Careers: Interviews
Tom Moreau - SQL Expert

This week's interview is with Tom Moreau, regular columnist for SQL Server Professional, and author of "Advanced Transact-SQL for SQL Server 2000."

In the interview Stephen talks with Tom about his early years in the field and his views on the future of the industry.

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Q: Your experiences as an IT expert would be of benefit to many veterans as they walk the dynamic tightrope of technology. Can you detail your personal history? What personally prompted you to enter the computing field? What led you to becoming a leading provider of database services and a noted expert on SQL?

A: Most of how I ended up in IT is mentioned in the Preface of the book but I’ll walk you through how it happened.

I arrived at York University in 1971 and started my B.Sc. The approach they took back then was an interdisciplinary one, whereby for your first two years, they had you take a broad range of science courses. Many of these were outside of your chosen discipline. During their first year, all students also had to take a course in APL – a very cryptic programming language. During that brief and unpleasant experience, I noticed students walking around with boxes of computer cards and programming in FORTRAN on the mainframe, so I taught myself FORTRAN during my second year. By this time, I was majoring in Physics and Chemistry.

I found programming straightforward and thought at the time that people could do their own programming and really didn’t see a career path in Computer Science. I met a professor who wanted some programming done and I was able to pay for my education while working for him. Hmmm. Maybe you can make some money in programming.

Still, after getting my B.Sc., I loved the physical sciences and entered graduate school to get my Ph.D. It involved a lot of computation after I had collected my data. During that time, I had several teaching assignments, one of which involved FORTRAN.

During my graduate career, I was asked to fill in for the undergraduate lab supervisor while she was on sabbatical. All of the records for two classes of 400 students each were kept on a Commodore PET with a whopping 32K of RAM and ran on BASIC. I devised my own, crude DBMS for managing the students’ marks and made it user-friendly enough to let my secretary manage the data entry and printing, so I could spend more time in the lab. When I needed some PET advice, I talked to a York graduate who had a scientific software firm on campus. Eventually, I worked for him – as a research scientist at first – but he saw what I could do with a computer and quickly moved me to software development – programming in C on an IBM PC. After 5 ½ years, I moved to a railroad and got exposed to various technologies, finally winding up doing SQL in DB2. My SQL knowledge landed me a job at an investment bank, where I was introduced to Sybase and Microsoft SQL Server. From there, I became a consultant, specializing in Microsoft SQL Server.

During my career, I have been surprised at the number of folks in IT who never started there.


Q: Can you share your 20 leading tips for those thinking of getting into the computing field? Can you describe your role with your company and how you plan to shape the company one year and two years into the future, and in the long term?

A: Twenty? Yikes! When you think of the circuitous route that took me here, it’s hard to point to a checklist and say, “Do these things”. What I can say is that the IT field has gone through a number of gyrations during my 30 years exposure to it in one way or another. The most important lesson for me was to learn to adapt. I used to like mainframes and it took some time to learn how to program in C on a PC but I stuck with it. OS/2 looked good at the time and I ran with it. When it was clear that the community abandoned it, I dropped it, too.

IT professionals fall into the category of “knowledge workers”. Just like a pro athlete has to work out to stay in shape, IT pros have to train and study to stay in shape. This means taking courses and reading books – big, thick ones.

Certifications are becoming more relevant. This, too, involves a great deal of study. Microsoft is toughening up their standards, so I see the growth of certified pros will probably slow, since hands-on experience will be essential. That said, I have seen a glut of “IT professionals” who really are not very qualified. Some are certified; others are not.

Another thing I learned was to manage my own career. It would be nice to think that our employers have our career interests at heart but the reality is that they don’t. If your employer does not give you the training you need, speak up or get it after hours. When my employer moved me back from PC’s to the mainframe, I left.

My role with my company was unexpected; I’m the president. When I first started my professional life, I thought that working for someone else was vital. When I met Diane – who eventually became my wife – she was already self-employed in IT. She liked the independence. Over time, I built up my skills and my confidence. After I went independent, we incorporated. It gives us flexibility but there is more bookkeeping.

As for shaping the company, we just pay ourselves a salary and invest the rest. Eventually, we’ll take dividends in our retirement.


Q: You have a reputation for being plugged into the stream of computing consciousness about where it’s going now and in the long term. You’ve also done a lot of research. Can you comment on the studies that you’ve performed, what you have learned, and your experiences? Where is technology today and where is it going?

A: Plugged in? I wouldn’t go that far. The “research” I do is mainly for my monthly column – Dr. Tom’s Workshop – in SQL Server Professional www.pinnaclepublishing.com/sql. Often, it is the result of being asked a question or just my own curiosity.

It’s hard to say where the industry is headed with any certainty. Back in 1974, I saw a microcomputer and thought it would never go anywhere. Glad I was wrong on that one. As for where we are heading right now, both XML and .NET have potential. However, I would want to see things get bedded down a bit more before committing to them. I like leading-edge technologies but bleeding-edge scares me.

As a DBA, I would like to see disk technology improve. Spinning iron has little to offer the community in the way of performance or reliability. RAID is nice but I want permanent, updateable storage on a chip.


Q: Can you comment on the integration of mainframe, Unix, and Windows-based technologies and how they all fit in large, complex, enterprise environments?

A: Quite frankly, I think the mainframe should be abandoned. It’s served its time. I used to like UNIX, too. With the arrival of Windows 2000 DataCenter Server, Microsoft has demonstrated it can handle “big iron”. Its scale-out support in SQL Server 2000 shows it can handle very large databases. Enterprises that don’t have Windows as their mainstay are going to get left behind.


Q: What are your views on SQL and its future?

A: I’ve made SQL my career path. Recently, we’ve seen IBM buy Informix, so now we are down to three major players: Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. As of today, Microsoft holds 4 of the top 5 slots in the TPC-C performance standings, including the top two. Couple that with its ease of use and I see it dominating the market.

As for SQL – the language – I see slower change. It is already very powerful. However, everyone has their own proprietary flavour of it.


Q: What are your views on XML and its future?

A: Well, Steve Ballmer seems to think it’s the way of the future. ;-) For many years, we have had EDI, so the concept is certainly not new. The standards for XML are still evolving. Certainly in the B2B area, it will likely become the lingua franca as far as sending data from A to B is concerned.


Q: EAI, CRM, B2B are exploding? What are your views about these in related areas for the current and future marketplace?

A: I’m a back-end kind of guy, so from where I sit, all of these mean data, data, data. The data has to sit somewhere – that’s the database – and it has to make it from that somewhere to another somewhere – that’s XML – so there will be DBA jobs and the DBA should become familiar with XML. It’s also important that a DBA know more than just databases but rather the nature of the data itself inside the database. For example, we see a great deal of activity in the securities industry. I took the Canadian Securities course and wrote the exams so that I could know more about the industry. This way, when I’m talking to a user with a goal of building a database for them, I know what the issues are and can speak intelligently with them. I also did my MCSE because my database servers ran on Windows NT and connected to a network. I had to know the issues there, too. I’m looking to take some XML courses through Learning Tree International to bring up my XML skills.


Q: For those relatively new in the computing field and for seasoned veterans, which areas should they target for future study, what are the high-growth areas?

A: Sad to say, it appears that the latest buzzword is where you should go. Technologies spring up so fast and everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Only later, do people realize the technology didn’t live up to the hype. Often, this is because everyone jumped in too early. After all, new technology means there is little experienced talent out on the street, so projects fail because things weren’t done right.

The core stuff, however, is easier to predict – to an extent. There will always be a need to store data somewhere – that’s your database. So, I see there will always be a need for DBA’s. The role may change but the job will exist.

Similarly, there will always be a need for system administrators, no matter how simple the operating systems may be to use.

For the non-core stuff, obviously anything that touches the Internet will likely be a winner. Again, XML looks good here.

As I mentioned earlier, you have to be able to adapt and to have a number of skills to offer the market. For example, I keep having to do VB and VBScript on projects. The VBScript comes from building DTS packages. Where the VB comes from has to do with deadlines. On most projects, the database design gets settled early, then come the stored procedures – which enable the VB coders to access the database to retrieve and manipulate their data. While the VB folks are madly writing code, I eventually run out of procs to write and we are now close to the end of the project. That’s when the manager usually drops by and says, “Tom, do you know any VB?” That’s when I pitch in to write reporting code or an application security interface, for example.

That said, I have seen numerous job postings where they want the candidate to have a large number of IT skills and then the pay they want to offer them is peanuts. While it is important to have a range of skills, if they want you to be using all of them, instead of hiring more than one person, it is generally a sign of bad management. Avoid such places.


Q: What changes do you see for the future of computing, conducting business, and the use of the Internet?

A: Were it not for the Internet, my career would not be where it is today. I had never heard of SQL Server Professional until I got onto the Net. From there, I was able to write articles and meet my editor – Karen Watterson – who has become a very good friend. She was the one who hooked me up with Itzik Ben-Gan, my co-author.

However, I don’t see a day where everything will be bought on the Internet. For example, you may be able to buy a shirt now on the Net, but wouldn’t you prefer to try it on and see how it looks and how it feels? I feel the same way about books. Sure, you could buy a Harry Potter book just because it is a Harry Potter book. What if it is a technical book? I spent quite some time in Chapters, thumbing through TCP/IP books until I found the ones I liked. I think some companies are finding that the big sales they were expecting from the web really did not materialize. I can certainly see such things as making stock trades and paying bills but when you want to buy material goods, the web falls short.

Another issue with the Internet is bandwidth. I am pleased to see such services as DSL but it looks now like you’ll actually need DSL to go to some sites. A dial-up modem won’t fill the bill because of all of the graphics some sites use. Couple that with the needless advertising you get at a lot of web sites and we may soon be where we are with modems now. Now, Internet2 is being researched and it does hold promise but we don’t have it yet. It will be hard to adopt this type of technology if we have to have our homes rewired to accept it. Could you imagine rewiring an entire apartment building? Hopefully, DSL technology will get faster.

Also to do with the Internet, whoever can create intelligent SPAM filters is going to make a lot of money.

As I said above, I’d like to see large, non-volatile data stores on a chip. This will make it that you could, say, have a SQL Server database in your cell phone.

At the end of the day, however, people should not buy a piece of technology because of its features. Rather, they should buy it because of its benefits. In other words, the technology must answer the question, “What problem can it solve for me?” The vendors should be thinking along this line.


Q: Your recently released book, Advanced Transact-SQL for SQL Server 2000, is the most authoritative reference available and chock full of very useful tips, coding examples, and practical solutions to real-world problems. I highly recommend it for the seasoned professional – it’s simply a “must-have” tool. How did you get involved in the book and what would be your 20 biggest tips drawn from the book? Are you planning additional books in the near and far term? What would you do different if you started again, having gone through this authoring experience?

A: Thank you very much! :-) Actually, as I wrote in the Preface, I didn’t set out to write a book on SQL at all – I wanted to write one on DTS. I asked a guy in Tampa if he was interested in being a co-author, since I didn’t want to do it alone. He turned me down. Karen sent me a proposal for another book but it didn’t suit me. A while later, she sent me a proposal for an SQL book from Itzik. Bingo! I recognized the name and I knew he was one of the best in the business. The proposal was sound and we went through about three short iterations before we had an outline and the work divided up. Initially, the page count was only 200 pages. Later, it went to 300. Once printed, it was over 800!

One thing that was remarkable about the work was how well we got along with each other. When you put together two people with a great deal of experience, there is a possibility of conflict. Itzik and I had never met each other before or during the writing. Despite the fact that we were doing this all through e-mail, we got along amazingly well.

The work itself ran from March to October of 2000. We had to rewrite some performance comparison numbers when we finally got the RTM version but we had made it a rule to hold back releasing the book until we got the final version of the software.

The book does cover a broad range of topics and it is difficult to come up with the “top 20”. Our Chapter 17 is called Tips and Tricks. It has an assortment of SQL tips contributed by friends and colleagues. Mike Hotek – SQL Server MVP – has it up at his site at www.mssqlserver.com/books, together with his comments on the book.

For anyone contemplating writing a book, they should know that it takes an awful lot of work – way more than what you estimate. The royalties you get are far less than what you could have made by simply going out and doing contract work. I was fortunate to have a good co-author. Others may not be so lucky.

Right now, I don’t have plans for further book writing. I get a great deal of satisfaction by writing my articles and will continue to do so.


Q: What would be your recommended top ten references for the serious developer and SQL administrator?

Books
 
  • SQL for Smarties (2nd Ed) – Joe Celko
     
  • SQL Puzzles and Answers – Joe Celko
     
  • Inside Microsoft SQL Server 2000 – Kalen Delaney
     
  • Mike Hotek (SQL Server MVP) has his top 15 book picks at www.mssqlserver.com/books
Periodicals
 
  • SQL Server Professional
     
  • SQL Server Magazine
Web Sites
 
  • www.mssqlserver.com
     
  • www.swynk.com
     
  • www.insidesqlserver.com
     
  • www.microsoft.com/sql
     
  • technet.microsoft.com
     
  • msdn.microsoft.com


Q: It’s a blank slate, what added comments would you like to give to enterprise corporations and organizations?

A: Let me give you the same quote from the late US Army General George S. Patton that I have cited in the Preface of the book:

“Never tell people how to do something, just tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

It works for me. ;-)
 


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