Learning SQL: Skills and Knowledge You Need to Know

You’ve likely heard a lot about SQL (structured query language). Originally created as the standardized language for relational database management, it’s essential to database work (and backend programming). Recent studies have suggested it’s very much in demand, so let’s look at the resources you need to learn it.

What is SQL?

On the most basic level, SQL is a programming language designed for managing and querying relational databases, which were invented in the 1970s and popularized by Oracle. Very simply put, relational databases organize data into rows and columns (like Excel!); if you want to really know your stuff, learn Codd’s Twelve Rules that granularly define a relational database management system. Seriously, some interviewer might ask your opinion of those rules at some point.

SQL allows you to modify a database’s index structures, retrieve information, and generate new tables. The language acts as the foundation for a variety of technology functions—for example, a system for keeping track of usernames and passwords. That’s why so many employers want developers to know SQL; if you really seek to impress a prospective employer with your knowledge, you could even discuss how commercial SQL IDEs help you complete certain tasks (Squirrel!), but in many cases, simply exhibiting a high degree of proficiency is enough.

How Quickly Can I Learn SQL?

Learning SQL is a touch easier if you have a background in other programming languages, specifically C#, JavaScript, or PHP.

No matter what your skill level, though, the classes and courses we will discuss here are learn-at-your-own-pace, so there’s no good answer to “how quickly can I learn?” Even after you master the basics, it’s always a good idea to continue learning everything you can about SQL—if only because it’ll help you master other database technologies such as NoSQL. (No, the learning never stops. Welcome to tech!)

Best Ways to Learn SQL

Okay, now that you know what SQL is, here are some ways to go about learning it.

Udemy

Udemy is a video-based platform with a ton of useful classes you can take, and has over 5,300 classes that involve SQL in some way. Classes range from free to around $200, and over 1,100 of the SQL courses on Udemy are rated four stars (out of five) or higher.

Microsoft

Microsoft has long had an interest in SQL; for example, it invented Microsoft SQL Server, a relational database management system used (in many variations) by a variety of companies. Whereas older versions were for on-premises work, recent and specialized editions of SQL Server work with the cloud (specifically, Microsoft Azure SQL Database).

That’s all a very long way of saying that Microsoft knows SQL, and its Learn portal offers much documentation to that effect—there’s everything from an SQL tools overview to database design.  

For those serious about learning SQL from the ground-up, Microsoft’s SQL training course takes you from beginner through expert. It’s part of the company’s MCSA (Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate) certification program, and a much more formal and straightforward way to learn SQL. Given how many companies rely on Microsoft’s take on SQL, it’s important to familiarize yourself with it.

W3 Schools

If you learn best by implementing what you’re learning straight away, W3 Schools is a great platform to start your journey: It features examples, extensive breakdowns of SQL’s fundamentals, and more.

We will caution that W3 Schools drops you into SQL hot, so be prepared to learn the core elements quickly (and fail fast). The best analogy is being thrown into the deepest end of the pool: You’re going to learn to swim at an accelerated rate, to put it mildly.

Do I Need Certifications?

SQL certifications (including database certifications such as MCSA: SQL 2016 Database Administration) aren’t necessary for every employer (although some will make having certifications an ironclad condition of employment). Indeed, if you can just demonstrate your skills in SQL development, chances are good that many employers will give you a chance. If you have those skills and/or experience, make sure it’s prominent on your résumé and application materials.

In addition to Microsoft’s SQL Server and database certifications, Oracle also has a database/SQL certification track, as does IBM. A company’s preference for one certification type over another will usually hinge on their technology stack.  

If you’re already working at a company, and you want to jump to a database-related job that involves SQL, chances are good that you can persuade your employer to shell out the cash for training and/or certifications. One study, for example, shows 55 percent of companies are willing to pay for continuing education (including getting employees certified), a 22 percent increase since 2016.

What Will I Earn Working With SQL?

Your salary as an SQL developer hinges heavily on your experience and skill-sets. For example, those with extensive knowledge of building databases and wrestling with enormous datasets can expect to pull down handsome compensation. For a better look at the skills that employers actually want, we can turn to Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from around the country.

Burning Glass breaks its skills into three categories:

Distinguishing skills (advanced skills called for occasionally) that truly differentiate candidates applying for various roles. As you might expect, there’s a lot of education and training necessary to master these.

Defining skills are the skills needed for day-to-day tasks in many roles.

Necessary skills are the lowest barrier to entry; they are also skills that are often found in other professions, providing a springboard for people to launch into a data-science career. 

With that in mind, here are the skills in play for SQL developers:

According to Burning Glass, SQL developers earn a median salary of $92,504, and the profession has a projected growth of 11.5 percent over the next decade. Database administrators, who work with the language quite a bit, make nearly as much ($89,561) with exactly the same projected growth in job postings. That’s pretty good! For the foreseeable future, companies that need to wrestle with databases will likely have a need for technologists well-versed in all things SQL-related.