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The official PASS Blog is where you’ll find the latest blog posts from PASS community members and the PASS Board. Contributors share their thoughts and discuss a wide variety of topics spanning PASS and the data community.

What’s the Secret to Long-Term Career Success for Technologists?

The US Department of Defense spends massive amounts of money every year on research for ways to improve leadership, team cohesion, and goal achievement. That makes a lot of sense, of course, because there are few organizations where failure in these areas have a greater potential for loss of lives. One fascinating area of research set out to answer the question “Among cadets at the DoD’s flagship universities, what metric is the best indicator that they will go on to become generals/admirals?”

When I saw the research, I tried to guess the key findings myself before reading the report. Could it be military tactics, since the DoD is the armed forces of the USA? Or maybe logistics, since there’s the old saying that armies win battles on their feet but win wars on their stomachs? Or maybe it is the cadet’s ability to maintain discipline, since armies often must do unpleasant work and can’t tolerate backbiting and disorder?

I was wrong on all my guesses. It turns out that the single most effective metric for determining if a cadet at West Point (Army), Annapolis (Navy), or US Air Force Academy is how well they do in English 101 – Freshman composition! Once that reputation as a lucid and effective communicator is established, the most successful cadets made conscious and deliberate efforts to practice and refine their skills.


Consider this – how many other skills help ensure that you can communicate your ideas, opinions, and aspirations? What other skills make as big a difference in influencing others, or your ability to build positive, reciprocal relationships? Now take that analysis a step further by asking what prerequisite skills or talents are needed to write a really good essay? I’m sure my quick list isn’t truly comprehensive, but a couple things come to mind like logical thinking, an ability to relate to your audience, aptitude for learning, and more.

How does that apply to you, a data professional, and what lessons can we extrapolate from this research?

My first lesson is that the low-level skills that I most strongly associated with the job are what facilitates only your short-term success. So a DBA who is good at troubleshooting, backup and recovery, and configuring and maintaining SQL Servers has a strong ability to get jobs in the marketplace - but once in the job for a couple years, your strength in soft skills is even more important for getting a promotion, especially strong written and verbal communication skills.

Second, those who practice get measurably better at the given soft skill, creating a virtuous cycle that opens new opportunities to exercise your soft skills, which then opens up more opportunities to practice. In fact, this is such an important concept, when asked to give my single most important piece of career advice for data professionals, I have a two-part answer – one, deliberately set aside time to practice (not just for soft skills, but also your technical skills), and two, seek out a mentor who can provide encouragement, advice, and constructive criticism to practice sessions. This combination will dramatically improve your craft. Cadets have this built into their collegiate experience and in the real world once they enter the officer corps. We, on the other hand, don’t have such a structured approach and must make our own opportunities for improvement. Chalk up blogging as another great way to practice your communication skills.

Finally, improvement doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you are not working on improving your skills, both technical and soft, those skills are actually stagnating. Technical skills rather obviously decline because we live our lives as technologists with a version number. We can’t stick to one version because vendors like Microsoft are constantly trotting out new versions. It’s less obvious with soft skills because we spend so much of our day working as a technologist where it doesn’t seem as important to practice.

So, if improvement doesn’t happen in a vacuum, what are we to do? The great news is that PASS provides a plethora of ways to improve our soft skills. First, attend your local user group meeting! (If you don’t know your local group, check Get out of your comfort zone and introduce yourself to the local leaders. Next, take advantage of the numerous Professional Development sessions that PASS offers. There are tons of videos at, be sure to check out the PASS Marathon on Professional Development there, and get in on the monthly PASS Virtual Group meeting for professional development ( Finally, pay it forward! Make a resolution to deliver one lightning session (a 10- to 15-minute session) in the next twelve months, teach some of your peers an important concept or task that will take work off of your plate, or commit to showing up at your local user group.

You will be glad that you did and, in the longer-term, you will be able to look back at the new skills you’ve learned, new friends you’ve made, and accomplishments you’ve achieved.

Kevin Kline
About the author

Kevin Kline is a database and industry expert serving as Principal Program Manager at SentryOne, the industry leading SQL Server database tools vendor. A Microsoft SQL Server MVP since 2003, he is a founder and former president of PASS. Kevin is an author of many books, blogger, columnist, and popular international speaker. Kevin’s best known book is the best-selling SQL in a Nutshell and contributes monthly to Database Trends & Applications magazine. He tweets at @kekline and blogs at

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