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Interview with Steph Martin - Senior Data Insights Consultant and Southampton Data Platform & Cloud User Group Organiser

Interview with Steph Martin

Nicole Doughton A Career in IT

Spectrum IT sponsor and host a range of technology user groups across Hampshire, Dorset and the South Coast. The purpose, to bring together IT professionals keen to share best practice and engage in discussion about technology and the future of their profession.

One User Group that we have had a long-standing relationship with is Southampton Data Platform & Cloud which has been running since 2010 (originally Southampton SQL Server User Group). In that time they have had many speakers both local and international present high quality sessions on a range of SQL Server and data platform topics. Monthly meetups are held at Southampton Science Park in Chilworth on the first Wednesday of each month.

The aim of this user group is to deliver high-quality training and insight for free to the Data Platform community. The group has been run by John Q Martin & Steph Martin since 2012, in which time they have seen the group grow significantly with members joining and moving on.

Here Spectrum IT enters a Q&A session with Steph Martin to find out how she got involved in SQL and her love for data! Just goes to show that to have a career in IT, you don't have to have come from a technical background.


How did your career start out?

Like many people, my IT career started by accident. I left university with a degree in Politics and International Relations having planned to go into the diplomatic service. I’m a lot more tolerant now than I was then, and while I was deciding whether it was really a good idea I took a job with a temp agency as a project co-ordinator on a project rolling out back office systems to service stations. When the project finished a year later I was offered a job on the testing team. From there I moved to application development on C#, then added some SQL Server knowledge, and then decided data was where I wanted to be. And then along came the cloud.


What is your current job role? What is a typical workday like?

My current role is FastTrack Engineer at Microsoft. I help customers to advance their Azure story by providing help and guidance on a variety of data related services. Typically my day will involve speaking to various customers for an hour or two at a time working through whatever it is that they need from us. You have to be able to switch context really quickly and be really organised. Up until Christmas I was a Consultant, also at Microsoft, so the FastTrack role is pretty new for me. The consultant role could be anything from reviewing customer designs to developing and deploying solutions for them. I was based in the UK, but it wasn’t uncommon for us to have to cover other parts of Western Europe.


What tech tools / gadgets make your job easier and why?

Most of the development I do is done in Visual Studio Code, or Visual Studio 2017, but since I don’t really do much app development there aren’t a lot of tools I need. In the past I’ve used a lot of the Redgate tools such as SQL Prompt for intellisense and SQL Data Generator to generate data for demos. And also Sentry One’s Plan Explorer Pro for digging into SQL execution plans.

What aspects of your role do you enjoy the most and what would you change or improve?

I enjoy the challenge of trying to keep one step ahead of the curve so that I can provide the best advice to my customers. I like the satisfaction that comes from a customer getting that lightbulb moment, or where we’ve helped get a project over the line. I’d like more hours in the day though!


How do you stay up to date with industry trends?

I’m lucky, I work for a market leader and as a company and within my team we’re always sharing useful or interesting things that we’re seeing. Prior to joining Microsoft I got my information from my peers. Attending User Groups or other conferences is a great way to build a network of people who have different experiences and knowledge.


How did you get involved with Spectrum IT?

I first got involved with Spectrum IT when they placed me in a job back in 2011. In that role I moved from being the customer to the client as we expanded out team. Around this time we also discussed the Southampton SQL Server User Group (as it was called then), and Spectrum IT came on board as sponsors. We’ve had a close relationship ever since.


Could you elaborate on what Southampton Data Platform & Cloud User Group is and the core purpose of the group?

The Southampton Data Platform & Cloud User Group is a monthly in-person meetup. We typically have two speakers each month who talk on a variety of data related subjects. The speakers vary from people who know a particular subject from the inside, to people who have become expert consumers, to people who have something they’ve done for the first time that they found interesting and want to share. Attendees are Developers, DBAs, BI professionals or any combination. We’ve had Project Managers and Analysts as well. Experience is anything from people in their first role to those who’ve been around the industry for years.

Our core purpose is to enable people to learn in a friendly relaxed environment, to build a network of contacts, and also give some of them a career boost because they’re doing something other candidates might not be doing.

Our secondary purpose is to provide a setting where new speakers can come and learn their trade. We always offer our attendees the opportunity to come and present a session, and it’s always nice as well when they take up the challenge. We’ve got a couple who are now regularly speaking in the UK and in Europe.

For more information about the Southampton Data Platform & Cloud User Group visit their Meetup page.


How are you involved with the User Group?

I’ve been running the User Group with John since 2012. I started out as an attendee and then volunteered when the previous leader moved away from the area.


How do you come up with speakers/topics for your talks? What advice would you give to beginners?

Finding speakers for the User Group is a challenge. We don’t meet in January so that still means we need to find 22 speakers a year, and keep the content fresh and offer a good variety of subjects. We have a good network of friends, former colleagues, fellow user group leaders, friends of friends and even vendors that we will often message asking if they’re interested in speaking. Being so well established we are also lucky that a lot of speakers approach us too, either to get experience prior to delivering at a large conference, or speakers we’ve previously hosted who have new content they’d like to share. We try to have at least the next few months lined up so it’s not a last minute panic to find someone. I would recommend that new User Groups check out what else is going on in their area and ask for help. We have good contacts in a number of the other user groups in Southampton we keep an eye on who’s speaking. If it’s a session we think would work for us, we approach the leader and ask them to put is in touch. And if all else fails, we put a call out on Twitter asking for volunteers!


Who would you recommend in the IT community? Who has influenced you?

It’s funny when I look back at how daunting it was meeting some “big names”. These are people I now count as friends. I remember asking someone to sign a book he’d written. I’m not saying who as it’ll be embarrassing if he reads this as he’s probably forgotten!

Over the years there have been a lot of people come and go, but I think actually I’ve got the most influence from looking at the people around me and thinking “if they can do that, I can do it too”.


What is your next goal?

I don’t have any immediate career goals. Although the next goal is obviously to learn the next new service coming out so I can be ready when customers ask for help! What advice would you give to people trying to get into the industry?

My advice to someone trying to get into the industry would be to attend a user group and talk to people. We all started out not knowing things, and the great thing about our user group is that we have so much variety that there is no one there who can claim to know everything! Finding out about the local situation is important as different technologies will be more or less relevant depending on the industries in your area. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help. There are so many free resources out there and while that’s great it can also be confusing. Ask people for recommendations for reliable sources or specific technologies.


What do you do in your spare time? Hobbies etc?

In my spare time, I go to conferences. It’s a bit of an ongoing joke that all of our holidays seem to coincide with a trip to a SQL Saturday.

John and I are both bikers, so in the summer (yes fair weather bikers) we like to go out exploring the countryside on the bikes or head off to watch British Superbikes. We managed 5 different circuits last year and even made it to MotoGP in Assen. I’m also a keen gardener and my ideal Sunday is spending time out in the garden listening to the cricket. We’ve also got two cats, so there’s a lot of taking pictures and laughing at them going on.