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Growing Your SQL Server Skills without Breaking the Bank

By Mike Hillwig,

Over the past few years, I've had the opportunity to present at around 15 SQL Saturday events. I do this because I enjoy it; interacting with speakers and participants is a great way to spend a day. One of the questions I invariably get after a presentation is: "Where can I go to learn more?"

Over the past few years, I've learned two very simple truths.

  1. People are hungry to learn more.
  2. The SQL Server community is simply amazing at sharing what we know. 

The funny thing is that people seem to think that it's expensive to learn. The fact is that if you go looking for it, growing your skills doesn't have to break the bank. You just have to be willing to invest the time.

I've put together a little resource list in order to help people start to grow their skills. The good news is that most of this is free or close to it, other that the time investment. If you want to invest in yourself, the best resource you have available is time. Use it wisely.

Here are my tips.

  1. Read
  2. Watch
  3. Participate
  4. Go
  5. More

Read

I can't say this enough. There are some incredible bloggers out there. Some of them are amazing. Most of them are really good. Here is a small list of blogs that I read regularly. Even if I don't understand half of what they're saying, I often bookmark certain articles that I think will help me in the future. My advice is to set aside at least 30 minutes a day to read up on what's going on the SQL Server world. And when these people link to another author, start reading their posts, too. Keep in mind that I'm just scratching the surface. 

  • sqlskills.com - Paul Randal and Kimberly Tripp are my barometer in what I trust for SQL Server blogs. And I am willing to say that pretty much anything I read on their site can be taken to the bank. Between Paul, Kimberly, and their entire staff, they know their stuff. One of the things I often do with my R&D department is tell them they're wrong, point them to the blog post at SQLSkills.com and say "Because Paul says so."
  • brentozar.com
  • ThomasLaRock.com
  • Grant Fritchy
  • SQL HA
  • Adam Machanic

Watch

  • PASS Virtual Chapters - What you learn is up to you. There are all kinds of topics going on all the time. And they usually happen during the work day.
  • Quest/Dell - The folks at Quest Software, now part of Dell, put out a lot of great webcasts about SQL Server.
  • Brent Ozar - At least once a week, someone at Brent Ozar Unlimited is doing a webcast. You never know what you're going to learn.
  • Pragmatic Works - The good folks at Pragmatic Works offer some great free webinars in all things SQL Server.
  • Midnight DBAs. I'm one of those "early to bed, early to rise" people, but Sean and Jen put on a great midnight show. And yes, they do their webcasts at midnight. 

Participate

There are a ton of great online forums for SQL Server. Participate in one or two. When you see a problem or question that you've experienced, don't be afraid to chime in. Share what you know or what you know you don't know. Yes, someone will tell you you're wrong. Being wrong spawns learning, too.

  • sqlservercentral.com
  • dba.stackoverflow.com
  • Twitter - The SQL Server community is very active on twitter. Just look for the hash tag #sqlhelp. There are some great tools for using twitter that are much better than the native browser interface. I use the Google Chrome app, but I've also had great success with both Tweetdeck and Hootsuite.

Go

There are lots of opportunities to learn about SQL Server, especially close to you. Seek them out.

  • sqlsaturday.com Every weekend, there is a SQL Saturday going on somewhere. Often times, multiple events are happening the same day. If there is one within reasonable distance to you, check it out. Even if it's a few hours away, you might be able to get there for cheap. And if you aren't afraid to find cheap last-minute airfares, you could find yourself at a SQL Saturday on the other side of the country.
  • PASS local chapters - In most cities, there is a local chapter of PASS. This is your local SQL Server user group. Find out where it is, where it meets, and just go. Even if they're talking about something completely irrelevant to what you do, you will probably learn something. And you'll have the opportunity to network with others in your community. Many of those people, especially your local chapter leader, will know where other learning opportunities are happening.
  • Your software company's local user group - I used to work with software called SalesLogix. They had a great local user group. While most of the user group meetings were focused on their software, you'd occasionally get nuggets of database advice.

More

There is a lot of training out there. Seek it out. Some of it is rather inexpensive. Many companies have cut back their training budgets. But if you're willing to shell out a little bit from your own pocket to further your own skills, your company might give you the day off to go for training. Mine certainly will. The question I've asked more than one manager is: "Are you going to make me burn my own vacation time for professional development?" Most managers will see the wisdom and give you the day off.

Here is my word of caution. I'm reluctant to go to training courses offered by the big learning centers such as Global Knowledge and New Horizons. They can offer classroom training that meets the requirements for certification courses. But at some point, you want to learn from people who have managed real systems and have solved real day-to-day business problems. Yes, some companies have negotiated contracts with them. But I'm not a fan.

  • Pragmaticworks offers some great training, both local workshops and paid online training. It's inexpensive and worth it. I know a lot of the folks at this company, and they know their stuff.

There are some great opportunities out there that will cost you some money. Some of them are worth every penny you spend.

  • SQL PASS Summit - If you want to attend the superbowl of SQL Server training, this is THE event. Very rarely do this many SQL Server professionals get together in one place. You'll learn more than you could ever dream. Yes, it's not cheap, but many of my colleagues have written some great articles on how to do this event without breaking the bank.
  • Your software's user conference - When I worked with SalesLogix, I was able to go to Sage's annual user conference a few times. I learned a ton about the software and was able to participate in a few sessions on managing the database as well.

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