Finding guidance

We all need guidance as we make our way through our careers and our lives. Some people are blessed with the right folks who can offer that by way of friendships and family members. Others have to find it the hard way. This post is about some of my adventures and mis adventures in this regard.

I am a passionate person by nature. I get excited with cool stuff, I go down a lot of rabbit holes, spend a lot of time on something just because I like it. I also come from a culture and a model that believes in ‘sharpening the saw’ and ‘immersion’ on a chosen subject as the only learning worthy of respect and the only model that you do until you retire. My father was a chemical engineer who made metal bearings that go on cars. He started in a small lab, and retired with 3 patents on the topic. Most of us are trained to think similar – to learn any one chosen thing in a lot of depth, invest huge amounts of time and retire experts.

I’ve learned pragmatism the hard way and the importance of attaching utilitarian value to tech I want to master. Those are not my natural virtues; I’ve been burned many times for lack of them.

In mid-2000s, I was a Senior DBA at a large leading healthcare provider company. My core skills were on SQL Server. The MCM had just been announced. It was kind of a done deal among many professionals like me that we’d retire SQL Server experts – and the MCM was exactly what we needed to get there. There were blog posts by Brent Ozar and several others on their adventures getting there. I had just started doing SQL Cruise-s – and during one of those cruises, one of the folks I met and was friends with suggested I take the MCM. Another friend also upvoted that suggestion and said he considered me ‘solid MCM material’, and if I took pains to learn and graduate, it would do wonders for my career. What they said was music to my ears. I went home after the cruise, talked to my boss, and immediately signed up for SQLSkills IE events. I was blessed with an incredible boss and team. This wasn’t hard to do or get approval for. After IE events, I spent a few months digesting the material and reading more. Then, I went to my boss again and requested approval for the MCM exam. It wasn’t cheap. The certs leading up to it were fine, but the exam was close to $2000.

My boss wanted to chat. We went out for lunch, and he asked about my reasons for going for the MCM. I said I was passionate about SQL Server and wanted to learn more. He asked again if I had any plans of leaving or going into consulting. He and I shared a very open relationship, and I would confide in him if I had those plans – I didn’t, so I said I was not looking to move anywhere, just do the exams, and that it would be a good investment in my future. His response was that I was among the best DBAs he had had, that he could trust me to fix any issue or if I didn’t know the solution, I knew the right people to ask. In short, from his point of view, the certification would not add significantly to the value I was providing already. And if it was a personal geeky interest I had – that was fine, but he wasn’t too keen on pushing for approval for the funding. I was disappointed and started considering moving jobs – finding a job that supported the MCM. That problem solved itself – the MCM went away.

During all this, I also figured out a lot of things. I interviewed for jobs that other people were MCMs also interviewing for. In other words, there weren’t any elite jobs you could go to because you were an MCM. Many people who were MCMs felt seriously underutilized at many places they were in. Compared to most full-time jobs, the knowledge was easier to use if you were into consulting (which I didn’t think was my thing). In short, if I had actually gone for it – the geek in me would have been happy, but it would have cost serious money/effort, and I’d have had to face all these realities sooner or later.

  • Time is limited. In fact, it is even more limited than money. You can make more or less money. You can do nothing like that with time. Going down rabbit holes or chasing my whims costs time that I am not going to get back.
  • Technology is only worth what we use it for. In other words, I could learn a Ken Henderson book backwards, but it will not be helpful unless I apply it to something and turn it around.
  • When people offer advice, they mean well, but you are the only person who can figure out what is suitable for you. This has to do with some cultural baggage also for me – in my part of the world, when people who are privileged or at a higher stature than you offer any advice, you *assume* it is right for you and do not examine it further. I still am prone to doing this. A lot of people are like me. It is also deeply ingrained in me, as it is with several people, to seek approval. We sometimes do things that may not be in our best interest to impress the person suggesting it.

    Some of the bad advice I have gotten and sent me down rabbit holes, besides the MCM, are below.
  • All datawarehousing projects fail. Don’t get into it’. I really wish I had gotten into it – BI would have made it easy for me to make inroads into data science and also visualization/data governance and so on. It is also much easier to learn other data platforms doing BI. And no, that line is ancient. There are many successful warehouses, including at the place I am at now.
  • ‘Learning R/Python can get you into data science’ – Nope. I went down this rabbit hole for a while. Blogged furiously on R, read up on statistics, and messed around with R calls from SQL Server. Data Science isn’t as easy as learning two languages. They hire Ph Ds for it for a reason. It is an area that needs solid expertise. You can do some of it with Azure ML and various others, but most data scientists are folks who went to school for data science. And it’s not the coolest data job either. They have their own collection of hassles and mundane work like everyone else does.
  • ‘Learning SQL Server is enough.’ – None of the interviews I’ve attended in the past 6-7 years have had serious in-depth questions on SQL Server. They want more cloud hosting experience, containers/kubernetes, open source experience – PostGres/MySQL, on and on. The world has changed since the times of graduating with an MCM and retiring on SQL Server.

So why am I rambling on and on about this? I was reading a blog post written by a dear friend – Tracy Boggiano, on the lack of women speaking on internals at an amazing conference on Internals. This led to a long-drawn Twitter debate where I wondered if mastering Internals would pay dividends in the long run, in today’s world. Many people thought I was wrong in what I said.

My thoughts in this regard were motivated by my past experiences, as detailed above. They had nothing to do with someone else’s passions or imposter syndrome or any other issue. I believe women and anyone should deep dive into what meets their needs as a professional – that could be Internals or anything else, it doesn’t really matter. Take any advice balanced with what suits you, and only you can determine that. If you are prone to the tendencies that I was (getting too passionate, not questioning if advice is right for me and not attaching enough pragmatic value to tech) – be self-aware and extra careful. That is all.

Thanks for reading.

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