SQL Server Spotlight: Tim Ford on IT/Dev Connections, SQL Cruise, and More

SQL Server Spotlight: Tim Ford on IT/Dev Connections, SQL Cruise, and More

In this SQL Server Spotlight, we're highlighting Tim Ford, who is involved in several different facets of the SQL Server space. Not only is Tim heavily involved in our own IT/Dev Connections conference as our content chair for the SQL track, but he's also the person behind the annual SQL Cruise technical training event. In this interview, Tim provides his thoughts on how he got into the database field, along with his predictions for where Microsoft is heading with respect to its SQL Server offerings. Here's what Tim had to say:

Tim Ford
Tim Ford

Can you tell SQL Server Pro readers more about yourself? How did you get into working with SQL Server?

TF: I got started working with SQL Server like most people. I dreamt of being a database administrator since I was a young child… Seriously though, I did get started as most do in our profession—by accident.

I had originally started my college path as an applied mathematics major, but once I hit my third year of calculus I was done with that idea. I fell into accounting since it was like math, but with one puzzle: If you could make the left column equal the right column, you won.

My senior year, my last semester actually, I realized I didn't want to sit in a cubicle determining whether a widget cost $0.02 or $0.03 to manufacture, but I had run out of money and had to graduate. I fell into desktop publishing after university and had a few years of airbrushing all the "good parts" out of magazines until my color blindness set in.

Calling upon my financial skills, I became the company Production Estimator since I also understood what went into providing our services. This was my first foray into software development since I didn't like the estimating system in place. I decided to write my own using Excel and Visual Basic for Applications (VBA).

Eventually I fell out of love with the company I was working for and while on a biking trip with a friend an employee of Microsoft stated, "You should become a DBA." To this day, I still remember rounding a rock formation in Utah and asking him what a DBA was. I had a nice, long solo car ride back to Michigan to think it all through. When I got home, I picked up a TSQL book and within two months I was working as an Access developer in the waning month of the Y2K period in a new company.

I was tasked with converting Access applications to Y2K-compliant versions. Once the new millennium dawned, the three people on my team were re-tasked. One of us went on to be an Oracle DBA, one stayed in Access and is now an Access MVP. I went into SQL Server development. One year later I was the DBA and to this day I now still support that same SQL environment that started with a single instance with 13 databases.

From there I ended up going to my first Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) Summit in 2002 and volunteered to help start the programs that would evolve into their current virtual chapters. I also ended up serving on the program committee for more years than I can remember.

I really am a poster child for what volunteerism can lead to: going on to become a chapter leader for West Michigan, SQLSaturday organizer and speaker, Emcee of the Quizbowl event at Summit each year, author of articles at MSSQLTips.com, SQLServerCentral, and Simple-Talk, as well as a co-author on a book covering Dynamic Management Objects with Louis Davidson. Now I'm the PASS Director for SQLSaturday. I've also been the content chair for the SQL track at IT/Dev Connections for the last two years and started my own technical and professional development conference, SQL Cruise, in 2010.

I'm a strong believer that you can't end up doing what you enjoy as a career without first putting yourself out there. That's what my experience has shown me, and it's something I really try to drive home when we're in the middle of our professional development sessions on SQL Cruise.

BG: As a content chair for the SQL track for IT/Dev Connections, can you tell us what attendees should expect in the coming months?

TF: I've been able to hand-pick sessions that are covering the conventional DBA topics of performance tuning, indexing, troubleshooting and so forth, which are staples for every SQL-centric conference. But what I'm most excited about are sessions based upon abstracts covering Hekaton (I mean In Memory OLTP Database), Azure, Power BI and Power Query. It's funny, all those years spent in Microsoft Excel before even hearing of SQL Server was secretly stoking my engines for the future of SQL Server!

I really enjoy having been given the opportunity of SQL content chair for IT/Dev Connections because I'm given a framework of topics that needs to be covered and then I have control from there. These are the speakers, sessions, and topics that I think the SQL community are excited about and that I'm passionate to attend as well. It's a difficult position to be in as well though; I'm friends with many of those who submit abstracts and can only approve a small portion of the abstracts we receive. These are all great people though, after all these folks also offer up much of their time for free on weekends at PASS SQLSaturday events all over the world, so I know they understand I can't approve everyone. I still suffer from that good old Midwestern guilt nonetheless.

BG: Can you tell me how you decided to start SQL Cruise with Brent Ozar? What inspired you two to embark on the business venture?

TF: Producing SQL Cruise has truly changed my life and how I approach teaching, learning and networking. I have to give the credit for the initial idea to Brent though. I don't think anyone else would have been crazy enough to come up with the idea—except for the guy who said "Yeah, sounds like it will work… I'm in!" (Me).

We developed the idea in a single day over email in May 2010. By the end of that day we had a name, a website, and branding. I think the original mission statement that day may have been simply "Speak about Microsoft SQL Server on cruise ships and get people to join us." After that first event in 2010, it's evolved into something far more ambitious: "Develop well-rounded information leaders of tomorrow by shaping the rough corners off the information technology professionals of today."

The original SQL Cruise in 2010 was definitely a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-swimsuit event. We had a great group of Cruisers that joined us with no understanding of what to expect and we had some fantastic sponsors that jumped in blindly! To this day, SQL Sentry and Red Gate have gone on to sponsor every event I've produced since then—eight so far with SQL Cruise #9 and #10 planned for the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, respectively in 2015!

Dell Software joined SQL Cruise in 2014, and we're looking for great things with these sponsors and others in 2015 and beyond. Our sponsors love us because they are associated with probably the most-unique events in the SQL/PowerShell/Business Intelligence/Developer sphere, and they get unfettered access to the Cruisers for a full week rather than just a few minutes in a booth in a conference center.

Plus, what's not to like about SQL Cruise? We are in class while at sea. While in port, we're either doing things with your fellow SQL Cruisers, family, or both. Families are welcome: we've had children, spouses, parents… They take part in the evening events we host and in many cases take part in professional development sessions. Heck, we've had former NASA software engineers spend the week with us thanks to one of our technical leads bringing her father to two SQL Cruises!

Our technical leads are MVPs, MCMs, and SSIS/SSAS maestros that you get to spend the full week with and are in your personal network for the remainder of your career once back on dry land. I think the biggest benefit we give our Cruisers is the access to leaders in the industry. A typical technical conference has you fighting for a couple minutes of time with a presenter alongside dozens of other attendees at the end of a session. On SQL Cruise, we limit attendance to 25 Cruisers with a ratio of 4:1 to technical leads. Furthermore we have dedicated office hours for group discussions, and you're also able to spend the week with these technical leads to hash out ideas to fix issues back at the office. We also require our technical leads to attend one another's sessions and provide input from their unique angles, thus rounding out the formal presentations even more.

It's not completely altruistic though. I've had some amazing experiences because of SQL Cruise: visiting the Mayan coastal ruins in Tulum in the Yucatan with my son Austen, a glacial helicopter ride with my wife and SQL Cruise business partner Amy, experiencing Key West with the most non-threatening bike gang you could imagine on scooters, and visiting one of the most beautiful beaches in the world in Trunk Bay with a dozen SQL Cruisers. I've also made not only business acquaintances, but also some dear friends for life because of SQL Cruise.

In 2011, Brent went on to form Brent Ozar Unlimited, and I took over SQL Cruise. Even though he's no longer involved in SQL Cruise other than a fantastic cheerleader and future technical lead on one of our 2016 cruises (you heard it here first), I do have Brent to thank for the amazing experiences that continue to come from SQL Cruise.

BG: What do you currently see for the future of Microsoft SQL Server?

TF: It's personally ironic. I mentioned earlier in the interview my history with Excel. I see the future of SQL Server in Microsoft Excel. Data is no longer a consumable of information technology professionals tasked with feeding data in formatted, scheduled, repetitive reports to consumers in their companies. Today's business leaders and staff at all levels want to interact directly with the data rather than rely on rigid reports that can fall out of value and become stale in the matter of hours or even minutes.

Excel is a great format for bringing this information into the hands of these individuals—the learning curve has been breached already from years of use throughout business. This does not mean that our jobs become less critical either. More consumers are closer to their data sources than ever before. This means that security, stability, design and performance are more critical than they have ever been.

Additionally, I see the influence of, and dependence upon data in our personal lives also an important trend. We're interacting with data far more intimately and actively than we ever have: personal banking, social media and tablet apps for everything; cloud and NoSQL technologies factor greatly into this trend, which impacts SQL's future also. I think we'll see more hybridization in data similar that encompasses SQL Server and Hadoop.

A business analytics revolution is on the horizon in my opinion. All this data building up over decades is now being put to use in terms of both prescriptive and predictive analytics. We were drowning in a sea of data and finally in last year or so we've learned how to swim. Microsoft's recent shift of their Parallel Data Warehouse (PDW) platform into a component of the new Microsoft Analytics Platform System (APS) is a sign that Microsoft is focusing on massively parallel processing (MPP) in its push of HDInsight and Polybase.

Business analytics is an area largely ignored by the SQL community as being too Excel-centric. I think with events such as the PASS analytics conference and the expansion of SQLSaturday events to include BI Edition SQLSaturdays and PASS Analytics Days we're seeing the beginning of a sea change (to keep the metaphors in this interview rolling) in the embrace of Excel in the data stack at Microsoft. That's why I'm also excited by the sessions on these topics I was able to select for IT/Dev Connections' fall conference. It's truly the future of SQL Server.

BG: Thank you very much for your time, Tim. Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?

TF: This is a great time to be a data professional and there has probably been no better time to carve out your niche in the world of SQL Server. Our platform of choice in this community is at a branching point in its lifespan: core administration, analytics, NoSQL, Azure, development… All these paths are wide open and available. Just put yourself out there and start experimenting.

I've seen such success in doing that myself and in the growth of some of my former SQL Cruisers who have taken that same approach. They've gone on to run successful consulting enterprises, become Microsoft MVPs and speak all over the world; they're looked up to as leaders and experts in the community. As I try to teach my sons, success in whatever you do starts with curiosity, an open and unconventional mindset, as well as a bit of risk. I think that is a strong recipe for success in any endeavor. However don't expect opportunities to come to you; it's up to you to put yourself out there. Get involved and great things are bound to happen.

Oh, and perhaps I'll see you on SQL Cruise sometime in the future!

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