Today is Father’s Day in the United States, so naturally I spent most of the day with mine, hence no long post today. But still, I thought it appropriate to talk a little bit about how he’s influenced my way of thinking in ways that have helped me in my path as a database professional.

He’s a retired physics teacher who taught for over four decades, spanning both high school and college. Well, semi-retired at least; he keeps taking the odd teaching job or holding seminars teaching other teachers. I asked him today, “Do you think you’ll ever really stop teaching?”

He laughed, thought about it for a moment, then decided the answer was no. “I just like teaching people too much,” he said. “I’d do it for free.”

He’s a phenomenal teacher, solid in every way, from lecture to handling rebellious teenagers in his class (I would know, I was one). It’s amazing how when I talk to his former students how much respect they have for him. I once was talking to a friend of mine who was in one of his classes, and I asked her if she enjoyed them. With a sheepish look on her face, she admitted that she didn’t give it her full attention, but even so she looked back fondly on the experience and remembered how his passion for teaching shone through. She implored me to apologize on her behalf the next time I saw him, for “being that slacker kid”.

When I mentioned this to my dad, he shrugged. “I don’t remember her being a slacker,” he said. “Besides, if she was bored, it was because I didn’t do a good job making the material interesting.”

His real strength and passion has always been laboratory work. Growing up, I used to love going with him to his classroom, where we’d set up elaborate stations of equipment, with rails and boards and all sorts of measurement devices. Each one illustrated one or more concepts he taught in a clear and understandable way, while adding an element of fun to the process. My favorite was probably the compound bow he would set up such that it shot an arrow into a canister filled with clay. By measuring how far the can swung, we could begin to calculate the force produced by the bow.

Looking back on the whole experience, I can clearly see two ways in which he has had a substantial effect on my approach to my career and work in general.

First, he kindled in me a desire for constant experimentation and observation. He’s constantly setting up scenarios and experiments, asking his students to predict what the outcome will be, then forcing them to gather data to support their hypothesis. Even today over lunch, at one point he drew out an electrical circuit diagram and asked me how I thought it would work (thankfully I was correct!). The constant mental exercise of observe, predict, gather, and analyze is one that I have used many times in troubleshooting problems with SQL Server (I even wrote an article on the subject). Too many times I’ve seen people in technology approach their work in a haphazard and scattered way; everyone would do well to remember the lessons taught by their high school science teachers on the careful and methodical approach of science.

Second, his passion for teaching others infected me with the same love of helping people learn. While I’m not a teacher by profession, the role of a database administrator (especially a senior one) is simply loaded with opportunities to teach others. Whether it’s helping a developer who has never learned how to think in sets escape the object oriented paradigm, or designing a series of standard diagnostic steps for front line customer support when dealing with SQL Server related problems, I get tremendous satisfaction out of transferring my knowledge to others. To see them grapple with the information, twist it around in their heads, and to suddenly gain an understanding of a new concept and experience that heralded ‘aha’ moment… well, let’s just say it’s easily one of the best parts about my job.

Even though he’s not the most technically savvy person (a fact that we both laugh about), and these two lessons are not strictly technical, I have no doubt whatsoever that they’re a part of why I have been so successful in my work. So today, I am thankful for the influence he has had on my life; I can only hope that one day I am half the teacher he is.

Today’s question: who in your life, outside of work, has influenced you in ways that have helped you in your career? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

My father made me a better DBA by teaching me these two things

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