An interview with Brent Ozar


May 30, 2018 by Kenneth Fisher

I was talking about interviews (although not the job kind) with a friend and it reminded me of the time I did an email interview with Thomas LaRock (b/t) and then one that I did for someone else. This got me thinking it would be fun to interview the great Bren Tozar (who frequently goes by the pseudonym Brent Ozar (b/t) ). Below is the email I sent to him, with his answers to each of the questions. I have to say I was very impressed and I quite enjoyed reading what he had to say.

Ok, this turned out to be more than 10 questions and I’ll be honest I could have kept going. Answer what you feel like, anything you don’t I’ll delete.

So Brent, one of the most well-known things about you is, of course, your company Brent Ozar Unlimited (b/t). So let’s start with a few questions about that.

I know you started with Kendra (b/t) and Jeremiah Jeremiah Peschka (b/t) but the early images always showed a 4th person. Who was that?

​That’s Tim Ford (b/t). When I started SQLCruise back in 2010, I emailed several friends to see who wanted to join me, and he was the only one crazy enough to go for it. Years later, when I decided to start a consulting company, I gave him the choice: he could either have my interest in SQLCruise free and clear, or we could make SQLCruise part of the new company and he’d be an equal partner in the company. He went for the latter – so the company ownership was 1/4 me, 1/4 Jeremiah, 1/4 Kendra, and 1/4 Tim.

In that first year, he realized he didn’t really enjoy building a consulting company, so he took a mulligan. He got SQLCruise, and we built the consulting company. I don’t blame him one bit – building a consulting company is really, really hard work, most of it unpaid personal time. Like they say, “Why work 40 hours a week for somebody else when you can work 80 hours a week for yourself?”

In a recent post, I mentioned that I started my blog to help me find my next job. When I did, somewhere in the back of my head there was a piece of me that thought one day I might be popular enough that I’d end up in an interview with someone who’d already heard of me. It’s a lot more possible now than when I started, but back then it was a total pipe dream. When you started did any of you ever even dream the company would get to the point it has? We spoke a while back and you mentioned that your weekly email alone has something like 100k subscribers. And that was almost a year ago.

​You’re doing great work on the blog!

I’ve had several recent conversations with Andrea Allred, Mal Mahadevan, and Pinal Dave about what it’s like to be a part of the community. Reading other peoples’ blogs, commenting on them, attending their presentations, meeting them – those are all great first steps to becoming part of the community. But when you actually start your OWN blog, or do your OWN presentation, that’s the really amazing step. Take that step, and then suddenly other bloggers and presenters know YOU, and they recognize you at events, and they wanna say hi. They get excited to see you. You’re part of a public club with no tricky membership process – you’re just in. It’s fantastic, a really welcoming community.​

I was really happy with those step, building a blog and then volunteering to speak at user groups. I could have done that for the rest of my DBA career and been a happy camper. I really liked the safety and salary of a full time job – you can do really well as a DBA. I never wanted to start a company, and I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. I never in my wildest dreams would have dreamt that could pay peoples’ salaries.

BOU is a consulting company primarily, but you also do a lot of training, both free and paid. Do you have a preference?

My personal favorite job is fixing performance emergencies. In Star Trek, Kirk doesn’t have the best job. Scotty does. I love being able to disappear into the bowels of the ship, figure out where the problem is, rebalance the dilithium crystals, and instantly turn things around.

I like training too, and I like designing stuff (sp_Blitz, SQL ConstantCare, etc), but it’s hard to beat the rush and instant gratification of being Scotty.

And again, when you started, you were mostly a DBA. You’ve talked about having to become more of a salesman, and of course part of you has to be a manager. So what percentage of your day would you say you spend on each job? What other hats do you find yourself wearing?

Looking at my weekday calendar for last month (April), I did:

  • 6 days doing 2 SQL Critical Cares
  • 2 days doing architecture design for 2 clients
  • 3 days teaching Mastering Query Tuning
  • 8 days working on SQL ConstantCare (mentoring clients, building new automated recommendations)

In between there, I also worked on blogging, GDPR compliance efforts, and sales. I didn’t have any travel last month. It varies though – May consists of 8 days teaching (some from home, some in Philly for a client) and then the rest of the month will be SQL ConstantCare.

The hardest hat to wear when you’re starting a business is the visionary hat: looking a year, 2 years, 5 years down the road and figuring out, “What’s the most valuable thing I can do today to keep moving this thing forward?” Matt Mullenweg has a great way of saying it: it’s really easy to be “busy” for a year, and then at the end of the year, look back and go, “Wait, did I really accomplish anything? Or was I just busy for a year?” I gotta pick my tasks so that at the end of a year, I actually accomplished stuff that mattered.

It seems like you’ve hired people with distinct specialties. Is that deliberate, or just the way it fell out?

​Very deliberate. In consulting, if you do everything, you compete with everyone.

But if someone is really good at one particular thing, then it’s much easier to sell them as the expert on that one thing, and get a better billable rate. (If that sounds interesting to you, check out the podcast Ditching Hourly by Jonathan Stark.)

How about you? How are you managing to keep up your skills with all of the other things you have to get done?

​This right here is where we awkwardly talk about my schedule. You know how they say if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life? Well, I spend one hell of a lot of time “not working.”

Here’s how I organize my schedule:

Monday-Friday, 7AM-3PM – my mental peak times where I’m getting the most done. I do client work, meetings, write findings, build presentations, teach classes, etc. This is “Brent does his day job and gets paid” time.

Monday-Friday, 3PM-5PM – my low mental energy time, so I do more passive tasks: plan upcoming trips, surf the web, read blogs. The day coasts to a stop. (Every now and then I’ll find myself really excited and working on something later than that, but it ain’t often – I quit a lot of weekdays at 3PM-4PM.)

Saturday-Sunday, 7AM-10AM – still my mental peak times, and it’s before Erika wakes up, so I do blogging and marketing. These don’t feel like work to me because I love ’em so much, and whenever she wakes up, I just quit and we go off to brunch. I’ll do emails on the weekend, or maybe coding, but it tends to be small and here-and-there rather than any kind of focus.

Up til now, you’re going, “Well that’s a lot, but it’s not that much.” Well, here’s where the weird part comes in.

Every day before 7AM – “me” time. I’m a seriously early bird – I’m usually up by 3:30-4AM – so from around 4:30AM til 7AM, that’s the time when I invest in my own future. I’m reading blogs voraciously, experimenting with technology stuff, doing emails that I want to spend more time on, etc. I don’t feel guilty for the time I spend “not working” before 7AM. It’s my own time.

So with that schedule in mind, it’s easier to follow the Getting Things Done philosophy. I do as much client work as I can between 7AM-3PM, but the rest of it is spent allocated to other things. I’m still no Elon Musk, but yeah, I “not work” a lot.

Last job question I promise, what is your favorite part of being your own boss, and what’s the worst?

Before I started a company, I didn’t want to start one. I wanted to work full time doing all the stuff I loved to do, and not much of the stuff I hated (non-productive meetings, status reports, on-call time on the weekends.)

So the very best part of being my own boss are the those moments when I can hire someone and say, “I’ve designed this job for you. It’s a perfect job for exactly what you want to do. It’s the parts of the job you really love, and none of the parts that you don’t. We’re both going to be successful together with this job.” That’s so awesome because it’s like Brent’s Home for Wayward Data Professionals. I wanna build somewhere that people can thrive and grow.

Which means that the very worst part is when I get it wrong and I have to lay people off. Two years ago, when I couldn’t figure out how to scale out our consulting work safely past 5-6 consultants, I had to scale it back to save the company. Laying off Angie, Doug, and Jessica was a gut punch because I felt like I’d built the perfect jobs for them, and they’d done their part to make it succeed, but we couldn’t make the business model work. That was terrible.

Now a couple of SQL questions. Generally in SQL Server what’s your favorite new feature from the last few years?

​Adaptive Query Processing, which is funny to me because I’ve spent less than five minutes using it personally. Problem is that I just don’t have clients with columnstore indexes (for any number of reasons.) I still love this feature though because it represents a down payment for something that’s sure to become more available and more useful in the coming years.

A close second: the instrumentation they’ve been putting into DMVs around memory grants. Memory grants are my favorite thing in the engine right now, just so interesting.

What do you wish they would do?

​Less marketing bullshit.

Seriously, the marketing team is full of bullshit these days. They published an “Azure SQL DB has no downtime” post during the exact same week that I had a client hitting a bug that caused Azure SQL DB to restart. I know it’s technical folks writing this stuff – but they’re being strong-armed by marketing people who don’t understand that lies HURT your technical team’s reputation, not help it.

The Microsoft data platform team is doing good work, but the marketing team, not so much.

What’s your favorite feature overall? New or old?

​Always On Availability Groups. It was hard to build, it wasn’t easy to implement, it was a nightmare to troubleshoot initially, but Microsoft stuck with it. The investments they made over the last several years really paid off.

And it made us consultants and trainers a lot of money, so there’s that.​

On a lighter note, you are well known for loving cars. How/when did that start?

Dad ran Goodyear stores, so I was always around cars. (I still really love the smell of fresh tires.) We went to the Indy 500 every year​, toured the Corvette factory when I was maybe 12, drove go-karts, you name it. I was a Car and Driver Magazine subscriber before I had a driver’s license.

I really enjoy the design and engineering involved. You get in your car, start it, drive somewhere, and you take so much for granted. I don’t wanna go into that here – it’s epic – but if you wanna learn more, watch Thomas Thwaites’ Ted talk, “How I Built a Toaster From Scratch.” Cars are another level beyond that.

Ok, this one started as a joke, but what kind of interview would this be without a question like it. If you were a car, what kind of car would you be, and why? (Fair warning, this is going to go completely over my head, I know nothing about cars.)

I’m an old Jeep: fun, reliable, no pretenses.

I’ve had Jeeps since the early 90s, and I love how utilitarian they are. You can take the doors off, the windows off, hose the interior out with water. There’s a whole subculture around them doing Jeep Jamborees – going way off the grid, seeing amazing sights, and conquering terrain that just looks impossible to drive through. It’s the most fun you can have going 5mph.

There’s nothing fancy about a Jeep – hell, they’re anti-fancy. But you get around Jeep people, and you know you’re gonna be accepted for who you are, and you’re gonna have a great time.

You are also known as a foodie. Have you always been one or is this something that built up as you had money to spend on more/better food? And you know what, while we are at it, how the bleepity, bleepity, bleep do you stay so thin when you are always eating?!?

​Hahaha, I’m not that thin – in fact, I’m on Weight Watchers at the moment, down from 216 pounds to 196 pounds at the moment, aiming for 185. (I’m 6’3″ – everybody who’s only seen me online always goes, “Whoa, you’re way taller than you looked on the webcam.”)

Growing up, my grandparents had a restaurant, and I spent a few summers working in it. When I dropped out of college, I gravitated back to the hospitality business (hotels & restaurants) because I knew it, and there’s always companies hiring in it. I’ve spent a few shifts behind the line as a cook, and I appreciate how hard it is.

At some point, I saw Wylie Dufresne doing molecular gastronomy on a cooking show, and that just hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s kinda like cars: I appreciate the design and engineering that goes into really good food. (Alton Brown’s cooking shows used to do a good job of conveying how it’s a thinking person’s game.) I went to his old Manhattan restaurant, WD-50, and I was blown away by how hard it made me think about the food I was eating.

“Wait – he calls this dish cold fried chicken leftovers, but this isn’t how chicken is constructed. He’s made a compressed spam-can-shaped slice of chicken, but there’s no part of the chicken shaped this way. Then he wrapped it in skin, and it’s the perfect ratio of skin to chicken – you get crispy skin in every bite. It’s cold, but …wait, the skin is crispy? How’d he get cold chicken skin to still be crispy?”

I kept calling the waiter over and having a long discussion about how the hell all this worked, and the staff were delighted to talk in deep, deep details about the chemistry and process involved. They were so excited to share Advanced Food Internals with someone that was curious about it, and got a tour of the kitchen. From then on, I was really hooked on molecular gastronomy done by chefs with a sense of humor about their food, like Jose Andrés and his cotton candy empanadas with foie gras inside. That stuff takes serious disposable income though, so I couldn’t have gotten into it earlier in my life.

The weight thing is tricky because I really love tasting menus. I like just sitting down at a restaurant and saying, “Feed me whatever you really enjoy making.” I’ve sat through 18-20 course menus, and I’ve even sat through one night at Wylie Dufresne’s last restaurant, Alder, where I ate the entire menu. Whatever. Worth it.

And last but not least, you are known as someone who works hard and plays hard. Do you have any tips for keeping up a balance between the two?

Sit down with your calendar right now, look at your next 12 months, and block off at least 3 different weeks where you’re going to be 100% present with your loved ones. Pick a week for your significant other, a week with your parents, a week for your siblings, whatever – but 3 different weeks for different people.

Lori Edwards (b/t) once said: the people you really work for are waiting for you at home.​

Block out their time first. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going somewhere, or just staying home – but disconnect for that. Be 100% present with them. They’re going to die, or you’re going to die, or one of you will be unable to do the things you love to do together. Go do those things, now, while you both still can.

Those memories you build together will motivate you the rest of the year. Later this year, I’m so excited to spend a week with Mom showing her the Isle of Man, then spend a couple of weeks in Cabo with my wife. Those weeks make the rest of the year fly by.


5 thoughts on “An interview with Brent Ozar

  1. Mel says:

    Very interesting set of questions and answers. Enjoyed the interview.

  2. Lemon says:

    Very inspiring interview, especially the 3-weeks advice, and appropriate day scheduling. I even woke up at 4am and thought “Brent is getting up now, I should go and learn something too”. And then I fall asleep immediately.
    What time does Brent go to bed? I hear that both old people and geniuses need much less sleep than ordinary people, and I don’t think he’s that old yet… 😉

  3. Robert Rice says:

    Very insightful. Good read.

  4. […] I mentioned in my interview with Kenneth Fisher, I try to reserve the pre-7AM time for learning. Today it was reading, but sometimes it’s […]

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