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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.

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I So Hate … Leaving My #SQLFamily


Leaving

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.

Leadership Lessons from Running a SQLSaturday Event


SQLSaturday Philippines

I’ve been involved with the SQL Server community ever since I can remember. I’ve been both a speaker and a volunteer and I know how it felt like to be on both sides of the fence. However, the one thing I haven’t been is an organizer myself. Until SQLSaturday218. This is the very first SQLSaturday event in the Philippines that was held last 9-Mar-2013.  Attendees, volunteers and speakers all claim that the event was a huge success and that they want it to be an annual event. But what they didn’t realize until the event was finally over was that SUCCESS always comes at a PRICE. The rewards of a champion only comes after the hard work and sacrifice, not before. SQLSaturday218 has reinforced a lot of leadership lessons that I have been practicing and teaching throughout the years.

  1. Find a higher purpose. I’ve blogged about this before and I’ve taught others about finding a higher purpose for things that we do.  SQLSaturday218 for me is more than just a SQL Server community event. It’s an attempt to express my patriotism in ways that I can do best. While most SQLSaturday organizers talk about technical education, I talk about loving my country. With the upcoming national elections in the Philippines, political candidates talk about bringing about change. I just made change happen thru SQLSaturday218. This wasn’t my original idea. Marlon Ribunal (blog | Twitter) and Justin Dearing (blog | Twitter) came up with the idea of running a SQLSaturday event in the Philippines. They included me in the conversation because they knew I was a die-hard FILIPINO. And the rest was history. My higher purpose helped me pursue even when the times are tough.
  2. Find allies, ignore detractors.  Every noble goal will have both. I always say that only fruitful trees get picked on. Nobody picks fruits on trees that don’t bear any. And, so be ready to have both allies and detractors. I heard a lot of folks tell me this is an insane idea. Nobody has ever organized a SQLSaturday event without physically being there. I was in Canada planning and organizing an event that was thousands of miles away from where I am, not to mention with a 12-hour time zone difference. I only knew (and have met) a handful of the volunteers. Regular SQLSaturday sponsors won’t fly to the Philippines just for this event. The odds are stacked up against me. I expected to have detractors. I was willing to take the stones that will get thrown at me. But I also did find allies. Niko Neugebauer  (blog | Twitter,) a fellow SQL Server MVP and PASS Community Evangelist was my greatest ally. He was the one who told me that it is possible and that I can make it happen because he was able to do it before. Allies will help you raise your shield when the detractors start throwing stones at you.
  3. Build a GREAT, UNITED team. People are what make things happen. That’s why you need to build a GREAT team. I’ve enlisted the help of people I knew who had the same passion for the community as I have. Culture is very important to me. That’s why I made sure that members of my team share the same values. They all went the extra mile to do things that I can’t because I wasn’t physically available. Some of my allies ended up being a part of the team.  And that’s why I brag about the people in my team who made SQLSaturday218 a huge success. But a great team will only go so far. A GREAT, UNITED team is unstoppable. In order to build a united team, they need to feel that they are a part of it in the first place. And building relationships is what makes that possible. Talk to team members. Understand what matters to them. Make them feel that they are special. Be willing to go the extra mile for them. If we are willing to do this for them now, imagine what they will be willing to do for you in the future.
  4. Over communicate.  It’s the leader’s job to keep the team informed. But sometimes, the same message has to be communicated several times in order for every one to get it. Over communication breeds clarity. It also addresses misunderstandings among those who receive the message. SQLSaturday has a website that organizers can use to do whatever they need to organize and run the event. While I maximized the use of the feature to send email communications to speakers, volunteers and registered attendees, I went the extra mile of sending personal emails. Every week for the past 6 weeks, I sent event updates to the registered attendees and those on the wait list. I also sent emails to the volunteers, giving them a picture of what to expect and what is expected of them. I also sent emails to my team about things that matter to us in order to make this event a success. I responded to emails, answered questions on instant messenger, did Skype calls, etc. in order to properly deliver the message.
  5. Ask for help but operate with a bootstrap mindset. My idea was to run SQLSaturday218 with very minimal to no sponsorship. That’s is because I wanted to create a mindset of creativity and resourcefulness. Plus, I also understand the challenges that most of the SQLSaturday sponsors have. It’s hard to spend money on sponsorships without the possibility of having immediate returns on their investments. I call myself the “self-proclaimed marketing guy” and I try to practice what I preach. I didn’t just go around asking for sponsorships. I only asked those who I believe will benefit from doing so. I even turned down several potential sponsors and explained why this would not benefit them. However, I didn’t just turn them down without offering them a long-term perspective of their marketing initiatives. And because we kept the bootstrap mindset, we operated as if we didn’t have resources. It’s amazing to see how people come up with creative ideas just because we don’t have the resources. So, when the resources became available, they were used to reward those who came up with creative ideas that got implemented.
  6. Have a detailed plan but be flexible enough when things don’t go as planned. I had a detailed project plan in place from start to finish. I shared it with my team and allowed them to make suggestions and modify it as necessary. But everyone knows that nobody can prepare and implement a perfect plan. Being flexible when things don’t go as planned is necessary for success.  We had delays with some of our deliverables. There were changes in the room assignments that affected the schedule and the signs that we printed out. But because everyone on the team understood what was expected, they all made things possible outside of the plan.
  7. Step back when necessary. Leaders have the tendency to do everything because they believe that success (and failure) lie in them. What they don’t realize is that not stepping back prevents potential rockstars to shine. At the day of the event, I knew exactly what I needed to do. Same thing with the volunteers. What’s really surprising is that I didn’t even have the chance to do a briefing session before we start doing the real work. All I did was shake their hands and introduced myself to them. Now, understand that these are people whom I haven’t personally met. But it’s as if they knew me very well and knew exactly what I expected of them. The volunteers were running on auto-pilot. That kept me focused on what I can do best. Had I not stepped back, I could have ruined the creative ideas that they were able to pull off and possibly discouraged them from trying again.
  8. Give as much A.I.R. as you possibly can. I blogged about giving appreciation, inspiration and recognition. As attendees were commenting on how great the event turned out to be, I took that opportunity to thank the sponsors, volunteers and speakers for making the event a huge success. At the volunteers’ and speakers’ dinner, I commented on the fact that I felt like having a great team from heaven. I sent emails to my contacts about how the event turned out to be, again, mentioning the fact that I had the best volunteers and speakers ever. I sent emails to the local sponsors, highlighting some of their staff who did a great job of volunteering at the event. I kept telling others, even sending personal emails and instant messages to the volunteers and speakers after the dinner, and constantly appreciating and recognizing their contributions. All of them wanted to be a part of next year’s SQLSaturday Philippines.

Leadership expert Dr. John C. Maxwell once said that “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been a student of leadership for the past decade.  The lessons I’ve learned help make me become a much better leader and also inspires others to do the same. With the outcome of SQLSaturday218, I think this will become an annual event with the help of the local SQL Server user group.

Empowering Others By Giving Them A.I.R To Breathe

February 23, 2013 1 comment

Flight Emergency v.2

Flight Emergency v2 by Patrick Cheng

In a previous blog post, I talked about empowering individuals with double As. The idea came up from the concept of lithium powered batteries that power up electronic devices: appreciation and affirmation really do empower individuals. This past week, I was listening to an episode of the EntreLeadership podcast where Chris Hogan, a former All-American college football player, talks about empowering others by giving them A.I.R to breathe. We all know that air is vital to our survival, much like food and water. A general rule mentions that humans cannot survive if they do not breathe air within 3 minutes.  That’s how important air is for our survival. Conversely, we also need to breathe A.I.R. on a constant basis in order to survive in any organization. Leaders need to understand the importance of A.I.R. in the success of their organization.

  1. Appreciation. I’ve already talked about this in my previous blog post but it is worth repeating. Appreciation is one of the cheapest and most rewarding way to reward your staff. It applies to anybody as well: your spouse, your kids, your parents, your customers, vendors, suppliers, etc. A short, hand-written thank you note still has its place in this day and age of digital communication.
  2. Inspiration. To inspire someone is to literally stimulate their energies to achieve something beyond their imagination. Bill Gates was inspired by Dr. Henry Edward Roberts to start Microsoft back in 1975. Steve Jobs inspired a lot of people to do something great. As leaders, we need to be pedlars of inspiration to people around us, especially our staff. You’ll be surprised at what they can accomplish when they get an inspiration from you.
  3. Recognition. Didn’t we all love getting those stickers and stars when we were in pre-school? What about that plaque that we got for being best in math? Unfortunately, recognition, like dinosaurs, have become extinct inside corporations. Managers usually think that employees are already getting paid for what they do so no other form of recognition is necessary. Sadly, this is also one of the top reasons why employees leave an organization. To retain top talent, practice the art of recognizing them both privately and publicly. It could be as simple as giving them a plaque or certificate or as extravagant as hiring a marching band. Be creative, just make sure you do it on a regular basis.

If we need to breathe air within 3 minutes to live and survive, breathing it regularly makes us healthy. We need healthy individuals to fill our organization and what better way to do it is to empower our staff (and everybody else) by giving them A.I.R. to breathe.

You Are A Story Waiting To Be Told

January 29, 2013 1 comment

Gen. Colin Powell, the first African American to serve as the US Secretary of State, once told of a story about the immigrant vendor selling hotdogs in the streets of New York. Being a New Yorker and an immigrant himself, he understood the challenges of being an immigrant, much so as an African American. Every time he has an opportunity to go back to New York City, he always takes time to grab a hotdog from one of the immigrant vendors in the streets of Manhattan. In the past, every one seems to recognize who he is because of all the security staff and police accompanying him anywhere he goes.  After returning to private life, he went back to New York City, this time on his own and without anyone accompanying him. As he was about to pay for his hotdog, the vendor recognized him and refused to take his money.  After which, the vendor replied, “America has already paid me and my family because I was able to have my own business and make a living.”  That statement struck Gen. Powell that he goes about telling this story every time he delivers a speech.

Whether we like it or not, the things that we do every day do make an impact whether you’re a manager leading a team or a stay-at-home mom. It’s not a question of whether or not we’re making an impact but rather how we want to make an impact. Executives and celebrities tell stories about how their parents encouraged them to pursue their dreams, teachers who didn’t give up on them,  supervisors who believed that they can accomplish far beyond what they can think of. The list goes on and on.  I get to tell the story about how my mom exemplified honorable work ethic and hard work, how my pastor friend Alfred taught me that excellence must be a lifestyle and how my wife’s wise words of “your time will come” kept me going.

How we make an impact on someone else’s life may not end up on tomorrow’s newspaper or the next New York Time’s best seller’s list. But I’m pretty sure they will end up as stories getting told by your kids, the next generation of leaders or potentially as a story embedded in a TED talk.

Question: Do you have a story about someone who made an impact in your life? What about something you did for someone that is worth sharing to others. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

The Pen and Paper in the Digital Age of Social Media

November 18, 2012 2 comments

I wanted to start this blog post with a reference to a TED Talk by Hannah Brencher about love letters to strangers.


In an earlier blog post, I talked about my experience with working on a large SharePoint 2010 upgrade and migration project for a Fortune 500 company. I’ve told people stories about why the project became very successful despite the different challenges and difficulties that we encountered along the way. The secret lies in the great and wonderful people I’ve worked with – from the project manager, the engineers and even the application testers. The project has given me he opportunity to establish meaningful relationships with those involved.

Several weeks after the project went live, I was having a conversation with the project manager about the way we manage our relationships and dialogues we have with the people that matter to us. She mentioned the fact that even after celebrating her birthday just a few days ago, most of the greetings that she received were all in digital format – text messages, emails, Facebook messages, etc. The conversation concluded with the fact that greeting cards have now joined the ranks of dinosaurs and the Dodo bird on being extinct. I have to admit that while I like sending hand-written notes and letters to people, I save the reader the agony of reading my hand writing. I still remember the gruelling writing exercises that I had to go thru in grade school just to improve my hand writing – write, scribble, erase, write, and so the cycle goes. And while most people say that practice makes perfect, I just couldn’t get my hand writing right. I can’t even read my own hand writing sometimes that I always resort to typing my notes after meetings so I could legibly read and recall the ideas I wrote.

A few weeks ago, I sent the project manager and one of the application testers books that I think would be valuable to them.  Dr. John Maxwell’s book  – Everyone Communicates Few Connect  – was the latest book that I have read from the author and decided to send a copy to the project manager. For the application tester,  sent a copy of the SharePoint 2010 branding book because I believe that the book would be very helpful in her day-to-day job. Included with the book was a hand-written note thanking them for their contribution to the success of the project and described how the book would help them improve their productivity at work. I think I’ve scribbled on a few sheets of paper before finally tucking one inside the envelope and headed over the post office. I was more concerned about the recipients having a hard time reading my handwriting than the impact that it would have in their lives.

In today’s digital age where social media has taken over our modes communication, it’s so easy to take for granted the value of  inter-personal relationship. It still amazes me how people in the workplace would send an email response to a colleague that’s a few cubicles away rather than take a few steps and have a face-to-face conversation. Oh, those lovely email threads spanning multiple responses when it could have been made even clear with a phone call. Social media and the digital age only thrives because they leverage on the most important ingredient in the marketplace : PEOPLE. We humans desire to feel special and important. We love receiving feedback for the work that we do and long to be connected with the people that matter to us. That’s why people flock to Facebook and Twitter. We want to join conversations, share our uniqueness and simply feel validated. And that’s why I feel that the pen-and-paper approach of connecting with people will never go out of style.

After coming back from the PASS Community Summit in Seattle, I received a hand-written card from the project manager thanking me for the wonderful gift. She was also a big fan of Dr. John Maxwell and his books. But what really struck me was how she related the story of the application tester who received the other book. The gift came at a time when she felt really discouraged and was starting to believe that her work in the company didn’t matter. The book and the hand-written note from me made in impact in her life: it validated her value. It didn’t just make her day, it literally ignited her to become excited again with the work that she does. Most importantly, I’ve gained another level of appreciation for the hand-written letters that I send out, knowing that they do have an impact on the lives of the recipients. I’ll still make sure that they’re legible before I send them out.

Question: Have you been encouraged recently by a hand-written note? When was the last time you sent out one? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

PASS Summit and The Value Of Building A Community

November 13, 2012 1 comment

Photo courtesy of Sheryl’s Boys

I’m a community person. I’ve built my career around the value of communities. It all started when I was in high school and wanted to raise funds that will help the student community by improving our sports facility. We wanted to host a dance party within the school premises and invite students to participate. When the school didn’t approve of our proposal, I was disappointed. So disappointed that I gathered all of my close friends and proposed the idea of running the party outside of the school premises but within the jurisdiction of the local community for safety reasons. We had a noble goal (help the students in our school,) a business plan (host a dance party to raise funds,) and a handful of volunteers (my close friends.) I guess everyone was passionate about the idea that it started spreading throughout the different schools within our community. Soon, everybody was asking us how they can participate. We’ve expanded our fund raising efforts to include other schools in the project. It was a success and the rest was history. We won the hearts of the school administration staff that they let us do another fundraising project for the next year. I’ll never forget that experience.

Last week, the SQL Server community was all hyped up on Twitter and other social networking sites talking about the PASS Community Summit. This happens to be the world’s largest and most intensive technical training conference for SQL Server and BI professionals. There were some major announcements made last week which are considered highlights of the event. If you ask attendees, new and old, about why they made the investment in attending the event, you will get different responses. But there’s one constant theme that resonates among the different responses: PEOPLE. Communities are social units built by people for people. Seth Godin talks about building Tribes, Brian Allain talks about how community wins, social networking sites have become successful because of the idea of communities.  Successful businesses know how to build and leverage communities. In fact, many would agree with me on this that, Microsoft has leveraged the SQL Server community to build the product to what it is today. But setting aside the marketing and business aspects of building and/or being a part of a community, the real value comes from meeting some of our basic human needs – RCGC:

  1. Relationships. Along the corridors of the conference center, I see people giving hugs and high fives. Who would ever think that these are a bunch of geeks hammering on their keyboards solving the toughest SQL Server problems? But they connect on a personal level, telling stories about the travels they’ve made, the previous events that they have attended, the next one that they will go to, the parties that they need to attend, etc. I’ve given and received hugs myself throughout the week. One that really stood out for me was meeting up (and hugging) a good friend of mine – a former SQL Server MVP – who joined the Microsoft SQL Server Integration Services team back in 2008. It’s like a family reunion since I haven’t seen him for more than 4 years.
  2. Comfort. During a conversation I had with a database administrator in a large gaming company last week, he mentioned about feeling one with the community. Back at work, he felt like he was all alone and that no one understood nor appreciated what he was doing. Being around and talking to people who share the same passion as he has made him feel secure, knowing that there are others who feel the same pain that he feels, enjoying the same successes that he experiences and speaking the same language. He immediately blended in even though it was his first time attending the conference.
  3. Growth. We all came to the conference knowing that we will learn something new – whether by attending sessions or simply joining a conversation. I asked questions about the next version of SQL Server and the recently released Microsoft HDInsight. I’ve learned a thing or two about deploying SQL Server using PowerShell and a little bit of PowerView on Excel. We all desire growth in more than one aspect of our lives. The event provided an opportunity for growth for those of us who made the investment.
  4. Contribution. One speaker commented on the fact that he feels the satisfaction of seeing people’s face light up when he talks about a solution or feature that will help solve their problems. I got a kick out of the experience myself when people I don’t know approached and thanked me last week for the articles I’ve written on MSSQLTips.com. We are wired to have a desire to contribute and make the world a better place. Most of the community leaders I know have been doing this – volunteering and speaking at events – for decades and they still feel that they need to do more. My hats are off to the wonderful people in the SQL Server community that made the PASS Community Summit 2012 a successful one – from volunteers, speakers, chapter leaders, the members of the board, etc.

Being a part of a community meets our basic human needs. But it certainly goes beyond that. I’ve gotten contracts and  job offers in the past from people in the community. In fact, the community has definitely helped me grow my career in one way or another. But let’s leave the topic about the business value of building and/or being a part of a community for a future blog post.

Question: Fill in the blank. “The one thing I love the most about the SQL Server community is _______ ?” You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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UPDATE: I realized that the T-SQL Tuesday theme for this month is all about the SQL Server Community and is being hosted by Chris Yates (BlogTwitter) so I decided to join the conversation.