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Louis Davidson

Why We Write #7 - An Interview with Allan Hirt

For today's entry (and after a brief side trip through my own experiences), I move just slightly out of the SQL realm to a Microsoft Clustering MVP. Ok, in reality he is very much a SQL Server expert/guru (having taught for the SQL Server 2008 Microsoft Certified Masters courses), and has been for many years. He just spends more of his (at least public) time working on failover clustering than he does in the more general type of DBA/TSQL/Business Intelligence role tasks that most of the people I have interviewed so far have been involved with.

I have known Allan for quite some time now, and while we may not share a ton professionally in common (other than a love for SQL Server), I talk to him often about one of my favorite hobbies, going broke at Disney Theme Parks. His twitter handle is @SQLHA, and his website/company website is http://www.sqlha.com/.

Allan is a prolific writer, having written several books for Apress, including Pro SQL Server 2008 Failover Clustering and Pro SQL Server 2005 High Availability, and most recently a very soon to be out, self published book called Mission Critical SQL Server. His blog has a very steady stream of on average 4 or 5 entries a month that are very interesting and useful to read.  Today, I ask Allan to answer my questions about why he writes to continue my quest to find out why other people are writing.

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1.  There was a point in time when you didn't have a blog, didn't tweet, and had no public presence whatsoever. And then, one day, you made the decision to put yourself out there. What prompted you to get started writing, and what was the first public work you produced?

I can’t ever remember not writing or doing something like drawing (little known fact: I designed the CD covers for all three of the CDs I’ve released to date). I’m inherently a creative type and very verbose. I’ve never loved writing fictional things, though, so I won’t be the next Clive Cussler or even Mark Russinovich. I’ve always liked more factual-based writing.

Speaking to the public presence thing, it’s always been part of who I am. I think I had one going back to when I was a kid. Even prior to starting to play bass in third grade with performing publicly and getting attention that way (I was already playing with high school kids I think less than a year after starting to play), I participated in services at our synagogue doing one thing or another (leading part of the service, reading Torah/Haftorah, whatever). In fact, during high school, when the rabbi went away sometimes either myself or another friend of mine would lead the Friday night or Saturday service from time to time. So “being out there” and doing public speaking/appearances has always been a part of my oeuvre. I can remember one time where it was myself, my Mom, and a handful of other people in the synagogue. They were setting stuff up or cleaning something up. I went up to the bimah and started hamming it up over the microphone. I couldn’t have been more than 5, if not younger. Funny how we remember things like that even later in life.

I can also remember in high school when our jazz band made the finals for the Berklee Jazz Festival in Boston, we played the Berklee Performance Center. It wasn’t until years later when I went back and saw a concert there that I realized how big that place is. I would say my experiences with music and in synagogue have certainly benefitted me later in life.

What was the first public writing I’ve done? That’s a tough one. It depends what you define as public work, because it would probably go back to elementary school. I was underclass editor for the high school yearbook as a sophomore, and editor-in-chief as both a junior and senior. I was the co-editor of our bus’ compendium for USY on Wheels (USY is a youth group). I have a very long history of doing things that paved the way to where I am today. I don’t think anything I’m doing today would be a complete surprise to those who knew me back then.

The writing I had the most fun with was in the 90s when I used to do a bit of music journalism. I got to interview some of my favorite artists, including members of Styx, Genesis, Geddy Lee of Rush, and Howard Jones. That really paid poorly (if it was paid), but it was a blast. A running theme you’ll notice in this entire interview is I’ve had a pretty good life to date and lots of luck.

Funny aside – even in elementary school I would be up at all hours of the night working on projects such as reports only to have to be up and out by 7AM or so. Not much has changed today.

With regards to blogging and tweeting, it’s a matter of making sure you are putting yourself out there. I was very late to the club on both of these social media aspects. As an independent consultant and business owner, it’d be just stupid not to have some sort of presence. I won’t lie. But I tend to go into these things more reluctantly than people think since I’m inherently a private person. I’m a risk taker, but other things I’m more conservative about. I’m not about tweeting my life story, and I only blog when I’m inspired – quality over quantity. I don’t schedule tweets or blogs. No slam on those who do, by the way. It’s a perfectly valid way of doing things, it’s just not mine.

2. We all have influencers that affect our trajectory as a writer. It may be a teacher who told you that you had great potential, or another writer who impressed you that you wanted to be like? Or perhaps on the other end of the spectrum it was a teacher who told you that you were too stupid to write well enough to spell your own name, much less have people one day impressed with your writing? Who were your influences that stand out as essential parts of your journey to the level of writer you have become?  

I’ve been tremendously lucky my entire life. Many people have championed me and pushed my potential along the way, and I’m indebted to all of them. Those who have championed me have seen something in me going back to being a wee tot that they wanted to help foster. I have no idea what it is. If I did, I’d sell it and retire.

I can remember being my usual precocious, outspoken self even in kindergarten. Here in the US, there’s not too much deep learning going on in kindergarten – at least that’s what I remember. I think one day I raised my hand and said I was bored. The exact circumstances of what happened next are a bit fuzzy since we’re probably talking about 1976 or 77, but they put me in an advanced reading class by myself a few hours a week. I remember they had to throw my US History II midterm out of the grading curve since it covered more than we learned but I knew the answers anyway because I was a history buff. I’ve been lucky like that my entire life; education was a positive, not a negative. This isn’t meant to boast or sound cocky at all. Plenty of people know more than me.

It was unprecedented to be a junior and the editor-in-chief of the high school yearbook; I was the underclass editor the year before including doing all of the layout work. That particular English teacher who headed the yearbook, Mr. Schroyer who unfortunately passed away, was a great guy. All of my music teachers (Mr. Forte, Mr. Cohen, Mr. Schlenker, Mr. Peraino, Mr. Lesser, and a few others) in school really helped me out, too. I never took a formal paid lesson; I had whatever I got in band or the brief lessons in school itself. I never really practiced. When Mr. Cohen came into our third grade class to try to talk band up, I told him I wanted to play guitar. I was insistent. He took me in the hall and told me there was bass guitar, and the rest is history. I’m not always good at being subtle or taking no for an answer. I was first chair trombone in high school my senior year, yet I only really played the thing in band class and only took it up in fifth grade because a) I couldn’t be in band and play bass since marching band was a requirement b) I didn’t want to learn a new clef. Mr. Lesser drove me to audition for being in the state high school jazz band. That was over and above. I can remember making the all South Jersey jazz band five years in a row (grades 8 – 12). Mr. Lesser always helped me prepare. One year I beat someone more senior than me (I think I was in 9th grade at the time); the guy was pissed off and looked like he thought he deserved it because he was older. I never made state; whoever else auditioned was better than me. That’s the way it works. I took it all In stride, but he never stopped believing in me or my talent. I remember those years very fondly.

It’s one reason I take mentoring seriously; the right person/people can really set you down the right path. A good mentor knows what buttons to push, and when to leave you alone … and possibly even let you fail. But they know you’ll learn from the failure and be better for it. I think anyone who has had any kind of success also knows failure which makes you appreciate the success that much more.

Another influence on me was my manager at a company called PC Docs (later bought by Hummingbird), Bob Toth. I was the database and OS jack of all trades since our product needed to support Oracle, SQL Server, Sybase, and for a time, Informix, on a variety of platforms including Windows NT, Solaris, HP-UX, and Netware. It was my job to be the first person to run our product on these platforms even before anyone else touched it. That meant I was figuring out how to get this stuff installed and working on the backend all the time. Sound familiar? When the NLM version of Oracle is your favorite of the Oracle flavors, you know you’ve touched too much stuff. As part of this process, I realized there was no roadmap; I needed to figure things out and make it simple as well as repeatable. So it was at PC Docs I started doing full instruction guides for internal use for getting the platforms up, but at some point some of our public guides were not up to snuff. I remember contributing some of that content to them. From a database perspective, that was my first formal public appearance with writing. I also remember speaking with Bob at Docsummit in Florida (Orlando?) around 1997 or 1998, which I guess kicked off that aspect of my public speaking. Docs is also where I first saw Wolfpack, which later became the clustering we all know and love in Windows – failover clustering. Docs was my second job out of college and lasted for about 3 years, but it was arguably three of the most influential of my formative years in the working world. It set me up well for working at Microsoft, and as they say, the rest is history.

3.  What would you say has been your greatest success story as a writer, even if it was not a commercial success? And conversely, have there been any projects that were just complete disasters that you probably could have looked back and realized that before you got started?

I think my biggest success is reflected when people e-mail me, come up to me at a conference or talk, etc. who tell me that something I’ve done has helped them or they like it. It’s still odd to get comments on my 2008 book 4 years later! It shows all those hours put in were worth it even if others didn’t agree with the vision. It’s very humbling. Writing really isn’t a vanity project for people just to recognize me since inherently I’m a private guy who happens to wear things that are sometimes eye catching. (Wendy Pastrick likes to remind me of the purple cords I wore at one Chicago SQL Saturday; I still have and wear them.)  I mean, have you seen my mug? Modeling agencies won’t be contacting me any time soon!

As far as writing disasters go, I can think of one nightmare whitepaper which has since been published (won’t say which one it is) that was pure hell. The content owner had no clue what they wanted, but they did know it wasn’t what I wrote. By the third complete rewrite (and we’re talking a whitepaper of 50+ pages – not an insignificant amount of work!), I basically drew the line in the sand and said take it or leave it. Why hire a SME who knows the space if you don’t either trust them or know what you want? That paper nearly ruined a vacation, too. My travel companion was not happy with me. In retrospect, I should have walked away. The situation got a bit ugly behind the scenes and its side effects lingered for quite some time.

4. As I mentioned in the intro, you are a Disney fan. Does this or any pop culture affect your writing? I know I frequently want to infuse Monty Pythone-sque tidbits into my writing (even if the occasional editor strips it out as non-essential,) and my latest trend is to name my presentations like a Goofy cartoon, starting off all names with "How To".

Ironically enough, I really don’t use Disney in my examples. It’s a bit too obvious.

I have a whole blog post (http://www.sqlha.com/2011/10/19/fun-with-naming-conventions/) which talks about how I use bands and musicians for things like server and instance names. It’s in all of my books. Some people get it, others don’t. After years of doing it, people have caught on. I like seeing the reaction of people when I’m talking and say things like, “So when you join Dennis and Tommy to the Styx cluster …”.

Speaking to your Goofy “How To” point, if people haven’t seen the Goofy short made a few years back entitled “How to Hook Up Your Home Theater” (http://video.disney.com/watch/how-to-hook-up-your-home-theater-4be387e52d43da0e1266b068), go watch it. It’s fun stuff and was great to see them take the classic Goofy themes and update them for modern times. I also like the just released Mickey Mouse short “Tokyo Go” (http://video.disney.com/watch/disneychannel-tokyo-go-4e09ee61b04d034bc7bcceeb). Since I love visiting Tokyo as well as like trains, that plus Mickey = winner. Nice nod to Walt at the end. I’m glad they’re reintroducing Mickey to a modern audience in a way that’s not just for kids (i.e. Clubhouse) but in some ways, a bit more true to his early essence. “Runaway Brain” from 1995 was good, but nearly 20 years ago now! Nice seeing Mickey be more than just a character in a theme park since that’s the way it used to be.

5. And now for the silly question…Assume a time machine has been created, and you are allowed to go back in time to speak to a group of potential writers, in which you and I are in attendance. What would be the most important point you want to make sure that we hear and follow up on? Do you think your advice would have help current you to do a better job? Or perhaps to do something els?

Write because you are passionate, not for the payday. Some things may be more lucrative than others, but if you factor in the time spent into writing something, you really don’t make a lot when all is said and done. I love doing it, otherwise I wouldn’t bother.

Worry about quality and staying true to yourself, even if it means walking away. Look at what I’m doing with Mission Critical SQL Server. This isn’t some drama filled split with Apress; we just disagreed on what the book should look like so I’m doing it the way I believe it needs to be done. Am I nuts for doing it? Ask me in a few months. It’s certainly a lot of work and it’s stressful, but also very exciting.

Ensure your personality shines through in your writing. For better or worse, people who know me say they can hear my “voice” when they read what I write. In other words, I’m no different no matter what I do. That has led to some problems along the way, since I write in a way people can read and try not to create a dry, boring document. Some have a vision that a whitepaper or book can’t have any personality or must  be formal 100% of the time; I disagree. Sometimes it’s true, but most of the time there’s some latitude.

IP ownership is a huge topic that every writer today needs to think about and deal with. Data is a company’s IP, and what I generate in terms of writing is mine. I do scrutinize the IP clauses of any contracts we sign. A big part of what I do (and why I’m an MVP) is about giving back; what I give freely I do so with no remorse. However, that doesn’t mean I think everything I do should be free. This is the art vs. commerce argument. Since I’m a musician, this topic of free vs. paid also hits home. How many people pay for music today? A topic for a different time,  but relevant here.

My last book I know is up on torrent sites; I wish I could say it wasn’t and people respected me not to do it. I really don’t have that much spare time to write something as large as a book only for grins and yucks. I know some consultants who won’t speak at a conference unless they are getting paid, let alone write a book! Despite what people may think, there’s nothing wrong with that. Writing a book is a long, tedious, painful yet rewarding process those of us who write say we’ll never do again, but we do it over and over. We must be masochists at heart. DRM isn’t the answer to fight piracy – I wish it was; it’s a gnat in the big picture. In theory DRM is good, but the practice causes other problems. I think I dealt with it in a decent way with Mission Critical SQL Server. Time will tell.

I don’t think I would have done a better job since my experiences formed who I am today, but things like IP ownership are things I never thought about until later in life, whether you are monetizing your writing or not. Plagiarism where people steal whole blog posts and repost as their own is common; plenty of people have talked about their experiences. I wish someone had sat me down when I was younger about the business side of things. Writing is easy. Business, legal, and doing the right thing is apparently harder,

6. Finally, beyond the "how" questions, now the big one that defines the interview series. Why do you do write?

I think I have a somewhat insatiable quest for knowledge and I like to share that if I can in some way. Paraphrasing someone I used to work with years ago when I worked at Microsoft: “I came to Microsoft thinking I’d find all the answers. Instead, I had to create them.” I’ve always been inquisitive. Most of what I do stems from wanting to truly understand what goes on as well as a frustration with most documentation and how poorly it is done. Given what people have said about my books, I seem to have a knack of taking concepts that are sometimes difficult and explaining them in a way that they understand them. Some say it’s a gift. I don’t know what “it” is, but I’m glad I have whatever “it” is.

Earlier, I said I don’t write fiction, but I do tell stories. That’s the one things that frustrates me with most technical writing – people don’t have a story they are trying to tell. There’s no flow, no purpose, no beginning, middle, and end. The writer meanders with no thought, leaving you more confused than if you never read whatever it is you just digested.

I also hate really dry reading. Something you read may be factually correct, but it’s impossible to get through because the author is a poor writer. I never want someone to label me in that way. I’m continually trying to improve. I’m never satisfied with ‘good enough’ if I can help it. And people wonder why I sleep very little …

I think the bad writing out there fuels me a bit, too, truth be told. And for heaven’s sake, the people who do text speak in writing drives me crazy. (“Where r u going 2?”) I’d like to think I’m keeping real words alive somehow ha ha

Bonus Question: Are there any projects coming up that you would like to tell people about? <feel free to tell us about, or advertise anything, work, fun, speaking, writing, etc.>

The pre-release content for the first edition of Mission Critical SQL Server be starting to roll out soon (see the intro for link), and I hope to have it competed (fingers crossed) before the end of calendar year 2013. I like the subscription model I’ve come up with for providing updated content, and I hope others do as well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I’m starting to schedule a bunch of my 4-day mission critical class which has labs. I do it a lot privately, but I’m getting more requests to do it publicly so I’m dipping my toes in the water. I’m going back down to Australia for two weeks to teach it at the end of October/early November in Melbourne and Sydney, and have a Chicago class in December. Yes, Chicago in December. Buy a coat and show up! See http://www.sqlha.com for more details on all of these and any other dates which may crop up.

I’ve got two upcoming online webinars with Penton – the yearly SQL Server foundations one with Ben DeBow (my business partner in SQLHA) which is six sessions over two days (August 27 and 29; http://sqlmag.com/sql-server-foundations) as well a one day, three session one on SQL Server high availability coming up on September 10 (details coming soon).

Not surprisingly I’ll also be at PASS Summit again. I’ve got both a pre-con (sign up!) on clustering and a spotlight session. SQLHA along with a couple of other consultants  will have a booth at Summit, so stop by. We may even wind up giving stuff out – you never know! It’s going to be a really busy fall.

In the non-work world, I’ve been working on my big band project since 2009 or slightly before. It’s on hold at the moment largely due to time issues since I’m busy as well as travel quite a bit. Most of it is recorded, and there’s been a bit of pre-mix work. I still need to do a bit more writing and arranging. All of the arrangements except one are mine. The album will be a mixture of originals and my interpretation of some of my favorite tunes from artists like Styx (a medley I’m going to arrange), King Crimson (“Red”), Rush (“Cygnus X-1”), and Genesis (“Behind The Lines/Duke’s End”) but with a jazz slant. Some of the arrangements are more literal, others are not. I’m hoping that after this fall’s craziness and the completion of Mission Critical SQL Server, I will get back to it.

I also have an upcoming gig with the big band I play with when I’m home on September 1st down in Norwood, MA. Unfortunately, a sub will be filling in for me at rehearsals for much of the fall due to my schedule.

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Big thanks to Allan for all of his great replies. It has been a few days laying in my email box, but Allan was *the* fastest in returning the questions, passing right by two other people who I am currently waiting on. Not that I mind people being slow, I know that it takes me longer to edit the questions for another person than Allan took to reply, and it took me nearly a week to finish my answers to questions I wrote!  I sometimes wish I was a lot faster of a writer, but I spend a lot of time editing myself over and over to make sure I get it just right (or as right as I can be without going crazier.)

One thing he mentions about writing is about his (and really pretty much any trade/tech book writer's) material being available on torrent sites. This one has burned me up for years, but it is something that even publishers have seemingly given up on. I think that they have given up, thinking that. 1. People who wouldn't buy a book at all might see your work and at least tell others. 2. People who would buy a book might check out a book like this but they would actually purchase the book if they want to keep it.  Stolen PDFs of books or not, there is no question that you will get a lot less coin for book writing than you could doing something else. But still to this day, having a book has enough prestige that I can minimally delude myself into thinking that it is worth it.

Admittedly, as Allan says "I think my biggest success is reflected when people e-mail me, come up to me at a conference or talk, etc. who tell me that something I’ve done has helped them or they like it." I frequently say that a well thought out negative comment/review is extremely helpful, but for me, one "Thanks!" from a stranger I have never met is worth hundreds of dollars in terms of motivation. Just knowing that someone actually read the material and possibly applied it makes it all feel worthwhile. And admittedly, I have never asked to see verification that they purchased the book.

 

 

 

 

Published Tuesday, August 06, 2013 10:25 AM by drsql

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