Have you ever wondered about what goes on behind the scenes after you search for a song you wish to stream on Spotify? If you entered the name of the artist and song title correctly, you will get results such as album version, radio edits, live performances, and others. If you can only recall part of the song title, or if you are not sure how the name of the artist is spelled, Spotify is designed to help you with approximate matches and filters. Technically speaking, your searches are being interpreted as Structured Query Language (SQL) expressions commands that tap into massive databases.
With a catalog spanning more than 40 million songs in 2021, Spotify is the largest source of digital music in the world; at the same time, it is one of the most significant providers of data and market intelligence to the music industry. Think about all the data that is related to each song: In addition to artist and title, we have album, release date, record label, musicians, alternate versions, genres, beats per minute, instruments, associated acts, moods, record sales, awards, lyrics, liner notes, reviews, chart positions, number of streams, playlist inclusions, and more. All this data is stored on powerful database servers coded and managed by IT professionals who are skilled in SQL.
Spotify is just one of many internet giants that rely on the expertise of SQL professionals to run their operations. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google are some of the bigger names in this regard, and we are not even counting the myriad enterprises that run SQL as part of their technology stack and data infrastructure. For this reason, “how long does it take to learn SQL?” is a question often asked by individuals looking for job security.
What is SQL?
SQL is the direct means of communication between individuals and databases. Spotify users are not aware that their searches create SQL statements that connect to databases, but this is what actually happens in the back-end of the music streaming platform. SQL is the language that promotes the efficient organization and delivery of digital information; to a great extent, SQL is how we want databases to “think” and function.
When we talk about back-end technology, we refer to the data layer of a technology stack; it is the component that allows application and systems to operate, but it cannot be accessed by end users. The front-end is what users interact with; for example, the Spotify mobile app. The stack refers to all the components that make the system work, and this includes hardware components, user interfaces, connectivity, and the software that supports the flow of information. Databases are at the heart of all back-end platforms, and SQL is their language.
This video serves as a pretty good explanation of what SQL is:
Types of SQL Databases
Digital information is extremely dynamic; as such, we could start a discussion about the various types of databases and never come to an agreement as to how many there are. What we can do is group them into four major categories:
- Relational (SQL)
- Non-relational (NoSQL)
In the categories above, relational databases are traditionally thought to be the most advanced, but there is a caveat in this assertion. In the 1970s, SQL was developed for the purpose of working with relational databases, but then NoSQL, which stands for “Not-only SQL,” entered this field of information technology.
NoSQL databases can be highly relational, but they do not have to follow the column-row-table paradigm of SQL databases. It is confusing to refer to NoSQL databases as non-relational because you can certainly establish data relationships within them, so it is better to refer to them as NoSQL. In NoSQL databases such as MongoDB, SQL commands and expressions can be mapped over. Spotify, for example, uses a combination of SQL and NoSQL databases such as Cassandra and PostgreSQL.
Not all SQL databases are alike; some have been developed for specific purposes while others can be used for just about any use-case scenario. With this in mind, let’s look at the most popular SQL databases in 2021.
Over the last two decades, MySQL has been the most popular database for both web and intranet applications. It is an open-source project that is free to use even though it is the property of technology giant Oracle.
As previously mentioned, this database is used by Spotify, but it also powers the information infrastructures of other internet giants such as Instagram and Skype. IT analysts believe that PostgreSQL specialists will be in high demand in the near future because this database is quickly gaining market share.
Microsoft SQL Server
This is the granddaddy of professional SQL databases. It was developed in the late 1980s as a server fork of MS Access, and it is the flagship database of the Azure cloud platform.
Mobile app developers like to use this database because of its lightweight properties and also because it is an open-source project that enjoys a healthy base of collaborators.
When pondering how long does it take to learn SQL, you have to consider that the aforementioned databases have their own set of distinct features; however, this does not mean that you will have to learn all of them at once. Once you feel comfortable with SQL, you will be able to work with various databases, and you should be able to quickly understand their different features and use-case applications.
How Long Does it Take to Learn SQL?
There is no single answer to this question; it depends on various factors such as familiarity with programming languages, knowledge of IT concepts, and being able to grasp logic principles. When we ask how long does it take to learn SQL, we should also take into consideration the student’s overall levels of education; for example, someone who took algebra in college will have an easier time correlating certain SQL statements with logical operators. Working adults who may have played around with BASIC or Java programming as children will also have a slight advantage.
Let’s say you are a network administrator or technician who wishes to become more attractive to potential employers by acquiring SQL skills. In this case, it would take you about two weeks to master the basics of SQL, and this would enable you to earn more because you would be able to assist the main database administrator; in other words, your duties may include keeping SQL servers running while at the same time providing database maintenance and troubleshooting.
For the average student, three weeks is a good estimate of how long it would take to grasp the basic of SQL, but some may be able to reduce this learning time if they have some familiarity with software such as Microsoft Excel. If you can write Excel formulas that call up values from one spreadsheet to another, you will find basic SQL easy to learn. We can say the same about students who took math in college.
If what you really want is to master SQL at the developer level, you will need to learn the ins and outs of database design, database programming, and analytics. You will have to do quite a bit of coding as a developer; more than this, however, you will have to understand the nature of projects, which means that you may need to do significant research in order to elucidate what you are working on. Imagine being called upon to set up a network of SQL servers for a laboratory that conducts genetic sequencing; this would require you to understand some of the DNA formulas used by biologist.
Students who already have an IT background can learn enough coding to work on SQL development projects in about nine months. From this point on, you can foster expertise by pursuing certifications or degree programs in computer or data science; these are career paths that will really put your SQL skills to the test, but this still does not entail full mastery.
You may be wondering how long does it take to learn SQL in order to fully master it? Just like learning a foreign language, you never really stop because there will always be something new to learn on a daily basis. We can say the same about all modern coding languages. It is impossible to learn everything there is to learn about SQL in a single lifetime. As long as new information is generated, there will be a need to organize it, compile, retrieve it, and manage it; this is why SQL will never stop expanding. Even as we enter the NoSQL era of databases such as MongoDB, SQL is still at the top of the totem pole in terms of Big Data management.
What is SQL Used For? What Can You Do With SQL?
SQL is the primary means of communication between relational databases and users, servers, software, application programming interfaces, and artificial intelligence constructs. We use this language to design, develop, maintain, upgrade, and improve the storage, retrieval, and management of data.
There are hundreds upon hundreds of SQL use-case scenarios. We have already covered how SQL commands are used to parse millions of data records in order to locate the song you want to play on Spotify, and we also know that we can extrapolate data so that we can narrow our search options to something like “all Coldplay live performances since the year 2000.” Relational databases are extensively used in banking; they are also vital to record keeping at hospitals, clinics, and insurance companies.
Human resources departments rely on SQL programming to manage information pertaining to the workforce, and databases are also at the heart of e-commerce operation from small online stores to internet retail giants such as Amazon. Nearly every website that captures, stores, and retrieves information uses SQL on the back-end; this includes dating websites and discussion forums. Then we have online games that use SQL to store player data as well as statistics; in the case of smartphone games, we are more likely to encounter the use of SQLite because it is more compact.
Reasons to Learn SQL
If you have an interest in data science, learning SQL is definitely for you, but let’s be blunt about the main reasons so many people are learning SQL: Job security, compensation, and quality of life. Back-end developers often report higher levels of job satisfaction, and this has a lot to do with the nature of their occupation. When you develop IT solutions at the front-end, you are pressured by clients, end users, and market trends; this is less of a problem in the back-end where the data layer resides because clients and end users are not aware of it, at least not until something goes wrong.
Here’s a great video that goes more in depth as to how and why you should look into SQL coding and development today:
How to Learn SQL? What Should I Start With?
When learning SQL basics, you really need to pay attention to the way relational databases are structured. Grasping the concepts of primary keys and foreign keys is vital; in your mind, you want to be able to visualize how the information flows from record to table and from the back-end to the front-end where the end user awaits. The next step is to seek SQL certifications, particularly those that pertain to the popular databases listed above. A Microsoft SQL Server certification, for example, can be a solid stepping stone in the field of data science.
Different Levels of SQL Learning
There are approximately 12 levels of SQL learning that can pave the path to mastery, but this does not mean that they will make you a consummate expert; for that, you will need to get into data science. Let’s mention a handful of these levels in progressive order:
- Database Systems
- SQL Syntax
- Filtering and Conditional Clauses
- Database Design and Joining
- SQL Server Environments
Once you have mastered SQL basics, you should look into certifications such as MySQL and MS SQL Server in order to expand your job search options.
Careers for Those Who Know SQL
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for database administrators will grow by more than 10% over the next decade or so. The median annual salary is around $90,000.
A data scientist can make twice as much. At the entry levels of this career field we can find website administrators who can actually maintain databases thanks to their SQL knowledge, and they can easily earn $50,000 per year. With regard to database engineers who can leverage their SQL and coding knowledge into development projects, they can start around $100,000 per year.
As cliched as it may sound, the sky’s the limit when it comes to SQL. When you look at popular Software-as-a-Service solutions such as Salesforce, which heavily relies on SQL, it is easy to understand why SQL technicians are in such high demand. You may be able to operate Salesforce as an end user, but having SQL knowledge will give you a competitive edge because you would be able to configure and manage the system whether it is on premise or in the cloud. All in all, learning SQL could very well be one of the best decisions you can make in your life.