News from National -- Current Articles
Tom Moreau - SQL Expert
Interview by S. Ibaraki, I.S.P.
This week's interview is with Tom Moreau, regular columnist for SQL Server
Professional, and author of "Advanced Transact-SQL for SQL Server
In the interview Stephen talks with Tom about his early years in the field
and his views on the future of the industry.
Q: Your experiences as an IT expert would be of benefit to many veterans as
they walk the dynamic tightrope of technology. Can you detail your personal
history? What personally prompted you to enter the computing field? What led
you to becoming a leading provider of database services and a noted expert on
A: Most of how I ended up in IT is mentioned in the Preface of the book but
I’ll walk you through how it happened.
I arrived at York University in 1971 and started my B.Sc. The approach they
took back then was an interdisciplinary one, whereby for your first two
years, they had you take a broad range of science courses. Many of these were
outside of your chosen discipline. During their first year, all students also
had to take a course in APL – a very cryptic programming language. During
that brief and unpleasant experience, I noticed students walking around with
boxes of computer cards and programming in FORTRAN on the mainframe, so I
taught myself FORTRAN during my second year. By this time, I was majoring in
Physics and Chemistry.
I found programming straightforward and thought at the time that people could
do their own programming and really didn’t see a career path in Computer
Science. I met a professor who wanted some programming done and I was able to
pay for my education while working for him. Hmmm. Maybe you can make some
money in programming.
Still, after getting my B.Sc., I loved the physical sciences and entered
graduate school to get my Ph.D. It involved a lot of computation after I had
collected my data. During that time, I had several teaching assignments, one
of which involved FORTRAN.
During my graduate career, I was asked to fill in for the undergraduate lab
supervisor while she was on sabbatical. All of the records for two classes of
400 students each were kept on a Commodore PET with a whopping 32K of RAM and
ran on BASIC. I devised my own, crude DBMS for managing the students’ marks
and made it user-friendly enough to let my secretary manage the data entry
and printing, so I could spend more time in the lab. When I needed some PET
advice, I talked to a York graduate who had a scientific software firm on
campus. Eventually, I worked for him – as a research scientist at first – but
he saw what I could do with a computer and quickly moved me to software
development – programming in C on an IBM PC. After 5 ½ years, I moved to a
railroad and got exposed to various technologies, finally winding up doing
SQL in DB2. My SQL knowledge landed me a job at an investment bank, where I
was introduced to Sybase and Microsoft SQL Server. From there, I became a
consultant, specializing in Microsoft SQL Server.
During my career, I have been surprised at the number of folks in IT who
never started there.
Q: Can you share your 20 leading tips for those thinking of getting into the
computing field? Can you describe your role with your company and how you
plan to shape the company one year and two years into the future, and in the
A: Twenty? Yikes! When you think of the circuitous route that took me here,
it’s hard to point to a checklist and say, “Do these things”. What I can say
is that the IT field has gone through a number of gyrations during my 30
years exposure to it in one way or another. The most important lesson for me
was to learn to adapt. I used to like mainframes and it took some time to
learn how to program in C on a PC but I stuck with it. OS/2 looked good at
the time and I ran with it. When it was clear that the community abandoned
it, I dropped it, too.
IT professionals fall into the category of “knowledge workers”. Just like a
pro athlete has to work out to stay in shape, IT pros have to train and study
to stay in shape. This means taking courses and reading books – big, thick
Certifications are becoming more relevant. This, too, involves a great deal
of study. Microsoft is toughening up their standards, so I see the growth of
certified pros will probably slow, since hands-on experience will be
essential. That said, I have seen a glut of “IT professionals” who really are
not very qualified. Some are certified; others are not.
Another thing I learned was to manage my own career. It would be nice to
think that our employers have our career interests at heart but the reality
is that they don’t. If your employer does not give you the training you need,
speak up or get it after hours. When my employer moved me back from PC’s to
the mainframe, I left.
My role with my company was unexpected; I’m the president. When I first
started my professional life, I thought that working for someone else was
vital. When I met Diane – who eventually became my wife – she was already
self-employed in IT. She liked the independence. Over time, I built up my
skills and my confidence. After I went independent, we incorporated. It gives
us flexibility but there is more bookkeeping.
As for shaping the company, we just pay ourselves a salary and invest the
rest. Eventually, we’ll take dividends in our retirement.
Q: You have a reputation for being plugged into the stream of computing
consciousness about where it’s going now and in the long term. You’ve also
done a lot of research. Can you comment on the studies that you’ve performed,
what you have learned, and your experiences? Where is technology today and
where is it going?
A: Plugged in? I wouldn’t go that far. The “research” I do is mainly for my
monthly column – Dr. Tom’s Workshop – in SQL Server Professional
www.pinnaclepublishing.com/sql. Often, it is the result of being asked a
question or just my own curiosity.
It’s hard to say where the industry is headed with any certainty. Back in
1974, I saw a microcomputer and thought it would never go anywhere. Glad I
was wrong on that one. As for where we are heading right now, both XML and
.NET have potential. However, I would want to see things get bedded down a
bit more before committing to them. I like leading-edge technologies but
bleeding-edge scares me.
As a DBA, I would like to see disk technology improve. Spinning iron has
little to offer the community in the way of performance or reliability. RAID
is nice but I want permanent, updateable storage on a chip.
Q: Can you comment on the integration of mainframe, Unix, and Windows-based
technologies and how they all fit in large, complex, enterprise environments?
A: Quite frankly, I think the mainframe should be abandoned. It’s served its
time. I used to like UNIX, too. With the arrival of Windows 2000 DataCenter
Server, Microsoft has demonstrated it can handle “big iron”. Its scale-out
support in SQL Server 2000 shows it can handle very large databases.
Enterprises that don’t have Windows as their mainstay are going to get left
Q: What are your views on SQL and its future?
A: I’ve made SQL my career path. Recently, we’ve seen IBM buy Informix, so
now we are down to three major players: Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. As of
today, Microsoft holds 4 of the top 5 slots in the TPC-C performance
standings, including the top two. Couple that with its ease of use and I see
it dominating the market.
As for SQL – the language – I see slower change. It is already very powerful.
However, everyone has their own proprietary flavour of it.
Q: What are your views on XML and its future?
A: Well, Steve Ballmer seems to think it’s the way of the future. ;-) For
many years, we have had EDI, so the concept is certainly not new. The
standards for XML are still evolving. Certainly in the B2B area, it will
likely become the lingua franca as far as sending data from A to B is
Q: EAI, CRM, B2B are exploding? What are your views about these in related
areas for the current and future marketplace?
A: I’m a back-end kind of guy, so from where I sit, all of these mean data,
data, data. The data has to sit somewhere – that’s the database – and it has
to make it from that somewhere to another somewhere – that’s XML – so there
will be DBA jobs and the DBA should become familiar with XML. It’s also
important that a DBA know more than just databases but rather the nature of
the data itself inside the database. For example, we see a great deal of
activity in the securities industry. I took the Canadian Securities course
and wrote the exams so that I could know more about the industry. This way,
when I’m talking to a user with a goal of building a database for them, I
know what the issues are and can speak intelligently with them. I also did my
MCSE because my database servers ran on Windows NT and connected to a
network. I had to know the issues there, too. I’m looking to take some XML
courses through Learning Tree International to bring up my XML skills.
Q: For those relatively new in the computing field and for seasoned veterans,
which areas should they target for future study, what are the high-growth
A: Sad to say, it appears that the latest buzzword is where you should go.
Technologies spring up so fast and everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Only
later, do people realize the technology didn’t live up to the hype. Often,
this is because everyone jumped in too early. After all, new technology means
there is little experienced talent out on the street, so projects fail
because things weren’t done right.
The core stuff, however, is easier to predict – to an extent. There will
always be a need to store data somewhere – that’s your database. So, I see
there will always be a need for DBA’s. The role may change but the job will
Similarly, there will always be a need for system administrators, no matter
how simple the operating systems may be to use.
For the non-core stuff, obviously anything that touches the Internet will
likely be a winner. Again, XML looks good here.
As I mentioned earlier, you have to be able to adapt and to have a number of
skills to offer the market. For example, I keep having to do VB and VBScript
on projects. The VBScript comes from building DTS packages. Where the VB
comes from has to do with deadlines. On most projects, the database design
gets settled early, then come the stored procedures – which enable the VB
coders to access the database to retrieve and manipulate their data. While
the VB folks are madly writing code, I eventually run out of procs to write
and we are now close to the end of the project. That’s when the manager
usually drops by and says, “Tom, do you know any VB?” That’s when I pitch in
to write reporting code or an application security interface, for example.
That said, I have seen numerous job postings where they want the candidate to
have a large number of IT skills and then the pay they want to offer them is
peanuts. While it is important to have a range of skills, if they want you to
be using all of them, instead of hiring more than one person, it is generally
a sign of bad management. Avoid such places.
Q: What changes do you see for the future of computing, conducting business,
and the use of the Internet?
A: Were it not for the Internet, my career would not be where it is today. I
had never heard of SQL Server Professional until I got onto the Net. From
there, I was able to write articles and meet my editor – Karen Watterson –
who has become a very good friend. She was the one who hooked me up with
Itzik Ben-Gan, my co-author.
However, I don’t see a day where everything will be bought on the Internet.
For example, you may be able to buy a shirt now on the Net, but wouldn’t you
prefer to try it on and see how it looks and how it feels? I feel the same
way about books. Sure, you could buy a Harry Potter book just because it is a
Harry Potter book. What if it is a technical book? I spent quite some time in
Chapters, thumbing through TCP/IP books until I found the ones I liked. I think
some companies are finding that the big sales they were expecting from the
web really did not materialize. I can certainly see such things as making
stock trades and paying bills but when you want to buy material goods, the
web falls short.
Another issue with the Internet is bandwidth. I am pleased to see such
services as DSL but it looks now like you’ll actually need DSL to go to some
sites. A dial-up modem won’t fill the bill because of all of the graphics
some sites use. Couple that with the needless advertising you get at a lot of
web sites and we may soon be where we are with modems now. Now, Internet2 is
being researched and it does hold promise but we don’t have it yet. It will
be hard to adopt this type of technology if we have to have our homes rewired
to accept it. Could you imagine rewiring an entire apartment building?
Hopefully, DSL technology will get faster.
Also to do with the Internet, whoever can create intelligent SPAM filters is
going to make a lot of money.
As I said above, I’d like to see large, non-volatile data stores on a chip.
This will make it that you could, say, have a SQL Server database in your
At the end of the day, however, people should not buy a piece of technology
because of its features. Rather, they should buy it because of its benefits.
In other words, the technology must answer the question, “What problem can it
solve for me?” The vendors should be thinking along this line.
Q: Your recently released book, Advanced Transact-SQL for SQL Server 2000, is
the most authoritative reference available and chock full of very useful
tips, coding examples, and practical solutions to real-world problems. I
highly recommend it for the seasoned professional – it’s simply a “must-have”
tool. How did you get involved in the book and what would be your 20 biggest
tips drawn from the book? Are you planning additional books in the near and
far term? What would you do different if you started again, having gone
through this authoring experience?
A: Thank you very much! :-) Actually, as I wrote in the Preface, I didn’t set
out to write a book on SQL at all – I wanted to write one on DTS. I asked a
guy in Tampa if he was interested in being a co-author, since I didn’t want
to do it alone. He turned me down. Karen sent me a proposal for another book
but it didn’t suit me. A while later, she sent me a proposal for an SQL book
from Itzik. Bingo! I recognized the name and I knew he was one of the best in
the business. The proposal was sound and we went through about three short iterations
before we had an outline and the work divided up. Initially, the page count
was only 200 pages. Later, it went to 300. Once printed, it was over 800!
One thing that was remarkable about the work was how well we got along with
each other. When you put together two people with a great deal of experience,
there is a possibility of conflict. Itzik and I had never met each other
before or during the writing. Despite the fact that we were doing this all
through e-mail, we got along amazingly well.
The work itself ran from March to October of 2000. We had to rewrite some
performance comparison numbers when we finally got the RTM version but we had
made it a rule to hold back releasing the book until we got the final version
of the software.
The book does cover a broad range of topics and it is difficult to come up
with the “top 20”. Our Chapter 17 is called Tips and Tricks. It has an
assortment of SQL tips contributed by friends and colleagues. Mike Hotek –
SQL Server MVP – has it up at his site at www.mssqlserver.com/books, together
with his comments on the book.
For anyone contemplating writing a book, they should know that it takes an
awful lot of work – way more than what you estimate. The royalties you get
are far less than what you could have made by simply going out and doing
contract work. I was fortunate to have a good co-author. Others may not be so
Right now, I don’t have plans for further book writing. I get a great deal of
satisfaction by writing my articles and will continue to do so.
Q: What would be your recommended top ten references for the serious
developer and SQL administrator?
- SQL for Smarties (2nd
Ed) – Joe Celko
- SQL Puzzles and
Answers – Joe Celko
- Inside Microsoft SQL
Server 2000 – Kalen Delaney
- Mike Hotek (SQL Server
MVP) has his top 15 book picks at www.mssqlserver.com/books
- SQL Server
- SQL Server Magazine
Q: It’s a blank slate, what added comments would you like to give to
enterprise corporations and organizations?
A: Let me give you the same quote from the late US Army General George S.
Patton that I have cited in the Preface of the book:
“Never tell people how to do something, just tell them what to do and they
will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
It works for me. ;-)