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Does the Role of the DBA Need to Evolve? Expand / Collapse
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Posted Monday, December 12, 2011 9:44 AM


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My editorial got edited after I wrote it, and one important part of the message I was trying to get across apparently got deleted. In the original draft of my editorial, I was making the assumption that over a long period of time, 50, 100, 500 years, that the role of DBA administrator would probably go away as software could very possibly take over such tasks. So my question "Will the DBA role evolve naturally from being a "caretaker of data", to "interpreter of data", for the good of society?" is not asking about now, or the next few years, but about the future. The goal of the editorial was to be "whimsical" and "thought-provoking", but that part of the editorial got edited out.

Brad M. McGehee
Microsoft SQL Server MVP
Director of DBA Education, Red Gate Software
www.bradmcgehee.com
Post #1220353
Posted Monday, December 12, 2011 10:42 AM


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The function of calculating storage space for the data and making sure it's backed up-- and that restore works!-- is a crucial function-- but one that is very easy to perform with the SQL Server toolset. It isn't a fulltime job, and in my case combines very naturally with database design, query planning and index "design." In the Ingres days, there were fine points of index design to master; now it's simply "which index should be the clustered index?" plus "is the read benefit of this index worth the write cost?"-- leaving more time for investigation/validation of data relationships.

The general point that job functions may be too broad (pilot has to be rested) or too narrow (overspecialized out of existence) calls for analysis of WHICH job functions should be combined. I think the combining of user interface design with database design is a mistake, and of course object-oriented programmers disagree with me. I was an entry-level statistician before I became a database programmer/DBA, and I saw some wild misconceptions from PhD statisticians who did know how to analyze data relationships but weren't familiar with the database design and thus didn't know what was in their data. For instance-- assumption that the table named "employees" held records for all employees when a look at the database diagram might have raised the question "what's in the table employees_former_contract?" And, without a DBA familiar with the business use of the data, there is no sanity check on database size. I've worked with DBA/network administrators quite proud of their facility in managing large and growing data volumes; then I look at the database and see that 90 percent of it is redundant and whitespace.




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Posted Monday, December 12, 2011 10:43 AM


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Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) does require separation of responsibilities. Application developers are not allowed to "fix" production data. I can't disagree with this.

But I never forget the quote

Stamp's Statistical Probability The government [is] extremely fond of amassing great quantities of statistics. These are raised to the nth degree, the cube roots are extracted, and the results are arranged into elaborate and impressive displays. What must be kept ever in mind, however, is that in every case, the figures are first put down by a village watchman, and he puts down anything he damn well pleases.
(Attributed to Sir Josiah Stamp, 1840-1941, H.M. collector of inland revenue.

As DBA, I do validity checks as far back to the source as I can on data I protect, and I am always interested in analyzing the data I am protecting. I was a data analyst, not a programmer, before I was a DBA. And I am a good DBA, with a good understanding of how much time any database operation (and human operation) should require. I "get" the SQL Server DBMS. Some programmers know all the trees and don't get the forest.




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Posted Monday, December 12, 2011 10:47 AM
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I hesitate to have DBA's interpret data. Particularly data in fields such as medical and finance. I have a difficult enough time understanding how to store, manipulate, backup data, and report against data. One can't be all things to all people.

There is also the need for separation of responsibilities. It is a bad idea to have the data caretakers also be the data interpreters. I think it would be bad, and maybe against the law, to have the same person perform both roles in a financial institution.
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Posted Monday, December 12, 2011 10:50 AM
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bradmcgehee@hotmail.com (12/12/2011)
My editorial got edited after I wrote it, and one important part of the message I was trying to get across apparently got deleted. In the original draft of my editorial, I was making the assumption that over a long period of time, 50, 100, 500 years, that the role of DBA administrator would probably go away as software could very possibly take over such tasks. So my question "Will the DBA role evolve naturally from being a "caretaker of data", to "interpreter of data", for the good of society?" is not asking about now, or the next few years, but about the future. The goal of the editorial was to be "whimsical" and "thought-provoking", but that part of the editorial got edited out.


I can't figure out what I'm doing next week much less think 500 years hence.

500 years from now all of the roles filled today will be different or non-existent.
Post #1220389
Posted Monday, December 12, 2011 10:53 AM


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bradmcgehee@hotmail.com (12/12/2011)
My editorial got edited after I wrote it, and one important part of the message I was trying to get across apparently got deleted. In the original draft of my editorial, I was making the assumption that over a long period of time, 50, 100, 500 years, that the role of DBA administrator would probably go away as software could very possibly take over such tasks. So my question "Will the DBA role evolve naturally from being a "caretaker of data", to "interpreter of data", for the good of society?" is not asking about now, or the next few years, but about the future. The goal of the editorial was to be "whimsical" and "thought-provoking", but that part of the editorial got edited out.


I guess the data in the editorial wasn't properly safeguarded, eh?

And, yes, as systems evolve and become more self-correcting, et al, the duties of dealing with them will change. It's been a long time, for example, since I had to administer a Windows for Workgroups 3.11 network on a thin-coax token ring. That set of skills isn't really applicable any more. At the same time, building and administering a more modern network hasn't become simpler, it's just become different. I think database administration will go the same way. Years ago, backup/restore administration, and the details of restoring a database from tape backups of full, diff and log data, to a point in time, was a complex skillset. Now, I generally pick the database in SSMS, right-click, open the restore wizard, pick the point in time in a field, and click "Okay". Flash drives are in the process of eliminating fragmentation (physical and index) as a consideration. But DBAing has become a more complex skillset, not less.

So, yeah, the skills will change. It's just a question of how much.

As for 500-year time spans, who knows? 500 years ago was the 1600s. The printing press had revolutionized data dissemination, but it was still primarily being stored (outside the human head) in ink-on-paper, and analysis was a matter of decades of education. Modern ideas of electronic storage and retrieval would have been inconceivable. Not only outside of what could be imagined, but outside of any need that could be imagined.

500 years ago, Adam Smith was over 100 years in the future, and John Meynard Keynes was over 400 years away. Modern business and government weren't even a twinkle in their fathers' eyes, as it were. And those two (government and modern business) are the two biggest driving forces behind data storage, dissemination, et al.

So, 500 years from now? I'm sure it will be radically different, but I'm also sure it will still required skilled people somewhere in the mix, not just more automation.


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Post #1220391
Posted Monday, December 12, 2011 10:56 AM


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Brad McGehee wrote:

I was making the assumption that over a long period of time, 50, 100, 500 years, that the role of DBA administrator would probably go away as software could very possibly take over such tasks.

It's nice to know someone is optimistic about our longer-term prospects, both as IT professionals and as human beings!

I think the changes you envision might come about sooner than the timescale you suggest; but I also wonder if, for them to happen, the nature of higher education needs also change, so as to encourage the coalescing of what presently seem to be very disparate professions.

The philosophy of some educational systems, such as that in the US, encourages a broad approach to learning - so that even IT and engineering majors are exposed to some degree to the liberal arts.

Others, as in the UK and Germany, point the student toward a high degree of specialisation at a fairly early age.

Although the American educational system has its critics - many of them deserved - I think its concern for producing a well-rounded student actually would better foster the changes you suggest, than some of the other educational approaches.
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Posted Monday, December 12, 2011 11:02 AM


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bradmcgehee@hotmail.com (12/12/2011)
My editorial got edited after I wrote it, and one important part of the message I was trying to get across apparently got deleted. In the original draft of my editorial, I was making the assumption that over a long period of time, 50, 100, 500 years, that the role of DBA administrator would probably go away as software could very possibly take over such tasks. So my question "Will the DBA role evolve naturally from being a "caretaker of data", to "interpreter of data", for the good of society?" is not asking about now, or the next few years, but about the future. The goal of the editorial was to be "whimsical" and "thought-provoking", but that part of the editorial got edited out.


[IMHO] ....

That really opens it up a bit. With the exponential advancements in technology, who's even to say how data is stored in 100 years, will databases even be the storage medium or will we have something "Star Trek'ish" like crystals or the like.

I would think they'll always be a DBA or something of the sort for maintaining the storage of data, an Analyst to carry out that part and various levels in between. Since most every business is driven by greed and the almighty dollar (Euro), the more a single person can do effectively with less money the better. Rather, that's the mentality I see coming from the "top" down. Isn't that how we got the "Accidental DBA" role in the first place.


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Posted Monday, December 12, 2011 12:04 PM
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Posted Monday, December 12, 2011 1:02 PM
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An exponential advance in technology is an understatement. Think of how far we come in just the last 50 years or even five years. Think about how young this World Wide Interweb thingy is. Does anyone remember UUNet? How about Windows NT not being a stable enough platform to build a business application? Twitter is barely 5 years old and built on 140 characters. It is amazing in both its simplicity and contribution to information.

Look at your parents and think about the technology advances that they have seen. My mother still cries when she has to touch a computer because she is afraid that she will break it. Now consider how your children view technology and the advances in technology that they will see in their lifetime. I am still amazed that I can send an email from my SQL Server and have it show up in three different locations at the same time including my smart phone with a dual core processor. Think for a minute about the complexity of that operation.

There is one thing that I was taught early in my career from an old DBA, design every database to last thirty years including prototypes. It is that type of long term thinking that helps us out as DBA’s. Developers and End Users want to see the data now. We have to see the data as it will be in the years to come. It is one of the skills that set us apart.

There will always be a need for the Keepers of Data just as there always has been throughout Human History. We just use new and improved tools.
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