I went to the 2017 PASS Summit. I had never been before. Not only was I a first time attendee, but I was also selected to speak. This is a a running diary I kept detailing what happened. It probably contains some bad words and very little technical content. It’s about me, and how I wound up there. It rambles and is not very well written. You were warned.
It’s 5:40 AM on a Tuesday, and I should be thrilled. Instead, I’m filled with an impending sense of doom.
Seated at gate C25 at John Glenn International Airport I can’t help but think of all the things that can go wrong on an airplane. Especially on a smaller, regional carriers like the one I’m using to catch a connection in Detroit. I keep glancing nervously out at the plane which is becoming increasingly clearer and brighter as the sun begins to rise. We’re not fully into daylight savings time yet. Each time I look out at the tarmac near the gate, I imagine new flaws. Why does the paint look so chipped? Is that rust? That patch looks huge. And that’s just what I can see. What about all the things I can’t, like all the bolts. Are they all there and tightened down?
I wasn’t always a nervous flier. In fact, I used to love flying. I could disconnect from things. I even used to be able to sleep on airplanes. That was all before “the database.”
I used to work at a health care company. It’s where I started my career right out of college. After working there a few years, I was assigned a developer role. I helped create a lot of internal applications and web sites. It’s how I also got started with SQL Server; we had a SQL Server 2000 instance as our database for all our applications and analytics. At the time, I wasn’t aware of just how few people at the company (and we’re talking a pretty significantly sized company) didn’t use or understand the platform. All of the big production systems of the company ran on DB2 and large mainframes. Smaller, one-off teams like mine were relegated to other technologies. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I helped write some of the first internal web applications at this company. Everything else was either run off of mainframe terminals or VB6 applications on desktops. We still used Novell Networking. It was 2005.
Everybody makes mistakes, even people you think wouldn’t or shouldn’t. People like healthcare providers. Imagine if your doctor ordered you the wrong medical test. Or if your pharmacist dispensed you the wrong medicine. Or if your anesthesiologist got a bad night’s sleep and gives you 10 times the amount of sedative you should get. Or if your surgeon, who had an argument with his wife before he left the house and is venting to the nurses, drops a sponge in your torso before you get sewn back up. Seems like it’s rare that those things would happen, right?
Not according to the data we collected. That was our project: we wanted to create a database to track quality. There were three of us: I was the developer (and accidental DBA), and I worked with professionals to help determine what data points we wanted to track and report on. Our goals were two-fold: One, help understand how mistakes are made, and two, fix any issues or negative outcomes caused by such mistakes.
The company already had processes in place to do this, but it was all done offline. Someone would research an issue that was reported to the department. To try and figure out what what wrong, multiple systems were logged into. Data and screenshots were then printed and bundled. Filing cabinets overflowed. Retention was “forever.” Notes were logged in systems that things were done, but it was all manual text. There was no structure, let alone standards. We were collecting data and righting wrongs, but not getting any better.
We set out to create not only a database, but a process. Each reported event had a life cycle. It started when someone called in to report an issue. The person on the phone would log into our system and create a shell of an alleged event. Alleged wasn’t the word we used, but we had to research everything before we could really say we make a mistake. Once the initial disposition was logged, an investigation would begin. The report could be viewed and updated by multiple people. It was triaged, assigned, and ultimately worked until the issue was resolved. The real magic was after everything was said and done: reporting. Actual, query-able data. This data was analyzed, scrutinized, and digested. As the developer assigned to this business unit, it fell to me to create an internal web application that could be used to do all of these things.
It was during this process that I became less of a developer and more of a DBA. I wasn’t just coding front-ends for people to log data into. I now had real data to look after. I had to learn about backups and DR. As the data grew (and wow, did it grow fast), I had to worry about performance. I had to manage permissions and patching. I was learning what it was like to be a production DBA. I had no one else to help me. I had to learn, and learn fast. I made all the mistakes. All of them. I learned a lot. In fact, mistakes I made back then still haunt me. I lost a lot of sleep, weight, and hair. I didn’t care; the benefits outweighed the pressure. I was young, ambitious, and single. It was a glorious ride.
The database was the darling of our department. We took the show on the road and traveled all over the country presenting it at different branch offices, call centers, and other facilities. I was on a plane at least once a month for the better part of two straight years. We were always improving the product; adding new fields, new features, and new workflow enhancements. What started out as a fabulously expensive manual process that involved almost 100 employees in one building in Ohio could now be worked on across the country. The data we collected and reported on help identify trends in common errors. They fell in to usual buckets: there were incidents that resulted because of limitations of our production systems. There were incidents that resulted because of lack of training. All of the things you would normally think of.
The data was also used to help prove we were safe. They say that quantity has a quality all it’s own; if we make one mistake out of, say, 1,000,000 potential incidents, that looks good right? What about one mistake out of 10,000,000? 100,000,000? The company operated at a ridiculous scale, so our errors were measured in parts per million. We employed Six Sigma Black Belts to help study and report on the defect rates.
It’s all a matter of perspective though. If you’re operating at .9996 parts per million on your defect rate, that might sound great, but it depends on who you ask. That means most of the people we were serving never experienced a problem, but a mistake the health care industry, even the tiniest thing, can have serious repercussions.
Sometimes the best you can hope for is someone asking for a refund for services rendered. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what the worst could be.
I have a ritual before I fly anywhere. First, no matter what time I’m due to depart, I cut off all caffeine 24 hours before that. My heart races so much even thinking about getting on a plane anymore, that I don’t need it escalated any higher than it needs to be. Second, I start obsessively checking the weather at home, my destination, and any connections. I want to be aware of any potential storms or anything else that might affect my flights. Once I get to the airport, I pull up Turbulence Forecast to know what to expect. I check pilot reports and forecasts. If the ride is going to be bumpy, I want to make sure I’m prepared for any unpleasantness. Next, I hit up the local shops in the airport. I buy a pack of gum, which I chew, obsessively, for the remainder of the travel day. I visit the bathroom a lot.
Once boarding begins, though, I start to get tense. I feel like every walk I take down a jet bridge are my last moments on earth. Already I can see the plane veering off the runway at takeoff, or hitting bad turbulence and breaking up, or shorting the runway on final approach. It’s all I can manage to not scream and run back out the way I came.
It’s sometime in 2008 and I’m meeting the new director of safety for our department, who ultimately owns our database, and, by proxy, me.
She’s thrilled with the data we’re collecting and reporting on, but she sees opportunity for improvement. She wants to take a more proactive instead of reactive approach to quality. She’s not wrong. Everything we’re doing is off of things that already have happened. Systems can improve, but we’re not looking closely enough at “human factors.” We’re not using the data to help people improve.
Many people disagree; they see the work we’re doing as good and they aren’t quite on board with expanding our safety programs to include human factors training. Our director goes it alone and pushes hard to get people to listen. She starts with us; she wants to stress to us just how important it is that we study human factors and the effects they have. At the time, it makes sense to me and I’m eager to learn.
When you start to study human factors in relation to industrial production (or any production or process), there are case studies that everyone points to. Specifically, these case studies fall into one of three industries: space exploration, nuclear power, and aviation. The team immerses ourselves in several case studies about industrial safety. I read about Chernobyl. I read about the Challenger disaster. And I also read a lot about plane crashes. In every scenario, it’s very rare that the big, spectacular event happens spontaneously. Rather, all of these things have roots in human factors. People who should have spoken up, but either didn’t or were talked down when they did. People who didn’t receive or decided to skirt training and safety precautions. That’s what causes accidents. That’s the kind of problems we were looking to solve, and while we were learning more about human factors (and reading more and more about aviation accidents), somewhere along the way I started to get very, very scared of flying.
It’s a Thursday morning, and I’m sitting sheepishly on a exam table at my doctor’s office.
“If I were you,” the physician assistant tells me, “I’d take one of these when you get to the airport, and one right before you board. That should help calm you down.” What about drowsiness, I ask, only because I’d love it if I could take a pill and just wake up in a different city. She shrugs, “Everyone is different, if you haven’t taken this before, there’s no way to know for sure how it will affect you.” What if I take a drink with it, if only because don’t want any loose ends? “I’d avoid that. For some people, it just helps take more of the edge off, but it can cause a lot of weird side effects.”
Medication. That’s what it takes to get me on the plane on that Tuesday morning. I’m essentially B.A. Baracus, minus the muscles, gold chains, and mohawk.
I have a plan, though: I decide to take one tablet before the flight to Detroit (which is only 30 minutes in the air from Columbus) and then, once I make my connection top-off with two more. The plan works for the first leg; the flight is bumpier than normal but I don’t seem to mind it as much. By the time we land in Detroit, I’m feeling a little groggy, but it could just be the fact I got up at 3:30 in the morning. The plane is just getting ready to board when I arrive, so I grab a bottle of water on the way to the gate and decide to down two more pills. I get on the plane, which has in-flight entertainment. I find a movie to watch, plug in my headphones, and then slide my backpack under –
I wake up as we’re descending into Seattle-Tacoma International. I have no idea how long I’ve been out. I’ve been in an aisle seat this whole time, and if someone asked me to move so they could use the bathroom, I sure as shit don’t remember. My overwhelming sense of relief that I survived another flight is tempered by the fact that I have to do it again, in just under 48 hours from now, plus the fact that I’m completely stoned off my gourd. By the time I get off the plane and to the Link I’m feeling a little better, but only just. I grab a seat on the train and fight to stay awake, the excitement of being in a city I haven’t been to before finally kicking in. It’s about 40 minutes to my stop at Pioneer Square, which is about a half a block from my hotel.
It’s 1:30 in the afternoon on Tuesday and I’m crashing some pre-conference sessions.
I have already visited registration and picked up all my stuff: conference schedule, notes, an awesome speaker shirt, and a pretty dope water bottle. Oh, and the badge. The badge is probably the most important part of the package, because aside from admission and identification, it’s a ribbon retention system. Everyone is so very proud of the ribbons they wear. There’s two in my packet; one identifying me as a first time attendee and one that identifies me as a speaker. I only attach the speaker one.
My first stop is the session being conducted by Chrissy LeMaire, Rob Sewell, Constantine Kokkinos, and Sander Stad. They’re showing off the dbatools PowerShell project to an absolutely packed room of people, and honestly, I couldn’t be happier for them. The group has just broken for lunch, and I get a lot of hugs, and lots of handshakes. I have some strong connections to all of these folks, but mostly Chrissy. She’s been like the big sister I never had, but always wanted. Her kindness really knows no bounds. She’s been a confidant, a mentor, even a tour guide to me. She convinced me to contribute to the project, helped me write kick-ass code, and even did a lot of promoting of my work. I don’t know what I would do without her. The room is thinning out, and for the people aren’t heading off to lunch, they have questions. I don’t stick around long, but before I leave, Sander hands me a dbatools ribbon for the badge. I’ll wear that one. Rob moves in for a handshake and hug. We’ll talk more about Rob later.
I amble a few rooms over to Brent Ozar’s room, and he’s swamped, as usual. Even though lunch is being served, he’s got a gaggle of people itching to ask questions. While he’s talking to some people, I get a chance to meet Erik Darling in person. He’s lovely, even though he doesn’t have a twitter account. We talk shop a bit, and I comment on how awesome the query bucks turned out. He gives me a stack. I know Eric lifts a lot of weights and I’m eager to talk to him about it, but before I can, Brent realizes I’m standing there and moves in for a hug.
I’m very thankful for Brent. His was one of the first, real SQL Server focused training events I ever attended. Since then, he and I have become friends. We talk about a lot of things: cars, career stuff, travel destinations… pretty much whatever we see on each other’s Instagram. He’s given me a lot of advice, both career and otherwise, and he was even kind enough to sponsor HASSP by donating some cameras. I count myself fortunate for as generous as Brent has been to me. I was lucky enough to be part of his first GroupBy event, and he’s even offered up an opportunity to teach a two day class on PowerShell.
We exchange hellos, but he’s starving so I don’t linger long. I don’t have a super long list of people that I feel I have to see at Summit, but he’s one of them. I say goodbye to him and Erik, and I set out to meet the last person I set aside time today to visit.
I don’t feel like a lot of people understand the process, time, and effort of putting together an event like Summit. Being included in this year’s event gave me a little bit of a peek behind the curtain but there’s a ton I don’t know. I do know that it has to be immensely stressful, in large part because of high maintenance people like me. When I submitted my abstracts to Summit, my schedule was pretty much set. However, life happens. As it is wont to do. I got some news that, the week of Summit, I needed to be home by Friday. Except, when the schedule was initially published, my talk was scheduled for Friday. I panicked, but then I remembered that I have a secret weapon: Leeza Andrewsky.
She not only helped me get my session rescheduled, but was super awesome and nice about it and even managed to make me feel less guilty about it. I told her that I wanted to meet her in person and thank her when I got there, so it was time to make good on that promise. I headed down to the operations nerve center of the conference and asked if she was around. She wasn’t, but they reach out to her to come down.
I tell her that I can’t thank her enough for helping accommodate me and having me here at Summit. I know she already knows that. I also know she probably has a hundred other fires to put out. But she makes time for me. She makes time for every speaker. I mean, I know that this event, and this organization, relies on people like Leeza. I’m sure there are dozens of others who work just as hard to make stuff like this happen. They don’t get enough thanks. I do my best to try and convey my gratitude before I get out of her hair. She couldn’t have been a nicer person. I hope she understands that. It meant a lot to me to have her do what she did for me.
It’s 4 PM on Tuesday and the medication “hangover” and lack of sleep have caught up to me. I feel dead on my feet. The rest of the night is kind of dull: I go back to the hotel. I take a nap. I wake up when it’s dark out. I find food. I practice my talk and catch up on emails and twitter. I’m asleep by 9 PM. My dreams are super weird.
It’s 5:24 AM on Wednesday, and Jess looks concerned.
We’re standing outside Crossfit Amped and there’s supposed to be a 5:30 AM class. The lights are still off inside. I’m huddled outside of the gym which is right down the street from the Starbucks Roastery. I’m there with Jess Promfret, her fiance Kelcie, and one of her coworkers, Andrew. This isn’t the first time I am working out with Jess and Kelcie, either.
The internet is funny sometimes. It’s weird who you wind up meeting and connecting with. Jess is one of those people. Somehow or other, one day, we decide to meet up at the gym I belong to for a workout. We had never met before, but we hit it off pretty quick. Oh, and she and her fiance completely kicked my ass. I’m fortunate to know Jess, and she’s pretty heckin’ good at PowerShell, too. She had invited me to come with her to workout that Wednesday morning before the first day of Summit, and I couldn’t think of a better way to get prepared for the day. I mean, sure, I had to be up at meet her at the hotel really early, and walk up a pretty big hill to get there, but it was exactly what I needed to take the edge off. The work out is very challenging (they always are) but we do it. Afterwards, we grab some coffee. I see a cute dog that I take a picture of.
They’re going to go get breakfast and head to the keynote. My hotel is a little farther away than theirs, so by the time I’m back and showered, the keynote is already underway. Once I’m back at the convention center, I hang out in the speaker room for a little bit and rehearse some demos. Bob Pusateri and Aaron Nelson are there, too. Aaron gives Bob and I some of the new SQLPS.io stickers to hand out. I drink a few cups of coffee and hang out for a while. I wonder if any of the guys in the room want to turn on the fireplace that is at one side of the room and “get weird” (they don’t).
There’s commotion out in the hallway, which means the keynote has let out and people are on their way to sessions. I pack up my things; I want to get a technical check in over in the ready room. I exit the door and start walking when I see Louis Davidson walking down the hall. Before I can say hello though, Kendra Little walks up and starts talking to him. It’s fortuitous for a lot of reasons.
Remember how I said I attended a Brent Ozar training class as my first “real” SQL Server training class? Back when I did, the class was presented by Brent, Kendra, Jeremiah, Jes, and Doug. In between sessions, you could corral these awesome folks and ask questions specific to your needs and environments. During one of those breaks, I got to talk to Kendra. We talked about my pain points and lots of other stuff. And we talked about speaking.
If anyone, and I mean anyone in my life helped push me towards speaking, it was her. She was encouraging, and gave me tips on how to get started. I wrote them all down. I used them. It took a couple years, and now here I am at Summit, speaking. All thanks to her.
I wait patiently (and a little awkwardly) while she talks to Louis. They’re talking about concurrency. After they finish, I re-introduce myself to her. I tell her all of what I just wrote above. She’s extremely cordial and humble. I even get a SQL Workbooks sticker with one of her drawings on it. It was just the boost I needed for today.
I get out of her hair and walk around a bit. It’s almost lunch time, so I step out for a bite. I come back early to get to my room so I can set up.
It’s 12:15 on Wednesday, and I’m blasting Van Halen in the room I’ll be presenting in soon.
The technical team in the room wanted to do some audio testing, so after we made sure my mic was working correctly, I ask them if I can just play some music through the PA system in the room for a bit. They happily oblige. I’ve got all the hits blaring out of the speakers: songs from the Talking Heads, Pantera, U2, and the Stone Temple Pilots. As the hour ticks by, people slowly start filtering in. Everyone seems to appreciate the music. The room is pretty big, but that’s because people indicated they wanted to attend, so the program committee moved me from the smaller room next door to this one. I doubt it’ll fill up, but it’s pretty intimidating to be in a room this big.
It’s at this point that two very significant things happen.
First, I notice that, seated right in the front row, is Rob Sewell. The guy I just met for the first time yesterday, one of the biggest of big deals in the SQL Server PowerShell community, is right in the front row. I ask him why; he’s not going to learn anything here. His reply? He’s there for support. It’s touching on a lot of levels. We take a selfie.
Secondly, I look left of the stage right before I’m scheduled to start, and I see some very dear people to me: the first one I recognize is Tone, and then Rune, and then Johan. They’re all from Norway. I met most of them on SQL Cruise last year, and I even went all the way to Norway to speak at their SQL Saturday in Oslo in 2016. It was so amazing, I wrote an entire blog post about that trip. Not only did they come all this way before my session to wish me luck, they brought gifts.
The first one they give me is a badge ribbon. It has a Norwegian Flag, and says “Norgesvenn” which means “Norway friend.” The second is a crystal shot glass that was the speaker gift from this year’s SQL Saturday Oslo (that I wasn’t able to attend). Words fail me at that moment. My voice is cracking, and my eyes get misty. I just want to crawl up in a ball on the floor and weep.
I never had friends like these. Ever. Everything is culminating in this moment. I hug them, hard. Probably uncomfortably hard. They’re on their way to another session. I tell them that I hope we meet up again before we leave.
It’s 7:40 PM on Wednesday and I’m drunk.
I just finished a bottle of sake. By myself. I write a tweet that sums up how I’m feeling right now:
The rest of the day went by in a blur. I could go into detail about my session, but there really isn’t much to say. It went just as well as I hoped it would, but the real measure of how well it went isn’t objectively up to me. That’s what the feedback forms are for. Everyone seemed really appreciative, though. The stickers Aaron gave me are gone almost instantaneously when I tell people to come up and get one afterwards.
Things get a little hazy after that. I remember walking places with Rob, and running into lots of people I know. I walk the convention floor, and I say hi to even more people. Everything sort of runs together. I’d be doing everyone a disservice I tried to list of all the people I said hello to because I’d leave someone out. But something feels “off.” I can’t put my finger on it right at that moment, but I feel… sad.
I decide to head back to my hotel room and change into something more comfortable. There are lots of after parties scheduled for later that night, so I relax a bit and then head to dinner. When I find a nice quiet spot down by the Pike Place Market, I look at the menu for a bit, but I just decide in the moment that I really, really want a drink. As I’m sitting there, slowly getting drunk, it dawns on me.
What if this is as good as it gets? Where do I go from here? Was I just chasing this all along? If so, now what? I didn’t have an answer, and I really needed one, so I went searching for it. In a bottle.
Someone once told me that “the greatest tragedy in life is getting exactly what you want.”
That’s really stuck with me over the years. Did you ever want something so bad that you did everything you could to obtain it? And then that moment comes and you seize it, and suddenly you’re standing there: the earth doesn’t stop rotating, and the sun still rises in the east. You have to think about what’s next. You could plan another conquest, but after doing so much, do you have anything left? And if you do, is it as good as an effort you just gave?
Sitting there at dinner after Summit, I’m wrestling with these big questions. Two weeks later, I still am. Looking back on all the things I worked on this year, that pace is not sustainable. The people in my life that I share my time with, most notably my wife and my boss, have limits on their patience. I probably pushed myself too hard. That isn’t the same as regretting as much time as I devoted to being “out there” this year. Just the opposite, actually. It’s a lot of fun. Probably too much fun, which makes me feel incredibly guilty and selfish.
Still, I can’t discount all the effort and people who helped me get here: on stage, at Summit. I didn’t do this by myself. I had people pushing me, and helping me get better. I highlighted a lot of them in this post, but, there’s just so many more. Too many to list, probably. They know who they are, though, because I take the time to thank them when I can. There are people out there in the community that I can truly say care about me and what I’m working towards. I’ve never had anyone there for me like that before. These are people with their own jobs and ambitions, and their own families. Yet they care about me. I maybe can only count them on one (or two) hands, but they’re there. Maybe they are even reading this; I hope they are. I did this because of you.
It’s 8:47 PM on Wednesday. One bottle of booze and $107.49 later, I’m literally stumbling out of the restaurant. My phone is almost dead. I’m having trouble reconciling where I am with where I need to go. Soon, vendor parties will be starting. I’m supposed to meet Rob. I also have a super early flight tomorrow; I need to be up by 3:30 AM to catch my plane home. I decide that in my depressed and drunken state, I’m probably not that much fun to be around. I call it a night, and somehow catch the Link back to my hotel. I get to my room and throw up.
I’d love to tell you I passed out until my wake up call, but I didn’t.
It’s 4:17 AM on Thursday. I’m getting ready to clear the TSA check point at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. The nice lady is holding my ID and looking at me. She has to look a few times. I’m a mess. Lack of sleep, deep introspection, and a killer hangover are colluding in the worst possible way. I’m starting to feel a little better; I’m excited to go home and start winding down. 2017 is coming to a close, and I have time to plan for next year and also time to think about what’s next.
Right before boarding, I take two of my pills. I pass out shortly after take-off. My fear now isn’t just flying, but when I wake up again it’s that I realize this was all some kind of dream.