Off-Topic: A Short Story

As the rest of the years dragged on, I would always look back fondly at that first exhilarating victory.  There was nothing quite like it.

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The wifey has been obsessively binge-ing Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” recently.  It’s a fantastic show that addresses real teen issues in a respectful yet thought-provoking way.  It made me want to reminisce a bit about my own high school years, and really try to think about why and how it wasn’t all that bad.  And don’t get me wrong; I understand that my experience is probably not noteworthy, and I actually count myself fairly lucky to have had, essentially, an unremarkable four years.  It’s not that being unremarkable should be a goal, nor that I even encourage it; it’s just that, for me, it served a purpose of avoiding big drama and simply getting me where I wanted to go — even if I had no idea where that was going to be.

So I’ve put together a sample story – a “chapter”, if you will – from what I hope will eventually become a memoir of sorts, a “story of my life” to one day pass down to our kids.  If you remember high school, and especially if you were a band kid, I hope you’ll get a kick out of it.


Chapter 3 – Band

High school band, specifically marching band, was a great experience, and a suitable alternative to sports.  I was terrible at sports.  My younger brother had proven decent at baseball in little league, but none of that talent made its way to me.  (He didn’t take it any further, either, so I don’t feel bad about it.)  It worked out that, after freshman year, marching band counted as phys-ed. credit, so I never had to take another P.E. class after the first one; I did anyway, but that’s another story.

Trumpet was my instrument.  Had been since 5th grade, after my father’s encouragement from having played the French horn back in his day.  I wasn’t that great at it — never made “first chair” (which means you’re the best at your particular instrument) or had any solos, but I towed the middle line satisfactorily.  I’d tried French horn before, but I never quite got the hang of it.  It’s a strange instrument, for a brass, in that you actually need to use your 2nd hand to hold and muffle the flared bell to produce subtle tone effects.  Trumpet’s a little simpler — you just purse your lips and blow, and press a row of 3 buttons to control note progression.  Having braces didn’t help; in fact, the position of the mouthpiece on the lips coincided exactly with the brace brackets.  But with a combination of inner-lip calluses and sheer will, I made it work.

I always admired and envied the “rock stars” of the band, especially the trumpet players who could hit those super-high notes with such ease.  There were two guys in particular — Jared and Mark. Mark was a junior, a lanky rude-boy (fan of ska & jazz) with spiky hair and a contagiously good attitude.  Jared was a no-nonsense senior who’d seen and done it all, making a great section leader.

Editor’s note: said Wifey should skip the next paragraph.  =P

And then there was our junior leader, Nicole.  Ooh boy let me tell you.  Picture a hot summer morning out on the football field for marching practice, icy water bottles being used to cool off sun-soaked sweat-beaded skin, and a tall tan teenage Cali-girl in short shorts and a rolled up tank top, telling us young’uns what to do and where to go.  Can I get a 2-syllable ‘day-umn’?  Yes, that first year of marching band was quite the eye-popper.

In order to truly appreciate this story, you need a basic understanding of the way high school marching band works.  It’s in the fall, or first semester of school, to coincide with football.  While we support and play at some home-games, our biggest commitments were “tournaments”.  These are competitions hosted by various large high schools where they invite a number of other schools in to display their marching band’s “field show”, which is basically a series of songs played while marching into various formations that look like shapes and figures from above.  Each band is judged on both their musical and visual performance.  The color guard, a small team of girls (usually, at least in those days), performs along with the band, by waving colorful flags and banners and doing some choreographed dancing on & around the field.  Think of them like cheerleaders, but more elegant, and replace the pom-poms with twirlers and the mini-skirts with more flowy dress-like outfits (sometimes.. though here were definitely other schools who pushed the sex appeal angle much more with their own color guard).

You also have to understand that, unlike a sports team, the band didn’t have locker rooms.  So essentially, the buses were our locker rooms.  We did probably 5 to 10 events in a given season, only one of which was our own self-hosted tournament, so we were on the road a lot — at least, it seemed like a lot to me.  The bus was our changing room for putting on our uniforms, our break area for chatting and hanging out between the performances and the awards, and our celebration circle (or, in worse times, our den of commiseration).  Different types of people put up varying degrees of protest or privacy — some had to be in the very back with complete coverage and make-shift curtains made from spare shirts or towels, while others were happy to flaunt their undergarments to most of their peers, probably in an effort to tease and woo the opposite sex.  I was somewhere in the middle (as usual); I hid behind the seat-back and kept it quick & subtle, but I also tended to wear a regular tee-shirt underneath the uniform.  The aforementioned Katrina (of my previous chapter) was always around to cast a flirty glance or suggest a extra spray of her favorite cologne to make the stank more bearable.

A small side-note. Our school colors were brown and gold — the Golden Bears — but this made an absolutely horrible color scheme for uniforms. The regular ones were a brown base with gold and white trim, but they never quite got the hue far enough away from ‘shit brown’. The alternate uniforms were a little better, having a white base with gold and brown trim, but of course, they got dirty much faster, so we didn’t wear them as often as I would have liked. I do hope they’ve come to their senses and changed up the color scheme, or at least tweaked the uniforms so that they don’t remind spectators so much of human waste. Thankfully the color guard’s uniform colors were more friendly, being of a teal & fuchsia variety.

Finally, the third key concept here, is that each band is in a “class”, which is like a ranking system based on your size (the number of band members). Generally, the larger, and richer, high schools — in our area, Rancho Bernardo, Poway, and a couple others from the wealthy areas of greater San Diego — had the biggest bands and were thus in the highest class, AAA.  We had historically been in AA (just below the top), and had, from what I heard in passing from the seniors, a decent ‘win’ history.  Depending on the size and attendees of a tournament, we could have even defaulted down to the same class as the others involved; i.e. if nobody else was above ‘A’, we’d compete as ‘A’ too.  But a strange thing was happening with our high school, in the sense that we were growing in number, but not necessarily in skill or in booster dollars.  The class system also hadn’t been updated in a while — basically anything over 150 was AAA , but those big rich bands I mentioned before tended to be in the 300s.  So unfortunately, we were basically “forced up” into the AAA class with our larger number, but we were still way outgunned and out-funded by those that had long held the candles in that high hall.

Now, having said all that, my first year in marching band was one of the most exhilarating, and it’s largely due to our first and only “sweeps” win in one of the first tournaments of the year.  A sweeps win is when your band wins the highest trophies in its class and in the tournament.  Looking back, there must have been a perfect storm of coincidences that led to it.  This was a relatively small tournament; none of those big rich bands attended, and we ended up being the largest one there.  I think it was hosted by Orange something-or-other high school.  The bus ride was a bit longer than most, maybe an hour or so.  Our uniforms were freshly pressed, having not been worn yet this season; and we’d barely finished mastering our show (the music and marching steps/positions, i.e. the choreography).

There was something in the air that night.

We arrived in the late afternoon, not too long before our turn was scheduled. We changed on the buses and lined up to take the field.  It was cool and temperate that evening, not too cold, but not warm enough to cause a sweat.  Perfect marching weather.  The emcee called out, “Tuh-MEC-you-la Valley High!”, and we took the grass.  It was well maintained for a small school; no big potholes or divots, clean and even yard-lines.  Our fearless leader, ‘H’ we called him — short for Mr. Hrbacek (her-ba-check) — took the conductor’s stand, counted it down, and the crisp snap of the snare drums meant it was on.

Our set was a big-band/swing theme, including “Moonlight Serenade” and “Sentimental Journey”.  We’d memorized pages upon pages of marching positions and music for this. Practiced dozens of hours — “sectionals” for an hour after school, those sweaty Saturday mornings, and every chance we could get at a field during class — it felt like hundreds.  Our feet were sure, our instruments were on-key and in-tempo, and we pulled it off, all the way to that final high note and conclusive closing drum beat.

The percussionists were always my favorite, even if I’d never admit it.  They were the driving beat that kept us all going, and the catching energy that fueled our desire to win.  Yeah, the brassy solos and deep booms of the tubas were great — hell, you’ve got to be a ridiculously strong dude (or dudette) to lug one of those bad boys around and march in tempo — but those drums made it all mesh together into something more than the sum of its parts.

So we left the field knowing that we’d gave it our all.  Yeah, we weren’t perfect, there were a few missteps and a few misplaced notes here and there, but we covered them up and soldiered on.  Thus, we took to the bus-changing-rooms once more, traded our uniforms for our street clothes, and gathered in the bleachers for the award announcements.

This was before the post-millennial days of “everybody’s a winner, everybody deserves a trophy”, but perhaps band culture was a bit ahead of its time, because almost everybody did get some kind of trophy.  Although that may have been due to the smaller size of this tournament, as I mentioned before.  Anyway, as with most competition awards, they worked their way up from the bottom to the top.  I wasn’t aware of this at the time, which made me quite confused as to why my elder band-mates were cheering progressively louder and louder as the announcers didn’t call our name. Obviously (now), it meant that we were toward the top.

The announcer has made his way to the final 3 awards – best musical performance, best visual performance, and the granddaddy of them all, “the tournament award”.  He calls the first.  “Best Musical Performance… Temecula Valley High!”  Loud but muffled cheers from our band as the director and seniors try to shush everybody.  “Best Visual Performance… Temecula Valley High!” Louder cheers from our mates as they struggle to contain themselves.  “And the Tournament Award goes to… Temecul–”

We erupt with elation before he can even finish the word.  Hoots and hollers, whoops and whistles.  Our director walks up to humbly accept the giant trophy, which I’m sure looked a lot bigger to us back then than it really was.  The stands empty of the competing bands as we make our way back to the buses.  The air is absolutely electric; high-fives and kudos abound, even between the flautists and the woodwinds, who are, for those of you unfamiliar with band sub-cliques, the quietest and most reserved of the bunch.  As we settle into our seats and prepare for the drive home, from a boom-box in the back of the bus come those timeless strains of Bryan May’s guitar and Freddie Mercury’s piercing vocals.  “Weeeee.. are the chaaaampions, my friennnd. Nooo time for looosers, cuz weee are the chaaampions… of the Woooooorld.”  The adults try to quiet us down, but this kind of celebration isn’t so easily subdued.  A few of the seniors try to explain that we got lucky, that we did ok but we mostly won because we outclassed the other bands.  And we knew, in the back of our minds, that it wasn’t always going to be this way; that jocks would still laugh at us and popularity queens would still snub us; that we’d be coming back on Monday to loads of schoolwork, and to the pressures and insecurities that go with high school life — particularly if you’re a band geek.

But damn if we weren’t gods in that moment.

And then, as the saying goes, it was all downhill from there.  That’s not quite fair, I suppose.  Heck, maybe I don’t give the old coot enough credit; perhaps he carefully planned this strategy of giving us an easy win to hit us with a taste of that sweet drug of victory, so that we’d stick around and keep trying harder, week after week, year after year, to replicate it.  Friggin’ brilliant, perhaps.  It never quite happened, as I said; we were hopelessly outclassed by those infamous high-society bands with their own logo-painted trailers and catered meals and mysteriously shiny pristine instruments that never seemed to fade.  Those top 3 award spots that I mentioned, well – let’s just say we got real tired of hearing the name “Rancho Bernardo”.  Over, and over, and over again.

The tournament that we hosted ourselves came towards the end of the season.  It was a nice break from the competition because, even though we had to perform – twice – we weren’t being judged.  So it gave those rock-star trumpet players time to show off their solo bits in a less subtle way.  In the first performance of the day, Jared actually popped out of line formation and did a half-kneel toward the crowd as he belted out those crisp 4 high notes – but in doing so, he flubbed just a bit, and he got crap for it later from H. and Mark.  Thus, at the night performance, he stayed in position, but absolutely nailed those notes, complete with a little trill-up and doo-wah.  There were a lot of bands here, more than almost any tournament we’d been to, it seemed.  I wondered why, but I’d come to realize later, after learning a bit of regional geography, that were we a convenient mid-way location between Orange and San Diego counties, so it made sense that those bigger schools wanted to come battle each other on the marching field without driving over 2 hours to either one’s hometown.

As the rest of the schoolyears dragged on, I would always look back fondly at that first exhilarating victory.  There was nothing quite like it.  Along with the occasional cleavage-peek on the bus, the weeks of pizza and coke on the road, and that Saturday morning navel-gazing at practice, it was enough to get me hooked for 4 solid seasons.  I even convinced my parents to buy me a Letterman’s jacket with the band letter in junior year. But the biggest adventures were yet to come.

Where are all the Women?

This is partly inspired by the recent #StackOverflowPodcast episode in which Jon Skeet and the some of the Stack Overflow women talk about the Feminist movement and what it’s means to them.  It’s also partly because my wife is out of the house, and wanted me to do some painting while she was away.  And well… paint has to dry.

man-watching-paint-dry
It’s so exciting!

So I’m not going to even “go there” in terms of the movement in general, where I stand, or anything really deep, because it’s a huge iceberg of a topic and I can’t do anywhere near justice to it.  Even the discussion above was pretty basic & high-level, but they give lots of links in the show-notes to truly deep-dive into, if you feel like it.

One burning question, essentially, boils down to this:

Why is there still a striking disproportion of females in the Data Professionals career space (and, more broadly, the IT/Dev space in general)?

And like so many questions I ask here, I won’t actually have an answer for you (that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?).  Instead, I’ll simply reflect on my own (very limited) experience in working with women in tech, and hopefully get your thoughts in the comments as well!

Early Colleagues

In a very small software shop, there were actually no women for a time.  But shortly before I was hired, they brought on a husband & wife team – two developers who were excellent at what they did, and had, surprisingly, broken the stereotype of “spouses can never work together”.  She was so easy to work with, and I think my experience here helped me at least start to understand some of the nuances around “women in tech” and what it all meant.  Basically, she wanted to be treated just like “one of the guys” — which, I understand now, is, in itself, an anti-feminist phrase, but back then I wouldn’t have known — and it reflects the culture of the time, which is that this was a team of mostly male developers and we were still “finding our way” on the long trail of equality in the workplace.

So what this meant, in practical terms, was a couple things:

  • No bias for job-assignments of things like documentation, task management, or communication-centric tasks.  While yes, she was actually quite good at these, and would later become the de-facto PM and Scrum-master for us, it was understood (and probably stated) that this was not “because she was female”, this was because she was the best at it.  But again, is that specifically because she’s a woman?  I don’t think so.
  • Addressing the group as “you guys” was perfectly acceptable.
  • Pay was equal – at least between the equivalent roles & seniority levels (e.g. her & her spouse).  You don’t typically share or discuss salaries among peers, but we knew, and our bookkeeper ensured, that this was true.  Because if it wasn’t, someone would’ve had some words about it.

Also, there were a few positive aspects of the culture that helped make it more equality-apparent, which I think were just byproducts of the quality of people hired.  We didn’t do “dirty jokes” or have sexist (even unintentionally) discussions, nor did we engage in gossip or any kind of “just the guys” activities.  We really just did the work and kept it professional, and any time we were outside the office together, it was almost always shop-talk.  I think that’s the nature of a startup — you really don’t have time for anything else, any of the “fluff” or crud that spawns from idle hands & minds.

But it wasn’t all roses & sunshine.

Its-Not-All-Roses-and-Sunshine-Right-Now-But-Im-Working-On-It

A New Female Developer Candidate

After that dev moved on, we knew we had to replace her.  And the company workload was pivoting a bit, so our candidate criteria weren’t the same as those of her position.  But putting it that way makes it sound like we were either specifically looking for someone different, or that we had moved somebody else into her position and now had a completely different role to fill.  Neither is the case, really; with a startup that’s organically growing and shifting, you don’t get the luxury of well-defined roles.  You basically need what the business and the team needs at the time, and that becomes your reality, until it’s not, and your team pivots again to fill the new mold, learning & growing along the way.

So anyway, we were hiring for a somewhat nebulous developer position.  And one of the candidates we saw was female.  We did not end up hiring her — unfortunately, in my opinion.  That’s not to say the candidate we did hire was bad; he was great too, that’s just not relevant here.  After her interview, the discussions we had were interesting.  And I think it would have been greatly beneficial if the previous dev (the woman I talked about above & who had left recently) could have been present to offer her insight into the hiring process; but she, understandably, was not available & already busy with her new stuff.

This new candidate had a good deal of “embedded systems programming” background, which was interesting because it was not at all what our software was about, but in hindsight, probably could have proved valuable in making our SDLC processes leaner & more efficient.  She also had great general tech skills and was a quick learner.  But ultimately the reasons not to hire came down to the dissimilarity of background vs our product, AND her personality as we perceived it — in a word, she was “nervous” and “not confident”.

This is a big failure, in terms of equality/feminism.

And as I said, this is all purely hindsight.  None of us realized at the time what we actually meant.  But that’s no excuse, just history.  So let’s unpack that a bit.  Or, in other words…

duh
Ya think?!?

DUH!!

Of course she was nervous!  She was A) in an interview, and B) surrounded by men.  It’s not like we said anything or acted in a way that was actually misogynistic; we’d like to think we’d learned how to be open & equality-centric enough that anybody would feel welcome and able to talk about their experience and why they’re a good fit for the job & the company.  We didn’t even have much of a “culture” to speak of — it’s not like we were a big enough team to even have cliques or established norms, we just kinda discussed our work, did the work, collaborated on the work, and went home at the end of the day to our families/friends.  However, in the same breath, we DID have a “culture”, in the sense that we were a small tight-knit team (while in the office) with a set of personalities that, so far, worked very well together; and on a small team, personality-compatibility is important.

Anyway, here’s the crux.  We didn’t even recognize that what we were saying was, underneath, an anti-equality statement:

She should have been more self-confident than the average male candidate, in an interview, in order to meet our expectations.

Now obviously, if you ask the hiring manager (aka owner/CEO/president/founder) of the company and the HR person, they’ll agree (rightfully so) that she was not hired due to the gap in technical experience & the fact that her skills did not fit with what we needed.  And this is true, as I said before; we were doing web-based software in ASP.NET, with a SQL back-end, and none of those were at the top of her skill-set.  So I’m not self-flagellating for us passing on her as a candidate.  (Again, the person we did hire worked out just fine.)

I’m acknowledging, and apologizing for, the fact that we elevated her (completely understandable) personality/disposition to an artificially high importance in our discussion about the candidate.

That, I think, is what an equality-minded leader would try to make sure we avoid next time.  If she had had very similar experience and skills to the next candidate, we should have certainly hired her.  And if I were to retroactively predict the past-future (breaking all kinds of grammatical rules in the process), had she been hired, she’d have “come out of her shell” and gotten along swimmingly with the team & the work.

But again, this is all ancient history by now; it’s not like we can go back and change our decisions.  We just need to be conscious of them and learn from them.

much to learn you still have
“But I’m trying…” “Don’t make me say the line again.”

To Be Continued…

This is getting quite long (~1400 words), so I’ll break here and save the rest for another post.  In which I’ll actually address the initial question, as well as my current experience related to female colleagues & a larger workplace.  Stay tuned!

The Passing of the Torch

Did I mention documentation?

It’s always hard to say goodbye to a colleague, especially someone who’s so central and ingrained in the company lore and holds so much of the “tribal knowledge”.  Hell, I was that guy just a couple years ago.

calvin-brain-dump
Can you just leave your whole brain right there on the desk? Thanks.

So now I’ve seen a couple such old-hats move on from my current team, and seeing both sides of the proverbial torch-passing is interesting.  There’s definitely some very common, very important things that we should always do.

Documentation, documentation, and more documentation.

Indeed.  Also, finishing critical tasks, handing off in-flight projects, re-assigning tickets, talking to managers, prepping teammates for the work overflow, and cleaning out that huge buildup of clutter that you’ve collected over the years.  Virtual or physical… often both!

Unsurprisingly, where we all seem to differ widely is the human aspects.  Breaking the news, saying goodbyes, doing those last-minute get-togethers and send-offs.  What do those last few weeks and days look like?  For some, it’s just business-as-usual up to the last minute — they’re literally so busy they have little other choice.  That’s how it was with the helpdesk manager we parted with last year.  I used some of the time to put together documentation and thank-you letters, which I hope ended up being helpful.  Database diagrams were printed and taped.  Wikis were written.

But the main thing is to make sure you exchange contact info and stay in touch.  It gives the team a sense of comfort, knowing they can reach back out when those random questions that nobody’s thought about for several months resurface.

keep in touch and stay awesome
KITSA!

I’ve learned a lot from those folks that took the time to pass on their knowledge and made the effort to keep in contact.  And I appreciate them for that!  Today I’ll thank one of my exiting managers; she knows who she is.  She taught me a lot about our internal application stacks, integration and interop, company culture, tribal knowledge, and not standing for anybody’s BS, including my own.  Good luck with consulting, stay in touch, and kick some butt!

That’s all for this week.  I promise I’ll work on that “database collation problems” post soon…  :o)

TSQL Tuesday #96: Good Influences

This month’s invitation is brought to you by Ewald Cress (blog, twitter), who I already like based on his tagline —

finds joy in minutiae..

Yes, my friend, don’t we all.

elaine-curious-why-didnt-use-exclamation-point
I can’t spend the rest of my life coming into this stinking apartment every 10 minutes to pore of the excruciating minutiae of every single daily event!

The topic at hand is fairly non-technical, but still important: folks who have made a positive contribution to your career or professional development.  So it’s time for a shout-out!  About a year ago, I wrote about my first major career move.  There were several great influences in my first job, from the developers that taught me how to code, to the DBA who taught me how to keep cool & calm in the face of outages, to the boss who taught me the importance of time management and breadth of knowledge.

Post-mortem

Since I am way too late in posting this, and I don’t feel like waxing poetic, I’ll just say a general “thank you” to all those who’ve helped me along in my career so far, with special acknowledgement to my former boss, my current boss, the SQL family, and my own family.  Happy belated Thanksgiving and have a safe & pleasant holiday season!  I’ll have a real post again quite soon, diving back into the tech stuff.

food-coma-happy-belated-thanksgiving
hope they don’t mind me borrowing their image… =D

Totaling Cars for Fun & Profit Part 2

In a previous (and very long-winded) post, I talked about my experience with wrecking a couple cars.

I don’t recommend it.

But, I did promise a follow-up, in which I provide excruciating detail on how we “retain a salvage vehicle” for further use.  Or, in layman’s terms, “Dude, I wanna keep my car!“.

Let’s go to the DMV!

Said no one, ever.

A review of the steps and the corresponding DMV forms.

  1. Make sure you have your title, aka “pink slip”.
  2. Get your brake & light inspections done at a certified auto shop — use a site like brakeandlightinspectionlocation or dmv.com to find one.
  3. Wait for the insurance co. to send your copy of REG 481, “Salvage Vehicle Notice of Retention by Owner”.  They submit this to the DMV for you as well — but it helps to have a copy on-hand when you go in.
  4. Get form REG 343, “Application for Title or Registration”.  Fill out sections 1, 2, 4, and 9 (at least; others if applicable).
  5. Get form REG 488c, “Application for Salvage Certificate or Nonrepairable Vehicle Certificate”.  Fill out section 1 with your info (applicant) & your insurance co’s info.’
  6. Make the DMV appointment.  Bring all of the above.  The receptionist will be impressed that you’ve made it this far.  =)
    • Technically, the only things you actually need are the title & inspection certs.  The DMV receptionist can give you all the rest, assuming they’ve gotten the insurance notice (481) on file.  As I said, it doesn’t hurt to bring a copy.  The receptionist can also help you if you’re unsure of what sections to fill on the forms.

  7. The receptionist will give you REG 156 for your license plate exchange.  You can just fill this out while you wait for the vehicle inspection, or to be seen by the next agent.
  8. They’ll do the vehicle inspection, and the inspector will fill out REG 31.
  9. With all these papers in hand, you’re finally ready to perform the transaction!  You’ll pay the salvage title fee and the inspection fee, exchange your plates for new ones, and get a new registration card & stickers.
  10. Congratulations, you now own your P.O.S. / clunker / beater / whatever term of endearment you choose to call your beat-up-yet-still-running car!

Here are some fun sample pictures of the paperwork.

As it turned out, some of the forms that I’d filled out ahead of time were completely unnecessary, while others were redundant or replaced.  The thing that took the longest was waiting for the DMV to be notified that the vehicle was a salvage; apparently they’re a bit backlogged.

you don't say?
Shocking!

Here’s another little bit-o’-fun.  The front license plate on the Honda (remember, I said part of the process is giving the plates over to the DMV in exchange for new ones?) is a biatch to remove without proper tools.  I borrowed a standard pair of pliers from the nice young man behind the desk and struggled out there with the hex-nuts for nearly 15 minutes before he came out and said “Dude, don’t worry about it, we’ll call it destroyed”.  FYI, the proper tool is a socket set with both SAE & metric, somewhere between 3/8 inch and 11mm.  Apparently whoever installed this plate couldn’t decide between the two measurements systems so he/she used some of each.

ANYWAY.

end rant

Keeping your salvage vehicle does cost a bit, and is a small hassle.  But in the end, it can be worth the trouble, IF:

  • You are able to get it repaired for a small portion of the total-loss offer (what your insurance pays you)
  • You don’t care about how it looks (because that’s usually what makes the repair job much cheaper — not caring about the body work!)
  • You don’t ever plan on selling it again (because that’s what the DMV make sure of when they register it as a salvage)

Thanks for reading, and drive safe!

safety-first

How to Total Cars for Fun and Profit

Insurance is a wonderful thing…

This is a story.  And it’s longer than my usual post, so get comfy.  I may be stretching my own rules, but I swear, I’ll tie it back to databases… somehow! Let’s get started.

Back in December 2016, I was in an accident in my 2011 Mazda 3. Ironically, I was driving home from filling up with gas, plus I’d just had some maintenance done the month before. These things are ironic because the car was a total loss. “Totaled”, in layman’s terms. It means the damage was such that the insurance company would rather pay off the market value of the car, than pay for the repairs. Or, put another way, it means that the cost of repairs would be within nominal range of the vehicle’s value. Short version, I’m not getting the car back. Oh, and that gas fill-up and mechanic bill? Money down the drain.

dumping-money-down-the-toilet
I haz a bucket…

FYI, I was just fine – so the car and its safety-system did its job, protecting me from harm. Safety is an important part of choosing a car, kids… remember that.

safety-first

Anyway, the car gets towed off to a local yard, I have a day or so to collect my possessions from it, and then they tow it somewhere else to the “salvage yard”, where it becomes somebody else’s property and problem. Insurance sends me the check for the value of the car. I was actually worried that it wouldn’t be enough to cover the loan balance, because I was still making payments AND I’d refinanced midway thru the original loan term, lowering the interest rate and payment but also extending the term. But, thankfully, the car’s value was above the loan’s balance, so I was able to fully pay it off and still pocket some cash.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have “loss of use coverage” on the policy – meaning, no free rental car. So I pay for it, for a little while. Fortunately, around the same time, my parents were getting ready to dump their old 2000 Honda Accord for a newer one, so we started talking and they offered to us as a gift. (Did I ever mention how awesome my parents are? They are!) Excellent.

Actually, this is the same car that I used to drive around in high school, so it’s got some memories.

Including, of all things, my very first accident! You’ll see why this is ironic in a few paragraphs.

irony-alert
Someone call Ms. Morissette…

Now, this car is what we call a “beater”. It’s 17 years old, it’s been through the wringer, it’s got 190k miles on it; but hey, it’s a freakin’ Honda. It’ll last another 50k at least, if maintained properly. And it has been – faithful oil changes, scheduled maintenance and beyond. But it’s not the safest vehicle on the road; the e-brake light comes on sporadically, and the airbag warning light is always on, so we don’t actually know if the airbags (particularly the passenger side) will work. So we need to start shopping for a new vehicle, at least for the wife.

I won’t go into car-shopping here, it’s a pain the arse unless you use courtesy buying services like those offered thru your credit-union or your some kind of “club membership” or whatever. Long story short, we got a 2017 Hyundai Elantra, in black, not brand-new but used with only 3k miles on it (apparently they had buyer’s remorse).

black-hyundai-elantra
This is “Tigress”, or “Tigz” for short.

I will digress just for a second about black cars. They look pretty slick, even though they do show dirt a bit more than gray/silver (which is what the Mazda was). But you know what makes them look super-duper slick? Those “legacy” CA gold-on-black license plates. I convinced myself that I had to get those. Until I went to the DMV and found out that they’re $40 initially plus an extra $50/year on your registration fees. Jesus H… I get that they need to make money, but that’s ridiculous. Srsly. Ding the people that want those silly vanity plates, because I understand it adds a lot of processing/tracking overhead and makes the data (see? I told you I’d tie it back!) more complex. But this is the same old metal made by the same old prison inmates with a different coat of paint. Don’t pretend it actually costs anything extra for you to make them and pass them out. Anyway. Back to the story.

ca-plates-regular-vs-legacy
because it’s SOOO much harder to make black metal than white metal…

So we get the car, the wife’s driving it home. She’s heat-sensitive, and it’s been a pretty long, warm day. She ends up passing out for a second and veering off the road to the right shoulder, which is a small dirt embankment into some bushes and trees. Fortunately enough, she realizes what is happening and she’s able to bring the car to a gentle stop without actually hitting anything. So the car’s only real damage is some scrapes & bruises on the front end, a bit of scratching on the sides, and some dings to the under-carriage-panel. Now, me being the savvy consumer that I am, I’ve already added it to our insurance policy and added rental coverage. The new car goes into the shop before we’ve even had it a day, but we get a free rental while it’s there. (Ford Fusion – I like it alright, but the wife hates it; she has a bit of an anti-Ford bias.) Insurance covers about 1.5k damage for the bodywork, it gets done, we get it back in less than 2 weeks. Yay.

Alright, here’s where it gets fun interesting.

oh-it-gets-better
I don’t know why, but this is one of my favorite lines of his from this movie.

That was all back in December/January.

March rolls around, and I’m driving the Honda home from work. There’s a sudden pile-up of stopping cars in my lane and I can’t stop in time, so I run into the SUV in front of me. Fairly low speed, nobody panics, we pull over and start exchanging info and pictures. Now, my bumper is nearly detached, and my hood is quite scrunched in at the point of impact. This is because I hit his tow hitch, which stuck out from the rest of his rear body quite a bit. So even though he literally has a 1-inch scratch on his bumper, I’m looking at significant damage. But it seems mostly superficial, so I figure, well, I might not even need insurance, and he certainly doesn’t care enough to report it unless I do, so he leaves it up to me.

He helps me rope-up the bumper so it doesn’t fall off (he was such a nice guy, no joke!), and I start driving the rest of the way home. Quite a distance, mind you (I have a 60 mile total commute). After a little while, I start seeing smoke coming from under the hood. Fortunately it’s white, not black, so I know I’m not in terribly immediate danger. But I pull off to a gas station and take a look. Well, I can’t actually open the hood due to the scrunchy-ness, but I peer inside and see that there’s a significant bit of frame damage, and the radiator looks hurt. Sure enough, it would turn out that that was the biggest problem – the radiator (and compressor) would need to be replaced, and the frame around it needed repairing/re-welding.

old-car-on-fire
Not quite…

This is not a small job. I take it to a body shop first, but as they look inside and see what I saw, they know that it’s beyond their scope, so they send me next-door to a full-service mechanic & repair shop. Next day, he gives me the estimate: $2.7k. Now, about this time, I’m talking with the insurance reps. I know they’re going to want to total this car – it’s KBB value is literally just over $2k, and these repairs are significantly more than that. What I was trying to ask them, and never got a straight answer, was whether we could file the claim for a lower amount, by asking for the mechanical repairs only. Remember, this car is a “beater”. We don’t really care how it looks, we just need it to run. And the shop was kind enough to provide that “bare-bones” estimate as well – only about $750.

honda-wreck-damage-picture
You can see where the tow-hitch rammed thru the bumper/grill in towards the frame; the blue arrow points to the frame inside that got the brunt of it.

But then my insurance adjuster did two things that were very insightful & much appreciated.

I have to give a shout-out to Safeco here, because throughout all of this, they’ve been immensely helpful and easy to deal with. (Even though I mentioned not answering my question in the paragraph above, as you’ll see, that was really my own fault for not understanding the process, and it was a moot point anyway!) So if you’re in the market for a new insurance policy, definitely check ‘em out.

First, because this shop was not an official “authorized partner”, she couldn’t accept their estimates as gospel; but, she could offer this newer “pilot” program whereby any shop (or even the customer) could submit pictures of the vehicle and the damage, and, provided enough detail and the right angles, a 3rd party estimator could assess the damage and estimate the cost. Great!

Second, she heard me out as I explained the concern with totaling the car, and understood that I really wanted to keep the car after simply getting it mechanically sound. But, she clarified, because I had collision coverage on this car, they (the insurance company) literally “owed me” the full cost of those repairs or the vehicle value, whichever is lower. So in fact, I would be doing myself a disservice and actually losing money if I tried to simply file the claim for the lower “bare-bones” amount, just to avoid the total-loss.

Instead, she explained, what you can do is keep the vehicle, even after it’s been declared “totaled“.

There’s a process and paperwork to this, and it involves the DMV, obviously. But because the insurance policy will still pay me the value of the vehicle, I should have more than enough to get the minimum repairs done and pocket the rest. Yay!

smiley-with-money
cha-ching!

Now, the process. The CA DMV has done a fairly decent job of documenting this, but it’s still unclear (at least to me) what the order of operations is. There are 5 things you need:

  1. Salvage title (which is different than the regular title, aka pinkslip)
    • DMV form REG 343, which you fill out yourself
  2. Salvage certificate
    • REG 488c, which you also fill out yourself
  3. Owner retention of salvage vehicle
    • REG 481, which your insurance company completes & sends to the DMV
  4. Brake & light inspection (to make sure it meets road safety standards)
    • Certificates are printed & given to you by the inspecting shop
  5. Full vehicle inspection (again, safety & compliance)
    • REG 31, which is completed by DMV personnel only

Number 4 can be done by many authorized 3rd-party shops, most of which also do smog tests and such things, so they’re not hard to find. The rest are DMV forms, as noted above. (#5 can be done either by the DMV or by CHP; but, CHP has quite a narrow list of “accepted” vehicles which they’ll inspect for this purpose, and honestly their appointment “system” for trying to get them done is horrendous, so it’s easiest to let the DMV do it.) But again, what’s the order in which I should do these things? Well, let me tell you!

joker-just-let-me-finish
I’m trying!

First, you get that payout check from your insurance, and you get the repairs done. Then you take the car to a brake/light inspection place (#4 above), and get that “certificate” (much like a smog certificate, it’s an “official” record that says your vehicle passed this test). Actually, if the vehicle hasn’t been smog-checked recently, you probably need that too. Mine was just done in 2016 so it wasn’t necessary.

Ooh! Another database tie-in. Okay, we all know a car’s VIN is like the primary key of the DMV’s vehicle database, right? Plate#s you can change, but the VIN is etched in stone steel. But they’re largely sequential – so two 2000 Honda Accords are going to have mostly the same characters in their VINs, up to the last, say, 2-6 numbers (ish.. I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough about the system, I’m just guessing based on my observation of what happened to me). So when the paperwork comes back from the insurance, it ends up with the wrong VIN, off by 3 #s at the end. But I don’t realize this until I check with the DMV as I’m filing the accident report. Also, you can use online services to look up a VIN and find the basic info about it, but again, because I had such similar VINs (my correct one, and the insurance’s one from the papers), both turned up the same descriptions, down to the body style and trim level (4 door sedan, LX, if you’re curious). The only way we actually found the mistake was that the DMV was looking up “ownership” info based on the VIN, and when the agent read me the name on file, I was like “whodat?”, since it wasn’t me or my father, and then I went back to my pinkslip and checked it there, as well as on the car’s door-panel.

The lesson here is, always double-check your VIN when filing paperwork, especially with the DMV. Moving on.

vin-number-atm-machine
STOP adding redundant words to acronyms phrases!

Before you go further, you need to actually make sure that the insurance and/or the salvage yard has officially notified the DMV of the vehicle being a “total loss”. (See #3 in the list.) In my case, they hadn’t – it had only been a month (between the actual payout and the first time I went to the DMV). So I have to check again before I go back.

But, since I was there, I made the DMV agent answer all my questions and specify exactly what I needed to do to complete this process, and the order in which to do it. Which is why I’m now writing this and sharing with you!

Once that notification is done, the DMV will have record of the vehicle being a “total loss”, or “salvage”. Then you can make a new DMV appointment, go in, and get #5 and #1-2 done all at the same time, in that order. I.e., go to the “inspection” or “inspector” side first, have them do the inspection and fill out the form (REG 31). Then go to the appointment line and take all your paperwork to the agent that calls you. So that’s your “inspection-passed” form (REG 31), your salvage title form (REG 343), your salvage certificate form (REG 488c), and your brake & light certificates. If you have a copy of the insurance co’s REG 481, might as well bring that too! You also need your license plates – you have to “surrender” them, which means turn them in and get new ones (not that same day, obviously – I think they still mail them to the DMV and you have to go pick them up… but I’ll find out soon).

austin-powers-dmv-live-dangerously
Life on the edge, man!

Finally, to add a little icing on this crap-cake. I was driving the Hyundai to work, literally the next day, and I got rear-ended by another driver who wasn’t paying attention at a red-light. Again, super low speed, minor damage, but, another visit to the body shop for that poor black Elantra, and another week with a rental car. (Hyundai Santa Fe this time, which is actually quite nice, and if we need a small/mid SUV in the future, I’d definitely consider it; but due to my commute, we swapped for another Ford Fusion, this time the hybrid model, which again, I enjoyed, but the wife did not. Hey, you win some, you lose some.)

crap-cake-smiley
Frankly, 95% of Google image search results for “crap cake” were gross and offensive, but this one was almost cute.

So that’s the story of how we totaled two cars (and damaged one car twice) in less than 4 months.

And that’s the reason I’m now taking a van-pool at least 2 days a week.

I’d always been a fairly safe & cautious driver, but I’ll admit, this long commute had turned me into a bit of a road-rager. Impatient would be the polite term. After all this, I’m back to my old cautious slow & steady ways… for the most part. I still get little flashes of panic when I go by the intersection where the Mazda wreck happened, and I’m always reminding the wife to stay cool and drink her water. She’s never had that happen before, and never felt like it since, so I’m sure it was a one-time fluke, but still.. the DMV wants her to re-test to get her license back, even after her doctors cleared her to drive. That’s a whole other topic, for another time. I will note that none of these incidents were due to cell-phone use, so at least we’re not guilty of that particular vice.

keep-calm-and-drive-safely

Thanks for reading!

Now, go out there and DRIVE SAFE.

Who Am I?

…and why I love what I do.

I started out as a data analyst, first playing in MS Access, and quickly moving to MS SQL Server. I also became a developer in the ASP.NET stack, way back in the 2.0 days (2006-07). Yet I found myself drawn to the data more than the code, for some reason. Perhaps it was the beautiful simplicity of the relational model. Or the myriad of variations that something as simple as an name field could contain & how challenging it could be to massage that “dirty data” into something elegant and consistent for the code to easily manage and present to the user. Or it could have been the thrill of analyzing a workload that may have taken several minutes to run, and then, by applying the right combination of indexes, relations, and set-logic, to bring that workload down to milliseconds.

This job was great. First “real” job out of college; a teeny-tiny software shop, 4 devs & the boss, working with K-12 school districts, making their lives just a bit easier when dealing with the vast swath of standardized testing and government-imposed student performance metrics that ultimately decided how they taught & how they got funded. And we grew, slowly but surely – 5 devs, then 6, then 8. We got to wear so many hats! Developer, Data Analyst, Helpdesk, Tech Support; even Printer, Delivery Crew, Trainer. It was truly a well-rounded experience.

As the years went by, it felt like family. And sure, every family has the occasional episode of dysfunction. But we were in it together, building up the business with passion, commitment, and respect. And those of us that were there since the start, we felt like we knew it all. Because we did; in that little microcosm, we truly were the experts. And each of us had a forte – I was the “data guy”, he was the “self-taught developer”, she was the “tech-evangelist / UX dev”, and he was the “dev architect”. Our best hire came soon after – the “young enthusiastic developer”, a true professional. Then there was our den-mother, bringer of snacks, paycheck-writer and book-keeper extraordinaire. And as always, the father-figure – the big kahuna, the boss man, who was more than willing to get his hands dirty and help with anything we asked him to.

That was a wonderful experience. In the near-decade I spent with that company and those colleagues, many of whom I consider my friends, I learned so much about technology, programming, databases, and business. And we welcomed more and more people into the family – the graphics & print-media design expert, the bright & cheery project manager, the ambitious salesperson, the kind & caring tier 1 support staff, the new data analyst, the veteran DB-dev, the expert architect, the UI/UX dev, the student dev, and even the Russian programmer! (They’re amazing, BTW.) Each & every one of them added value, and taught me something new.

I do not regret a single day of it. It was awesome.

But, as the baby bird has to eventually leave the nest, I needed to venture out, to get outside my comfort zone and see what else was out there, to join a new & different team and environment, to see if I was truly as good as I thought I was. Well, I think we all know the answer to that! (Hint: it’s “nope”.)

Actually, it’s been great – I drank from the proverbial fire-hose, learned a lot in a short time about a completely new line of business & a familiar but larger & much more complex tech stack & environment. So in general, I’m actually enjoying not being “the go-to guy” for every little problem that happens with the database.

And you know what else I discovered? I am pretty darn good at what I do. That’s a good feeling!

But I’m still the DBA. (Technically, one of two, but the other DBA is the company’s old-time-guru-turned-part-time-consultant). So in a sense, being that “go-to guy” hasn’t gone away, it’s just gotten much more manageable – there’s a larger organization of people around me that can help in many different ways. Whether it’s the old-timers with that tribal knowledge of all the hidden rules and nuances of the business, or the SysAdmin who can whip out a PowerShell script in less time than it takes to say “automation”, or the domain expert that can pinpoint exactly why something is broken because they literally “wrote the book” on that problem-space. So it’s really cool.

Plus, it gives me the space and the time to focus on getting really good at DBA stuff – performance tuning, report automation, data integrity, change management, backup/recovery, data security, all that jazz. I’m looking forward to really earning that “Senior DBA” badge – because even though that’s my title, I still recognize that I have a lot to learn. The landscape is constantly evolving – 5 years ago, this whole “Cloud” business was virtually (yes, that is a pun) unheard of; now it’s all anybody talks about. I “grew up” in an on-prem (that’s short for on-premises) Windows + SQL Server + IIS world; but now I’ve got my fingers on AWS instances (both EC2 and RDS), MongoDBs, a SSAS data warehouse, even a sprinkling of MySQL and Azure. Not to mention dozens of SQL Servers spread over 3 offices plus a data-center, and a ridiculously slick converged infrastructure platform called a “VxBlock”. The technology world just keeps getting bigger, better, faster, smarter.

And honestly, that’s why I love what I do.

Written with StackEdit.