Episode 58: Four Ways to Stay Sharp with Technical Learning

Episode 58: Four Ways to Stay Sharp with Technical Learning

Episode 58: Four Ways to Stay Sharp with Technical Learning 150 150 Carlos L Chacon

With all the changes in technology, how do you stay up to date with your technical learning?  This is a question we have been asking our guests the last several episodes and in this episode we, the hosts, attempt to answer this question and Carlos and Steve give some thoughts on how we stay up to date.  We discuss four ways to keep up–and spoiler alert, the technology is just too broad to be able to keep up with it all, so we start looking out to our friends.

Episode quote (that didn’t make it in, but should have):
“It’s know WHAT you know, it’s not WHO you know–it’s WHAT you know about WHO you know.”  🙂

Our four tips are:

  1. Get involved with PASS events
  2. Participate or engage the community in some way
  3. Teach someone else
  4. Network and reach out

Inside the episode we share specific examples, lessons learned, and tricks for making the most of each tip.


Carlos: Compañeros! Welcome to the SQL Data Partners podcast. A podcast dedicated to SQL Server related topics and which is designed to help you become more familiar with what’s out there, how you might use features, or how you might apply them in your environments. I’m Carlos L Chacon.

Steve: And I’m Steve Stedman and this is episode 58. This week we’re going to be talking about four ways to keep up with technology. Again, this is a spin on SQL Family questions we’ve asked in the past. This time around, there’s no guests it’s just the two of us. But we’re going to cover some of the things we do and some of the things we’ve learned from previous guests.

Carlos: We’d like to give a shout out to Chris Hendon. Chris reached out to us on Twitter. He’d like for us to talk about the differences between AG log shipping, mirroring, and replication. And so we’ve been planning that episode and it will be coming in a few weeks. So thanks Chris for giving us that episode idea and that will be coming shortly. We also want to invite you to download the latest version of the Database Health Monitor. You can get that at databasehealth.com or you can go to sqldatapartners.com/monitor and there you’ll be able to download the latest version. We’d love for you to download that, take a peek and give it a spin, and give us some feedback and let us know what you like and don’t like about it.

The Show

Carlos: Compañeros, welcome to the show.

Steve: So onto four ways that we keep up with technology. And the first question that comes to my mind is, why? Why do we need to keep up? Why do I need to spend some extra time learning what the latest 2016 feature might be?

Carlos: You’re causing extra work for us, Steve. You’re such a slave driver!

Steve: Yeah. Well, we could just sit back and watch tv for a few hours and not worry about that.

Carlos: The Olympics is going on right now.

Steve: That’s true. Really, whether it’s SQL Server or any type of technology-related area, everything is changing so rapidly and I think without learning or keeping up, you’re going to fall behind. And I can imagine that like, think back to SQL Server 2000, if you stop there and didn’t learn anything new since then your SQL experience would just be so limited at that point.

Carlos: Right. And you wouldn’t necessarily be blamed in the sense that it was five years before the next version came out and now we’re in two year increments. Right so 2012, 2014, now 2016 and it will continue to change. And I think with the advent of the cloud, I think that just accelerates things. More people are looking to do different things and the role of the DBA is changing as well, with the influx of analytics and reporting and the things that people want to get out of that data.

Steve: Absolutely. And I think that with this, if we don’t keep up, someone else will. And then that other person will have more knowledge that’s more relevant to what’s needed to do our job than we do. And where would that put us? Not in a very good spot.

Carlos: And again, we want to be in the driver’s seat as far as opportunities go, and keeping up with those things. Not that we need to understand them 100 percent completely, but we need to be able to speak to them. Understand where they fit in the ecosystem. All of things can become important

Steve: Or at least understand who to ask if there’s an area you need to know about and you don’t have a deep enough knowledge.

Carlos: That’s a huge point, because the reality is that the technology is getting too big. There are just too many things out there now and the idea of trying to keep up with all of it is really silly.

Steve: Yep, and I can remember back to – and this might date me here –1990 when I had my first SQL Server class in version 1.1. And I felt at the end of that, it was a week-long class, that I was certified. I knew everything I needed to know to do anything with it. Well, 25 years later there’s a lot that’s changed and grown along the way. And if I hadn’t kept up along the way, I think I would be a relic along the side of the road.

Option 1: PASS

Carlos: [laughs] That’s right. Let’s go ahead and jump into our four points. And the first one, is somewhat obvious is PASS events. So they’ve changed the name and PASS is just PASS. They provide events like the Summit and SQL Saturdays and local chapters.

Steve: And don’t forget virtual chapters as well. If you live somewhere where there aren’t local chapters, there are virtual chapters online and you can catch it through a Go to Meeting type broadcast.

Carlos: That’s right. And you know I think it’s safe to say that getting database people together, that the PASS organization is a big driver in helping to do that. It’s not that everyone comes from those environments, but it is the most common way for people to connect with others.

Steve: And it’s not just getting database people together. It’s getting fun database people together. I’ve been to other conferences where it’s not a lot of fun. But if you go to PASS events and Summit and SQL Saturday, everyone’s having a great time. You get to know people, and you can make some lifelong friends there perhaps.

Carlos: It’s almost a culture about it.

Steve: Yep.

Carlos: Of sharing and learning.

Steve: So one of those that I look at is getting to know the vendors while you’re there. And there are some vendors that you approach that just want to get to know you. I think an example that really led to a great experience for me is Joes to Pros, which is a book publisher about four or five years ago. That was a vendor I met at a SQL Saturday. And Rick, who was the owner of the company, he and I chatted and he said, “You wanna write a book about SQL Server?” And I’d just done a couple of sessions on Common Table Expressions and I thought, okay, yeah, let’s do a book on SQL Server common table expressions. So over the next four or five months we got to know each other and work together and he showed me how to write a book and I kind of picked up on it and by the end of it a book came out that we published called SQL Server Common Table Expressions and although that company had some issues and they are not doing very much book publishing anymore, it was a really awesome experience. It pushed me into a whole new area that I’d really not been part of before, how to write a book. And it forced me to go and learn everything about that topic that there is to know. And I think that, even though Common Table Expressions was something that was really a pretty narrow topic, I went really deep and learned everything that I possibly could about Common Table Expressions.

Carlos: So it presented you with a unique opportunity that you wouldn’t have otherwise have had. I think the other advantage there is, ultimately organizations exist to try to solve the problems or at least, they figure out what people’s problems are and have a way to address them so we can do well. If you can at least understand what problem that organization is trying to solve, that can also be a benefit to you. That might open some doors into new technologies or even business issues that you may not have been aware of to guide you in something that maybe you want to pursue, or if nothing else to be able to pass it on to others should the need arise.

Steve: Yep. Absolutely. And I think the other side of PASS is the real big thing, whether it’s SQL Saturday or something else, is the sessions. You go to one of those types of events and there are many sessions at any time of the day that you can choose from. I usually find far more than one per hour that I want to attend. And I mean, it’s just incredible material put on by the community out there. It’s a great way to learn. I’ve picked up a lot there and have used that as a way to jumpstart my learning on a specific topic.

Carlos: Exactly. You know, it’s much easier to have someone else who’s gone through the manuals, the abbreviated version or the cliff notes version. If you get on your way, you’re on the fast track there.

Steve: I was going to throw another one out there at the PASS events, and we’ll talk about networking here in a bit, but it’s just getting to know people. I remember at a SQL Saturday speaker dinner, which usually happens the night before the SQL Saturday, I was talking with Chuck Lathrope, who is just an expert on SQL Server Replication and that was at a point where I was still pretty new to the whole side of SQL Server Replication. And just being able to chat with him for a half hour during the dinner time, I was able to pick up a few tips and tricks that helped me get going in the right direction with SQL Server Replication.

Carlos: I think going to sessions and meeting the presenters, we have a lot of smart people in the community who are willing to give a lot of their time, generally even after the SQL Saturday events. Or even sometimes after the local meetings, people will go out after to chat and to pick people’s brains about what they’re doing, why they’re doing certain things, and things like that.

Steve: And if you’re ever out at an event and you hear, “The group is going out to dinner somewhere.” Join and go along. You’ll get to know people and it’s great.

Carlos: And of course, if you’re going to be at Summit this year, of course look for Steve. I’m still on the fence about where I’m going to go, and I think before this podcast goes live I’m not sure that decision will be made. I’m going to make it out there, and if you’re there we’d love to see you and say hi. And again this year we’ll have “SQL Compañeros” ribbons at SQL Summit.

Steve: And on that point at Summit this year I’m actually going to be there the whole week. Coming in on Sunday night. If there’s anyone who wants to talk about the podcast or Database Health Monitor or other things I’m doing, just let me know. If you’re there early I’ve got plenty of time to meet you.

Carlos: Sure. We may even sponsor a meetup of some sort. Not that it’d be a big thing, but people getting together for drinks. As a non-drinker I can say that. To chat about things and talk more.

Steve: Yep, sounds like fun.

Option 2: Create Something

Carlos: So the second point we had was to create something. Again, this is something that’s going to be above and beyond what most folks are doing. It doesn’t have to be huge. We’re both going to share examples that we’ve done that have had huge dividends for us.

And this could be as simple as coming up with some SQL Scripts and putting them out there on Github as an open source tool or something like that. Or it could be something more like doing your own podcast.

Carlos: Yes. This podcast has been great for us. We’ve been able to talk with tons of very interesting people. We’ve gotten to know some of Microsoft Program Managers that we wouldn’t otherwise, well, I’ve been able to establish relationships with them that I just wouldn’t have had otherwise. And in certain instances, have been able to follow back up with them and I’m thinking of Luis Vargas for example, who was the Program Manager for the VMs, the SQL Server VMs. There was actually an instance where we had some questions about some functionality that was happening in regards to the classic and the resource manager versions and how that was the migration and what-not. And I actually reached back out to him and he provided me with some information as a result. I wouldn’t have had those interactions otherwise.

Steve: I know just in the short time that I’ve been a part of this podcast, I’ve learned a lot just in what we have to research each week to talk to the guests and then just going back and listening to all of the episodes prior to episode 50 when I got involved.

Carlos: I think, again, it doesn’t have to be super challenging. I know the podcast is a lot of work, believe me. Another option is even setting up, or even going to your local user group, and being willing to take the, hey let’s take ten minutes and answer questions or talk about problems people have before they get started. With all the other things people have to do, taking that little part of it or thinking of some way that the other attendees can interact and intermingle. It just enhances the experience and gives you the opportunity to intermix there.

Steve: You know, another one to get in the mix would be to have some type of online event or activity. And that’s kind of a real vague term, but an example of what I did a year ago was the Database Corruption Challenge. And that was something that, when I did that, I never really sat back and planned it and said, “This is what I’m going to do.” It started with a blog post that eventually turned into this over ten-week competition of dealing with corrupt databases. And with that, I think I learned more about database corruption than I could imagine. I mean, I knew a lot about it going into it but by the end of it, wow. I’ve seen so many ways of doing corrupt databases and different ways of people trying to fix them that I felt like, I was I learned so much about database corruption that it put me in a really good spot that that’s one of the things that I deal with regularly as part of my work.

Carlos: Right, I think that was one of the takeaways with what you’ve expressed to me. You know, you had solved the database corruption in a certain way but then found other people doing it in different ways, and so now you have another option in your arsenal that you may get to use later on. And so again, you’re kind of inviting the creative process from the community into your world and it just helps there.

Steve: Yep, yep. And to be able to be part of something like that, I mean whether it’s corruption or some other topic you choose to do, you really have to get it right otherwise the people participating are going to catch on it. And I know one of the things I didn’t get quite right and they corrected me and it was an awesome learning experience.

Carlos: Exactly. It’s one of those, yes, you have to put yourself out there but again, the people that are going to interact with you, it’s going to be a positive experience if you put your best foot forward.

Steve: Oh definitely. And I think the next one we had on our list for creating things was Database Health Monitor. It’s been working on, off and on, for over five years almost six years now. And that’s something that it originally started out, as a DBA I had a handful of queries that I would run regularly for different performance related things and I thought, “There’s got to be a better way of doing this.” So I originally built this as a bunch of SSRS reports and I quickly learned, at that point in time, that SSRS really wasn’t mature enough to do what I wanted it to do. So then I started building database health monitor as a standalone application to automate many of the common queries that I would run on a daily or weekly basis to keep track of what’s going on and how healthy are my databases?

Carlos: Yeah, exactly. It’s almost like a two-fer there. One, you’re learning and putting all those things together but it also helps from the organization perspective because you don’t have to ask, “Where did I put that query again?”

Steve: Yep. And along the way there’s lots of people using it. I mean, there’s been over ten thousand downloads of Database Health Monitor so far. And, with that, everyone’s got a slightly different environment and when something doesn’t work they let me know. And I remember very early on that one of the problem areas that I had issues with was case sensitive databases. When I first built It, it was on a case insensitive database and the first person who tried it on a case insensitive database, it didn’t work. Quickly I spun up a VM and installed a case-sensitive database to see if it works and that just became part of my overall testing strategy and I made sure that it was something I was aware of as I built it.

Carlos: Yeah, and again that feedback or that ability to get experience or that, “Here’s my unique experience,” helps you know one, because you may not have had any experience with case-sensitive databases. And to know, okay, what’s that, let me go learn more about that and now let me go and make the tool work.

Steve: And it wasn’t that I didn’t have any experience with it, it’s just that I overlooked it. And it just pushed me to go and make sure that I included those kind of things. And along the way there’s just so many different things where people will come up with an idea or people will come up with a suggestion that they’ll throw at me and I have to go and figure out how can I build that in a way that’s going to work for everybody. And it’s just been an incredible learning experience.

Option 3: Teach Something

Carlos: The next topic or the next idea is to teach something. Of course, this can be as formal as making a presentation. We’ve talked about some of the options, you know, I mean Steve’s been lucky enough he’s been selected to present at Summit. So there’s going to be like a thousand people I’m sure. And that might be a little bit intimidating. But that’s not necessarily what we’re talking about when we talk about teach something.

Steve: Right. I mean it can be anything from just teach the person in the desk next to you something on a daily basis. One example was the place that I worked, the developers didn’t know enough about writing SQL queries. So me and a coworker, who were stronger in the database side, we put together a lesson set to teach them on a weekly basis a different topic that would get them closer to 70-461 SQL Queries certification.

Carlos: Oh, very nice.

Steve: And that was a lot of fun. And I thought I knew a topic, but then I went through and made sure I had to know it enough to present on it for that week, and wow I had to learn it in even more depth at that point.

Carlos: Exactly. And I think that going through that and being able to verbalize it out loud lets you make sure that all the dots, at least that’s the way I think about these things. I have these dots that I think that I know about. Can I connect all of them? And do they all make sense? Or as I go through all of them I think, there’s a gap there in my understanding I need to go in and understand that better.

Steve: And one of the things I’ve discovered is even if I don’t see that gap when I present, somebody else where. And when Id o present, and then they’ll catch me on that and I’ll be even stronger and know that better. People ask questions and to be able to go back and say, “I didn’t know that, I’ll learn it and get back with you.” That’s not a bad thing and you learn along the way.

Carlos: And I thin k as a side note, if you can incorporate that culture into your company that’s just a bonus. Now not everybody’s company will pay for lunch to have a lunch session or what-not. I’m a big fan of them and I don’t think they happen nearly enough. But if you can make that kind of a cultural thing, then at least you get pizza out of it as well.

Steve: Yep. And if anybody’s in my area in Bellingham, Washington and they want pizza, you can drop in for the Bellingham SQL Server User’s group and come up and present. I’m always looking for someone to present there and it’s a great way to learn.

Carlos:  And I think again, to multiple people it can be as simple as mentoring. Going up to that white board and teaching. I think in a lot of environments, that classic case is that the database is guilty until proven innocent when it comes to performance-related issues. Why not take that time and explain to the people who are involved how you’re collecting that information, right? The role indexes play, speeds, disk performance, things like that. And then help those people understand so that the next time they have an issue, they can actually do some of that themselves without having to come to you directly because they understand that process better.

Steve: And I think, being the dba who teaches them to be stronger in the database will put you in a much better position the long-run.

Carlos: It may seem counter-intuitive, but the more that you share, the more people will look to you as a trusted, acknowledged source.

Option 4: Networking

Steve: Yep. So the next item we have on the list we had was networking. Just getting out there and getting to know people. Getting the scoop from your peers on what’s happening and what’s new.

Carlos: Yeah exactly. So I think, if you take all these ideas and start kind of getting out there, you’re going to have networking experiences. You know, the one thing that I would suggest is, you know, don’t try to blow people away with all the things that you know. But try to find out more about them, right? Kind of connecting some of those dots, you know? Asking some questions and then see if you can provide them some value. The reason for that is that nobody likes a windbag, right? That Mister-Know-it-all type personality and I think sometimes we as technology folks, we immediately kind of go to that because we’re trying to establish our position, I guess? Instead of just asking those questions. A very common one is where are you from, those kinds of things. If you happen to know somebody who’s in the Bellingham area you could very easily connect with Steve because, “oh hey! Have you talked to so-and-so who also lives in Bellingham?” That’s an easy way for you to get to know that person and for them to remember you.

Steve: Yep, absolutely. And then when you connect with those people, follow up afterwards on LinkedIn and Twitter and connect with them electronically so that if four months down the road you remember, “Oh, I had that conversation with Carlos at PASS Summit.” And you can know where to find them or where to follow up with them if you need to. I know for me that’s lead to a lot of great relationships and even work coming out of it.

Carlos: I will add one caveat here which is don’t ask people to solve problems for you, right? If you’re going to ask someone for help, reach out to them and connect with them but don’t say, “Oh here’s my problem, solve it.” That’s not a way to win friends and influence people and people will find other things to do very quickly.

Steve: Yes. I would completely agree. So ask people for help when you need help but don’t ask them to do your job for you.

Carlos: Exactly. And I think ultimately that’s the benefit from this networking option. So doing these things and having so many networking opportunities. How does that help us stay up-to-date? So my example was when I first wanted to install availability groups. I had read a little bit about it and attended a session from the regional mentor for the mid-atlantic area. So I had gone to a user group in Lynchburg Virginia and a presenter there worked for the college they had implemented availability groups and were talking about it. So I’d been exposed to it and learned some of the basics and then it was time for me to implement it. And I thought I knew enough that I went too quickly and I implemented it wrong. It wasn’t quite working and so while I did troubleshoot that, I did it for twenty minutes. I said, “this is crazy. Who do I know that knows about availability groups?” And I remembered him and I dialed up his number and we had a conversation and hew was able to guide me down the path of, “Here’s where you went wrong, don’t worry about these things, you need to worry about these things, and oh by the way you haven’t asked me about x, y, and z. How are you going to solve that?” And so that saved a lot of painful staring into the screen and yelling as a result and again, kind of getting there faster.

Steve: And having those networking relationships you know who to ask at the right time, can be incredibly valuable for that learning experience.

Carlos: Exactly right.

Steve: I was going to say that another time of the networking is not just going out and talking to people but it’s getting involved with some of the local events. And I think a big part of that is giving back to the community. Like with the local SQL Server chapter, local PASS chapter and you really have the, by doing that and getting involved with those things, it exposes you to so much opportunity to learn from different people.

Carlos: Exactly. Because you are there, you’re in the community. Both of us are leaders in our user group and then we’ve become, people seek after us because they want us in our network. They know that we can potentially be helpful to them.

Steve: And another example there is getting to know different people through that user’s group. I know a couple of different people who do different SQL Servers than what I focus on most of the time. For instance, there’s one that does a lot of BI type work. And he’s someone that I know that if somebody came along with BI work that I didn’t have time for or it’s not the kind of thing I do, I’d hand it off to him.

Carlos: Yeah.

Steve: And that would be the, and if he chose to do it, it would work out to be a good thing for both there. But the thing, getting to know and learning that’s back to our main topic, learning who can do what well can make things really good for you and growing your knowledge going forward.

Carlos: Exactly. So Compañeros, those are our four tips. We’d love to get your feedback. What ways do you stay up-to-date with things? You can use the hashtag #SQLPodcast to put that out and we always welcome your comments. Today’s episode will be at SQLDataPartners.com/learning and there you can get to the show notes and references for some of the things that we’ve talked about today.

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