Back to articles list Articles Cookbook
9 minutes read

SQL For Non-Programmers: Do You Need to Learn It To Become a Programmer?

Updated on: June 19, 2024

SQL is primarily used by database administrators (DBAs), business analysts, and data analysts. But what about other programming roles? In this article, I’ll show how software engineers, web developers, and app developers use SQL and why you need to learn SQL to become a programmer.

Like many other aspiring programmers, you are probably wondering “Do I need SQL?”. To answer this question, you should know that you’ll encounter data everywhere in software development. A successful programmer should know how to access, create, modify, and delete data.

SQL is an industry standard for interacting with databases. Unless you are familiar with SQL and relational databases in general, you may “reinvent the wheel” in your source code instead of leveraging the speed and efficiency of SQL.

So, the answer is “Yes”. You need SQL to become a good programmer.

How Do Programmers Use SQL?

SQL, or Structured Query Language, is used for communication with relational databases. SQL commands are essential for defining, manipulating, and querying data within these databases. You cannot build a webpage, an application, or software with SQL. There is even a debate whether SQL is a programming language at all. So why would programmers need to learn SQL?

The truth is that most programs, mobile apps, and webpages are built around data; they use or create it or both. Most data is stored in relational databases, and – as you already know – SQL is very good at interacting with relational databases. To retrieve data from a relational database and to feed it into a program or web application, you’ll need to know SQL statements, which are crucial for executing valid instructions that the database management system understands.

Let’s see how programmers in different roles use SQL.

Web Developers

As I already said, you cannot build a website using SQL. However, your website is very likely to interact with databases, and SQL will help you make this interaction as smooth as possible. Web developers use SQL to query data, allowing them to interact with databases and retrieve specific information.

While there are static websites (which contain information that never changes or is changed manually), many websites these days are dynamic. A dynamic website is a reactive website that delivers content in real-time based on users’ activities, geography, time, etc. For example:

  • Facebook cannot be imagined without user data, friend connections, wall posts, comments, and reactions. All this information is stored in MySQL, Facebook’s primary database management system (DBMS).
  • YouTube recommends videos to users based on their unique activity. That’s because it stores metadata (e.g. user preferences, advertising information, country customizations, etc.) in a relational database.
  • Alibaba is an e-commerce platform. To store information on products, sellers, and customers, Alibaba uses an internally developed database system called PolarDB, which is based on PostgreSQL.

These tech giants’ websites use SQL to communicate with relational databases and display user-specific, real-time information. The data is both retrieved from and added to the databases after being captured through the website (e.g. user profile information, comments, likes, product reviews, etc.). If you want to be able to build this kind of dynamic website, you need to be familiar with SQL and know how to retrieve data from one or more tables, filter the data, and show it in a specific order.

Application Developers

Plenty of mobile applications make use of relational databases to store lists of clients, client-related information, and any app-specific data. The information stored in those databases is used for basic app functions or for marketing and analytics:

  • Gig economy apps like Uber, Airbnb, and Upwork rely on Big Data and use databases to store all important information about their users. (By the way, did you know helps educate Uber employees around the world? Check out the case study.)
  • Catalog-based apps are usually just databases hidden behind a good-looking user interface. Think about mobile apps featuring famous paintings, laws and regulations, world capitals, or US states.

SQL is hugely important in these cases to connect the interface and the database that feeds information to the app. Even if data is not central to the app’s core processes – the app doesn’t need data to perform its function – data from the app is still crucial for analytics, marketing campaigns, etc. So as soon as you come up with an application idea that requires interaction with some sort of a relational database, SQL will be of great help.

If you’d like to learn more, read this article on how SQL is used in iOS and Android development.

Game Developers

When it comes to game development, relational databases are often used to store all kinds of account information, including user names, passwords, game stats, characters owned, etc. There are also some games that use databases for game processes, i.e. to store the values and properties of game objects.

So while you don’t use SQL to build a game, it’s still good to know it. It allows your game to smoothly interact with the relational databases that contain important game-related data. Furthermore, the most successful games use data to personalize players’ experience and to drive the game’s constant improvement.  It’s not unusual for game developers to build a data analytics platform that runs concurrently with their game. This platform tracks players in real-time and provides insights for instant game personalization. To incorporate such a data analytics platform into the game, developers should be familiar with SQL.

Software Engineers

There is some overlap between software engineers and other types of developers, but it’s safe to say that all software development that focuses on data-driven applications will benefit from SQL. By using SQL to access relational databases, software engineers get fast and convenient data retrieval.

Of course, in large organizations, there is usually a database administrator (DBA) or even a team responsible for data management. They can assist software engineers in retrieving data from a relational database. However, in practice, developers sometimes write SQL queries themselves and include them in their application code just to avoid time-consuming interactions with DBAs.

Considering the prevalence of data-driven applications and SQL’s advantages in interacting with relational databases, knowing SQL is an essential skill for any software engineer.

Learning SQL and Relational Databases as Programmers

By learning SQL, you are increasing the variety of jobs you can apply for. An SQL course can be particularly beneficial for beginners, offering structured learning paths to manage large datasets, analyze real data, and make informed decisions. But is it difficult to learn SQL?

Thanks to its intuitive English-based syntax, SQL is very easy to grasp. It’s not difficult even if you have zero programming background, let alone if you’re interested in IT and are looking for a programming career.

While SQL is relatively easy to learn, you’ll still need a clear learning path to achieve your goals. SQL language elements, such as identifiers, variables, and search conditions, are crucial for forming correct SQL statements. I recommend starting with our SQL from A to Z learning track. It includes 7 interactive courses and hundreds of coding challenges:

  • SQL Basics (129 interactive exercises) is where you should start if you are new to SQL. This course covers retrieving information from a database, filtering data, joining multiple tables, creating simple reports with aggregate functions, and more.
  • Standard SQL Functions (211 interactive exercises) covers basic data types that handle text, numeric, date, and time information. You’ll also learn how to work with NULL values.
  • How to INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE Data in SQL (52 interactive exercises) is perfect for aspiring database administrators (DBAs) and programmers who work with databases. You’ll learn how to retrieve, store, modify, delete, insert, and update data with SQL.
  • Creating Basic SQL Reports (97 interactive exercises) teaches you how to create simple SQL reports, organize long queries, and put multiple metrics in a single query.
  • "Window Functions" course (218 interactive exercises) covers the syntax and semantics of SQL window functions. After mastering window functions, you’ll know how to compute running totals and running averages, build rankings, and investigate trends across time.
  • Recursive Queries (114 interactive exercises) demonstrates all kinds of common table expressions (also called CTEs or WITH clauses). The course explains how to use simple, nested, and recursive CTEs. You’ll find out how to split long SQL queries into smaller chunks and how to process hierarchical data efficiently.
  • GROUP BY Extensions in SQL (63 interactive exercises) is intended for intermediate users, IT students, and software developers. In this course, you’ll learn to build complex and sophisticated SQL reports using subtotals and multiple groupings.

If you are looking for more in-depth knowledge of database management, consider taking the Creating Database Structure track. With 5 interactive courses and 336 coding challenges, you’ll learn SQL’s Data Definition Language (DDL) – the syntax used to create, modify, and remove database objects (i.e. tables, views, indexes).

Now, as you have your learning path in mind, I want to share some tips for making the most of learning SQL online.

Tip and Tricks for Learning SQL Online

Learning a new skill is always a challenge. The probability of reaching your goal is higher when you know how to approach online courses, what obstacles to expect, and what mistakes to avoid. Here’re some guidelines that can help:

  • Have a goal and a plan. To succeed, you need to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve. With a goal in mind and a clear learning path with several milestones, you have a much better chance of mastering SQL.
  • Get organized. It’s not easy to learn a new programming language when you work full time and have a family, but it’s definitely possible with a good organization. If necessary, use an app to schedule time for learning SQL (e.g. Google Calendar), to assign yourself tasks so you can learn certain topics within specific deadlines (e.g. Asana, Trello), and to take notes (e.g. tools like Notion, Evernote).
  • Practice regularly. You’ll likely feel very motivated during the first lessons, when you have something completely new to learn. But when the motivation of novelty wears off and the topics become more challenging, you may find yourself skipping your scheduled SQL time more frequently. Try to avoid this trap; keep your learning sessions regular throughout your entire learning path.
  • Choose good knowledge sources. The Internet is full of online courses and it’s difficult to choose the good ones. One of the usual mistakes among SQL learners is choosing the wrong source of knowledge. Try checking reviews, taking free trials if offered, and asking for recommendations from people who have learned SQL recently. Read more about other mistakes you should avoid when learning SQL
  • Use several learning formats. Your learning path might be more exciting and effective if you combine online courses with hands-on tutorials, forum discussions, and brief video explanations.
  • Try listening to music when learning SQL. It will not only make you happier by releasing additional dopamine, but it will also help you concentrate. Studies show that music increases programmers’ productivity and reduces the number of errors they make. Read this article to learn more about music’s impact on your work efficiency.

Thanks for reading, and happy learning!