ASF 015: Kalen Delaney interview

ASF 015: Kalen Delaney interview


Kalen Delaney has been working with SQL Server since 1987 when she joined the Sybase Corporation in Berkeley, California. Kalen has an independent international trainer and consultant since 1992. She has been a SQL Server MVP since 1993 and has been writing about SQL Server almost as long. Kalen has spoken at dozens of technical conferences, including every PASS conference in the US and multiple TechEd events in both the US and Europe. Kalen is the author or co-author of many books on SQL Server, including the series about SQL Server Internals.

This talk has taken place during SQLDay conference in Wroclaw (Poland), on 16th May 2018 (Wednesday).
Interviewers: Kamil Nowinski & Damian Widera.

Why we have the #SQLFamily so great?
How long did take Kalen to update the book about SQL Server 7.0? What is Kalen’s advice about starting in IT market?
Who did thanks to Kalen more times in the last three weeks than in the last few years? What kind of things Kalen loves to repair?
Do you know the story about @sqlqueen twitter handle? You’ll find all answers out over here.


Damian Widera: Would you like to introduce yourself and what you are doing?

Kalen Delaney: What am I doing…

DW: For business.

KD: In the world or here?

Kamil Nowinski: Both.

KD: Okay. Hello. I’m Kalen Delaney. I’m here in Wrocław.

KN: Perfect!

KD: I have to not remember how it’s spelt. If I try to look at the word then it’s totally confusing. But if I just remember the sounds – Wrocław… I’m here in Wrocław for the SQLDay conference, which just ended. Wonderful, wonderful event. I was very impressed by the dedication of all the volunteers and the attendees. So many people, so excited about SQL Server, that’s just so wonderful to see. I’ve been working with SQL Server for a long time and I’ve been to a lot of conferences and yes, there’s always excitement there, but to come to Eastern Europe here and have so many people so excited also, it was just very unexpected. So very nice to see and I can see it just growing and growing, so that’s wonderful. Most of the work that I do is training, so speaking at a conference is just a really natural thing for me to just share what I want to share about SQL Server and it’s even better than my classes because I just pick and choose what my favourite topics are, just what I like to talk about. Also, sometimes I prepared my classes by using pre-cons. In fact, the original five-day class that I developed 10 years ago was taken just from a bunch of pre-cons that I had done over the years on various topics, and I just put them all together and I did a little bit of modification, of course, to make them fit and flow. But that’s how my first class started, was just a combination of several pre-cons. So I liked doing the pre-cons, it allows me to test out new material and see how people react to it, see how long it takes and how difficult it is to present it. If it is understandable. So it’s a really nice thing for me to be able to do. Most of what I’m doing is teaching, writing. I’m working on some white papers on Azure for Microsoft now and also I am partnering with Brent Ozar. I’m going to be doing some online training in June, just a month from now.

KN: He was our first guest basically.

KD: Brent was?

KN: Exactly one year ago.

DW: Last year here, and he was our first guest in…

KD: Yes, I remember that he was here and there was some confusion because I was talking to him and we both said we were going to Poland and the conferences were very close together on the calendar. So, we thought we were going to be at the same conference and then it was just like a few days before that we realized, “wait a minute, I’m going to this city and you’re going to that city and…”

KN: What happened?

KD: How does this work? Oh, it’s two different conferences. So, yes, I didn’t get to see Brent. I haven’t actually seen him in person in quite a while, but I’m glad you got to talk to him.

DW: So how did you start working with SQL Server?

KD: Or with SQL?

DW: or with SQL, ok.

KD:  SQL? I was at the university, I was in graduate school studying computer science and one of my professors was Michael Stonebraker who went on to start the Ingres company, the Ingres database system. He was a professor at UC Berkeley, where I was getting my graduate degree and I took a database class from him. And… although, I will confess I had some problems with professor Stonebraker. He was not my favourite person in the world, but I was fascinated by databases and what you could do with them and retrieving data out of them. We didn’t do anything with performance tuning, it was all just storing the data and querying the data. But even that was just fascinating. So when I was ready to look for a real job out of the… oh no. After I got my degree, I actually started teaching at the university for a while. I didn’t teach databases. This was at UC Berkeley and they had people like Michael Stonebraker to teach the database classes. I taught introductory programming for quite a few years, but then I needed a full time, better paying job than at the university and looked around. I was in Berkeley, California where the university was and there was a new little company that a friend of mine recommended, called Sybase.

KN: Oh, that’s how the history started.

KD: So I went and interviewed and they were hiring like crazy. I interviewed on a Thursday and they called me on Monday morning saying, when can you start? Well, how about Wednesday? I started two days later, less than a week after my interview. Started working for Sybase and had no idea what I was getting into, but that’s how it all started.

KN: Amazing history.

KD: It was over 30 years ago. I know the date that I started because after one year, Sybase would give you a certificate that said “I survived a year at Sybase” and I had the certificate up on my wall for many years and so it had the date I started on – October 27th, 1987. So 2017 in October was 30 years and it just turned out to be really lucky for me that Sybase ended up partnering with Microsoft or that Microsoft chose Sybase to partner with because it was just such an easy transition after 5 years. My family then moved to the Seattle area where Microsoft was and I was able to just start working with their product very easily because it was the same product in those days. I never actually worked for Microsoft as an employee, like I was an employee for Sybase. But I started contract training for them almost immediately and then I started writing and working with them and to get to know the engineers that actually wrote the product at Microsoft was a very, very exciting thing. And I’m still excited about this product and I still like sharing about it and some day I might retire, but it keeps being exciting. So maybe not for a little while.

KN: So you were working with the products but not as an employee of Microsoft?

KD: No, never as a Microsoft employee.

KN: But you were so close. Why did you decide to choose a different way? I mean, maybe not different, but why you didn’t choose to be a Microsoft employee?

KD: You know, at the time when we moved up to the Seattle area, we decided we didn’t want to live right close to Microsoft. We left Berkeley, which was getting very, very crowded and very expensive. It wasn’t quite so expensive right near Microsoft, but it was still quite expensive. We wanted to live out in the countryside and I had small children and I didn’t want to have to drive two hours to work every day.

KN: Absolutely.

KD: So if we had had more money when we moved up there and could have afforded a house closer to Microsoft, I might’ve looked for a job with them, but we wanted to live out of the way and so I started doing consulting where I could not have to go in every day to an office. I could do a lot of work remotely or if I needed to teach a class, then I would just fly somewhere. But to have to drive two hours to work every day. I chose not to do that.

DW: It’s just a waste of time, you can do anything else.

KD: There were people, I did meet people who lived out near me who did commute into Microsoft every day, but I didn’t want to make that choice.

KN: So basically training is in your blood.

KD: I had been for a very long time. Before university I did some teaching assistance in high school. I was a teaching assistant for Math classes in high school, so very long time.

KN: So I would say that you probably don’t need any special preparations for workshops or for pre-cons.

KD: I’ve gotten some good advice from people over the years and I’ve seen people who I think are wonderful presenters that I’ve borrowed some of their techniques and tricks from. But no, I never did any specific training on how to be a presenter. So yeah, it just always seemed like something I just could do. I like to explain things.

DW: Do you have any ideas how a person who would like to start to be a presenter, what the person should do, how to prepare, how to not to be feared on stage?

KD: Not to have stage fright? You know, I don’t know if I have good advice for that. When I was teaching at the university, sometimes what I would do… When I taught at the university, we had huge classes, sometimes 300-400 people teaching beginning programming to. This was Berkeley, everybody wanted to learn how to use computers at Berkeley in those days. And I would get the first day of class I would be very, very nervous, but what I would do is I would show up early and see all the other people that were waiting for the class to start. And sometimes I would just sit down with them and in the back of the room, like I was another student, and just see what the room looked like from the perspective of a student. And I could sense that the students were sometimes a little nervous too. This was the beginning computer science class so a lot of them had no idea what it was about. And they were scared if it was going to be too hard for them, if they were going to understand what was going on. And up until maybe five minutes before the class was to start, I would just try to feel like I was one of the students and then just a few minutes before we started, then I would get up and go out the back and come around and come up to the front of the room. And every once in a while there were a couple of people who recognized that I was the person sitting next to them, but usually not. And it just gave me more of a comfort because I knew both sides. I knew that these are all just people here, they’re waiting to see what they can learn here and I’m waiting to see how they’re going to accept what I have to offer them. And if I feel like I have something, I don’t have to be perfect, I don’t have to know everything, but I have something that I can offer them. I can share what I do have. And I never expected myself to be absolutely perfect. I just believed that I had something I could share. We’re all just people.

KN: We used that question like: “are you a perfectionist” sometimes, during the interviews, so now we know that you are not going in that direction? Don’t have to be, okay?

KN: So about work-life balance, I know that you chose to live outside of the city centre and that kind of way of life, but how is your work-life balance right now? How can you manage that, you know, a lot of flights across Europe, across the world basically? Your family and other private things…

KD: Now, it’s different because my children are all grown and one of my children lives in Europe so to come and fly to Europe to do a conference or a class is part of my life because then I get to see my daughter and my grandson who are in Germany, so that actually makes it easier.

KN: So, you have an excuse [laughter].

KD: Exactly. And I can see them more often than I would if I didn’t have this work. So that’s wonderful. When my children were littler, it was very difficult and sometimes I do wonder if I left them too much, but my husband was at home all the time. My husband was basically a full-time dad, so there was someone I was leaving the children with and I didn’t have to worry about who’s taking care of them. It was hard to be away, and I’m always, not always, but I sometimes get jealous of my colleagues now who have small children because we have this thing called Skype and when I see my colleagues say, “oh, just a minute, I’m skyping with my daughter” and it’s like a little three-year-old and they’re talking on Skype on their phone to a little three year old and they can see her and she can see her papa and I wish I had that when I first started travelling. It was a big deal to make an international phone call to call home and certainly no video, and just a phone call. So maybe I would do it two or three times in a week, but it wasn’t the same at all to have the video and to not have to pay lots of extra money just to make a call, it was very expensive. And for little children, just having audio was not as interactive for them. A lot of small children can’t do phone calls, but video, when they can see you, is very different and little children are much better with that. I have a grandson now who’s only one and a half and I have video calls with him now and he’s starting to recognize me just on Skype. Yeah. So I get it now with my grandson, but I feel bad that I wasn’t able to do that with my children.

KN: But now you are happy if you have to go to Europe, right?

KD: Oh, now going to Europe is fine. I have friends in many, many places and now that my children are grown, my friends are much more important to me. And so when I travel, I frequently make opportunities to go and have some time with my friends.

DW: Do you remember your one of your first books? It was like the year 2000 or something. It was Black Bible, something like this, SQL Server something… SQL Server 2000. And you were one of the authors.

KD: There was “unleashed”. There was “SQL Server Unleashed”. And that was before 2000.

DW: Something like this.

KD: By 2000, I was already writing the internals books. I wrote the first Inside SQL Server for version 7, so that was like in 1997 or 1998.

DW: I mentioned it because that was my first book. I started learning SQL and you were one of the authors…

KD: Yes, I did write a few chapters for SQL Server Unleashed for version 6 and 6.5 and maybe even for 7. But then I was asked to take the SQL Server, “Inside SQL Server” is what it was originally called. And someone who worked for Microsoft, Ron Soukup was a project manager at Microsoft. He had been given a leave from his job and allowed to take full time for nine months to write the first SQL Server book, to write the Inside SQL Server for 6.5. But even though he was paid his full salary and got to devote all his time to writing this book, he didn’t like it. He said he hated it and he never wanted to write another word again. So they offered me the possibility of updating it and there were so many changes for SQL 7. It was a major project. It took me another nine months, but I wasn’t being paid full-time salary to do that and I had some colleagues, a friend at Microsoft in fact, who tried to talk me out of it. He said this would just be too much work. It will just consume your whole life if you try to do this. And I remember we went out to dinner in Redmond and he was like doing everything he could to convince me this was not a good thing to do and I didn’t take his advice.

DW: And that’s great because we have a really great book.

KD: I don’t regret it. I do not regret it. There were some hard times and there were some many, many late nights, but I don’t regret it at all now. I’m very, very happy that I had that opportunity. I’m very glad that I got to… And it was a door to meeting so many of the people at Microsoft, I mean all of the developers at Microsoft that I know personally and I can send an email to when I have questions and I met them while working on this book. And they were so helpful and so friendly and some of them are still good friends, and now I feel like I know people that I can talk to about whatever questions I have has made it a really wonderful opportunity.

DW: It was also one of the first books I read entirely in English because the Polish translation… translations of technical books into our language is sometimes not accurate.

KD: I’ve heard that from other people.

DW: I thought it would be better to just read it in English and learn something about also how to say something in English in technical language, to better understand.

KD: It would help you with your, with your technical English.

DW: I thought it wouldn’t be that easy to read, but then I found out it’s easier to read in English, to read the content in English because everything else was in English. Like we started having Internet those days and the technical documentation, the MSDN, which you could order on DVDs was also in English. I still have the original MSDN library.

KD: I have stacks of MSDN disks still.

DW: I have them as well, 7 disks. It was the entire MSDN of all products.

KD: They created a new one every quarter or every few times a year. And I didn’t want to get rid of anything I might needed. I think I still have, I probably have 100 discs that I don’t know if they’ll ever be usable for anything, but it’s so hard to get rid of something like that.

DW: Yes. It was great because when you were travelling for a business trip, you could have a disk on the plane or tram or wherever you were, you could have the library with you.

KD: If your laptop had a CD player, and now they don’t…

DW: Not now, but at that time yes, we had them.

KD: But now you can get things on USB and so you can pack everything you ever need to know on one little stick.

KN: So you have a very wide field of observation due to the history and theory is changing right now and what is the direction of the changes around technology, around what Microsoft is doing and in which direction they are going to. So how do you feel about the direction? How do you feel about those changes? Like everything is in the cloud, Azure Cosmos DB, Azure Data Warehouse and all those things. What do you think about it?

KD: Well, I don’t know all those things. I very much just stay with the engine but that of course is changing too and I have started doing work with Azure and it’s still just the engine but now it’s running on Azure. It’s running on someone else’s computer which is what the cloud is. And I know Microsoft is like betting the farm on the cloud and so far it seems like that it wasn’t a bad choice. At first, I was a little bit concerned because it was like anything anybody had to do had a cloud focus. They switched a lot of their internal consulting people to just pushing for cloud. And in fact, I was interviewing with Microsoft, I was looking for a full time position a little over a year ago and I did some consulting with Microsoft and it was very much focused on cloud and whatever I did, I would have to be able to do it in the cloud and work in the cloud and I ended up taking another job where I could do some cloud but still, there was still a lot of work to be done with customers running on-Prem.

So I think it’s a good choice to be… It rings more like all the science-fiction stories that I’ve read, that information is always available from wherever you are. You just have a little watch that you can tap and ask any question, or from wherever you are, you can access your information or anyone else’s or any public information of course, rather than everybody having private storage and you have to be right there in order to access it. That seems like that is the way in the future. As far as all of the other technologies that Microsoft is introducing, I have not really dived into them. I really don’t have a lot of… There’s too much. I’m trying to keep my field of vision a little more manageable.

DW: So it’s too much only if you think about data platform products or components. And imagine the entire cloud, there are a lot more products like CRMs or Dynamics…

KD: Yeah, the job I had last year, they wanted me to get a certification for Amazon cloud and my brain just started spinning around all of the different services, all of the different components that you can plug into your AWS cloud, and I could not remember all of them. And then I had to take these little online exams and “You’re building an application that does this and this. Which components would be the ones that would help you the most and…”

DW: The key is “the most”, you can think in different ways, but…

KD: Yes, it was a good thing it was like open notes because I had to go all the way back and look and see “now, what was that one for?”, just too many to remember. And that was just for Amazon and Microsoft has its own and Google has a whole bunch of services and to try to keep track of who’s doing what and who does what better than who else — that is not easier in the cloud. The idea of the cloud is good, but keeping track of everything there is no easier than keeping track of all the different pieces we have anywhere.

KN: What do you think about the community around SQL Server?

KD: I was just asking someone this the other day about “is there any other technology that has this kind of a community?” I mean the people use the hashtag #SQLfamily and I think it’s really true. I mean, there are people that have problems with each other, there are people who don’t like each other but that’s true in any family. But the fact that of people helping each other out and you know there is someone there who will help you or take care of you if you need it — that’s also family. And a family is where you belong, and the fact that once you get into the SQL world, you’re just part of this family. I don’t know how this started, but it has been for a long time. When I first was an MVP, there were just a few of us and there was an MVP Summit, I believe the first one I noticed. This was in Dallas, we had our MVP Summit in Dallas and there were only maybe like less than 10 SQL Server MVPs.

KN: Very beginning.

KD: Very beginning and we all really liked each other and we hung out together all the time. And I did have a friend who was an Exchange MVP and he came over and talked to me at one point and he goes: “you know, some of the other Exchange MVPs are asking why do those SQL people hang out together all the time.” They thought it was strange. It’s like we didn’t like to go off on our own, we didn’t go meet other MVPs from other technologies. The SQL people liked to being with other SQL people.

KN: Sounds like a perfect world.

KD: And we all really liked each other and these are my friends and, you know, if I didn’t like anybody there, then I would go and find someone else to talk to. But I was perfectly happy just being with my friends who were the other SQL Server MVPs. And that started very long ago, and as more MVPs came in and then the PASS conference started, which obviously wasn’t just for MVPs, so other people got invited to just be there talking about SQL Server and sharing and hanging out together. Obviously, we don’t all hang out as one big 5,000 person group but I think the feeling of connection just didn’t disappear. And I don’t know of the reason why but it started that way and it’s just continued that way.

DW: So SQLDays is also a community conference. It’s built by the community. It’s organized by the community. It’s the same situation.

KD: So you have your family here in Poland but then you’re connected to the larger family as well.

DW: We try to, as much as possible we try to do this.

KD: There are people in your group who are definitely connected to the bigger group. So it’s all connected.

KN: We were going to the conference across Europe as well so we have community members, SQL family.

KD: All over Europe and then you come to the States…

DW: I go to India in August for DPS with Edwin [T] and some other people. Denny Cherry [T] will be there also.

KD: Yes, he’s been there before.

DW: Yes, he was. And also some other guys from the US but not only from the US, across the world.

KD: India has a huge SQL community too, yes.

DW: So it’s a big conference, like 5,000 people will come.

KN: For India it’s a small conference.

DW: It’s actually not the smallest one but it’s organized by Amit Bansal [T], who is also an MCM in SQL Server, so a famous person as well.

KN: So what would you advise to a person who would like to start in IT market or maybe with SQL Server, working as a professional. Or how to start in IT, maybe in general?

KD: I think going to a SQLSaturday would be a good place to start, and go to lots of different sessions to see what aspect of SQL Server you were interested in and then almost all the speakers will have sample scripts that you can try and you can get a developer edition of SQL Server for no charge and find what area of SQL Server you like and just start playing with it. And then after you feel like you know a little more, then go to another SQLSaturday and maybe talk to companies that are working with what you like doing and maybe some of them are hiring. So I think, because SQL itself is just so big, you need to find what within it you’re interested in, and to be able to go to SQLSaturday for no charge and start to get some exposure I think could be a wonderful thing to do.

So I’ll tell you another story then about… I have four children but only one of them is really, really into technology. My middle son wants to be a game programmer but he’s just a brilliant programmer and he has a job doing software development, not games yet, but he keeps trying, keeps interviewing with games companies. But he’s doing development at his company and someone else in his company in IT is working with MySQL and knows that my son is so smart, and so has started coming to him for help with SQL, even though my son doesn’t really know it that well, he can help a little bit because he learns things instantly. But a few things he couldn’t answer, so he started asking me! So to have my son asking me SQL questions, is a real thrill. And in fact, he said “thank you” more times in the last three weeks than he was like in the last few years. It’s like he’ll ask me a question and I’ll answer and he’ll go, “oh, that’s perfect mom, thanks!” Wow, this is just wonderful to get from my son! And I have these little tiny thoughts that maybe he’ll get more interested in SQL and want to do SQL. But he’s such a wonderful developer, a full stack developer, and he does incredible things with graphics and he does music and he can write an entire game on his own. He does the graphics. He can do the graphics. He can do the music. He does the programming. He’s also an actor and so if it’s a game with voices, he actually did some professional voice acting for a while so he can add his own voices! So I think SQL would just be too limiting for him, but it is fun. It is really fun to just have him start asking relatively starting out questions about SQL. So sometimes that’s how people start their job doing one thing and they see that there are people doing SQL and maybe they just do it an hour or so and then… I’m sure if my son wanted to do SQL at the job there, he might be able to find his way into it now that they know what he’s capable of, now that they know how smart he is and that he can learn. I don’t think he wants to do it, though. But other people who do want to do it, if they’re in a technical job or any job that has an IT department that probably has some SQL going on, that’s another place they could start to look. Is there something at their own company involving SQL that they could just start touching? So just one possibility.

DW: I would like to ask you about your hobby. Do you have any other hobbies apart from SQL?

KD: SQL is not my hobby. It is a passion. I feel very blessed that I do enjoy the work that I do, but sometimes I do non-SQL but when I’m working, it’s all SQL Server. I do needlework. I do knitting and crocheting and I just started making jewelry, mostly I just repair my own jewelry that broke, in fact just today I was wearing a necklace today and during the final session of this conference, I was turning and my hand grabbed it accidentally and it broke. But I think when I get home, I’ll be able to fix it. Because I have jewelry tools now. So I fix and make necklaces and earrings and I knit and I make things for my grandson. And I like to read.

DW: It requires a lot of precision, I think, to repair jewelry?

KD: Just better eyesight than I have, but I do have this big magnifying glass with a light attached to it. So it feels really, really professional. I bring this light over and then I can look down with my tools and fix what’s broken. Without that magnifier my eyes are not good enough anymore.

KN: So where we can find you at the next events?

KD: Next, mostly I’m writing white papers, working with Microsoft for most of my work for the next few months, but I will be at SQLSaturday in Sacramento in July. I will be online with Brent Ozar in June. I have a half-day class on locking and a two-day class on internals for query tuning, the things you need to know about indexes and the engine in order to do the tuning. It’s not about tuning, it’s the internals to help you become a better tuner. Those classes are both in June and then not travelling again until October when I have two classes in Europe. I have a class in Sweden and a class in Denmark in October. And these are all on my website, which is

DW: That was our next question.

KN: Yes, exactly.

KD: Or if you forget that, you can ask me on Twitter.

DW: And that was our next question.

KD: @sqlqueen and I do have to apologize because when I first joined Twitter, I didn’t think it would be so public. I joined Twitter because a colleague that I was doing a project with said, when I was having trouble getting a hold of him, I had questions about the next step of the project and I said: “how come you’re not answering your emails?” And he goes: “writes me a message on Twitter and I’ll always answer.” So I had to join Twitter and I said: “I don’t understand what this Twitter thing is and what do I have to do here. And I have to come up with a Twitter name.” And he just threw that out. “Oh, well, how about if you be sqlqueen?” And I just thought it would be for talking to him and not realizing that the whole world would start calling me SQLQueen.

KN: I think he’s completely okay. I totally think and probably everyone could agree that you completely deserve that title.

KD: For me to come up with that on my own, usually I don’t do that. When I start a company, I am not somebody who would name my company after myself, so to have a Twitter handle that just seems to be aggrandizing normally would not be something I would do. But I thought it would just be a private thing with this one colleague and I didn’t know it would grow!

DW: It’s very easy to remember.

KD: And I don’t mind it so much, but it isn’t what I would have thought of if I knew what Twitter would become and that I would be doing so much communication on Twitter.

DW: Actually, it helped us when we announced this conference last year, we also announced that you will see the real SQL Queen.

KD: Okay. Well, I’m glad it was useful to you!

KN: Thank you for accepting our invitation to this interview. So basically we can say that finally it has happened!

DW: After months! 7 months, I think.

KD: How many times have we tried…

DW: It was worth waiting for this moment.

KN: Especially to meet you here in Wrocław, in Poland here. Great, thank you very much.

KD: Thank you. Good to talk to you.

Useful links

Kalen’s twitter: @SQLQueen
Kalen’s website: SQL Server Internals
Trainings – Available Classes

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Kamil Nowinski
Kamil Nowinski 200 posts

Blogger, speaker. Data Platform MVP, MCSE. Senior Data Engineer & data geek. Member of Data Community Poland, co-organizer of SQLDay, Happy husband & father.

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