I wrote a little about training and certifications in my last T-SQL Tuesday post. It’s been four long years since I’ve taken a Microsoft exam, but I’ve never stopped learning.

I’ve recently started a new job and been asked for the first time ever, what are my desires for training in the next two years? Sure, I’ve been asked at the last minute what training I want to do, so budget can be spent, but this employer is actually planning ahead. Nice!

In recent months, I also helped someone prepare for an interview internally at her company, for a DBA role. She was successful and is now in her new role, having similar discussions with her own manager. It’s a complete departure from her previous role and she’s brand new to it.

Starting from scratch, pushed and pulled by different people, where do you start in a new technical role like this?

If you’re re-engaging with this after a while, like I am, what is out there these days? How have I kept up to date in the interim as well?

Blogs

Gah, blogging is way more difficult than I thought it would be. I haven’t published or even finished any of the more technical blog posts I’ve been working on yet either! Those are the most difficult ones to write, but I digress… People all over the world are working on problems and sharing their journey and solutions, for free, in the form of blogs.

Brent Ozar. Shortly after I started my first “proper” DBA role, my mentor put me on to Brent Ozar’s blog, from which I found many others and the SQL community at large. What I like about Brent and his mountain of content is the sheer simplicity of it all. Complex topics are explained in a way even the most inexperienced DBA can understand. He also does a 6 month training plan, for free, which he’s recently re-engineered from emails into blog posts to aid discovery. This blog is essential if you’re just starting out, in my opinion.

Simple Talk. A Redgate resource, but another essential one. There’s some top names posting here, going right back to 2003.

SQL Server Central. Another Redgate one, but more of the same, top blog posts from top names, going back to 2001. You’ll often find yourself on one of these two sites when Googling your SQL problems.

Kendra Little. A co-founder of Brent Ozar Unlimited, currently working for Redgate but maintaining her own blog. Kendra’s illustrations and writing style are another great example of explaining difficult topics in a simple way. I found this really valuable in the early days. Kendra also covers the meatier stuff like DevOps and has a Podcast.

There’s dozens and dozens of blogs out there about data and SQL, it would be foolish to list them all. Get yourself on social media and start discovering.

Social media

Maybe instant messaging is your thing, maybe, like me, you grew up in a world with IRC and now enjoy a bit of Slack.

Twitter. There’s an active SQL community on Twitter. If you need help, there’s the #sqlhelp hashtag as well. I’m following close to 500 accounts on @dansqldba now; it got so busy on my personal account I had to create a dedicated Twitter handle! It’s my main source of blogs and news for technology.

LinkedIn. There’s an active community, mostly the same as Twitter, over on LinkedIn. Some people only have time for LinkedIn though, maybe Twitter is blocked where they work or something. I’ve only linked one group here, but there’s others to discover.

Slack. Many moons ago, Chrissy LeMaire started the SQL Community Slack. You can grab an invite for yourself and connect in real time with thousands of data professionals.

User groups

I now happen to live in a place where I’m ideally located to attend not one, not even two, but three local user groups. All three of them have now been re-branded to “Data” rather than “SQL” as they were previously.

How do you find your nearest group? Hopefully they’re listed on the PASS web site, but keep your eyes open on places like Meetup.com and Eventbrite too. There’s also virtual user groups if you’re in the remotest parts of Scotland or something.

Conferences

SQL Saturday’s are what I started with, specifically the one in Cambridge. Typically a one day (Saturday surprisingly) and free conference, hosted all over the world throughout the year. There’s sure to be one near you somewhere. They usually offer a paid training day on the Friday too. I started by lurking and then volunteering to build my confidence a little.

SQLBits, announced for 2020 yesterday, was obviously top of the list for me, something I didn’t experience for the first couple of years when I started my own path as a DBA. This is the biggest SQL conference in Europe, in 2020 it will gain a day, going the full five weekdays for the first time. This is going to be the biggest ever! Don’t be shy, come along.

Self-paced training

Aside from conferences and user groups, this is my preferred method of training in general. This probably comes from studying in my spare time to gain Microsoft certifications, ultimately working for a company which makes and supports Learning Management Systems. Once I realised I could train on my own schedule, for relatively little cost, I was hooked.

One piece of advice if you’re going to use one of these systems; don’t use your work address email address if you can avoid doing so. If you move on, you’ll probably want to take your training history with you.

This approach isn’t for everyone, some people still prefer to spend a week away from the office, uninterrupted, being spoon fed and guided through all the training. I don’t learn anything this way, I get bored in a classroom setting, my mind wanders.

Microsoft Learn. Formerly the Microsoft Virtual Academy, this free resource from Microsoft will give you a taste of self-paced online training for zero cost. It’s also straight from the people who make the products you’re probably using. This is a massive improvement over MVA as well. If I know Microsoft at all, this post will probably age like milk, when they rename this, or replace it with something else, such as….

LinkedIn Learning. Microsoft owns LinkedIn these days, so by extension, they also own LinkedIn Learning I presume. This is another primarily video based online learning system. I was surprised when Microsoft Learn came into existence, I expected LinkedIn Learning to replace MVA.

Pluralsight. My own preference, I’ve been using this for about 5 years now, having been lucky enough to receive a team based membership in my previous and present employer. There’s thousands of courses on here for data professionals, creatives, managers and more.

Historically, I’ve insisted all available training budget allocated to me goes on this and SQLBits, but Pluralsight would be the absolute minimum for me. I would pay for it myself if I had to as well.

Books and such

I love a good technical book as well. Microsoft Press appear to have ceased publishing the Training Kits they used to when I got started. They only do Exam References now. So far these seem OK, they’re just not what I’m used to.

Certifications

You’ve done all that training, you’ve been on the job for a while, maybe you want that bit of paper. There’s no shame in that, especially if someone else is paying eh?

Icing, not cake. Remember this. There’s a 10 year old post over on Brent Ozar’s site, which I read for the first time about 5 years ago. This perfectly sums up my experience with certifications and is still relevant today.

When I started out, I thought certifications were the answer to everything. They’re not. They would teach me everything I would need to know. They don’t.

It’s like learning to drive; you study the theory (however you want), you drive a car for a while with an instructor (think mentors), you take a test. By the Power of Grayskull, you do not know how to drive at that point. When you get out onto the road, with real idiots, for the first time; that is when you actually learn to drive.

Certifications won’t teach you how to be a DBA, being a DBA will teach you how to be one. They might help you get your foot through the door or beat other candidates, but they’re not the be all and end all. Icing, not cake.

For SQL Server specifically. Go for the MCSA first, either 2012/2014 or if you’re right up to date, go for 2016. An over achiever? Well go for both! Once you get a feel for it, go for the MCSE as well.

For Azure specifically. Oh boy, this is a constantly moving target. Your best bet is Microsoft Learn initially, as the Microsoft team are having the most success keeping up with their own technology it seems.

There’s certification paths for Azure, but they’re also constantly moving targets. I would personally avoid classroom training for any of this, since all I’ve heard and experienced here was the training material had no resemblance to any of the products in the training. That’s how often it all changes. As a starting point, consider Azure Data Engineer Associate.

Use the training resources mentioned above to achieve your goal. I’ve found doing all of it to be the most beneficial; study the books, watch the videos, do the labs. Your brain will absorb different concepts and detail in different ways. You might not understand something until you do it yourself, or you might totally get it if someone explains it in a video and shows you.

Keep your eyes out for projects at work or problems to solve, where you can put your knowledge to the test way before your exam. This is what it really takes to pass the exams and get the certifications, if you want them to mean anything.

My own path

This post turned out to be much longer than I originally planned, but this covers everything I hastily sent to my friend in numerous WhatsApp messages, before I realised it would be better off as a blog post. Hopefully this is now useful to someone out there, it certainly helped me get my head around it all. I will revisit the post going forward as well.

My own path is finishing MCSA 2012/2014, I might go for the MCSA 2016, or skip to MCSE: Data Management and Analytics, then on to the Azure Administrator, Data Engineer and DevOps Engineer. The latter of those will probably all change, disappear or be replaced by the time I get to them, but for once I have a clear path and the budget ahead to back it all up. Cloud is clearly the future generally, but definitely where I find myself employed today. Learning is exciting!

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