Category Archives: Career

Microsoft Most Valuable Professional – Data Platform

Today, I’m proud to announce that I have been named a Microsoft MVPData Platform.  This is an exceptional honor and I’m humbled to be included in this group of exceptional data professionals. I really look forward to working with everyone in the MVP community and continuing to contribute to our unmatched SQL Community!

MVP Logo Horizontal Secondary Blue286 CMYK 300ppi

What is an MVP?

Here’s the definition according to Microsoft

Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals, or MVPs, are technology experts who passionately share their knowledge with the community. They are always on the “bleeding edge” and have an unstoppable urge to get their hands on new, exciting technologies. They have very deep knowledge of Microsoft products and services, while also being able to bring together diverse platforms, products and solutions, to solve real world problems. MVPs are driven by their passion, community spirit and their quest for knowledge. Above all and in addition to their amazing technical abilities, MVPs are always willing to help others – that’s what sets them apart.

For 2017, I have been named a Data Platform MVP, which means my technical specialization is on data products like SQL Server. The group of people that have received this award is quite small…by my count 403 worldwide and 100 in the US. I’m honored to be in this group of extremely talented professionals.

Why I’m excited to be an MVP?

Honestly, the primary reason I’m excited to be an MVP is to give back (more), I’ve learned so much from other MVPs and receiving this award will help me build relationships with other MVPs and Microsoft employees to further help develop the Data Platform itself and the community that surrounds that platform.

At the start of 2016 I had set a goal of being an MVP in 5 years. I don’t know why I picked that number, but what I figured was…MVP would be validation of consistent, quality work for our community and being recognized for the work that I’ve contributed. Things like blogging, social medial, public speaking and more. You learn a ton by teaching!

People that have helped along the way

I’d like to thank some folks that have helped me along the way…

  • My wife and family – I certainly couldn’t have done this without their support.
  • Other MVPs – you folks give your time freely and people like me consume what you produce to enrich ourselves. Thank you!
  • Paul Randal – I was in Paul’s 2015 mentoring class, he helped me set the direction of my community involvement. Invaluable guidance!
  • Brent Ozar – without his career blog and I’d have to figure our a lot of stuff on my own. Thanks bud!
  • Steve Jones – him and SQLServerCentral.com have really help give my blog a larger audience. I’ll never forget that first time I got an email about being on the front page of his site :)
  • Microsoft – thanks to you for this recognition!

5 Must Haves Before You Start Consulting

Please join me at IT/Dev Connections on Oct. 12 at 8:00AM* where I’ll be hosting a Birds of a Feather session “Moving to Independent Consulting” Bring your questions!

*Yes, an 8:00AM session in Las Vegas, but if you’re serious about going out on your own…you’ll already be up :)

The most common questions I’m asked during networking sessions at technical conferences and events aren’t technical! People want to know what it’s like being an independent consultant. Things like how to get started and what to look out for are common themes.  So I wanted to share the some of the discussion points I bring up when I’m having these conversations. In this post I’m going to boil it down to the top 5 “must haves” before you start consulting, there’s certainly more…many books have been written about it!

  1. Defining Your Niche 

    This is what you’re going to sell, the thing that your client wants or needs. It’s crucial that you specialize in an area. For me I have a very wide breadth of knowledge but I also have extraordinary depth in many areas. This is due to the excessive :) amount of education and training I’ve put myself through and also my career experiences. That all makes me an exceptional problem solver. The domain of the problem doesn’t matter that much. Give me the information and I’ll work out a solution. But guess what, “problem solver” doesn’t sell! Why? Because when people are looking for consultants, they’re looking for someone to make their problems to go away. These are usually very well defined problems. So define what you’re exceptional at doing, that’s what you’re going to sell. Write it down. Try to build a paragraph out of those ideas. That will be your pitch to your client. This is such a crucial step. It defines who you are to your client. For me I’ve used marketing consultants and mentors to help define my niche. The consultants I’ve worked with are worth every penny and the mentors are invaluable. The funny thing is I’m still fine tuning this. 

  2. Finding the Right Client 

    Once you know what your niche is, you need to identify who you’re marketing to, the consumer of your services. I’d like to be able to say that this “must have” is the most important but they’re all so crucial to success. Who purchases your services and what does that client look like? For me, the people that want my services are Chief (CIO) or Director level people that have a well defined problem to solve that they can’t solve with their internal resources. This can be a system performance issue, high availability design related or an overall system scalability issue. These are the people that make the decisions and sign the contacts. 

    Now the people I work with are the individual contributors on the teams. The architects, engineers and administrators, we develop the solutions and solve the problems, together. What I’ve learned through the years is I like working in smaller teams that have big, interesting problems. So in this sense, size matters. Smaller teams are more agile and as a individual consultant I can affect more positive change in a smaller amount of time. This isn’t entirely going to exclude a potential client, but is something I look at closely when onboarding a new client. Because…personality matters! You need to find a group that you sync up with well. Would you want to go out after work with your team? For me that’s a big facet of finding the right client. Because when you’re in a conference room for hours working out a solution, if you get along with your client, everything will work better. 

    What this all boils down to is…don’t just take any work. This idea is core to your success. You need to be happy with the work you’re performing and who your performing it for. If you’re enjoying it, you’ll produce better results and your client will be happy. Simple enough.

  3. Pricing Your Services 

    You’re worth more than you think, for whatever reason it’s human nature not set your value accurately. It’s also our nature as consultants to want to make our clients happy. But when it comes to setting your rate…you both need to be happy. Think about it this way, if you give a client a huge discount today and later a perfect client comes along at your normal rate, who are you going to want to spend most of your time with? Your focus shifts and your original client isn’t getting the attention they deserve and their satisfaction decreases. Remember, we’re in the business of keeping clients happy! There’s tons of empirical data on the Internet for setting the actual dollar amount based on you’re skills so I won’t go into that. The key here is setting a value that you and your client are pleased with. After a while, your client will care less about your rate because you’re providing value. Solving problems, making their lives easier.

  4. Time Management

    I’m going to be honest, this is my Achilles heel. It’s hard. In fact, scheduling is proven to be NP Hard :) Again there’s tons of data in the web about this and here’s what I do. 

    Time blocking – most of my clients have me on a retainer. I work for them for a fixed amount of time each month (This ties in with pricing, longer term contracts mean better rates for clients and more consistent work for me). But we’re in IT and somethings will take longer than you’ve expected or sometimes something will blow up for one client when you’ve allocated that day to another client. So I allocate my calendar based on my commitments and leave a whole day, each week, for that potential skew. If a client loses time during their scheduled allocation because of a fire, I allocate time out of that extra day. 

    Every day make a list – every morning I sit down and literally write down in a notebook what I need to get done that day. If it’s a big project, break it down into smaller tasks and do those. Doing this provides you a metal boost, a sense of accomplishment. It motivates you to keep moving. 

    Get up early – I wake up around 4:30AM. Yea, don’t laugh. I use this time to wade the sea of email I get and make that list I just told you about. I also read blogs and do the social media thing during this time. It’s my time, the rest of the working day will be my clients’ time. 

    Outsource everything you don’t like doing – Find things you can get rid of and give them to someone else to do for you.

    Billing – in theory this is not completely outsourced as I do my own time and billing. I use Freshbooks for my accounting package, which makes this insanely easy. Freshbooks does all my timekeeping for billable hours, invoicing and expenses. It literally takes me 10 minutes to send bills to clients that include line item details of hours worked and expenses with receipts attached. 

    Get an accountant – taxes are hard and time consuming. I used to like doing them myself, but I found I spent three to four days a year working on this. Not an effective use of my time. 

     

  5. Protecting You and Your Client

    Find an attorney you trust – Have him/her write a general contract for your services with your terms. This will be the base for your negotiations with your client. You’ll send it over to them and if they have a legal team, which many clients do, they’ll send back a version with revisions and sent that right back to your attorney. I have my attorney review every contract, my eyes literally cross when I read them (Disclaimer: I am not an attorney, but I offer my experiences to you as a consultant).

    Insurance – Be certain to have some sort of protection for yourself, there’s many types of insurances for businesses. Some I’ve seen are general liability, professional liability and even cyber liability. On the grand scheme of things these things don’t cost a lot of money and can really help you out of something goes south!

I hope this post gets you started on your road to independent consulting. Take the time to sit down and think about what your motivations are, set some goals and like any technical project you’ve ever worked on build a plan and do all the thinking up front!

Check out these references I used in this post – 

The Secrets of Consulting  – Gerald Weinberg

Brent Ozar’s Personal Blog 

Thanks Paul!

What I’ve noticed this year is that there’s really not another group of people like the SQL Community.  Earlier this year Paul Randal ( b | t ), in the name of community, offered his services to mentor to a small group of people. Check it out here. Crazy as it may sound he went ahead and offered mentoring to everyone that submitted here and I was on that list. Here’s my blog post submission

If you don’t know Paul, he’s a very open and honest person, exactly what you’d want in a mentor. Mentoring isn’t just one person pontificating upon another person about how things should be done. Mentoring is about getting to know each other and asking the hard questions that you, as the mentee, may not know yet or have been putting off. Through this process you gain clarity on where you want to take yourself/career.

Paul asked me those hard questions and here’s what happened this year…

  • Learned To Set Barriers – as a consultant, you can just work and work and work. You need to set a reasonable limit on how much you work. This goes for people who are full time employees to. You need to enjoy your job. I love what I do, I get to do the one thing I’ve always wanted to do…work with computers. I’m lucky.
  • Got involved in the SQL Community –  expanded blogging, Twitter participation, went to PASS Summit, Friend of Redgate
  • Starting Public Speaking – I’ll be speaking at the January meeting of the Chicago SQL Server User Group and SQL Saturday Pensacola #491
  • Developing Training – Also became a Pluralsight author this year, currently developing a course for the Redhat Enterprise Linux RHCE certification

So 2015 was pretty cool, but we need to look forward to 2016…

  • Expand education – blog more, complete more training courses
  • Mentor someone – a friend, a client…could be you. Drop me an email if you’re interested.
  • Continue Speaking – Paul wanted me to have three speaking engagements, I currently have two. I plan on speaking as often as I can in 2016!

The funny thing is we didn’t talk one bit about the technical innards of SQL Server and that’s OK…they’ve got training for that. Check my thoughts on that here ;)

To sum it up, we gained clarity through questioning, set goals and achieved those goals. Simple as that. In 2016, you should do the same…reflect on your goals, develop a plan, and execute that plan. What do you want to do this year? If you like, add them to the comments on this post!

Take a minute and say thanks to Paul and also to yourself, the SQL Community, chances are if you’re reading this you’re active in the Community. It’s pretty cool to be a part of this!

Also I’d like to say thanks to Ed Leighton-Dick ( b | t ) for the #sqlnewblogger challenge, this motivated me to blog much more consistency this year. And also Brent Ozar ( b | t ) for taking the time to throughly review a blog post for me and helping me develop my target audience.

Thank you!

Reflections as a consultant

Let’s just start with the last three years have been fantastic! This blog post is a slight deviation from the technical content on my blog. We’re going to focus on career and professional development for a minute.

In 2011 I was thrust into the world of consulting…accidentally. Accidentally you ask, how can that happen? Well, at the time I worked remotely for a large health care practice doing system design and software development on the Microsoft stack. Fun and innovative stuff, with great leadership in fun environment. Learned a lot! Well, they were acquired by a much larger organization and the new corporate policy didn’t allow for remote workers. So rather than terminate me they asked if I would like to be a consultant. Well, who wouldn’t right? I had dabbled in consulting for years in the off hours, and always wanted to make the jump. This was the push that I needed. That left me with one huge question…

How do you run a consulting firm?

Certainly at the time I knew some technical stuff, I had been in the industry for 10 years and I was working on a PhD in computer science (still am :). But what I didn’t know is how to run a consulting firm. Client satisfaction, finances, marketing, professional development and that’s just the short list. Missteps occur, but as long as you learn you’ve made some progress.

Some successes include:

  • Client satisfaction – Have a decent set of clients where I’m working on cool problems…still have 100% client retention :)
  • Marketing – The web site went live, added a blog this year and a video
  • Professional Development – Attended 2 SQLSkills training classes and the Fall SQLIntersection, not to mention numerous books read
  • Business Network Development – Meeting people in the SQL community
  • Technical Community Involvement – Completed a book review for Ben Navarez, working on one more for Kelan Delaney

Where do we go from here?

Well, here are some goals for this year

  • Refine the marketing message – easily and concisely communicate what Centino Systems does  
  • Continue to develop blog content – with an emphasis on SQL Internals and database system architecture, speaking to client’s business and technical needs
  • Deliver a public presentation – build, refine and deliver a top notch presentation(s) at a SQL Server User Group or SQL Saturday
  • Process Optimization – develop repeatable processes. This is key for my success and my client deliverables. It will save me time and clients will get better and consistent services.

…and with that all laid out, why do I think I need to be mentored?

The answers are simple:

  • Collaboration – There’s a lot in the road ahead and having someone to collaborate with, exchange ideas both technical and non-technical is invaluable. 
  • Learning – Computer systems are incredibly complicated, if you stop learning you will be left behind. This would in an incredible chance to have someone guide me through the deep technical nuances of relational databases systems and system design with excellent insight.

Thank you for reading and good luck!

Follow me on Twitter: @nocentino

Email: aen@centinosystems.com

web: www.centinosystems.com