Sweat Files and Practice Projects

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Today we have a guest editorial from Andy Warren as Steve is out of the office.

It’s tough to get started in a new career, or even to change silos within a field you’ve already joined. It’s hard to get experience without having experience as they say. It’s one reason I’ve often envied software developers; they can build stuff by just solving a common problem. How many developers wrote an app to catalog their MP3’s (or CD’s!) or built their own blogging engine? Projects like that are small enough in scope to be doable, but hard enough to drive learning and give you something you can show someone when you say ‘see what I can do’.

It’s harder in the database world. We might design a database for MP3’s or blogging, but most of us don’t live in the development world enough to build the front end that would use it or that would expose weaknesses/needs in our design. We can do some query tuning on single query plans, but getting practice at the kind of work that comes from the controlled madness of a multi-use instance is harder. You can extend that to reporting, business intelligence, SSIS, and a lot of things outside the database word too.

I was thinking about all of that again recently because of late I’ve been doing some SSIS work and it’s been a while since I’ve done anything complex using it. Going through the process of understanding the problem and designing a non-trivial package to solve it reminded me that it’s always harder when you’re still in the ‘syntax’ stage. It’s big enough in scope and size of data to be challenging, yet it only needs a handful of tables and some Excel files.

That brings me to ‘sweat files’. If you’ve read The Firm by John Grisham you may remember the law firm he worked for gave new lawyers huge projects with unrealistic deadlines (cue cynical laughter about how that happens in IT too) and kept moving the goal on them. The files were real, the clients fictitious, and the real goal was to train the lawyers (and break them down some too).

I wish we had more sweat files in the form of learning projects. A place where you could download a document describing the problem, scripts to set up any needed tables (or more), data, files, etc. A forum for clarifying questions about the requirement, another for “I’m stuck” questions, and maybe a gallery of examples of how people solved it. I think that would be powerful. Seeing how someone else solved it, elegantly or not, is a lot more interesting after you’ve solved it.

Would you use such a resource (or point the newbies to it)? Does it work better for SSIS than administration, or could we come up with a handful of projects for each area?

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