By Kenneth P McDonald –
My first job after college was with Oracle back in the late 1980’s. At the time Oracle made all employees go through an incredibly intensive 3 week training course on SQL, the language used to access data in relational databases. It didn’t matter if you were a developer, a marketing professional, or a receptionist, you were sent to a training class at a hotel for 3 weeks to learn SQL 20 hours a day. Yes, it was 20 hours a day – Oracle took things seriously. At the time I remember thinking, “Why in the world do I need to know SQL when I am on the marketing side?”
Boy was I wrong! More than 20 years later, I have written thousands and thousands of queries and use SQL in my job almost every day. I have come to the conclusion that every online marketing professional needs to know SQL. As many online marketing professionals like to say, “To be in online marketing, you have to be a data geek.” If you are a data geek, you need to be able to able to collect and analyze data on your own. Let’s face it, the explosion of the Internet means that the amount of data being captured in SQL databases these days is jaw dropping. I have seen far too many Internet professionals who don’t know SQL who are literally hostage to IT, waiting for IT to write another query for them. You won’t be a world-class Internet professional if you have to wait for others for a key part of your job.
For years I have started my work day almost the same way every day. I get a variety of reports via email that talk about the health of the business. They essentially give me a high level picture of the customer funnel. How many customers came to the site? How many registered? How many ordered? Some of these come from Google Analytics and others come from the transactional systems. More often than not, the reports highlight issues that require further investigation. If the data is in Google Analytics, I drill down in Analytics. If the data came from the transactional systems, I fire up SQL. Canned reports just don’t do it – I need to be able to explore the data in whatever direction it takes me to answer the questions that have arisen from the previous day’s data. I often have the answers to my questions by 9am. If I was waiting on IT or a marketing analyst, it would be hours at best and possibly weeks before I got an answer. I need to be self-sufficient.
Learning SQL can be intimidating for a marketing person. A lot of SQL books that you find on developers’ desks are the size of a dictionary and look pretty daunting. However, the reality is that SQL has become a lot easier for a variety of reasons. There are a wealth of books that cover SQL for business folks. Furthermore, the tools have advanced a lot. If you are using a visual query tool, it really makes building queries much easier for someone just getting started. If someone on the IT side has been nice enough to name the tables and columns clearly that is a big help. Even better, if IT has defined the primary and foreign keys, most query tools will automatically join the tables together for you.
Here are my tips for a marketing person who wants to learn SQL:
- Buy a good SQL basics book, but make sure you read a little and then try it out with a hands-on session. Read a little more, try it out. You get the idea.
- Microsoft Access is a great tool for getting started. Access does an incredible job of importing data from Excel which makes it easy to pull in data and get started. It also is super easy to export data from Access to Excel so you can show others the results of your work. (I still use Access almost daily because of the Excel integration.) Access is also great because if you do something horribly wrong, the worst thing you can do is cause the CPU on your local machine to peg at 100%. Finally, Access allows you to build queries visually and see the SQL behind those queries, something that is key for SQL novices. My only caution with Access is that there are some small SQL differences between Access and the database systems that most companies use like Oracle, MySQL, SQL Server, etc.
- When you are ready for a real world project, ask your IT department to set you up with read only access on a reporting server. You want an environment where you cannot delete any important data and where if you issue a CPU-intensive query, it won’t block customers from using your site. Before you approach IT, I strongly encourage you to know some of the things that you can do incorrectly in SQL that can suck every ounce of CPU from your server. Do you know what the following things are: a Cartesian product, doing a full table scan vs. hitting an index, and locking a table? If you don’t know what those things are, you aren’t ready yet to write SQL against a real world system – keep reading your SQL books.
Knowing SQL has a lot of additional benefits beyond just analytics. For example, I have regularly used it to provide exports to key customers or partners. I use it to set up complex, tailored email marketing programs.
SQL is everywhere these days! So while SQL can seem a little intimidating at first, it is a tool that every Internet marketing professional needs to have in their tool-belt if they are to be successful.
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