What is SQL
SQL, which stands for Structured Query Language, is a language used to interact, manage, and ultimately communicate with data in relational databases. Basically, SQL allows you to read and analyze data from different sources and allows you to make better insights. With how important understanding data has become in our world, SQL is no longer a “nice to have” in your professional toolkit. Rather, having a baseline knowledge of SQL is table stakes for many strategy and operations roles, specifically in tech.
Why is SQL important in strategic business roles and why should you learn it?
So why is SQL becoming table stakes? Well besides adding another capability to your resume, it will help you improve as a strategist and/or operator.
SQL enables you to work more autonomously and quickly
In strategy and ops roles, you’ll be working cross-functionally with various teams including product, sales, finance, and specifically data science teams. Without knowing SQL, your hands are typically tied as you are waiting for the data science team to pull your data. In a fast-paced company, data science teams likely have their own mandates, which make you reliant on their timelines. Being able to use SQL gives you autonomy to pull data independently, in the specific lens you’re after, which is vital when operating in a fast-paced environment. Pulling data yourself will also give you a better understanding of what you’re seeking and ultimately allow you to focus more time on articulating the “so what” of your analysis.
SQL gives you a stronger overall analytics toolkit
Whether it's Excel, Google Sheets, or SQL, every tool has their best use cases and limitations. Having the full suite of tools at your fingertips better equips you to tackle any limitations and get to your result faster. For example, while Excel is great for relatively small to medium sets of data, as it is far more difficult (and likely prone to crashing) when working with millions of rows of data scattered across different reports. As a strategist or operator, you’ll frequently be required to segment large sets of data to identify initiatives that can improve the business. However by using SQL functions such as JOIN, you can get past the frustrating hiccups from excel quite quickly.
Learning SQL is the gateway into other tools and eventually opportunities
I personally found it relatively easier to jump into other tools such as Looker, Tableau, or Python after building an expertise in SQL, as most tools build upon the foundational concepts you learn in Excel and SQL. Additionally, as data and analytics are becoming increasingly synonymous with business strategy, having a good strategic mindset along with any combination of these tools makes you versatile and invaluable to any company. Instantaneously, you become not only the person who has a good long-term strategic mindset but you can also be depended on as an analytical powerhouse to dive into the data, make quick changes and identify implications.
8 common SQL functions to learn
Here are 8 SQL functions that can help you get started when querying data:
SELECT and FROM: SELECT lets you choose which columns of the data to show in your result table, and FROM is the table that you’re selecting from
WHERE: Operates like a filter and only shows results that meet parameters chosen (e.g. greater than 65)
GROUP BY: Combines rows and data based on common fields
ORDER BY: Sorts data based one of the columns selected in the SELECT command (typically in ascending order by default)
HAVING: Acts as a filter for data that is already grouped by the GROUP BY command
Aggregate functions (e.g. AVG, SUM): Performs mathematical operations on the columns selected such as averaging, or summing
JOIN: Allows you to join multiple tables typically based on matching values between both tables (INNER JOIN). There are other types of JOINS as well including LEFT JOINs and OUTER JOINs
What are some real-life use cases?
"SQL makes my job easier and it helps me stand out amongst other finance employees. With a robust knowledge of SUBQUERIES, WHERE clauses, and CASE WHEN logic, I can filter raw data down to the essential components. This prevents my files from crashing as they scale. At both Uber and Alto I very quickly was able to add value by creating an executive-level analytics dashboard with real time financials and user activity. This was all thanks to SQL." – Sean Newman, Data @Alto Pharmacy
Where can I learn SQL?
There are many free and paid online resources to help you grasp the basics of SQL. These include:
Free online courses: Khan Academy, Coursera, EDX
- These are great resources to dip your feet into understanding the basics of SQL at your own pace but with limited interaction
- Offers free courses on SQL and other areas under their Basic plan, or Pro courses for $20 a month. I found Codecademy a great way start writing more complex queries in a structured environment.
- The Commons' Strategy + Operations Sprint teaches you SQL, Google Sheets and Tableau in the context of a real business problem. It's an interactive, cohort-based and mentor-led learning program that enables you to solve real business problems that you would encounter as a strategist in tech. You learn SQL from people who use it every day (like me!), and get to leverage your new skills to deliver data-driven insights.
- Full disclosure, I’m a mentor with The Commons and happy to speak more about it!
Hopefully this gives you a taste of the benefits of having SQL experience under your belt. While it may be intimidating at first to figure out where to begin, the breadth of resources online make it easy to dive right in, and the ultimate payoff is very much worth it.
This article was written by Fairuz, one of the SQL mentors in The Commons' Strategy + Operations Sprint.