Renee Phillips

Tags:   postgresql    nyc    speaker    data quality    qa    conference    meetup    welcoming    knitting    postgreswomen    constraints    database design    datatypes   
Category:   Interviews   
Interviewed by: Andreas Scherbaum

PostgreSQL is the World’s most advanced Open Source Relational Database. The interview series “PostgreSQL Person of the Week” presents the people who make the project what it is today. Read all interviews here.

Please tell us about yourself, your hobbies and where you are from.

I am a hand knitter and a competent home cook. Living in NYC means I don’t have a lot of storage so I make a lot of socks because they take up time and not much space. I have been looking into and complaining about data quality for a few decades now, so PostgreSQL is the perfect tool for me to use every day.

Renee Phillips

Renee Phillips

Any Social Media channels of yours

I just use the Twitter.

When did you start using PostgreSQL, and why?

I am a career changer. After many years of optimizing systems for narrative collection via phone and in person in several industries, with a focus in medical practices, I was curious about (and frustrated by!) data storage and information storage and retrieval. Coincidentally, I was interested in changing jobs, so someone suggested I attend some local meetup groups to see if there were any tech companies I wanted to work with. The quality of speakers that Jonathan Katz was getting for the NYC PostgreSQL User Group meetups was so good that I was hooked.

Do you remember which version of PostgreSQL you started with?


My university study had almost nothing to do with computers. The skills I learned studying Anthropology definitely help me every day. I mostly investigate to discover where data is unexpected, incorrect, or incomplete. I also connect business intelligence to data, helping clients turn their questions into queries and providing accurate, though sometimes unexpected answers. I really enjoy checking into the assumptions made by an existing query and following up to be sure that they match the business needs. I am amused when they don’t.

What other databases are you using? Which one is your favorite?

None! I am very lucky so far to be using the best database.

I created and organized Postgres Women NYC, which needs a new name to reflect how inclusive we are in practice, all are welcome who will abide by the code of conduct..

So I am taking suggestions for that, and always looking for more underrepresented, minoritized, and marginalized speakers. Soon we’ll be starting Virtual Meetups, and any advice from folks who have already started with that would be very helpful!

How do you contribute to PostgreSQL?

I am a public speaker, having spoken at 4 conferences, have been on the speaker selection committee for 2 conferences, and I served on the PgUS Diversity Committee. Additionally, I spoke to a class of graduate students at Northeastern University in Boston about PostgreSQL and they had some very thoughtful questions. And I talk about my experience using PostgreSQL with anyone who will listen at all the tech meetups I attend.

Any contributions to PostgreSQL which do not involve writing code?

I don’t add code to the project, so all of my contributions fit this category.

What is your favorite PostgreSQL extension?

All of my paid work has been in hosted environments, so I don’t use extensions in the day to day. I am most impressed by PostGIS.

Could you describe your PostgreSQL development toolbox?

I write long queries in Sublime out of habit, and mostly use psql in the command line. For my current client I am creating views in Looker, which has some ORM challenges.I have a few different methods of moving query results into spreadsheets. One day I’ll start to learn VIM, but today is not that day. My computer is a 2015 Macbook Air, so you definitely don’t always need the shiniest new thing.

Which skills are a must have for a PostgreSQL developer/user?

Patience. Willingness to practice seeing what is actually in front of you, and not what you expect or hope is in front of you.

Which PostgreSQL conferences do you visit? Do you submit talks?

I have submitted several talks. I have attended PGEU twice, PgDay Paris, Nordic PgDay, as well as PostgresOpen, SCaLE and PgCon.

Do you think Postgres has a high entry barrier?

I think Postgres is itself very accessible, but I think in the cases where database management systems get any attention in university or bootcamps, there is a chance that commercial DBMS are being covered more due to the ability those companies have to send paid people to more those environments. The provision of student licenses for a paid product is also more alluring than a product that is free all the time. I have heard from students “well, I should try this while I can, because it’s free for students and I don’t know when I’ll have the chance again. PostgreSQL will always be there and I can get to it any time.” And then…from graduates… “I got a job in the paid DBMS, because I already had skills there from the free license.” Or, “I took the first tech job I could get and since I didn’t already have database experience they shuttled me to the front end or design work.”

What is your advice for people who want to start PostgreSQL developing - as in, contributing to the project. Where and how should they start?

Read the email lists, and the archives. Start by seeing what are the most common questions and friction points. Attend meetups, offer to speak on something that you have found exciting or frustrating. Or talk about things that you have broken or fixed with PostgreSQL.

Do you think PostgreSQL will be here for many years in the future?

Absolutely, it is stable, and has a team of devoted caretakers. There are so many people of various ages handling the code that any one person leaving the project will not cause irreparable harm.

Would you recommend Postgres for business, or for side projects?


Are you reading the -hackers mailinglist? Any other list?

So many of the lists!

What other places do you hang out?

I was reading a lot on the slack for a while, not so much these days.

Anything else you like to add?

If it’s not crass to pitch myself for work, I really do enjoy digging into Business Intelligence and data quality issues. I’m working on expanding my data quality talk into several talks, taking each portion of the matrix that I developed and devoting 40 minutes at a time. Lately, I’m reviewing a lot of data from third parties such as Stripe and checking for duplicate entries, timestamptz mismatches. Application designers sometimes forget about these things, so a company might find that reconciling their accounts is harder than it should be.

The best time to catch a data quality problem is before you load it into the production database. The second best time is now.