Stuart Moore

Musings of a Data professional

Stuart Moore

Tag: musings

Juggling Study and real life

cat interrupts studying

I’m in the middle of recertifying as a SQL Server MCSE, studying for a Mathematics Degree with the Open University and trying to train for various long distance cycling events. It can feel like an uphill struggle to fit it all in and still have time for friends and family (and the cats). And that’s without the usual 9-5 we all have

So how to juggle it all?

I try to think first in long term chunks, usually 6 months and 12 months. For an OU module I have to think across a whole 12 month period as that’s the teaching period. For my MCSE I can split it into 6 month chunks (doing MCSA in the first 6 months, and then the remaining exams in another 6 month period).

Once I’ve made sure that I am not overloading myself in one period I make sure I have all the dates on the calendar.

First off I block out any immovable dates, for example our wedding anniversary, OU exam periods, important birthdays, etc. These are sacrosanct and I either can’t or won’t move them. Everything else has to fit in around these, or will have to be a once in a life time opportunity.

Next to go in are the dates I want to achieve something. This could be an MCSE examination or a particular Audax event. These could be fixed or movable. This year for example:

  • I have a fixed goal date of the end of July for being fit enough to ride the London Edinburgh London audax.  This can’t be moved.
  • I have an exam date set in August for completing the MCSA phase of my MCSE qualification. This could be moved if needed.
  • OU assignment hand ins. These are a fixed deadline, but I can hand in earlier if needed if I need to free up time. (Next week I’ll be doing this so I’m not working through a holiday)

Now I’ve got the goals I can start working backwards to work our what needs to happen when. How I do this for each goal will be different depending on how I need to study or work towards them. For my cycling goals I know I’ll need more time and effort as the goal nears as I’ll be taking longer training rides. Studying for my courses and exams should hopefully remain constant with just a slight increase in time as I revise before exams.

Now I’ve a good idea of what I need to do and when I can start to plan my weeks to make sure I’ve got some time set aside to get everything done. So I’ll block out 3 hours on a Wednesday straight after work to go for a long training ride on the bike, with shorter 1 hour rides on a Monday and Friday. Then I might schedule 2 hours on a Thursday after dinner to work on my OU course or even 2 evening for some of the tougher modules.

By having a set routine it gets easier to remember what you’re meant to be doing when, and all the other bits and pieces fall into place. And by sharing the routine with my wife we both know when I’m going to be busy, or days when I’d rather not have something else happen.

But having done all that planning it’s important to stay flexible, stuff happens.

  • A tier 1 database down at work 10 minutes before clocking off time on a wednesday, you can be sure my bike ride’s gone out the window.
  • A friend is visiting town for the first time in years on a Thursday evening, not a problem, as I know when my free slots are so I can move my study time around to suit.

All of it’s easily coped with if you’ve left yourself some slack. And remember, it’s always good to have some downtime. A night in from of the TV isn’t wasted if you’re relaxing from hard work on the other nights, especially if you’re relaxing with loved one.

Nottingham and Beeston Pub Recommendations for SQLBits

SQLBits-beer

OK, so I thought it might be handy for SQLBits 2013 attendees to have some guidance to the better pubs in Nottingham and Beeston.

My idea of a better pub is a good wide range of well kept beer, plenty of room, friendly knowledgable staff, food available and somewhere I wouldn’t mind spending a night sitting chatting even if I wasn’t drinking their beer

If you’re staying at the East Midlands Conference Center, then you are on the Beeston side of town. There’s some very good pubs that side, but they are about a 30 minute walk from the conference centre or a 10 minute taxi ride (probably about £6 each way). If you do want to venture out, then the best 2 are:

The Victoria Hotel

Right behind Beeston train station. Great pub with a wide range of ales, ciders and whiskeys. Also has very good food. Can get quite busy, though has a large covered outside area with heating.

The Crown

Twice winner of the East Midlands CAMRA pub of the year, and pretty deservedly so.

If you’re staying in Nottingham City centre then there’s no end of choice. My personal favourites are:

Kean’s Head

Smallish pub in the Lace Market area, by St Mary’s church. Can get very busy at office closing time, but thins out once they’ve had a pint. Good range of ales on, and a lot of bottles as well. Plenty of European lagers. Good food as well.

Lincolnshire Poacher

Little bit out of town up Mansfield Road, but worth the trip (the Golden Fleece on the way up can be worth stopping for one if you need a breather). Another former CAMRA pub of the year winner (we seem to have quite a few in Nottingham). Always well kept beers, and a huge whisky selection. Another pub with a very good food menu. And it is holding a mini beer festival the weekend of SQLBits so there’ll be even more choice than usual.

The Round House

Built into what remain of the old Nottingham City Centre hospital. Unusual in that I’ve never been in a completely circular pub anywhere else. Good range of beers,  good tasting platters (3x 1/3 pints plus bar snacks). Food OK, but standard pub options done well rather than anything exciting

Hand and Heart

A little wander up Derby Road past the cathedral, but worth it for a pub built back into the caves of Nottingham. Always well kept beers with a good range of guests. Restaurant style eating available.

Nottingham CAMRA keeps a good list of other pubs as well. And while SQLBits is on, they’ll be hosting their annual Mild in May event, where a larger number of pubs will be making sure to carry some of the finer examples of this beer type

If you want any other recommendation, or something close to a particular hotel, just drop me a line and I’m sure I can come up with something for you.

Learning from more than just the content

While picking up new technical skills is the main reason for attending SQL Server events like User Groups and SQL Saturdays, there’s also another very good reason for attending. Watching some of the presenters just present is of great value.

All the speakers are obviously technically very good, but what really separates them from the other technical people present is their presentation styles. There’s a wide range on display, from the ultra focused business style talking about career enhancement to the enthusiastic geek motivator who’s all about getting you fired up about the newest tech.

But even with the difference overall feel, there’s still some common points that I aim to always incorporate into my presentations:

  • Be prepared. They make it look pretty effortless as they turn up and go. But that’s down to have rehearsed and practiced the material, and knowing they have a backup should anything go wrong
  • Engage with the audience. There isn’t a feeling of “you’ll sit there and watch and listen for the next 45 minutes”. They try to get the audience to interact with the material and think about how it would work for them
  • Time Management. They have the time built in to answer questions on the fly, but also know where they are in the presentation so they can politely say ‘talk later’ if they’re running behind. And from watching them do the same presentation to multiple audiences they also know how to extend it if noone’s asking questions.
  • Clear, easy to read materials. Slides aren’t cluttered with logos or fancy backgrounds. And occasionally handouts for frequently referenced info, this is a great idea, and makes it easy to take something away at the end.

So that’s just 4 quick and easy things to incorporate into your own presenting then! But in my opinion they all tie together, and the main thing you can do to bring them out is PRACTICE.

I’m sure my cats know more about SQL Server then any other cats on the planet, but they do insist on sitting there watching me present to no one with slides on the wall of the home office. Luckily my wife will also put up with me doing it, and in fact will often be a source of good feedback. As a non technical person, if she feels she’s sort of following the plot I’ve got the level right.

And it’s very rare that I’ll give the same presentation twice. Each time I present something I try to get feedback (and really appreciate it being given) and then use that to feed back for the next presentation.

Using Evernote for note taking at conferences

Taking notes when learning something new is a pretty key part of how I learn. It helps me concentrate on the key points, and gives me some quick things to jog memory when reviewing the information later.

I’ve always been a notebook and pen type of guy for this. I have reams of A4 paper covered in scrawls, all of which is ‘filed’ away. Well, I say filed, there’s a couple of large folders roughly labelled “SQL”, “Maths”, “Everything Else”. So of course once I’d read it, it could take a while to find it when I needed it again.

Having become a convert to Evernote I started copying some of the notes over into it so I’d have them to hand wherever I was. I used a mixture of typing them up, and photographing them with my iPhone. Both worked pretty well, with the main limiting factor being my rushed handwriting.

So I decided that the next conference I was going to I’d try to take notes straight into Evernote, and skip the paper step. The next conference happened to be SQL Saturday 194 in Exeter. So armed with my trusty Nexus 7 I decided to give it a go.

I stuck with typing notes. I found that I could just about keep up with a combination of thumb typing, some swypeing and using plenty of abbreviations. I realised just how much I haven’t ‘programmed’ the internal dictionary for technical terms, so I’ll be making sure to type plenty of keywords till it’s learnt some of the basics. The next event I attend I’ll also give drawing/jotting notes a try, that could be quicker, but may lead to the same handwriting issues as the paper version.

I also found that the tablet itself sometimes made me feel a bit self-concious about taking notes on it. I think this is due to it being something new to me, so I was concious of having to concentrate on using it. Whereas paper and pen I don’t even think about when I’m jotting stuff down.

I still had to do some tidying up of the notes, but could usually do that quickly in the breaks, or while settling down for the next speaker. And after the event I found it handy that I could quickly annotate the notes with Twitter handles and blog links, so when I do refer to the notes I’ve got all that to hand as well.

So overall it was a success, but it’s definitely going to be a process to get this right.

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