I’ve been at the SQL Pass Summit in Seattle this week, and I can honestly feel my head expanding from all the incredible information and knowledge being shoved in there by so many people who have worked so hard to put their presentations together, to share their experiences, their knowledge, and their mistakes.
And the other morning, as I was idly waiting for the hot water dripping through the coffee maker to become something useful, it got me thinking, about how often that has happened in my life, someone sharing hard earned wisdom that saved me from having to learn from my own mistakes.
I kept watching the coffee maker for a bit, then started to see the pieces come together.
See, not only is the PASS Summit in Seattle, I live in Seattle. Coffee is more than just a ritual here, it is one of the basic food groups. It is as necessary as, say, air, and that morning, I was about to clean out the coffee grinder when I heard my Oma (German for Grandma) stop me.
The thing is, she’s been gone from this earth, to live on in our memories, for over 30 years. Why would she be stopping me? –
And then I remembered.
When I was little, she had a very similar coffee grinder (a Braun 220 volt one that you could wrap the cord around), and she ground the coffee the same way I do. Fill the grinder about halfway with coffee beans, put the lid on, mash down on the button, wait until the rattle turns into a hiss, and you’re done. Then – if it was her, she’d unplug the coffee grinder, then spoon out a measured amount of coffee into the coffee pot, if it’s me I just dump it into the filter I’ve put into the coffee maker.
But it’s what she said, in that southern German Swabian dialect I grew up hearing, as she unplugged it that stopped me. “Also domme Leut’ däen d’r draht in d’r Steckdose bleiba lassa.” (roughly translated: „Dumb people leave it plugged in.”) – and I just took it to be a bit of gray haired wisdom that I didn’t quite understand until years later.
See, that wisdom was pretty simple: Don’t do stupid things.
In fact, it seems that her advice could have been used about 40 years later… See, it seems that a small coffee company here in Seattle had a coffee grinder made that really wasn’t too different from the one Oma had way back when. It turns out that several people (some of them smart in some ways) managed to actually injure themselves by getting (or putting) their fingers into this little machine. One that’s designed to take small things and make them into much smaller things. Apparently the coffee grinders turned on while they were trying to clean them, and that advice about unplugging… a machine… that’s (let me repeat this) designed to take small objects and make them smaller… to keep it from turning on could have been quite useful. But my Oma wasn’t around to give that kind of advice, and as a result, the advice wasn’t heeded, and the company recalled over half a million of the things.
And that wouldn’t have happened if they’d been unplugged.
After I’d thought about Oma, (having unplugged the coffee grinder and put it away) I had another thought, this time about something that happened with Opa (German for Grampa) a few weeks later, having nothing at all to do with coffee.
See, growing up in Germany when I did, the towns and cities still had more than just a touch of a medieval feel to them, what with the cobblestone streets, and some towns still snug inside the walls that were designed to keep the inhabitants in, and any attackers out. It had been this way for centuries. People were inside the walls, all the agriculture was on the outside, and one day, I went with Opa to one of the gardens that had been in the family for generations, where there were plum trees and potatoes, cabbage and cauliflower, beans and broccoli.
But to get to the garden, we had to walk through a long, narrow orchard, and the only thing Opa had to cut the grass that grew there among the trees with was a scythe, so it didn’t get cut often, and was about waist high on me. I didn’t really care, and was having fun running through it when I noticed Opa was gone. He was short but not that short, so I hunted a bit and found he’d crossed over the fence into the neighbor’s orchard, which, as I recall, had horses on it occasionally, and the grass there was much shorter as a result. It really surprised me, as it was some work to get over the fence and he was over 80 years old at the time, so it was counterintuitive to even think of him going over the fence to walk down along the fence only to have to come back, and I was young and didn’t care about doing something as simple as walking efficiently (on the other side, where experience had told Opa that it was easier). I just cared about doing it, even if it wasn’t efficient. In fact, I asked him why he was over there, and he invited me to come over and join him, saying, in that Swabian dialect, “S’isch leichter zom laufa auf dära seite.” (“It’s easier to walk on this side.”)
I didn’t go over there, being full of spit and vinegar (or the German equivalent) , as it were, and he didn’t push it and let me run like a young maniac through the tall grass on one side of the fence while he walked sedately over the short grass on the other side.
And it got me thinking…
There was something about that gray hair of theirs.
It symbolized wisdom.
Oma didn’t stick her fingers into the coffee grinder without unplugging it first.
That kept her from losing bits and pieces of her fingers in the grinder.
Opa did walk on the right side, where it was easier.
That was where he didn’t have to waste energy he needed for working in the garden on something as mundane as getting there.
So those were some pretty non-technical examples, but you can easily translate those into all the technical things you do, whether that’s making sure you don’t do the IT equivalent of sticking your fingers in a coffee grinder, or making sure you do the IT equivalent of taking the time to walk down the path on the other side of the fence.
While you’re here – take the opportunities you have and learn from those who have gone before, and who have done stupid things (and learned how to fix them) because you won’t live long enough to make all the stupid mistakes there are to make.
Take the opportunities, some of which you only have here at PASS. Learn from those who have gone before, and who have done wise things, because you won’t live long enough to learn all the wise things yourself.
Look around you at the PASS Summit, both when you’re between sessions and especially at lunch.
See, most people here with some gray hair (figuratively or literally) didn’t get to be that way in this industry by being stupid. Pay attention to the things they do. The things they do are often the result of hard won wisdom.
You’ve heard that wisdom (or, good judgment) comes from experience.
Of course, experience often comes from bad judgment.
So when you see a person who looks like they’ve been around awhile here at PASS, pay attention, not only to what they do, but also pay attention to the things they don’t do.
And don’t be afraid to ask them why.
You might learn something.
Oh, and if you’re still in the industry when you find that first little gray hair of your own sprouting, and you see a wide eyed up and coming DBA looking at you as if you’re the fount of all knowledge, shyly asking some advice on something, just to say they heard it from you, remember what it was like when you were thirsty for all that knowledge, and treat that request with the respect and humility it deserves, because once that happens, it’s definitely time to give back to the community that helped make you who you are.
Take care –