What Skill Should I Learn Next?


Last week I posted a picture on Twitter of the two books I’m reviewing right now: Tom LaRock’s DBA Survivor and Bert Scalzo’s Introduction to Oracle.  They’re both 100-level books.  People didn’t seem to question the former (perhaps because Tom’s a friend of mine) but I got a lot of comments about the latter.  Why on earth would I start picking up Oracle, especially after becoming a Microsoft Certified Master in SQL Server?

Books I'm Reading
Books I'm Reading

Over the last ~20 years, I’ve reinvented myself a few times.  My “Managing People Sucks” post talked about the decisions I made along the way.  I’ve tried hotel management, network administration, programming, virtualization administration, SAN administration, and database administration.  I’ve learned more and more about myself each time, and I like to think I’m building speed.

I like to think of myself as a carpenter, and each skillset I’ve picked up has given me another tool in my mental shop.  I’m able to work with more and more complex projects over the years.

Whenever I choose to pick up a new tool, I look at it in relation to the other tools I’ve already got, and in relation to the types of projects I want to accomplish down the road.  When I got the chance to pick up virtualization, I grabbed it, because I believe all SQL Servers will be virtual in one way or another down the road.  I chose to pursue SAN administration for similar reasons.  These two skills enhanced my toolbox well.

So how do I go about picking the next tool?

Should I pick up Business Intelligence? I firmly believe in the power of BI to justify suitcases of cash and armies of resources.  The problem is that it’s not a tool that fits well with the rest of the tools in my mental shop.  It doesn’t smoothly and directly extend the knowledge I already have.  It’s like a woodworker who wants to buy a plasma cutter – the plasma cutter will only come in handy when he decides to work with metal.  The rest of his tools don’t work with metal.  He might be able to build some projects that have both wood and metal, or switch to metal, but it’s not quite that good of a fit.

Should I pick up Parallel Data Warehouse Edition? This new niche version of SQL Server is BI-focused, but the engine itself is a very close match for my skillset.  It combines high-end hardware, storage, and SQL Server to deliver decisionmaking information.  I like its future odds, but it’s not really mainstream.  I’ve been trying to extend my skills in a way that let me help more people outside of databases – for example, virtualization and storage were above-and-beyond SQL Server, wide-ranging appeal stuff.  PDWE plays to a very small audience.

Should I pick up Oracle? Companies that have SQL Server often have Oracle too.  Oracle runs on SANs and in virtualization, and it would extend my audience.  Almost every skillset I have applies to Oracle, with one big exception – big Oracle shops don’t run it on Windows.  I would need to pick up Linux skills to really be effective as an Oracle DBA.  Oracle’s a great investment for my career, though – it’s a solid database with a great future.  Even if the cloud emerges as a roaring success for private, secure data warehouses, you can bet your bottom dollar that Larry Ellison will figure out a way to take that dollar.

Should I pick up NoSQL? Stop laughing, dammit.  It really does have the potential to solve problems, and it makes for a surprisingly natural extension to SQL Server.  When someone needs transactional integrity at the cost of some scalability, I can help them with SQL Server.  When they’re willing to deal with eventual consistency in order to get crazy fast scalability, I can go the NoSQL route.  The challenge is that the tooling sucks – the databases are being compiled as we speak, so forget about nice GUI tools to help you learn.  Time to bust out the programming.  They don’t live on Windows either, so now we’re talking about picking up multiple skillsets simultaneously.  This is one of those cases where I don’t have quite enough other tools to really know how to use this one yet.

So should I revisit coding? I gave it up around 2002-2003 when I realized I would have to keep relearning languages every few years as new ones came into style.  C# looks like it’s got staying power, and Windows Azure means I can develop C# apps that scale.  Ruby on Rails calls to me for its ease of use, and people I respect are using it to build cool stuff.  The drawback is that you wouldn’t normally build a Ruby app to interface with SQL Server, so that loses a little appeal.  It might take me quite a while to get good at C#.  (No, I’m not learning PowerShell – if I can’t build web apps with it, it’s not as sexy to me.)

Should I dive deeper into social media? I’ve had some success with blogs and Twitter, and I do technically work in the marketing department.  Quest is willing to let me jump around into other departments and help them with social media.  This might actually be the toughest challenge out of all of ’em, and it doesn’t leverage any of my technical skills.  It’s attractive to me because it’s new and shiny and different.

Should I hone my writing and storytelling? I’d like to think I’m okay at these, but not great.  I could directly leverage the rest of my skills right away.  I think I know a lot of things I haven’t passed on to others yet, and maybe I could do it in a more effective way.  I’m not convinced that this is a good long-term investment, though, because frankly writing and storytelling doesn’t pay well.  Note that you’re reading this blog for free.  Think about your very favorite blog and how good it is – and yep, it’s free too.  There’s a reason I don’t run ads here – they don’t pay jack.  I make more in an hour of consulting than I do on a month of ads.

So should I focus on training & consulting? I love helping people fix problems and teaching them new tricks.  Maybe I should just stop the skill train here for a while and coast.  There’s something to be said for making money, and Quest is generous enough to let me consult and train on the side.  That’s one heck of an opportunity.

I don’t have the right answer yet, but I’ve resolved to spend the next couple of months dabbling in different areas to find out.  I’ll play with Ruby on Rails, Oracle, NoSQL, and a few other things to figure things out.  My recent Twitter e-book was a part of that – I wanted to throw something social-media-ish against the wall just to get it out of my system.

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24 Comments. Leave new

  • When I start my SQL Server career back to 1996 the resources were scarce. I copied a lot of ORACLE dba practices/ideas and implemented them in SQL Server. I agree with Brent as professional DBA you should be good at least two main stream products.

  • I am facing the same decision myself 🙂
    As I am not a MCM yet my current interests are: MCM (to enhance my SQL skills), becoming a NLP Practitioner (personal development), Social Media (no matter what you do it’s almost impossible to ignore it) and learning a new language (in my case Spanish). Last but not least Tango 🙂

  • I’ve said it before, Brent, and I’ll say it again. You should be on TV. And no, I don’t mean webcasts about SQL Server.

  • Easy: IronRuby. You’ll learn about the .NET Framework, which you can apply just as easily to web development, Powershell, or any other area in which .NET plays. And you’ll learn Ruby, which you can port across to RoR (with several caveats) should you feel the need.

    • Jeremiah suggested that to somebody else too, funny you mention it. Normally I’m leery of those .NET-based-yet-cross-platform-kinda languages, but it does sound interesting.

      • I only suggest IronRuby to people who are afraid of a world outside of Visual Studio. I think that pure Ruby has a lot to offer that IronRuby doesn’t and probably won’t for a few more years.

  • No coasting. I don’t think that is really in your blood anyway.

    While BI may not seem like a natural extension of your skill set I would argue the opposite point. I think it IS an extension. You are a ‘Master’ at providing data, among other things. The next step is to show people how to get data that helps them do their jobs better.

    And I’m sorry I did giggle a bit at the NoSQL thing. I just couldn’t help myself.

  • I have no idea which you should do. I want to say Oracle, because i like it, but, the way i see it, the mindsets of SQL Server and Oracle are diametrically opposed. I’m not so sure you can be a real expert of both. But, unless you want to specialize, you don’t need to.

    If you want to learn how to rip apart Oracle, Jonathan Lewis is your man. http://jonathanlewis.wordpress.com/all-postings/ He also has a couple books (dated, somewhat, but good stuff). Tom Kyte also is a must read. There aree many others, each with their own specialties. But from those two you’d find the rest eventually.

    “Should I pick up NoSQL? Stop laughing,”

    Ha. To quote Thomas, you should be on TV. 🙂

  • I’m going to suggest an ‘alternative’ option which is not quite as crazy as NoSQL but it’s up there – Open Source. I think that these days DB platforms such as MySQL are becoming quite mature and whilst I’m still a SQL Server guy at heart I’m having to deal more and more with MySQL as a source for data warehousing. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of resource out there about using MySQL as a target for data warehousing but I’m reasonably convinced that with open source ETL tools like Talend that we’re getting to the stage where it’s (almost) a viable option.

    That said, I do think you’re a natural speaker so training would be a good choice but it might not be as fulfilling as learning Oracle or Coding if you’re looking to increase your tech-mojo.

    • Thanks for the compliments! I don’t see MySQL as solving a problem that I can’t solve with my existing SQL Server toolset – I haven’t seen anything that MySQL does better than SQL Server other than cost less. I don’t find myself saying, “If only I knew MySQL, I could solve this problem.” Have you had that experience?

      I do see people being tasked with getting data in & out of it, but that same challenge exists for any database – Postgres, DB2, Sybase, etc. I don’t have a compelling reason to pick MySQL over the others.

      And here’s my dark dirty little secret – I’m prejudiced against open source databases in today’s economy. People who choose open source (free) tools often do so because they want to pay less. I’m not convinced that I want to enter that kind of environment. I’d rather focus on finding the kinds of environments where business people say, “I’d pay just about anything to solve this business problem.”

      • >> I’d rather focus on finding the kinds of environments where business people say, “I’d pay just about anything to solve this business problem.”

        That sure makes sense career wise!

        You’re right in saying that something like MySQL doesn’t bring anything new to the table but I think the problem at the moment with open source solutions is that they’re all very distinct and either developer-oriented. At the place I’m working right now we’ve got a number of RDBMS platforms but the core logging architecture is based on MySQL and we’re really struggling to find a decent MySQL DBA because a great deal of the open source world is full of have-a-go heroes with a “how hard can it be?” mentality. It needs the structure and professionalism that DBAs, data modellers and BI architects can bring to the table.

        I too am somewhat prejudiced against open source but I also think that it could be an opportunity to expand the scope and reach of BI in general and I’m sure it depends on where you’re sitting but cost is always going to be important to the mid-sized companies.

  • Good people have good options. You’ll probably be good at whatever you choose.
    Since you’re really good at speaking and blogging, and also have awsome technical knowledge, you should leverage this combination. Maybe to get more involved in PASS, join SQLCAT, cooperate with SolidQ etc?

    Or another option – simply retire and move to Florida.

  • You should learn a new language.

    • Yeah, I’ve got a separate track of things for my personal life. Last year it was doing the Chicago-Mac sailboat race, and this year’s it’s getting better at photography. I’m taking an Alaskan cruise with my dad, stepmom, and girlfriend in September, so I wanna be good before then.

  • Ever thought of combining your presentation skills and your technical skills by doing some tekpub videos. (I am not an employee, but a subscriber to tekpub) Anyway, I have heard you speak at the local SQL Server Group Meeting and really enjoy your blog – you would be a natural to put together a video series on SQL Server (tuning, tips, etc.) on TekPub.

  • Get out of your comfort zone, turn to the “NoSql” darkside, that is if you enjoy solving big problems rather than small ones.

    • HAHAHA, small questions, right. This weekend I’m heading to a client with multiple billion-row tables. I don’t get out of bed for less than a terabyte. 😉

  • If you’re interested in NoSQL, you should check out MongoDB. It’s got precompiled Windows binaries and is really easy to learn. Also, a half dozen admin GUIs for it: http://blog.timgourley.com/post/453680012/tuesday-night-tech-mongodb-ui-edition (granted, none are as polished as the tools available for DBs that have been around a dozen years…)

  • Brent,
    I think that you are an amazing speaker and blogger and training could be a great route for you if you just want to earn and do not want to learn, as much anyway. I some Oracle and I think that would be a good thing for you to learn. It is huge and vastly different than SQL Server, I mean as much as a RDBMS can be. You will be able to transfer much of your current knowledge and skills as well as pick up much more knowledge and learn many new skills. Also it seems that, if you are after money, Oracle DBA’s get paid very well. I know you are at a Masters Level with MSSQL so I doubt that is your primary motivation. Really though, whatever you choose, I think you will excel at it. You do not seem like the type of person who would take the new journey lightly. Good luck with whatever you choose and have fun on your cruise … Perhaps this time do not write a ebook while on vacation. 🙂

    • Thanks! Hahaha, I didn’t think about the ebook – I’ve got a cruise coming up in September, too. I already know what the next one’s gonna be about, heh.

  • Really liked this post. I have thought about it myself, as well. I have decided I need to hone my Powershell skills, AND C#.

    C# because it touches so many things: SQL CLR, BI, Web and Silverlight, etc.

    Powershell — because there are 2 types of SQL Server DBAs in this world: those who know Powershell and those who soon will.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful post.



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