SQL Server Career: Gaining Experience

Learning Tree does not employ their instructors on a full time basis. Learning Tree instructors are brought in on an event by event basis to teach specific events in the technology or subject areas that they specialise. The rest of the time they will likely be working in a consulting, contracting or full time capacity outside of Learning Tree, working with the technology or subject area within which they teach.

I started my consulting and contracting business back in to 2007. I have absolutely loved the experience of working for myself, helping my clients utilize and benefit from all that SQL Server has to offer. I have been teaching and writing Learning Tree courses since 2010. You can check out my website www.gethynellis.com  to find out more information about what I do and the services that my company  provide outside of Learning Tree.

When teaching a class, throughout the week I often draw on the real life career experiences that I have gained in running my business. It helps to bring the course material I’m teaching to life. It seems to help attendees put the technical concepts we’re talking about in class into some real world perspective. This can often lead to further questions about what I do and how I went about starting my business and a conversation ensues. Attendees often say that they would like to do something similar, but they often question whether they have enough experience as they currently do use X or haven’t really used Y technology before. So the question is why is experience important? And how do you get experience, particularly if you are not using that technology in your current job?

SQL Server Career: Looking for expereince
Seth and Jake looking for someone with experience

To answer the first question above, why is experience important? There are number reasons why experience is important but the crux of it, if you are job hunting, it’s because some experience is usually a job requirement. Employers want their new recruits to be ‘work ready’. It doesn’t mean they won’t invest in your training and development but they want to know you have applied the technology you’ll be working with to some degree. They want you to be able to ‘hit the ground running’ to coin another recruiter phrase.

Which leads to the next question…How do you get experience, particularly if your current employer is not using that technology?

Your current skill/Experience level

Let’s start by analysing an attendee on a specific course. We’ll look at a typical student who would attend course 2108 SQL Server Database Administration.

Typically you would

  • Be a new or relatively new database administrator, ranging from 0 -24 months experience
  • You would have a little bit of knowledge about database theory. You would know about tables columns, primary and foreign keys and how they enforce relationships between tables
  • Know some SQL. Simple SELECTs and how to run a stored procedure is fine.
  • Have some knowledge about Windows Server

So someone on this course will just be starting out as DBA. We’ll teach you how to

  • Administer SQL Server 2012 and 2014 with SQL Server Management Studio and Transact-SQL
  • Ensure SQL Server security with logins, roles, users and permissions
  • Develop backup strategies and recover from disasters
  • Leverage SQL Server Agent to automate administrative tasks
  • Isolate and repair fragmentation and database corruption

You’ll then go back to work and apply those new skills each day and build and grow the knowledge you learned on the course back work. After a few years for whatever reason and there maybe many reasons, you decide look for a new job. Doing the same thing, in this case a SQL Server DBA, but for a different employer.

Typical Job description

I searched a popular UK based job site for SQL Server DBA jobs listed in the last week. I searched the database mid-August 2016. It returned 499 results. That’s not bad seeing as its summer season here in the UK. Summer season is typically  a time when recruitment often drops a little as people make the most of the sunshine.  Despite this database administrator  jobs are still in demand.

I looked at the first two jobs listed. I have included the job title and what each said about experience and technology

  • Job 1 – SQL Server DBA – The successful SQL Server DBA will need to have 3 years experience of SQL Server 2008 – SQL Server 2014. With experience of the Windows Stack you will be responsible for the day to day running of the SQL Server estate through monitoring of disk space, backups, log shipping, database mirroring, clustering, availability groups and troubleshooting failed jobs
  • Job 2 – SQL Serve DBA – We are searching for a candidate who has gained experience within a SQL Server Production DBA capacity- SQL Server Production DBA will liaise with teams to identify and resolve issues (Troubleshoot failed jobs), deploy new code and patches, undertake data transformations and migrations(ETL) as well as undertaking database administration, user access/security administration, Database backups housekeeping and optimisation Process reviews and maintaining documentation will form a key part of this role in order to provide insight and analysis to various departments and senior management

Let’s assume you have been doing job 2 for the last 3 years.  Fixing issues, deploying code changes. You have been  involved in ETL and also the bread and butter DBA work of backups, restores, security. You see that there is some overlap between the skills needed but job 1 requires some knowledge of high availability log-shipping, mirroring clustering and availability groups. You are interested in job 1 because job 1 according to the job site is paying £20,000 more than job two…However you haven’t been using the high availability features of SQL Server that as listed as skills needed in Job 1 as they were not needed in Job 2.

Obviously we will encourage you come on one of our courses to both learn and gain experience. Given the scenario above you You probably came on 2108 SQL Server Database Administration course or similar when you started out, or just after.

SQL Server Career: Course 2108 SQL Server Database Administration
Course 2108 SQL Server Database Administration

However in your current role you are not using high availability, just good old standalone SQL Server instances. In the scenario above you could  attend course 141 SQL Server High Availability would teach you about  the high availability features that SQL Server has to offer. All Learning Tree technical courses are designed to be hands-on so you’ll spend half the course working with SQL Server. You will also get access to a sandbox after the course this will be available for 90 days after so you can redo the exercises and hands-on labs if you wish and also experiment and try things out for yourself. The sandbox virtual machines are cloud based. The VM will reset itself each night. So you have three months to use the sandbox as you wish safe in the knowledge that anything your break will be reset overnight.

What happens if the sandbox doesn’t include the technology you want to use?

SQL Server Developer Edition

In a previous post on Learning Tree’s SQL Server blog Dan Buskirk mentioned that SQL Server Developer Edition is now free. You need to sign up somewhere and give an email address but then developer edition is free. Hurrah!!!! Check out Dan’s post for more details on how to get it free. If want to learn a SQL Server related technology SQL Server developer edition has all the features SQL Server has to offer…It’s basically Enterprise Edition but licensed differently. So you can install it on a virtual machine or even your laptop and learn and experiment with the features you want to learn about. Microsoft through its https://www.codeplex.com/ site makes many sample databases and solutions available so you can see the code working first-hand.. All the while gaining valuable experience in that particular feature or technology.

Forum Posts

You often get a requirement for experience of troubleshooting in job descriptions. The two examples above have it listed as a necessary skill. Now from my experience, see what I’ve done there?  It’s slightly contrived to try and break things then fix them. You deliberately broke it so you know  what has got wrong and know what to fix. How do you get experience troubleshooting a technology that your company is not using the that feature at that moment? Well, between the various forums (MSDN, SQL Server Central) and the questions that get asked on social media such as the #SQLHelp hashtag there are plenty of people experiencing issues and asking questions about how to fix it. You could follow some of the forums and attempt to help people fix the issues they have encountered. Then you have actually got experience of fixing real life technology problems. Even if you can’t fix the issue yourself first time, looking at the problem and gaining an understanding of the solutions provided on the forum will help you greatly if you encounter that issue yourself in the future, all the while building your experience.


There is more than one way of getting experience working with a technology. It doesn’t have to be written in your current job description for you to get experience of using and working with a particular technology. In fact, to make yourself more marketable either to a new employer or your current employer I would encourage you to have a full understanding of the SQL Server stack. You never know, your current employer might have a need for it in the future, or a future employer might want to have ‘experience’ of it to get that new job.

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