing that they’re there to support me. This is not just a SQL Server community. It is “the #SQLFamily.”

This still doesn’t change anything. I so hate leaving my #SQLFamily.

Be DISTINCT Or Go Extinct

“Be the one to stand out in the crowd.” – Joel Osteen

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts that talk about success. I had the opportunity to ask the registered attendees for SQLSaturday Philippines to vote for a particular topic that they like best. Since I usually talk about professional development for IT Professionals at the PASS Summit, I provided a list of topics from presentation skills to landing your dream job. This was the one that got the most number of votes: What Your College Education Didn’t Teach You About Success. 

I know that I’ll be criticized for what I’m about to say here but here goes. One of the things that schools subconsciously teach students is the idea of conformity and compliance. I’m OK with instilling discipline and developing character but conformity and compliance are certainly not what we need to become successful in today’s modern economy.


This was the fourth slide in my presentation about what our education doesn’t teach us about success: BE DISTINCT OR GO EXTINCT. In my freshman year in the university, I’ve learned a word from my Social Science professor that eventually shaped the way I define who I am. The word DEVIANT is described as a behavior that is out of the ordinary. When I learned about that word, it got me started into a habit of constant personal evaluation, trying to understand why I do what I do. For instance, in a previous blog post, I talked about how I was tagged as a nuisance by people around me. What I didn’t realize is that those who thought I was a nuisance wanted me to conform to their definition of who I need to be. After all, it’s easier to follow rules than to analyze why those rules exist in the first place (that’s what I’ve been taught in the army reserve anyway.) Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not advocating breaking the rules or anything. There are moral and spiritual rules that are absolutes and there are rules that are relatives. The moral and spiritual rules are not to be disputed. Only those that are man-made that sometimes need to be constantly evaluated because we humans do change as well as the circumstances that surround us. For instance, schools – even at the university level – still implement standard means of testing retained information using multiple-choice questions instead of allowing students to explain why they came up with an answer. I still remember when one of my engineering professors forced everyone of his students to use PowerPoint to report on a particular topic. But how can we stand out from the crowd if everyone is doing the same thing? If you are looking to get ahead in school in your career, what is everyone else doing and is it helping them get ahead? Here are a few things you can consider.

  1. Work according to your strengths. We are all unique individuals. Even twins are not exactly the same. If you want to stand out from the crowd, it is important to know what your strengths are and work according to them. What I find unfortunate is that schools force us to do things that are way outside our strengths zone. If you haven’t heard about the parable of the animal school, I strongly  recommend that you have a look at it. If you are working according your strengths, it is much easier to stand out from the crowd because you are expressing your uniqueness.
  2.  Step out of your comfort zone. This seems scary especially when you’ve already gotten used to doing the same thing over and over again. It’s not natural to take risks because we are wired to to protect ourselves and survive. And when we are trying something out for the first time, we feel the fear of the unknown because we don’t know what the outcome will be. But since almost all of us don’t want to step out of our comfort zones and take risks, doing so immediately makes us stand out from the crowd.
  3. Constantly re-evaluate the current norms. What might be abnormal today would end up being totally normal in the future. Remember the times when phone landlines were the standard way of communication? Mobile phone users were ridiculed back then. Now, even kids have smart phones. What about the time when travelling by means of flight was totally unheard of? Now, it is estimated that 61 million passengers have travelled via US commercial airlines last year just in the US alone. Norms will constantly change so it is important to constantly re-evaluate them and adjust accordingly.
  4. Dare to be different. We’re all afraid to be different. It’s the reason why I blogged about facing our fears. But being different makes us stand out from the crowd. It has its own set of risks, though. You’ll be an easy target because everyone will notice that you’re different. People will criticize you just because you’re different. They’ll even criticize you because you are making them feel uncomfortable. But instead of focusing on the negatives, focus on the positives. Being different does have benefits.

Here’s an example I could think of that applied all of these concepts in my career. As a consultant, I get involved in dealing with different customers on a regular basis. To stand out from the crowd, I took stack of my key strength: I’m a teacher-at-heart. I use that as a key differentiating factor whenever I’m called in to do a consulting project. I don’t just provide a solution, I teach my customers whenever possible how I came up with a solution and why it is the most effective one. But doing so means stepping outside of my comfort zone because I’m not engaged in consulting projects to teach, I’m there to solve problems. I sometimes even go as far as preparing a presentation specifically for them to understand the basics of why I did what I did. It’s not easy. But that helps me stand out and my customers remember what I did for them.

Question: Do you think being different will help you become successful? What would you start doing today to stand out from the rest? You can leave a comment by clicking here.