Interview with author Sam Lightstone
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Sam is a person who I've known of for years, but only recently am I getting to know him better. You see, although he's written two books, I wasn't involved with them.... but now I'm trying to get a new book idea of his signed.
Another thing that I love about my job is that I'm in an office building with 2500 highly created people: IBM Toronto Lab. From an authoring perspective, we have many successful authors who work out of this building. One of our internal newsletters profiles a different author each month. I enjoy reading about the experiences of these authors and was particularly interested in the profile on Sam Lightstone... and I've decided to share some of the profile with you.
Sam is the Program Director for Open Database Technology and an STSM. As a teenager, Sam was a competitive fencer, nationally ranked and carded. Because he still uses the equipment a few times a year to horse around with his kids and their cousins, I would recommend that all DB2 team members be very polite when they meet Sam in the hallways. He also plays the guitar on occasion.
Sam, what is your work experience? Tell us a little bit about what you do at work.I’m currently the Program Director for DB2 Open Database Technology and an STSM. Previously I led the product planning and several architectural projects for our Data Warehouse needs in DB2. I also sit on the DDAB, which is great fun because it allows me to see and contribute to broader technical issues going on in the product. Most people know me for the work I’ve done in Autonomic Computing for DB2, an initiative I founded in 2000 along with Guy Lohman from the Almaden Research Center.
What have you published so far and what impact do you think it has had on our customers / community? I’ve published mostly along two tracks: academic papers and professional books. Roughly 40 papers and two books most of which were published since 2001. The papers focused largely on research and industrial results from our Autonomic Computing projects. The two books I published cover database design, one on logical design and the other on physical design.
The impact varies with the kind of publication. Research papers can influence the direction our industry takes over time. You can see the impact when other research groups begin to incorporate your ideas in their own projects. It’s fairly easy to track by citations of your publications. Industrial and trade publications focus on a different space, and are clearly more valuable in helping our customers and our field experts. There’s no question that whitepapers, customer facing articles and IBM Redbooks are massively appreciated by our customers; they help our customers consume our technology, build larger more committed technical communities around IBM middleware and help maximize the value that our customers can achieve from our products.
You can find links to some of my papers on DBLP.
You can find information on my Physical Database Design book, along with some reviews.
How did you get started? I started with failure. I submitted a couple of papers to conferences then waiting on pins and needles for months only to be rejected. It was disappointing and motivating at the same time. I realized there was something fundamentally wrong in my writing strategy. At the same time some of my counterparts at Microsoft were publishing prolifically, and I asked myself “what is it about their papers that they get accepted so regularly?” I printed off several of their papers and looked for a pattern, and I found it! Every one of their papers used the same template and certain stylistic elements. I started using a similar formula and found my papers getting accepted almost immediately. My team submitted papers to some important venues – SIGMOD, VLDB, ICDE, and others, and had 90% of everything we submitted accepted even in venues where the acceptance rates were 1 in 6 or 1 in 9. Between 2001 and 2007 my team published over 35 papers. We became incredibly efficient at it, authoring very professional papers in just a few days almost always using ideas and experimental results we had on hand from our regular line item development work. By splitting up the effort, we could compose a solid paper with everyone just doing a small fraction of the work.
Authoring a book was an entirely different experience, which came later in 2005 and then again in 2006. Much much harder, more profound, and more satisfying.
What do you like about publishing? Publishing is a way to make a contribution to the industry that goes beyond your normal circle of influence in IBM. Publications are read and reviewed by our competitors, our customers, and academics around the world. I remember sitting down to lunch at VLDB 2004 and coincidentally sitting beside a program manager from Microsoft SQL Server. He told me he had been reading my papers, and a few were circulating around Microsoft. I managed a forced painful smile and thought – “Oh no”. Then I thought… “Cool!”. It was a stark reminder to me that everything we publish can be used against us, but at the same time when we publish important ideas our influence extends beyond IBM.
Industrial publications such as whitepapers, IBM Redbooks, etc directly help our customer and our IBM field staff maximize the value they get from our products. What can be more satisfying than realizing you’ve helped an entire organization do things better and more easily?
In the case of the professional books I’ve written I have a real sense of contributing to the entire database community including application designers, DBAs, professors and students.
I get a lot of satisfaction when these ideas survive the peer review process. Particularly in the academic space these publications are often reviewed by some of the biggest names in the industry; there’s a real satisfaction that comes from knowing that your ideas have been reviewed by that community and are still recommended for publication. Many of us in IBM share the problem that the technical work we do can be hard to describe to our family and friends if they’re not themselves in one of the IT professions. Publishing however is something that I can show my family. Even if they don’t understand the content of the publications, they understand that a book or a paper has been published. It helps my family connect with my work life and share in it.
As a manager I found that my team enjoyed publishing and while authoring papers didn’t require much time it was a fun and team-bonding experience. One of my beliefs as a manager is that happy and enthusiastic employees are far more productive than those who aren’t. I feel strongly that whatever time we spent authoring we recouped tenfold in productivity gains within the team. Perhaps it’s counterintuitive but publishing is time well spent in building a high efficiency organization.
And finally, ya… it’s definitely nice to see your name in print!
Has publishing had any impact on your 'day job'? First and foremost I find that publishing forces me to learn things in a much deeper way that I otherwise would, and I grow professionally as a result. I’m always amazed how many times I think I know a topic thoroughly but once I start writing I discover so many aspects I’m forced to understand more deeply. I feel I’m a significantly broader and better engineer, database expert, and computer scientist because of it.
Inside of IBM promotion to higher bands along the technical track can come in many ways and publishing helps. It’s true that you can get promoted to Senior Technical Staff Member, Distinguished Engineer and IBM Fellow without an extensive publication history. Even so, publications and inventions are a key part of the promotion “package” for the higher bands. You don’t need to be a prolific author to reach these levels in IBM but it helps.
Any advice for new writers? Great question. A few thoughts:
Write what you know. Even when writing about a topic you know very well you’ll have a lot of research to do getting little details right about syntax, semantics, competitors etc. This is true for professional publications and academic publications alike.
Focus on quality. In the end the quality of what you write is what will propel you, not the volume. Authoring frequently without quality in the content may get you a few more publications awards but over time it will work against you. Take particular care when writing for venues where there isn’t a strong independent peer review process. In the absence of a critical review process, try to impose one on yourself by finding at least three skilled people to review what you’ve written.
Would you bother to read it? If you wouldn’t why should someone else? Use yourself as a guide post and try to focus on authoring things that you would personally feel compelled to read.
In general, collaborate with co-authors. Almost always collaboration means less work and a much better publication. It’s very rare than any of us have the depth of skill and business understanding to cover all angles of a topic thoroughly and articulately. At the very least make sure your publications are rigorously reviewed by two or three experts on the topic.
Style matters. There’s more to writing than just having something to write about. Study the styles and strategies that others have used successfully.
Don’t write to get rich. The IBM publishing program offers authors some compensation, but you won’t pay off your next home with it. Book publishing is another story because there are royalties involved, but most people don’t understand how little these usually are so here are some facts: Most technical books don’t make it to a second printing – which means they sell less than 3000 copies. Authors usually get a small percentage of the sales price (exact amount varies with the contract), which they divide between them if there are multiple authors. So the royalties are relatively small, and after taxes there’s not much to take home. (You’ll make a lot more money over time by spending just a few more hours a year managing your retirement investments!) What about all those millionaire authors you read about? After all isn’t JK Rowling richer than the Queen? True… but they weren’t writing about databases. Here’s a true conversation I had with my wife recently:“All we have to do is sell a million copies of my book Physical Database Design, and then we can retire”“That’s great honey, how many more do you need to sell?”“About a million”
Consider the long term benefits of publishing. In the short term the ‘benefit to time-spent ratio’ may not appear compelling. Authoring can be a lot of work with very little immediate return. But in the long run writing pays off many times over and in unexpected ways. Help customers, influence the industry, broaden and deepen your skills, propel your career, produce something your family can connect with and be proud of, see your name in print. It’s totally worth it.
That's it... I hope you enjoy this profile as much as I did.
See my blog and others on planetdb2.com.