Where do you go to learn SQL? I go to the zoo

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Sandra Porter

A long standing debate in my field is whether or not biologists, who work with computers, need to learn how to program. I usually say "no." Let the programmers program, the biologists interpret the results, and let everyone can benefit from each other's expertise.

Well, I've changed my mind in one respect. Most biologists need to work with some kind of database these days and I've discovered that it's really helpful to know something about SQL. Even a tiny bit of SQL, like "SELECT * from table" goes a long, long way.

This revelation didn't happen overnight and when I decided a few months ago that I wanted to learn SQL, I wasted a bit of time trying to find the best place for learning. I began by picking up a copy of "SQL for dummies" and starting to read. And ask questions.

It wasn't long before my husband took the book out of my hand, glanced through it, and told me to throw it away.

He suggested I consult Google instead and check out some SQL tutorial sites. Today, I'm going to share what I found.

In many respects, I'm a kinesthetic or "hands-on" learner. Reading is okay, but if I go to bed with an O'Reilly programming book, all I get from it is a good night's sleep. The information just doesn't stick unless I try to use it. Even some of the biological phenomena that fascinate me, like transposons that jump between molecules of DNA, were really, really bothersome, until I figured out how to make paper models and mimic the process myself.

Naturally, my patience and interest quickly vanish when I hit web sites that read like a UNIX man page.

Yawn.

They are helpful, once I understand what I'm reading. But they didn't help me get started. Still, I do use them as a reference.

  • The introduction to SQL from W3schools.com is fine if you want the Dragnet version of SQL ("just give us the facts ma'am, just the facts.")
  • You can fill in the details with SQL guides.com. They even use brightly colored text! I always fall for things like that.

But just reading about SQL was not enough for me. I needed a safe place to practice. And, I found it at the SQLzoo. They have nice tutorials and sandboxes where you can do the essential thing and practice writing your own SQL statements.

Plus, for those of us who must be multilingual when it comes to flavors of database, SQLzoo covers all kinds of databases from postgreSQL to Oracle. If you want to have some with SQL, I highly recommend the SQLzoo.