From Blog to Business: Rethinking My Attitude About Community

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 12 Comments

Over 13 years ago, I started as a personal blog. Since then, I slowly turned it into a SQL Server focused blog, then an evangelism platform when I worked for Quest Software (now Dell), and finally into a consulting company when Jeremiah, Kendra, and I started the company. Today, it’s a seven-figure company with full time employees, vendors, lawyers, accountants, contracts, intellectual property, and tens of thousands of subscribers.


Part of the fun of being a company rather than just a blog: we can do stuff like this.

Part of the fun of being a company rather than just a blog: we can do stuff like this.

I don’t have a big head – totally the opposite. The company “Brent Ozar Unlimited” is separate from the guy. Jeremiah, Kendra, and I are equal owners in the company, and it couldn’t have grown into what it is today without their involvement. I don’t look at the company as something I built.

I’m still just a guy who likes to write stuff – posts, scripts, presentations – to solve real world pains.  Most of the time, I just give that stuff away, and there’s only a small portion that we make money on. Odds are extremely high that if you’re reading this, you’ve used some of my work, and you haven’t paid anything.

And I’m totally cool with that. This is the sharing economy.

The tough part is complaint emails. “Hey, your webcast audio this week was bad.” “Your script has a bug.” “Why haven’t you built a step-by-step checklist for X?” For the longest time, my knee-jerk reaction was to fire off a snippy retort to the ungrateful cretin. Didn’t they know I was volunteering my time? Didn’t they recognize I was doing all this for the community? Couldn’t they be nice and say thank you every now and then?

In the last couple of years, though, with the growth of the consulting and training business, I realized that today’s reader doesn’t see me as a community volunteer. There are readers who didn’t know me before we started the company. Even though they’re not paying any of us money, they still see themselves as customers who deserve better products and services – because they see us as a company.

Ironically, I get it because I struggle with PASS the same way. I’ve seen people on the PASS Board of Directors cop an attitude and say, “How dare you question what I’m doing – I’m a selfless volunteer, and I’m doing this for the community.” But that just doesn’t match up when “the community” is a business with $7-8mm revenue (PDF) and dozens of full time employees.

The lines are really blurred these days between company and community.

How to Do a Successful Lightning Talk

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 2 Comments

Ten-minute presentations aren’t easier than 60-75 minute sessions.

They’re much, much harder.

Start by writing the first sentence and the last sentence. If you only have ten minutes, you don’t get the luxury of an agenda slide or a recap slide – you get a single sentence for each.

Ideally, the first sentence describes a pain or a frustration with not understanding a concept. Here’s examples I’ve used:

  • Database administrators often wonder what the term CXPACKET means.
  • Are you stumped about SQL Server licensing under virtualization?
  • Why are we supposed to make sure Page Life Expectancy is over 300?

These sentences can seem cryptic if you’re outside the target audience, but that’s a big part of a successful lightning talk: knowing what you’re not going to explain.

Make a list of things your audience already knows. In ten minutes, you don’t get the luxury of bringing people up to speed. For example, in my CXPACKET lightning talk, I assume that the audience already understands the basics of wait stats and how to measure them.

Make a list of things you won’t cover. No one is going to walk out of your lightning talk thinking that their learning is over, so stop trying to cover every concept. Your goal is to get from the first sentence to the last sentence with as few concepts or definitions as possible, and then give them a place to continue their learning journey.

Only do demos if you’re comfortable with failure. In lightning talk sessions, several speakers are lined up, and you have no idea whether you’ll go first or last. You may have to walk your laptop up to the podium between lightning talks and get things working in a matter of 30 seconds. The projector may not get along with your laptop, or the resolution may be something you weren’t expecting. If you have to show processes, use screenshots or a movie.

When in doubt, think about these people watching you troubleshoot your demo:

My lightning talk audience

My lightning talk audience

Rehearse it in front of your coworkers and write down their questions. Give it in a slow, regular pace, not a lightning talk pace, and let them ask unlimited questions. Don’t answer the questions – only write them down. Figure out which questions you have to cover inside the lightning talk material in order to make sure the audience understands your final sentence.

Aim for 8 minutes of material. Be comfortable pausing for laughter, giving the audience time to think, and finishing a little early. You never, ever want to hear the moderator say that time has expired.

Above all, be relaxed and have fun. Nobody goes to a lightning talk session to learn rocket surgery.

How to End Every User Group and Conference Presentation

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 8 Comments

“To learn more, go here.”

Say this while pointing at the screen, which is displaying a short link to a page on your blog. That page has your list of resources – not just things you’ve written, but things you find interesting about the topic.

Why? Because you just got done presenting about a topic you love, and you’ve gotten the audience excited about it too. They already picked your session because they needed help with something, and you’ve shown a few ways to get started. Now they see you as an expert, and they want to keep the learning going.

After you drop the mic, some folks will come up front to ask you questions, but most of them are just going to file out. It’s not that they’re not interested in your topic – they just don’t have the time to stick around. If they see a URL up on the screen, they’ll write it down, visit it later, and bookmark it (yeah, people still do that.)

“And for help, contact me.”

Those five powerful words are the key to the rest of your career.

Presenting in Portugal

Presenting in Portugal

You may not be a consultant right now, but what if you developed a widespread reputation as the person who’s really good at something? You know, like the thing you just presented about? And what if dozens or hundreds of highly technical people sat in your presentations, and started calling you up to help them with that thing?

That’s exactly how I got started with consulting.

I’d presented about SQL Server, storage, and virtualization for a couple of years, pointing people to my resources pages, and I started getting more and more emails for help. Most of them were just quick freebie questions, but some of them actually wanted to pay me to guide ‘em through stuff. I did a few weekend and after-hour gigs for spending money, valuable experience, and blog fodder.

Eventually a company wanted to pay me real money to be onsite with them during the week. I explained to my manager that the company wasn’t one of our competitors, and asked if I could take a few vacation days to earn some money on the side. One of my cunning arguments was that the experience I gained troubleshooting their problems would help make me an even better troubleshooter during my day job. My managers agreed, and let me do it.

Today, I’m a full time consultant doing that stuff.

It’s a long road between these points, but the first step is an easy one. Just close every talk with ten words:

  1. To learn more, go here.
  2. And for help, contact me.

Why I’m Not Learning Analytics

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 17 Comments

Business analytics is a hot career right now. Here’s why I’m smiling and nodding as it goes whizzing past:

Analytics projects start as short term experiments. This sounds awesome at first for consultants because you can parachute in, jump on the data, and give the business actionable information. You can use whatever tools you want right now – and boy, do you have choices.

There’s an analytics gold rush, which means many competing tools. To make money during a gold rush, you don’t mine gold – you sell mining supplies. Companies see the rush to analytics, so they’re slinging all kinds of tools out there to see what sticks. Think back through the last several PASS keynotes, and every one of them had a wildly different strategy for what data consumption meant. I don’t see the market settling on a winner this year or next year.

My favorite slowly changing dimension.

My favorite slowly changing dimension.

The real work in any analytics project: ETL. When the company points you at the data, you have to figure out how to make sense of it. 99% of all data is garbage. (See, I just made that statistic up, and it’s garbage too.) The big problem with big data is big cleansing – even the most basic tutorials devolve into data cleansing. I hate dealing with letters where I’m supposed to find numbers, or trying to figure out what Combo #3 meant four years ago.

ETL means boring meetings. Be prepared to spend hours around conference room tables clarifying the options for a particular field over time, what a birthdate of 00/00/1900 means in someone’s medical record, or why Mrs. Jones’ orders don’t really map up to Mrs. Jones. Booooring.

Bottom line: that’s not for me. Short-lived ETL projects with disposable, immature tools run by easily replaceable staff – that’s where I click unsubscribe. Most of you probably aren’t interested in it either – if you’re reading this, odds are you’ve already got a decently paying job in databases or development or systems administration. Be careful what bets you place in your career – catch a ride going up the salary ladder, not going down.

So who’s doing it? People who love helping businesses get that “Eureka!” moment, and can afford to place some risky short-term bets. There’s a lot of money in this at the moment, and if you do it right, you can build a consulting business around it. Once the money’s coming in, you can subcontract out the boring parts like ETL and meetings, and spend your time learning about The Next Great Thing. That way, when today’s expensive analytics project becomes yesterday’s commoditized business intelligence project, you’re ready to surf the next high-value wave.