The Time Machine: Four Things I’ll Tell Steve Jones

I was tagged by Mike Walsh recently in a blog post he wrote about 4 Attitudes he wished he’d had earlier in his career. It’s always interesting to look back at the past and think about how things might have been different. It can also be instructive for others to see what you’ve learned and would do differently. That can certainly shortcut someone else’s journey to be a better professional.

If I look back at my career, I’ve learned lots of lessons. Some I learned early on, some later, and some I’m probably still learning. I’ve had a lot of success, but there are a few things that I’d go back and tell the 24 year old Steve Jones to remember.

Technology is not religion

To start this off, I’ll look back at something that I’ve argued far too often about early in my career. Is Windows better than Linux? Should we choose Java over .NET? SQL Server v Oracle?

It’s fine to debate the merits, but there are many ways to solve problems, and many of them work well. There’s no need to take hard lines for or against any technology. If it works, use it. If you get the chance to learn it, learn it.

Fortunately I learned this fairly early in my career.

There is no Plan

I used to think that successful businesses had things figured out while those that struggled just made mistake after mistake doing things they should know better than to do.

Having owned my own business, having worked in large and small companies, often in close proximity with upper management, I’ve learned there isn’t much further from the truth.

So many business decisions are guesses. They’re gambles. They’re hedged bets; sometimes well hedged, sometimes not at all. Often business people use their experience, but in a world that changes rapidly and in strange ways, no one has all the answers. I used a capital P on Plan because The Business Plan is just a direction to start moving. Things can, and will, change.

How many enhancements in the SQL Server platform have worked out well? How many haven’t? There are examples of each, and while it’s easy to second guess the directions a business takes, I wouldn’t bet that I’d do something better, and perhaps not even different.

I bring this up because I’ve had so much angst and anguish about decisions made by the business. I’ve argued hard for certain directions and choices, and when I haven’t had things go my way, I’ve held onto resentment or concern for far too long. I have far too often ignored my own management advice when I was an employee.

We should argue for more space, or a DR plan, or an upgrade. Argue passionately. However when the decision is made, in line with your position, against it, or even at a wide diagonal, go with it. Support the decision and do the best you can to make it work.

Take a Breath

Crisis situations are stressful. It doesn’t matter if it’s a disaster from a hardware failure, or a software rollout that doesn’t go well. People get emotional (upset, angry, fearful) and may say or do things that they might not do otherwise. Management doesn’t help and I’ve had no shortage of CEOs, CIOs, CFOs, and assorted VPs and directors that haven’t helped the situation.

When you are trying to decide something, take a breath.

When you’re trying to determine the cause of an issue, take a breath.

When you’re about to implement a fix, take a breath.

When you get an error message from whatever thing you last did that was supposed to fix the problem, take a breath.

When you think things are fixed and are ready to inform someone, take a breath.

Basically take a breath before you rush into anything. No matter what the pressure you feel or the confidence you have, stop and double check your work. I do woodworking and there’s a saying many of you may have heard.

Measure twice, cut once.

Take a minute and be sure that you are doing the right thing. Stop and read error messages and read your code again. Think about the ramifications of changing that setting. Ensure that you really do want to click that particular button or press those keys. Most of all, be sure things work before you tell anyone.

I’m still learning this one, both in technology and woodworking. I won’t lie, this is a hard one, but I  rarely regret following this advice.

We’re Not Saving Babies

This is an expression of my wife’s, but I really learned it at a large company. Around the time of the SQL Server Slammer worm, there were a lot of virus outbreaks of various flavors. I was a part of the response group as the senior SQL Server DBA.

One day a virus hit that shut down our email system. That meant that not only were employees effected, but systems couldn’t alert operators and for a billion dollar company with many thousands of employees, this was a big deal.

Our incident group was convened and gathered together in the Operations area near my cube. Over a dozen of us were looking at systems and discussing the issue. We narrowed it down quickly to a particular virus, but to clean system required a good deal of scripting and manual work to deploy to thousands of Windows hosts. One of my good friends was a senior person in his area and when we narrowed down the work and realized that 4 or 5 of us could do it, it told the manager in charge he was leaving. His child had a sports event, and the rest of us would be fine.

The manager wasn’t happy, but he realized that only a few of us could script well enough to set things up for the rest to deploy and monitor. I stayed late getting things working, but I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

Most of us aren’t making life altering impacts with our work. My apologies to those of you that work on computer systems that do impact the life of death of a human. Our companies might make a little more or less based on our work, but plenty of people make mistakes all the time that cost revenue or lose sales. Almost none of our efforts are that important, contrary to the managers that lose perspective on a daily basis.

Learn to keep things in perspective and don’t kill yourself over work that can be done tomorrow. Hint: that’s most of the work.

Note, this isn’t an excuse to slack off. If you’re behind on work because you haven’t been doing it, then you might need to put in a few more hours.

Be your own person

I once got called about an interview with a company in the mountains of Colorado. It was a neat job, in an interesting business. They needed a production DBA, and I didn’t like my current job. We chatted and they told me I’d “get to manage a 13TB database.”

This was on SQL Server 6.5,

I ended the interview (politely) then, saying I wasn’t interested in the job. I had a small child and an infant. I was already spent a few nights sleeping in my office. I already had a blanket and a pillow in my desk. I didn’t want to move those things to another office.

I’ve learned over the years that there are things I like and things I don’t. I continue to learn about myself, the things I like and don’t like. Most of all, I continue to learn to be honest with myself about how I really feel about the things that are a part of my career.

I’ve watched friends stick with employers and even career fields or positions because of money, commute, prestige, and more. I’ve seen people spend far too much time working in positions that they hated every single day.

Life is short. If you don’t like administering servers, change to another career. If you struggle to sit in front of a computer and write code, find something else to do.

Change is hard and it can take time. I certainly don’t advocate quitting your job tomorrow, but I’d highly recommend that you make a 2, 3, 5, even 10 year plan to move into a career that you enjoy, or at least, don’t hate.


There is much more I could write. More advice I’d give myself, but I will say that despite the setback and stutters in my career. Despite the decisions I have regretted, I’m not sure I’d change much. I’ve had a great career, and a great life, and while I’d ask myself to think more about my decisions, I’m comfortable with where they have led me.

I hope many of you can do the same.


I’m not tagging anyone. If you want to write, write. If you don’t, that’s fine. Either way, think about where you’ve been, and if you read any advice that catches your eye, think about taking it.

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