Louis Davidson

1. Everyone’s an accidental DBA (or database professional) – what’s your story? How’d you become a SQLPerson?

About a million years ago, give or take a year or two, I was a starving college student about a third of the way through my Computer Science degree, and I got a job as a LAN Administrator. Now, I was not a natural computer guy, I was a guy who was struggling through a Math degree who changed to CS because I liked video games and math was hard (and more than a little boring.) I got this job based on the reference of a good friend of mine; working for the Church of God headquarters, and it entailed managing a lot of PCs and the network. I didn’t like networking (still don’t other than using it), and I didn’t like wearing a suit and climbing under people’s desks, jiggling a few cables and rebooting (there weren’t people there that I could tell to reboot it on their own at the time.)

They had a mainframe system that they were paying 15000 a month for, and I and another person who worked there had just heard about Microsoft SQL Server at Comdex. So we suggested replacing the mainframe with SQL Server and it flew. They hired another programmer to do the database coding, and I was still the LAN Admin. The programmer got halfway through, and quit. I was ready to quit, and asked to take over the database work (since I had done a little bit of database work during college). And from there I wrote and/or modified 500 plus tables, procedures, triggers, etc. The lead on the project was named Mike Farmer, and he knew normalization and how to design a database. So he really got me going. We made a lot of mistakes, but it was a great first introduction into SQL Server (our first system had 16 MB of ram and something like 100 MB of disk space…)

From there I just kept going, learning from truly excellent mentors, some books, and lots of practice (repeating the process of mentoring, reading and practicing is a great process for growth). Frustration on the inability to find good easy to digest trade books on database design felt like it made it harder than it was worth, so I started writing 10 years ago, and the rest is history (much of which you could get using Bing.) In the end though, I think it is the lack of programming experience with procedural languages (or any non-relational languages of any sort) that really helped me get going fast. I did a lot of programming in college, but never developed any tremendously deep seated habits that were hard to break. Nowadays I could barely write in BASIC, much less Visual Basic or C#.

2. What’s your favorite part of your current gig?

Lots of vacation :-) . But of course, man cannot live on vacation alone. Sick time is nice too. But seriously, I work for a large Christian organization, and it is nice to be able to apply something I believe in as my vocation. It is wonderful to be able to apply my chosen skill to an organization that I can pretty much always get behind. The mission of my company is wonderful and we do a lot of great things for people but nowhere is 100% perfect.

It has always been a great place to work, and even with over thirteen years in seniority, I am not even close to the long term guy. What has been wonderful is how they have always been really supportive of people bettering themselves, though usually on a fairly minimal budget. I probably wouldn’t have ever spoken in front of a crowd if it hadn’t been for my boss at the time, who said that while we would have a hard time getting to go to conferences and training, speaking would make it far more affordable and more attractive to the management.

As a non-profit organization, the problems that we have to solve are also quite interesting as well. As with most non-profits, we have two major goals to contend with. 1. Service. We need to use technology to help make the mission of our organization easier, faster, and cheaper. 2. Fundraising. Non-profit organizations are “non-profit” for a reason. We don’t sell anything, we don’t manufacture anything, but we have to get money somewhere. So we ask, and a big part of asking is to make sure we don’t annoy, at the same time we maximize what we can get so we can maximize what we spend.

Of course, the reality of the term “non-profit” leads to the problem of compensation. It can be hard to hold on to great workers, particularly those who start as newbies at the company. The amounts of money people can make as DBAs is sometimes outlandish, and as anyone knows you can only raise a person’s salary so much so fast. So we often get great people who come in as rookies, get good, then get far better offers. Truth be told, I was one of those people 8 years ago when I left for several years of dot net excitement, only to have things burst and then the programming staff get laid off. My old company was looking for people for a venture, and I went back and it has always felt like home.

3. Complete this sentence: “If I could do anything else, I would…”

…get a job on Mythbusters as their database guy.

But even that really isn’t something “different”. I guess other than sitcom writer, race car driver, Jungle Cruise Captain at Disney World, or corporate Lego creator, every job I have in mind would simply be an interesting extension of “SQL Person”. It is my hobby, and even my vacations that aren’t directly related to speaking at an event are often surrounded by database thoughts. Speaking of Disney, I go there pretty often, and I spend a decent amount of time each time I go there thinking about how I would improve it with database design. I rarely follow through and implement anything because inevitably while it is fairly straightforward to design a database for anything, making it interesting to use requires some form of non-relational programming, which to me is tedious…

4. Complete this sentence: “When I’m not working I enjoy…”

…it.

That was easy. I think the only thing I like better than working with SQL is just spending time with my wife watching one of our three Tivos. TV is my major release to just let my thoughts go and relax. I mentioned Legos already, I am a novice photographer (I love my new Olympus PEN E-PL1) and I have a growing collection of comic books (usually vintage Disney oriented ones). But honestly, not working usually means more working on the side writing and speaking (which is lots of fun too).

The fact is writing can become an all-consuming activity. I have written a book on database design for the last three releases of SQL Server and am working on one for the next. It pretty much takes up all of my free time for an entire year, and I write all of the time, no matter where I am. I regularly carry my laptop to restaurants, parks, and one time I was actually writing when I was working the PowerPoint for a wedding (yes, during the wedding). In fact, for this edition of the book I am setting up a photo journal of the different places that I write the book. So far, I have pictures from a hotel, several restaurants, and on my phone at a Robert Plant concert in February 2011. My big plans for May include taking my laptop to the Disney World resort and sitting at Epcot writing about SQL when I am not at the SQL Rally.

5. Complete this sentence: “I think the coolest thing in technology today is…”

Portable devices, especially video players. I noted I like TV, and I have plenty of video stored on my hard disks at home which I load on my phone and my Zunes (yeah, 3 of them too) along with several docks for connecting them to TVs. I travel a good amount (70 days last year for work, conferences, and vacations) and having my video on the TV in the room me makes my hotel feel more like home.

Of course my love of portable devices goes beyond video. I was an early adopter of smartphones when they were early, non-color devices (much like my first Hercules amber monitor for our 1 MB of RAM PC that we played King’s Quest on back in college), for writing. It has always been nice to be able to write a section or two while riding on a bus to an event, or as a passenger, or even at 3am at the side of the bed when I wake up with the solution to a problem that has been ruminating in the back of my mind for days.

6. Complete this sentence: “I look forward to the day when I can use technology to…”

Eliminate sleeping from the daily grind.

I hate sleep.. I do need it (8 hours a night or more), but I hate it. What a waste of time it is, the only great part of sleep is when you wake up with the solution to the problem you were working on the night before. Maybe one day we can attach a sensor to our head, go to sleep, and subconsciously solve all of the problems that are going on in our world… Then I would like sleep.

7. Share something different about yourself. (Remember, it’s a family blog!)

Did I mention that I have 14 toes? Yep, keep them in a jar in my office.

The fact is, I am terribly shy, particularly in person, and even more so when speaking in front of people. It was never good for my social life, and it can be a significant problem when I speak. It is an acute problem with me that when you come to hear me speak it is hard to predict which version of me will show up. I would say about 1/3 of the times I speak that the charismatic version of me shows up and nails it. Another 1/2 of the time I am really quite scared and relying on all of the insane amounts of practice time I put in (usually 10-20 times the amount of time allotted for the session). The other 1/6 of the time (that’s right, I had a minor in math, add them up if you don’t believe me) I get freaked out and am not at all pleasant sounding.

I find that a good amount of my problem is a hind quarters to seat ratio. It could be 10-300 people (my largest was around 300), but if there are 2/3 of the seats empty, I start to think about it. Where is everyone? It isn’t an ego thing either, my ego could care less. I purposely picked a topic in SQL Server that people don’t exactly flock to. If I could have 12 seats and 11 people in every session, I would be perfectly content, but those empty seat just start me thinking.

Originally published .

One Response

  1. [...] And I really look forward to seeing how it goes this year. Since last year’s version at PASS, where I finished out a year in less than great form, I have worked on this presentation quite a lot. Some of the examples were hard to read, and the data models just didn’t seem to bring it across, so I added tabular examples that really seemed to give it an extra push of interest when I did it for the Hampton Roads User Group earlier in the year. I am also hoping that they put me in the smallest room possible so the 40-60 people that I average every year with this session are all crammed on top of each other (why? Check answer 7 here: http://sqlpeople.net/admin/2011/05/09/louis-davidson/) [...]

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