Evan Dennis on Unsplash

T-SQL Tuesday #111: The Why And Wherefore

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January is a month that feels like it lasts 64 weeks and yet it’s already the 2nd Tuesday of February, and another opportunity to contribute to the #sqlcommunity, and to write about the things that motivate us in our careers. Thanks, as always, to Adam Machanic (t|b) for starting T-SQL Tuesday, and to Steve Jones (t|b), for his contribution (and website).

I had the great pleasure of meeting Andy Leonard (t|b|l) at PASS Summit 2018, and he is today’s host. Andy has asked us to elaborate on the WHY of our careers.

I’ve enjoyed the position – and more success in the position – when I had a reason to do the work; some reason other than a paycheck. In some cases, I had multiple “why’s” beyond remuneration.

From the T-SQL Tuesday invitation

I can’t recall the exact moment I realised my passion for data, or when it dawned on me that it would be my ultimate career choice, but a little backstory is great in musicals, so who am I to decide it can’t work in a blog post.

Setting the scene – The All Rounder

James McGillivray 51* off 25. Racing Stripes LMS team. August 2018.
I still play a little cricket, but that’s definitely not the body of an international sportsman.

When I was young, I wanted to be a professional sportsman. Specifically, an all-rounder for the Proteas (South African Cricket Team). I was a reasonably talented sportsman, but I think those were dreams that even then, were extremely unrealistic. I was however, an “all-rounder”, as I enjoyed academics, sport and cultural activities at school. When, aged 11, in 1994 , I accepted the chance to join the Drakensberg Boys Choir School, and further my musical education, my cricketing dreams were firmly laid to rest.

The 4 years I spent in the mountains was a defining period of my life. Many of my peers were far more musically talented than I was, and it was a struggle to deal with not excelling in something, for the first time in my life. I had to work harder than my classmates, and even then, I could never reach the standards that some of them could. The fact that I was one of the better students in the other spheres of school (academics and sports) was of little consolation at the time. Although I struggled at times, I learned a lot in my time at the school. Self-discipline, determination and dealing with disappointment were definitely lessons that would stand me in good steed later in life. I also developed an intense desire to succeed during those years, another attribute which has served me well.

After I left the choir school, I went to a much more traditional high school for the last 3 years of my school career. In a complete role-reversal, I was now one of the top musical students, but my sporting and, to a lesser extent, academic prowess had diminished in relation to my classmates. I also had a lot of social “catching-up” to do, as I had no friends in my new school, and a very limited set of social skills. So I did the logical thing, and joined the school choir. GREAT DECISION JAMES! The choir gave me an easy way to make friends, to establish a niche in the school and to grow my social skills. Two of the people I met in that choir, are going to be standing next to me when I get married later this year, so 20 years later, it is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Lucky Break #1 – Studies by default

So what does this have to do with the WHY of my career? Well you see, when I left school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Choir had played such a significant part in the years before that, and through choir I had been introduced to the joy of musical theatre. Obviously I had stashed the horrors of being among exceptional musicians in the back of my mind, because I was seriously considering a stab at making a career out of musical theatre. I was also considering law, actuarial science and computer science. Quite the range of choices, and I really had no idea which way to go. I had such a variety of interests and no sense of direction. So I decided to take a gap year…

Unfortunately, you can’t just decide to take a gap year at the last moment. I found an opportunity in England which I dawdled on and lost, and at after that, I didn’t find anything else. So I stumbled into 2002, without a direction or plan. Eventually I decided to see if could find an available course at the university near my house, and as luck would have it, they had open spaces in the Computer Science program but nothing else. And so it was decided that I would study Computer Science.

As I approached my final exams, I wasn’t entirely certain that I would make it through. I had 2 maths modules and a module in Java programming outstanding, and I definitely wouldn’t have bet my house on passing all 3. But I did, and suddenly I had a degree, but I hadn’t even started looking for a job.

Lucky Break #2 – Lesser of two evils

After a month or so, I landed a couple of interviews in quick succession. Two of the companies offered me jobs. One was as a Junior C# dev, about 80km (50mi) from my house. One was as a SSRS report developer about 8km from my house. I wasn’t overly enamoured with either of the options (travel vs the fact that my Computer Science classmates were fairly condescending about the merits of report development) but I needed something, and I valued my time more than others opinions, so I took the second post.

I fully intended to keep looking until I found a post that would be more in line with my university studies (application development) and relatively close to home, but I needn’t have bothered. Surrounded by a complex and diverse domain, and well defined but poorly monitored business processes,
I quickly found that I really enjoyed the work. I worked hard on improving my rudimentary SQL, I thrived on engaging with business to understand the purpose various reports served, and I enjoyed creating new reports, or finding little ways to improve the existing offerings. I immersed myself in the data, and spent lots of time outside of work thinking about new and exciting things that I could provide to the business.

Reporting had a funny way of satisfying the various aspects of my personality that I never got from application coding. I found it stimulating to engage with business and understand their processes and problems. I got a kick out of the creative freedom of designing and implementing the reports myself. And I found myself going to work happy every day, where my friends were often not in the same boat.

#SQLCommunity – Allowing me to be the All Rounder again!

I stayed at that company for 8 years, growing from a junior report designer to the BI team lead. Along the way I learned that there was so much more to the data space than just reporting, but I found that I enjoyed other aspects just as much. From building ETL packages, to designing and implementing Cubes, to Data Quality and Master Data requirements, I just loved providing others with a way to answer their questions, and make better decisions. Every time the business implemented a solution based on something they learned from data, I felt a swell of pride, and a sense of purpose. When I eventually left to join a consulting company and help them establish a BI division, I was genuinely proud of what we’d achieved in the BI division.

Presenting a session at PASS Summit 2018. A professional highlight.

The only aspect of my working life that felt slightly unfulfilled was my love of performing to an audience. By that stage I was singing in an amateur choir one night a week, but a handful of performances per year was never going to fully satisfy me.

And then I learned about the Johannesburg SQL User Group. So I started attending, and very soon I was starting to put together a plan to present my first talk. And from there, it just snowballed. I’ve created and delivered content at SQL Saturdays in 3 continents, at the Power BI World Tour and PASS Summit in Seattle, and I’ll be SQL Bits in Manchester later this month.

Creating and delivering content in the community was the final confirmation that I had found my place, and my life has been so much better for it. It allows me to meet incredible people, travel to amazing places, and learn from the very best in the business. It also gave me confidence to start my own consulting company last year, and although I’m only starting out on that journey, it’s also been incredibly rewarding.

This has been a lot more ramble-y than I initially intended, but I guess that’s a reflection of the fact that I really am passionate about my own “data story”, and the work I do. It’s also reminded me of how lucky I am to have ended up in this situation, because I certainly wasn’t someone who “always knew what they wanted out of their working life”.

TL; DR

So in conclusion, I’m so fortunate to work in a job that I am truly passionate about, being an evangelist for the power of using data to make decisions. A bell-ringer for the new Microsoft. A cheerleader for the #SQLcommunity. My job fulfils me in a way that I didn’t think possible, allowing me to be creative, logical, extroverted, and inquisitive, all at the same time.

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