Home Uncategorized The Career Influence of Usenet Strangers (T-SQL Tuesday #096)

The Career Influence of Usenet Strangers (T-SQL Tuesday #096)

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T-SQL TuesdayA freshly minted Computer Science graduate at the tail end of the dot-com era, I had three basic requirements for my first job: (1) money; (2) money; (3) more money. (I was going to be a millionaire, don’t you know!) So I did pretty much the same thing as all of my friends: got myself lots of job offers, played them against each other as much as possible, and then accepted the one with the highest salary.

Not a great tactic. I turned down at least two jobs that would have, in retrospect, put me on a much more stable initial path. The one I took? A gig with an ill-conceived startup, as sole developer, writing internal apps. I was told by my manager, a networking guy, to create the front end in ASP and use either Access or SQL Server as a backing data store. Why? Because they had a licenses for that stuff through the company’s MSDN subscription. Never mind the fact that I’d just spent four years of my life learning all about C++, algorithms, data structures, and the like, and had never even heard of ASP. (Luckily I knew the dangers of Access. Because who wouldn’t?)

I had nothing even remotely resembling a mentor. No one to talk to about my work. I didn’t even get to meet my end users; I was given requirements concocted in meetings I was specifically told not to attend. So I rolled up my sleeves, made best friends with a search engine, and got my first taste of the technical community at large. I spent my days trying, failing, experimenting, and most of all reading and re-reading the words of wisdom written by my four virtual companions. And somehow I managed to cobble together a pretty decent web app. (That no one used. But that’s another story for another day.)

Eventually one day I hit a problem that I just couldn’t find a solution for even with the best of my Google skills. And somehow in my quest for knowledge I stumbled upon the Microsoft Usenet server. You see, prior to all of these newfangled web forums people used to send messages to one another using standalone programs called News Readers. (One might argue — and I do — that this technology was much nicer for overall communication and created a better community feeling than anything we have today. But I digress.)

Into the newsgroups I went, and I discovered an open and welcoming environment that existed solely to help all comers. Ask a question, get an answer in minutes from someone ten times smarter than you. Amazing. One guy in particular stood out in those days, Microsoft Scripting MVP Brent Ashley. Brent was The Man on the scripting and ASP newsgroups and I briefly wanted to be like Brent. So I stuck around for a little while and tried to answer some questions. Mostly not very well. And then I went off and did other things.

Time passed, I was laid off by a couple of crappy startups, my career shifted, and I became a focused data engineer. And once again one day I found myself at a loss. Remembering the help I’d received earlier, I went back to the newsgroups — this time hitting the SQL Server section. And the SQL Server world totally blew me away! Unlike the scripting newsgroups, which were fairly quiety, in the SQL Server arena there was a tremendous amount of activity. And lots and lots of very smart people to learn from. Even better, many of the questions at the time were complex query puzzles. The kinds of things that, as a CS kind of guy, were able to both touch upon my background and pique my interest. I asked a few questions and received great answers. And fortuitously I decided, once again, to try to answer a few on my own…

In the SQL Server newsgroups I found the very closest thing to actual mentors that I’ve had in my career to date. The regulars in the groups showed me the value of learning through helping others, helped me experience the joy of engaging in deep technical debate, and guided me (very patiently) toward being a far better SQL Server practitioner than I otherwise ever could have been.

The end result of my newsgroup visits? I was able to become an MVP. Which prompted me to start speaking in public. Which helped me contribute to my first book. Which gave me the cred I needed to become an independent consultant. Which allowed me to get involved in all sorts of interesting projects and write and speak more. And create a monitoring stored procedure. And meet lots of cool friends in the global SQL Server community… And on and on and on.

So it is quite fair to say that I am deeply, deeply in debt to the various newsgroup regulars — especially on the .programming group — who I looked up to and learned so much from back in those days. (And many of whom I continue to learn from even now!) In no particular order:

Steve Kass
Itzik Ben-Gan
Anith Sen
Tibor Karazsi
Erland Sommarskog
Joe Celko
Aaron Bertrand
Kalen Delaney
Andy Kelly

Thank you all. You truly shaped me and my career more than you will ever know.

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Adam Machanic helps companies get the most out of their SQL Server databases. He creates solid architectural foundations for high performance databases and is author of the award-winning SQL Server monitoring stored procedure, sp_WhoIsActive. Adam has contributed to numerous books on SQL Server development. A long-time Microsoft MVP for SQL Server, he speaks and trains at IT conferences across North America and Europe.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Good reminder about the good ol’ USENET days. I miss those times of downloading all of the appropriate posts, responding regularly, and being able to get pretty useful information from people all around the world. Nothing’s ever quite replaced those forums. I agree that the regulars were generally extremely helpful – even when you had an obscure problem. We still see that helpfulness, but the ability to see longer-term posts is a bit diminished now. I guess the trade-off for more real-time help/chat is good, but nostalgia is strong. 🙂

    • Yeah, the threading model is really what we’ve lost. StackOverflow and similar are so much better for searching and answering quick problems but it has no community feel at all, at least to me. Oh well. The good ol’ days!

  2. Ah the good old days of dialup modems and USENET and CompuServe 🙂 I started in that world about 1990. It was a lot more focused than it is now and your reputation mattered. I learned a lot from many and tried to help where I could.

  3. It’s nice of you to acknowledge your “mentors” from back-in-the-day. You continue to contribute to our profession in a way that I think is unique compared to other professions. I’ve enjoyed knowing you and learning from you.

    Thanks.

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