Tech rundown

I’ve been asked about the technical setup I’ve just recently put together to be able to do remote sessions, podcasts, videocasts and similar. Now, this is kind of a dangerous thing to ask me about, as I’m VERY much a techno freak, so you asked, you shall receive. In excruciating detail…

This is a picture of my home office – the place where I spend way too much time when I’m not at my day office (which is a fairly rare thing these days).

It’s a standard sit/stand desk from IKEA (one of the perks of being a Swede!) that I almost always have in the standing position. A tip I learned the hard way is that standing and working is hard on the feet – put a rug or similar underneath your feet and enjoy a distinct lack of discomfort! The stuff in the picture is as follows:

Logitech Spotlight wireless presenter

This i’ve already described in fair detail here: Logitech Spotlight -initial thoughts but the software has come a long way since then. I’ll do a followup in the near future as I’ve done som tweaks to the setup that has gotten the thing to the point where I’m quite happy with it.

Asus MB16AC external USB monitor

This was one of the more novelty purchases I’ve done, but in retrospect it turned out absolutely brilliant. I use it as a secondary screen where I keep my presenter view during speaking. Depending on if it is a remote session, a video (yes, I’m working on those) or a regular session at a conference, the secondary screen serves different purposes. It’s fairly lightweight, has a good resolution and is very versatile, but security people at airports have been known to be a bit confused as to why the “computer” won’t turn on…

Rode Procaster microphone

This mic I’ve been eyeing since I first started thinking of doing a podcast, but I’ve stayed away from it for several reasons. First, it requires a proper USB/XLR interface is a dynamic microphone. The old Yeti microphone I used to use to record the podcast has been exchanged for the AKG boom mic in my podcasting setup, but I always wanted a dynamic mic for the (in my opinion) better, richer sound. Unfortunately, this mic quickly showed me two issues that I was not aware of that I had – the first was that the (nonexistent) sound treatment of my room meant that the acoustics were … very bad, and that the mic required an insane amount of gain to get a usable signal out of. Fortunately I have a colleague who is a soundnerd of epic proportions, and he gave me a lot of help with choosing the most suitable sound treatment materials for my room. There is only so much one CAN do to a room in a rental apartment, but doing it is absolutely vital. More about that below.
The other problem with low gain and the subsequent noisy signal was overcome with a Cloudlifter (https://www.cloudmicrophones.com/cloudlifter-cl-1). It is, quite simply, a pre-amp that uses phantom power to give the signal a clean boost up to +25dB – and boy, what a boost it is. It completely changed the signal into a crisp, clear and strong signal that is absolutely awesome for podcasting, voiceovers, delivering sessions or anything else I might want to do with it.

Logitech BRIO 4K webcam

I had not given webcams much thought when I decided to get one. Fortunately, my partner in crime Simon had, and he was adamant that we get the Logitech BRIO 4k webcam, despite it being much more expensive than the other webcams out there. After using it for a while I can say I think I know why it is that much more expensive, as I find the picture to be absolutely excellent. Simon and I are working on doing webinars in the not-too-distant future, and these cameras are key to produce good video. I do find the built-in capability of removing the background live during a conversation to be more of a novelty than actually useful, though.

Yamaha MG10XU USB mixer

When I was working with my Pluralsight course I got a crash course in audio. As in – my audio was crap, and I needed to fix it – stat. My previous USB audio interface was pretty cheap and worked OK – or so I thought. When using proper headphones it became painfully obvious that the signal was simply too poor to be used, despite running it repeatedly through noise filters. I started to do research and stumbled over the Yamaha MG10XU mixer – a 10-channel mixer with more features you could easily shake a stick at. It’s more than I need, but it comes very highly recommended and after running it for a while I can conclude that my previous issues of noisy signal are gone. As it is an analog mixer I can tweak the sound to my preference, and it even has a built-in compressor so I won’t need to add any compression to the signal during the post processing step! I can easily add any other sound source to the mixer, apply effects and shunt the result straight into Audacity (my weapon of choice for recording audio). The mixer accepts XLR, RCA, phono plugs and probably a few other connectors I don’t even know about.
With the Cloudlifter I don’t have to crank the gain very high at all, but still enjoy a crystal clear signal. My iPad with a sound pad app is connected to one of the line inputs and one of the most amazing things – I get to hear what the mixer hears as I get monitor functionality with the MG10XU.

Software

Not pictured is the software I use, and that depends on what I am producing. For sound recording I’ve been using Audacity with great success. However, Audacity is missing one thing that I desperately need – the ability match audio volume between clips. I might have to look at Adobe Audition for that.
For video I’ve been using Camtasia. One of the many perks of being an MCT is free access to Camtasia, and while I like the tool I find some aspects of it … unrefined. The lack of keyboard shortcuts drive me nuts sometimes, and some things take forever. I’m thinking of going to Adobe Premiere, but Adobe is … quite more expensive.

I’ve used Google Hangouts for presentations, and there is one quirk that is going to be an issue for me going forward – you can’t see both the presentation AND the video of the presenter. As I’ll be doing some professional development sessions this fall, I need to *both* show the slides and the video as I’ll be talking about body language. Not quite decided on how to do things – maybe pre-record video and put it into the session.

Acoustic treatment

The room is you garden-variety 14-15 m2 room with one window, some closets and a hardwood floor. If you clap your hands in there, the echo hits you like a bus. Not a good starting position for recording good audio, where the idea is to reduce the bounce and echo to a minimum. There are several ways to do it, and my way lands firmly in the “not the worst way of doing it”, but definitely not nowhere near the “best” way either. The theory is … deep, to put it simply, but it all comes down to controlling sound bounce/reflection and echo using a combination of absorbing or diffusing materials. Since I’m only concerned with my voice and not full-spectrum music, I don’t have to go all out with huge bass traps and such, thus I’ve decided on a “middle of the road” approach with only acoustic foam. As the apartment is a rental apartment I couldn’t glue the foam to the walls (as is otherwise the way to do it), so I went online and got a kind of long tacks. They work well enough I can remove the foam with little or no damage to the foam itself, and the wall only look like I’ve had a poster or two there. I tried the 3M command strips as well, but they took both pieces of the foam AND the wallpaper with them when I tried to remove them. The cats loved to chew on them, though…

I’ve put some foam in front of my microphone to catch the sound of my voice, and I’ve put foam squares in the sloping ceiling behind me. I’ve also put foam on the other walls in hope of as much of the echos as I reasonably can. The corners are an issue (ask any acoustic engineer what they feel about corners!) but so far I’ve chosen to ignore them. For best effect I should have rotated the squares 90 degrees against each other, but for some reason my brain decided to forget this when I put them up.
The CNC machine and the R2D2 has nothing to do with the rest of this blog post, though 😛
Not shown is my rug. It’s a garden variety rug (also from IKEA!) on the floor to take care of the hard surface. You’d be surprised how much reflections come off the floor, and while I technically should take care of the ceiling as well, that is (at the moment) beyond my ambition.

And there  you have it – my home office as it stands right now. I’m working on a post that details my mobile podcasting setup as well, look for that in the near future!

SQLGrillen

I’m sitting at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam contemplating my midsummer weekend. I was accepted to speak at SQL Grillen, a free one-day (plus one day of paid pre-cons) event in the metropolis of Lingen, Germany. Never heard of Lingen? Well, neither had I, before this event. When William Durkin, the main organizer of the event, gave me the news that I had been accepted, I took the opportunity to ask him where Lingen was, and he told me that it was fairly near “the ass end of nowhere”. Having been to Lingen, I would have to agree.
Actually getting there turned out to be a bit of a challenge – in the end, the amazing Andrew Pruski told me that he was driving there from Schiphol, that his flight landed five minutes after mine and that he’d love travel company. Said and done, we found each other and proceeded to pick up the car. Then we proceeded to repeatedly park our way to Germany as there was a lot of traffic. 2,5-3 hours later we arrived in the sleepy town of Lingen.

After the speaker dinner I found myself talking to the heavy hitters of the #SQLFamily, and they pointed out that with one track being newcomer only, there were 28 sessions in total. Then I was told that they had had over 200 session submissions. Take a second to consider that. It was almost a 1:10 ratio between the number of sessions submitted and the available slots. And here I was. I looked around and marvelled at the company I was in. I was chosen when so many people were not, and for the first time in a long, long time I felt a very real feeling of pressure. I was here, so many people were not, time to really, REALLY get my head in the game.

The event itself has been running for just a few years, growing from very few speakers and a small number of attendees, to a hard cap of 200 attendees and 35 sessions. New for this year was that one of the tracks was given over to newcomers – people that had never given a session at anything bigger than a usergroup or similar. This is simply a stroke of genius. The catch-22 of speaking is as simple to understand as it is depressing in practice – in order to be selected you must me a somewhat known entity. In order to get known as a good speaker, you need to – yeah, you guessed it – speak. The newcomers were, in a word, exceptional. With no exception, all of them performed absolutely great. I had the pleasure of attending a session on “soft skills” by Robert French, a gentleman from Scotland. I do a fair amount of speaker mentoring and presentation skill training, so I tend to keep track of small things that can be improved in pretty much every speaker I listen to, but Robert was … as close to absolutely brilliant as I’ve ever seen. I can’t remember the last time I left a session with such a feeling of disbelief due to having watched a master at work. I can’t wait to see him present again, and I sincerely hope the rest of the speaker circuit sit up and take notice, because this man can teach something to EVERYONE. Each of the speakers had one mentor assigned to them, and Robert was paired with the equally brilliant Cathrine Wilhelmsen, so he could not have been in better hands.

My session was the first one after lunch. At the same time as Grant Fritchey. Grant. Fritchey. Yes, THAT Grant Fritchey. The good thing with being on at the same time as Grant is that I wouldn’t be having him in the audience, but the other side of that coin is that I wouldn’t have anyone else either, as they’d all be at Grant (or any of the other three tracks). Now, Grant is an amazing guy – exceptionally skilled, always eager to help, kind, open, super-helpful, approachable and all the other good things, but he’s one of the very few people that genuinely scare me. The thought of having him in the audience would take some self-control to handle.
The session I presented this time was “The Force Awakens – Azure SQL Server for the on-prem DBA”, a new version of one of my original Azure sessions. All in all it went well, but I’ve got a list the length of my arm of things that I want to improve, and it is so interesting to see how easy it is to give advice to others and completely miss it yourself – I *know* I have a stoneface and a deadpan demeanor worthy of the highest echelons of the British royal family and that I *need* to loosen up. Did I? I’ll let you take a guess. It’s yet again on the list. At the top. In red. Underlined three times.

When the sessions were done for the day, the other two words of the SQLGrillen logo came into play – “beers” and “bratwurst”. The evening consisted of talking to all the amazing sponsors, attendees and speakers – all while eating excellent German sausages and grilled meat and drinking different kinds of German beers. In short – it was amazing. Social interaction ALWAYS lead to new friends, new insights and new ideas. At the surface “databases, beer and bratwurst” doesn’t sound like a very serious event, but this has been one of the best events I’ve ever had the pleasure to attend. During the evening I was asked if I would consider being a mentor for a new speaker at DataMinds in Belgium later this fall. I did not have to think about that for more than a second, as I would be absolutely honored to help out any way I can. And so it was that I became one of the newcomer mentors for DataMinds.

I would like to finish with a heartfelt “thank you” to William, Ben and all the other organizers, sponsors, speakers and attendees. This was one of the best run events I’ve ever had the pleasure to speak at, and definitely one of the most fun. I would like nothing more than to get to come back next year, even though the chances are slim. I’m so happy to have been given the opportunity, and I’m looking forward to the next opportunity to meet my #SQLFamily.

Spring tour ’18

I just came back from my latest trip last night and I’ve been thinking about how to summarize the latest events I’ve been to. It all began with the NIC conference in Oslo in February. There I presented two sessions (Azure SQL Server – the cloud awakens and boring is stable, stable is good – best practices in practice) to some 100 people in total. As is most often the case, It was a great event with great speakers and very good sessions. The conference itself was very well run and I was very happy to have been given the opportunity to share my knowledge with the community so close to home.

After a month of peace and quiet I embarked on the first of three trips in a short time – I went to SQL Saturday Iceland. I’ve never been to Reykjavik and was completely blown away with the beauty of Iceland. I spent the whole ride from the airport in stunned silence as the craggy landscape rolled by. I had managed to find a rather … special place to live – turns out there is a surprisingly big difference between “hotel” and “hostel” – to my defense the hotel-turned-hostel was not very clear, but I got a room the size of a postage stamp an a shared bathroom down the hall. I’ll chalk it up as “authentic” and “an adventure”. Oh, and don’t get me started about the yellow buses in Iceland. Top tip: regardless of situation, they have the right of way. Period.
I had the last slot of the day in tough competition with Rob Sewell / Chrissy LeMaire and Dejan Sarka. Despite this I had some 35 attendees joining me for a wonderful discussion about best practices (boring is stable, stable is good – best practices in practice). Lots of great questions, insightful comments and laughs from the attendees.
I jumped on the bus to the airport at 0400 so I was a tad tired when I finally got back home.

After a quick recharge and change of underwear, I then went to Antwerp to speak at a completely new conference called ITProud. It is the brainchild of Peter de Tender, Adnan Hendricks and Christophe Lams. They’ve had some issues with marketing so the total turnout were some 80-ish attendees. The speaker lineup was solid and I had the distinct pleasure of spending quite some time with Fredrik Nilsson of Dell/EMC. I had a great time presenting Azure SQL Server – the cloud awakens to six eager attendees. The day after the conference Fredrik and me did Brussels, and after having spent several hours at the Royal museum of the armed forces and the comic strip museum we went back home.

By now the travel schedule was starting to take its toll (considering I *am* turning 40 in a week) but I had one stop to go. This week I went to Helsinki to speak at TechDays Finland. Again I had the last slot of the last day so I was very happily surprised to welcome some 40 attendees for my session SQL Server hates you(?) – what the DBAs never told the developers. It was a fast-paced and fun session, and I was told that I had surprised several of the attendees who immediately would go home and look over their environments. Despite the fact that devs and DBAs are two sides of the same coin, we still commit the very basic mistake of thinking that everyone knows what we do. When it comes default settings of SQL Server or to programming patterns that seem like a good idea, we can all benefit from much more conversations with our counterparts.

Now, after having been home for several hours and starting to digest this tour (and slowly starting to prepare for the UPCOMING trips) I again realize how lucky I am to be where I’m at. I get to speak about what I love, to people who are eager to learn and at the same time I get to spend time with and learn from all the other amazing speakers. Some days it feels that I’m the only non-MVP speaking on these topics but it is simply amazing how much talent is out there and how many opportunities there are for learning. I’m very much looking forward to some peace and quiet a few weeks, during I will work on the Global Azure Bootcamp conference me, Simon Binder and Johan Dahlbom will be organizing in Linköping, Sweden. At the time of this writing we’ve confirmed five(!) MVPs speaking, several great sessions AND a bit IoT workshop. We’re already at 70 attendees and we haven’t even started marketing the event yet. This will be amazing. Come join us!

T-SQL Tuesday #99 – Dealer’s Choice

This T-SQL Tuesday is an interesting one, as the challenge is to talk about something you’re passionate about outside of the usual work grind. Well, it turns out I’m very passionate about Star Wars, and I’m very passionate charity. Funny thing is, there is a way to combine them. But first, let’s rewind a few years to the beginning of the story.

Back in 2013 I went to a small game convention in my home town. I met an acquaintance I had not seen for about 10 years, and while it was great fun to reconnect with him, what was more fun was the fact that he was driving a full-size R2-D2 droid from Star Wars. My jaw dropped and I was instantly taken with the idea that I might one day have my own. I’ve always been a closet Star Wars fan, but this led to the slow emergence if a true fan. I started collecting information and pieces, and it turned out that one didn’t just buy a robot – oh no, you had tyou BUILD the thing. On your own. From scratch. The club (Astromech builder’s club) provide the specs and drawings, but you have to do the actual work fabricating and collecting pieces yourself. This means that the mean time from start to finish of such a project is between two and four years, depending on the choice of materials. While the droid was slowly taking shape, I started attending conventions with my newfound droid-builder friends, and here I came into contact with an organization to which I would devote a lot of my time the following years: the 501st Legion.

The 501st Legion was started in the USA back in 1997 and has since grown to over 12.000 members all over the globe. Every member has at least one screen-accurate costume from the Star Wars universe (we’re presently at ~17.000 costumes) – be it for instance a Storm Trooper, a TIE Pilot or a Sith Lord. The club is focused on the Imperial side of the costumes, with the sister organization the Rebel Legion handling the “rebel scum”. The club gathers people from all over the globe who all share a love for Star Wars, but also love the opportunity to do charity work.

Premiere of the Last Jedi in my home town. I’m the TIE Pilot in black.

We attend conventions all over the world to display our costumes and promote Star Wars, but we also visit children’s wards, collect money for various charities (such as Make-a-wish foundation), surprise children on birthdays or participate in reading days at libraries. Our “troops” as they are called can be as small as two troopers and go up in size from there. Our members often go out of their way to make a child happy, often driving for hours to troop for an hour or two (often wearing an uncomfortable costume). We are not paid as everything we collect go straight to charity and 90% of the costumes have been made/assembled by the wearer.

The subunits of the 501st are called garrisons, and in the Nordics the garrison goes by the name the Nordic Garrison. It consists of Sweden, Norway and Finland, as Denmark recently split off to form their own Danish Garrison. We are around 200 troopers and some 50 supporters, and as of last year I’m honored to serve as the Garrison Commanding Officer. It takes a lot of time and money, but the happiness and joy I see in the eyes of parents and children make it well worth it.

The droid, then? I’m coming up on four years and while I was sidetracked with the costuming and leadership of my Garrison, the work continues – albeit slowly. The droid drove for the first time on January 1st this year, and I hope to have him done enough to bring to conventions this summer. A droid is never really “done”, so it is fruitless to try to set a date when he should be finished.

The 501st is my third family after my wife and cats, and my #SQLFamily. We’re a great bunch of people, always eager to welcome new recruits into the fold. Come play with us!

I’ve become a mentor

I stumbled across SpeakingMentors after seeing a Tweet from Alex Yates. It’s a completely free opportunity for new and budding speakers to get one-on-one mentoring with more experienced people in the industry, all with the goal that sharing is indeed caring. I can’t count the number of times I’ve met absolutely brilliant people that had decided that they weren’t able to speak in public, that they had nothing to say or any of another thousand reasons why they couldn’t do it.

SpeakingMentors is an attempt to catch some of these talents and help them grow and flourish. The more great speakers we get in the community the more we all can learn. In any way you look at it, it is a win-win: the mentee gets clear, concise tips to improve (be it with writing abstracts, how to approach a session, presentation skills or whatnot) and the mentor gets a chance to both learn from meeting and interacting with a new individual as well as the chance to share their collected wisdom.

I invite anyone who are interested to go to SpeakingMentors.com to see for themselves. I did and couldn’t sign up as a mentor fast enough. Come join us!

T-SQL Tuesday #97 – Setting learning goals for 2018

This month’s T-SQL Tuesday is hosted by Mala Mahadevan, and she poses a very interesting question with learning goals for 2018. The T-SQL Tuesday founder Adam Machanic posted on Twitter that a learning plan is the way to go, to which I responded that such a list (I misread “plan” to “list”) will probably be obsolete as soon as it gets put down on paper. Adam responded by saying “If the list will be obsolete then it’s the wrong list! Write a post on how you’d tackle it :-)” and thus we find ourselves here. Now, I’ll start with disappointing Adam by *not* writing a list, but sharing the insights I got just by consciously thinking about learning and writing this blog post. Two words: utterly fascinating.
While the tips I give are not directly applicable to set a learning goal for 2018, they are (hopefully) useful inputs for deciding on how to approach the endeavor.

1 – keep your eyes on the horizon


I’ve spent most of my career doing “hardcore” deep SQL Server and Oracle stuff. The last few years, though, I’ve slowly edged into the more applied fields with for instance Power BI and very recently data science. Most of the SQL Server stuff these days is upkeep for me – absolutely not simple in any way, but nowhere near as much completely new stuff than in the early days.

As I work as a consultant, often I come across new questions that require me to quickly get up to speed with something specific in order to solve a customer challenge – something that has made me very reactive. It actually took me quite a while to realize that this is hurting me in more ways than one. I consider myself fairly clever and experienced, but I’ve always felt I’m hopelessly behind the curve. Now, this is by definition the case if you allow yourself to be entirely led by someone else’s requirements!

My first tip (and of the main points of Mala’s post): keeping your eyes on the horizon will somewhat mitigate the motion sickness sometimes felt onboard a boat, and it’s much the same with a learning plan and the reactive whirlwind of daily work. Even if you’ve got a reactive kind of job, it’s up to you to create your own horizon.

2 – it’s all about association


I’ve found that my preexisting “learning landscape” very much influence how I take in new stuff. If I try to take in something that is a fit into what I already know, things are way easier than beginning from scratch. If I’m starting from scratch, it takes way more time to find where the pieces go.

Case in point: I’ve enrolled in the Microsoft Professional Program in Data Science, and one of the first things I slammed my head into was the introduction to statistics. Now, I have very little mathematical knowledge (as in, no one knows how I managed to squeeze by in school). I had nothing to tie this new knowledge to, and boy did my brain behave a lot like Teflon. It took me several attempts to structure and assimilate this new knowledge, and despite this bit of a learning challenge I’m eagerly looking forward to the actual statistics module later in the course.

My second tip: always try to find somewhere the new knowledge you’re trying to assimilate fits with what you already know. Everything fits somewhere, and the mind is all about association.

3 – think outside the box


I teach most of the official Microsoft SQL Server/Power BI/Azure courses out there, and I benefit way more from a workshop, a session or a pre-con than I do from a straight-up course. I find Pluralsight and edX to be amazing platforms for the small tidbits of information I need to keep going on my own. Some 70-80% of everything I learn I get from my own tinkering and the rest from learning resources. I need to be able to get answers when I need them, and again, a course is probably not for me. Add Twitter to the mix and I’ve got pretty much all I need when I need it.

Things brings us to another point Mala made: networking. Ever since I actually started interacting with people(!) at conferences, my learning has skyrocketed. I would not be where I am (or going where I’m going) had it not been for amazing people in the community. This is also a very good way to spend the little training time available – by picking the good stuff out of the cake

For my boss it’s a simple cost/benefit calculation – it’s way better to send me to a few technical conferences every year than to lock me in a room at a course.

My third tip is to explore the different learning opportunities not necessarily the first in mind when thinking of learning new stuff.

4 – Listen to Richard Feynman


Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate in physics 1965, approached teaching in a way I’ve bought into wholesale. It’s been dubbed “the Feynman technique” (even it’s unclear if he ever gave it that name) and consists of four steps (taken from https://curiosity.com/topics/learn-anything-in-four-steps-with-the-feynman-technique-curiosity/):

  1. Pick a topic you want to understand and start studying it. Write down everything you know about the topic on a notebook page, and add to that page every time you learn something new about it.
  2. Pretend to teach your topic to a classroom. Make sure you’re able to explain the topic in simple terms.
  3. Go back to the books when you get stuck. The gaps in your knowledge should be obvious. Revisit problem areas until you can explain the topic fully.
  4. Simplify and use analogies. Repeat the process while simplifying your language and connecting facts with analogies to help strengthen your understanding.

The Feynman technique is applicable to all kinds of learning, but really shines when it comes to speaking. Creating a session forces me to go through all the steps above, and it very quickly isolates the areas where my understanding is at a level where I can’t adequately explain the topic I’m trying to convey. Speaking very much helps me both with learning new stuff and also with retaining the knowledge I’ve amassed. Again, everything is about association.

The best speakers and trainers I know use storytelling as a powerful tool to convey ideas and associate the concepts they are covering to the listeners’ preexisting “learning landscape”. Remember what I said about the mind earlier? Right. Everything is about association, and this helps bind the new knowledge to the old, thus helping the new pieces to slot into place and not just rattle around in the brain.

My fourth tip is to speak at events and conferences. It can give you everything I’ve talked about above and more.

I’ll close with a very small fifth tip: have you ever considered what the shortest story to use in storytelling is? An analogy.

T-SQL Tuesday #96: Folks Who Have Made A Difference

 

This T-SQL Tuesday was an interesting one, and I’ve been spending quite a few hours thinking about how to formulate my thoughts. Unfortunately the end of said Tuesday is nearing with unreasonable speed, so I’ll have to be brief. This month’s challenge comes from Ewald Cress and is to recognize those who have made a meaningful contribution in your life in the world of data.

There is a saying that “all good deeds are only made possible by people standing on the shoulders of giants”. That in turn requires an environment of sharing and nurturing – the more the better. There are many giants in our community; way more than I could possibly write in a single blog post.

While the number of people having made meaningful contributions to my life in data is huge, two names stand out. The first is Jes Borland (@grrl_geek) who, despite having yet to actually talk to me in person, gave me the inspiration to actually stop thinking of speaking and actually do something to get there. As is quite common, the small, at the moment somewhat insignificant actions often turn out to be the pivotal ones. There is another saying that “no raindrop ever believes it is to blame for the flood”, but the short words of encouragement from Jes started the trickle that became the stream and is heading full tilt to becoming a flood.

And “flood” is a good way to describe the other person: Cathrine Wilhelmsen (@cathrinew). From the moment I bumped into the Norwegian Whirlwind at Summit 2016, my life has literally not been the same. She introduced me to every hot shot in the business, all while I was having eyes large as saucers and a seriously hard time keeping up.

This year at Summit, I had a fair amount of steam going in. Due to the many acquaintances I made the year before, it was easier to socialize and make even more friends. I did what Jes and Cathrine had done to me, each in the own way, and tried to help first timers and people eager but lacking in direction to connect with people that might get them further than I could. This way I got to meet Laura Muise (@Laura_SQL, an amazing woman who will undoubtedly go far in our world of data) and maybe, hopefully, gave her something to in turn enable her to pay it forward whenever the time comes. I can’t wait for her to speak at her first SQL Saturday.

Thinking about this topic while teaching a SQL Server course this week, I came to the realization that the folks who have made the most of a difference is the #SQLFamily itself. The giants I wrote about earlier are all regular people – people just like you and me. For some people (albeit a very small number) I am the giant. Many, many others are my giants. The point is, that a community so focused on giving to such a degree that the SQL Server community is, become self-sustaining with giants.

I’d like to give the biggest shout-out to you.

All of you.

You make meaningful contributions to my life of data every day.

Thank you for being part of the most awesome community there is.

 

 

Logitech Spotlight – initial thoughts

As you know by now, I do a fair bit of presenting and teaching. One of my primary tools is Powerpoint, and that necessitates a presentation clicker. I’ve been using a Logitech R400 for quite some time, and it does its job admirably. A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine showed me the new Logitech Spotlight presentation remote which boasts quite a few new functions (as well as a hefty price tag). We ordered one each a few days ago, and a couple of hours ago I got mine.

Here are my initial findings.

The box itself is very nice and thankfully simple to open. I’ve seen enough packaging that wants to cut your fingers off to have learned to appreciate the simple details. Included in the package is a USB to USB-C charging cable, a small leather-ish pouch and the remote itself.
The remote is very sleek, has an excellent feel to it and fits comfortably in my hand. It has three buttons that can easily be discerned by touch and with a nice, distinct tactile feedback when pushed. The receiver is cleverly hidden inside the remote, accessible via a small strap at the bottom.

Setup was a breeze on my windows machine – I downloaded and installed the Spotlight software, paired the remote to my machine via Bluetooth (negating the need for the receiver), charged the device for a minute(!) and off I went. One minute of charging is supposed to give you three hours of presenting – not something I’ve managed to test out, so I’ll buy that for now.

The charging cable is a short thing with a standard USB connector on one end and an USB-C connector in the other. Behind the receiver, hidden deep in the remote hides the charging port. The USB-C slides in without a hitch, but here is my first issue with this remote – to pull the cable out, one has to grab the cable itself and not the connector. I wonder how long this cable will survive day to day use.

Moving on to the actual use of the remote, I found the basic functionality (clicking forward and back) to work excellent. The forward button is much larger than the other two and my thumb easily rested on the button with no fear of accidentally pushing it. So far, I have seen nothing to warrant the $130 price tag, but that’s about to change.

The remote has haptic feedback in the form of vibration that can be set on a timer. It will vibrate five minutes before the end of your presentation as well as at the end of the presentation. The timer can be preset at 30 or 60 minutes, or you can set any time in minutes that you like. A very handy feature that I’d like to see expanded upon, but more on that later.

The most interesting (and the most hyped) function is the airmouse functionality. It can be set to one of three modes – highlight, magnify and circle. Each mode can be run with or without the pointer visible. The idea is that the presenter can point to the screen and highlight items or click a link. This is great in theory, but in my opinion there are a number of issues:

Every mode can be used with or without the pointer visible. With the pointer invisible, there is no way of clicking a link with the remote, just as one would expect. However, since one most often use two display outputs from the laptop while presenting (the slide on the larger display and presenter mode with notes, etc. on the laptop screen), this leads to issues with the pointer itself. When pushing the top button on the remote to bring up the highlighter, the pointer starts out on the presenter screen and must be dragged over to the presentation screen. Unfortunately, the pointer won’t hide either, but stays visible all the time on the presentation.
By turning off “show pointer”, this behavior changes completely and the remote doesn’t care that there are two outputs, and behaves as there is just one. A much better experience, but one without the ability to push any links or buttons.

Next, in order to use the highlighter, magnifier or circle, I have to press *and hold* the top button. This leads to me turning towards the screen (and thus AWAY from my audience) to see where I’m pointing. Then I have to turn back, all while keeping my hand steady so the highlight circle doesn’t move by mistake. I’d love for this feature to be slightly modified so that I could lock the highlighter/magnifier/circle at a specific place, talk freely and click again to move on.

Third, the software allows me to seamlessly switch between the highlighter, magnifier and the circle with a double-click on the top button. This works well enough, but unfortunately every change in mode results in visual artifacts and thus cannot be done covertly. Not so seamless in practice.

Moving beyond the pointer features, another useful feature is the ability to bind a long press of either the back or forward button to different functions. The ability to blank the screen is nice in and of itself, but Logitech has gone one step further – it doesn’t matter if you’re in Powerpoint or not – the screen gets blanked, period. This is very useful for among other things blanking a demonstration while talking. It also possible to bind a custom keyboard combination (including control-, alt- or shift combinations.)

Having used the remote for a few hours I’m positive but not blown away. It’s an excellent presentation remote with a huge potential, but I’d like to see a lot of refinements rather quickly for it to justify its hefty price tag. The good thing is that I believe that most of my issues can be fixed by updating the software and/or firmware of the remote. The ball is firmly in Logitech’s court.

Pros:

  • Excellent design and build quality.
  • Amazing battery capacity.
  • Unique functions (highlighter/magnifier, keyboard bindings, haptic timer) that can be truly great if refined a bit.
  • The ability to blank the screen regardless of using Powerpoint or not.

Cons:

  • On my machine (Dell XPS13 2016) I experienced several Bluetooth disconnects during the three hours I used the remote. Granted, this might be due to my machine misbehaving. The included adapter did not exhibit this behavior.
  •  No way to lock the highlighter or magnifier.
  • No ability to send keyboard macros
  • Visual artifacts when changing pointer mode
  • Difficult behavior with the pointer visible and using Powerpoint presenter mode

Poorly designed charging cable

Ideas for improvement:

  • The ability to turn on or off the pointer like the ability to change pointer mode.
  • Ability to run keyboard macros and not just a single keystroke.
  • The ability to lock the pointer in magnified/highlighted mode.
  • Remove the visual artifacts when changing pointer mode.

This is what I found from a few hours of use. In a week, I’ll be teaching a course and I’ll be back with an update to this blog post after that.

The last post of the year

On January the 7th I celebrate my 10th anniversary at Atea. I came to be a consultant after 6 years working internal IT at the local university, and let’s just say consulting was a bit of a… change in pace. At the university I was responsible for everything that was spelled Oracle or SQL Server (and quite a lot of server/SAN/Windows and UNIX/Linux stuff as well), handling everything from day-to-day with backups, performance tuning and troubleshooting, to architecture, design and implementation of new systems and solutions.

Anyone who’s ever spent some time at a university can attest to the place being somewhat of a “gated community” when it comes to how things work, and while I had a lot of responsibility, in many respects way more than I ever could have had out in the industry at that level of proficiency, it was still the university.

Then I became a consultant, thinking how hard can it be? Answer: very. I suddenly was thrust into situations where I didn’t have all the answers due to the fact that I hadn’t designed and built the platform I was working on at any given time. I constantly felt like being a fraud (hello imposter syndrome!) and was just waiting for someone to expose me and throw me to the curb. I went into overdrive and have thus spent the last 10 years cramming an enormous amount of knowledge into my tiny brain.

I spend a lot of my free(?) time testing, experimenting, reading and toying with tech in general and data related stuff in particular. I’ve made my phone and my computer extensions of myself, always having them within easy reach. In many ways it is easier to use my computer or my phone than to just ask someone. My body was at home but my brain was off doing things related to work.

I’ve spent a large part of my life running just to keep up and having a feeling of inadequacy if I didn’t learn everything in sight. I want to be able to take on the likes of Bob Ward, Reza Rad, Adam Saxton or Brent Ozar AT THEIR GAME – without having neither the experience, resources or clients they do. They’re only human and hence it is doable (the jury’s still out if Bob IS human, but that’s another story) I probably could be as good as any of the aforementioned gentlemen – if I decided to focus on one specific thing and spent the next 15 years doing exactly that.

To stay on top of my workload I have to spend hours and hours outside work just to keep up. “Have to” is not entirely correct as everything I do is done by my own free will.
I talk to a lot of people, read a gazillion blogs and in general interact way more with people on the internet than I do with people physically around me. Don’t get me wrong – I find this to be both fascinating and fun, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. The best thing I know is to go to a conference and meet my #SQLFamily.

But something has been nagging me. Right at the corner of my awareness, the feeling that “something” is not quite right in my life. The other day I came across a youtube clip from an interview with a guy that laid out the problems with the millenials (people born 1984 and later). Even though I’m not technically a millenial, one thing he said resonated with me – he said that a lot of people are addicted to technology and social media in a way that resembles alcohol.

This felt a bit like a mental smack in the face. I’ve been pestering my wife to use her phone more, use more chat apps so I can reach her, sync her email and calendars, etc (she flat out refuses). And I think I did that for the wrong reasons. I realized she’s doing it right and I’m doing it wrong. I spend a lot of time looking at my phone, fiddling with my phone, looking up (irrelevant) stuff on the internet and chatting with other people. In short – I was doing everything but being here, in the present.

This year has been a tumultous one for me and my wife. We’ve lost two cats, our dearest friends of almost 15 years. We’ve had our ups and downs, dealing with medical issues and misfortunes. However, we’ve also decided to get two new cats (goodbye sleep!) and make some serious changes in our lives for next year.

Thus we come to the conclusion and the point I want to make in this blog post.

Starting with my 11th year at Atea I will strive to be bored again. I will make sure it becomes a year where I have the time to read a science fiction novel, where I can just take long walks or just stare into a wall. The phone will be lying somewhere in the apartment so it can be reached if I need to make a call or if someone texts me. I’m going to break my dependence on always knowing what people are doing and I will be spending way more time being here, in the present.

I will spend more time teaching and presenting in 2017 than I’ve ever done and I will be spending more time helping colleagues develop their skills. Next year will be more about helping others, but not by working myself into the wall due to constantly being plugged in to the rest of the universe. I will not be trying to emulate Bob, Reza, Adam or Brent. That’s simply not for me at this stage of my life. I have an enormous respect and appreciation for everything they do, and while I’m envious of them having the drive they do, I’ve come to realize it’s not for me.

My blog probably won’t be seeing monthly updates (when has it ever?) but I have a small project in the works that might suit me better.
Next year, I will be helping others by helping myself. That way everybody wins.

Have a great New Year’s eve, and I’ll catch you on the flipside.

T-SQL Tuesday – body language

This is my contribution to this month’s T-SQL Tuesday, this time hosted by Andy Yun.

I was sitting calmly in a session at PASS Summit 2016 listening with only one ear. I was using only one ear as I was busy contemplating the many ways the speaker’s presentation skills could be improved. Teaching and presentation skills go hand in hand, but there are several examples of speakers having one but not the other – the result is predictably somewhat lacking. The more events I attend I can conclude that presenters generally know their technical content VERY well (most often to a downright scary degree) but many can improve on both their presentation design and their presentation skills.

Despite being an introvert guy I love the thought of sharing and teaching. At a party I’m an awkward wallflower, but put me on stage and I become another person.

When it comes to presentation design I subscribe to the “keep it clean” design philosophy. This could be a blog post in itself, but I’d much rather point the reader to Boris Hristov’s site as he is not only very skilled at presentation design but also a former SQL Server MVP. He has managed to come at presentation design from a technical viewpoint that I applaud.

My contribution to this T-SQL Tuesday will thus be concentrated to a few tips on body language as it relates to presentation technique. Let me dive right in.

There is a saying that is applicable on many things: “fake it ’til you make it”, and it can be equally applied here. It doesn’t matter if you feel confident on stage or with your material as long as you look like you are. It becomes somewhat of a loop – if you look confident you will feel confident, and if you feel confident you will look confident. Lather, rinse and repeat. This is how the brain works – it does not have the capacity to discern between external and internal stimuli. This fact that is one of the cornerstones in many forms of cognitive behavioral therapy.

  • Posture

Be proud and straighten your back (I *know* how hard this is as I’m a sloucher myself).  Chin up, pull in the stomach, keep your feet parallel to each other.

Use your own body to point with. If possible, skip the laser pointer that every self-respecting nerd is equipped with. By pointing to the screen with your hand, you become message, not the presentation shown on the screen.

Speaking of open body language, keep yourself turned towards the audience. Nobody wants to listen to a presenter talk to the screen or to a nearby wall. Your audience is there to listen to you, so the least you can do is to actually speak to them.

Oh, one more thing with regards to posture: ignore everything you read about “power posing”. It doesn’t work.

  • Using your hands

Take your hand out of your pocket. Right now. You want your body language to be as open and inviting as physically possible.

Use your hands in a relevant fashion. There are many ways I can describe presenters I’ve seen: full rabbit, fork lift, preacher or double fists are rather graphical examples. There are so many ways of holding your hands and the absolute majority of them won’t help your cause at all.

If you’re not using your hands, just let them hang at your sides. That’s it; don’t do anything else. They should not distract the audience and should just hang neutrally at your sides, ready to be come into play when needed.
When you do use them, use functional gestures and make sure they are distinct. Examples of functional gestures include pointing at an attendee with your hand (never your finger!), drawing something in the air or counting on your fingers.

  • Useful eyes

The eyes are extremely powerful instruments for captivating your audience. They also tend to be underused. Sweep your gaze over the audience, making sure to look at all of them- don’t ignore for instance the folks in the back-left corner. From time to time, make sure to look at specific attendees. It can feel scary to meet the eyes of a gazillion people in the audience that you’ve never met or talked to, but there is a trick – don’t. Focus your eyes on the bridge of their nose. You don’t meet their eyes and will not risk losing yourself in them, but the audience won’t know the difference. Try it!

In conclusion

Most presenters know their technical stuff but most presenters could benefit from improving their presentation technique. I realized there at the Summit that I could help, and so the idea for this blog post was born.

The only way to get better at presenting is practice. The best way of becoming aware of your body language is to record yourself presenting. By reviewing yourself with a critical eye you can find and correct whatever flaws you find. Don’t be afraid to ask someone else for a second opinion. Andy is more than happy to help new speakers out, as am I. Don’t hesitate to contact me if I can help in any way. Good luck!