This month, Experts Exchange sat down with resident SQL expert, Jim Horn, for an in-depth look into the makings of a successful career in SQL.
Every tech professional has a story, a moment when interest in a certain piece of hardware or software sparks a lifelong love of working in technology. In that moment, the individual knows what they’re meant to do. For SQL expert Jim Horn, that moment hit him twice in his life. First at 13 years old while working on Atari 400 and Commodore 64 computers, learning basic programming for both classroom assignments and as a personal hobby. And second, after a few years spent working as an accountant. He realized he had it right at 13 and proceeded to make a career change.
“[I] began a five-year, two-job transition back to computer science as a Microsoft Access database developer, which eventually led to SQL Server and Visual Basic, which became SQL Server only since 2006,” Horn said.
We wanted to know more about his pursuit of a career in SQL, as well as his involvement in SQLSaturday, a free training event held every year in Minnesota. Read on for the rest of the interview.
Experts Exchange: What piqued your interested in learning SQL?
Jim Horn: When I transitioned my career from being an Accountant to an IT person, Microsoft Access was a very convenient database application with a low barrier to entry where I could be productive very quickly. So I learned Access on my own and through various local training centers, and eventually became good enough at it to be a full-time Access developer.
From there I eventually worked on larger databases, so I picked up SQL Server, and eventually did that full time.
EE: How do you use SQL in your day-to-day job? And what part of SQL work do you most enjoy?
JH: As the Data Architect for an entire company I spend my entire day in SQL: writing it for data warehouses, applications, and reports, reviewing the work of other developers, troubleshooting, setting up various maintenance jobs, modeling, performance tuning, and deploying it via Team Foundation Server. I also perform a lot of business unit liaison duties for database projects.
My favorite would probably be the modeling databases and performance tuning, something I don’t do enough as I get bombarded with lots of other requests. Like a lot of people, no matter what your specialty is, you spend a certain amount of your time answering emails in Outlook and sitting in meetings.
EE: What do you see happening in the future of SQL as server technologies/relational databases change?
JH: Microsoft SQL Server will probably follow market trends like in recent years past, with easier to use cloud options, BI tools, data warehousing, and integration with other data sources.
I’d love for Microsoft to invest more in the SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS), but that hasn’t happened since 2012. In 2012, I asked a Microsoft engineer [about that] and the joking answer was because Xbox made too much money, Microsoft decided to throw a lot of their development effort there. That’s the unofficial answer of course.
My guess is the actual is answer is, you know, like anything else, Microsoft has to determine market share and revenue opportunities and right now they have SSIS bundled into the Visual Studio Suite, not as a standalone, so what ends up happening is a lot of companies with enterprise licensing will get SSIS too, there’s not add-on revenue.
There are many competitors.... and I don’t know if Microsoft has figured out how to capitalize on their ETL tool and make it more profitable. From where I sit, though, SSIS is a pretty big learning curve. It’s not SQL server specific. You’ve got a query language and data sites that have to be able to handle pretty much anything under the sun, so the Microsoft SQL server data types will not automatically directly translate into SSIS data types. The [user interface]....well, 2012 was when they made some big improvements, but still, Microsoft has not put a lot of development into SSIS.
EE: You’ve completed the following Microsoft exams: 70-461 Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012 (2013), 70-069 Microsoft Access for Windows 95 (2000, MCP status), and 70-051 Microsoft Access Application Development (1998). Which was most difficult to pass?
JH: Probably the two Access exams, as before 2012, Microsoft certification exams required deep and varying knowledge, and the questions resembled a Trivial Pursuit game. Since 2012, Microsoft has changed their lower-level professional exams to be more of how they are used and less trivia.
EE: What helped you prepare for these exams?
JH: Experience, as test exams and books only help you refine the skillsets you already have, and without the experience I can’t see how anyone would pass the exam. I recommend buying the MSPress book used from eBay, which will be pre-marked and often have tips for passing the exam from the previous owner. Then when you’re done, you can sell the book back.
EE: You participated in SQLSaturday in Minnesota this past weekend (October 7th). Please tell us a little background about your participation in this event.
JH: I’ve been involved with SQL Saturday for the last five years. The last two years I was one of the organizers, and last year I was the head organizer for the event.
For the first three years as an attendee you get to choose from five time periods, any of seven classes, all taught by established experts. Some gifts such as a T-shirts are provided by the event and vendors. This event is truly the best free training day around.
As an organizer, we have to handle lots of different areas, such as soliciting presentations, choosing which presentation to accept, marketing, working with the parent PASS organization, finding a facility to host the event, provide WiFi and food service [options], and finding sponsors to pay for the event and host a table. Experts-Exchange was a sponsor in both 2013 and 2016.
I was one of the presenters in 2013, 2015, and 2017, all based on content I had written for an article on Experts Exchange. Presenting technical content puts you in a higher class of technical person, as when interviews come and hiring managers ask, “Do you know X?”, not only can you say yes, but also that you’ve taught classes in X, and—in my case—written articles in X.
This can be invaluable in getting jobs and contracts, as many people in IT will often embellish or lie on their resumes in order to get work, and then attempt to learn the skills on the employer’s nickel.
EE: In what ways do you believe continuing education opportunities like this help technology professionals grow their skill set?
JH: Many technology professionals become the sum of what their employers ask them to do and pay for, and with whatever version of SQL Server the employer runs, and the tools they own. So continuing education helps experts break out of a current employment situation with more skills and helps them do better jobs.
There’s also a lot of competition with people coming to the U.S. for programming jobs, combined with the propagation of worldwide outsourcing and work-from-home for many technologies, and this increase in supply puts downward pressure on salaries. So anything you can do to be perceived as a higher expert helps.
I’m genuinely surprised more people to do not take advantage of free training opportunities.
EE: We know Database Administrators and Developers should know SQL, but what are some other career paths that would benefit from knowing SQL?
JH: This is hard to answer as there are many user-friendly query builders that non-programmers can use to query databases and return meaningful information. And with the use of SSAS and the Power BI suite, Microsoft enables developers to frame up data sets for non-technical people to use in a way that does not require writing any SQL.
EE: What types of courses or certifications do you recommend for individuals wanting to learn SQL?
JH: The only certification path I am aware of for Microsoft SQL Server is their own. Get the experience, then buy some MSPress books to review your skillsets to make sure you have everything you need to take the exam, then take it.
EE: Database software like Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Sybase can have variations in SQL syntax. How can individuals best adjust SQL knowledge from one database software to another?
JH: Most database languages I’ve seen are at least 70% similar, so it is not hard to write in another language. There are many other facets of database work that have very unique languages that have a steep learning curve, such as VB.NET and C#.NET scripting for SSIS, MDX and DAX for data analysis, and R for statistical analysis.
EE: What are some of the tools/clients you use to connect to a database?
JH: Mostly applications written by in-house developers using ASP.NET or Java. Some SSIS and SSRS.
How are you working to learn SQL? Tell us in the comments below.