How to Learn SQL Server in One Year

You’ve been using Microsoft SQL Server for a few years, and it’s becoming increasingly important to your job.

You can write a query, but…

You feel like something’s missing.

You attended a few local user groups or meetups before the quarantines hit, but you were disappointed at how scattered the sessions were. The material was all over the place, covering lots of different topics, and none of them went into depth. You couldn’t relate the topic to what you were actually doing at work.

You’ve been Googling to find solutions when you run into problems, but you’re starting to doubt what you read. You’ve read conflicting suggestions, and you keep hearing “It depends” – and you’re beginning to think it’s some kind of cop-out answer that people are giving when they don’t have the real answers.

I know. I’ve been there too.

If you’re going to learn,
you need a structured, timed plan.

You can’t be just randomly Googling around every now and then. You need a clear, linear plan where each session builds on top of the last one. You need a table of contents, and a recap at the end of each learning sprint.

You can’t just pick up a book, either: you’ve tried that. Nobody’s holding you accountable. The book sits on your bedside table for months, and it’s there for a reason – it puts you to sleep, and nobody’s pressuring you on a regular basis to show what you learned.

You need a combination of 3 things:

  1. Lively, fun lectures – not boring text
  2. Hands-on labs where you’re required to turn in your homework
  3. A timed schedule – you gotta show up and be there on specific days/times

If you put the dates on your calendar, show up for class, turn in your assignments to a fun instructor, and get feedback on your progress, THAT’S how you make real headway in just one year.

Get started in a 3-day sprint.

Mark these out in your calendar:

If you can’t make those, the next rotation starts February 1. I teach these 4x a year, but I’m telling you now because we gotta get you on board this train.

Those 3 classes are each 1 day long. If you can’t get the time off work, you can still do this: I teach those classes as 50% lecture, 50% hands-on labs. You can watch while I do the lectures & labs, and then keep up with your day job when I give the rest of the students time off to do the labs. (I’d recommend you do ’em yourself, though – remember, that’s part of the key to your success, actually getting your hand on the product and proving that you know what you think you know.) The hands-on labs for the Fundamentals classes can be done on your existing laptop/desktop.

Now, you might see “Fundamentals” and think that you’re already past ’em, and that you can move on. I don’t want you wasting time on fundamentals if you already know this stuff, so ask yourself these four questions as a sample test:

  • How do you measure which column goes first in an index key?
  • How do you index to support both joins AND filters?
  • When is a CTE better than a temp table, and vice versa?
  • What kinds of query operations are the most susceptible to parameter sniffing?

If you know the answers to those, you can skip Fundamentals. If not, get in there and get your fundamentals on. Don’t feel guilty: I know a lot of data professionals who’ve said they had over a decade of experience, but they were still shocked by what they learned in my Fundamentals classes.

After those 3 classes, you’re ready for Fundamentals of Columnstore on November 17th (iCal), but don’t feel like you HAVE to take that one. That one really only makes sense if you’re considering columnstore indexes. Those aren’t for everybody – they’re really targeted at reporting queries on 250GB+ databases running SQL Server 2016 or newer. If you don’t have those, feel free to skip that one.

Then, start to master SQL Server.

After you finish the Fundamentals, the really tough stuff starts, and you really need to take the first two in order – first indexing, then querying, and then you can take either #3 or #4 in either order – I teach ’em throughout the year:

  1. Dec 8-10: Mastering Index Tuning – iCal
  2. Jan 12-14: Mastering Query Tuning – iCal
  3. Optional: Feb 9-11: Mastering Server Tuning – iCal
  4. Optional: Feb 16-18: Mastering Parameter Sniffing – iCal

Those are 3-day classes, and each day goes like this:

  • 9AM-Noon: I teach you concepts with a mix of lectures & demos.
  • Noon-2PM: hands-on lab: you run a workload against the full-size Stack Overflow database and solve a performance problem, plus each lunch. You turn in your homework to me in the company Slack room, and I give you feedback on your work.
  • 2PM-3PM: I do the same lab you just did, but live onscreen, so you can see how my work compared to yours.
  • 3PM-4PM: I teach you another concept with a mix of lectures & demos.
  • 4PM-?: hands-on lab: you get another workload challenge. You can solve it from 4PM-5PM, or later if you prefer, or even in the next morning, whatever works best for you.

The Mastering classes are much tougher, and require a bigger VM to pull off. Read the instructions on setting up a lab VM, and you’ll want at least 4 CPU cores, 30GB RAM, and local solid state storage with 300GB free space. You’ve got some time before you have to set that up, though. If you don’t have access to that hardware, I offer a Live Class Season Pass with a lab VM included – but honestly, you can buy a little lab server from home at a more cost-effective price.

The first time you go through ’em,
you’re gonna fall off the horse.

When I went through the Microsoft Certified Master program, it had a 75% failure rate. Most of the students needed multiple attempts at the hands-on lab tests (although I’ll giddily report that I passed the first time, woohoo!) Even though I passed, my first reaction was, “I wanna do that again and see if I can do better, and faster.”

When Microsoft folded up the MCM program and I built my Mastering classes, I wanted to replicate that experience. I wanted to give you a very, very challenging test of your skills. Some folks would pass the first time, other folks would take multiple attempts, but hopefully it’d be fun enough for everybody that they would want to do it again and again.

That’s why most students opt for my Live Class Season Pass: the ability to attend all of my classes again and again for a year straight.

You’re reading that and going, “Who could possibly attend 3-day classes over and over throughout the year?” But here’s the thing: most folks tend to attend multiple times, but they pay different levels of attention depending on their schedule. When you have unlimited access to my classes, what you find is that you just check out my upcoming class list, add stuff to your calendar, and then leave my live sessions up on another monitor and on your speakers while you work. If an interesting concept comes in, or if you’ve got free time available, then you jump in.

By the end of the year,
you will be WAY better at SQL Server.

It’s going to require focus and attention. It’s going to require participation on your part. It’s going to take commitment and action.

You can float through another year, skating by on the bare minimum of skills, getting surprised at every turn.

Or you can decide that this is going to be the year when you start learning about problems before you encounter them, becoming proactive instead of reactive, and start to be seen as “the SQL pro” amongst your team members. You can decide that you’re going to take your career up a notch, and you’re going to let me teach you everything I know.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • This is great! Will make it easy to link this blog post in 99% of the threads on /r/SQL and /r/SQLServer 🙂
    Thanks Brent!

  • Hi, I truly would like to become a data scientist that has Business Architecture view and mastering data architecture. I know, this may sound too much for one person. I would love to pay the figure and become your student. Honestly, I don’t know much about SQL Server. But I believe in you that you will sweep in my brain all the required knowledge.

  • Thank You, Brent
    In this pandemic situation, I found this article which is very informative and commendable. For the last few days, I was struggling about how to learn SQL Server and apparently I found this article which really helps me.


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