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SQL Server Professional Development Plan, Part 3

Last updated Mar 28, 2003.

In first two installment of this series (The first article is here) I mentioned repeatedly tenant that your career is up to you. In the first 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. In part two I explained 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 this last installment I’ll explain the resources you have to make all this true, and show a small sample of a Professional Development Plan.

The Professional Development Plan Framework

You might be surprised to learn that very senior, intelligent, successful professionals use a development plan similar to what I’ll show you here. Most of us think that musicians “just know how to play”, that artists are just extremely talented – and they are. But ask any successful professional and they’ll tell you that they practice the basics all the time – and that hard work, determination, and practice – yes, along with a little luck – are what makes them successful, and a professional.

Most of these plans are never seen by anyone except the owner. I don’t show mine to anyone. I want to be completely honest with this information, and it’s hard to find folks I trust enough with this level of private info. That isn’t to say that I don’t publish some of the information. I do that all the time. At work I’m required to have a development plan and I review that with my boss. So some of this information goes there. In other cases I need help learning a new subject, so I’ll post an “example” line from the plan to give people an idea of what kind of help I need. But in general, this information is for me. It’s a living, breathing document that I use all the time to make sure I get where I’m going – kind of like a map.

It really doesn’t matter what tool you use to create your plan. I use Microsoft Office OneNote, which I really like, but it’s completely a matter of choice on how to record the information. I’ve mentored folks that have used an electronic spreadsheets, word processing documents, plain text files, even a database. The point is that it should be something you have accessible (if you’re going to record the information immediately) or accessible periodically (if you plan to do a summary each day or week). The key is that you stay on top of the plan. It’s not a “set it and forget it” kind of thing.

At the top of the plan, I have a paragraph or two that explains where I think I am, and where I want to be. How did I find that out? Well, the tools I mentioned in the last two articles will help find out what you want to be and what motivates you, along with knowing your learning style. From there, you can and should use lots of sources to create the part of the plan that states what steps you need to get there. For instance, assume for a moment that you want to a “production DBA”, or at least that’s part of the plan that will get you to being a “data architect”. One of the steps to being a production DBA is being able to install and configure the server, so you can break down the steps as granular as “Order a server from vendor” up to a more macro level of “Buy and Configure System”. Whatever level you want to track is up to you. To find out the steps for setting up a system, you have a wide array of choices:

  1. Ask experts
  2. Post a question in a Forum
  3. Read books, websites and magazines
  4. Look at college course syllabi and certification information online
  5. Find a vendor for that product and access their training materials
  6. Y Mucho Mas...

From there, you can lay out your plan like this:

Skill or Experience

References

Completed

Notes and Lessons Learned

Order System

Vendor Documentation (http://someurl.com)

“Building a System” article by Denny Cherry (http://someurl.com)

“SQL Server System Configuration” Whitepaper (http://someurl.com)

Twitter questions #sqlhelp

Forum Questions (http://someurl.com)

Read vendor documentation. 12/14/2000

Read articles and whitepapers 12/20/2000.

Questions on forums throughout December 2000.

Took Sr. DBA to lunch on 12/22/2000 to ask questions, took notes.

Ordered system X on 01/01/2001, configured on 01/23/2001.

Make sure the vendor knows why you want the system. Built it without asking this question and ended up having the change the HBA’s because they were not optimized for SQL Server.

As time goes on, you’ll begin to fill up your plan (see those last two articles for more).

Now I’ll explain a bit more about those resources you have, and when you should use them.

Resources

Before you try a single resource listed here, stop, go back and make sure that you know your learning style. The risk is that you’ll take off with these resources, look up an article on the web or in a magazine, and then get frustrated that you didn’t understand what you are looking at and think “this is too hard.” You’ll give up before you ever get started. Let me say that in my many years of teaching I don’t think I’ve ever run into someone that can’t learn to work with databases. I have seen, however, lots of frustrated folks that don’t know how they learn, so they spend a lot of time not learning. And that’s tedious for everyone involved.

Remember, like most people, you probably learn in multiple ways, for different kinds of things. I use one method of study for writing code, another for understanding concepts, and still another for practical applications of those concepts. Use those tests I mentioned earlier to understand yourself.

Also – whether you read a book or attend a class – the learning us up to you. The teacher is not responsible for your learning – only delivering the information in the most effective way possible. His or her job is to teach; your job is to learn. If you’re asking a question in a forum or anywhere else, you’re responsible for what you get out of it. Period.

Teach yourself

Your first option is to teach yourself. This is normally where I start. I investigate the topic myself, run into as many walls as I can, and document all that in the plan. I find this helps me understand the next method I need to use to fix my first level ignorance (see the first article for a description of that) and then on to finding out how to fix my second level ignorance. I also find that when I’ve done my research, my classes go faster and I ask more intelligent, smaller questions of experts, who are then willing to help me since I’ve put in the time to find out what I need to know.

I use a variety of methods to train myself. First, I start with reading books and magazines. Once again, use the community, experts, college course descriptions and certification sites to find those books and articles. I start with a large pool of books, and then ask others what they found useful. If I see a good 60% or more folks saying that a certain author or book series is useful and then read a chapter or two to see if it helps me.

The Web is the next source I use. You have to be extremely careful here, since “the Web” has no central authority figure, for good reason. But it’s difficult not to use vendor sites, community sites and so on for general information. Just know that you should start with the most authoritative places you can find, and work out from there. Document those in a Favorites folder or put them as resources right in your plan.

For SQL Server, start with Microsoft’s sites. The main one is here: http://www.microsoft.com/sqlserver and then use the “Learning” and “Community” links you’ll find on the menus there for more information. That will get you started, and then use the experts you find on that site for more and more references.

The Microsoft site won’t have everything – nor should it. But there are lots of references there to start with that you can use to locate the parts that Microsoft doesn’t cover.

Next, I always set up a testing system. I have an article on getting ready to set one of those up, but by using Virtual Machine technology and the evaluation versions of the operating system and other products, you can set up a functional testing system for literally no money other than your workstation itself. And I find that setting up real-world tests and running them over and over on my test system is a great way to learn. True, you really need to have production experience, but a test system is a great place to start, and a necessary skill to learn before you implement anything in production anyway.

My next stop is the SQL Server community. On Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, on Forums and chat rooms, there are an amazing amount of people willing to talk to you about SQL Server. In fact, if you have done your homework and ask intelligent questions, they are thrilled to help. It’s an incredible resource and one you should leverage constantly.

I like to meet those folks in person, so I try to attend as many professional conferences as I can. The most focused conference for SQL Server professionals is the Professional Association for SQL Server, or PASS. They hold an annual conference, filled with great content – but I actually go to meet and learn from others. They also hold a free set of local conferences called SQL Saturday, which you should also investigate. I have an article on the proper way to attend these conferences here.

Experts

One of the richest sources of information are people who are experts in the field of your topic at hand. You can read books from these folks, attend their sessions at conferences or classes in colleges, or watch them on video. If you’re really fortunate, you can get some time with them.

If you do – be very conscious of the fact that you are asking for help. Pay for it if you can, buy them a lunch at the very least, listen, have your specific questions ready and so on. Treat them with respect. You’ll find that many of them are more willing than you might think to help you out – provided you understand that your career is up to you. They will not, cannot, and should not take ownership of your question. Ask it, get the info, and send them a thank-you note.

College and other Classes

Classes are a great way to get out of a second level ignorance situation. They will walk you (as a group) through a series of learning and discovery steps. They are rich with sources of other information and provide a structured way of learning.

You don’t have to limit yourself to a full degree to get the information you need. You can take an extension course (many of them free on the web) and you can also attend certification or other courses. As always, do your homework to ensure that you’re getting the most information you can from any class or teacher. And remember that it’s something that you should supplement with your own learning. The rule of thumb is that you should spend at least 3 hours outside of any class for every 1 you spend in it. And that’s just a starting point.

Volunteer

Sometimes I’ve taught college courses to students who then have a difficult time finding a job in their field. Perhaps the economy is tough, or perhaps there are few employers in their area with openings for an entry-level position. I mention to them that they should take any job they can to bring in money, and then volunteer as a data professional.

There are many places that have technology needs, from churches to schools to volunteer groups. They are often grateful for any help you can provide, and you might even be able to match up with a more seasoned professional, gaining you not only experience in the area or topic but a resource you can learn from.

A quick search on the web will help you locate organizations in your area that can pair up professionals like yourself with organizations that need help. We have a great version of this where I live and if you don’t – then think about starting one!

Think

I’m going to close this series with a very simple, very difficult thing to do. In order to find out what you want to do in life, how you learn, or what you should do next, you need to learn to think deeply. There are a lot of ways to do this, but the simple explanation is to isolate yourself as much as you can, remove any technology you can, and spend as much time as you can. Focus on that one thought – what do I want to do? – and work through every angle you can. Don’t ask others (yet), don’t look anything up in library or on the web (yet), don’t use anything other than your own mind, for at least 3 hours. It’s even better to spend more than a single day, since scientists tell us that our brain thinks things through even when we sleep, and in a different way.

Then read through this series again. Think about what you want to take away from the lessons here, and then apply them, and don’t look back. Failure is inevitable – you will have setbacks, heartaches and problems. Welcome them, document them, learn from them.

InformIT Articles and Sample Chapters

Warren Wyrostek has a great series on careers here on InformIT: A Career Changer's Checklist. What Are You Waiting For? What Is Stopping You? is one of these articles he uses for energizing your career.

Books and eBooks

You’ll find Four Secrets to Liking Your Work: You May Not Need to Quit to Get the Job You Want to be 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.