The Birthplace of Apra

By Ryan Marshall: Excited about SQL

25 Sep 2017 10:26 PM | Anonymous

Ryan Marshall was one of the recipients of the 2017 Apra-MN Professional Grant presented by the Apra-MN board. He is currently the Prospect Development Analyst at Concordia University in Saint Paul. Read his thoughts and reflections on the opportunity he had to further his knowledge made possible through this grant.

Have you ever found yourself sitting in a conference session that had you so excited that you couldn’t focus on the speaker anymore? Well, that’s exactly what happened to me recently. And that was the impetus for the idea that led me to write my first professional development grant proposal. I would like to share with you the source of my inspiration, what I studied and how it impacted my work. Plus I’ll share some implications it has for the future.

The theme of that conference session focused on the trend of accumulating data without any plan of what to do with it. The amount of metadata available is overwhelming, but the fear of missing out drives an urgency to constantly acquire even more information. There is a point at which data becomes burdensome and paralyzing. This depends upon the maturation of your organization’s analytics program. The more mature your program is, the better you can derive meaning and value from the data.

It was important for me know where my company was in the spectrum of “we struggle to handle basic information” to “implementing prescriptive analytics to gain foresight.” My office fell squarely in the middle of that spectrum. We have strong advanced reporting but only one individual who is competent in analytics and its implementation.  We seemed to be at the upper limit of what we could achieve given the limited, but talented, personnel available. This is where my opportunity for growth presented itself.

All of our data manipulation takes place in programs that utilize Structured Query Language (SQL) for coding. I’m usually involved in the analytic process as a sounding board and source of strategic input. However my lack of knowledge about how our data is stored and retrieved restricted how helpful I actually was in that process. I saw an opportunity to utilize our data more strategically and advance our analytic capabilities simply by bridging my knowledge gap. Taking a hands-on role would help our program mature at a faster pace. I needed to learn basic SQL to expand my knowledge and my overall contribution to my office’s work.  

I found two different approaches for learning how to code with SQL. One was an online, self-paced experience. The other was an instructor-facilitated, online course over a six week period, complete with learning outcomes and a final exam. The benefit in having the two approaches in learning were vast.

I started with the online, self-paced experience.

This approach starts with building tables, inserting information then manipulating that information. It emphasizes understanding the syntax of SQL and gives you specific examples to reinforce a particular concept. The benefit of this approach is the instant feedback you receive on a particular string of code you type out.  Your progression is restricted until you correct any errors that exist. It’s like having the bumpers up for bowling. It really emphasizes the need for attention to detail on projects. This is great because not all coding environments will debug your code for you. Precious time can be lost looking for that missing semicolon or extra parenthesis.

I then transitioned to the instructor-facilitated, online approach. It was a stark contrast and a welcomed change.  

With this experience, you spend more time on the theory and nuance of the language. Plus you explore some more advanced functions.  The exercises use a full-blown SQL coding environment. If an error exists in your code, there is no safety net.  Learners have to trouble shoot until the results match the answer key. The instructor does, however, answer any specific questions that arise. Also each section has its own discussion board for current students to share their ideas.

The best part of the whole experience is how you can immediately apply your new knowledge. I experienced this firsthand.

I have been working on building an engagement score with a coworker since last December. We built our entire project in a program called Argos which uses SQL for designing data blocks. The first part of my grant started around the same time as the intensive coding work for the engagement score. I was increasingly exposed to more complex SQL code as the project progressed, so my knowledge base grew rapidly.

The outcome of the whole experience was incredible. When I started, I was merely contributing my thoughts on the scope of what we wanted the engagement score to measure. But at the end of the process, I gained the ability to parse and reconfigure the code that gave life to our final product.  Now we have a functional and fully implemented score that has been a great asset to my work in prospect research.

My office is still in the “strategic analytics” stage of maturity in my opinion, but we now have a more promising trajectory. My experience of building my skillset through this grant has been an advantage to me, both personally and professionally. I hope to contribute to my office’s growth into the next stage of analytic maturity. Now, I am better equipped to consume external data with the additional perspective of storage and retrieval. Capturing more qualitative data points for our constituency is difficult. This will be the next big challenge on our way to predictive analytics.

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