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Can Twitter Help your Professional Development?

At PASS this year, there was a great deal of 'twittering' going on. Effectively, the attendants were able to broadcast text messages amongst themselves, by using Twitter. Suddenly, Twitter was more than a technology looking for a use. TJay Belt explains why DBAs are taking to twitter.

619-tweeter.jpgWhen I first heard about Twitter I sensed a wave coming and I wanted to get in the water before it crashed down. After some initial hesitation, I took the plunge and joined the Twitter Community on May 13th 2008 at 2:17 PM. Now, just over 6 months later, I have tweeted 1043 times. I am following 99 people, and have 104 followers. Through Twitter, I have offered and received recommendations and advice on everything from the latest Indiana Jones movie, to hard disk drives, to SQL Server. I have expanded my professional network and found solutions to several problems, technical and otherwise. I have also made many new friends.

Like email, phone, voice mail, and instant messaging before it, Twitter is a powerful communication tool, when used properly. When these tools are abused, they  can become a drain on your time, and everyone else’s too.

In this article, I describe my experiences with the tool to date, its power as a galvanizing force behind conferences and other social events, and as a learning and networking tool for SQL Server DBAs, and anybody else looking to enhance their professional development.

Entering the Twitterverse

I first heard about Twitter from a few DBA friends who had started using it. I was initially intrigued but hesitant. I had belatedly joined MySpace a while back, only to find that I’d “missed the wave” and that it was not really profitable for my professional development. When it got a bit creepy, I was glad to have missed it. However, I still held in my heart that feeling of regret that I had not joined earlier and been one of the cool kids, while it was cool.

619-tweeter2.jpgWith Twitter, I immediately had a sense of how powerful it could be as a communication medium, if used intelligently. Could it also be abused and so become yet another incredible waste of my, and other people’s, time? Yes. Should I try it out anyway? Yes.

I joined Twitter mainly to broaden my SQL Server knowledge. I wanted to use this tool primarily for SQL training and information gathering. As long as I could maintain that focus, I felt it could be worthwhile.

I took the plunge. A co-worker of mine was already on Twitter so, at the very least, I thought this would be another way we could communicate.

 My first few tweets (posts you write on Twitter are called tweets) were simple and questioning. Two hours after installing it, I asked the following.

sitting here wondering how this will help me, or just let me spend more time online doing nothing… ideas? 4:14 PM May 13th from web

I then tried to post details about what I was doing, since that is what Twitter sells itself as. It allows you the opportunity to answer the question, “What are you doing now?” I posted the following (I had installed Twitter 2 days before quitting):

copying files to my external hdd from work laptop, tomorrow is my last day there…8:20 PM May 13th from web

This led me to realise that I needed something: a larger external HDD. But which one should I buy? I asked friends nearby at work. They were busy working or surfing and were of little help. It then occurred to me: why not ask Twitter folks? It seemed like a breach of protocol, since it wasn’t directly something I was doing but I needed a new hard drive, and these were people that might have knowledge and/or experience that I did not have. They may be able to weigh in on the issue. My question quickly received an answer, and I had knowledge given to me by a person I had never met (we have since exchanged many other bits and pieces of information).

Pointless Twittering?

To be honest, many things that are tweeted are worthless. I went on to tweet about cleaning up my office, my farewell lunch at work, and seeing the Indiana Jones movies with my family.

By mid-June, I began to question again what exactly I would get out of using this tool. It seemed I was spending quite a bit of time telling strangers about slightly intimate details of my day. I discussed cell phones with other DBAs, my favorite cartoon hero, what I did for the weekend, and so on. Random thoughts and occurrences of the day became reportable to the Twitterverse.

However, gradually, I saw that some of these tweets struck a chord with people and they responded. I began to realize that, through these apparently random, one-sided conversations, I was getting a glimpse into other people’s lives and vice-versa. I was able to live vicariously through them. Once I was able to see their life through their eyes, I sensed a connection, a kinship, a relationship, even a friendship blooming. Some of these folks became fast friends, as we realized how much we had in common. Some of these folks I have yet to meet, but know if I did, we could have a great evening or day together and would click like we had been long lost friends.

619-tweeter3.jpgNot all the tweeps (term for people using Twitter) that I have met on Twitter have become fast friends. Some remain acquaintances, like a co-worker a couple cubes down. You are civil to them, ask them about their day, even feign concern, but are ultimately not friends, just acquaintances. There is nothing wrong with this. And these folks have their use in your life as well. Keep in mind that you joined Twitter for selfish reasons. You wanted to talk to people, wanted advice, wanted instructions and help. You wanted. But what you ended up doing was giving a little of yourself to these tweeps, and they did the same in return, and you both were augmented for it. Hopefully your lives are bettered because of these connections.

In any event, I found that bonds were formed, even through apparently trivial conversations, and it became easier to tweet.

Professional Development with Twitter

As I mentioned earlier, my primary goal in joining Twitter was to connect with other like minds, to broaden knowledge of the SQL Server database, the tool I use in my daily job as a DBA, and to enhance my professional development. I have long been a fan of effective communication. In an English class in college, I recall our teacher instilling in us the habit of leaving a detailed message for someone, in such a way that action can occur prior to our talking again, and hopefully the actions completed as well. No sense in calling someone and simply saying, “Hi, it’s me, I called”. They know that, because you left them a message. Give them details, allow them to start the task, and get back with you with the need of further clarification or results.

With this in mind, after about 20 tweets, I started to pose some serious SQL Server questions. I kept them brief, but provided enough detail that people could act on the information and offer advice.  Help was given and received. Tasks became easier to accomplish, especially when I hit a problem. I would stand there at the brick wall, ask coworkers, and then tweet my concerns or questions. Invariably, someone would answer and get me back on track, or help me surmount the obstacle before me.

Through Twitter, I have connected with a number of other DBAs, many of whom I met at the PASS summit. Through them, I make new connections, and so my network grows. Through this expanding network, I have received answers to questions about DMVs, profiler, trace, 3rd party applications, performance analysis, T-SQL, replication, and many other topics. When I ask anything DBA related, I typically get an answer within minutes. These answers take many forms: links offered, experiences shared, documents sent, scripts provided, and so on. Usually, it means that I have a solution to my problem within hours, or often minutes.

All these answers are freely given, with the intent to help others learn. I try to watch out for tweets that I can solve, and weigh in when able.  This give and take of problems and solutions has helped me build friendships as well as enhance my knowledge and experience with SQL Server and other technology.

Of course, there have been plenty of trivial tweets in between, about cell phones, where to eat, business cards, Moab, the Olympics, sandwiches, Elvis, TV shows, movies, you name it. It all serves to build and maintain these bonds of friendship, and I’ve given and received useful advice in many non-job related aspects of life. However, I do always try to rein the conversations back to the topic of being a DBA, and remember what got me started on all this.

I still research questions on Google, forums, blogs and so on, but having a person on the other end of a two-way conversation is great. With Twitter added to my arsenal of tools, I feel I am more capable to perform my job as a DBA.

Conference Tweeting

By October, I had been tweeting for about 5 months and continued to find it a compelling tool. However, I don’t think it was until the PASS summit in November that I, and dozens of other folks at the conference, began to realize its real power. It took us all by storm.

Every year there is a conference for SQL Server people called PASS, Professional Association for SQL Server. I first attended this conference in 2004, and have been back many times. Many of the people that I have joined on Twitter are friends from PASS. As the summit approached, we all noticed an increase in Twitter traffic about the conference. I had started a Facebook group about it; others had other ideas to market the event, and get us DBAs excited about it. This was not unlike any other event that occurred in our lives, and we tweeted about it. The difference this time was that this was an event we were all to attend.

Days before it occurred, people started packing for it, and reporting this via Twitter. When folks left their homes to travel, their progress was documented in the Twitterverse. Those of us that followed these tweeps knew where they were. Getting in the car, going to the airport, at security, hassling with baggage, missing flights, going down the ramp to the plane, which seat they were in, when they were waiting in layovers, when they hit the ground in Seattle, and so on.

We were involved in their lives in a way I have never been, except when present. One individual even tweeted about sharing a cab ride from the airport with a person he knew through Twitter, and how it had further solidified their budding friendship. Others gave great advice on travel plans, where to grab a bite to eat, what transportation was cheapest, which airports had delays in security.  Many people had their travel enhanced.

Soon, we were all in Seattle and, having tweeted our plans, others knew where we were, and meeting up was incredibly easy. Even as gatherings occurred, out would come the phones and tweeting occurred with those who were not present. We would tweet about things we found funny, or overheard, or the crazy things that we were currently doing. It was all documented, and we all participated.

Once the conference started, the established practice of texting or blogging from keynotes and sessions was augmented by the new phenomenon of Twittering, via blackberry, iphone and laptop. Out poured the ideas and impressions we had of the speakers, and the content they were presenting, almost simultaneously with its presentation.

I guess it’s similar to watching a movie at home with friends, with comments and banter flying around. Sure it can be a little disruptive, but often your experience can be enhanced by sharing people’s thoughts and impressions, as the movie progresses. Likewise with Twittering: sometimes I chose to ignore it and focus fully on what was being said. However, I often I found that my experience of a session was greatly enhanced by reading the real-time thoughts of others, as the speakers words were still floating through the air and into my brain. So many different ideas and opinions existed just under the surface that we had never before been able to see before. I know of a couple of instances where speakers even altered their presentations, based on feedback from the Twitterverse.

During sessions, when folks were scattered amongst the variety of offerings on the Summit schedule, one was able to get a glimpse into these other sessions. Some even chose to abandon their current session for another more popular one, based on the recommendations of tweeps that they followed.

If you go to http://Search.Twitter.com and search for #SQLPass, you will be presented with hundreds if not thousands of tweets about the summit. Some will be genuine content, some conversations, some funny things, and some worthless. Overall, our collective experience of the conference was greatly enhanced by the use of Twitter. As a result of our tweets, many new folks joined up, and many of us that were already enjoying the Twitterverse have had many more followers.

Where next with Twitter?

I think it’s safe to say that more or less everyone who used Twitter at the PASS conference left convinced of the potential power of the tool. The question now is: can we keep the momentum going, and continue to use the tool in a profitable way? It has the potential to be a hugely powerful tool in sharing our collective experiences and opinions. How well we use it will determine its worth to us and to others. I personally have seen how it can enhance an event, improve my SQL Server understanding, and create new friendships.

New tools are becoming available to use with Twitter. Tweetstats, for example, provides a “tweet summary” of when during the day I have posted, to whom I have responded most, who has responded to me the most, and so on. Use of this tool has helped me hone my Twittering skills. Alongside potentially useful tools such as tweetstats sit those that are more frivolous in nature. One such tool cruises through your tweets trying to determine if you are male or female. The first time I used this tool, it picked me at 63% male. I tweeted my status and received a lot of useful advice about how to increase my masculinity! It is important to remember that Twitter is simply a tool to assist you in your daily activities. Use it or abuse it; it’s up to you.

In between doing my day job, I plan to keep my thumb on the pulse of the Twitterverse too. I will spend some time catching up on tweets I missed because of work. I will continue with the gentle ribbing of new found friends. I will continue to request help when needed, and will offer advice and assistance in turn, when I can. As I produce content for blogs or articles, I will tweet about this, and hopefully drive visitors to my content. I have certainly seen an increase in activity on my new Blog, which I started just prior to the PASS conference. People from all over the world have read my comments on this Blog, as well as via Twitter.

Twitter is like any new toy. You can’t neglect it, but you shouldn’t overuse it either. It can be a powerful tool, but a powerful timewaster too. Somewhere in the middle is where I hope to force it to take part in my life.

Summary

Now, all this may sound grand to you. Or you may still think it is a waste of time. This is up to you to decide. I have simply tried to paint the picture of my experience with Twitter, and how it has added to my life up to this point. Not all stories will end this way. The Twitterverse is replete with individuals that joined with goals in mind, and have since left. Many different goals are being experienced within the space of Twitter. Some will thrive, some will fail, and some will stagnate.  But it is worth the experiment.

619-tweeterland.jpg

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