You are of course someone who needs little introduction in the SQL Server community. A prolific blogger, tweeter, speaker, Microsoft Certified Master and now Managing Director of your own consultancy firm: Brent Ozar Unlimited.
You won’t be aware of this, but in a way you have brought this interview on yourself. It was your series on creating a SQL Server blog that inspired me to start my own blog. Here we are a little over two years later and I have the opportunity to interview you, small world!
Before we start on the main part of the interview, tell us all a little nugget about yourself that you haven’t blogged about before.
Awww, c’mon, man, you started with the hardest question! I’ve got over 2,000 blog posts and 50,000 tweets out there – it’s hard to think of something I haven’t shared yet.
Late one weekend night, I was working alone in the datacenter, trying to put a server into the top slot in a rack when I dropped it. Fell right out of my hands, about seven feet down to the floor. Broke the floor tile, busted the server up, and it was maybe two inches from smashing my toes. I had to go sit down outside for a few minutes to let my heart slow down. Whoops. Thankfully it was a VMware host that hadn’t gone into production yet, so no data was harmed in the making of that memory.
How did you start in SQL Server?
When I was a developer, my boss made me choose the company’s new platform – either Java or .NET. I spent a few months learning both, and then realized that if I was going to be a good developer, I’d be learning another new language every few years for the rest of my life. I hate learning languages, so I looked around for Plan B. ANSI SQL syntax has been pretty much the same for decades, and it even works across different database servers. Right then, I decided focus on databases.
You’re well known for being a bit of a social media animal. As I said in my intro you have mastered most of the social media channels in use today, how did that all come about?
Thanks, sir! I’m a geek, and geeks used to have this lonely life. Nobody understood why we would get so fascinated with electronics. The first time I played Jeopardy on IRC with total strangers in Japan and Europe, that was it. I’d found my home. The people in the next cube might not understand me, but I could hop on the webernet and belong to something.
I don’t get a lot of social media platforms. I don’t do LinkedIn because it seems like it’s all recruiter spam and blogger spam – I mean, I’ve got a profile on there, but I don’t do anything with it. Google Plus is okay, but just okay. I just try to pick the services that I enjoy using, and I follow people that are fun and uplifting. If you hate a social media system, it’s probably because you followed downer people. Try unfollowing absolutely everybody, then start again, but only add people when they make you smile. The experience is totally different. I call it Twitter Bankruptcy.
Keeping on the theme of media and marketing, you have of course used your own brand as the basis for your company. How helpful has this been in creating your own marketing campaigns to attract customers?
Honest to God, this was never a plan. I never had some big grandiose idea with a bunch of steps. I definitely didn’t start blogging to make money or start a company. I just wanted to help people, and be myself while doing it.
It all boils down to this: be the real you online. The hard part isn’t being you – the hard part is figuring out who you are. When I coach bloggers, I challenge them to come up with three words that define yourself as a person? How can you make sure that the things you put out online match up to those three words? If you see yourself as a teacher, a coach, a navigator, a student, whatever, how are you conveying that online?
Social media services all have these boxes that say, “What are you doing?” and you’re supposed to type in a status update. Don’t just tell people when you eat sushi – tell them what work you’re doing in a way that doesn’t violate NDAs. People will understand that you’re the DBA who eats sushi, or whatever it is you do, and surprisingly, the business follows. I don’t do marketing campaigns – we don’t spend a dollar on ads, at least not yet. All of us just talk publicly about what we’re doing, and then when other people need that work done, they call us.
Possibly being counter intuitive here as you may be helping your competition, but what would you say are key mistakes that you see in other businesses? You could put a positive spin on this I guess to make it what differentiates your company and makes it so successful?
So many consulting companies won’t allow their consultants to have fun. I want to work with the happiest, funniest, most infectious people around. They don’t get that way by accident – they have to be cultivated and cared for. When I hear a consultant tell me he’s got a $50 per diem for meals, works with on a crappy laptop without an SSD, isn’t allowed to tweet, or whatever, I just shake my head. That consulting company won’t keep good staff. The consultant has to be ecstatic to come to work every day because that’s the image you want to take to the clients.
Although I have asked questions about media and marketing so far, technical excellence is obviously the cornerstone of the business and having more than one MCM on staff is a fantastic achievement. Career progression is obviously very important to a number of people. How do you go about developing your staff?
We only bill 3-4 days per week, and the rest of the time we learn and share. If you wanna be paid for knowing the latest technologies, you have to keep learning and using ‘em, so that’s where the 1-2 days of education time comes in each week. All of us do it – for example, this morning before I wrote out these interview answers, I spent two hours catching up on my favorite database blogs.
They say a happy team is a productive team, how do you ensure your stay happy? Do you go in for any of these wild and wacky team building exercises?
We take vacations really seriously. For our first Brent Ozar Unlimited team retreat in 2012, we took everybody (the company and our loved ones) on SQLCruise Alaska. This year, we’ve got a ten-day team vacation planned, and we’ll be announcing the details on the blog in January.
During the rest of the year, we do a couple of one-hour webcam chats per week – one with the entire team, one with just the founders. It helps us stay on the same page, which can be tricky when all of us work from home.
I’m not asking for me here as it would be something like a 13hour commute each way J If you were in a position to hire a new consultant what attributes would you be looking for?
Jeremiah, Kendra, and I all have different things we look for – and by the way, that’s important when you cofound a company too. You want different and complimentary viewpoints. Anyway, I look for someone who’s completely excited about giving back to the community. I want someone who doesn’t take themselves seriously, yet is comfortable and confident about their capabilities. Most of all, I want somebody that I’m going to be excited to work with. No downers allowed.
Having been on so many sites you must have seen some absolutely outrageous implementations of SQL Server. Without giving too much away about the client (unless of course they are a case study for you) what has been the coolest and most terrible things you have witnessed?
The coolest things I see are companies who build amazing solutions without a DBA. For example, StackOverflow.com manages a blazing fast and super-complex SQL Server infrastructure across multiple datacenters without a full time DBA. Plus, they do a better job of it than a lot of DBAs I know! kCura’s another one – they build software solutions for the legal discovery industry, and they land multi-terabyte databases at their clients who sometimes have no DBAs. It takes guts and skills for an ISV to pull that off.
The most eye-opening thing in a bad way was a company that had around 50GB of data in a database. Portions of that data was sent out to all their sales reps – thousands of them – in copies of Access databases. Every day, the home office application read the 50GB of data, picked out the data needed by each sales rep, and created an Access database for each sales rep – and then stored that Access database in the database itself as an image field. The database was over a terabyte, but 95% of it was just the same data copied over and over in Access databases. The database was in full recovery mode (because the 50GB was critical), and the Access databases were regenerated from scratch every day, so this meant over 1TB of transaction logs every single day. We moved the table with all the Access files over into another database, left a view behind with the same name (pointing to the new database & table), put the new database in simple recovery mode, and stopped backing it up. All their high availability and backup problems went away without any application changes required. Whew.
There are of course many other aspects to running a business than knowing SQL Server and marketing. How does Brent Ozar Unlimited manage this? For example are there any outsourced services that you use to make things easier.
The first thing a business founder should do is get a good accountant, and get that accountant to recommend a good lawyer. (Or vice versa.) We’ve got a marketing firm (Synotac.com) to manage our web site design and branding. Everything else we do is in the cloud: QuickBooksOnline.com for accounting and payroll, Dropbox.com for team file storage, Github.com for source code control, EarthClassMail.com for incoming snail mail, HelloFax.com for faxing, Voice.Google.com for phones, and hosted Gmail for mail and calendars.
For someone who is thinking about going freelance what advice would you give them?
Consultants need three things: a price, a service, and a reputation. You can’t be a successful consultant without all three. If you think you’re going to hit the on-ramp to freelancing soon, then pretend you’re hitting it right now. Where will your next paycheck come from? Is your phone ringing and your email box filling up? If it’s not, you’re going to have a rocky road. I’ve had a couple of personal friends leave their full time gigs and I’ve been able to get them enough consulting gigs to get them started, but if you don’t have that on-ramp, it’s not the time you want to learn.
If you can get a signed contract to keep you fed for the next month or two, take the leap. There’s never been a better time to get database work. Just be careful thinking you’re going to get remote work – the instant you’re a remote worker, you’re in competition with everyone else, everywhere else in the world.
What has been your most memorable moment as an M.D. so far?
While I was onsite working with a client’s DBA team, they stopped the meeting for an hour to interview a DBA candidate. The candidate walked in, saw me, and his eyes got big. He said, “What are you doing here?” I couldn’t stop laughing. We had a great interview, and the client wasn’t going to hire him, but I recommended they do it anyway. Within a year he was managing the DBA team. I love meeting people who really care about databases – and then helping them succeed.
Without giving too much away what are your ambitions for the company in the new year?
Right now it’s really easy to find a lot of free training, but it’s short. We’ve got a ton of free videos at BrentOzar.com and on our YouTube channel, for example – it’s great stuff, but it’s not really organized in a start-to-finish course kind of way. It’s also easy to find week-long database classes that are targeted at really senior people. I think we’re missing something in the middle, and we’re working on a few options that I think the SQL Server community’s really going to like.
Thanks for your time Brent and all the best for the new year.
You can find out more about Brent Ozar Unlimited at the website http://www.BrentOzar.com
Following this post from a syndicated source and want to read other interviews in the series? The anchor post for this series can be found here.