Happy new year 2020 and goals not resolutions

Wow, it's been a really big year in many ways. I had a list of goals for the year, and overall I'm pretty happy with where it's ended up. One area that remains a challenge for me is personal health. But there are things I have in place that make me confident that one will be addressed better in 2020.

I liked the way that a few of my friends this year posted that they aren't making New Year resolutions, they're just stating goals for the next year. That's a great way to look at things.

If you make resolutions, you might start all enthusiastically but when life intervenes (as it invariably does), you can feel like you've failed.

By comparison, if you have goals, you are always just working towards them until you reach them. And your progress might not go in a straight line. You might have setbacks, but you can just keep redirecting yourself towards your goals. (I've heard it described as being like a plane heading to a destination. They're rarely pointing directly at the destination).

From SQL Down Under, you should see many new things. We've got a whole range of new online courses (including some new free ones), a whole lot of new material on SQL Server, Power BI, and Snowflake, new podcasts, eBooks, and much more.

Thanks for being here. I hope this finds you and your families well.


Happy Christmas 2019 to all my readers

Hi folks,

2019 has been another really big year. The number of readers of this blog has really increased in the last year and I'm pleased you're here as one of them.  You make it all worthwhile.

Thanks to so many who reached out during the year, with wonderful insights and ideas.

Just wanted to wish you all the best for the holiday and Christmas season, from here down under.

Christmas time is often a period where we think back about those we've lost. The older you get, the more there are to remember. They live on in your hearts but life is all too brief. I hope you all stay safe and cherish your loved ones.

Not everyone finds Christmas a happy time. Keep an eye out for people that need extra help during this season.



Opinion: When did "sqls" become a thing?

Given that SQL is an acronym for Structured Query Language, a reference to "a SQL" is then a reference to a language. Or the term SQL just refers to the language.

So something that I find really odd now is the number of people using the word SQL as a synonym for a SQL statement. I keep hearing references like this:

We need to execute several SQLs against the server.

I need to run a few SQLs.

and so on.

I live in Australia where we're well known for mangling parts of the English language and, importantly, abbreviating almost everything. "McDonald" becomes "Macca", etc.

We don't do that with other languages. We don't write "I wrote four Spanishs" instead of saying "I wrote four Spanish sentences".

But I can't be the only one who finds the reference to SQLs as pretty jarring.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Opinion: If you don't like answering questions, leave the forums

Over the years, I have long periods where I avoid Q&A forums. Lately, I've been spending a bit of time back in some forums. And once again, I've seen the sorts of behavior that make me think about leaving again.

Here's a simple message: If you don't like answering questions in Q&A forums, then don't. Leave. You might think it's all about you and your attempts to gain reputation in the forums. It's not.

It's about the people who need help.

There are a few personality types that I really want to call out:

The "you didn't search well enough before asking the question" type.

These people will berate others for asking questions that have been asked before. Get over it. People will ask the same questions again and again. Not every one of them is a search whiz. And who cares anyway? Just answer their question and let them get on with their lives. If you don't want to do that, just stop doing it.

Worse, I've seen examples lately where questions are closed as duplicates, and the person who jumped into to close it quickly, has totally misunderstood that it's really not actually a duplicate.

The "you're doing a dumb thing; I'm really clever but you should go back to school" type.

These people are more intent on trying to make themselves look clever, belittling the questioner, and basically telling them they're stupid for what they're trying to do. Yet in 99% of cases, they don't give them an answer to their question, or point them in the right direction. Just give the questioner a break; do a bit extra work in showing them what they should be doing.

The "I'm so bored with answering questions that I really can't be bothered" type.

These people will often have compiled a massive FAQ, and the answer to every question is that people will find the answer (somewhere) in the FAQ. If you have the answers so easily at hand, just copy and paste it in, to help the questioner. Don't make them play Where's Wally to find the answer.

Look, if you aren't spending time in the forums with a genuine desire to help people, thank you for your previous efforts but might be time for you to just take a break.

And one for the forum people too: Is it really necessary to remove human interaction and warmth from the responses? When I finish a response with something like "Hope this helps" as I normally would when talking to a human, invariably one of the rules enforcers edits my post and removes that comment. Really? I can see why many people find the forums pretty toxic.



Opinion: Non-responsive contact forms are worse than none at all

Marketing folk have a few common truisms. One is that it costs way less to keep a customer than it is to find a new one. I have no doubt that's true. It's important to keep existing customers. And it costs a lot to get new ones.

For many people now, your website will be the first point of contact. By the time that someone visits your website though, a lot of things often have already had to go right. So it's really important to keep them once they get there. Why waste all that?

One of the real challenges though is that although most websites have contact forms, very, very few of them actually lead to a response.

Worse, many company sites are now intentionally pretty much hiding all their phone numbers, email addresses, etc. and require you to fill in contact forms. Yet I've lost count of how many times I've filled in a contact form at a website, and never heard another thing from that company.

That's ridiculous. 

Turns out, I'm not alone. I recently read a review that talked about a survey they did where they completed sales response forms on 100 websites, and ended up with contact back from less than 20.

That means that either:

  • The request form doesn't actually work i.e. it doesn't actually send a message to anyone who cares
  • The request is going to someone who is either overwhelmed or unable to respond for some reason
  • The request is going to the person who manages the website and who is uninvolved in the actual business.

So a quick check for today:

Do the contact methods on your website actually work?

Do they work on mobile devices?

If someone completes a contact form, are they likely to end up with a response?

Opinion: Are tools like Grammarly really safe to use?

When I first saw Grammarly appear, I thought "what a great idea".

I signed up for an account and started using it, and really liked what it did for my writing. It seemed to work well, although it got seriously messed up sometimes. It really didn't like it when I had a bunch of code on the screen. Overall though, I liked it.

But then one of my security-focused friends asked me:

Do you really want a browser extension that takes everything that you type and sends it to their servers for review? 

And when I stopped and thought about it, that's really the last thing that makes sense to me from a security point of view. The problem is that the browser has no idea about what's OK to send to the extension and what it shouldn't.

Who knows what they do with all the data that's sent to them?

I read their privacy policy and there are a lot of gray areas in there. But the bigger problem is that there's a bunch of data that I just don't want sent in the first place.

Now I could use the icon in the browser toolbar and keep turning it on and off but that's not going to happen because I'll forget to do it when I should.

I think what I'd like to see is just an option where I could highlight a chunk of text, right-click it, and say "Analyze at Grammarly". I could be OK with that.

Would love to hear what you all think. Comment here or ping me offline.

Opinion: Data professionals shouldn't be quick to mock Excel and Power Query

Knocking Access was a popular sport over the last decade or more. Many data professionals saw Access as a real problem. Lots of silos of unmanaged data grew up across organizations and things could get out of hand pretty quickly. I saw all the expected problems that come from a lack of centralized management of data.

Some issues were quite nasty. I remember doing work for a company that did aircraft maintenance and had depots all over the country. Every depot had a copy of an Access database, but every single one had then modified it in different, and in many cases, conflicting ways. Then they decided to centralize the data, and oh what a pain.

I still see lots of SQL Server people mocking Access.

The upside of Access

However, I think that many have also missed the core advantage that tools like Access brought. Power users were often fed up waiting for IT development teams to build what they needed, and so often, what was then built wasn't what was needed.

Today, I can see so many great SQL Server applications that would never have existed if the power users hadn't started them in Access.

Excel and Power Query

Now, I'm seeing exactly the same reticence regarding Excel and Power Query.  IT teams are worried that so many unmanaged silos of information are growing up around their companies, and that Excel and Power Query are at the center of it.

I've been in the industry a long time. It's really, really rare for me to look at a new tool and be inspired. But Power Query had that effect on me. 

Most organizations have a bunch of people that spend their days in Excel. It's pointless fighting that. And the success rate of introducing brand new BI tooling to those people is abysmally low. What I liked about the first incarnations of parts of Power BI is that if you took a person who already used Excel well, and just added more features to it, you were drastically more likely to see them actually use it.

And that's the beauty of Power Query. It lets those power users import and massage data into the shape they want. And, importantly, they will in many cases, create the start of important new applications that the organization needs.

I'm not talking about dabblers who aren't at the power user level, who could just spend endless hours not getting anywhere. I'm talking about the people who can make progress and start to create applications.

If their work becomes important, there are good options for IT to take over those applications and professionalize them. But without these tools, those applications would probably never exist in the first place, so don't be quick to mock them as though they're not "real" applications.

Opinion: For companies, is there any value left in country-level domain names?

Recently, one of my MVP colleagues was tweeting about the problems he was having dealing with a country DNS name provider, and how much it cost. I've thought this for a long time, but it really does make me wonder if there's much value left in country-level domain names, at least for companies.

The Gold Rush

Awesome image by Lucas Benjamin

Back in the 1990's, I remember the "gold rush" that happened when people where trying to register domain names for their companies and how intense the competition became. If you didn't get in early, you were fresh out of luck. We made a point of getting all our customers to register quickly. Even then, some missed out on their ideal names, particularly if they were just trying to register a set of initials or abbreviation.

The registrars for country-level domains (i.e. somecompany.com.au) were often monopolies, had horrid customer services, and were charging like wounded bulls.

It didn't take me long to realize that a country-level domain is both a blessing and a curse:

  • If you want to have a global presence, it's constraining.
  • It might have value if you want to appeal to other local companies.

Stick with Top Level Domains

I decided that in future, I'd mostly use top-level domains (i.e. somecompany.com).

The registrar system has opened up and improved a bit for country-level domains, and the pricing has improved somewhat, but now, I can barely see the point in them.

Yes, I can go to a site like lenovo.com.au but if I visit lenovo.com instead, it's going to quickly work with me based on my location anyway. And sometimes, I really do want to deal with the global company regardless.

One suggestion is that it's easier to get names from .com.au than it is to get the same names from .com as there are less used. But do you really want that type of confusion?

Avoiding Errors

For our own domain (sqldownunder.com), I do keep registering sqldownunder.com.au but I only do that to avoid errors when someone adds .au to the end of our web address or one of our email addresses. But the .com.au domain still costs way more than the .com domain, so it's getting harder to justify.

Does anyone see any other real value in country-level domains?




Opinion: Can your staff avoid customer problems?

I deal with a lot of different service providers, and something that really sets the good ones apart, is their ability to avoid customer issues.

Can your staff avoid customer issues?

Awesome image by Holger Link

Years back, I used to deal with our largest national airline, QANTAS, a lot. They were actually pretty good at helping you out once you had a problem, if you had status with them. What they were extremely poor at, was avoiding issues in the first place.

The biggest issue in their case was that the people I was dealing with, had no authority to avoid a problem. They had guidelines that let them fix a problem once it had happened, but they had no authority to take actions that would avoid a problem happening in the first place.

Let me give you an example:

Snowy New York

I finished with a series of meetings, etc. in New York, on a Wednesday. I needed (really needed) to be back in Melbourne on the Monday. 30+ people were going to be in a room waiting for me. On Thursday I had a scheduled flight to Los Angeles.

The US weather people were predicting the worst snow storm in 10 years, for the New York area the next day. I was obvious that my flight wasn't going to be happening on Thursday. So I called the airline, told them the situation, and asked them to get me out of New York that day. I didn't even care where I went: Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, anywhere. I just couldn't be in New York on Thursday.

So what did they tell me?

Them: "Your flight is still scheduled".

I said: "Have you looked at the weather forecast?".

They said: "Your flight is still scheduled".

I said: "Tomorrow, you'll be dealing with hundreds of people with a problem. Can't we just sort it out now and avoid that?"

They said" Your flight is still scheduled".

No matter how I pleaded with them, and no matter how obvious it was to the person on the phone that the flight would end up cancelled, the person had no authority to avoid the problem. I have no doubt that they genuinely wanted to help; they just couldn't.

If you want to have a good customer outcome, you need to empower the people working for you to make sensible decisions, by themselves.

So Thursday morning, I rang QANTAS to find out when I could check in.

They said: "Your flight is cancelled and we've scheduled you for Friday".

Friday had an even worse weather prediction than Thursday…




Opinion: Start meetings ontime – "give it a few minutes" is rude to other attendees

I attend a lot of online meetings nowadays, and I can't tell you how often at meeting that starts at 10 AM actually ends up starting at 10:05 AM or 10:10 AM to cater for people who are running late. Right now I'm in yet another meeting that hasn't started yet, as we're just "giving it a few minutes for stragglers to join".

Now it's a different story if there is a specific person who really is needed in the meeting, and they've let you know they are running a few minutes late. But I see this as routine in pretty much every meeting I attend. Meetings almost never start at the correct time.

Don't do this!

All you are doing is being rude to, and wasting the time of, the people who did turn up at the right time.

I spent a lot of time coaching kids playing baseball, softball, and soccer, and it was the same thing. I always made it very clear to all the parents that practice sessions would start and finish on time. Anything else is just rude to the people who make the effort to be on time.

I understand that things come up and people will be late. Sure. But meetings should run for the people who met with the timings, not for the people who didn't.