I Learned SQL at the School of Stack Overflow

SQL is a super power. It can change your career. It changed mine.

I Learned SQL at the School of Stack Overflow

For a long time, I survived as an analyst who didn’t know how to write SQL. I could work Google Analytics and Mixpanel better than most. My spreadsheet skills were solid (not quite equal to the folks in finance). I could brute force two-thirds of the way through most analysis questions. I was equipped with a wimpy toolset, and I knew how to use it.

But so many insights were out of my reach. Google Sheets would freeze under the weight of a CSV with 10,000 rows. Funnels would produce results that didn’t pass the sniff test and I had no idea why... if only I could see through the reporting tools to the raw data that flowed through the reports. Inevitably, I would ask for help.

More often than not someone was available to help. That's because I worked at Stack Overflow, and we operated at Stack Overflow HQ just like the wider Stack Overflow community operated on the internet: we were nerds, we had answers, and someone always had a moment to help.

It was in this environment that I gradually learned to write queries, first through watching SQL stars like Shog, Taryn (FKA Bluefeet), Jon Ericson, and Jarrod Dixon magically produce results that I could hammer at, like a monkey with a typewriter, in google sheets. They’d give me the raw tables to think through problems like user retention, viral posts, and community growth. I’d copy / paste their snippets together and press “run”, generating error after error, until finally a sensible result would appear. This is still more or less how I write queries today.

David Fullerton, who went on to become CTO, helped too, teaching my team SQL 101. I snoozed through his lessons at the time, because learning is hard when you don't feel the need to be capable. At the time I was comfortably inept. But over the years I revisited what he taught. And I have since adapted his material to teach SQL 101 & 102 at several companies where I have been employed. 

Stack Overflow’s founders contributed, too. Thanks to Jeff Atwood’s timeless blog post on joins. And Joel who created the rich learning environment at Stack Overflow HQ, tweaked a few queries for me, brought me into the company, and nudged me into product management. Stack Overflow and SQL launched me into my career.

Since then, I have led product at a couple smaller startups, and served as a lead PM on teams at medium-sized companies. At every step, SQL has served me and the companies where I work. It's allowed me to play a dual role on a team: PM and analyst. It's helped me help companies identify the right thing to build and validate that it works. SQL is a power that has given me so much and so now through this website I hope to extend that power to you.

Read more:

Why Learn SQL
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How to use BigQuery
Follow these instructions to run your first query.
Histograms with SQL
Even if all you do is sit around and send histograms through Slack, you’ll be a decent enough product manager.