As the most popular database language in the world, SQL is worth knowing. It’s the connective tissue between (literally) millions of applications and their databases. Everyone should know at least a little SQL — from IT pros to marketers — because data is the lifeblood of a business.
Because data is so vital, SQL is also among the most in-demand programming languages. Database administrator was recently ranked as one of the Top 10 Best Technology Jobs. For those trying to make a career change into data management or analysis, however, it’ll take more than “knowing a little SQL.”
Even if you know more than “a little” SQL, getting your first DBA or SQL developer role without experience is tough. There are ways to build a deeper understanding of SQL, in and out of the office, to boost your career prospects.
The Thing about Getting Experience in SQL
You aren’t going to get a SQL job without SQL experience, and it’s tough to gain SQL experience in a new workplace. So, you’ll need to get some experience where you work, or start getting creative.
When looking for ways to get SQL experience, think about how you’re wanting to use your skills. For example, if you have a penchant for coding, start integrating SQL into your applications. If you’re a sysadmin, you can start managing databases with day-to-day tasks such as user permissions. Whichever path you choose, there are ways you can make your job easier with SQL.
Incorporating SQL into your current processes is only one way to think about embracing your inner DBA. There are a few approaches that you can take with building your SQL skills; some simple, and some a little less conventional.
Six Ways to Take on SQL
You can earn valuable SQL experience by thinking outside of the box. Below are some directions you can take in your quest to gain experience working with SQL. The sky’s the limit when it comes to what you can do with the language.
1. Get certified
It’s not going to be enough to say “I know SQL.” You’ll want to prove that you know SQL. And the most straightforward way to make that case is through earning SQL certification.
Certifications give you the chance to explore technologies while learning best practices, and maybe even open up new job opportunities. At the end of the day, certifications ultimately exist to make you more effective and efficient in your work. (And prove to future and current employers that you know what you’re doing.)
There are plenty of SQL certifications out there, each one geared toward the tech your team is already using. Between Microsoft, Google, and all the other options out there — the choice is yours.
If signing up for a certification exam seems too daunting, taking a DIY approach can be a low-stakes way to embrace SQL. Try giving yourself some homework. There are plenty of sample databases out there that you can download to get hands-on experience without putting live data at risk. Take advantage of fictional employee information in your database such as Hire Date, and start looking at different ways to display it.
While the DIY approach might not count as “work experience,” it’ll get you working with basic querying tasks — and it’s a great way to show you’re serious about your new skill.
2. Integrate SQL into your Work Day
If you have people in your company who work with SQL, ask to shadow them. Often enough, showing interest and initiative can be enough to get the ball rolling. Who knows, maybe your company is looking for an intern with SQL skills but had no luck finding the right candidate.
Let your manager and the DBAs know that you have interest in SQL. It’s likely that they have repetitive or menial tasks perfectly suited to a newbie. Although tedious work doesn’t sound fun, it’s an opportunity to get your hands dirty, build relationships, and earn some SQL bullet points for your resume. We all have to start somewhere.
3. Become the Documentation Guru
Speaking of menial tasks, you can also ask for documentation duty. Once again, it’s not glamorous, but it’s another thing that your DBAs probably hate. That means it’s a perfect place to offer some help.
Documentation provides some other opportunities. Writing out processes gives you the opportunity to learn the nuts and bolts of system configurations, along with installation and updating procedures. If you are successful, you could work your way up to being an assistant administrator. This promotion puts you on a path to gain even more valuable experience.
4. Get Detailed with Reports
Your business almost certainly has databases, which means there’s an opportunity to start writing queries. There are entire career paths dedicated to querying data, like business intelligence. Even if you’re not looking for that type of career change, knowing how to write queries puts you at an advantage over your ticket-writing peers. The more relevant information you can hand to manager or clients, the better you look — all while gaining great experience.
The most foolproof aspect of this approach is that you’ll only be querying data from the database, and not updating or changing anything. (What does “DROP TABLE” do?)
5. Take it to the Web
Creating a blog detailing your journey with programming languages is an easy way to build yourself as a credible source in the SQL space. Edit and format your SQL experiences into coherent lessons and guides, and post them for the world to see.
Your blog also serves as an evergreen resource that you can come back to whenever you feel like you need a refresher. Other people wanting to gain SQL experience can check your experiences and learn at the same time. Sharing your lessons also allows you to gain valuable karma.
If a blog seems like an extensive amount of work (trust us, we get it), consider joining some online communities such as forums and user groups. It’s surprising to discover how many people have been in your shoes at some point in their professional careers. Many successful DBAs are only too happy to answer questions and offer help on these online forums.
6. Use That Spare Time to Freelance (or Volunteer)
If you have time, use your skills and resume with freelance or volunteering opportunities. Freelance sites like, Upwork or Guru, have plenty of clients who need web developers, BI analysts, and Java developers. All these roles require at least some SQL knowledge.
Nonprofits are another great way to get experience. They typically have lots of data, but not necessarily the resources to have a data person on-hand. Don’t pass up any opportunity to get your hands dirty with SQL. The experience is what you’re trying to attain, even if you’re not getting paid.
Doing good work in any capacity will work wonders for your future job prospects. You’re gaining connections with clients, experiences with SQL, and maybe even references to more work. Before you know it, you’ll have ample SQL-related material to chat about in an interview.
Put in the work to get the reward
SQL is well worth learning, even if database administration or development isn’t in your future. Mostly anyone can pick it up quickly. Yet, writing elegant queries that return the data you want, in the order you want it, without freezing your server takes both time and effort. It’s important to remember that the entire learning process won’t happen overnight. You have to put in work to make your vision a reality.
Remember to keep your eyes open for opportunities. Seize them whenever they present themselves. With determination, experience, and a little luck, you could be on your way to boosting your career with SQL!