Jan 222014

With over 40 weeks to go, PASS Summit 2014 may seem like the distant future, however the planning phase is already well underway. An event like the Summit is only possible because of the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, and opportunities to help this year are already starting to pop up.

One such opportunity is the Program Committee. It’s a wonderful way to help out, even if you can’t attend PASS Summit. That’s right, you can be part of the Program Committee without ever leaving the comfort of your home office, balcony, back porch, or wherever else you can get an internet connection.

What does the Program Committee do? In short, they determine the program! The committee is made up of a few different teams:

The Speaker/Abstract Review Team reviews and rates every speaker and abstract submission. Based on these rankings, the session lineup is determined.

Once the lineup is set, the PowerPoint Review Team goes over the selected abstracts for things like grammar before they are published on the website and printed in the guide. They also review the final drafts of PowerPoint slide decks before being presented at the Summit.

Finally, there’s a Special Projects team that helps out year-round with things like testing and reviewing the software used by the review teams.

Is it fun? I’ve been fortunate enough to be chosen for this committee the past 3 years, and it’s been an excellent experience. It’s a wonderful way to volunteer and help be a part of such a large event that so many people enjoy. It’s also a great way to meet new people: I’ve met someone new each year through program committee.

How much time does it take? I’m not going to lie, it takes time. We’re all busy people, so it’s not about having time, it’s about making time. In the case of speaker/abstract and PowerPoint review, you’ll want to pace yourself so that it takes a few hours per day over a few weeks because there’s no way you can do it all in one sitting. The number of abstracts submitted is in the hundreds, and the speaker/abstract review team reads and ranks all of them. The past 2 years I’ve put in probably 10-12 hours per week for 2-3 weeks doing abstract reviews.

What is reviewing like? Reviewing is tough – there are many abstracts of very high quality, and there’s no way the schedule can accommodate them all. Being on this committee gave me a real appreciation for how many abstracts are submitted and how good they all are.

But I’ve never done anything like this before! I hadn’t either, but there’s a first time for everything, right? It’s important to remember that you won’t be doing this on your own – you are part of a team with plenty of others who are ready and willing to offer support and advice.

So I can join the committee give my abstracts the highest rating possible, right? Now that wouldn’t be very fair. You most definitely can submit abstracts and be on the Program Committee, however you cannot review abstracts for tracks that you have submitted for.

Sound good? If the PASS Summit Program Committee sounds like something you’d be interested in, apply today! Applications are being accepted until 9:00pm PST, Wednesday 5 February 2014.

Dec 102013

This post is part of the DBA JumpStart series being written by myself and 19 other professionals from the SQL Server community and coordinated by John Sansom (@SQLBrit). It has been compiled into a free eBook, which can be found here. Be sure to download a copy!

If you could give an aspiring DBA just one piece of advice what would it be?

My favorite thought on this topic is don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are one of the ways that we learn. Make a lot of them, and you’ll have many opportunities to learn. Really.

I hear the term “expert” thrown around a lot, occasionally even in contexts I agree with. To me, an expert is someone that’s found an incredible number of ways to break things, and has used those experiences to their advantage. They have figured out how to fix everything that they have broken, and even more importantly, they know how to avoid breaking things in the future. Whenever something goes awry, the worst possible outcome is to not learn anything from it. So long as this isn’t the case, you can always make at least some good come from a sticky situation.

This is not to say that you should go out making mistakes or breaking things. Creating problems in a production environment is still a very bad idea that could have a negative impact on your career. These mistakes are best made in development or (even better) a local sandbox instance. Practice everything there before making changes in production. Even more importantly, take some time and think about all the different things that can go wrong. If possible, make those situations happen in your DBA environment and then figure out the best way to recover from them.

Along those lines, not being afraid to make mistakes also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for them. Even if they are inconvenient, simple actions such as making sure backups are up-to-date and on hand before launching a change can be the difference between looking like a rockstar for recovering gracefully from an unforeseen issue, and having egg on your face.

Jul 022013

I was recently extremely honored to find out that I earned the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) certification for SQL Server 2008. For me, this is a major milestone in a long, difficult, and costly journey. I have received several questions about it already, and while I can’t answer everything, I am happy share as much of my experience as possible.

Why do I want to be a Microsoft Certified Master?

MCM LogoIf you’re considering pursuing the MCM, you really need to sit down and ask yourself why you want to do it beforehand. If you believe that becoming an MCM will lead to being showered with job offers or a massive pay increase at work, I would urge you to reconsider. I’m not saying these things can’t or won’t happen, after all the MCM is a valuable certification that very few people hold. My advice is merely to not expect it to happen. I’ve always been one to set my goals high and my expectations low, as I would much rather be pleasantly surprised if good things happen instead of being crushed if they don’t.

Earning the MCM certification was a personal goal of mine. For a long time I’ve wanted to become the best DBA I can possibly be, and in my mind becoming an MCM is an excellent way to prove to myself that I’m on the right path.

How do I become an MCM?

The first step is to earn both of the prerequisite certifications: MCITP: Database Administrator 2008 and MCITP: Database Developer 2008. For the administrator certification you must pass 70-432 and 70-450. Passing 70-433 and 70-451 will earn you the developer cert. These are just the certification prerequisites – you should also have the experience prerequisites which you can see on the Microsoft Learning website.

Once all of the prerequisites have been completed, you’ll be eligible to sit for the MCM Exams. Yes, there are two of them. They are the MCM Knowledge Exam (88-970) and MCM Lab Exam (88-971). You need to pass both to become a Microsoft Certified Master of SQL Server, and you’re not eligible to try your hand at the lab until you’ve passed the knowledge exam.

How should I prepare for the MCM Knowledge Exam?

Everyone has their own combination of study methods that work best for them, but here’s what I did. In terms of certification exams, I’ve always tried to study as little as possible. Anyone can cram for a test, remember things long enough to pass, and then forget it all shortly thereafter. I’ve said for a while now that if you really want to see how much you know, don’t study at all and go take the test. Or if you feel compelled to study, only review specific topics you feel you need to brush up on. I recommend these methods for the MCTS/MCITP (SQL Server 2008) and MCSA/MCSE (SQL Server 2012) without hesitation.

All that being said, the MCM is a different beast entirely. Not only is it much more difficult, but more expensive as well. Most of the prerequisite exams are in the $125-$150 range, while the MCM Knowledge Exam is $500 and the lab exam is $2000.

For the MCM Knowledge Exam I think you should definitely do some reviewing, but once you feel like you’re ready, you should try taking it. Sure it’s difficult, but not impossible. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not cheap, but there’s no better way to find out what’s on the test than to take it. If you don’t pass, you’ll have a much better idea of what to prepare for the second time around.

What is the MCM Knowledge Exam like?

I’d love to tell you about the excellent questions you’ll find on this test, but I’m not about to violate the integrity of the exam or the NDA I agreed to. What I can do though is tell you about my experiences taking the test.

I took the knowledge exam at the Prometric Testing Center in downtown Chicago back in December of 2011, which I believe is (or was at the time) the only location in Illinois offering the test. Administratively, probably the only difference between the knowledge exam and any of the other exams I’ve taken there was the security: there was more of it. Before starting the test I had to prove my pockets were empty by pulling them inside out – this seems to be the standard for all tests I’ve taken. In addition to that, this time I was also wanded with a metal detector and my fingerprints were captured via computer.

The test itself was multiple-choice like all the prerequisite exams, but it was longer and the questions were more difficult. It did an excellent job of making me think, and was very much in line with what I was expecting.

How should I prepare for the MCM Lab Exam?

Again, different methods work for different people, but in this case I believe that regardless of your skill level, you should be preparing heavily for the lab exam.

The first thing I did to prepare started long before the MCM was in my sights, and that was reading blogs and whitepapers. SQLskills.com has an excellent list of recommended readings, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had already read a number of them in the process of satisfying my curiosity. (I re-read them all again in preparation for the lab).

After that, I watched all of the MCM Readiness Videos. They’re a tremendous resource, covering a lot of topics and demonstrating many of their basic facets. That being said, watching the videos alone will not prepare you for the exam. They even warn you of this at the beginning of each video.

Then came practice, practice, practice. The lab exam isn’t just knowing about features, it’s about being able to implement them. I made sure I was familiar with the T-SQL syntax and (when applicable) the graphical methods for implementing all of the features covered in the videos and reading. I went through this several times to make sure I was good and comfortable.

But that’s still not enough, because being familiar with implementing features in isolation pretty much guarantees an ideal environment for doing so. Is your production environment ideal? I know none that I’ve worked in have been. In fact, I’ve found plenty of surprises that have popped up – perhaps things done by my predecessor that have long-been forgotten. The MCM lab models situations you’re likely to encounter in the real world.

The MCM lab is open book. You are free to use the copy of Books Online (BOL) provided in the testing environment to answer any questions you might have. This can be a huge help when used properly, but it’s important to realize that the more time you spend looking through BOL, the less time you have to solve problems. Getting familiar with the installed version of BOL ahead of time may prove valuable when taking the test.

SQL Server has so many features and material to cover that there’s no way to ever know it all. My advice is to do all the above, and when you feel ready, jump in and try the lab. If you pass, awesome! If not, just like the knowledge exam, you’ll have a much better idea of the type of questions it contains and how you can better prepare for another attempt.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Speaking of “another attempt”, heh, I’ll come right out and say it: I didn’t pass the lab exam until my third try. I’m not ashamed either – it’s hard! To protect the integrity of the exam, the results you get back offer very little information. There’s an overall percentage of the passing score, and then it’s broken down across a few categories from there.

I don’t know what the score necessary to pass is – they don’t tell us, but let’s just say that it’s 70% for sake of argument. On my first attempt I had 72% of a passing score, so that would equate to 50.4% overall. But again, I really don’t know what a passing score is, I’m just pretending it’s 70%. All I know was that I was 72% on my way to passing and didn’t have much studying to go. I knew I did much better on my second try, but still came up short with 91% of a passing score, or 63.7% overall based on my assumption. The third time was the charm for me.

Microsoft gives out no information on this that I know of, but I would have to imagine that a majority of people don’t pass on their first attempt. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The MCM has much more in common with a marathon than a sprint.

What is the MCM Lab Exam like?

I’ll describe the lab exam using 3 words: great, fair, and hard. As a fellow MCM told me, “that test is no joke” and I couldn’t agree more.

It’s great because the questions are very well thought out and do an excellent job of testing your skills. Not just skills for accomplishing objectives, but also things like troubleshooting and finding creative solutions that might not follow established best practices.

It’s fair because while it asks great questions, I didn’t feel any of them were too outrageous. It was clear to me that I did a good job of preparing when I was not totally clueless about any question it asked. The scenarios are based on things you can reasonably expect to encounter throughout several years of real-world experience. I never got the impression that any of the questions were overtly tricky or written with sinister intent.

It’s hard not just because the questions are great, but because it comes with a time limit. If I had a week to do all the tasks in the exam, I would have aced it no problem. But you don’t get a week. In fact, you don’t even get a standard 8-hour workday. Your time allotment also includes any breaks you might need. Need to use the restroom? That’s fine, go as much as you want, however the clock will not stop. After skill, time management is by far the most important aspect of taking the test.

Testing Environment

My third attempt at the lab exam was done remotely from my house. This is an excellent option, because you get to take the test in the comfort of your own home. You can also have a drink or a snack while working, and should you need to take a bio break, you won’t incur the extra delay of going through the testing center’s security checks before resuming.

My first two attempts taking the lab exam were done at the testing center, but you won’t have that option anymore. As of January 1, 2013, the MCM Lab Exam is only offered over remote connections. I think this is a great change that will make life easier for those attempting the test.

It’s important to remember that testing centers cater to LOTS of different types of tests and many are not IT-related. I’ve seen people taking exams for accounting as well as medical certifications. My wife has also taken tests there for certs in her field. From my experience, testing centers are usually setup for exams that involve multiple-choice questions (lots of mouse clicking) or essays (lots of typing.) These tasks can be accomplished reasonably well on the provided 17″ monitor. The MCM Lab doesn’t really fit either of those scenarios though, as you are actually carrying out DBA tasks in SQL Server Management Studio. While it’s totally possible to get the job done on a smaller monitor, it’s no secret that things get easier with a little more screen real estate. At home, you’re already familiar with the dimensions of your environment, so there’s one less thing to worry about.

Do You Have Any Tips for Taking the Lab Exam?

As I said above, time management is very important. As soon as the test starts, do some quick math and divide the number of minutes you have by the number of questions there are. This will give you a good idea of how many minutes on average you can dedicate to each question. Try to stick to this, as it’s very easy to get sucked into spending too much time on individual questions.

Read through everything! At the Boy Scout camp I went to, individual patrols were responsible for cooking all their own meals. Recipe sheets we would get from the commissary always said something like “read through all of these instructions twice before you start cooking” as the first step. Just like cooking at scout camp, read through the entire test before you start working on problems (but only do it once – the clock is ticking!) Make notes about what each question is asking (scratch paper is allowed). Start working on the questions you think you’ll be able to correctly solve the fastest. After completing everything you’re comfortable with you will have the rest of the time to focus on questions requiring more work or that you aren’t so sure about.

How Long Does It Take To Get Results?

Waiting is not fun, especially when you’re waiting on the results of tests that you’ve spent so long preparing for. After completing the lab exam, there used to be a 30 day delay before receiving your results. This upset many people and didn’t seem to serve much purpose. Fortunately the MCM Team listened and changed this policy back in March. You can now expect to receive lab exam results much more quickly.

As the blog post says, this does not apply to the knowledge exam, which is scored by Prometric apparently around the 15th of the month. It can take up to 30 days to receive scores for the knowledge exam, but it may be quicker depending on when you take it.

Good Luck!

To anyone out there who is working on the MCM, I hope you found this helpful, and best of luck to you!

Sep 132012

In my previous post I mentioned that we currently have a few positions open on my team. I got some emails inquiring about them so I thought I’d explain a little more.

Where do you work?
I work for the Northwestern Medical Enterprise Data Warehouse. We’re a part of Northwestern University, and we’re charged with storing and making available for research purposes all the medical data generated by Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation, and the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. We’re an all-Microsoft shop currently storing over 20TB of data in SQL Server and growing.

What positions are open?
We have 2 positions open at the moment: Data Architect and Database Administrator.

Data Architects are responsible for designing our schema structure. They also design and maintain the SSIS processes that are responsible for loading data from source systems into the EDW.

The Database Administrator will be working with me, and will be focusing on the DBA needs of one of our campus partners, the Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation.

For full details, check out the official postings for Data Architect and Database Administrator.

Where are these positions located?
We’re located at Northwestern University’s Chicago Campus.

Can I work remotely from somewhere else?
Sorry, not at this time.

What’s the team like?
Our team is awesome! We have a great group of people with some diverse backgrounds, but we’re all really passionate about data. We take our work very seriously, but have a great time while doing it.

How do I apply?
If you have questions or are interested in either position, email us at EDWDevelopers@nmff.org.

Sep 102012

In our formative years we’re taught again and again that one should never judge a book by it’s cover, but when seeking employment that all goes out the window when you create a sheet of paper so that potential employers can judge you by it. Ironic, eh? That’s life, so  make sure your résumé represents you in the best possible light. That way you can maximize your chance of avoiding the trash can when HR spends a paltry 6 seconds deciding if you’re worth a phone screen.

My team has a bunch of open positions, which means we’ve been looking at lots of résumés. A few are great, some are good, and sadly, most fall under the category of “meh”. As we go through more and more of them I’ve come up with a list of things that I really don’t want to see on a résumé. Here they are in no particular order:

Ok, this is the easy one. The purpose of a résumé is to give a very quick impression of your skills and background to potential employers –  any type of error, grammatical, innocent, or otherwise, will make you look sloppy at best. You should be proofreading your résumé regularly, and when you’re tired of proofreading, do it again. Let others have a look at it as well because a fresh set of eyes can do a document wonders. No matter how good your qualifications look, saying that you’re proficient on a “Macingosh” computer or have experience with “Windows 2007” will tell a very different story.

Unprofessional Email Addresses
An otherwise spotless résumé might not look quite as good if you tell an employer you can be reached at HelloKitty123@aol.com. There’s lots of ways to get free email addresses, so take 5 minutes and create one that’s based on your name.

Calling Yourself An Expert
I’ve seen 2 résumés now where “expert” was the first word on the page after the name. In phone interviews, both of these people couldn’t answer simple questions like naming the system databases. I feel very fortunate to know several legitimate SQL Server experts, but I don’t think any of them would use that word when describing themselves.

This one is huge. I’ll take it one step farther and say don’t put anything on your résumé that could be remotely considered as misrepresenting yourself. The second that a potential employer starts to think you’re saying something that isn’t completely true, your chances of getting the job go out the window. Why take a chance on someone who might be lying when there’s a whole stack of résumés of people who probably aren’t? Even if you somehow get the job, it could come back to haunt you later.

Irrelevant Information
I’m not sure it’s necessary to write a completely custom résumé for every job you apply for, but it’s a good idea to remove things that aren’t really relevant to the position. For example, if you’re applying for a DBA role, the fact that you were a cheerleader in high school probably isn’t going to help you. Remember that HR or whoever is reading your résumé will want to want to find potential hires very quickly. The more noise they have to read through, the less appealing you’ll be.

Being Too Verbose
A résumé should only be long enough to prove you’re qualified for the position you’re interested in. For most people, this is probably 1 to 2 pages.  I can see it being longer if there’s good reason, perhaps if you’re a consultant with a wide variety of relevant experience, otherwise keep it short. I’ve seen quite a few that are much longer than they should be, such as 10 or more pages. I actually got one that was 16 pages not too long ago. Listing your entire employment history and every project you were a part of isn’t necessary. If you’re applying to be a .Net Developer, the fact that you did assembly programming on a mainframe in the early 1980’s might be a good anecdote to bring up during the interview, but doesn’t warrant real estate on your résumé.

Using Crazy File Formats
I keep my résumé in 2 formats: a plain text file, and Microsoft Word. Whenever possible I try to submit PDF files made from the Word document. I think PDFs are the best way to ensure your résumé looks the way you intended it to, no matter who’s reading it. Even if you don’t want to fork over the cash for Adobe Acrobat Pro, there’s a bunch of free PDF generation tools out there that can also do a great job. As for the text file, I keep that around for times when HR websites won’t allow uploads and instead require that I cut and paste my résumé into a web form. Having everything ready to go in a text document makes this much easier.

Bonus Tip: If possible, try to embed your fonts in the PDF file. (Acrobat calls this “Press Quality”). This way, whatever fonts you use are in the file so it’s sure to look exactly the same on whatever computer is reading it. Otherwise if the font you’ve chosen isn’t installed on the computer that’s reading it, the PDF reader application will will substitute whatever it can. No matter what, try to stick with a common and professional-looking font. Comic Sans won’t do you any favors!

Using Paragraph Form
I had never heard of this before and there’s a good reason for that – it’s terrible! There wasn’t a single bullet point on the entire résumé. It read like a book and was 3 pages of solid text. Again, HR or whoever is reviewing résumés is going to want to find things quickly – they aren’t going to waste their time reading this.