Getting here from there

Another month, another blog chain, this time started by Paul Randal. I got tagged by both Grant and Steve, on the same day.

I could easily think of two events that dramatically influenced where I am today, finding a third with as major an impact was difficult. I think the third one qualifies as an important enough event, while it didn’t really affect my career, it did influence my community involvement.

I canna take it anymore

I grew up surrounded by two things, computers and science fiction.

My father was a computer programmer in those days (today he runs a software company) and there were computers around from the earliest I remember. From the Sharp that I played Asteroids and The Valley on, to the NCR with it’s beeping keyboard where I first started programming (in a variant of basic), to the 80286 that my father gave me when he bought himself something faster. I’ve always had computers around that I could use. Despite that, I never had any intention of going into IT as a career.

My mother is a trekkie (classic Star Trek only please) so I grew up watching (and reading) lots of Science Fiction. From Star Trek to Dr Who to Battlestar Galactica to the entire science fiction collection at the local library I watched and read everything I could get my hands on, and it wasn’t long before I started reading Science fact as well as Science fiction. By the time I got to high school my career plans were leaning in the direction of Physics and Astronomy. Placing very high in the national Science Olympiad and almost winning a trip to Space Camp just strengthened those intentions.  I enjoyed playing with computers, but that was more a hobby (and, by that point, a place to play games)

I entered university with the intention to major in Physics, take a related subject as my second major and then get an Honours degree1 in Physics and find a job in astronomy or physics research. I took Computer Science as my second major because it was one of the few subjects that I was interested in that didn’t conflict with the other subjects I had to take (Chemistry 1 and Maths 1) I spend most of my spare time in my first two years in the Physics department library. I reckon that I must have read easily a third of that library in those two years

Just two problems with that intention. Firstly, there’s almost no demand in this country for physicists other than the universities and the national observatory. Secondly, by the time I got to 3rd year physics, I couldn’t handle the Maths involved. It was part way through the course on Quantum Physics (which contained more maths than some of the 3rd year maths courses did) that I realised that if I couldn’t handle the maths at this point, there was no way I’d ever be able to get a post-grad degree in physics.

I finished the Bachelors degree majoring in Physics and Computer Science and then applied for the honours degree in the Computer Science department

(1) In South Africa the Honours degree is a one year post-grad degree that sits between the Bachelors degree and the Masters degree.

Don’t hold back, tell me what you really think.

Fast forward about five and a half years.

I’d been doing assorted development work since leaving university. Starting with Oracle Reports, moving into MS Access and Visual Basic and finally into the web development area. I loved web dev. It was complex enough to be a challenge but not so complex that it wasn’t fun, and the whole thing just made sense to me.

I was working at the home loans division of a major bank doing a mixture of new development, maintenance of existing code and reports. When the main application started having performance problems, the company got a consultant in to fix it, and I got assigned to help out because I knew SQL better than any of the other devs (translate, I could write a select statement across multiple tables). I’ve spoken before about what I learnt from that.  After that the consultant got involved in other projects and I went on with other work, but there were a lot of problems in the department and so I was looking for somewhere else to work.

I told the consultant that I was planning to resign and I was looking for job in development, preferably web development. His reply was rather blunt, something along the lines of “Don’t be stupid, that’s a waste of your time and talents.” He then spoke of the type of work that he and his colleague did, enterprise server stuff, Biztalk, SQL, Exchange, etc. It was a surprise just how much of that work there was.

I won’t say that I immediately took his advice and swore off web dev forever. I didn’t. It did however get me thinking and reading and realising just how much there was to that kind of work, how much there was to IT that wasn’t front-end development and wasn’t system administration.

When I took another job with a different bank a couple months later, one of the conditions that I asked for was to have to option of moving from the DB developer role back into web development if I asked. They agreed. I never took the option up.

Can I ask your opinion?

Fast forward another couple of years. It was 2006 and I was attending my very first TechEd South Africa. By this point I was doing performance tuning full time at the company I worked at, and I knew a fair bit about SQL Server and I posted on the forums occasionally. I’d attended the PASS European Summit the year before and the competency and knowledge of some of the speakers there had stunned me.

Microsoft had managed to get a few really good international speakers for that TechEd, including one who presented on SQL Server (who, incidentally had also presented at PASS Europe the year before). After the conference was over, just before the closing keynote, I saw the SQL Server speaker in the passage heading, like I was, for the keynote. So I went over. said ‘hi’ and all that, and asked one question (well, two if you count ‘Can I help you with your bags?’)

“How do I get to where you are?”

The answer took the entire walk to the keynote and some more time. None of the advice was implemented immediately. Some (this blog) took almost a year, some I never implemented, but it got me thinking and it got me contributing to the community, not just been a passive recipient of information.

There’s other things I could talk about, like the six months of writing Oracle reports and what that taught me about writing select statements or the invitation to join a roleplaying group that helped get over my problems with speaking in public, but I think this is about enough.

Everyone I know seems already tagged, so we’ll just leave it there….


  1. Paul Randal

    Great story. I believe I’ve heard part 3 already from the perspective of the person you asked – Kimberly, if I’m not mistaken. She told me all about you when we met up in Barcelona for TechEd EMEA right after she was done speaking in SA.

  2. Gail

    Yes, it was Kimberly that I was talking about. She made a very big impression back then. I was actually surprised when, two years later (at PASS summit 2008), she remembered that meeting.

  3. John Sansom

    Great story Gail. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Kevin Kline

    Ah, shucks, Gail! I’d just finished writing my own post and was in the process of tagging you. But you’ve already gotten a post in. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Gavin

    “(translate, I could write a select statement across multiple tables)”

    Hey we were easily capable of doing that, you are selling yourself short here. You are still the top SQL developer I have worked with.

    Rudi also says hi from sunny Brisbane 😉

    1. Gail

      Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. 🙂

      Making a point that what I knew (or thought I knew) before working with Peter was almost nothing compared with what I learnt from him.


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