Home > Articles > Data > SQL Server

SQL Server Reference Guide

Hosted by

SQL Server Professional Development Plan, Part 2

Last updated Mar 28, 2003.

In the last installment of this series (use the “Back” button at the top or bottom of the page to find the first article) I mentioned one central tenant that every data professional should learn — your career is up to you. In that article I explained how to get yourself mentally ready to take ownership of your career, how to learn more about yourself, and how to learn the basics. I’ll explain more in this article by showing you how to leverage that information to create a professional development plan that will take you from where you are to where you want to be. In the next installment I’ll explain the resources you have to make all this true.

Continuing Education

As time goes on, you’ll begin to fill up your plan (see that last article for more). You now know how to back up and restore a database, and when to do that. You know how to secure a system, perform a system configuration audit and so on. You may even no longer need someone to show you how to do these things.

This is where the “self-education” comes into play, and where most people stop progressing in their career. They’ve learned the basics of their job, and the steps they need to follow to make it through the day. After they no longer struggle, they expect to be rewarded for their efficiency. But they no longer learn new things. I see this level of employee every day — “I don’t need to learn PowerShell,” they tell me, “I already know how to work with T-SQL and graphical tools. I just don’t see the need in it.”

But life isn’t stagnant, and technology changes all the time. It’s up to you to investigate every new area you can in your career field, from new ways to do things to whole new architectures, like “the cloud” or whatever new buzzword is out. It’s OK if you decide not to pursue them — but it’s no OK not to know about them. That’s second level ignorance again, and not something a professional can tolerate.

It’s at this point you need to develop the next most important skill after foundational knowledge — learning to learn.

We’re all born with the ability to learn, but just enough to sustain ourselves. It takes a concentrated effort to decide to learn more about the learning process itself, and here’s where that self-assessment you did earlier comes into play. Are you someone who needs to be shown things? Would you rather hear it than see it? Do you have to try it yourself? Or a mixture of all these?

Learning is a skill, and as such it needs to be learned (ironically) and practiced. There are several techniques for learning, and many of these are taught in higher education or in classroom courses. I highly advise that you take one of these, even if you have to pay for it out of your own pocket — it benefits you tremendously in the long run.

I normally learn in three ways:

  1. Read or listen or watch someone explain the concepts of a topic
  2. See an example of the topic in real-world use
  3. Try the topic myself and read through the syntax and so on where needed

For instance, I heard a lot about PowerShell. I wanted to understand where and when it fits in to my professional day, so I attended some briefings on it and read lots of books and whitepapers. I paid close attention to any “sample scripts”, starting with a “Hello World” kind of basics but moving quickly to working with it in ways where I really needed to solve an actual problem. I set up a test system and played with the product and then created a set of scripts that did what I needed to do on my SQL Server systems. Along the way I ran into gaps in my knowledge, specifically on the syntax and some structures. As I learned a new concept, process and so on I documented the information using OneNote, once of my favorite tools. I also stored my script library there. And now I know, use and enjoy working with PowerShell.

I should mention that I’ve started down this path with other topics that I ended up abandoning. Sometimes I spend time on things and find out that they aren’t as useful as I thought or too complicated for my needs. I keep my notes on those ideas, but I move on. It’s all part of the learning process, and don’t count this as wasted time at all.

You may not learn the way I do. Perhaps just reading something doesn’t “bring the topic to life” for you. You may need a video, a presentation, a formal class, or even someone to work directly with you for you to truly understand the process.

And that’s where your professional development plan comes into play. Recall that the plan contains where you are (or what you know), where you want to be (or what you want to be able to do) and the knowledge and experiences you need to do to get from one to the other. Remember, it’s a living document. You have “second level ignorance” about some topics, and so you’ll need to insert a line that covers the new area you didn’t know about before. I’ll explain a simplified example here.

Suppose you have these two items in your plan:

  1. Back up a database
  2. Restore a database

That’s first level ignorance, so far. You know these things need to be done, but you aren’t certain of how to do them. So you read the syntax and other documentation, and you set up a test database to try and back up and restore them. Along the way you learn there are a few other things you need to learn — so your plan gets bigger:

  1. Recovery Models
  2. Files and Filegroups
  3. Back up a database
  4. Restore a database

And so on. Now you learn the other topics, write down what you learned about them, where and when, and you’re self-learning. Sure, you may have attended a class or gotten some help from a friend, but you’re learning what you need to learn. That’s the key.

And now you’re on your way. You know the basics, and you know how to learn more than just the basics. You’re ready to start with the next phase of the professional development plan — the career path.

Career Path

It’s time for you to put all of that into practice, and hopefully get paid while you’re at it.

Let me pause here a moment and address that last statement. I’ve dealt with lots of folks that want to work in database technology, but can’t seem to break in to paying job to do that. Perhaps there are no open positions, or perhaps with no practical experience the jobs out there won’t take you. Don’t worry — you still have avenues to get that experience. I’ll assume for the moment you have some sort of paying job, or some way to make an income. Either at that job or as a volunteer find some way to use your newfound database technology skills. I know of a cook who helped in the back office during her own time a few hours a week developed a new database system on a laptop to track the food inventory, saved the boss a few dollars, and went on to show that work to another job location. They hired her and today she’s a successful DBA.

There are always places that need technical help that can’t afford to pay much, or anything, for it. Here in my city there is a volunteer organization that puts these places that need technical help together with folks willing to give it. In fact, I’ve had junior level folks that had the opportunity to work with very senior technologists on projects that they documented for a job later on.

So now you’re working in your career field on database projects. You’ve covered the basics, your systems are well implemented, maintained, and documented. Make sure you ask for feedback from your boss and peers, in writing (electronically or on paper). Add that to your career plan, checking off the areas you have completed successfully and look for opportunities to build on those successes.

It’s rare to have someone help you do that. You’ll need to find areas to improve the business, and further your own career while you’re at it. It’s actually not that hard – just look for problems. Don’t know where they are? Ask! Ask your boss, other co-workers, everyone. Say “What’s the biggest problem you’re facing right now?” The answer might have nothing to do with databases and technology, but give it some thought, and it just might. Here’s an example.

I asked a boss one time, “what’s your biggest problem right now?” He laughed and said “not enough sleep!” At first glance, his lack of sleep isn’t really something I could code s fix for in a T-SQL statement. But I laughed with him and said “why?” As he explained the problem, it turned out there was something I could do with technology which gave him some time back in one area, allowing him to focus work time on the original problem — and he got more sleep. I got a promotion.

So look for problems right where you are that you could solve with technology, write down where you are and where you want to be and the steps to get there, and educate yourself.

There comes a time, however, where you’ve outgrown where you are. There’s simply no more opportunities, for whatever reason for you to do more for the pay and responsibility you’re given. At that point, you need to look around. Start with what you know, and don’t be afraid to move on to what you don’t know. If you’re in a big shop with a limited set of area to focus on, look for a small company that will offer you more things that you can own. If you’re in a small company, look for a large one that has a bigger installation than you work with now. And unless you really like your work — I mean really, really like it – don’t plan to be there forever. Lay out your “five year plan”, or whatever interval works for you. If your goal is someday to run your own database consulting firm (which I’ve done from time to time), then you need to know everything about the area you’ll consult on as well as how to run a business, bill clients, and locate them in the first place. You’ll need to know how to deal with taxes, health care insurance, legal issues, and more.

I suggest you lay out the companies you’d like to work for, and what they offer that attracts you. You may even have to “step back to step forward”, meaning take slightly less pay to get the experience you need. After you write down these companies, make sure you start to learn more about them, develop contacts at the company and basically apply the same discipline you have on your technical learning. It shouldn’t be a trivial thing to leave one job for another, so make sure you think it through.

Once again, it’s up to you. While you’re at one job, give them 100%, but always look for new opportunities. If you can’t get them where you are, you need to be ready to get them elsewhere. Act like your career depends on you alone — because it does.

I’ll finish up in the next installment with a set of resources you can use to learn about the technical and business side of working with SQL Server, and I’ll show you how to complete your plan.

InformIT Articles and Sample Chapters

Warren Wyrostek has a great series on careers here on InformIT. Here’s one of his articles on a checklist he uses for energizing your career, A Career Changer's Checklist - 12 Common Sense Questions to Find Your Career: What Are You Waiting For? What Is Stopping You? (Lift Off and Enjoy the Ride!).

Books and eBooks

Warren Wyrostek has turned his entire article series into an excellent digital download: Career-Changer's Checklist: Twelve Common-Sense Questions to Find Your Career.

You’ll find Four Secrets to Liking Your Work: You May Not Need to Quit to Get the Job You Want an excellent resource for learning more about yourself.

Online Resources

Careerbuilder has a wonderful set of resources for building your career. Check them out here.