Making a Name for Yourself

When you see Kalen Delaney, Kevin Kline, Trey Johnson, Itzik Ben-Gan, and other SQL Server experts at conferences or read their articles, do you ever wonder what it might be like if your name were on that list of industry leaders? Do you wish you could share your knowledge and experience and achieve recognition among your peers? Although it takes work, making a name for yourself isn't terribly difficult. From personal experience and interviews with industry publishing and user group representatives, I've put together a collection of tips and tricks that will get you started writing, speaking, and volunteering in the SQL Server community.

But first, you might be wondering why you should put the effort into making a name for yourself in the SQL Server industry. Here are just a few advantages of getting more involved in the community:

Gratify your ego. It feels good when people know you and want to speak to you. How great would it be if someone would walk up to you and say, "Thanks, your article really helped me!" I put this benefit first because our emotional needs drive much of what we do and say.

Improve your technical skills. Nothing strengthens your own understanding of a subject like trying to teach someone else, whether through a magazine or Web site article, a newsgroup posting, or a conference session. If you're weak in some area, you'll find it out quickly as you try to compose a book chapter or prepare a seminar, for instance. In addition, the people you teach will often have ideas and questions about your topic that will help expand your understanding of the technology.

Build a network. Participating in the community will expand your circle of friends and colleagues. And the bigger your network, the more successful you can be. You'll be able to call on these folks when you need help or advice, and they'll be able to call on you.

Achieve recognition for yourself and your organization. Your reputation often can benefit your employer. If your company does consulting, training, or programming, for example, your leadership in the industry can bring in new business. Or at review time, you can simply show your employer the articles you've written or the seminars you've given, demonstrating your commitment to your work, your industry, and self-improvement.

Get the next job. When you go on that next job interview, you can be the winner. You might be competing with a dozen or more candidates who are just as technically qualified. But if you come to the interview with copies of magazine articles you've written, a book you've tech edited, or a copy of the conference proceedings where you presented, you have a distinct edge.

The biggest excuse I hear when talking with people about becoming active in the community, sharing their experiences, and enhancing their careers is "but I'm not a SQL expert." Let's debunk this myth right up front: Being an expert isn't a requirement for writing, speaking, or volunteering. No matter what level you're at with SQL Server, you have something to offer. Perhaps you installed SQL Server for the first time last week. You ran into a problem, researched the solution, implemented it, and moved on. And there are thousands and thousands of people who are one week behind you and who would benefit from reading or hearing about your experience. In fact, as I work, I make a list of things that didn't work like I expected or new features I run across, and then include those items in articles or presentations-or just send them to SQL Server Magazine for the Reader to Reader section. If I can do it, you can, too.

Write Your Way to the Top

To make a name for yourself, many people must see your name regularly enough to remember it. Let's look at four different ways to participate in the SQL Server community-writing, speaking, posting to forums and newsgroups, and volunteering.

Writing can give you widespread visibility and big returns on your invested effort. Readers keep magazine articles and books for years. And if you want to try your hand at writing, the easiest entry point is writing articles for Web sites and newsletters. Although you're a SQL Server pro, don't limit yourself to SQL Server-specific publications. Consider programming and business magazines. For example, you could write an article for CIO magazine that tells CIOs what they need to know about database security.

Web sites and email newsletters. Many of the Web sites about SQL Server are eager to post articles you've written. The larger sites, such as SQL Server Magazine's,, and the SQL Server Worldwide User's Group (SSWUG), accept tips and FAQs, scripts, product reviews, and articles. Some Web sites pay for tips and articles, and others don't, so be sure to ask.

Email newsletters in the industry, such as the Professional Association for SQL Server's (PASS's) SQL Info Link, are also always looking for articles. Solid Quality Learning's Ron Talmage, a notable author and speaker, contributed two articles to a recent PASS SQL Info Link, for example. Although Talmage writes technical articles, he chose to do two interviews: one with Microsoft's Paul Flessner and one with Kalen Delaney. If you don't feel comfortable starting out with technical articles, try interviewing someone in the community and writing about their experiences and plans. Interviews are quick and easy and give you great visibility

Magazines. Magazine articles are typically longer and more in-depth than newsletter articles (1500-3000 words) and take a little longer to go through the editing process, but you also usually get more money ($100-$500 per article, depending on publication). The process for getting an article published in a magazine is 1) submit a proposal, 2) after the proposal is accepted, write the article, 3) fix any problems raised by the technical reviewers and editors (your article might go through several rounds of editing; don't get disappointed-this is normal), 4) see your article and name in print-and get a check.

Magazines typically include regular departments (such as FAQs or Q&As), regular columns, and in-depth feature articles that explain technology strategies or show how to implement solutions. Becoming a regular columnist keeps your name in front of readers monthly, but it also requires an ongoing commitment. So to begin with, consider submitting features. Many publications have an editorial calendar that lists the main focus of each issue and deadlines for submitting articles for each issue. But don't let the editorial calendar topics limit your proposals; magazines are always looking for top-notch articles about all SQL Server topics. If you want to write a feature article, send your proposal and outline to the publication to make sure the magazine is interested and doesn't already have an article in the works about the topic. Once you get the green light to write the article, plan to submit the article 3 to 4 months before the target issue to leave time for technical review, any author revisions, and final editing of the article. Almost every magazine and book publisher has writer's guidelines on their Web sites (I note several writer's guideline resources in the sidebar "Getting Started.") Also note that magazine articles are exclusive, meaning you can't submit the same article to multiple publications.

As you sit down to write your article, first determine who your audience is, what skill level they're at, and what practical information you can deliver to meet their needs. Focus your article for your target group. And make sure your introduction includes the benefits readers will receive for spending time with your article. Kathy Blomstrom, editor-in-chief of SQL Server Magazine, looks for articles that contain unique and valuable information gained through real-world experience, that are easy to read and narrow in focus, and that include specific examples. "Focus and be specific," Blomstrom adds. "If you use scripts, for example, walk through the scripts in the text of your article and describe the key parts." Brian Knight, editor of SQL Server Standard Magazine, also is interested in real-world articles; proposals such as "Log Shipping on a Shoe String Budget" catch his eye.

If you're not very confident in your writing skills, magazine editors are there to help. And magazines are also always looking for technical editors who can review technical explanations, test code, and generally insure the accuracy of articles in their areas of expertise.

Books. Authoring a book can bring you high visibility, but it also requires a huge time commitment. Karen Gettman, an editor-in-chief at Addison-Wesley, says it can easily take a year for someone with a full-time job to write a book-and it always takes longer than you think. "Authoring a book has a way of changing your life," Gettman adds. "People view you in a different way. Some people have become much more successful after having written a book."

Jonathan Gennick, an editor for O'Reilly Publishing, adds that it's common for people to start writing a book and not finish. Writing is more difficult than most people think. To see how you feel about writing and determine whether you have the "right stuff," try writing smaller articles first.

If you want to write a book, you must first pitch the book to a publisher. Although each publisher probably has slightly different rules for your proposal, all of them want a detailed table of contents. Gennick stresses that publishers depend on writers, so don't be shy. But also avoid vague proposals such as "What do you think about a book on X?" Remember that the editor doesn't have the vision-you do. Put your ideas together, and sell the editor on your vision. And make sure your proposal includes a good, detailed outline. Gennick looks carefully at the amount of work you're put into the outline. If you aren't serious enough to prepare a good outline, how serious will you be about the book?

Frequently, the first book on the market about a topic often dominates, so do some market research before sending in your proposal. Learn what other books are in the market, and describe how your book will be useful and competitive. As Addison-Wesley's Gettman notes, "Be first, or be best."

Addison-Wesley might have five or six reviewers look at your proposal. As you complete chapters, they'll go to perhaps a dozen reviewers, whose will help make sure your book is technically accurate. First-time authors might get a small advance or no advance at all. But you'll earn royalties based on book sales, typically $3 to $4 per book. If you received an advance, you'll start getting checks in the mail after you've sold enough books to cover the advance.

When choosing a book publisher to send your proposal to, consider the publisher's deadlines and your ability to meet them. And in addition to the money, consider whether you feel comfortable with the editor and the marketing efforts the publisher will put behind your book. As part of your research, check out how the publisher has marketed similar books. Hopefully, your chosen publisher will accept your proposal. But if not, contact a different publisher. The problem might be simply that the first publisher already has a similar project under way.

All the technical publishers are working hard right now to determine their offerings for SQL Server 2005, so don't hesitate to get your proposals in as soon as possible. Writing books is a good way to make a name for yourself and some money on the side. But you should write only because you like to write and have something to say.

Speak Up

Grammar and punctuation not your strong suits? Or maybe you're more interested in immediate, live interaction with your audience. Although most publishing groups offer a lot of help in polishing your writing, you might want to consider speaking at conferences, seminars, and other occasions. You can start your public speaking career small by making a presentation to your DBA or developer team or at your local user group meeting. If you're nervous, start small and work up to larger crowds. But make a goal to speak at one or more of the larger IT conferences, such as the PASS Community Summit or Microsoft Tech Ed. And don't be afraid to cross boundaries by sharing your technology experience with Windows and programming user groups as well as the local YMCA or Kiwanis Club.

If you want to do public speaking, do it often. The more you present in front of an audience, no matter the size, the less intimidating public speaking becomes. Presenters at national and international conferences commonly "test drive" their presentations at local groups and use feedback and experiences at those venues to improve their material. Although through conferences and seminars, you'll be directly addressing a smaller group than with a magazine article or book, don't forget all the conference promotional material and the fact that, in many cases, your presentation will be on the conference Web site.

Stefanie Higgins, director of program development for PASS, shared some tips on submitting a session abstract that will get you on the conference speaking circuit for SQL Server. PASS announces a Call for Presentations, posting on its Web site track descriptions and suggested topics for the upcoming conference. You submit your abstract on the Web site, providing a title, a brief description of the session, the targeted audience skill level, and a list of three things attendees will learn from your presentation. "Be as comprehensive as possible about what information the attendee will walk away with after your presentation," Higgins says.

When submitting an abstract to PASS or any other conference, think about a flashy, memorable title. Use action words, and show your enthusiasm for the subject. Sessions for the PASS Community Summit, which includes approximately 120 sessions from around 80 presenters, are categorized by skill level, with 100-level sessions for beginners, for example, and 500- level sessions for experts. About 30 percent of recent PASS presentations have been 100- to 200-level sessions, 60 percent have been 200- to 400-level classes, and the remaining 10 percent have been at the 500 level. Interestingly, one of the most popular sessions over the past several years has been Chuck Heinzelman's 100-level session, "DBA 101."

The Program Committee-divided into different subject tracks, such as database administration, programming, and business intelligence-evaluates all the abstracts and selects the sessions the members feel offer the highest quality information. I recommend you submit several abstracts. If you have several sessions accepted, you can choose to do all three or just the one or two you're most interested in. And if your abstract isn't selected, don't be disheartened and give up. You might have submitted the same topic as 30 other people.

If the Program Committee selects your abstract for the Summit, you'll receive a shirt and a free registration to the conference (not a bad deal for a 75-minute presentation). Presenters download the PowerPoint speaker template, prepare their presentations, and must upload their presentations by the deadline so that attendees can have copies of the session slides. During your presentation, be open to attendees' questions and flexible enough to go deeper into a topic or skip a section depending on signals and direction you get from your audience. After your session, PASS attendees will evaluate your presentation. All speakers receive their ratings and feedback so they can make their presentations even better. Take note of the speakers who get better reviews, and make a point to see some of their presentations and see what they're doing to make their sessions the most valuable.

The Program Committee keeps all kinds of statistics about speaker ratings. They do rolling averages, track recent performance, and take into account how many people attended your session. When you submit abstracts in the future, good ratings from previous presentations will help you in the selection process. And after you've racked up a few years of good ratings, you might be invited to do a special "Spotlight Session," which are given additional promotion and marketing and are reserved for the best speakers. As you speak more and more and your ratings soar, you might be giving 1-day pre-conference seminars or traveling and speaking for PASS at regional seminars or chapter tours.

No Lurking, Please

You might not have the time to write feature articles or work up presentations, but you can share your knowledge and gain name recognition and the regard of thousands of colleagues by answering questions on newsgroups and community forums. I'm active on Microsoft's SQL Server and SQL Programming public newsgroups at, and I see questions at all levels and about all technologies. Most of you probably frequent community newsgroups and forums, lurking in the background, reading questions and responses but remaining silent, even when you know the answer. Now's the time to get active. Post gotchas that you learned as you implemented a solution. Use your experience and knowledge to help out fellow DBAs and developers. And as with writing and speaking, post often so that people come to recognize your name.

Actively participating in online communities, in fact, is a major criterion for Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs). Microsoft has recognized about 120 people as SQL Server MVPs, giving these IT pros instant credibility and visibility. Microsoft also has MVP categories for .NET, Office, and almost all other products. Although the MVP program has recently extended its recognition to IT pros active in offline communities as well as online ones, newsgroups are still a prime place to find budding MVPs. According to Stephen Dybing, Microsoft SQL Server MVP Lead, "Anywhere that community congregates and if you are noticed by other MVPs or Microsoft employees, you will be considered" for MVP designation.

MVPs are recognized annually on October 1, so you must continue to provide value to the community to retain your MVP title. If you'd like to become an MVP, work the newsgroups. Posting more answers helps. Your number of postings must be above average. And you must post over a long period of time. Since 1999, for example, I've gotten up early and worked on the newsgroups 1 hour every workday. You must also provide accurate, high-quality assistance-giving lots of bad advice doesn't help. Microsoft monitors the number of unanswered posts, so if you find a newsgroup that has lots of unanswered posts, that might be an opportunity for you to provide valuable answers. Because each product has its own MVPs, posting across multiple product newsgroups doesn't in aggregate help you. Pick a product, such as SQL Server, and stick to that newsgroup. Don't dilute your efforts.

There's a Place for You

Local and national user groups, such as PASS, are always looking for volunteers at all levels. PASS, a user-run community focused on SQL Server technology, has opportunities for people wanting to help with the Chapter Program, for example, which assists and organizes local chapters. PASS's Program Committee chooses tracks for the annual conference, reviews speaker abstracts, and makes final speaker selections. The user group's Special Interest Groups (SIGS) all have leadership committees and regular newsletters. You could also become involved in PASS's Scholarship, Awards, and Membership committees. In addition, PASS publishes a newsletter and hosts a Web site, both of which need volunteers. On the local chapter front, each chapter needs leaders to organize and run the group. Chuck Heinzelman of Heinzelman Consulting LLC and the PASSnews coeditor, shares his volunteer story at

Also, don't forget your local school, church, or community organizations. In addition to the satisfaction you get from contributing to your community, volunteering to help these groups with IT solutions could garner you news coverage, networking contacts, and exposure to different types of technology configurations that you can write or speak about.

Only the Beginning

These are just a few ideas for how you can start to make a name for yourself in the SQL Server community and boost your career. The benefits are clear. All you have to do is decide which options you prefer and dive in.

Check out the following sites to see how to get started writing, speaking, participating in forums and newsgroups, and volunteering:

Microsoft MVP Program

Microsoft Newsgroups (from your newsreader) (Web access)

O'Reilly Publishing (writer's guidelines)

Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS)
[email protected] (PASS SQL Info Link newsletter) (writer's guidelines)

SQL Server Magazine (editorial calendar) (writer's guidelines)

SQL Server Standard Magazine

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