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Louis Davidson

Why We Write #4 - An Interview With Doug Lane

My next guest is Doug Lane, who has been blogging for the past few years on his website: Doug is also a speaker who has spoken at SQL Saturdays as well as the SQL PASS Summit, and as I write these interview questions was on his way to speak at the SQL PASS Business Analytics conference in 2013. I also liked quite a few of the pictures in his photostream here (, particularly because I tried the bean bag juggling, though I cannot find the picture anymore.

I have never met Doug personally (so as such have never mistaken him for anyone else), and am only acquainted with him through Thomas LaRock's Rockstar Blogger list, so I am looking forward to finding out more about him from the questions in my interview.

He also once won a SQL Cruise from Idera with this YouTube video:


1. There was a point in time when you didn't have a blog, didn't tweet, and probably had no public presence whatsoever. And then, one day, you made the decision to put yourself out there. What prompted you to write that first blog entry that got you started?

I had a personal blog about 6-7 years ago but I struggled with it. I did two posts: one about music I listen to while running, and one about a camping trip I took. It was horrible and nobody read it. I'm hoping the internet found a way to bury it alongside my MySpace page.

Then, in late 2010, two things really pushed me to get back into blogging: Brent Ozar's blog and Steve Jones' presentation, "The Modern Resume". Steve convinced me that having a blog was important, and Brent convinced me I was capable of doing it. I'm immensely grateful for their influence. There's no way I'd be writing today without it.

2. We all have influencers that affect our trajectory as a writer. It may be a teacher who told you that you had great potential, or another writer who impressed you that you wanted to be like? Or perhaps on the other end of the spectrum it was a teacher who told you that you were too stupid to write well enough to spell your own name, much less have people one day impressed with your writing? Who were your influences that stand out as essential parts of your journey to the level of writer you have become?

I've heard stories from friends about how they had teachers that told them they weren't cut out for writing, science, athletics, music, and so on. It makes me enormously grateful to have never had a teacher like that. I had some uninspiring teachers, sure, but never one that told me I was destined to fail at something. In fact, several of my English teachers encouraged me to write. There's one in particular I'll never forget. Diana Daniels was my 7th and 8th grade English teacher. For one assignment, she gave me a note that said this:

I still have it. I've gradually thinned out the stuff I kept from school but that one always makes the cut. I still feel good when I read it, even though it's from 25 years ago. Sincere encouragement lasts a lifetime.

I would have LOVED writing for Saturday Night Live, Mystery Science Theater 3000, or Archer. I even chose my college, The University of Iowa, based on the fact they offered screenwriting classes and had a heralded creative writing program. While a writing career for film or television didn't come to be, I'm a firm believer in things happening in the right time and place. I can still write blog posts, presentations, and the occasional ultra-low budget screenplay with a sense of humor.

3. As the years pass, how has your writing changed? Do you feel like it is becoming a more natural process? Or perhaps you get more critical of your own writing to the point that it takes you longer?

Like all writers do, I think I'm getting better with practice. I'm getting better with tempo and efficiency. I'm also getting better at expressing my personality through writing without it resembling a train of thought. I'm a little faster now than when I first started. I don't struggle as much with how I'm going to say something.

On the other hand, I take more time now to make sure what I'm writing is technically correct. I feel like I need to be more accurate and informed on my subjects. When I first started, I thought, "If I miss this detail or that, it's okay." Now I try to make sure the minor details all check out too. As we all know, there's NOTHING worse than being wrong on the internet.

4. Assume a time machine has been created, and you are allowed to go back in time to speak to a group of potential writers, in which you and I are in attendance. What would you tell "past us", and do you think that your advice would change where you and I are in our careers now? Like would you tell yourself that one day you would be sitting here for a rather long period of time answering interview questions and not getting paid for it, instead of doing something else?

First, I'd make sure they were all in a room on the ground floor. Then I'd tell them that in 2013, all of the following will be vastly more famous than even the most popular blogger: a monotesticluar man who cheated like crazy in French bike races, a show about unclaimed storage units, an unfinished calendar from an ancient civilization, skinny jeans for men, and a singular picture of a cat who looks unhappy. Many writers will throw themselves out the windows in shock and despair.

Once the glass shard-encrusted writers have been pulled from the shrubs outside the window (we're on the ground floor for a reason), I'd tell them the good news. I'd show them,,, and of course some SQL Server-related blogs. I'd tell them there are huge audiences for the things you're interested in. Combine that with the means to self-publish and promote, and no one can prevent you from being a success.

I'd also share the two thoughts really paralyzed me when I was first starting my blog:

Paralyzing Thought #1: "Someone already wrote about this topic."

Louise Hay put it brilliantly. Addressing a crowd at a convention, she said this: "You'll have all these speakers. We're all going to say the same thing, really. But we're going to do it in slightly different ways. And everybody wants to hear things differently. Just because I say something, some of you will get it, some of you will say 'What is that woman talking about?' But another teacher -- or three or six or twelve -- can say the same thing that I'm saying in different words. And you'll go, 'Oh, that's brilliant! Never heard that before.'"

Whatever you're going to write about, someone's almost certainly already covered it. But they haven't written about it your way. People may not understand an idea until they hear you explain it in your words.

Paralyzing Thought #2: "Nobody's reading this."

That's true in the beginning. Unless you're already well known, very few people will be anticipating your first blog post because you have yet to demonstrate quality and consistency. Your blog is like a retail store. If what you have inside is interesting or useful to people, word will spread and more people will come. Be patient.

It's scary putting yourself out there in printed permanence, I know. But nothing gets you past the fear of publishing faster than hitting the "Publish" button again and again. If you need ideas or motivation, pick up Problogger's 31 Days to a Build a Better Blog. You don't have to do all the exercises in 31 days. Just do one whenever you're stuck. (Let's pretend this e-book exists and I'm not violating the space-time continuum by recommending it.) Gradually, your content will get better and your audience will grow.

I'd conclude by saying, "Don't stress over it. Nothing about your blog is as big a deal as you think it is."

If I told Historical Me that he'd be interviewed about writing and it wasn't conducted from prison, I think he'd be excited.

5. Do you have any assistance from an editor, either formally or informally. And in either case, do you like your set up do you sometimes wish you had it different?

I don't have an editor, and I'm not really worried about having one until I start writing detailed technical posts. That day is still a ways off since I'm really enjoying the topics and level of complexity I'm covering now. I do like to bounce ideas off people, but I don't usually have finished posts proofread by someone else.

A bad habit of mine is proofreading after I've published. (Don't get me wrong, I proofread beforehand too.) I think every post I've done in the last year or so, I went back and updated at least twice after it'd been published. George Lucas admires my inability to leave perfectly good work alone.

6. Finally, beyond the "how" questions, now the big one that defines the interview series. Why do you do write?

I write because I enjoy it and I want to make people's lives better, whether it's getting people unstuck from a technical problem or just making them chuckle. The work I do is immensely enjoyable. I want to share some of that joy. I don't care if I'm paid for it or not -- that doesn't enter into my thought process.

Another reason I write is to establish myself as a resource people can come to when they need a problem solved. I'm not trying to come across as a technical expert (because I'm really not -- not by a long shot), but rather someone who's had to solve the same problems my readers are having. It's funny that 48% of my page views come from a post about connecting a MacBook to a projector. I had no idea that post would be so useful.

While I don't set out to write life-altering material. I have a powerful story coming that I hope will re-orient people. I'm waiting for the right time to publish it -- probably early summer.

Bonus Question: Are there any projects coming up that you would like to tell people about?

One project I've had on the back burner for FAR too long: SQL Server Murder Mystery Hour. Like one of those murder mystery dinner parties, except done at a SQL Saturday or maybe one of the nights of PASS Summit. I've let this idea percolate for two years now (like I said, FAR too long). Here are a few ticklers:

  • Think Murder on the Orient Express, except it's a database or server that's killed. 
  • Attendees form teams to solve the crime.
  • Names of the suspects are a gag, e.g., Bill Freeley is a consultant.
  • Slightly over-the-top, Poirot-style interrogations will reveal clues.

Okay, writing about it really has me excited to get moving on it again.


Wow, this has been a fantastic read. Doug has given a lot of great and interesting answers to my questions. Some notes:

  • I too loved Steve Jones' presentation, "The Modern Resume". Chock full of fantastic information about how to enhance your career and behave yourself (Brent’s blog is great too :)
  • I have always wanted to be a sitcom writer too. I took some advice from the early Simpson’s writers. The goal is something that is funny over and over again, not just once. I know I still laugh at the Simpson’s after 15-20 viewings of many episodes.
  • The George Lucas comment about not leaving well enough alone is a problem I have too.
  • I feel a good bit of kinship with his “why” answers too (other than the MacBook thing, I considered editing Mac references out…)

I am sad a bit that he didn’t hit on my answer to past me, but it will come one day. Like I have said before, when I get the same answer, I will interview myself…

I love the idea for the murder mystery, and am hereby invited to SQL Saturday Nashville .Next to do the SQL Server Murder Mystery at least as a session, or perhaps some other time.. (you will still have to provide your own transportation :).

Next up is Jason Strate (@stratesql), someone I have known for quite a long time (and have worked with several times), and am certainly looking forward to see what he comes up with. I have really enjoyed these interviews so far, and I hope you have too.

Published Tuesday, April 23, 2013 10:56 PM by drsql

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Doug Lane said:

Hey Louis,

Thanks for interviewing me! I'm sorry I didn't fully answer the fourth question so I'll do it here. I don't think what I say to Past Us would cause a great shift our careers. It may get us to write sooner or more frequently, speeding us up on our career path. I don't think it would have moved us into writing for Hollywood though. If we really, desperately craved that sort of writing, we would have gone after it with or without inspiration.

April 24, 2013 10:29 AM

drsql said:

Probably true. I always loved the idea of writing comedy, but it is really difficult, and like most things, would have probably destroyed the art form of a sitcom for me :). It is true with most things, I wanted to be a football player too but the work was too hard.

For some reason (and why I am interviewing people), writing technical blogs, presentations, etc is hard, but I find myself doing it over and over, regardless of the crap pay (almost usually none!) and long hours. So much so that I really need to slow down and get out of this chair more often and go on the other side of the window and move on my own power. But there is more to write, more volunteering to do, and presentations to prepare.

April 25, 2013 12:39 AM

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