Interview – Allan Hirt

I decided to start a series of blogs where I interview key people in the SQL Server community. Instead of me asking technical questions, I plan on asking about their outlook on the future, books they read (non-fiction and/or technical),  and their overall thoughts on where technology (mainly SQL Server) is headed. You can find more interviews here.

Next up: Allan Hirt (b | t):

Allan Hirt
Allan Hirt

Mohammad: Where do you see SQL Server technology evolving to 5 years from now? More cloud focused?

Allan: I dislike the word “cloud” on its own, similar to how I feel about inaccurately using the word “cluster.” Are we talking about the WSFC or Pacemaker? An FCI? An AG? All of it? Something else?

When people say “the cloud” they usually mean the public cloud (Azure, Amazon, Google, et al). This is just an evolution from when companies ran and built everything. Instead of building and owning a house, it is being rented and someone else is responsible for nearly all of the day-to-day management.

I don’t see the public cloud stopping on premises deployments any time soon. Many companies who are on premises only today will have the public cloud somewhere as part of their infrastructure. Not all will, but I think we will see more hybrid solutions especially for disaster recovery. Virtualization took a long time to catch on with SQL Server deployments, and the public cloud to me is following a similar – but also faster – trajectory. I remember people who swore they’d never virtualize, and are now nearly 100% virtualized. The key thing is to put the right architecture in place to support the business, and that may be on physical servers, virtualized, private clouds, hybrid solutions that span on premises and the public cloud, or just in the public cloud.

As for SQL Server itself? Five years is one, maybe two versions from now. v.Next is already in the pipeline. It will continue to evolve and change. As is already the case, many are a version or three behind. I bet five years from now some folks will just be starting to consider SQL Server 2016..

Mohammad: Do you ever see the traditional SQL Server DBA role being replaced/eliminated?

Allan: If you mean what I would call a “pure” or “classic” DBA where that person basically just handles backups and basic SQL Server administrative tasks, yes, that type of DBA will be largely replaced or eliminated via automation.

The modern DBA role continues to evolve. Data is the lifeblood of companies, and someone has to take care of it. Sure, there’s DevOps which is the answer in some cases, but not in others. Outsourcing and remote DBAs have not, for the most part, replaced good DBAs in companies. Those services augment a good DBA staff or pick up the slack when a company is understaffed or lacks expertise in a specific skillset. In-house DBAs know their data and their business, and they are constantly working to make that data do more (and do it more reliably).

Mohammad: What are you most proud of doing/accomplishing for the SQL Server community so far in your career?

Allan: I am always humbled when a month, a year, or more later people come up to me and thank me after I did something (a talk, released a book or paper, a blog post, etc.) and they tell me how it helped them or impacted them. That’s why I do what I do.
I tend to look in forward. I don’t like to linger on the past. I try to push the envelope. Sometimes I fail, other times I succeed. Some selected highlights:

  • The SQL Server 2000 failover clustering whitepaper that, arguably more than anything, set my career in motion to where it is now.
  • Continuing to have a good relationship with Microsoft as well as companies like VMware and championing/changing/influencing to make things better for anyone using SQL Server. There’s a lot I do which I don’t talk about, but you guys see the benefits of much later on. It’s not always about the public accolades.
  • Seeing how the influence of my writing, teaching, speaking, and consulting over the years created a big interest in the availability and infrastructure aspects of SQL Server. Today more people are speaking, writing, etc. on the topic; that was not the case for many years.
  • Offering in person classes with hands on labs. They are a lot of work but for availability, you need it. Just seeing demos often times does not cut it.
  • Selling out a preconference at PASS Summit 2016, and having people come up to me asking if they can still get in even on the day I was delivering it. It is very humbling this far into my career that people still want to see and hear what I have to offer.

Mohammad: What non-technical/non-fiction book/s would you recommend? If you only read technical books…what do you recommend?

Allan: I do love to read, but don’t have the time I used to devote to it. I sometimes find time on planes, and if so, it’s usually something to do with history, music, or occasionally, business. The latest book I’ve been reading is Van Halen Rising by Greg Renoff. Another outstanding book is Bill Bruford’s autobiography, which is arguably the best music-related book I have ever read and it’s well written, too.

One book I always recommend to people is Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust. It should appeal to both history and tech folks, but it obviously deals with a subject that is not always the easiest for people to face head on. Even taking the horrific events it’s based on out of the picture, it is a cautionary tale and example of how data from computers was used 80 years ago.

For fiction, I’d recommend The Daily Adventures of Mixerman. Having spent time in a studio and around the music industry a bit, this is a fun view and not too far off the mark of what can happen, not unlike Spinal Tap. There’s enough even for the knobhead gear techie music person like me in this one, too.

There are two business books I’ve found useful over the past few years. Twitter is Not a Strategy by Tom Doctoroff and Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service by the Disney Institute with Theodore Kinni.

Mohammad: For someone who’s career focus has been on one aspect of SQL Server (i.e. high availability), do you think it would be wise for them to become a “jack of all trades” by starting to learn, SSRS/IS/Azure, etc. or remain focused on their area of expertise? In another words, which would you say is more valuable? mile wide / inch deep or inch wide / mile deep?

Allan: Before I tackle the tech aspect, there’s more to having a successful career than whatever tech skills you do or do not have. You need to also have excellent soft skills, which includes being able to present to diverse audiences. If you are not thinking about developing your non-tech skills, you should be. I’ve always said I can teach tech, but I can’t instill things like common sense, passion, or intuition. Being tech savvy means more than knowing a few features from a textbook point of view. The real world is messy.

Have a solid foundation (the wide), but be excellent at one aspect of SQL Server (or whatever else) you are passionate about (the deep). I’ve never just focused on one aspect of SQL Server. Availability encompasses many related areas, some of which are Windows Server, WSFCs, networking, security, virtualization, and storage in addition to SQL Server itself and everything that comes with that.

When you are early on in a career, it is not uncommon to be more of a generalist, but as you find where your heart lies, you can tailor your skills further. Think of your career as a journey, not a destination. It must be managed with a long term view, much like someone’s retirement funds. Where do you want to be in a few years? If you are currently having the same year of experience every year a la the movie Groundhog Day, that’s not a career. You need to experience new things and be challenged to grow. That may also involve taking some risks along the way.

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