Category: Work Tips (page 1 of 1)

How I Prepared for my AWS Certification Exams

So far in my career, I have achieved three different certifications from AWS for different aspects of their cloud development platform. I passed all three of the exams, one beginner, one intermediate, and one advanced, all on the first try. While I’m usually pretty good at learning new things and taking tests, two of the tests left me questioning whether or not I had actually passed or not when I left the testing center, but I did end up passing each of them. Many of my colleagues have asked me how I prepared for the exams, as they are also beginning to work on similar certifications, so I thought I would also share my process here to help others outside of my organization.

What’s in this post:

AWS exams I have taken

  • Certified Cloud Practitioner
    • This is the easiest of the certifications I have achieved
    • The content of this exam is general knowledge of most of the services available in the AWS cloud
    • You will not need to have any great depth of knowledge of any particular service to pass this exam
  • Certified Solutions Architect – Associate
    • This was the middle ground in terms of difficulty of the exams I’ve taken
    • Very focused on the cost and design of systems across a broad range of services in AWS
    • Focus on the “Well Architected Framework”
    • More of an architecture-level exam (not development level)
  • Certified Database Specialty
    • This was the most difficult of the exams I’ve taken, simply due to the deep level of knowledge I needed to have for each of the database services available in AWS
    • Focused somewhat on the design of databases in different services of AWS, but mostly focused on the best way to implement different use cases for the various database services
    • More of a development-level exam rather than architecture-level

My level of knowledge before starting courses for each exam

  • Certified Cloud Practitioner: absolutely no knowledge of anything with AWS before starting a course to learn and prepare for this exam.
  • Certified Solutions Architect: I had more general AWS knowledge before starting to learn and study for this exam due to what I had already learned for the previous exam, but I still hadn’t done any actual development work myself in the AWS platform.
  • Certified Database Specialty: In addition to the knowledge I had gained from studying for the two previous exams, I had finally started to play around in the AWS console personally, so I had a tiny bit of AWS database development before starting a course for the exam.

While it’s best to actually develop in the AWS cloud before trying to take an exam, it isn’t required in any sense. Preparing for the exams is actually a great way to learn more in depth about all the AWS services so you can start working with them yourself.

How long I learned and studied before taking the certification exams

  • Certified Cloud Practitioner: 2-3 months
  • Certified Solutions Architect: 4 months
    • At the time I was learning and preparing for this exam, I had quite a bit of free time during my average work day so I spent many hours each week preparing for this exam
    • If you only have a couple hours available each week to prepare for this exam, you will likely need more than 4 months to learn and prepare for the exam
  • Certified Database Specialty: 4-6 months
    • I did not have as much dedicated time during my work weeks to focus on this exam, so it took me longer to prepare (although I can’t remember now exactly how many months I prepared for it)
    • If you only have a couple hours available each week to prepare for this exam, you will likely need closer to 6 months or more to learn and prepare for the exam

How I use the ACloudGuru learning platform

ACloudGuru is a learning platform specifically aimed at helping developers learn how to use various cloud technologies, including AWS. They seem to have a course designed for every possible AWS certification you would want to achieve.

In all honesty, I’m not sure I would personally seek out using this platform again for any future certifications if I had to pay for it myself. My work pays for every developer to have a license to the platform, and it’s a great jumping off point for learning enough about AWS to pass the certification exams, but it certainly has flaws. But if you have the opportunity to work with these courses, they do a good enough job to get you 90% of the way to what you need to prepare for the AWS certification exams, so they’re certainly not a bad option.

Pros of ACloudGuru

  • It offers a unified, full course experience to cover most topics you will need to know to pass an AWS certification exam
  • You can watch the videos at your own pace and come back to any video whenever you need to
  • Each video and section of a course will offer some links to read for further information, which can be helpful to find the AWS documentation you need to read
  • Each section of the course has a review quiz to test your knowledge as you go, which can help you remember things better
  • There is at least one practice exam provided to cover all of the course’s content at the end of the course. You can take this exam as many times as you would like, and the questions are not always the same or in the same order (so you can’t just pass by memorizing which answer to select–A, B, C, or D).

Cons of ACloudGuru

  • I found that the videos often focused on things that weren’t that important for the exam and would somehow cram the most important details into one or two sentences that I would then have to fully unpack myself.
  • Need to supplement the course teachings with additional reading of relevant AWS white papers or other documentation online
  • The course content isn’t updated as frequently as the exams seem to be updated, so I ended up covering a lot of content in the course that was never covered in my exam, and also didn’t cover some exam topics nearly enough with the courses.
  • The editing of the videos wasn’t the best in the Database Specialty course, which I find disappointing for a platform that I’m sure costs a lot of money. There were many videos where it seemed like things were kept in that should have been edited out (like actual bloopers, not just irrelevant content).
  • Practice exam questions aren’t written in the same manner as the actual exams which might lead people to believe that the actual exams will be easier than they are.
  • The course definitely doesn’t spoon feed you everything for the exam, you have to be willing to do your own additional research and experimentation to be fully prepared

How I used the AWS white papers to learn more

As I mentioned in the section above, in addition to going through the ACloudGuru courses online, I also read a lot of documentation and white papers from AWS to feel like I truly had a sense of how each service operates.

My approach for learning was to watch each video in the courses from ACloudGuru, making sure to take thorough notes of what was covered in each video. Then after I had completed each video, I would review any documentation linked for that topic (there was usually at least one document per video, but not all videos have links to AWS documentation for further reading). If there were topics covered in the video that I felt weren’t covered well enough or that I was still confused about, and those topics didn’t have documentation linked to them in the course, I would seek out AWS and other documentation to learn more about the topic. And would also then take notes on those documents.

Although reading documentation is never the most interesting thing you could be doing with your day, doing it really does pay off when it comes to taking the exam, so you should try to read the AWS white papers and documentation for each service when possible during your studying journey. And make sure to take good notes. For the two tougher exams, I filled 1/2 – 3/4 of a composition notebook with notes for each. There was a lot of content to cover for each exam and I made sure to take thorough notes.

Additional tools I used to help myself study

After I made my way through the entire ACloudGuru course for each certification exam and had read enough AWS documentation to fill my head for a long time, I would then try my best to synthesize and recapture my notes in a useful way in order to do my final studying. For all three of the exams I have taken, I used note review and study skills that I used in college.

Custom practice tests to help review notes

I feel like this is one of the nerdiest things I can admit to, but I swear it works so I’ve done it for all 3 of the exams I’ve taken. After my notes were completed, I went through them again, by chapter of the ACloudGuru course, and wrote my own practice exams to test myself with as a first pass. Doing this does take a lot of time and paper, but I personally think it’s worth it.

To make these personal tests based on my notes, I would essentially turn the most important bullet points into questions that I could then answer. So, for example, say that I have a note that says “Redshift is used for data warehousing and data analytics, not OLTP”, I would then turn that into the question “Which AWS service can be used for data warehousing and analytics but isn’t suited for OLTP data?”. I would develop these custom tests using a Word document and would then print it out and go through all the questions I made for myself, trying to use my memory and not my notes whenever possible for the best recall and memorization.

Flash cards for quick and repetitive review of high-level ideas

A high school and college classic study tip, creating and using my own flash cards really helped me burn the necessary knowledge into my brain before each exam. And I created literally hundreds of flash cards for each exam. Sorry, trees, but the numerous flash cards really helped me so it was worth the use of so much paper.

While the thought of creating and reviewing hundreds of flash cards may seem daunting, I hardly ever tried to work through all of them at once. Instead, I made, grouped, and reviewed flash cards by topic or section of the ACloudGuru course and only ever really reviewed on section of cards at a time.

My best tip for getting the most out of flash cards is to remove from your review stack anything that you can answer immediately upon seeing the card, and keeping the cards that took you a while to remember the answer to or that you couldn’t answer at all to review again later. Keep reviewing the problematic topics over and over until they are no longer problems.

What practice exams I used to prepare

While each ACloudGuru course does include a practice exam to help you test yourself on the course’s contents, I personally do not think that those practice exams are useful in preparing for the exam, outside of general recall of the topics that could be on the exam.

What was the most useful part of my study routine for each of the AWS certification exams was to take practice exams through Udemy/Tutorials Dojo. I don’t know how those folks have done it, but their practice exams are extremely similar to the actual AWS exams. The wording of their questions and answers are basically the same as the real exam, which I found to be the most helpful thing to use for studying, since it prepares you for the verbose formatting of the AWS exam questions. In comparison, the practice exams from ACloudGuru have very different formatting and wording, which, in my opinion, isn’t useful for preparing for the real exams.

You can get the Tutorials Dojo exams through their website directly or through Udemy, but you will have to pay. However, the price is reasonable and well worth it (make sure you wait for a sale on Udemy to get the “course” for ~$16 instead of the list price of $80+). The price is especially reasonable if you’re in a situation like I am where I would have to repay my company the multi-hundred-dollar cost of the exam if I failed. Pay the little bit of money and retake the practice exams until you get 70% or higher on them repeatedly. Also make sure to review the correct answers and explanations for those answers on questions you get wrong, because those explanations to be super helpful.


Overall, it does take quite a bit of time and effort to fully prepare yourself to take one of the AWS certification exams, but it is all totally doable and the exams are not impossible to pass. Just make sure you do your due diligence in studying before signing up to take the exams. If I can pass them, you can pass them.

Two Useful Keyboard Shortcuts for SSMS

Welcome to another coffee break post where I quickly write up something on my mind that can be written and read in less time than a coffee break takes.

This morning I was doing my normal work when I had a realization that I should share something I find super useful and use frequently use in SSMS that a lot of developers seem to not know about. They are small actions but they make your life easier when doing a lot of query editing in SSMS.

How to Minimize the Results Window

I have told many developers about this keyboard shortcut and they all appreciated it. I’m sure most people that frequently work in SSMS would like to be able to minimize and maximize the results window as needed in order to give themselves more screen real estate to work with while coding but still be able to see their query results as needed. But there is no minimize button for the results window of SSMS.

The only way that I know of to minimize and then maximize the results window in SSMS is to do CTRL + R. I use this keyboard shortcut every day at work while writing queries or updating existing queries.

How to Refresh the Intellisense

I have also had to tell many developers about updating the intellisense suggestions of SSMS since it will often trip them up if they don’t know how it works. First, you should understand that the intellisense offered by SSMS is only accurate as of the time you opened your query window or changed the connection for the query window (usually). If you’ve been working in the same query window for a while and have made DDL changes to any tables, functions, stored procedures, etc., intellisense is likely out of date and could tell you that a table or column you’re trying to reference doesn’t exist when you know it does.

If you ever run into this situation where it’s telling you something doesn’t exist but you know it does, use CTRL + SHIFT + R and the intellisense suggestions/corrections will be updated.

Bonus shortcut for Red-Gate SQL Prompt

Similar to the intellisense built in to SSMS, if you are using the SQL Prompt tool from Red-Gate, you can run into the same issue with the tool not recognizing that objects or columns exist when you know that they do. If you run into that issue and would like to update the suggestions list for SQL Prompt, use CTRL + SHIFT + D.

How to Set Notepad++ as Your Default Git Editor

Welcome to another coffee break post where I quickly write up something on my mind that can be written and read in less time than a coffee break takes.

When you start working with Git Bash for the first time (or you have your computer completely reimaged and have to reinstall everything again like I did recently), you will likely encounter a command line text editor called Vim to edit your commits or to do any other text editing needed for Git. And if you’re like me, you probably won’t like trying to use a keyboard-only interface for updating your commit messages. If that’s the case, then I have a quick tutorial for how to make Git use a normal text editor to more easily update your commit messages.

What is Vim?

Vim is an open-source text editor that can be used in a GUI interface or a command line interface. My only familiarity with it is with the command line interface, as the default text editor that Git comes installed with. If you don’t update your Git configuration to specify a different text editor, you will see a screen like the following whenever you need to create or update a commit message in a text editor (like when you complete a revert and Git generates a generic commit message for you then gives you the opportunity to update it, or when you want to amend an existing commit). This is what the command line editor version of Vim looks like (at least on my computer).

I personally don’t like this text editor because to use it, you need to know specific keyboard commands to navigate all operations and I don’t want to learn and remember those when I can use a GUI-based text editor instead to make changes more quickly and intuitively.

How to Change Text Editor to Notepad++

The command for changing your default text editor is super simple. I found it from this blog post: How to set Notepad++ as the Git editor instead of Vim.

git config --global core.editor "'C:/Program Files/Notepad++/notepad++.exe' -multiInst -notabbar -nosession -noPlugin"

After you execute that command in Git Bash, you can run this command to test it, which should open up Notepad++ to try to update the last commit you made: git commit --amend.

That blog post then says that you should be able to double-check your Git configuration file to see that the editor has been changed, but my file doesn’t reflect what the other post says despite Notepad++ be opened for commit messages after I ran the change statement. This is what my gitconfig file currently looks like after setting the editor to Notepad++:

So your mileage may vary on that aspect. As long as the change works for me, I’m not too concerned about what the config file looks like.

How to Revert Text Editor to Vim

If you ever want to change back to the default text editor, you can run the following command to switch back to Vim, and once again confirm it worked using the git commit --amend statement:

git config --global core.editor "vim"


Changing your default text editor for Git Bash is extremely simple as long as you know where the exe file of your preferred editor is stored on your computer. It’s also simple to change back to the default Vim editor in the future if you want or need to.

My New Note Taking Tool

Note: I am NOT sponsored in any way for this post. Everything contained in this post is my honest opinion and review of the software.

For about a month now, I have been working with a new software for taking notes for my blog as well as personal learning projects, and I have really been loving the tool so thought I would share it and how I get the best use out of it. The tool I am now using is called Obsidian, and it has turned out to be a very simple but useful software for taking notes of any kind for any subject.

What’s in this post:

What I was using before and why I switched

Before I made the switch to Obsidian, I was using good old OneNote, the built-in Microsoft note taking software. That worked well enough for me for several months, but I eventually decided to make the switch from it because I was really disliking the organization and look of OneNote and was finding it hard to customize the formatting of my text in the way that I wanted. OneNote has predefined styles for headings, plain text, and code snippets, and I wasn’t liking those options anymore. In previous versions of OneNote, I swear I was able to customize the styles to my liking, but the version I had been working with before switching to Obsidian did not allow that. Plus, I was really just finding the whole app a bit ugly and outdated looking, so I started the search for a new tool.

In my search of note taking options, there were a lot of different apps that gave the customization I wanted, but they usually required a subscription to use them for more than a few simple notes, and I am adamant right now that I don’t want to add another paid subscription to my life. The one really great looking option was Obsidian.

I sat on my research for about a month until I got really tired of the flaws of OneNote, especially the code formatting options since most of the notes I have been taking recently have been with Python. Then I finally downloaded Obsidian and have been using and loving it since.

What is Obsidian?

Obsidian is a markdown-based, text-editor-like note taking tool that is more bare-bones than OneNote but allows you to do a lot more formatting and linking of notes than OneNote is ever going to be capable of. Obsidian even includes a graph features that allows you to look at how all your notes are linked together, which it says can help you visually see how your thoughts are connected.

On the back end, your Obsidian Vault (how they refer to what I would call a notebook) is simply a folder structure full of individual markdown (.md) files that each contain one of your pages of notes. Since it is so simple on the back end, it is easy to keep organized and backed up with any software you normally use to backup your local files.

Below are screenshots showing what my Obsidian notebook looks like on my computer in File Explorer, and one screenshot showing what those same notes look like within the Obsidian app.

Screenshot showing the folder structure within my Obsidian Vault using File Explorer

Screenshot showing the individual note markdown files within the Python folder of my Obsidian vault
Screenshot of the Vault explorer pane in Obsidian

As you can see from the screenshots, it really is just simple files stored on my computer, but those files look much sleeker and more organized within the actual Obsidian app.

It took me a few days to get used to using Obsidian, but I got the hang of it quickly and decided it was going to be my one source of truth for notes going forward. It’s bee nice enough to use that I have even stopped using my physical notebooks for now, which I didn’t think would ever happen (where will I put all of my fun stickers now if not a physical notebook??).

How I organize my notes

As you can see from the screenshots above, I currently have my notebook organized into multiple folders. The most notable are Attachments, Blog, and Topical Notes. The best part of Obsidian is that you are able to customize it to meet your exact needs, so I am only showing how I have mine organized to maybe give others ideas for how they might organize their notes. This organization is very specific to my current needs.


I created this folder based on advice I read from others online who use Obsidian as well, and it’s a great way to keep any images you have pasted into your notes organized, due to how Obsidian handles attachments in notes. When you insert an image or screenshot into a note, not only does the image get pasted where you want it to in your note, but that image also gets saved as a separate file into your Vault, at the very top level of the file structure. While that may be fine for others, I was really disliking it due to the number of screenshots I was copying into notes, so the main view of what’s in my notebook was getting very cluttered with all the image files visible at the top level.

(Technically, the image that you see pasted into your notes is just a link to the physical image file, but done in such a way that it appears as if the image is just stored within the text. But since every note page in Obsidian is a markdown file, it cannot store in itself an actual image, so that’s why the links are used.)

So to clean up my vault/notebook a bit, I created the Attachments folder and I copy all image files and other attachments into the folder after pasting them into my notes. It can be a bit annoying at times because I have to move every single image that I paste into the specified folder, but it’s really not that bad and makes the notebook look nicer so I’m happy to do it.


As you might guess, the Blog folder contains all my notes related to my blog, including drafts of posts that I am working on as well as other pages including lists of tasks I want to accomplish and future goals for the blog. Nothing too crazy in this folder.

Topical Notes

This section is where I put various notes about technology or anything else I am working on learning, when the topic isn’t big enough for its own folder/section but needs to be organized somewhere. Currently, this folder only contains some notes for OLAP data storage & processing as well as Snowflake.

How I save my notes

Unless you want to pay for a subscription, you will not have a built-in function for saving your Obsidian Vault to the cloud or have any easy way to sync your files across multiple devices. But thankfully, since everything with the tool is file-based, it is very easy to use an existing cloud storage service you may already have to save and sync your files across devices. One option would be to use OneDrive, another is to use Git and that is the option I am currently using.

To make my notes available to me easily no matter where I may be working, I decided that the best solution for saving my notes off my computer would be to use GitHub, since I already have an account with them. I created a private repository on GitHub and pulled that down to my local and set up Obsidian in that repo. Since creating that, it has been super easy and intuitive for me to save my notes every day by pushing to the remote GitHub repo.

Other Features

One main feature that Obsidian uses as a selling point that I haven’t found useful for my own purposes yet is the Graph View of my notes. The graph view shows you a physical graph (like the data structure) of how your notes are linked to each other. I haven’t found this useful because, while I do link some of my notes occasionally, I am not doing a lot of linking and don’t feel the need to view my notes in essentially a “mind map” format. But others who are more visual thinkers could find it useful. That feature is certainly unique to this software.

Screenshot showing the Graph View of my Obsidian notebook, very few links between files at this point

As you can see from that screenshot above, I have hardly done any linking with my notes yet, so the graph view doesn’t show anything useful for me. (FYI the blanked out boxes are for upcoming posts that I didn’t want to leak.)

Obsidian also has a feature called Canvas, which I haven’t played around with much, but it seems like a tool that might be nice to help you plan out large projects or any type of work with notes or ideas that connect to each other. The Canvas reminded me a bit of LucidChart, but it seems more focused on helping you organize your thoughts rather than to make flow charts.

Screenshot showing a sample Canvas I created using one of my Obsidian note pages and a “card”

Pros of Obsidian

  • Works well with code snippets, since it has simple markdown functionality for that style
    • If you are a programmer or are just learning code, being able to format the code nicely in your notes is wonderful
    • You don’t need to use the mouse to change to code formatting while typing, just use the markdown symbols
  • Notes are stored on your own system which makes them as secure as your computer– no need to worry that the company is going to get hacked and compromise your data
  • Simple yet robust note-taking features, with just enough styling options to make it personal yet not hard to read
  • Modern design and function
  • Can use most keyboard styling shortcuts available in other text editing tools (e.g. CTRL+I to make text italic, CTRL + B to make text bold, etc.)

Cons of Obsidian

  • Uses markdown styling for all text formatting options, so you need to learn that to be able to style text how you want
    • I have been going back to this cheat sheet multiple times to remind me how to do markdown formatting
    • Once you get the hang of it, it’s really easy to do all sorts of custom formatting
  • Must buy a license if you want to use it for work, even if you’re not the owner of the company
    • I would love to be able to use this tool for all my work notes since it’s so customizable yet simple
    • The current subscription price for one person is $50 USD per year, which is reasonable, I just don’t want to pay for yet another subscription service right now
  • Must manage your own cloud saving and syncing across devices if you don’t want to pay for Obsidian Sync
  • Difficult to add color or other text customizations beyond bold & italic to your notes, must use inline HTML to add colors
  • Can’t specify your own ordering of notes, will always be placed in alphabetic order
    • I think this is the biggest annoyance to me for the most part, sometimes it would be nice to keep your notes in a specific, non-alphabetic ordering
    • The easiest way to keep things in the order you want is to use numbers or symbols at the beginning of note names (I put the date at the beginning of each note to keep it organized better, and then put symbols like ! at the beginning of the title for notes I always want at the top of the list)


Obsidian is a great free tool to use for taking organized and useful notes right on your own computer. While there are a few features of the tool that are annoying to use at times, it has more positives than negatives. I would recommend that anyone in a technical field take a chance with Obsidian for their notes solution if they’re looking to try something new and modern.

Getting Better at Keeping Work at Work

Despite already writing a similar post about this topic myself, I have still been struggling recently to keep my work at work, struggling with not thinking about it in my free time in the evenings and on weekends. Looking for some professional guidance from an outside perspective online, I found this great article from Harvard Business Review that I want to share with others.

Using Technology to Log Out for the Day

Steps 1 and 3 from the article come easily to me. While I don’t have specific hours I am required to be at work, I am great at keeping a regular work schedule for myself that I don’t normally deviate from. Once I log out at 5 PM each day, I don’t check Teams messages, and I don’t even have my work email on my phone so I can’t check that even if I wanted to. I manage this system using the Focus Time feature on my iPhone.

I have two different scheduled Focus Time settings for my phone: 1) Work and 2) Personal Time. I’ve set up the Work Focus Time to be active during my normal work hours and it only allows notifications from Teams, my two-factor authentication apps, and a couple of important family members. Then I’ve set up the Personal Time custom Focus Time to be the opposite: it runs from the time I get off work to the time I start work in the morning and blocks any notifications from Teams or other work-related applications.

This system has been working really well for me and I would recommend others try it out if they haven’t already, because then you never need to think about which notifications to turn off after work each day, or worse, just keep getting those notifications all evening and weekend long that take your mind back to work when it shouldn’t be there.

Struggling with “Mental Clarity” Around Work

Steps 2 and 4 from the HBR article are more challenging for me lately than I would like them to be. Step 2 is to get “mental clarity”, which essentially means that you should know each day what tasks you need to accomplish at work, by keeping a running to-do list or somewhere else to manage all your thoughts about work. I used to be great at this before the last couple months, when my job became less clear and began changing. I stopped keeping a physical notebook because I needed a new system to keep related notes related and physically close since I now have larger projects to manage rather than small tickets to work on daily or weekly. Once I stopped heavily utilizing my physical notebook, I stopped creating daily to-do lists for myself to accomplish.

Not having a go-to place to list out all the current and future things I will need to complete has led to the problem of me randomly remembering important things I need to do for work at inconvenient times, like when I’m trying to fall asleep. I’m sure many can relate to that. This mental clarity step reminds me of the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen that I read a couple years ago. One of the main points of that book is you need to be constantly dumping thoughts out of your head onto paper (or anywhere you want as long as it’s consistent) so your brain can trust it doesn’t need to constantly remind you of important things at inappropriate times. If you know that you always write important tasks in the same location, you know that anything important is in that location and not just in your head. The Harvard Business Review article made me realize I need to get back to that organization method and start actually using the digital note page I made awhile ago that is supposed to act as my catch-all list of items on my plate now and in the future.

One final note on the mental clarity step of keeping work at work– I actually do still manage to complete an end-of-day wrap up each work day where I write out everything I accomplished throughout the day along with notes for what I need to do the next day and a review of the next day’s calendar. I occasionally skip days of this, so I would like to schedule time for this each day going forward so I’m more diligent about doing it.

The Need to Feel Accomplished

The final step to keeping work at work recommended in the article that I’ve been struggling with the most recently is step 4, which says that you need to get work done at work. It may seem crazy for someone to not get work done during their work day if they’re showing up on time and leaving usually later than they should, but it is entirely possible if you allow your entire schedule to be consumed by meetings with no or minimal time between them. My job has morphed into a collaboration-focused position where I suddenly need to have meetings upon meetings about everything related to the projects I am working on. This means that on an average day, I have multiple hours of meetings with colleagues, and somehow they all seem to leave 30-minute gaps between to tease me with the possibility of getting work done, but then I never actually get time to focus in those gaps.

This cycle of continual meetings and no long stretches of work time has made it really difficult for me to have any decent amount of time to focus on the deliverables I need to complete. While sure, you could theoretically get good work done in the 30 minutes between meetings, reality is much different when you need to work on a confusing or difficult task. Those types of work items are better suited for longer stretches of dedicated focus time, at least one hour but hopefully two or more. That is a rare occurrence in my current work life and I want to change that, and will do so by following the recommendations of this HBR article, and actually some of my own advice from a previous blog post. I need to schedule blocks of one or more hours each day to focus on work. My plan is to do that on Friday afternoons the week before or Monday mornings the week of, so I can block out work time for an entire week to get ahead of meetings that will inevitably be scheduled.


While the advice of the Harvard Business Review article isn’t entirely new to me, it did act as a great trigger to remind me of the valuable work skills I have neglected recently so I can revive them. Going forward, I am going to revitalize my use of my own calendar and digit notebook to see if that helps me feel more in control and less caught up in the whirlwind at work.

Give the HBR article a read and see if any of it speaks to you like it spoke to me. Is there something in your work-life balance situation that could be improved to reduce your overall stress?

Using the WordPress Local Development Tool to Avoid JSON Errors

When I started my blog a couple months ago, I determined a posting schedule for myself of once a week on Tuesdays. If you are someone who notices details and patterns, you may have noticed that I went a few weeks without posting at the end of December and into January, but it wasn’t for lack of me trying. In this post I’m going to talk about the issues I faced that prevented me from posting and how I finally got a workaround for the problem that has finally allowed me to start posting again.


While trying to create and edit my tutorial post about working with Liquibase, I kept running into the same vague JSON error when trying to save drafts, always at the same point. The error was: “Updating failed. The response is not a valid JSON response”.

The point at which it always failed was about midway through the post, either when I copied in text that contained double-quote characters or when I added the first image. I spent several weeks going back and forth with Flywheel (the web host I use) support, trying to figure out what was causing this JSON error when I tried to save a draft.

We tried many different things, including the normal troubleshooting steps of disabling plugins, reverting to the default WordPress theme, disabling all of my browser extensions, trying to work in an incognito window, and several other things. I read so many of the articles online discussing how to resolve this error, and none of those solutions worked. On the Flywheel side, they told me they were trying several different server changes, including extending timeout values and other firewall type changes. I even completely restored my website to default, but not even that worked. And then I had to rebuild everything on my website (except for posts and pages which I exported before restoring).

As of the time of writing this, I still don’t officially have a resolution from Flywheel for this error that keeps popping up and generating 403 errors on the backend (I figured that out myself by inspecting what happened when I clicked the “save draft” button). However, thanks to some kind folks on a WordPress forum, I finally figured out a viable workaround that I am actually enjoying using more than the online WordPress admin portal.

The Successful Workaround

The workaround that I am now using, even as I write this, is to use the development tool for WordPress called Local. This tool gives you a local development environment for WordPress that can seamlessly connect with Flywheel and other hosting providers. The setup for the tool was super easy, took me less than 5 minutes. After going through the setup, all I had to do was pull a copy of my site to local and then I have been able to locally edit my website through the tool.

Once you’re done making all your changes, you only need to select to “Push” to your production site, then select which changes you want to be pushed, then it’s quickly sent to your actual production website. It takes a few minutes for Flywheel to update with the changes, but then you can see your locally developed changes on your real site. All without the hassle of the ever-present JSON error when trying to save a draft.

I will be continuing to work with Flywheel to try to resolve the error on my production site, but at least for now, I am able to keep working and posting, back to my normal schedule.


If you are facing endless errors when trying to create posts for WordPress and you’re hosted with Flywheel, try using the Local tool to develop on your own local machine to see if that helps you in the same way it helped me.


We finally seem to have resolved my issue after going back and forth so many times with the Flywheel support team and continuing to escalate it through all their support levels. I’m not sure if this is what finally resolved the issue as I wasn’t provided any further details, but the last detailed message I received seemed to indicate that something was set up incorrectly with their Web Application Firewall (WAF) that was preventing me from editing. Before getting the issue fixed, I also found that I couldn’t edit the footer of my site because I was also getting 403 errors when trying to save those changes, and that along with my post creation issue has been resolved.

The moral of this update is that if you’re having this same issue and your site is hosted on Flywheel, keep pushing them to try more things on their end, don’t let them say that it must be something with your local environment. They were super great in continuing to try as long as I kept pushing and saying it still wasn’t working. It also seemed to help when I started showing them the exact errors I was getting with the Inspect tool in Chrome so they would have something to work with.

How to Clean Up Old Local Branches With Git

If you use Git Bash or another form of Git on your local development machine for version control in your organization, have you ever looked at how many branches you have from old work? Sometimes I forget that Git is keeping every single branch I’ve ever made off of master in the past unless I manually go in and delete it. This means I end up with an insane number of local branches hanging out on my computer, some of them months old. It’s not necessarily bad that these local branches are still around, but I know that I will never need them again after the related ticket or software change has been deployed to Live. Any pertinent information that might be needed for reference for that branch is stored in our remote repo which means I don’t need it hanging around on my machine.

When I finally remember to check how many local branches I have on a repo (using the command “git branch”), I am shocked to see dozens upon dozens of branches like in the above screenshot (which is only about half of the old branches I have on that repo). Then I want to get rid of them but also don’t want to use “git branch -D <branch>” for every single individual branch to clean them up one by one since that would take me quite a while to complete.

The faster way to get rid of all local branches, taught me by a coworker, is the following: “git branch  | grep -v “master” | xargs git branch -D”. Note: use this with caution because it will delete everything and you don’t want to delete something that you still need. Also, there are some caveats with which this command won’t work, and you can read more about that on StackOverflow.

TL;DR: the above command will fetch the list of all branches available on the current directory/repo, will get all branches except the one you specify with “grep -v” (so that you can keep the local master branch), and will then delete all of those branches with a force delete.

Let’s break down each part of that command:

  • “Git branch”
    • This is the command that will list all local branches on the current repository
    • Using a pipe character (the vertical bar “|”) will tell the command to feed in the results of what’s on the left of the pipe into the command on the right of the pipe, which in this case means we are feeding the list of local branches into the command “grep -v “master””
  • “grep -v “master””
    • The grep command will print output matching a specified pattern
    • The option “-v” signifies that the inverse of the list matching a pattern should be output
    • In this scenario, the two above points mean that this full command is going to take the list of all local branches and print out all of them that aren’t the specified branch, which in this case is “master”. If your main branch isn’t called master, you can change that value to whatever branch you don’t want to delete with this command.
  • “xargs git branch -D”
    • I haven’t been able to definitively figure out what the xargs command is doing (if anyone has documentation on this, please send it my way!), but essentially it seems to be taking the list of branches created with the two previous commands and running that list through the normal “git branch -D” command which will perform a hard delete on those branches.
    • “git branch -D” is the command used to force a delete of a branch (the -D is short for using the two options “–delete –force”)

This isn’t the most necessary Git command you’ll ever use in your work, but it does come in handy to keep your work organized and decluttered if you’re someone like me who values that.

How to Stay Organized While Busy at Work, Part 2

Welcome back to part two of my discussion on ways to help manage stress and chaos at work. These posts are specifically aimed at database and application developers and IT personnel as a whole, although I think most of the topics would also apply to other office workers. Today’s post will cover the final three topics in the list below. If you would like to catch up on last week’s part one post, you can find it here.

Once again, I hope you find something valuable in this post, and I would love to hear your thoughts about how you’ve implemented these and had them work (or not!) in your own life. Thanks for reading!

  1. Your calendar is your best friend, use it to your advantage
  2. Only work on one thing at a time
  3. Every work request should be a ticket (mostly)
  4. Set times to catch up on email and messages throughout the day
  5. Do the hardest and most important work first thing in the morning
  6. Track what you spend your time on

Set times for yourself to catch up on emails and messages throughout the day

Going back to the advice to only work on one thing at a time, that should also include emails and messages. If you’ve never heard of the concept of context switching, I think you should read into it because it can be a huge time-sink if you don’t control it as much as possible. (Read about context switching from Atlassian here.)

While I am working, I find that if I am constantly being bombarded with messages and emails from other people, I get incrementally more stressed as the day goes on because it all starts to be overwhelming, especially when the group chats are going at 100 miles per hour some days. Plus, the context switching of always losing focus to read what new chats are coming in as they come in is tiring and prevents me from getting important things done. This is why I’ve set a rule for myself that I will use Focus Time like I said in part one, and will give myself dedicated time throughout the day to focus on working, but will also mentally set times throughout the day to stay connected with coworkers.

I try to work with a loose version of the Pomodoro Method of intensely focusing on a task for 25-50 minutes and then taking a 5-10 minute break from that task. I used an actual timer app in the past, but now I don’t use it and mentally keep track of how long I’ve been focused on one thing. Then when the break time comes, I will quickly catch up on and respond to any messages I’ve received while focusing. Emails I only check about 3 times a day, after my morning standup, before going to lunch, and before leaving for the day, since usually email is not as urgent as Teams messages. This method gives you the best of both worlds of still being able to help your teammates with their work while still being able to get your work done without too much context switching.

Do the hardest and most important work first thing in the morning

This concept is what many in the self-help world refer to as “eat the frog”, which I think is a pretty weird name, but the concept is a good one. I am a natural procrastinator. You would have thought I would have learned my lesson with many late nights in college trying to finish work the night or two before a deadline, but I guess not. My procrastination comes from a fear that I won’t know what to do when I get into the task I need to complete, and then it will be scary because I won’t know how to proceed. However, not once in my professional career so far have I ever been assigned a task that I knew 0% about what needed to be done, even if all I know about the task is that someone wrote a vague document about it 5 years ago or that it needs to use recursion to get the data.

With all of this in mind, in about the last 6 months or so, I’ve focused on starting my day out by working on the most challenging and important tasks first thing in the morning. I usually start work around 7 AM and have my first meeting each day a 9:15 AM, so I know I usually have about 2 hours to buckle down and focus on that one difficult task, so I have no excuse to not focus on the task. I still don’t like doing the challenging thing, but doing it first thing in the morning makes sure I have the mental energy to do it because I’m freshly awake and am sipping on my morning coffee. Starting early also means that when I inevitably make good progress on it before lunch, I can have a sense of accomplishment and a lighter load after lunch (when the onslaught of meetings normally begins). For the scenarios where I don’t make significant progress in the morning because the task is that challenging, at least I know I put my best effort of the day into it to make some amount of progress instead of procrastinating on it and becoming even more afraid of the task at hand.

Track what you spend your time on

This relates to my earlier advice about making every work request a ticket, but this advice to track what you spend your time on isn’t exclusive to ticket work. I also recommend that you track the time spent on other activities as well so you know what truly is taking a lot of time in your work day. If you are constantly helping others (which can be good) instead of doing your work, you may look back on the day or week and wonder where your time went and why you weren’t able to finish your tasks. I have been in that exact position, which is why I started keeping track of all the work I complete throughout the day, including small calls with teammates to help them with their work, meetings, and even presentation work time. I do this, including keeping a general summary of what I did or learned with each of my tickets, with a daily OneNote page, but you can track it in any way you would like.

In the past, I tried using Trello and other software to do this timekeeping for me, but it always ended up being too complicated so I would inevitably stop using the software and stop tracking what I was working on. This year, I decided to make a OneNote page for each day of work and made a default template to use for all new pages that would give me the list of things I want to track each day. Then at the end of the week, I compile and summarize the daily work into a page that I call “Weekly Summary”, and add any notable work into my list of accomplishments for the year. This method speeds up and eases the process of identifying accomplishments so that when the annual review time comes around, I will have plenty of items to pull from my list instead of trying to remember it all myself (which I don’t because I have a terrible memory for these things).

My daily summary page contains the following items:

  • Tickets worked on (I will write about the challenges I’ve faced with the ticket today as well as the progress made on it)
  • Tickets closed
  • Resources found/used (this is where I keep track of the random StackOverflow pages or blogs I’ve used to help myself with my work throughout the day)
  • Other work completed (this is where I list any calls, meetings, etc.)
  • Other notes

Once I made the OneNote page template with these items, it became much easier for me to stick with completing the daily summary since I never had to think or retype the main bullet points. This process has helped me define how much time I spend on various activities throughout the day and week which gives me perspective on how much I do (a lot).

Your work time is important, guard it ferociously

My goal for these posts was to give others ideas for how to tame their workload to make it feel more manageable and less overwhelming. I hope that some of these ideas spark something for you to implement in your work life. Overall, I would like to get the point across that your work time is important, and your mental health relating to work is important, so guard both of these things ferociously. Managing your time and not letting others make your life hectic can help prevent burnout, or at least slow it down. These strategies have helped immensely in my chaotic work life, so I hope they can also help with yours.

How to Stay Organized While Busy at Work, Part 1

Recently, I was suddenly given responsibility for all database development work for the application I support, plus many other work items not directly related to the application, when previously I had been splitting that work with another developer. I wasn’t expecting this change, and neither was anyone else, so I was immediately overwhelmed with the amount of work, questions, and requests for review that were coming my way. The first week of this new responsibility was chaos, and it made me realize I needed to tighten up my work organization strategies. I’ve always been someone who keeps my work organized and tried to keep myself to a set pattern of efficient behavior, but it wasn’t as regulated as I needed to keep on top of the flood of work that suddenly came my way. I quickly developed a set of organization and work strategies to make sure I stay on top of everything I’m responsible for while also not being extremely stressed by the workload. Plus, I love helping other people and didn’t want to stop helping other developers because of the new workload, so I made sure my new strategy allowed time to continue with that.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and disorganized with your work and would like some ideas for getting organized to reduce those problems, keep reading. I ended up having a lot more to say on this topic than I originally thought, so I’ve split this topic into two posts. This post will cover the first three ideas on the list below, and the final three will be covered in next week’s post.

  1. Your calendar is your best friend, use it to your advantage
  2. Only work on one thing at a time
  3. Every work request should be a ticket
  4. Set times for yourself to catch up on email and messages throughout the day
  5. Do the hardest and most important work first thing in the morning
  6. Track what you spend your time on

That may seem like a lot of items to add to your already stressful work life but trust me, getting and keeping things organized takes a huge load of stress off of your shoulders. You can’t control what craziness gets thrown at you by others, but you can control how you react to the craziness and how you structure your day to handle that craziness. Plus, if you pick just one or two to start with, ones that would benefit you the most with the least amount of effort, it won’t feel like a burden to use these strategies.

Your calendar is your best friend, use it to your advantage

Seriously, if you’re not using your work calendar already to manage meetings and schedule yourself time to work on what you need to get done, you should start doing it immediately. Whether your calendar is shared with others or not, blocking times for yourself to work on specific tasks can allow you to prepare for that work time mentally and then fully concentrate on that work when the time comes. Plus, it keeps you accountable for getting work done. Here are my 3 quick tips on how you can utilize your calendar to its fullest:

  1. If you use Outlook and your organization has the feature enabled, use the Microsoft Viva plugin to schedule Focus Time for yourself every day. Focus Time is a feature that will automatically schedule blocks of time on your calendar, two weeks at a time, for you to focus on what you need to. While in Focus Time, your status on Teams will be changed to Do Not Disturb so that you won’t get all the pesky notifications of chats, posts, updates, etc. to reduce distractions. I have loved this feature since it got added because it gives me a dedicated and justifiable time for not responding to the constant chats I get throughout the day. Most people in my organization understand that Focus time is sacred and that I won’t be responding to their chats until after the allotted time has ended.
  2. Schedule work time for the most important items you need to complete. Put it on your calendar and have it set your status as Busy for that time. The most important effect of doing this is it will let others know not to schedule meetings over this time (unless they don’t respect calendars in general, which is a separate problem). I usually schedule myself non-Focus Time work times when there is an important meeting coming up and I need to prepare for it. I will set aside 30 minutes to an hour before the meeting when I know I will work on that one task. And when the time arrives for you to work on whatever it was that was scheduled, don’t respond to emails or chats. Setting this time aside for yourself will help keep you on top of what needs to get done when it needs to get done so you’re never unprepared for a meeting or other task again.
  3. On the same note as #2 above, at the beginning of each week, block out time on your calendar every day for lunch and breaks, if you take them. I have found that I am the most productive and feel the best personally when I take a midmorning break, an hour lunch break (to go the gym), and a midafternoon break. I have started blocking out those times on my calendar which prevents people from scheduling over my breaks and also gives me reminders when it is time to take a break. If I didn’t have the reminder pop up, half the time I would forget I need to take one and would then feel burned out at the end of the day.

Only work on one thing at a time

This piece of advice is easier said than done, especially if you work in an organization that often suffers from poor planning or conflicting priorities, but I would like to say it is possible for everyone. It’s at least physically the only way to work (unless you’ve developed a way to code on two different programs at once). Since you can only physically work on one project at a time, and have your focus directed to a single thing at once, that is the best starting point to fight for yourself to get buy-off from management or project managers for only working on one thing at a time.

For me, when things got crazy at work, I realized that I could no longer handle the stress of trying to accomplish all of the business goals within the same time frame they were originally scheduled for. I have worked extremely stressful jobs in the past and had vowed I would never put up with that again, so I had to set boundaries for myself in my current work to reduce the stress. I began pushing back on the analysts and program managers who decided on work priority to give them the burden of making the difficult prioritization decisions that I felt I was facing, given there was now only one DB dev doing the project work.

As an example, during the craziest week of my life at my current job, I was already assigned two tickets, one of them high-priority. Then I went on vacation and came back and was assigned another high-priority ticket that had a deadline in less than two weeks and it was something I had never done before. As soon as I saw that mess, I went to our SA and asked him which of those 3 “high priority” tickets was the most important, stating that I could only work on one task at a time and there were only so many hours in the day, so they needed to tell me the order in which I should work them, according to the business needs. Within a few hours, I had an ordered list provided to me as to what I should be focusing on that day.

But after you push back and get a truly prioritized list of work items, you then need to keep your boundaries in place, no matter what else tries to happen. If others are coming up to you and asking you for a lot of help with whatever they’re working on, tell them that you are currently unable to help but would love to help later after you’ve finished your current task (within reason, if you work in a collaborative environment like I do, you can’t blow your coworkers off all the time). Or if someone else is trying to assign you more tickets that need to be done “right now”, push back on them and your manager and make everyone else work together to figure out how the new task fits in your current list, and switch if needed.

Every work request should be a ticket

This piece of advice is one I’ve used on myself for both of my development jobs so far in my career, and I think it’s one of the easiest to enforce. If you are being asked to do work that will take 30 minutes or more, no matter what it is, create a ticket for it or have the requester make the ticket. I do this to cover myself because I never want to be the person who’s eternally busy but with no metrics to show where their time goes. Even if others don’t admit it, they may be wondering what you’re doing all day if you have no hours logged on tickets. If you set a standard that everything gets a ticket, you won’t ever have to worry about that. Also, having everything as a ticket can help with the prioritization of all work on your plate and helps keep all your current and future work documented and organized. Plus, I like to keep everything in tickets for the satisfaction at the end of the year of seeing how many work items I completed, along with the number of hours total I spent on everything I did (I love data, even on myself).


The three ideas above are only half of the story of what I have been using recently to keep my chaotic work life more organized. I won’t promise that it will make everything sunshine and rainbows, but it at least keeps the chaos reigned in a bit and brings it down to a manageable level. If you’re interested in reading more about the final three methods I’m using for organization, that post will be going up next week. I hope these suggestions are as helpful to you as they have been for me!