Perhaps it’s the teacher’s blood in me (both my parents were lifelong teachers), but I’ve always loved helping others learn and improve themselves. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing articles, giving lectures at my company, and working one on one with individuals who are trying to learn how to better use SQL Server. There’s few things more satisfying than seeing someone work through a tough problem, or show improvement in their skills, especially when I see that person advance in their career because of it.

For this reason, I’ve always made a point to think about the skills, habits, and traits that enable us to be successful in our careers. The more I read, research, and examine things, the more I come to a surprising conclusion: while technical knowledge and aptitude are absolutely a factor in your success, the most critical ingredients include a number of skills that have nothing to do with SQL Server, or any technology for that matter. Instead, these are what I’d term meta skills. Here’s some examples.

Knowing How to Learn

Continual learning is something that any competent IT professional must accomplish, lest we be left behind in the rapidly changing technological world. Unfortunately, acquiring and incorporating new knowledge and skills is not a simple task. Many folks go through school learning the traditional methods of brute force memorization and repetition, which as it turns out, are largely ineffective at producing long term retention and understanding. Instead, as authors McDaniel, Roediger, and Brown argue in their work Make it Stick, practice and un-aided recall are two of the best ways of ensuring information is encoded into long term memory. In addition, we might learn something from the methods of Benjamin Franklin, who made a habit of laboriously restating the words of others in his own voice.

Writing Effectively

Often times as database professionals we are asked to document things in written form. For example, we might need to explain in some detail (yet still in a way that is easily understandable) why a problem is occurring and what must be done about it. Or we might need to make the case for spending some hard earned capital on new hardware or a piece of software that will make our jobs easier. For this and many other scenarios, being able to clearly and effectively communicate one’s ideas is crucial. And yet, I have heard many sneer at the idea that one should spend effort at learning the basics of writing, improving one’s grammar, or understanding the process of constructing a well-thought argument. If you want to get your point across effectively, and have others understand, you need to at least spend time developing your writing abilities (blogging might be an excellent start!).

Time Management

As a DBA or database developer, you are going to have a large number of things demanding your time and attention at any given point in time. Since science has pretty definitively shown that multi-tasking hurts productivity, you are also going to have to learn how to manage all the various things on your plate. Here’s a hint: no matter how well you think you can manage all that in your brain, you’re likely to be wrong. Our brains are hard wired to keep un-finished tasks in memory, to the detriment of our concentration. While there are any number of valid approaches to managing the tasks and projects in your life, what’s important is that we experiment to find one that works well for us and stick with it. Whether it be a simple paper based system like Mark Forster’s Autofocus, or a highly complex and multi-part one like J.D. Meier’s Agile Results, the important thing is that you don’t rely on your brain to keep track of all these things.

I could go on, but I think those three are probably the most important three that come to mind. As important as these things are, I find that the number of people writing about and teaching others on these subjects is far fewer than those focusing on purely technical subjects, especially coming from within the IT profession. As a result, I believe it’s an area that is ripe for an influx of guidance and simple, step by step processes for improvement. I’m not sure how yet, but I’ve resolved to make this a large part of what I contribute to the community as a whole. In the mean time, I’d love to hear from you as to your thoughts on this as well.

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The surprising skills that could make or break your career

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