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Craig Kerstiens

SQL: One of the most valuable skills

I’ve learned a lot of skills over the course of my career, but no technical skill more useful than SQL. SQL stands out to me as the most valuable skill for a few reasons:

  1. It is valuable across different roles and disciplines
  2. Learning it once doesn’t really require re-learning
  3. You seem like a superhero. You seem extra powerful when you know it because of the amount of people that aren’t fluent

Let me drill into each of these a bit further.

SQL a tool you can use everywhere

Regardless of what role you are in SQL will find a way to make your life easier. Today as a product manager it’s key for me to look at data, analyze how effective we’re being on the product front, and shape the product roadmap. If we just shipped a new feature, the data on whether someone has viewed that feature is likely somewhere sitting in a relational database. If I’m working on tracking key business metrics such as month over month growth, that is likely somewhere sitting in a relational database. At the other end of almost anything we do there is likely a system of record that speaks SQL. Knowing how to access it most natively saves me a significant amount of effort without having to go ask someone else the numbers.

But even before becoming a product manager I would use SQL to inform me about what was happening within systems. As an engineer it could often allow me to pull information I wanted faster than if I were to script it in say Ruby or Python. When things got slow in my webapp having an understanding of the SQL that was executed and ways to optimize it was indespensible. Yes, this was going a little beyond just a basic understanding of SQL… but adding an index to a query instead of rolling my own homegrown caching well that was well worth the extra time learning.

SQL is permanent

I recall roughly 20 years ago creating my first webpage. It was magical, and then I introduced some Javascript to make it even more impressive prompting users to click Yes/No or give me some input. Then about 10 years later jQuery came along and while it was a little more verbose at times and something new to learn it made things prettier overall so I committed to re-learning the jQuery approach to JS. Then it just picked up pace with Angular -> React/Ember, and now I have an entire pipeline to introduce basic Javascript into my website and the reality is I’m still trying to accomplish the same thing I was 20 years ago by having someone click Yes/No.

SQL in contrast doesn’t really change. Caveat: It has changed–there is modern sql, but I’d still argue less dramatically than other language landscapes. Yes we get a new standard every few years and occasionally something new comes along like support for window functions or CTEs, but the basics of SQL are pretty permanent. Learning SQL once will allow you to re-use it heavily across your career span without having to re-learn. Don’t get me wrong I love learning new things, but I’d rather learn something truly new than just yet another way to accomplish the same task.

SQL: Seem better than you are

SQL is an underlearned skill, the majority of application developers just skip over it. Because so few actually know SQL well you can seem more elite than you actually are. In past companies with hundreds of engineers I’d get a question several times a week from junior to principal engineers of: “hey can you help me figure out how to write a query for this?” Because you’re skilled at something so few others are you can help them out which always makes life a little easier when you have a question for them.

So if you’re not already proficient what are you waiting for, do you want to seem like a SQL badass yet?

If you’re looking for a deeper resource on Postgres I recommend the book The Art of PostgreSQL. It is by a personal friend that has aimed to create the definitive guide to Postgres, from a developer perspective. If you use code CRAIG15 you’ll receive 15% off as well.