No Substitute for Time, Experience, and Training

SQL Server

I’m a runner. I wasn’t always a runner. Three years ago, I couldn’t run a mile. I wanted to, but I wasn’t physically capable. So I started training with the Couch to 5K plan. Eventually, I ran a 5K – I did it! – even though I was a mess. I didn’t wear the best clothing. I ran slowly. I struggled to finish. I hurt for days afterward.

left: 5K #1 – bad hair, bad shirt, bad shoes.
right: 26.2 #1 – big smile, big medal

I’ve now run 10Ks, half marathons, and a marathon. I have moisture-wicking clothes. I’ve been doing speed training to cut down my time. I know how to pace myself so I can finish strong, and fast. I know what to stretch and ice afterwards to prevent soreness. How did I learn that those things would help me? I followed a training plan. I ran more. I ran longer distances. I ran faster. I tried new clothing. I talked to other runners. I stepped outside of my comfort zone.

I’m a SQL Server consultant and MCP, also. I wasn’t always a consultant, or an MCP. I started in IT on the help desk. After taking a SQL class, I volunteered to help the DBA write reports. I realized I really liked working with SQL Server, and that is what I wanted to do. I wasn’t good at SQL Server right away. I didn’t know the difference between backup recovery models. I couldn’t explain how clustered and nonclustered indexes worked. I didn’t know what a filegroup was.

Eventually, I was promoted to DBA. Now, I’m a consultant. I give presentations on Reporting Services and filegroups. I’ve put clustered SQL Server instances into production. I’m writing a book chapter on automating administration. How did I learn those things? Over the years, I’ve tried new things. I’ve read books and blogs. I’ve attended webcasts and presentations.  I know far more about SQL Server than I used to – enough to help other people!

What is the connection between being a better runner and being a better SQL Server consultant? Both have taken time. Both have required me to try things – I’ve failed at some and succeeded at others, but learned from all of them – thus gaining experience. Both required training and dedication.

Create A SQL Server Training Plan

To improve your skills with SQL Server, possibly leading to a promotion or a new job or a speaking gig you really want, you need a training plan. Yes, a plan. One that has dates and actions. My current half marathon training plan is from Hal Hidgon’s website.

First, identify what you want to accomplish. I did not set out wanting to run a marathon. “I want to learn everything about SQL Server” is a big statement, and nearly impossible. It is too big of a product for one person to know everything. You will get lost and discouraged trying to do that. I set one goal at a time. I want to run my next half marathon in less than 2 hours and 10 minutes. I want to give an hour-long presentation on automating SQL Server administration. I want to pass the 70-461 Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012 exam.

Second, identify your preferred training method. I love long runs – Saturday mornings are my time to run for hours and hours. You have many options. There are books and blogs you can read, webcasts you can watch, podcasts you can listen to, and in-person events to attend like user group meetings, SQL Saturdays, and PASS Summit. (Shameless plug: Brent Ozar Unlimited® has a ton of great blogs, a free weekly webcast, and training classes.)

Third, find something outside your comfort zone. I hate speed work. I’ve tried fartleks, intervals, hills, and track workouts, and I dislike all of them equally. However, speed work has helped me get faster. Doing something outside of your comfort zone increases your skillset – and you may find something you enjoy! Answer forum questions. Create a presentation to give for a user group or virtual chapter. Try writing an instructional blog.

Fourth, create your training plan. I’ve already got my half marathon training plan printed and hung on my corkboard. Decide what book you are going to read or what set of webcasts you’re going to watch. Then – and this is the part people usually forget – set aside the time. Block out time on your calendar. Keep a book in plain sight. Every morning, when I wake up, I spend 15-30 minutes reading while I drink my first cup of coffee, before I go for a run or hit the weights. I just finished “Troubleshooting SQL Server – A Guide for the Accidental DBA” and now I’m working on “On Writing Well”. I have time blocked off on my calendar weekly to watch a PASS Summit presentation and a TED Talk. I go to a user group meeting monthly. These are things I have worked into my schedule because learning – training – is important to me.

Fifth, and most importantly, execute. Some days, I don’t even want to lace up my shoes. But I do. Some days you won’t feel like reading a book chapter, or writing even one page in Word. But you need to. If you don’t do it on the tough days, you won’t get where you want to be.

Training is Important

I’ve learned that no matter how much I want to be good at something, it doesn’t happen automatically. I have to invest time into preparing and training, whether that is by making time to run 4 or 5 days a week, or setting aside time to read blogs and try new SQL Server features. There is no substitute for hands-on experience. I have gotten better as a runner by running different roads, different distances, and different paces. I have grown as a SQL Server professional by working with different versions, trying new ways of writing queries, and investigating how things work.

To grow in your career, understand that there is no substitute for time and experience. Identify what you want to learn, determine how you learn best, set aside the time, and train!

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34 Comments. Leave new

  • This is a really great post, Jes. is actually the home page of my web browser.

  • Allen McGuire
    August 16, 2012 11:11 am

    I think the smile is also partly due to the fact that you have a cold one in your hand! As always, great read guys – Happy Thursday!

  • Great Post Jess! What 1/2 are you training for?

  • I follow the certification requirements to ensure that material is covered, schedule and take the cert, seeing the finnish line is a great motivator. Crossing it is the reward

  • Jes,

    Great post as usual. I know what I want to learn, but I need to put the dates on paper.

  • Great post Jes, agree on all points. Most folks make things out to be a much bigger deal than they should…especially when it comes to learning something new and immediately go into “I can’t” mode. I schedule meetings with myself every week for 3 hours to cover a new topic with SQL Server I want to learn more about. I even send meeting invites for them as I would for any other meeting. I always have a lot of interesting conversations with the meeting organizer and it only gets “weird” when we start pointing fingers at each other 🙂

  • What about those of us with kids? Those of us with daily chores (cooking, cleaning etc)?

    I’d like to be able to dedicate as much time as the author to my work, but I have many other things to be getting on with on a daily basis – I barely have 5 minutes before going to bed to fit it in!

    For those that have no dependants and no other responsibilities, this thinking is great. For the rest of us though, it is tough luck!

    • Reply
      • Jes Schultz Borland
        August 17, 2012 9:59 am

        I think this link is great – thanks Brent. Anon, even if you can’t dedicate time to blogging or presenting, definitely dedicate time to reading or watching webcasts. Learning is very important!

    • All of us make choices and have priorities. Absolutely, your family should be a huge priority.

      But isn’t spending time on learning and improving yourself an important thing to model for your kids? Isn’t that something you want them to do themselves? Depending on the age of your kids, it’s also something you can do together for short periods.

      Depending on your job, there are also usually ways to integrate daily improvement and learning into your day.

      Life is busy. Don’t try to do everything, but understand that saying “I don’t have time to do anything” isn’t an excuse. It’s a choice.

    • Thank you for your replies, Kendra you are an inspiration and admire your energy.

      I have a 1 and 2 year old who I love dearly (and put before everything else of course), but agree that when they are a little older I want to demonstrate a hard-working attitude.

      I have recently discovered caffeine tablets which I’m consuming at a silly rate (on top of redbull, coke drinks etc) to keep me going and have slowly started getting 30 mins before bed (after getting the kids to bed, eating dinner, tidying the house) to have a read of my books.

      I wish I could couple this with time to exercise and keep fit too (I know ultimately I will end up paying for the tablets and drinks I’m taking).

      • and Jes is an inspiration too.

        • Jes Schultz Borland
          August 23, 2012 8:19 am

          Thanks, Anon. I agree that your family should be put ahead of everything. It’s all about priorities! I hope you can find balance and grow in your career at the same time.

          • Jes you are nice and you have a nice smile in your photo.

            Keep doing what you are doing.

            God bless.

  • Very good post Jes! My challenge is too many things to learn versus too little time. My learning list includes studying for the MCITP developer cert, doing the vm based labs from Jonathan’s blog, learning Powershell, learning Extended events, and finishing almost a dozen books. I get about two hours a day max, outside of my work and home. By the time i cover so much stuff there is another mountain of things to learn again from 2012 or somethign else. In short how the hell does one keep up? (I do go for atleast two solid trainings every year, sometimes three, that is the only time i get to focus on learning entirely).

    • Jes Schultz Borland
      August 17, 2012 9:58 am

      I have the same problem sometimes! I have a stack of books waiting to be read. I make a list of what I want to focus on, in what order, and work through it that way. I wish I could learn everything!

    • Allen McGuire
      August 17, 2012 10:02 am

      I have twin 6-year olds so I know how it can be challenging to find time. I would recommend boot camps to those of you that don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to reading/studying for your certs. I just went to one in July (MCITP, SQL 2008) and it was a wonderful experience. Five days and two tests (passed) tests later, you are good to go. As for blogging and such – there simply is no time for those of us with families and active lifestyles (outside of work).

      • You may get certified but you learn next to nothing at bootcamps. In one week it evaporates. It maybe a way for those who need those certs real bad and simply can’t afford the time, but for those of us who want to learn and get the certs based on knowledge it is really a poor way of going about it. I agree about the blogging, and Brent clarified it much better for me. Blogging is not for everyone and we are way past the stage when one can find a niche or even a style that noone else has in the blogging world. It is overcrowded and to me simply not worth doing any more.

        • Allen McGuire
          August 17, 2012 12:34 pm

          IMO, certifications are not a learning experience. Rather it’s a validation of your existing skill set. Remember, a pre-requisite of these certifications are either prior certifications or a certain tenure in in that skill set. I believe they say three years of being a SQL Server DBA. Of the seven people in my bootcamp, all had extensive experience with SQL Server.

          That being said, I did take away quite a few concepts that I hadn’t used prior – compression, resource governor, partitioning, etc. Perhaps you should quantify your statement as being your experience and not generalize that nobody learns anything.

          I couldn’t word it much better than Microsoft themselves:

          “The Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) certification helps validate that an individual has the comprehensive set of skills necessary to perform a particular IT job role…”

          Nowhere does it mention it’s an educational experience.

          • I wonder why you needed a bootcamp if you had ‘extensive experience with sql server’. This is not a blog post on certifications else i would say more on ‘boot camping’ one’s way into it. thanks.

          • Allen McGuire
            August 19, 2012 5:34 pm

            The boot camp prepares you for the exam, Mala. There is no college degree in database administration, so regardless how you choose to get your certification (self study or boot camp), it tells potential employers you are proficient at what you do. If you are are in a pool of candidates for a job, it can certainly be what separates you from the other candidates. I can say “I’m good at what I do” until I’m blue in the face but having a certification backs what I’m saying. If you aren’t much of a DBA, it’s unlikely you will pass the tests no matter how you choose to prepare for them. They are quite difficult.

            If you feel self study is for you, go for it. I prefer the boot camps personally, as they prepare you for specific concepts that will be on the exam. No matter how many years you’ve been a DBA, it’s highly unlikely that you have memorized every facet of the platform.

  • I think it just depends on how important it is to you. I have two kids but am still able to find time to do what is really important to me (SQL and exercise).

    Just make it a point to learn something new each day, even if it is just one thing. That way, you’ll be better today than you were yesterday.

    • Allen McGuire
      August 17, 2012 12:37 pm

      As a DBA there isn’t a day that goes by where you don’t learn something new. After doing this day-in/day-out for 13 years I still learn something on a daily basis.

  • Great post. There are plenty of times I don’t feel like running, but I always tell myself that I won’t regret going for a run. I never get back from a run and say to myself, “I wish I had just sat in front of the TV instead.” I need to remember this philosophy when I sit down to try and write/learn something and then blow it off because I’m tired and I already worked a lot that day.

  • Good article. My wife has been using the couch to 5k app for a while now in order to train for a 5k run in October and I recently joined her. Hard but personally satisfying at the same time. GL with your next run.

  • Awesome post! So so good. I read this and was amazed how relevant it was to my current situation. As a newbie runner with a marathon on the radar next year, I can’t recommend highly enough for people to start running with a goal in mind! It brings so much focus to your life and it naturally starts making you put SQL training & reading into scheduled timeslots just like your running training plan. Once again, brilliant post. Thank you.

  • Great post for those motivated souls out there, but to be honest I expect my company to pay for training courses, to send me on conferences and for me to browse the web for research (like i am now) *all*</em< during normal working hours.

    A believe a good company will invest in your skills and allow you to grow. Getting up extra early or going to bed extra late to dedicate time to work activities doesn't appeal to me one bit – there is not much of a work/life balance that!

    • Jes Schultz Borland
      August 23, 2012 12:48 pm

      You’re correct – you don’t have to get up early or stay up late. Even setting aside some time each day or week during your work day to learn something new or research something is learning time!

  • What a great post. I actually sent this to some guys I train in Gracie Jiu Jitsu (aka Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) and had them replace “SQL Server” with “GJJ/BJJ.” Anything technical, be it playing musical instrument, Database Administration or a highly technical grappling martial art, will benefit from a training plan.

    Very well done,


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