ASF 025: Rob Farley interview

ASF 025: Rob Farley interview


Rob Farley is a Microsoft Certified Master, Microsoft Certified Trainer and is a recipient of the Microsoft MVP Award for SQL Server since 2006. Rob provides consulting and training courses around the world in SQL and BI topics. His community involvement keeps him quite busy –  as well as running the Adelaide SQL Server User Group, he is a former Director of PASS and helps co-ordinate many events around the world.
He has also assisted Microsoft Learning in developing many certification exams, writes a blog and co-writes “Professional SQL Server 2012 Internals and Troubleshooting”.
On his blog, you can find him writing about various SQL topics, particularly T-SQL and the Query Optimizer.

This talk has taken place during SQLDay Summit 2019 in Wroclaw, Poland on 13 May 2019 (Monday).
Interviewers: Kamil Nowinski (T), Michal Sadowski (T).

Audio version

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KN: Hello, Rob! Could you introduce yourself at the beginning of our conversation?

RF: Sure. My name’s Rob Farley, I live in Australia, in Adelaide. I’ve come to Wrocław to be a speaker at the SQLDay event this year, which is great to be a part of for the first time, to be able to hang out with you all.

KN: We are after the first day of the SQLDay conference 2019, after your workshop today. How did you find it?

RF: It was good. I’m tired now because, you know, it’s what happens when you do a workshop all day. I think it’s got an intensity that teaching a three-day class or a five-day class doesn’t really have, because of the pace of it all, the level of content that you’re getting through, the engagement with the audience that you’re getting through, the fact that it’s speaking all day, there’s no lab time and so on, so I find that you’ve got the length that makes it tiring because you’re on your feet all day, but you don’t have time to say “OK, now do this lab”, as you do at a regular training class. So by the end of the day of the workshop, I’m just feeling old and jetlagged. But no, it was a fun day. I do it all without a computer. I’m riding on flip charts, I’m getting people in the audience to stand up, hold them and things like that. I’m getting people up to be able to demonstrate how to run queries as executions plan operators, so it’s a fun day but it’s tiring. I think people enjoyed it.

KN: Yes, you mentioned two things that I would like to ask about. So the first one is your jetlag. You’re living in Australia now, yeah?

RF: Yeah, so I had a 27-hour trip I think to get here. I had about 14 hours to fly from Adelaide to Doha in Qatar, and then about 6.5 hours from Doha to Frankfurt, and I had a few hours in the airport there, and then the short 1-hour flight from Frankfurt to Wrocław. I hope I’m saying it correctly: Wrocław?

KN: Yeah, quite good.

RF: It looks like raw claw but it’s not, it’s Wroclaw.

KN: Yeah, perfect.

RF: For anybody who’s not Polish and listens to this, it’s just like, yeah… Wrocław makes no sense. But I think I spent like three days learning how to say it. And I’m almost there now, which is excellent.

KN: Yeah, you already learned it.

RF: But yeah, it’s a long trip and it’s only 7.5 hours’ time difference at this time of the year because we’ve got winter in Australia and summer here. It’s about the same temperature. Could be a bit colder here at the moment. But the time difference is 7.5 hours but it’s that long flight that just takes it out of you. So it’s only 9:30 here at the moment but it feels like it’s about 11:30 to me. But I’ll probably still be awake at 4 am.

KN: How did you survive that flight? I still can’t imagine. My longest flight was to the USA and it was like 9 or 10 hours. It was like just enough, you know.

RF: I left Adelaide in the evening. My flight left there at 10:15 pm it felt like it was an all-night, you know, that 14 hours, and I got to Doha in the morning. The way that I was flying made that it was really kind of all night, I mean getting to Doha at like 6 o’clock in the morning, something like that, because of the time difference and so on. But my problem is that with my height and everything like that I really don’t sleep particularly well. So I had worked all day on a Friday night. I sort of tried to sleep but didn’t. Ended up watching films and reading books and thinking through other ideas, trying not to rewrite my workshop, that kind of thing is always tempting. You’re just going “I should rework that. No! I should leave it exactly how it was”. It was fine, I don’t need to rework it but I think essentially when I got here, I was like “yeah, I’ve been up all night, it’s now about time I arrived in Wrocław”, it was like 6 pm on Saturday and I felt like I’d been up for 40 hours or something like that. It was about 40 hours since I’d woken up on Friday morning until I was landing it was about 40 hours that I was up, and when I landed, I was already ready to sleep. But then I ended up only sleeping about six hours before I was like “Oh, I’m awake!” It’s a cruel, cruel thing, the concept of jetlag and time zones, and so on.

KN: You don’t know it until you try on your own.

RF: Actually, it’s way easier to do it on my own than with the family. I remember taking long-haul flights with the kids when they were little, and of course, then you’ve got kids that are awake. And they don’t know that they need to actually still be sleeping because it’s night time outside and so on. It’s like “I’m awake, it’s time to play, isn’t it?” I remember flying with when my oldest child was three, he’s now 21, and becoming a pilot. Today, because I was here, I missed the ceremony where he got his wings. It was heartbreaking to miss it, but this trip has been arranged for over a year and we only found out the date of his ceremony a few weeks ago. But I remember when he was about three and we did long-haul flights between the UK and Australia and having days of him always being awake at night and “I want to play! I’m awake!” I was like: “No, you’ve got to try and adjust”. He’s like “No, I need to be up and playing cause I’m awake”. That’s way worse. It’s way better when you’ve got kids that are old enough to understand the concept of “now you need to be trying to be asleep, now you need to be trying to be awake” instead of when they’re little enough, they just walk along and if they’re tired, they sleep. Travelling by yourself is way easier.

KN: True. Before we go to the next question because you mentioned that you were flying between Australia and the UK. We met for the first time I think during the MVP Summit.

RF: I think so, only a couple months ago.

KN: Yeah, so you mentioned that you were basically born in the UK, quite close to the place where I live.

RF: I wasn’t born close to where you live. I spent like, the time that I remember living as a child in the UK. I left the UK when I was 14, nearly 15. I did 4 years of high school, all through primary school and so on. But you live in Stevenage and I live close enough to Stevenage to have a Stevenage postcode. It was SG4 for me and you’re SG1 or something like that.

KN: It’s only 8 miles or something, maybe even less.

RF: I think about 4 miles from where you are. We used to do our shopping in Stevenage and it was my local cinema, it was in Stevenage. So I remember seeing movies in the 80s in Stevenage.

KN: It was probably a different city at that time.

RF: I have no idea because I haven’t been back there for quite a while. I think the last time I was there was… I don’t know, 2002 maybe? I mean I have been back since, it hadn’t changed in those 13-odd years, in that 17-odd years since I was there.

KN: If you are in the UK, visit us!

RF: I still have family in Hertfordshire. I have family down at Bushey, so damn near Watford. So I still see that part of the world when I’m over there. But I can’t say I tend to explore up to the area that I used to live in around Stevenage very much. Maybe one year I’ll explore and see how much things have changed.

KN: Yeah, absolutely. You’re not curious?

RF: I’m a little bit curious, it’s just that it’s a long way to go.

KN: But now you are here, you are very close.

RF: Yeah, but now on Thursday I’m flying home again because I miss my family and if I’m on something like this I don’t really feel like I get the chance to have an extended time away and so on. So about a year ago, I had a trip to the UK. I went to SQLBits and I saw family, and my grandmother died, and I stayed for the funeral. I was gonna be heading over to the MVP Summit that year, but I went to the funeral. That was a year and a bit ago and I haven’t been back to the UK since. I need to probably arrange more trips to go there. But it’s still a big effort. And I need to take the family at some point, so it becomes an even bigger effort.

MS: And you have mentioned that your roots are from the UK, but how did you start working with SQL Server? Was in the UK or was it when you moved?

RF: No, I was still in high school when I moved to Australia first time when I made to Melbourne. I moved with my family because I was still a teenager and I finished high school in Melbourne, I went to university in Melbourne, and I got my first proper IT job. I should say a proper IT job, cause I was working in the computer science department, while I was at uni. So my first IT job was while I was a student working on stuff within the University. But my first post-university job was in a consulting firm in Melbourne. And back in the days of VB 3 and 4 and things like that. And the database was just a necessary part of the application development that we would do for our clients and the consulting and so on. And I started to realize that the database was very important and so on. But I kept being primarily an application development person. I became a project manager and all that kind of stuff. Moved back to the UK for a couple of years in 2001-2002, that kind of timeframe, and then we moved to Adelaide. I feel that way my wife grew up. And still, I was in application development, so the database is part of that but it was mostly on the application development side. And then I kind of got into the SQL community and I started to realize that actually you could be a SQL Server specialist and you could… The database has always nicely clicked with me. I’ve done pure Maths at uni and so the database concept just kind of clicked. It felt very natural for me. And at the time, I started projecting at things, I started to run a user group. I started to attend conferences and speak at conferences. And over that time, people started to ask me to help them with the SQL Server stuff, and I became a SQL Server consultant, rather than having a career moving through the application development. At some point you’d become a project manager and then you’d become some other level of manager and some other level of manager. The manager stuff never interested me. I was interested in providing services to clients. So when I got the chance to be able to set up my own consultancy and specializing in SQL Server stuff, that just kind work. But that was after I’d already become a SQL MVP. And that was mostly because I started presenting and running a user group and so on in the SQL Server space and being able to explain database concepts to people because I just understood it slightly differently to the way that most did because of the Maths side of things. Because I studied set theory and number theory and logic and so on, and I saw how things relate to each other, and I’ve always seen databases as slightly different to the way that most of other people see them. It’s how I can get away with doing a workshop for a whole day without turning a computer on once. Just a flip chart and drawing concept and getting people to stand and hold pieces of paper and all of this kind of stuff. Because I learnt about what it’s doing and how it’s doing it and why it’s doing it in various ways, and the relationship between things, and so on. And those concepts along the lines of… if you can actually persuade the computer to run your query the way that you would do it on paper if you could, the fact that the computer will do that obviously much quicker, actually just works out really well. And the fact that you would be prepared to do that on paper if you had to do it on paper, the computer then doing it many times faster than what you would, thanks to a really well running query, as opposed to doing it in some way that you would never dream of doing it by hand because it would never be able to finish. Well, sure, the computer might do it quicker but that’s a poorly performing query. It might take minutes to run when it should be taking milliseconds if you can persuade it to do it the way it would take minutes by hand. So I guess that’s how I got into SQL Server, it was just because I was an application developer and started to see that actually the only thing that really mattered was the database.

MS: What was the SQL Server version that you started working with?

RF: Well, my first… That would probably be SQL 6.0 because back in the mid to late 90s, when I got a job outside of university working for clients, you had databases and so on, that was what one of my earliest clients was running – SQL 6.0. And then I helped him with an upgrade to SQL 6.5. But I was mostly on the application development side. It was just that, you know… And in fact, interestingly I had one of those clients, the one that we had upgraded from 6.0 to 6.5, I didn’t realize at the time but I developed a cube kind of concept where, for the sake of their reporting, I created tables of aggregates and so on. It was before the concept of OLAP, which was in SQL 7.0. I’d make tables with aggregates and all that so that I could get reports to run more quickly. And I just had no idea that what I was doing was really similar to what became Analysis Services.

KN: It was natural for you.

RF: If I’d known at the time, maybe I could have become an Analysis Services specialist back then, but instead I had done that and I kept working in the relational space and all that kind of stuff, and I moved into project management and all this fancy stuff. And then I felt like it was only years later, getting towards the SQL 2005 release when I got into other things like Analysis Services, which was always a fantastic part of the product. I mean, most of the SQL Server things are so relevant to the overall data solution side, but I had no idea that I had been doing BI so long before it was actually a thing inside…

KN: So you were doing the aggregation tables even before you the indexed view happened?

RF: Yeah! It was painful but I looked at various reports that this particular client had and I saw that they were just taking too long to run and so I worked out: “hey, you know what? If I create a table that has these, I can roll them up really nicely and easily, and all that kind of stuff and I made these tiny tables that had the domain aggregates that I could group in different ways and so on, to make these reports run really quickly. I just spent a few hours, in fact, getting these tables ready with ‘this has to be the sum across this and this has to be the sum across that, and this has to be the sum across something else’”. It felt quite painful to process, but I had no idea that what I was doing was really similar to what you did when you process the cube. So yeah, I had an interesting experience overall in getting to become a SQL Server specialist. But even these days I think it’s hard to be a SQL Server specialist because the product is so wide, then how does somebody become an application development specialist. Somebody becomes a specialist C# programmer for example and C# is huge these days, and it keeps changing really quickly and so on. These days people tend to be a specialist in a smaller and smaller area, where the parts are growing around them. And I think in some ways I’ve been lucky that the core concepts around data, whether that’s SQL DB or SQL DW or SQL Server on-prem or hybrid and so on, most of the concepts about what you do with data and how you change stuff with data, and the significance of data within an organization really isn’t changing all that much.

KN: Yeah, it’s still the same, the same rules.

RF: A lot of it is still the same concepts. Sure, different kinds of indexes and you’ve got all kinds of different things, but that foundation is way more stable than many other things. You look at how you create a webpage these days, it’s totally different to what you did 20 years ago. Completely different. You’ve got MVC and all these kinds of things and even that’s our path these days. And when I look at what we did 20 years ago…

KN: From the database perspective…

RF: Exactly, from the database view…

KN: It’s still the same, almost the same.

RF: It could be almost exactly the same database, probably just different indexing strategies and so on and different compression settings…

KN: Maybe fewer types, like some of them, are deprecated right now. But the main concept remains the same.

RF: And I find that in many ways reassuring because at the end of the day people want their data to be reassuring. They don’t want to feel like their data is the one that’s going through all kinds of changes. They want stability because their data is what defines what they do, what they find important and if they lose their data, they struggle to stay around.

MS: Did you try to explore the world outside of SQL Server, like other database engines?

RF: Well, when I was doing application development, we were using Oracle and MySQL and things like that. There was a time when actually I felt stronger in PL/SQL than I did in T-SQL, but in some ways, I always prefer SQL Server because it always felt like for me that to be an Oracle specialist that it was some sort of world of dark magic. The list of things you need to learn or that kind of stuff, the Oracle DBAs were somewhere else. And I always felt like they were the ones who were standing in front of the room full of switches and “I’ll go and tweak that up, go and tweak the other up”, whereas SQL Server will perform just as well but will give you way fewer switches to play with, because we understand that it’s gotta be more user-friendly to be able to get a proper foothold in the database space. I’ve always felt like Microsoft knew more about what they wanted to achieve, whereas Oracle seemed like they wanted to achieve the ability to change absolutely any setting and to make sure that to be an Oracle DBA, to be in analytics, but really in any way you needed to make sure that you had dedicated your whole life to the platform and so on. I’m sure these days SQL Server is the wider platform. It’s just as complicated as Oracle was back then. The sheer number of things that come through it.

KN: Yeah, more products in there, services.

RF: Yeah, absolutely! SQL Server is more of a platform.

KN: R, Python, Java… SQL Server or Linux, Dockers, you know, “who cares”!

RF: So many things, SQL Server suddenly has all these different facets to it. It’s just like “really, OK, so I haven’t played enough with that yet, haven’t played with these other things so much yet”.

KN: I remember always trying to avoid the Java and I just found out myself that Java is in SQL Server now!

RF: But at the end of the day, I always felt like the Microsoft database platform had a better future than the Oracle one, simply because it didn’t feel like the room full of switches that I could fiddle with. It felt like they had significant switches, not just switches that seemed like they were pointless. So I always thought that SQL Server was the better option. But also I never felt like I was a proper DBA. I’ve never been one for managed services, I’ve never been the person who’s been on call, just in case the box goes down. I’ll happily help people whose databases go down and I know how to… One of the things I showed today was fixing corruption and things like that, it’s a pure DBA thing. It’s not development process or something like that, it’s pure DBA and I understand a lot… I can’t think of many things today that I don’t get in that DBA space. I just don’t want to be the person who’s on call, who has to then fix something. I’ll happily answer my phone if it rings in the middle of the night with somebody saying “Oh my goodness, my database has gone down. Can you help?” The answer is always: “Yes, of course”. But I don’t want to be a DBA because the DBA is the person who just makes sure that the system, that the customers, data stay up. And I’m like: “Yeah, but actually this data should be serving the business, you should be able to use it to improve what you do and improve what you know, and it’ll help you make decisions” and all of that kind of thing. The data should be serving, whereas the DBA serves the data to make sure that it’s always there. Whereas I’m a consultant, I help the data serve the business, which is way more fun, I think.

KN: You mentioned whiteboards. I’ve seen a sentence on your Twitter account and also you used those whiteboards during today’s workshops. What was the idea? How did you come up with that idea to use the whiteboards? Do you use them on regular sessions?

RF: Actually, in the three sessions that I’m giving in the rest of the week, I won’t even use a whiteboard. One of them is gonna be a discussion. It is a whiteboard in that one, yes. And the one I’m giving tomorrow is me talking about maybe simple things. It’s more like a career development style talk. So that one is just me talking about seeing yourself in movies.

KN: But there will be a little bit about databases?

RF: Maybe… Not much. I might mention Power BI at one point. But this is a session that I’ve given as a keynote before and it’s all about how some of my favourite movies relate very closely to the career of IT professionals, of SQL people and so on. So it’s a fun session but it’s a bit different probably to all of the other talks that are going to be on this week. But the workshop, doing it completely without a computer and so on is because I actually think that when you’re using a whiteboard or a flip chart, demonstrating things in more hands-on, practical kinds of ways, where I’m getting people to hold up pieces of paper, or explaining “OK, so we’ll access data here and then we don’t have all the information, we’ve gotta do a lookup and so we’re going to take that address of the underlying row and we’re gonna go and find that over here” and so on. And explaining to people what’s going on with the internals and showing them “this is what a page looks like” on paper, I find that it kind of triggers different parts of the brain, such that hopefully they will have learned, the people in that room, of course, will have learnt about these internal SQL concepts in a way that might stick with them, in a way that means that they are actually thinking more about the paper concepts, instead of the computer concepts. Because the way to make SQL run well is to pick up the paper, how you would solve something by hand, rather than how you would have done on the computer. If I’m showing the internals of the page, as soon as I do that on a computer, people just say “Oh, what’s that, what’s that, what’s that?” And they get distracted by the amount of information that is there. When I’m explaining that on paper, I’ll just give some header information, I’ll just draw a few squiggles on the page, and here’s the way the data is. And I go “this is the bit that we want to focus on”. And they don’t get so distracted by “Do you have to start in the middle?” And I don’t actually think about filling up 8k of data. I’m just filling up a few things that I’m drawing on the board. I’m gonna say “this is full now, we’re gonna move to the next page”. You demonstrate how a page splits and all that kind of stuff in ways that hopefully people get better or it lives in a different part of the brain because of not using a computer.

KN: Yeah, and they can focus on what you are sharing and explaining basically in your own pace.

RF: And without the strange distraction that the computer is to the people sitting in the room. For some reason, if I’m there dancing about in front of them using pens on a whiteboard or a flip chart, rather than sitting at the desk running a query, demonstrating a query plan and saying what’s going on there, if I’m actually demonstrating it to them and getting people out from the audience and saying “Hey, you’ve got data, go and tell that person, go and get that information from them and put it here” and all of this kind of stuff, then that’s helping them see what’s going on in a very different way to actually running queries on a computer. It’s still very useful, but I figured I’ll be different.

MS: How are you preparing yourself for a speech?

RF: For my sessions?

MS: Yeah for sessions, workshops…

RF: It’s tricky. To a large degree, it’s about knowing the technical material really well. If I’m going to be doing a session where I’m talking about SQL internals, I want to make sure that I know everything that I care about, right? I need to be able to introspect some of the questions people are going to be asking. If I need to be able to demonstrate how a forwarding rows looks like, how that works, and so on, I need to make sure that I know how that works, I know how I’m gonna explain that, and so on. Knowing that material really well actually means that it gives me a bit of freedom to be able to then design the journey that I’m taking people on.

MS: So it’s starting with some kind of subject that you would like to present or it’s starting with a clear sheet of paper and then you’re just starting with the concept and then adding something or it’s different?

RF: Typically it’s thinking about the kinds of things that I’m going to explain to somebody. Often it’s thinking about the conversations I’ve had with people, the things that I’ve explained to clients, the time that I’ve needed to try and adjust somebody’s thinking about something or whatever the case may be. And I can see the story that I want to tell to the audience. I get the concept that I might to explain to them, the mindsets that I’m going to nudge a bit in one direction or another. And then the overall session starts to form because I’m thinking about the ways to explain the things. And I start to feel what can work as ways to explain things and what might not work with how to explain things. And I have a good idea about what I could talk about in an hour and in two hours and so on.

MS: You have mentioned that you are avoiding making last-minute changes, just before the session. Is it always like that or it depends?

RF: I always end up feeling a strange amount of stress with presentations. I always feel like… Let me be clear, I will have how the talk is gonna go from ages beforehand, but as I get close to actually delivering a talk, I always keep feeling like I’m wanting to tweak some bits and so on. And that’s not actually the best way of doing things. You want to be like “no, no, no, this is prepared and it’s fine and we’ll see how you go”.

KN: You should make a code-freeze three days before your talk starts.

RF: Absolutely, it’s just that adrenaline about “I’ve got a talk coming up” that makes you want to tweak the thing and you don’t want to be doing that. It’s not good. I don’t even really try to plan new jokes beforehand. There was a joke that I developed for this week because I’m in Poland, where I say to the people in the room: “Oh, so I’ve been learning some Polish. I’ve learned to say ‘cześć’”, which means ‘hi’ and also ‘goodbye’. You kind of move your hand as if to be able to say ‘hi’ and ‘goodbye’, which helps, so that if I say ‘cześć’ and I move my hand like your listeners can’t tell that I am but you’ll know when you look at me, you get that I’m meaning the right word, so even if I’m saying it wrong, it’s OK.

KN: But even without…

RF: I’ve learned to say “dzięki”, which is “thanks”, things like that, and “dziękuję bardzo”, which is “thank you very much”. Apparently I’m saying this OK. And I had a big effort to learn to say “Wrocław”.

KN: Also perfect.

RF: And so this thing that I’ve been working on is to be able to say to people “Hey, so I’ve taken the time, I’ve worked with somebody quite closely on this”, to be able to say to you “Hey, welcome to SQLDay, I hope you’re having a great week”, and so I worked with this person, she’s very impressed with my pronunciation, we seem to get a lot out of speaking. So I hope, apparently, this is quite good. “Just let me try this”. And I say: “Jesteś piękną kobietą, masz piękne oczy”, right?

KN: Nice! Very nice compliment!

RF: Which of course means “you’re a very beautiful woman, you’ve got lovely eyes”, right?

KN: Yeah, they told you the truth!

RF: Rather than “Welcome to SQLDay, I hope you’re having a nice week”. But that’s my joke for the week. And of course I told my wife that this was what I was going to do and she thought it was funny, and gave me the OK to do it. I learned how to say that off YouTube. I didn’t work with anybody to make that work. But the joke works OK. The people in the audience just go “ha, ha, ha, he thinks he’s saying ‘Welcome to SQLDay, you hope you’re having a nice week’, and actually he’s just saying ‘very, very beautiful woman’”. So there’ll be an odd little joke like that that might occur to me a few days before something. But really I’m just making sure that I know the technical stuff, that I’ve got my narrative of the session. So many sessions lose the narrative, right? Somebody wants to have a session and they want to explain some concept and they just go “Yeah I’ll explain everything that I know about some feature” and they make a slide deck where they just list feature after feature and that’s what they’re going to be talking about. And I go: “Oh my goodness, no! Your narrative, you need to know how your talk flows to tell the story to keep them engaged”.

KN: Otherwise it’ll be boring.

RF: Otherwise it’s not connected enough to be able to actually get into their brain properly. It’s not just a list of facts. Or a list of features or explanations about features and so on. It’s got to be a narrative so that people see the progression of the talk as it goes on. So in the days before a session, I’m making sure that I know that narrative, I get how I’m going to segue from one thing into the next, how I’m going to develop certain ideas, to be able to lead the people into the next thing and so on. And I feel like I’m always worried that I’m gonna miss something when I move from something into something else. Not to the point that I want to have a slide deck that I’m leaning on too much, to be able to guide that. I want it to feel natural, I want it to feel like I’m having a conversation, I’m leading a conversation as we go. Because then I’ve got the audience, and they’re not being distracted by slides. And if the audience wants to ask questions and starts taking a different direction, then sure, I can now explain that before I move onto that. And I’m not dictated by the slides that I put together, where somebody asked the question and I was like “Oh, yeah, that’s actually my fourth point on this slide, so can we come back to that in a minute?” or anything like that. I can happily answer the question, explain something and then bring it back and work that into the story that I’m telling. But I need to really know the narrative. Preparing for a talk is an interesting kind of concept. And I do it differently I think to most people.

KN: How long do you travel during the year or do you like travelling?

RF: I’ve been through phases where I’ve traveled an awful lot and at the moment I feel like I don’t travel that much. For example last year I went to SQLBits in the UK and I have various trips in the States or around Australia. And this year I went to the MVP Summit in the US, it was my first time to the US in two and a half years. A few years ago, when Microsoft was getting me to travel around a lot to teach PDW (Parallel Data Warehouse), and I toured in Malaysia and India three or four times, and Sri Lanka, and stayed at one of the hotels that got blown up recently. And in Auckland a few times in New Zealand. And around Australia as well. So I thought then that I was travelling a lot, but in the last year or so, really not that much. I mean, travelling internationally out of Australia is a big effort. Travelling within Australia is not too bad. And I’ve got employees in Melbourne so I feel like I’m in Melbourne for a day or so quite frequently. And I’ll be there again in a few weeks’ time. But most of my work is in Adelaide where I live, and I try and give those clients a lot of my time. I don’t want to say that I avoid travels, but I try to be available for the community in Adelaide. Because I don’t know, I try and make sure that when I have people in community asking me for help with their databases and things like that, and my clients, of course, asking me with the way they’re doing things, I don’t want to be “Oh, no, sorry, I’m jet-setting off somewhere else that week”. I’d rather be local and be able to help them with stuff. I love the SQL community around the world. It’s great to come and hang out, but at the same time I also like to be home and to be able to be available for the people and see the community where I live.

MS: Next question is about work-life balance. Do you feel there is something like that?

RF: I’m not good at taking holidays. I’m really not. I don’t remember the last time I took my holiday. I mean I have three kids, two oldest boys who are both at university and my oldest, as I said, got his wings today, and then I’ve got a big gap before my daughter, who is 11 and who’s just passed her high school. There’s always times when I work too late in the evenings and so on. But I always try to be home and be available for them. I play music instruments and things like that, play my guitar regularly and so on.

KN: Yeah, exactly. I saw a video of you playing the guitar with Buck Woody, yeah?

RF: Oh, yeah, back in 2011. That was a long time ago.

KN: Are you still playing?

RF: I play guitar, and I don’t write songs about SQL Server anymore, but that was fun for a little bit. But Buck and I are still good friends. I think in some ways it’s still the thing that I’m most famous for in SQL Server world and it’s nearly eight years ago. Go figure. I need to find something different to be famous for. Maybe it’s the flip chart thing!

KN: Next question, could you tell us about your MVP journey?

RF: So I became an MVP in 2006, largely because I had taken over running the SQL Server user group in Adelaide about a year and a bit earlier, and had helped run and make it well attended again and I had turned it from getting small numbers every so often when the group ran to having regular monthly meeting and people wanted to hear the stuff that we were organizing and that I was around, including if I presented, I was asked [??]. We got good numbers up, we’ve generated a lot of interest in SQL Server locally and people at Microsoft noticed that and one day I got an email saying “Congratulations, you’ve been awarded”! That was before the concept of “you got nominated and had to describe all the stuff that you do” and all that kind of stuff. That wasn’t how it was back in those days.

KN: Oh, really?

RF: Somebody from within Microsoft would recognize that you were influential and one day you would get the award.

KN: So previously it worked like only the Microsoft employee nominated you and it was a totally internal process.

RF: There was none of this thing where you got nominated and then you had to fill out a big questionnaire listing all the stuff that you do and all that kind of thing. It was entirely based on who within Microsoft recognizes actually that you’re influencing the community. Back then I was the fifth SQL MVP in Australia. Now we’ve got about a dozen. I think we’ve had it more over the years in between. But the community was quite different then. MVP Summits were so much smaller than the one that was the other month. But you know, Microsoft paid for your flights to get to events like that and it was a very different kind of experience to being an MVP these days. These days it feels like it’s much more… they explain the things that you can do to try to become an MVP by vlogging and answering questions on forums and all of these kinds of things. In those days, it didn’t feel like there was a prescription to be able to be awarded. It was simply based on if people within Microsoft recognized that you have influence. And maybe they’ll make it happen for you. So I got an MVP award back then and then I got renewed every year since, and I’m still MVP for the time being.

KN: When was it again?

RF: 2006. A long time. It’s just one of those things were for me, in many ways the most significant thing is the fact that I’ve run the user group for all that time and some. And the people within Adelaide and you know around Australia hopefully, when they think of SQL Server hopefully I’m not too far from their thoughts around that. And that’s good. It means that hopefully they’ll reach out to me when they want some help and hopefully, I can help them, and so on. I mean, not just for the sake of being able to earn a living from it and all that kind of stuff, but it’s nice to be somebody who people turn to when they need help with it, and when they feel like their data isn’t serving them in the right kind of way when they’ve got trouble with the data, all that kind of stuff. I like to be able to help people and help them be served by their data better.

KN: Nice sentence. We need to remember that.

MS: What is the personal achievement that you are most proud of?

RF: Probably seeing my kids grow to be normal human beings! I don’t know, I think for any parent, you see your kids grow up and you have no idea if they’re gonna survive in life and so on, and I love the fact that my [??] adult son [??] still live at home but I love the fact that they cherish people like my wife and I. They don’t go to the same church that we go to, but they decided to keep going to church and they seem to be on a good path career-wise, with their studies and the avenues they’re looking into to be able to establish careers, which are their own decisions rather than my getting into the database space. But it gives me hope that clearly my wife and I’ve done something right and gives me hope that my daughter, who’s obviously going through her teenage years, will also turn out normal and so on. Cause I see so many people pulling the hair out over their kids and so on. And I like the fact that my boys have survived those years and have a bright future. And to me that’s way more significant than anything on the technical side. That’s what matters.

KN: Yeah, true. And it’s not easy to be a parent.

RF: No, and it’s one of the reasons I’m heading home on Thursday morning, because I always feel like if I’ve… people said: “oh, you should stay longer and look around Poland some more” and so on, and I think “yeah” but really I want to be able to get home and be around the ones that actually matter. If I’m able to come back to Poland one day and potentially bring family and so on and actually have a holiday here and explore the place. And not feel like I’m off somewhere by myself, neglecting my family. I get that I’m here as a work thing, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be trying to get home at the end of it. As soon as I say I’m gonna spend a few extra days, be a tourist afterwards, I feel like I’m in the wrong place. While the conference’s on, I’m totally fine being here, as soon as it’s done, I feel like I’m in the wrong place if I’m still here. I need to be going home. And that probably relates to the work-life balance thing as well.

KN: Absolutely understandable.

RF: It’s one thing helping the client out with stuff in the evening hours, rather than just finishing at 5 o’clock, if that’s what’s needed. But I’m working for the sake of my family. And I’ll be at some conference, when it’s over, if I take a few extra days, that’s not doing anything for my family. That’s just doing something entirely for me, which feel wrong to me.

KN: And what kind of hints would you give to young people who wanted to start working on the IT market, let’s say.

RF: That’s really tough. For me, I went to university and I was good at CompSci. I had an interest in the CompSci of the DAI thing. DAI, machine learning side fascinated me at the time and if I’d stayed on, done a PhD, it would have been in that kind of area. But then, during my honours year, I got offered a job in a consulting firm and I took that. The lure of being able to earn money for my family, it certainly helped. And really, that’s what cemented me in an IT career, because I was working in IT. Before that, who knows, maybe I would have got a job in academia or something like that if I’d stayed on a PhD. Do you then become a lecturer, professor or something like that? Researcher? But these days, people get into IT without even going to university and so on. I don’t really know how that kind of works but I would say, for anybody who is getting into IT is to be able to learn what matters. I feel like I spent the first 5-6 or whatever it was years of my career not focusing on data. I was in application development just because that was what my job was doing. And it was only when I got to about 30 years old that I really kind of noticed that actually the thing that matters is the data. Everything else is just there to make mention of data better. The application is so that people can get data into the database. Or to report on the data, or to be able to manipulate the data in the right kinds of ways. The thing that matters is the data. So for anybody who’s getting into IT, think about what matters to you. Maybe it’s the data, maybe it’s all kinds of things. Maybe you like being a sysadmin and you like to make sure the things are up. But for me, the significant thing was the data and I feel like I probably spent too much time not realizing that the data was a thing. But also I would say to people: look and understand the community and the value of community. I spent a long time without even realizing that there was such a thing. I was living in London when PASS had an event there in 2000. I had no idea.

KN: Like many young people.

RF: And I think to myself: “Man, if I had known as a 25 year-old living in London, maybe I would have had a very different path, gone into SQL earlier” and things like that. It just could have been very different. But probably the same occurs these days in any career. I would say to anybody, no matter what they’re doing: find a community of people that you can be part of and that you can potentially be an influencer within and you can actually be a mover and shaker within that industry.

KN: Talk to young men and do networking.

RF: Sharpen each other and so on, because that’ll help, help other people and that helps you. You’d be seen as a helpful person. That helps career-wise, and all of these kinds of things that people just don’t necessarily seem to get at all, because most people are just focused on themselves when they’re trying to get their career going. And if they actually understand the community aspect and trying to aim at the things that matter, then they’d probably have an easier time.

KN: How would you describe your current role? Is it more like a dev role, DBA roll, BI role?

RF: I would describe myself as a consultant helping people with whatever the thing is that they need. Helping them be more effective with their data, helping people do whatever it is they need to do. Sometimes it’s doing DBA type of stuff, sometimes it’s being able to help them with the strategic use of their data, sometimes it’s about the BI side and being able to produce the right report that they need to be able to actually help them with their data. And the type of work that I am doing is very dependent on where the customers are in their overall data story, with their debt maturity, with equality, whether they’re further down the track sometimes, it’s helping people with AI, being able to help them answer questions. And this is across my whole business, it’s the same kind of thing that my employees will do for our customers. It’s helping them do better with their data. It’s not helping their data stay up. We don’t do managed services. It’s just helping them improve. Sometimes it’s database dev stuff, sure. Sometimes it’s tuning and indexed stuff, sometimes it’s migrations helping them get off what they’re on and potentially into the cloud and things like that. Quite often it’s Power BI, and doing Power BI of the stuff and helping people get into their data and understand their data better, and sometimes it’s AI and we’re helping people ask questions with the data and train models and being able to then say “OK, now I know, what are you going to do with this now that you know this answer? What are you going to do, if we can get an answer for you? What’s happening with all of this?” But it’s still all part of that overall data story.

KN: It’s generally Data Platform.

RF: Absolutely, it’s Data Platform, it’s Analytics, it’s all of that. But I don’t call myself a DBA or DB developer or whatever. I just call myself a consultant. Because I’m happy to consult whatever they need.

MS: What do think about the current trend of migration to the cloud? Is it going to replace SQL Server on-premises?

RF: I think the location of the infrastructure is becoming increasingly irrelevant. It used to be that if you needed a SQL Server environment, you used to have to just ask the IT department in your organization and they would arrange it for you. And these days it’s really not that different. You’re asking Microsoft or Amazon or whatever to be able to provision your a new SQL Server. You’re just asking a different crowd. Maybe you’re still asking the IT department and they’re provisioning one for you in the cloud instead of on-prem. To people, they shouldn’t care where the data is, how it’s being managed and so on. That should be left to the people who are happy to manage that. And whether they’re doing that using cloud or whether they’re doing that on-prem, it shouldn’t matter to the people that the data is actually trying to serve. It matters for the people serving the data, it doesn’t matter for the people whom the data is serving. And that’s where I prefer to live. With the people that the data is serving, helping them be served better.

MS: What have you learned recently and what is the next item on your learning list?

RF: I don’t have many items on my learning list. I tend to find that… I mean I see new features come through and I go “oh, I want to be able to learn more about that” and so on. And I feel like that’s a continuous thing, but I never write lists of “I need to check this off, I need to check this off, I need to learn about that, I need to learn about the other”. I think there are areas that continue to evolve, that means that the list of things to learn within that space is worth developing some more. And I think the intelligence area is big with that, whether it be R Services or running a Python within the thing. Constant training models and all of that kind of stuff is something that I want to continue to develop. Because I’ve done plenty of that kind of stuff but I feel like it’s still an area that I think you could spend a very long time making sure that you’re an expert in. You could go cave diving in that stuff for months, for years, as it continues to evolve just in front of you. But at the same time, the things that I want to learn is more about my clients. Whenever I’ve got a new client, I’m trying to, you know, “that’s what I’m wanting to learn about, what are they trying to do with stuff, what can we put in that’s going to make that work better?” As I learn about the clients, I end up going “oh, I actually know what Azure Functions might be good for them, because the bit that I’ve heard seems to actually fit”. And then that leads me to dive a bit deeper into the tick to really find out whether it does suit the client and see whether actually I’ve got things that might not work particularly well and are less of a match. But the driving thing is always “how can I get to know my clients better” and “how can I get to know some tech better”. That’s the thing, the thing that makes me interested is what’s happening with the people, rather than what’s happening with the tech.

KN: That’s better than… the ideas and the needs about learning comes from that part of business or area.

RF: People are way more interesting than tech. Tech moves quicker for sure but the people are interesting. Tech is just tech. People are that matter.

KN: At the end of our conversation, tell us where we can find you.

RF: Probably in my room, sleeping. But don’t find me there.

KN: Tell us your room number.

RF: I’m room 101, which means I’m in… to quote the book 1984 that’s the room that you get sent into when you need to just be disappeared. I think it’s quite appropriate that I’m in 101. But that may fits. But when I get back home from this trip to Poland, I’ve got a few weeks until SQLSaturday season in Australia. Some of my Red Gate team will come again for some SQL in the City Down Under events across Australia and New Zealand. And I’m definitely going to be in Melbourne for the SQLSaturday in mid-June. I’m tempted but not definite to go to Brisbane as well on the 31st of May, it’s only a couple weeks away.

KN: We’ll not publish this interview that fast. We know we can find you on many conferences like SQLSaturdays as you mentioned. What about the Internet? Where can people find you on the Internet?

RF: Oh, I tend to find that if people search my name plus SQL, they tend to be able to find me on Google searches, but I’m on LinkedIn, I’m on Twitter as @Rob_Farley. I’m easily emailed, my company, LobsterPot Solutions, of course, is very findable and I’m always happy to… anybody can DM (send Direct Message) me on Twitter for example. I don’t have the thing of only people that I follow can DM me. No, everybody can send me messages.

KN: But you know that not everyone can DM you until you are following them.

RF: No, I’ve got a setting that says “anybody can DM”.

KN: Ah, you can set this up? I didn’t know.

RF: Yeah, that’s a setting you can choose. So I’ve had that for a while now. So anybody can DM me.

KN: Sorry, I was not aware.

RF: You need to change that setting, depending on whether you want people to contact you or not.

KN: I don’t mind as well.

RF: I understand that a lot of people don’t want to let just anybody send them a message on Twitter. For me, no, I’m fine with it. But people can track me down that way, they can send me emails and so on. Especially if they say “oh, I had an interview with you or I saw you at a conference or something like that”, then I’ll definitely try and answer them.


Useful links

Rob’s profiles: Twitter | LinkedIn | MVP
Rob’s company: website | Blog
Related events: SQLDay

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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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