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Building a SQL Server Consultancy

Principles and Values First

In 2011, I set out to be an independent SQL Server consultant. At the time, if you told me I’d be looking back 13 years later as a “CEO” with a team of 15+ FTEs I would have laughed at you, I think. But it happened.

I’ve been reflecting back on the journey of building Straight Path recently. From our humble beginnings of one SQL Server geek with an anchor client and a dream to a “real company” with 401(k)s, sabbaticals, and accountants – I’ve often used the word “accidental” to describe what we’ve built here. But a fairer assessment would be – we were intentional about our values and principles. I intentionally learned about business as we grew – and we have a company that was, it turns out, purposefully built.

The overarching theme of what brought us here to this point with low turnover of team and clients could be “Treat people right, invest in smart people, and get out of their way.” From the outset, we made a set of guiding principles and core values – emphasizing principle and value over rules and rigidity.

Over the next several weeks, I will share our values and principles in a post per week, discussing these ingredients that I feel set us up for success today and, hopefully, into the future.

“It is not the brains that matter most, but that which guides them—the character, the heart, generous qualities, progressive ideas.” – Dostoevsky

Core Values

Our journey has been guided by five core values (though Hospitality is a newer value informed by reading the book Unreasonable Hospitality). A question we asked when we sat down to work on these values some six or so years ago was, “Would you hire/fire and accept/turn away business for these values?” We have made tough decisions at Straight Path specifically because of these values, so I’d say it holds true.

Integrity: We believe in doing the right thing, no matter the cost.

We’ve stopped working with partners and for clients with misses here. We express concern when we’re asked to put this aside. We won’t do it.

Generosity: Being generous with our time, talent, and skills has been a cornerstone of our success. Being generous to our clients, to the world we exist in, and to our team is important. We look for this when we are hiring.

When I share about the values in Linked In – I’ll talk about the story of what my Uncle experienced at his job after a terminal diagnosis. It’s how we want to be with our team. With our world. With our clients.

Hospitality: We are in the customer service industry – our clients have choices of where to do business. We are not always the least expensive option. We aren’t the only team of highly skilled geeks. Clients stay because of the relationship, and going out of our way to find creative ways to be hospitable to them. (The Book Unreasonable Hospitality, by Will Guidara, influenced this value.)

We listen and look for opportunities to bless. It is not just a welcome gift for a new DBA as a Service client but a demonstration we hear, we care, and our clients matter. The same with the team. It’s not about the bottom line; it hasn’t hurt the bottom line – but if it ever were to? We’d figure out other ways to make that up.

Ownership Mentality: This should be a trait in all DBAs – we “own” the environment. Clients are working with us because of our expertise. We own issues; we don’t pretend to see something because it is just at the close of business. We don’t allow bad things to happen to databases we monitor and watch. We gently push our clients as advocates for their databases. (Extreme Ownership and The Dichotomy Of Leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are two books that describe this value well).

This value has helped influence us to send out an annual Net Promoter Survey from an independent third party (Integrity) and look for opportunities to continue to level up. It’s because of this value that we have emphasized proactivity and truly owning a client’s SQL Server estate.

Humility: We are blessed to have many highly experienced and smart SQL Server experts working here. Yet each is a mentor and teacher who shares knowledge. We blend the ownership mentality with humility. Let the clients get the credit; we’re here to serve them. (The Ideal Team Player, by Patrick Lencioni, gets at the crux of this value.)

We have a pretty smart team. Our Senior DBAs have been doing tuning, high availability, DBAing, and sharing knowledge and tips with the SQL Server world for many years. Yet each is a teacher first. Each mentors our support team, from new hires with some SQL Server experience (sometimes no SQL Server experience!) to become members of the team and, eventually, Senior DBAs. We love sharing the knowledge with our clients and mentoring their teams as we go also.

Guiding Principles

In addition to those core values, we have 26 guiding principles (whittled down from 46 recently – I’m a work in progress 😉 ) that serve as a compass to navigating situations with clients and teammates. Rather than present a rule book or exact recipe for every situation, it was important to provide autonomy of thought and action to the team, while providing some principles by which we want to be known.

I’ll share the first two principles here today, and starting next Monday, I’ll share 8 of those principles each week in a post and talk about what they mean to us.

I wanted Straight Path to be the kind of business I’d want to do business with. Many of the principles are formed by a lot of great books (Some already mentioned, some maybe I’ll share in a video or post when this is all done), and some are just formed by being burned as a customer and never wanting our clients to experience that.

Leaders Serve.
Leadership is a responsibility, not a status. Straight Path’s leaders serve their team, their clients, and the company. Leaders are there helping with issues, mentoring, doing the DBA 101 work, and guiding with their hands-on.

Our leaders are in the on-call rotation. Our leaders take the on-call during the Christmas soft shutdown week. We are in front of issues. We demonstrate ownership mentality and humility when we mess up. While every leader serves, everyone is also a leader here. As the other principles will show – we listen to all feedback, we consider it all, the team matters, and every voice has weight.

We have initiative, and we’re proactive.
We get what needs to be done before someone tells us, “That needs to be done”. “If we see something, we don’t just say something, we do something!” (one of our values is See Something, Say Something, as you’ll see in a few weeks.) We display an ownership mentality through proactively owning and advocating for our clients’ databases just like we were their full-time DBA team. We default to aggressive and decisive action with P1 issues.

We don’t want ambiguity in a game of hot potato. So many of the values to come talk about communication and owning issues, about providing status. Here, though, we decisively act. We aren’t brash or dangerous, but we don’t waffle. We look for issues and find opportunities to avoid them.

Come back next week, when I’ll talk about the next eight principles. And I’ll continue the conversation about each value and principle in Linked In daily while I’m posting these. I’d love to hear about the values and principles in your business and life that guide you.

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Article by Mike Walsh

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