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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Q: What changes do you see for the future of
computing, conducting business, and the use of the
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
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
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
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
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?
- SQL for Smarties (2nd Ed) – Joe Celko
- SQL Puzzles and Answers – Joe Celko
- Inside Microsoft SQL Server 2000 – Kalen
- Mike Hotek (SQL Server MVP) has his top 15
book picks at www.mssqlserver.com/books
- SQL Server Professional
- SQL Server Magazine
Q: It’s a blank slate, what added comments would you
like to give to enterprise corporations and
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
It works for me. ;-)