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Book Review: “Learn SQL the Hard Way” by Zed A. Shaw

“Learn SQL the Hard Way” by Zed A. Shaw is a great ebook for those who want to learn SQL essentials. At $19.99 USD, it may seem a bit expensive for an ebook, but you’re getting a DRM-free PDF, plus a whole bunch of explanatory videos and additional files.

Who should read “Learn SQL the Hard Way”? Anyone interested in SQL basics – modifying databases or selecting information. Make no mistake about it: this book focuses heavily on the practical side of database language. People who love delving into theory and reading masses of details will be disappointed with Zed Shaw’s course.

About Zed A. Shaw

Zed Shaw is a software developer and the author of several books on programming. He is best known for the book “Learn Python the Hard Way”, which is part of a series called “Learn Code the Hard Way”. “Learn SQL the Hard Way” is part of this series.

It is worthwhile to mention that the ebook’s text was available to read for free directly from the website. As he was writing “Learn SQL the Hard Way”, Shaw took feedback from readers and, after many corrections and adjustments, he made it into this ebook.

Learn SQL: Hard Way or Easy Way?

To learn the hard way means to learn through experience or by making mistakes. That is exactly what this course is about. “Learn SQL the Hard Way” takes things slowly. It eschews huge amounts of incomprehensible text about SQL language techniques and long-winded introductions on how things work. Instead, Zed Shaw gives us a few lines of code and a simple explanation for every word in every line. When combined with the video tutorials, this makes understanding the presented SQL fundamentals very easy.

What’s Inside “Learn SQL the Hard Way”?

The first pages define who and what this course is for. The author describes every aspect of the book very carefully, showing the best way to use it and explaining who will get the most benefit from it. Also, he explains why SQL has such an important role nowadays and why everyone should know its fundamentals. In my opinion, this is very important – it will make beginners confident that they have chosen the right book.

Help with Getting Started with SQL

“Learn SQL the Hard Way” uses SQLite3 as a training tool. SQLite3 is a very simple database system that doesn’t require complicated setup. Should the user run into any problems, though, the book’s first exercise (called Exercise 0) is installation instructions. There’s also a description of which programs are needed and where to find them. Other important information is contained in videos that show users how to install what they need. Every operating system gets its own video – this alone deserves rounds of applause – so everyone, no matter what platform they use, can use this course.

In addition, there is also a huge help for people who don’t know how to use a command line – the Command Line Crash Course. It is very helpful for beginners and those looking to expand, update, or refresh their knowledge.

“Learn SQL the Hard Way”: Structure and Content

Zed Shaw has divided all database operations into four main areas – Create, Read, Update and Delete. This gives us the familiar CRUD acronym for fundamental database operations.

Every exercise is split into three parts, all of which go towards explaining one of these operations. The first demonstrates and demystifies every line of code. The second helps us to understand what the activity should accomplish, and the third part tells us what other aspects of this SQL statement are worth practicing (and other useful tips).

In “Learn SQL the Hard Way”, every exercise has its own accompanying video tutorial. In fact, all this book’s materials are made with an eye for accuracy and easy comprehension. The explanation of even tiny aspects of good SQL was obviously very important to the author. The quality of these tutorials is the main reason why Zed Shaw’s book makes learning SQL enjoyable. And it encourages the reader to make up more learning exercises.

The lessons in this book were described quite accurately and I really learned a lot from them. Unfortunately, there is much less information about reading and selecting data functions than I expected. After finishing “Learn SQL the Hard Way”, the reader will be able to make simple data selections, but some notable features are missing. One of them is the HAVING function, which is essential when learning about GROUP BY. Another is an explanation of JOINS. Overall, I would have liked to see more about these and other functions.

Also, Zed Shaw doesn’t explain set operations (like UNION) and there is nothing at all about NULLs – what they are and how they're used in different functions. I expected “Learn SQL the Hard Way” to cover these topics and found this omission very surprising.

Final Thoughts on Zed Shaw’s Book

Zed Shaw’s “Learn SQL the Hard Way” will teach absolute beginners how to create and manage basic database structure, but at the expense of learning how to retrieve data using queries. (You can use’s SQL Queries course to make up for the lack, if you’d like.)

Overall, I’d say that this is a very good SQL course if you know nothing about databases and are a bit afraid of the subject. As far as training books go, it is quite an affordable package and it shows a very easy way to get some simple database administrator skills – in other words, today’s essential computer abilities. If you’re hesitating, give it a try. Zed Shaw’s book may be the best $20 you spend in a long time.

“Learn SQL the Hard Way” is available online. PayPal is accepted.