Gail Shaw: Geek of the Week

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665-Gail%20Shaw.jpgYou won’t travel far on SQL Server Central without bumping into ‘Gilamonster’, the ‘nom de plume’ of Gail Shaw. Her contributions are always informative and good-humoured, unless, of course, you have the temerity to double-post. Database developer Gail Shaw is, one of the most highly respected experts on the SQLServerCentral forums and her MVP award was a cause for celebration in the SSC community, who occasionally call her Kimberly or Kalen by mistake. She is from Johannesburg Gauteng and works as a database consultant in performance tuning and database optimisation. Before moving to consulting she worked at a large South African investment bank and was responsible for the performance of the major systems there.

Gail was awarded MVP for SQL Server in July 2008 and spoke at both TechEd South Africa and the PASS Community Summit in Seattle in the same year. Gail’s blog is at SQL in the Wild. She has written the popular articles articles Help, my database is corrupt. Now what? and Managing Transaction Logs for SQLServerCentral

RM: “Gail you live in Johannesburg, South Africa, but travel frequently to the US to appear at PASS conferences in Seattle. I’m intrigued. Knowing a little about the difficulties of travelling in South Africa, your journey to the US must be pretty testing?”
GS: “I’ve been to three US PASS conferences in a row, and one European conference before that. Last year (Seattle 2008) was the first one that I spoke at. In previous years I was just attending.

It’s not a pleasant trip, by any standards. Depending on airline and transit city, it’s anything from 24 to 30 hours travel time, and then there’s US immigration (of which the less said about the better). Someone joked at the Denver conference that I’d spent longer travelling to and from the conference than I spent at the conference. Scary thing is, it was true.

The trip aside, I find the conference itself exceedingly valuable, for the technical content, for the info on future plans for the product and for meeting and talking with hundreds of other database professionals. The database field in SA is pretty small and a lot of things that the US guys take for granted (multiple conferences a year in various places, numerous user groups, SQLSaturday, etc) we just don’t have. In this kind of environment, it’s easy to stagnate, to get complacent. To really stay current on developments in the field, I feel it’s necessary to attend these kinds of events.”

RM: “Tell me a little about the new SQL in the Wild group you’ve set up?”
GS: “Well, SQL in the Wild is the name of my blog and I post announcements on my blog because the group doesn’t yet have a web site.

It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for ever since the previous user group fell apart, due to the emigration of one of the people running it. However, while working at the bank, I just didn’t have the time. Now that I’m consulting and (usually) have a little free time a month, I can devote a couple hours to that. I’m not running the group alone, a former colleague and I started it together

It’s needed, and the responses we’ve had that we got for the meetings so far shows just how much of a need there is for it. We’re seeing 30 or so people at almost every meeting, which is far more than I thought would be interested. We really need to line up more speakers, and to find some sponsorship, but other than that, the group’s doing fantastically well.”
“A question I asked Kalen Delaney was to tell me her favourite new features of SQL Server 2008, and why. What are yours? “
“That’s a hard one. There are lots of nice improvements in 2008, though none of them alone are particularly earth shattering. I really like the filtered indexes and filtered statistics as those offer solutions to what were previously difficult problems – that of data skew and inaccurate statistics. That said I haven’t used either of them yet. The 2008 feature that I miss the most when working in SQL 2005 is actually the inline assignment of variables. It’s a small thing, but it makes code just that little bit easier to write. “
“What SQL Server feature do you think is missing and that you would like to see in future versions?”
“A complete implementation of the Over clause, something that Itzik Ben-Gan mentions often. The current implementation is about half what’s in the SQL standard, and some of the things left out would make problems that are currently rather tough (rolling average for example) much easier.

The other thing that I’d love to see is something like the Best Practice analyser built into the client tools. Perhaps a tool tip, perhaps something on the database properties page that notes, for example, “Database Test has not been backed up in 21 days” or: Database ImportantData has failed the last 6 integrity checks, etc.

The idea’s very much the same as the compiler warnings and code analysis that developers get in Visual Studio. An indication that there is something not quite right, which can be turned off if the DBA desires, but may help novice DBAs who perhaps don’t realise that certain tasks are recommended or don’t know where to look to see potential problems.”

“You achieved MVP status in July 2008. Has this changed your work in any way? “
“Hard to say if it’s changed my work, as I moved from full-time to consulting at the same time (I got the MVP award the day after I tendered my resignation at the bank). The move to consulting has been a huge change that I’m still adjusting to.

I have been doing far more in the SQL community since then, from speaking at TechEd and PASS, to the user group, to writing articles and the like. I’m also getting far more opportunities to get involved which is awesome, but I’m finding that I have to be careful about which opportunities to take up and which not, as I just don’t have time to do everything; much as I’d like to.”

“There have also been comments that MVP status attracts people with huge egos. Do you think this is true? “
“[grins] Attracts huge egos, or causes huge egos?

MVPs tend to be passionate, outspoken people. The difference between that and having a huge ego can be just a matter of perspective. I haven’t encountered any huge egos among any of the other South African MVPs (who are all awesome people), or among the SQL MVPs that I met at PASS. In fact, I’ve found bigger egos among non-MVPs – often accompanied by loud acclamations of ‘I deserve to be an MVP’.”

“As well as blogging, you’re a regular contributor to forums, which you’ve done for a couple of years. Do you have a set writing schedule? “
“I usually get out one blog post a week; there are people I know that do three a day. I do post a lot on forums. Too much most likely. Do you know of a help group for forum addicts?

I usually check the forums in the morning over coffee before I get stuck into work. I find it’s a good way to ease into the day. I can answer a couple easy questions, maybe one or two slightly harder ones, catch up on on-going discussions and then get busy with whatever’s on my to-do list for that day. Unless I’m hectically busy I’ll check again in the early evening.

If I don’t have anything pressing to do, either because I’m waiting for feedback from clients or between projects, then I may be posting on and off all day. The last month I’ve been very busy, so I’ve been answering simpler questions. I’ve got a list of about 8 complex problems (mostly deadlocks) that I need to go back to and answer properly, but those take time to resolve.

As for blogging, I try to write a post or part of a post either Tuesday or Thursday evenings. Sometimes I’ll get it done in one go, sometimes not.

” In that time you must have seen all sorts of advice on forums, good and bad. What makes you most angry about bad advice?
“It’s interesting that you bring up ‘bad advice’. I posted a blog rant about that just a couple weeks back. What bothers me about really bad advice (the dangerously bad type) is the damage it does to the reputation of the poster and of the forum, a reputation that will take a lot of work to rebuild. Also the damage it does to the person who receives the advice, whether they realise or not before implementing; they’re probably a lot less willing to ask for help again. finally, there’s the damage it does to the other forum members who have to go and correct this and then explain why it’s bad and dangerous. Fortunately it doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s just so frustrating”
“Are there any other writing projects you’re taking part in?”
“Actually, yes. There are a couple.

I’m writing an article for Simple Talk at the moment, on finding and fixing performance problems using profiler and the query execution plan. I’m also involved in a book project with quite a few of the other SQL MVPs. Kalen mentioned the book in her interview. I’ve written a section on reading deadlock graphs. The book should be an interesting read. I’ve just finished an article for SQLServerCentral and I have another in the early stages of planning.

On top of all that, I’m trying to write my master’s thesis. ‘Trying’ is the key word here.”

“A few months ago Simple-Talk interviewed you about women in IT. It’s an industry that still demands long working hours and often requires that one’s personal life is less important than the demands of the company. Why do you think women are less willing to tolerate this than men? And what practical steps do you think could be taken to prevent women from leaving the IT industry? “
“Probably due to the perception (that’s present here at least) that women are the ones responsible for the family. I don’t know the reasons, I’m not a sociologist, and any theories that I have are uneducated guesses and I can’t speak for the US. However, here in South Africa, IT is still perceived very much as a male-dominated industry. That in itself reduces the number of women who go into IT in the first place. I’m the only female member of the SQL usergroup. I believe that TechEd SA had two female speakers and around 10% female attendance last year. I think that here, before we worry about keeping women in IT, we need to get them into IT, and for that there needs to be some initiatives at the school and university levels to protray IT as an attractive career path, irrespective of gender.

As for keeping people in the industry, we need to stop this cult of overwork. I have a friend who proudly tells me that he works 10 hours a day 6 days a week, then later tells me that he can’t wait to get out of IT. That kind of attitude is not sustainable and it’s just harming the industry in the long run. There needs to be a change from the developer, the middle management, project management and other areas to encourage sustainable, reasonable working hours. “

“Do you think having a mentor at work is useful? Do you have any industry role models? “
“A mentor is certainly very useful, especially for people getting started. I never had a formal mentor myself. It was only when I got seriously into databases that I had role models to look up to, though I didn’t meet either of the people until fairly recently.”
“I was looking at your blog earlier and read that life got pretty grim at New Year when your home was burgled. I also see that you set yourself 6 monthly goals. Why do you find this important and have you reached any of the goals you set yourself at the beginning of January? “
“Yeah, the robbery was inconvenient. All in all, I got off pretty lightly. Most break-ins in SA are armed and violent. In my case, they just crept in during the night and took what wasn’t nailed down. The loss of the laptop was the worst. All my work was also on my desktop, so fortunately I didn’t lose anything, but I still have to buy and configure a new laptop.

I’ve found that publicly setting goals means I can’t just forget about them – as happens to most new-year’s resolutions. Even if no one’s going to hold me to them, the fact that they’re up for everyone to see makes them more binding than just writing on a piece of paper, sticking it into a drawer and looking at it again next December.

In my opinion, in this industry, keeping up with changing technologies, new developments, products, methodologies and the like isn’t optional, it’s not a nice-to-have, it’s absolutely essential.

So far I’ve finished one of the books, and I’m keeping up with the webcast and podcasts that I said I’d watch/listen to. I’ve also finished one of the articles for SQL Server Central, although it hasn’t been published. Lots of client commitments means that I haven’t had chance to look at anything else. I’m hoping I can get a few quiet days later this month, mainly to work on the thesis.

About the author

Richard Morris

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Richard Morris is a journalist, author and public relations/public affairs consultant. He has written for a number of UK and US newspapers and magazines and has offered strategic advice to numerous tech companies including Digital Island, Sony and several ISPs. He now specialises in social enterprise and is, among other things, a member of the Big Issue Invest advisory board. Big Issue Invest is the leading provider to high-performing social enterprises & has a strong brand name based on its parent company The Big Issue, described by McKinsey & Co as the most well known and trusted social brand in the UK.

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