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The Man (or Woman) Behind the Curtain

By: on February 23, 2011 in Advice, Microsoft Certified Master, Training

It’s amazing how connected we all are today with things like Twitter and Facebook. The SQL Server community is pretty active on Twitter (you can follow me, too), and a little controversy was sparked which I wanted to comment on because I’ve been a victim of similar circumstances in the past.

Peter Adams (blog | Twitter) wrote what he probably thought was a simple blog post callling out Paul Randal (blog | Twitter) on being wrong in in a tweet. I don’t believe he intended to stir up any controversy, but boy did it spark some healthy debate in the SQL community.

Let me say from experience that Twitter is not the easiest medium to get a complete thought out in 140 characters, and responses are generally off the cuff. Paul even couched his tweet by adding “I believe so …” and owned up when he was wrong.

Now, I don’t think Paul went and crawled into a fetal position when he found out that he was incorrect. People you personally consider to be experts CAN and DO get things wrong from time to time. Do hitters in baseball bat 1.000? No! The best hitters are generally 1 for 3 (give or take), and SQL experts have a much higher rate than that. But they do occasionally have a swing-for-the-fences strike three.I can say from experience that Paul is one of the sharpest guys around on SQL Server in general, and especially the relational engine. That isn’t only because I know Paul, but if you look at what he has done over the years and his contributions to the community, it’s really hard to argue that.

I know it can be a let down when you find out someone you admire is human. I can remember when I first interviewed Dennis DeYoung back in 1996 and then met the band prior to a concert where I took photos for the Keyboard Magazine article I subsequently wrote. (Full disclaimer: if you haven’t picked up on it in my books about how I like the band Styx, well, you know now) Growing up, I thought those guys were untouchable and perfect. You have an almost mythological view of what goes on in a band. I can still hear the anger in his voice when I told him about a promotional CD sampler that their record company at the time (A&M) released that had songs that shouldn’t have been released. Dennis is a nice guy who I’ve always gotten along with, but that conversation got very serious, very quickly. He was NOT happy. That took me a bit by surprise and gave me a bit of a glimpse behind the mirror. The final shattering of the mirror came when I went to take the pictures. I went backstage prior to the Hartford, CT, show and before they did soundcheck. Dennis was nice to me, so was Chuck Panozzo (the bass player) when I happened to run into him (he’s actually an influence on my bass playing, even though he’s not Mr. Flashy). I didn’t see Tommy Shaw or Todd Sucherman but I can remember running into James ‘JY’ Young. He was sitting on a chair and when I approached him to just say hello, he was very cool and aloof. That put me off. (When I interviewed JY a few years later for the album Cyclorama for my alter ego, StyxCollector, it was just as weird … but that’s a story for another day.)

I realized these guys were human just like you and me. They get angry, they sometimes don’t want to deal, they put their pants on one leg at a time … well, you get the idea. I walked through the mirror. Since then, I’ve interacted with members of the band and it’s been great for the most part. I just talk to them as I would anyone else. I don’t put them up on a pedestal and I think they like the fact I don’t come at them as a fanboy.

I wish the story ended here for Paul and Peter. Sadly, it doesn’t. Full disclaimer mode: I’m not here to vilify Peter. After all, he did just tweet this: “Comments approved. I cherish freedom of speech ;)”. All I know of him is the blog posts and Tweets I’ve seen. I’m sure he’s a smart, stand up guy with good SQL Server skills, has a great family and friends, etc. He seems to want a MCM for SQL Server; you’re not some entry level DBA if you want that.

After that first post, he then posts a blog entitled “MCM videos and repeat of it in the SQLskills Immersion Events “.

Here’s the deal: everyone learns differently. Some prefer to sit in a class, others can just watch videos. When I deliver my clustering class, I’ve given parts of it at things like PASS, but unlike Paul, Kim, and Brent, I didn’t basically put the whole class online as they have. That is a ballsy move.

Those MCM videos are a wonderful resource for the entire community. I’ve watched a few and even for those of us who have been around the block and know a thing or two, they are a great refresher on some nuances of the basics we may have lost over the sands of time when we’re doing things like cramming clustering in our heads. AND THEY’RE FREE (go watch! now!).

The one thing a class affords you the opportunity to do is to ask questions in person, whiteboard, and interact with others. I know when I teach I also learn from my students. The best teachers are also great students. The best classes are interactive ones. When everyone is just staring at me and not participating or asking questions (PASS presos aside where you just take them at the end), I know it’s going to be a long day or week. Going to a class – even for material you can watch videos online for – can make the content somehow come alive. Hopefully you’ve all had moments like that.

Paul tweeted about how no class is 400 level all the time. It’s so true. Whether it is 2 students or 200, people will be at all different levels. If you assume everyone is at 400, you’ll lose a good portion of the audience. A good course writer will start at 200 and get deeper. It’s not a bad thing to reinforce some basic concepts even if it’s done quickly to ensure everyone is on the same page. It’s a basic level set. I do it, and I occasionally get the SAME ding that Paul is complaining about.

“I know this already” – yeah, but does your classmate? Have I been bored in classes or sessions at times? Sure, I’d be lying if I wasn’t. But once you get past what you know (or think you know), you hopefully pick up some tips that are invaluable, or learn different approaches to things you do. You need to go in with an open mind. And let’s face it, even 1 or 2 days of all 400 level content is too dense for most folks. Digesting deep content sometimes takes time to sink in. The right instructors can teach novices who don’t know anything as well as field the weird scenarios from the people who want that deep level of content. I hope I can count myself in that camp with some of you.

Does it end there? No. There’s a final blog post, “Microsoft Certification Trash Talk” where Peter posts some of Paul’s tweets about his thoughts on certification. You know what? I 100% agree with Paul and I’ve said it for well over 10 years. I can remember a conversation around 2001 or 2002 I had with a customer. They had a process that was taking on the order of like 14 hours to complete on SQL Server 7. By doing some optimizations with indexing and such, I got them down to under 4 hours I believe (I forget the exact number). I only had a little bit of time onsite, and I’m sure there were other things I could have tweaked. They were psyched. At the time I believe the cert was the MCITP/DBA one. The company asked me, “Can a certified MS person do what you just did?” My response was, “Only if they have the experience.” They were taken aback by that.

I know to get past HR who is screening resumes a certification has become de rigeur. The problem is, without the experience – at least to me – it is somewhat meaningless. In my mind, a certification should be something you do that cements your experience, not substitutes for it. Having taught some modules during two different rounds of MCM when it was a three week endeavor, and devised some training material, I can tell you that MCM is not your average certification. Kudos to Joe Sack and his team for coming up with a way to scale it, keep it real world, AND cheaper! Ask anyone who has taken it and passed if it was easy. I’ll bet they’ll tell you that it wasn’t, and they are some of the smartest people I’ve encountered on SQL Server.

If I was heading up a DBA staff, I would hire the people with the right experience. Would a certification be nice on that experience sundae? Sure, but I’ll take the guy or gal who has 10 years of experience in the trenches who can give me war stories about how he (or she) solved this problem or made it though some horrible crisis versus someone who has barely been around the block but has a lot of certification letters on his resume. Other hiring managers out there may see it the other way around. Of course there still needs to be the soft skills to go along with the DBA skills, but that’s not the point here.

You can’t teach experience. You can learn for a test (well, most tests anyway).

See the difference?


One response to “The Man (or Woman) Behind the Curtain”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Allan Hirt, Allan Hirt. Allan Hirt said: Blogged "The Man (or Woman) Behind the Curtain " http://tinyurl.com/5umzmv4 (inspired by today's events) #sqlblog @SQLskills #sqlserver […]

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