How Much Can You Learn?

One of the things we’ve tried to do at SQLServerCentral is provide a way for SQL Server professionals to continue to learn more about the platform over time. Andy Warren and I have debated how to best do this over the years, and Andy has built a great presentation on Building a Professional Development Plan that I’d encourage you to watch or attend if you can.

One of the parts of any good plan is finding time to learn. While there are many ways in which to learn, many people seem to want an organized way of working through a particular topic. Books provide one method, while online courses such as those provided by Pluralsight are another.  There are also pre-cons at SQL Saturdays or other conferences, weeklong training classes, and other methods available. Which you choose might depend on how you best learn.

Any of these methods work, but all require some investment, both time and money. Setting aside the money for a minute, how much can you learn in a year if you use some on-demand method such as books or on-demand video. Is there some limit to what you can absorb and work with in any particular month or year?

I think there is. Certainly the amount you learn depends on how much you can practice and focus on a topic, as well as how closely the new skill is to your existing capabilities. The further you move away from an area you’re already comfortable with, the slower you may learn, and the greater investment to become competent in a new subject. Given that a month (or year) is a fixed amount of time, and we all have other responsibilities, how much can you actually learn and retain?

I used to think that a few months would build some competence, but I’m finding that after I learn for a few months, I really need a few months, or at least some time, of not learning, where I can practice and work with new skills I’ve been developing. I find that if I don’t take this time, too much of what I’ve learned becomes hard to remember, and even newer skills are hard to acquire.

Is it the same for you?

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 3.1MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

No Overtime

This editorial was originally published on Dec 5, 2011. It is being re-run as Steve is out of town.

It’s been a long time since I received overtime at any job. Most of my IT work has been with a salary, and the expectation that I would work as needed to accomplish my assignments. Early in my career I worked as a contract for an hourly rate, and while it didn’t necessarily lower the hours I worked, I did receive a little more pay on long weeks. From there I worked for a company that provided “comp time” when the hours exceeded 20 hours in a month. That seemed to help reduce hours more than anything.

There’s a bill that’s in the US Congress that adds some new job classifications to the exemptions for overtime pay. In addition to the system administrative jobs, it now includes database and network professionals. I’m not sure how many people this affects as the overtime requirements disappear once you make more than $27.63 an hour. That equates to about an annual salary of 57,491, without the benefits. If you make less than this, you should be getting overtime.

Does overtime pay matter to most IT workers? I don’t know. There are lots of workers who make more than US$60,000 a year, and are exempt, but I suspect there are many others who make less than this amount and work long hours without any extra compensation. This bill is aimed squarely at reducing pay for those people in the industry that make the least amount of money.

I struggle with whether the benefits and abuses of a salary. On one hand salaries provide a level of security to workers, along with a guarantee of payment for work that cannot easily be measured in terms of output per unit of time. On the other hand, employers sometimes see a salary as a way to push workers to their limits, burn them out, and impose strict requirements on the work needed for deadlines, themselves often arbitrary.

I like the idea of allowing businesses to pay salaries, and stabilize their cost structures, but I do think we ought to implement a few bumpers that prevent abuses. Limiting hours across a month or quarter and ensuring that employees can take their vacations would be limits that I’d like to see implemented. This bill doesn’t affect those and I’m not sure we’ll see any limits implemented, but I do think it’s up to each person to stand up to their employer and ensure they are not overworking themselves.

Steve Jones

Examining SQL Server 2016

SQL Sever 2016 is getting close to release. The updates are coming fast and furious, causing issues in some cases as many people look to test the new features in different environments. Personally, I’m struggling a bit to determine which of my environments to update and test, and which to skip. It’s also hard to keep track of those items that work in newer environments, and those I need to keep working on old systems with older code.

We saw CTP 3.3 this year in January, with both RC0 and RC1 coming in March. I expect we will see an RTM soon, though it’s possible we have more Release Candidates before then. I know there are still some bugs in RC1, so I’m hoping we get at least one more release to show that both the core platform, as well as SSMS, are stable and working well.

I know many of you won’t be upgrading any production systems, and maybe not even development systems, anytime soon. However are you looking to work with the platform and understand how it’s changed? I think SQL Server 2016 deserves a look, even if it’s curiosity. There are quite a few changes and it’s possible you’ll find some things in there that may make an upgrade worthwhile.

Even if you don’t find anything valuable for your organization, it’s a neat release, with quite a few enhancements and additions. There are features you are just interesting and exciting to experiment with. Certainly there is plenty to learn as well, with the chance to see how new features, like temporal tables, work, or test the new T-SQL functions against your current code and see if you can beat them.

Looking at a new bit of software can be invigorating to your career, as you try to grow your knowledge and build new skills. Given that most of us perform work that requires thought, just exercising your brain with the SQL Server 2016 eval might enhance your thought processs and let you enjoy your job just a bit more.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 2.9MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

The Matrix

Do you want the red pill or the blue one?

Many of us know the famous scene in The Matrix where Neo decides if he will come out of his dream. We also see the exciting moments in the movie where he has various martial arts downloaded to his brain, and discovers he “knows kung fu” in a small fraction of time. Certainly he doesn’t ever need to physically practice the art, but much of learning is comprehending and understanding a subject in our brains.

We aren’t at the point of desiring a skill and purchasing a download. Yet. However there is research into using various types of stimulation to actually help improve learning and training. Using pilots and flight training, a complex and varied skill involving both physical coordination and mental understanding, the researchers think they can affect learning. Which is amazing.

This is barely scratching the surface of learning directly in the brain, but it is interesting to see people researching the topic. After all, this is an area that ought to be of great interest to those of us working in technology, where the acquisition of new skills is important. Few of us do it well, and any improvement that could dramatically improve our capabilities to adapt and grow as technology rapidly advances, would be welcome.

Unless it involves electrical shock potential. In that case, I’ll stick with my slow read-and-practice method for learning new skills.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 2.2MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn. feed

Culture and Performance

Most people in management seem to believe that culture matters in a company. I know some don’t, and I’ve worked for a few of those people, whichi s never an enjoyable experience. As the world seems to change to more and more knowledge work for people in technology, it seems that businesses are starting to realize that the way their employees feel about the company can have a direct impact on the company’s bottom line.

There’s an article about culture and motivation in the Harvard Business Review that I think does a good job of looking at how well people perform when they have various motivations. The authors talk about the six reasons why people work, each of which can drive motivation in a different way. Some are positive motivators, some are negative, and it’s good to be aware of the differences.

This ties into culture in that the way your organization is built. The culture that pervades the company can really determine how employees are motivated. More negative motivators result in less performance, especially creative performance, from employees.

I don’t think that building a great team and getting the most from people is necessarily this simple. Different people respond differently to a culture, and the same person might even respond differently at different times in their employment. However I do think that you can look to adjust the way you fit each employee in, with the work you assign, the support you give, and the demands that you make on them.

The mark of a good manager is that they find ways to treat each employee differently, in a way that suits them best, while maintaining a core set of values and rules for the entire organization.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 2.0MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn. feed

DeveloperBall

I’ve been fascinated by Moneyball and the efforts made in sports to assemble good teams using data more than opinions. I used to think about baseball more, but lately I’ve been intrigued by American football. There are challenges in assembling a team, with the constraints of a limited budget, existing contracts that cannot be changed, and the fact that one player isn’t a replacement for another, even when they have similar skill sets.

That got me thinking that we could do this with our development teams. Certainly the skills that each of posses might be closer to one another than athletes, but that doesn’t change the need to have a variety of skills on a project. We need someone that writes great T-SQL, someone that can manage front end code, someone that can build and provision environments, someone to help test.

I know that many of you can do all these things, but do you want to? Maybe more important, is it a good use of your skills as a developer to manage restores or schedule index maintenance? Those are tasks that might provide a welcome break, but they aren’t necessarily the tasks that I want you to be responsible for or even spend time performing.

There is also the very, very high likelihood that the people hired in your environment have different levels of skills. In a group of T-SQL developers, or SSIS package builders, or any other group that each of you can learn from the others. And you should learn from others, since it’s entirely likely that some of you will leave, and others will need to handle the load left behind. After all, the next person hired is as likely to be the weakest team member as the strongest.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 2.0MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

Crafting Your Resume

Your resume of CV is often the first glance that a hiring manager gets about your career. Even if you’ve been recommended by a friend or current employee, often a manager requires some summary of who you as a few paragraphs on a screen that they can study.

I have my own advice, but this post from a manager at StackOverflow covers quite a few of the same things I recommend. I certainly agree with the first section, writing for humans. Over and over again I hear from people that make hiring decisions that they spend 30-60 seconds on a resume to get an impression.

One minute. You should set a timer for one minute and let someone read your resume. Then take it away and ask the person for their impressions of what you know. In fact, maybe that’s a great icebreaker at a user group meeting or SQL Saturday. Find someone that hires others, or is an experienced person in your industry, and ask them to do just that.

We learn a lot from experimenting and seeing what works well and what doesn’t. Many of us solve problems in code and realize later that we could rewrite things more efficiently. Why not do that with our resumes? We certainly can control how we present ourselves, be interesting, and more importantly, don’t waste the reader’s time.

You get one minute, or less, to make a good impression, so spend some time crafting your resume. Control your brand and ensure that you let people know who you are. Do your best to communicate the skills you have, the things you do well, and the ways in which you are a good employee. Most of us will change jobs at some point, so why not be prepared to present yourself in the best possible way you can by working on your resume now.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio (2.4MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn. feed

The Advent of Code

In early December, I ran across a post from Jeremiah Peschka on practicing your coding skills. Apart from the points made about practicing skills, he referenced a site called the Advent of Code. It’s a site that uses a Christmas theme and a little gaming to get people to solve programming problems. I mentioned it on my blog, and across a few weeks, a few people in the SQL Server community started working on the problems in SQL.

Probably like most people that started this, I didn’t finish in December. In fact, I didn’t work on problems most days because life got in the way. However I haven’t given up. Around vacations and other events, I’ve continued to work on solving the problems in multiple ways, using different languages. I’ve tackled problems in Python, PowerShell, and T-SQL.

I’d urge you to give some sort of programming challenge a try, mostly just to gain some practice in building algorithms and investigating the ways in which you can solve problems with software. If nothing else, the exercises challenge your brain and exercise your mind.

I’m considering working on something like this for SQLServerCentral next year, with a series of complex problems that you can work on to practice your T-SQL and SQL Server skills. I don’t think I’ll make it an Advent of T-SQL for Christmas, but I do think having a series of challenging problems is a good way to drive your learning.

If you’ve got suggestions for other programming exercises, feel free to pass them along.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 2.0MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

100 Hours

How long does it take someone to learn to be good at building software in some language? I’m sure many of you have heard of the 10,000 rule that notes the truly gifted in a field need 10,000 hours of practice to become experts and master their craft. There’s some debate about how true that is, but certainly becoming an expert takes tremendous dedication, certainly years of time.

I ran across a piece that referenced a slightly shorter rule, the 100 hour rule. The rule is fairly simple: “for most disciplines, it only takes one hundred hours of active learning to become much more competent than an absolute beginner.”

One hundred hours is nothing. That’s a long week or two of active learning to get good at something. But how good? If we look at software development, what can you accomplish in 100 hours? After all, absolute beginner is a low bar. That’s the level my Mom is at and I’m not sure how much I could teach her beyond “Hello, world” in a few hours. Even in 100 hours, I’m not sure she could solve many problems.

The good thing is that most of us aren’t absolute beginners, especially in software. We have frames of reference for many parts of how computers work. I suspect that 100 hours of deliberate, guided, practical (meaning typing and practicing skills), would turn lots of people into a good junior developer, maybe even a mid level developer. I think many senior developers would be very competent in a new language in a few hundred hours, because they’d learn the syntax translation quickly and then start understanding the tips, tricks, and gotchas that experts in that language might know. The algorithms and problem solving skills are often the same between languages.

For most of us looking to grow our careers and improve our technology skills, I would guess we could learn a new skill every year, becoming competent, with 100 hours of practice. Reading books and articles is good, but the hands on practice is most important, and that’s what really drives home active learning. That’s something I’d encourage many of you do, with exercises, puzzles, or maybe even start a small project that help you learn. It will help your career, by improving skills, and might even be fun along the way.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 2.5MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

Happy New Year 2016

Happy New Year from everyone here at SQLServerCentral and Redgate Software!

I do hope you’re not working, and enjoying a start to 2016. If you do happen to read this, I hope you are relaxing and have a big smile on your face.

This year we’ve got a new version of SQL Server coming, and I’m sure lots of exciting new technologies we’ll see released. It’s a new beginning, and a chance to move forward. With that in mind, a simple question today.

What new technology, language, or skill do you want to improve in 2016?

Today is a great day to make a resolution and start growing your skills, for fun or profit, in 2016.

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 1.3MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.