Bruce Momjian: Teaching PostgreSQL, Then and Now

January 14, 2014

Contributed by Fred Dalrymple

A special presentation of EnterpriseDB’s Introduction to PostgreSQL Administration next month will be led by PostgreSQL community leader and Global Development Group co-founder Bruce Momjian. The three-day live virtual event will be Feb. 5-7 and will provide a solid foundation for working with PostgreSQL for enterprise software specialists and experienced database administrators.

Given his close and longtime affiliation with PostgreSQL, it seemed a fitting time to query Bruce on his experiences helping PostgreSQL newcomers gain an appreciation of the leading open source database. It bears noting the database guru is no stranger to teaching. The PostgreSQL champion and community organizer spent five years teaching high school computer science before joining the tech industry. Now a senior database architect at EnterpriseDB, Bruce travels the world to help educate, evangelize and organize, all in the interest of helping shepherd the world’s largest independent open source development community.

Below are the thoughts he shared in response to some our questions about teaching PostgreSQL, then and now.

Q. Have the kinds of professionals drawn to learning PostgreSQL changed over the years? 

When I started teaching PostgreSQL education courses in 2001, PostgreSQL was the ugly stepchild in the data center. Many of the people who were learning how to work with it were doing so grudgingly because of some specific requirement. They had inherited a PostgreSQL database, for example. As a result, many of them tried to learn just enough to do what they needed to do. The other population of students was serious technologists, die-hard open source devotees who wanted to use only open source solutions and were learning PostgreSQL because they needed a relational database for their operations.

The professionals enrolling in training courses today come from a much broader technical background and the level of enthusiasm is much higher. Knowing how to work with PostgreSQL has become recognized as a valuable career path for individuals. I see experienced enterprise software professionals who are versed in operating systems and Windows, for example, taking the training to advance their careers. The skills are in high demand and people now see they have a range of options once they’ve invested in learning PostgreSQL. I also see whole departments within a company signing up because more enterprises are investing in PostgreSQL. These more experienced database professionals who are versed in Oracle or DB2 are excited to be learning the mechanics of PostgreSQL.

Q. Is teaching PostgreSQL a challenge when the students come from different backgrounds? 

Students from a mix of backgrounds provide a more interactive and enriching experience because of the questions. People with operational experience help beginners by providing insight into why someone would need to know or work with some part of the technology. A beginner meanwhile can often pose questions that an experienced database professional never considered and they end up learning from the discussion.

Ultimately, I tailor my presentation to the students enrolled in that particular course. In the beginning, we ask about their goals and their backgrounds so that going in, I know if I have a large group of beginners or a greater number of professionals with a background in DB2 or Oracle. In presenting the content, I can highlight material that appeal to particular audiences. I’ve also been doing this for a long time so I’ve developed a good understanding of how best to address specific needs but still keep things moving along for everyone else.

Q. What are the greatest challenges in learning PostgreSQL? 

There is a philosophical emphasis in PostgreSQL that is not present in commercial solutions. It’s a database designed by engineers for engineers. Commercial products seek to package and productize features. But with PostgreSQL, there is a modular framework and all the features work with every other feature. There are very few edge cases. So at first, for a database professional, working with PostgreSQL is a very different experience. But once professionals understand the design, they find it’s very intuitive and they’re hooked. I recall when my son suggested I try Ubuntu Linux. I had to buy a Windows laptop when I was working on the Windows port for PostgreSQL. I downloaded Ubuntu and started using it. I had been working with it for about a month when I had to go back into Windows for a project. I was shocked at how many things I suddenly could not do, things I had begun to take for granted. PostgreSQL is like that.

Q. How has teaching PostgreSQL changed over the years? 

The biggest difference between teaching PostgreSQL 10 plus years ago and teaching it now is that I don’t have to say, “PostgreSQL doesn’t have a way of doing that” very often. PostgreSQL has expanded in recent years with features that meet enterprise needs so there are more capabilities designed for enterprise workloads. Even five years ago, I had to explain to many students that there were limits. Nowadays, I rarely have to say that.

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