Database Careers and Other Conundrums

Wednesday Oct 11th 2000 by Danny Lesandrini

Danny Lesandrini offers database career advice.

Recently I've been mentoring some old friends of mine who want to break into the field of programming. Some need help understanding coding itself, while others want to know what technologies to focus on. All of them are curious about how I got started and want to know where they can get experience, and eventually, a job.

One day I got an email from someone who read one of my articles here at SWYNK. Steve, like my old friends, was contemplating a change of career and was seeking advice on how to get started in the database/programming business. Steve has agreed to let me include his letter, along with my reply so that others might benefit from the suggestions given. His letter read in part:


After reading your article on how to Compact an Access Database with VBScript, I noted your certification credentials, and thought I might ask a question or two of you, with respect to a career in the database industry.

I spent many years doing work that did not interest me. I want to spend my remaining working years doing something interesting. So, I am searching for direction. In your opinion, what are prospective entry-level positions? What are the "hot" areas of database work--SQL?? I am not looking for shortcuts. I choose the process of understanding over the process of certification, though I hear the latter is very helpful for the newcomer. To that end, is certification indispensable? Any recommendations on books?

Here is, in part, my reply:

From what you've written it's obvious to me that you have "got it together". I encourage you to continue in the course you've outlined. Here are some of my additional observations and suggestions.

First, check out my bio page at and you will see that my background is similar to yours, but offset by about 20 years. I was a janitor 5 years ago. I picked up some books on MS Access and taught myself the business. In fact, the only course I ever took was a SQL Server Design Development week of training. Everything else I taught myself.

Certifications are discussed at my site, where I estimate their value. In some cases, it helps a person land a job-- in other cases, it loses it for him. Recruiters are tired of hiring certified people who have no experience nor genuine understanding of the tools in which they are certified. All the same, preparing for certification has helped me to expand my understanding of programming and for that I'm thankful. In fact, I've decided NOT to pursue my last exam (Win 2K) needed for MCDBA because I believe my personal study time would be better spent reading books about XML, ASP and Java.

Which brings me to my suggestions for how to spend your study time. I'm not an expert and each person needs to focus on that which is important to him, but here's what I would do if I were starting over.

  1. Learn to create a database with MS Access. Both tables and User Interface. Good books include Roger Jennings Using Microsoft Access and the O Reilly book, Access Database Design

  2. Learn a little about Visual Basic and create a few "play" projects. You can't possibly learn everything, so don't get anxious about what you don't know. Just get some exposure to VB forms and code.

  3. Try to get a copy of SQL Server Desktop edition to practice with at home. Just get familiar with the Enterprise Manager and the Query Analyzer. You don't need to know the whole T-SQL language, but being familiar with the tools is important.

  4. Read my articles, Problematic or Programmatic ODBC? and ODBC DSN-Less Connection Tutorial, to get a feel for how to use ODBC to connect to data.
    (I blew an interview once because I couldn't answer a question on ODBC-- which is stupid since it's so simple. 5 minutes with my article and you know 90% of everything you would ever need to know about ODBC for an interview.)

  5. Get a good book on ASP. The one from Wrox Press, ASP 3.0 Programmer's Reference is the best.
  6. I'm not sure if you need to know Java. I don't and I'm able to do most anything, but it is on my radar for the future.
  7. IMPORTANT! Don't worry, be happy. I love programming. I can't wait to get to work each day. It can be that way for you, but the massive amount of things to learn can get overwhelming. Remember that I just started programming back in 1996. Four years of doing what I love and I've got people from 3 places asking me to write a book on programming. Just keep at it and remember to enjoy yourself. Gradually, all the pieces will come together.

This path described above is my personal opinion. There are many good technologies out there and a programmer could go in any number of directions. The above is just what I've determined is a "good" path.

As far as good "entry level" opportunities, I would say the following are good, in this order:
  1. MS Access

  2. Visual Basic if you can find it

  3. ASP if you can get some experience first

  4. SQL Server if you can make it look like you have experience.

When push comes to shove, you will need a way to break in. Personally, I found my first clients among the businessmen friends I had. They needed some simple programming and I worked for $12 per hour. (I was overpaid at the time). Once I had some project experience under my belt, I looked for some work from a contracting firm, which was good for me, since my wage increased to $20 per hour. Finally, after 3 years of focused programming, I was able to ask $50 and more per hour for my services.

Hope some of this is helpful. I wish you the best and I'm serious about helping you in anyway I can. I think it's great that you are going after something you love.

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