Scott Shaw was recently selected to speak at SQLRally. He has published articles at MSSQL Tips and is working on a book project. Kathi spent some time with Scott to learn about his journey from teaching English in grad school to SQL Server DBA.

Kathi: Scott, I see you are a speaker at SQLRally. What made you decide to submit your session?

Scott: I’ve been in IT a long time and I had switched careers to IT from Liberal Arts.  As a graduate student I taught English courses and some of my first consulting jobs were teaching IT.  I’ve spent quite a few years away from teaching and speaking in order to work in the industry and build up solid experience.  I’m at a stage in my career and life where I’m looking forward to getting out from behind the computer to talk and contribute to the SQL community.

My first conference was a SQLSaturday event. My presentation topic was narrow and my audience was small but everyone was wonderful, helpful and encouraging. When the PASS organizers announced a call for speakers for SQLRally, I felt like I had a good idea and decided to throw my name into the event.  I was lucky enough to get voted to present and I feel strongly that this is simply an extension of what I was doing years ago as a Liberal Arts graduate teacher.  It’s strange sometimes how things come full circle.  I think my sudden submission to the event was simply an extension of what I’ve wanted to do all along.  I’m just very grateful it was accepted.

Kathi: Tell me more about your journey from teaching English to being a successful SQL Server DBA.

Scott: Well…I’d love nothing better than to tell you I had a great epiphany and calling to IT and, although I planned on teaching college English, I knew I was born to be a SQL DBA. The honest answer is my wife and I wanted to start a family and IT pays the bills.  Keep in mind I received my MA in the late nineties.  This was during the .dot com boom and companies and recruiters were begging for workers.  I faced the daunting decision of spending $50,000 to go get a Ph.D for a job that may pay $25,000 or I could decide where I wanted to live and jump into IT.

The transition was really not all that difficult.  I had always enjoyed computers from the days of the Apple II and the Commodore 64.  My older brother was more of the techie of the family (and still is) but I enjoyed playing games on them and doing some minor coding.  What I discovered early on is there is an immensely creative side to technical work. Whether you’re programming or troubleshooting it takes a strong level of curiosity and creative reasoning to solve technical problems. This wasn’t that different than some of the critical reasoning skills you learn in Liberal Arts.  I’ve also discovered the soft skills I learned in Liberal Arts (writing, communicating, etc.) can be a great differentiator for you in IT.  The same cognitive skills that allows someone to slog through a 800 page Victorian novel and analyze the imagery and the historical references is the same cognitive discipline which allows someone to tackle a complex technical error, evaluate all the factors, and have the patience to derive at a resolution.

Kathi: How important is it to you to keep your skills up to date, and how do you manage to do so between work and family?

Scott: It’s part of the job.  There is no separation between being a DBA and keeping up with technology. If you are unwilling to maintain your skills than your job will always be at risk.  There are different levels of skills, though.  I’m really not the most technical person.  There are any number of much smarter and analytical people out there who know the inner workings of the SQL engine and can write yards of T-SQL code.  There is a middle-ground.  As a DBA you owe it to yourself and your company to at least do enough research and have enough intellectual curiosity to understand what those really smart people out there are doing to make your databases more efficient and manageable.

Balancing work and family is without a doubt a struggle. My wife has been wonderful with understanding the pressures and commitments that come with working in IT. She was also with me in the 6 years it took me to get a Masters in Information Management Systems.  I only took one class a semester because any more than that would have been too much.  There are still struggles but I think it’s important to do things outside your comfort zone.  My wife and I try to think long-term and remind ourselves that there may be a day when I will no longer have to be on call.

Kathi: What value, if any, do you see with social networking? In other words, have services like Twitter (@shawsql), Face Book and Linked In helped get you more involved with the SQL Server community?

Scott: There is no doubt social networking has transformed the SQL Server community.  Anyone has instant access to the thoughts and habits of some of the best minds in the industry.  I haven’t yet gotten the whole thing down yet.  I guess I’ll need to work on things that make my life more interesting in the hopes I can find something to write about.  Just keeping up the blogs and Twitter messages as well as posting Facebook messages not to mention writing articles is a full time job.  My struggle is also with the speed things move.  You may have an idea one day and by the next day someone has already blogged about it.  To be good at it you need to constantly provide content. If people keep checking-in and there is still the same stale content then they’ll lose confidence and move on.  It’s daunting but some people are very good at it and they do a lot to help everyone in the SQL Server community.

Kathi: Do you have anything else you would like to tell our readers?

Scott: I’d like to add that if you are new to SQL Server or looking to break into the SQL Server community, start with your local user group. Most areas have a local user group or even think about starting one if you can’t find one in your area. Also, take advantage of what the SQL community has to offer. It is truly unbelievable how much quality, free knowledge is out there. Check out IT Learning on Microsoft’s website and think about certification.  I broke into IT because of certification.  I was a manager at a Barnes and Noble coffee shop.  I read the Microsoft books and got my MCSE. Every person who came in I told them I had my MCSE.  Finally, an owner of a small consulting firm said let’s interview and two weeks later I was working IT.  The SQL community doesn’t compete against each other. We are here to help and to give advice.

And to the SQL pros I want to thank them for the time and effort they’ve put forward to publish the articles, write the blogs, and publish the books that help everyone.  Now that I’m working on some of those things myself it amazes me the time and effort it takes to bring content and ideas to the SQL Server community. Thank you for leading the way.