This Guy’s a Competent Communicator

Memorizing an Entire Speech is Difficult

In December, I completed my 10th and final Toastmasters Speech on the path to fulfilling my Competent Communicator certification.

The intention of the speech was to Inspire with the length being between 8 and 10 minutes.

On one hand, I feel I’ve learned a great deal from presenting 10 speeches at my Toastmasters Club. I’ve become much more confident and have a better feeling for what types of stories work when writing my speeches. On the other hand, I still haven’t mastered the ability to speak, and say everything I want, without notes. This was evident in the below speech. 8-10 minutes is longer than any of the others, so my attempts to memorize the entire thing left me pausing to search for the next line far too often. I am sure I can overcome this struggle with more practice.

With the certification out of the way, I can now relax a bit and have some more fun with my future speeches. I’ve got a couple of clever ideas I can play around with. Stay tuned to see them.

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2013 New Year’s Resolutions and a Little Friend

Pregnant Women Celebrating ChristmasAs December nears, it’s time to brainstorm my New Year’s resolutions for 2013. The Stuller family is expecting its first baby in that time, so it’s entirely possible that any goal I set for myself will immediately seem implausible, thwarted by a new dependent and many personal misconceptions about the transition to parenthood. Still, naming my goals will be helpful, even if only the most important bubble up to the surface over the next year.

 

Certifications

In Were my Microsoft Certification Exams Worth it I detailed my experience with these types of certifications. My conclusion has been upheld so far, that the certifications themselves do not provide much value once a certain level of experience is obtained. Therefore, I’ve fully abandoned the idea of updating or getting new ones.

“Any sort of certification by a tool vendor is worthless. Any certification created by a methodology proponent is also worthless.” – David Starr on Herding Code episode 150

Despite the quote above, I’ve decided to make Scrum Certification a goal for 2013. I feel I have a good grasp of iterative project management processes but I could benefit from structured training about a specific, standard methodology. I understand that the certification itself is not the end goal, but it is a nice motivation as a milestone of my learning.

“If you go for certifications, remember your goal is not simply to put more letters after your name but to maximize the value of the educational experience. Winning the game requires that you not only keep your eye on the ball but also anticipate what the next pitch will be. Historical evidence suggests that the average lifespan of any system is approximately 18 months, so the planning process for how you’re going to replace what you just built starts pretty much the moment you finish building it. Planning is a lot more effective when you know what you’re talking about. Being informed on emerging trends is a fundamental job responsibility, something in our business that needs to be done daily to keep up.” – 10 Essential Competencies for IT Pros by Jeff Relkin

 

What am I going to do instead?

Yesterday I read Paul Graham’s most recent post, How to Get Startup Ideas. This blog post really cut to the core of me, as it described the best ways to identify startup ideas. While I sometimes come up with ideas for products, they don’t occur to me as frequently as I’d like. Paul articulated what type of people have the most success, namely those who “live in the future and build what seems interesting.” So that’s what I’m going to strive to do. Throughout my career, I’ve done a pretty good job of solidifying certain skills, such as specific technologies (SQL Server, C#, jQuery) or communication (writing and public speaking). However, I’ve been hesitant to jump into new, trending technologies. For a long time, I considered it beneficial to isolate myself from fad technologies, figuring I can save time that way. In 2013, I’m going to try to both live in the future and build what’s interesting. Maybe that means working a little on a mobile app or maybe HTML 5. I don’t want to constrain my options by listing any technologies before the year even starts. If something seems cool, I’m going to come up with an excuse to build something with it.

 

Public Speaking

I’m scheduled to wrap up my Toastmasters Competent Communicator certification by the end of this year (more on this in a later post). In 2013, I’d like to leverage the practice I’ve had toward some sort of speaking arrangement that advances my career.

 

Personal Life

As usual, I don’t just make goals for my career. There are also things I strive for in my personal life. Among those, I’d like to complete 1 big home improvement project (convert our half bathroom to a full or move my home office), get back in shape (how about a half-marathon), get involved (with my alma mater or our neighborhood).

 

The Blog

What should I do with this blog? This is post 45, which means I’ve devoted over 40,000 words to it. My site visitors are steadily increasing and they are even stable when I take an extended break. However, when I started 3 years ago I thought I would have had more traction by now. I enjoy having a forum with which to express myself but a) I’m running out of content ideas and b) I’m losing motivation based on the slow traffic growth.

Traditionally, I tend to bounce back and forth between technical articles and more generic lessons based on personal stories. Which category speaks most to you? I’ve said everything I need to say from a self-expression standpoint, so when I continue to blog, I want to ensure I’m providing something useful for my readers.

 

Bring in the New Year

Clearly, many of my ideas are half-baked. That’s partly because I still have a month to decide on New Year’s resolutions and partly because I have no idea what to expect of life with a child. Still, this post is important as a record of my mindset at this critical milestone in my life. It’s also an open invitation for discussion. What other goals or modern technologies should I be considering? How will a newborn affect my personal goals over the year? What type of content should I be producing?

Thanks for your time. You’ll be hearing from me again soon.

“6 Simple Steps to Getting Certified” – a Toastmasters Presentation

Since October I have been attending Toastmasters meetings and occasionally giving speeches to improve my public speaking ability.

Below is my 4th speech:

6 Simple Steps to Getting Certified

  1. Ask your boss & peers which certifications are valuable.
    You don’t want to waste time obtaining a certification that will not ultimately help you to achieve your goals. Ask your boss to find out about certifications that would aide in advancement within your current job. Ask peers to find out which would provide opportunity outside of your current employer. Ideally, you should choose a certification about which you have some relevant knowledge already. Otherwise, the preparation process will be significantly elongated.
  2. Research the governing body’s website or magazine to determine what is required. Find out:
    a. The format of the test (e.g. multiple choice, essay, etc.)
    b. Recommended training materials (e.g. text books, practice tests, etc.)
    c. Additional requirements (e.g. years experience, a verbal presentation, etc.)
  3. Study
    a. Obtain the recommended training materials
    b. Review fundamentals
    c. Spend extra time learning new concepts
  4. Practice Tests
    a. Take practice tests to get familiar with the testing environment
    b. Write down notes about surprising answers and concepts with which you struggled
    c. Schedule the official exam when ready and confident. In many cases, your company will pay for the exam fee.
  5. Cram: study for an hour or two right before the test.
    Focus on those concepts you struggled with as well as facts & formulas that will be beneficial to have memorized. No matter how much you study before-hand, always cram. It’s important to have that information in short-term memory going into the test. Trust me, you don’t want to fail a test because of something trivial that you would have known if you had just done a quick review of the material before the test.
  6. Pass the Test
    a. Many certifications last a lifetime
    b. Update your resume
    c. Now you can add those letters after your name on your business card

I have only been attending for 7 months, so I have plenty of room for continual improvement. However, I have already been helped by the members of my Toastmasters club to use fewer filler words and display fewer nervous ticks. I hope to become more comfortable, so that I can focus on my message while on stage instead of being so nervous my mind goes blank.

Toastmasters is useful because of the feedback given at the end of a meeting. It is helping me develop a sense for how long (in time) someone is speaking (including myself). I get to learn what I did well and what are areas for improvement. In the specific video above, I received the suggestion to not look back at the PowerPoint presentation but instead to create speaker’s notes to keep in front of me. My presentation could also have been helped with a personal, specific example.

I am looking forward to improving my public speaking by giving more speeches, receiving the feedback of others, videotaping, and personally reviewing my speeches. In fact, I look forward to improving the quality of my videos. I apologize for the poor video quality this time (I used a digital camera from 2004). To record my voice, the best option I brainstormed (that was mobile and not very distracting for the audience) was to use a blue tooth headset with my iPhone, call into a Free Conference Call number, and record the call. I later merged the audio and video. If anyone has any cheap, wireless recommendations for microphones that will work with my iPhone I am open to trying them.

Were my Microsoft Certification Exams Worth it?

As important as it is for Software Developers to keep current with emerging technologies, it is equally important to choose wisely when it comes to learning them. Indeed, there is a finite amount of time to devote to self-improvement. This truth became evident most recently while I’ve been thinking about my personal goals for the year and trying to decide whether or not I should try to obtain the more recent Microsoft certifications on .NET 4.0, such as Web Developer or Azure Developer on Visual Studio 2010. It got me to thinking about all the time I spent at the beginning of my career getting certified and whether or not that investment has paid dividends.

As described in Contrasting 2 Job Rejections, I was scared about my job prospects after graduating college. Once I got a job, I felt that I needed to ensure I had opportunities going forward and figured getting Microsoft Certifications would be the best way to differentiate myself from the candidate pool. I took 14 tests in less than 3 years, passing 12 and failing twice. I obtained the status Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA), and Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD). You can see my transcript here (enter transcript ID “677424” and access code “insights”).

Some of the tests were paid for by my employer, some were not. I usually studied using the officially released self-paced training kit for each test, but I’ve also purchased expensive training videos, exam crams, used free web casts, etc. I was completely immersed in the certification process. I actually understood all the options and the Microsoft certification path, of which there are now many. Since it’s been almost 2 years since I’ve taken any, I find myself out of the loop, wondering if it makes sense for me to re-enter this world.

At the time of this writing, I have about 7 years of professional software development experience, enough to significantly reduce the amount of studying required to pass a certification test compared to earlier in my career.

Microsoft
Certifications
Expected Study time (hours) Completed Study Time (hours) Practice Tests (hours) Days Studying Hours Per Day Test Date
70-270 (Microsoft
Windows XP Professional)
45 51.00 9.50 35 1.73 February 12,2004
70-290 (Windows Server
2003 Environment)
31 28.00 3 23 1.35 March 10, 2004
70-291 (Windows 2003
Network Infrastructure)
47.5 78.00 11.5 122 0.73 July 9, 2004
Took Test on July 9th 9 4.5 12 1.13 July 21, 2004
70-293 (Windows 2003
Planning a Network)
22 12 4 15 1.07 August 5, 2004
Took Test on August 5th 30.50 8.5 64 0.61 October 8, 2004
70-294 (Windows Server
2003 Active Directory)
21 14.08 4 31 0.58 April 2, 2005
70-297 (Win2003 A.D.
& Network Infastructure)
16.5 16.92 2.5 17 1.14 April 19, 2005
70-228 (SQL 2000
Administration)
55 53.42 5.5 72 0.82 May 27, 2005
70-229 (SQL 2000
Development)
24 23.50 3 151 0.18 October 29, 2005
70-315 (Web Apps with
Visual C# .NET)
34 45.50 13.5 81 0.73 January 24, 2006
70-320 (XML Web Services
with C# .NET)
40 34.00 3 42 0.88 May 2, 2006
70-316 (Windows Apps
with Visual C# .NET)
14 15.42 3.25 22 0.85 June 6, 2006
70-300 (Solutions
Architecture & Req’ts)
12 7.58 9 47 0.35 September 28, 2006
70-553 (Upgrade MCSD to
MCPD : Part 1)
82 16.00 4 428 0.05 April 12, 2008
70-554 (Upgrade MCSD to
MCPD : Part 2)
55 0.00 5 22 0.23 May 5, 2008
Took Test on May 5th still counting 0.00 February 28, 2009?
70-502 (.NET 3.5 –
Windows Presentation Foundation)
14 14.00 6 108 0.19 December 13, 2008
70-561 (.NET 3.5 –
ADO.NET)
12.25 12.50 0.5 18 0.72 May 2, 2009

Would obtaining more certifications be valuable? Looking back, I feel that it was worth it to work towards achieving the certifications that I did. They served 2 purposes:

Milestones for Self-Motivated Learning

By deciding to get certified, I was declaring a personal goal that was tangible and had benefits other than just self-improvement. Many of the topics involved in certification were topics that I wanted to learn about anyway, especially early in my career. For example, I was assigned to my first professional web application project about the same time that I was ready to begin studying for the related certification. Since my professional life and personal interests were colliding, I found it much easier to be motivated to study and create small side projects to practice what I had learned. Better yet, knowing the milestone of passing the test would aid in job security added to the incentive to learn.

Measurable Proficiency

I have heard people in the IT industry downplay the significance of certifications, especially those from Microsoft. Some have argued that the tested topics do not accurately reflect skills that are required to perform well on the job. Others state that the proliferation of “brain dumps,” practice tests that have actual questions from real exams (and are considered cheating), marginalize what the tests represent.

My feeling is that there is a lot of truth to these points. However, employers still seemed to have placed some value on certifications. They may have asked, “If certification tests are so trivial, why doesn’t everyone have them?” I found in the years after my achievements, that it did help in my job search. I believe it exhibited measurable proficiency in topics that I claimed to have experience in. This differentiated me from others who could merely state something to the effect of: “Experience = ASP.NET – 2 years.” The achievement generated conversation in interviews. When asked about my certifications, I got to explain how I set personal goals and followed through on them, learning a great deal of relevant skills in the process. @MikeWo also reminded me on twitter that companies need certain certification requirements of their employees to keep partner status, yet another benefit to hiring someone who has them already or displays the ability to pass them quickly.

Having established that it was worthwhile to get certified in the past, does that mean I should set a goal for future certifications?

It is yet to be determined, but I don’t think so. The direction I am trying to take with my career is not to spend focused time learning the details of the next version of ASP.NET, for example. I have also already built my resume to a point where “getting my foot in the door” is not the problem it used to be. Therefore, the benefits listed above do not quite align with what I want to achieve going forward. I could always afford to learn more about Microsoft technologies, such as .NET, but I already know enough to be effective. I am more interested in learning non-Microsoft technologies these days, like jQuery, Mercurial, or anything Google, so I may be convinced to take a test for a new, interesting technology once it is released and known to have value throughout the industry. Lastly, I believe that the best way to get a great job is a great network and by establishing the ability to get things done.

Time to buckle down and get things done then…

Exam Tip: No matter how much you study before-hand, always cram: it’s important to have that info in short-term memory going into the test. It’s also highly beneficial to gauge your readiness by taking a practice test with a company like Transcender.