Chris Castiglione Teacher at One Month. Faculty at Columbia University where I teach Digital Literacy. I write about coding, the internet, and social impact.

The Best Way to Learn SQL

7 min read

If you’re looking to move ahead in your career as a database developer, data administrator or data analyst, Structured Query Language (SQL) skills are a must-have. 

SQL knowledge is a highly in-demand skill, however, it can’t be learned in a couple of days. So, here’s the best way to learn SQL and advance your career in database management.

The Best Way to Learn SQL

SQL is not only for tech nerds, SQL is a programming language that every human on the planet should learn. Why? Because SQL is a simple, easily learned language, that can be used to search through large amounts of data. Think of SQL as being like Google search for a database. You can use SQL to search through your company’s data and make analytical comparisons, look for patterns in data sets, or to comb through and update your personal website’s database. SQL is super powerful, and if you haven’t learned it yet, then you’re in the right place because in this SQL tutorial I’m going to show you the best (and quickest) way to learn SQL. 

What is SQL?

SQL is the programming language used to manage and create databases. In order to understand SQL, you’ll first need to understand the concept of relational databases. Relational databases are made up of a set of tables containing rows and columns of data. Each column in a table represents a category of data, such as a Name, Street or Phone, and each row contains a data value for the intersecting column. 

Below is an example of a database table which can be queried with SQL:

The Best Way to Learn SQL

Some of the features and functions of SQL include: modifying tables and indexes on the database, adding, updating and removing rows of data, retrieving details from the database for transaction and analytics, creating tables and generating new databases.

A very important point to understand is that SQL is here to stay. SQL has been in used since the 1970s, being an easy-to-learn language that will help you to learn other more complex programming languages, including Python and JavaScript.

The great thing about SQL is that it doesn’t require prior software development experience, so it’s a great programming language to learn if you’re beginning with programming. However, with so many resources available to learn SQL, how do you begin to learn it?

Start with the Basics

Like everything in life, it’s essential to start and understand the basics. Here are a few steps you can take to learn SQL on your own.

Explore Queries and Commands

To be able to learn SQL effectively there’s a lot of reading that you will initially have to do, which will require practicing SQL queries and commands. The key is to focus on learning simple

queries first. Avoid moving too quickly to complex queries until you feel comfortable with the basics.

Start with Free Quality Resources

An awesome way to start is by exploring free quality SQL resources available online. Here are some great courses to get started:

Another way to get off to a great start is by following interactive tutorials with fun exercises, such as the ones from SQLBolt and SQL Teaching

These sites provide a wealth of resources to slowly build your SQL knowledge. 

Learning SQL is Easier Than Other Languages

Gaining SQL exposure and experience in a new workplace is not something that will happen automatically. You’ll need to get some experience where you work, or get creative and start practicing before you join your new workplace.

When looking for ways to get SQL exposure, it’s important to think about how you will want to use your new skills, once you acquire them. It’s important to see yourself within the role you will be carrying out. 

For instance, if you love to code, then start by integrating SQL into your apps. If you’re a system administrator or DevOps person, then maybe consider managing databases with day-to-day tasks such as user permissions. In short, try to start looking at what you do from a SQL or database perspective.

Including SQL into your current processes, is a great way to think about embracing it and building your skills. There are several approaches that you may take with building your SQL skills, some simple, and other less conventional. Let’s explore some of them:

Make SQL Part of Your Work Day

Here are a few tips on how to make SQL part of your workday: Maybe your organization is looking for someone with basic SQL skills, willing to tackle some repetitive work. Inform your colleagues and peers that you have interest in getting proficient with SQL 

You might have colleagues at work that work with SQL, therefore showing interest and initiative can be enough to get some valuable tips from them. Don’t be afraid, take the opportunity when it comes, and keep your eyes opened.

Document It All

Practice makes perfect, so the saying goes. A great way to practice is by documenting. Creating documentation is a great way to practice, test and validate things. 

There’s nothing fancy about writing documentation, but it goes a long way. Writing and documenting, means you are forced to think, test and validate concepts. It’s a stronger way to build your skills than sitting back and watching a course or a video tutorial. 

Documentation provides some other opportunities. Writing out processes gives you the opportunity to learn the inner workings of the technology you are writing about, along with installation and updating procedures. By writing documentation, you will not only will you build your skills, but also expose you to other opportunities. Those who have perfected the art of documentation are writers and authors, which are always viewed as experts in their fields. Be that person.

Produce Reports

Your organization will have databases, and possibly plenty of them. This means there’s an opportunity to start writing queries, which can be used to produce reports for managers to look at and make important decisions. 

There are entire career paths dedicated to querying data, such as data analysis, data science, and business intelligence. 

Knowing how to write queries and producing reports that others can use to make informed and smart decisions, puts you at an advantage over your colleagues. The more relevant information you can handover to managers or customers, the better you will look in their eyes while acquiring experience along the way.

The best about this approach is that you’ll only be reading data, and not making any updates to any of the databases, which are usually heavily scrutinized and require special permissions. So, write all the queries you can and produce reports, it will do wonders for you.

Share It with Others

If you got in the habit of documenting, the next great way to detailing your journey with a specific programming language is to build yourself as a credible source in the SQL space. A great way to achieve this is by blogging.

A blog is a great resource that you and anyone else can come back to whenever a refresher is needed. Other people wanting to gain experience on the subject, can check your experiences, comment and learn at the same time. Sharing your journey allows you to gain valuable karma and be perceived as someone willing to go the extra mile.

Maintaining a blog requires an extensive amount of work and if you have the willingness and time, it’s worthwhile doing. However, consider joining some online communities such as forums and user groups that are related to SQL. You will be surprised to discover how many people have at some point in their professional careers, gone through similar experiences as yours. Successful database administrators will be happy to answer questions and offer help on these online forums. Sharing is caring.

Volunteer or Freelance

If you have some spare time, why not use it to level-up your skills and enhance your resume with freelance or volunteering opportunities? Freelance sites like Upwork, have plenty of customers

who need help with SQL, and putting what you know to work, is a great way to gain more experience and exposure, besides earning some extra additional income.

Another great way to get experience is by volunteering to non-profit organizations. They typically have lots of data, but might not have the resources to have a SQL experienced person on demand. Don’t pass up any opportunity to get more exposure using SQL. The experience is what you’re trying to gain, even if you’re not getting paid. Look at the bigger picture and what you are learning now, for the future.

Doing good work in any capacity will do wonders for any future jobs. You’ll be gaining connections with clients, experiences with SQL and working on solving real-world problems, and maybe even references for additional work. Before you know it, you’ll have broaden your SQL experience.

Plant the Seeds Now

Learning SQL is like harvesting. You plan the seeds early on to get a good harvest later. SQL is a technology worth learning, even if database administration or development isn’t in your career path for the future.

One great thing about SQL is that anyone can pick it up rather fast, nevertheless, writing queries that return the data the way you want, in the order, you want it, without consuming all your computer’s memory or CPU is something that takes time and a good deal of effort. Learning SQL is a process will not happen overnight. You will have to put in the work to make it a reality.

The key is to keep your eyes open at all times for any opportunities. Grab chances when they appear. With hard work, willingness to learn, and a small dose of good fortune, SQL will be within your reach and a valuable asset for your working life and career.

Once You Know SQL, Look at Performance

Knowing how to write basic queries in SQL is one thing,  but knowing how to write high-performance queries is another thing. There are great resources and books that cover this topic.

Here are some of the best books to learn SQL:

A great way to get started with SQL performance is to understand indexes. This resource describes indexes in-depth and how beneficial they are for optimal database performance.

Final Thoughts 

The path to SQL mastery is one full of challenges and adventures. However, there are a couple of things that will help you get a taste of what you will be getting into, especially the following:

While I typically don’t love the W3Schools site, I can recommend their SQL tutorial because it gives you an opportunity to practice writing and running SQL queries in the browser. Give it a try! 

If you want to know how business decisions are made and what moves the world, you have to look at the data. Data leads to evidence, which leads to insights, which help drive better business outcomes. Understanding SQL is a key aspect of today’s data-centric world, so it’s important to be part of it.


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Chris Castiglione Teacher at One Month. Faculty at Columbia University where I teach Digital Literacy. I write about coding, the internet, and social impact.

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