If my blog entry yesterday about my job as a SQL Server Expert at Quest Software sounds cool, then listen up: I’ll let you in on how to get a job like this.
Be Really Passionate About Your Field
I have the coolest job in the world – for me. My job would be absolute torture for some people, but I love it, and I think that’s the key.
Whether you’re a DBA, a developer, a project manager or a tester, whatever field you’re in, you need to be wildly passionate about it. This isn’t something you’re going to learn, but I mention it because it’s the only way you can succeed in a job like this. If I only worked with SQL Server from 9am to 5pm, five days a week, I would be way behind. I work a lot more, but it’s because it doesn’t feel like work to me. I love what I do, so working 50-60-70 hours a week doesn’t feel like work – it feels like a hobby too.
If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, don’t despair: you may not get an “expert” job in what you’re doing now, but careers change. Your expertise builds as you move from job to job, field to field, and hopefully you’ll find a field that you get absolutely crazy about. When you find that field, that’s where you can succeed as a subject matter expert or an evangelist.
I spent years working my way up the ladder in hotel management, but I couldn’t have succeeded as a hotel management expert or consultant. I was doing what it took to make a living, but not really passionate about it. I didn’t read hotel management books in my spare time. Those years of my life aren’t lost – they made me a better subject matter expert, oddly, because they helped me work better with the public. If you’re not passionate about your current field either, keep moving until you find the right fit for you. (Or keep doing it – there’s nothing wrong with makin’ money!)
Learn to Communicate Well
Being a subject matter expert isn’t just about absorbing material: it’s about passing that material on to others as fast as possible.
This is not a natural skill for anybody, and if you think it’s natural for you, you don’t know what really good communication is. Here’s a few examples of great communication:
- Steve Jobs delivering a keynote address (fast forward to 3 minutes 15 seconds for the coolest laptop unveiling ever seen on stage)
- Edward Tufte designing a report
- Jeremey Clarkson reviewing a car (fast forward to 2 minutes 45 seconds for the face-twisting fun)
- Guy Ritchie telling a gangster story on film (the audio is not safe for work, and yes, that’s the same song in Clarkson’s review)
Notice that my work is not in that list.
I thoroughly enjoy communicating via blog posts, articles, chats, real life conversations, presentations, you name it, but I’m not good at it. Yet. I’m still working on that though. Every time I think I’m getting better, I see a Steve Jobs keynote, and I say to myself, “Self, you’ve got some work to do.”
Start small: take a writing course at your local community college. Technical writing isn’t all that different from any other kind of writing. You need to mesmerize your audience, deliver great information in a captivating way, and sell books – or articles, or blog posts, or whatever else you want to write.
After you’ve learned a little about writing, start exercising your knowledge by blogging, writing SQLServerPedia wiki articles, or just posting informative answers on forums like StackOverflow. The more you communicate, the easier it’ll become.
Write under your own name. It doesn’t do you much good to get famous under a pseudonym. It’s fine to use a funny nickname like SQLAgentMan or SQLBatman, but make sure people connect your real name in there somewhere because you want to build a reputation for what you’re doing. That’ll pay off as you start to…
Get Involved in the Community
If you’re into SQL Server, join the local chapter of PASS, the Professional Association for SQL Server. (No, that name doesn’t make any sense to me either, but the group rocks.) If you don’t have a local chapter, go start one.
Helping other people is a great way to learn a topic, but it has to be more than just one-way communication. Working directly with someone else, answering their questions and helping them out, deepens your knowledge of the topic and gets you to explore new challenges.
Know How to Find Things
Being an information worker in the Google age means that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the answer to every question – you just have to know how to find it. You have to be able to navigate your way through countless search results, many of them filled with spam, and use your finely tuned bullshit detector to weed out the valuable answers from the not-so-valuable people who copy/paste Books Online.
Know What You Don’t Know
Being an expert means having credibility. It doesn’t matter how much you know if people don’t trust your answers.
If you don’t know the answer to something, don’t fake it. Say you don’t know, shut up, and get out of the way. People will be refreshed with your honesty, and they’ll be much more likely to believe you when you do open your mouth about something. If they want you to find out the answer, that’s cool, but don’t fake it.
Make a clear distinction between your opinions and your known facts. When I make guesses about things, I go out of my way to make it clear that I’m guessing, and that I don’t know the answer for sure. Otherwise, next thing I know, someone will be repeating my opinion and saying, “Brent says it must be this, and he knew it for sure.” Ouch – bad.
If somebody points out an error in your work, thank them profusely, correct it, and give them credit. Knuth checks are a great example of this.
Ugh – leaves a bad taste in your mouth, right? I know, this one’s hard for us IT guys, but the reality is that you’re a self-contained corporation. You are building a brand with the people around you. If nobody knows your name, and if you just lurk in forums without posting anything, then nobody’s going to think of you when they need help.
Promoting yourself doesn’t mean taking out banner ads on web sites. It doesn’t mean jumping up and down in meetings and saying, “This was all my idea!”
It means leaving people with a positive impression of who you are and what you do. You do that by doing fantastic work, helping those around you, and helping the community in a way that people will take notice.
Here’s the part where I make an elegant segue into how you can promote yourself by writing articles on SQLServerPedia, but like I said, I’m not that good at communication. Like I said, I’m working on that.
Ask for Help From People Who’ve Done It
People who got these expert-style, evangelist-type jobs did it because they like helping people. That means they want to help you too. If you’ve got questions about how to advance your career, what you should do next, or whether something is a good idea, email somebody who has the job you want. I have email conversations with people like this all the time, and I always take time to respond. I remember all too well what it was like to have a really crappy job, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. If there was a way I could get every one of my readers the same job I have, I’d do it.
But only as long as it didn’t decrease my salary. I want a Porsche 911, people. (That link, by the way, is Jeremey Clarkson reviewing the 911 Turbo – fast forward to 2 minutes 45 seconds for a hilarious take on why Porsche rear seats are so small.)
More DBA Career Articles
- Moving from Help Desk to DBA – a reader asked how to do it, and I gave a few ways to get started.
- Development DBA or Production DBA? – job duties are different for these two DBA roles. Developers become one kind of DBA, and network administrators or sysadmins become a different kind. I explain why.
- Recommended Books for DBAs – the books that should be on your shopping list.
- Ask for a List of Servers – DBA candidates need to ask as many questions as they answer during the interview.
- Are you a Junior or Senior DBA? – Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but I explain how to gauge DBA experience by the size of databases you’ve worked with.
- So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star – Part 1 and Part 2 – wanna know what it takes to have “SQL Server Expert” on your business card? I explain.
- Becoming a DBA – my list of articles about database administration as a career.