Over three years ago, I officially joined the IT industry and became a DBA. Since then, I've received many requests for career advice. Especially after people find out that I started out in a completely different sector. I may not be up in the illustrious ranks of Steve Jones, Andy Leonard and Brian Knight, but I hold my own. So I feel fairly confident in answering those types of questions.
In any case, my recent article "Certification Myth and Rumors" created a whole new flurry of such requests. Enough of them that I thought I'd write another article targeting those ambitious enough to seek a career change to database administrator but who aren't quite sure how to go about it. Here's how I did it and there's no reason why it can't also work for you.
I've worked in the retail and customer service industry since I was 10 years old. I started out as a newspaper carrier and worked my way up to selling burgers at McDonalds. In college, I held three different part time jobs (simultaneously) -- one in the college library shelving books, another at a local comic book store (I'm such a geek!) and the third a weekend job at a department store. After college, I worked for two different colleges in a clerical position (answering phones, filing paperwork, collecting money). Then I moved on to work for a tool rental company and later a records retention firm. It was in this last job that I decided I had enough. I needed to get away from answering phones and making my home in file cabinets.
The Burn-Out Syndrome
Nothing is worse than holding on to a job you hate waking up for in the morning. I knew there was a problem when I started avoiding answering even my home phone. And I refused to get a cell because I couldn't stand the idea of people being able to call me when I was at the mall or out for dinner. That's when I knew I had to change careers. Besides, retail / customer service barely paid enough to take care of the bills.
If you're in this situation, cursing as you drag yourself into work, avoiding things at home just because they remind you of work and getting angry at your co-workers for no other reason than they actually enjoy their job, it is definitely time for you to make a career change too. The only difficult part is making the choice of what new career you want. Think about this carefully. Don't choose something because of the money. Choose it because that job fits everything you want to do.
Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer. So many people have a "it's not in my job description" attitude and that's horrible when you're looking for promotions or to switch careers. So what if you're a sales clerk? If the company needs someone to set up a few PCs and doesn't want to hire a computer tech, offer your services. If a friend is setting up a wireless network, see if he needs any help or is willing to teach you how. If a family member is trying to configure their internet settings and blows up their computer, politely volunteer to recover their settings.
Surprisingly, all of these things are tasks you can list on your resume. And if you're coming from outside of IT, you need all the resume help you can get. I actually listed a volunteer Admin position from a pre-Ultimate Online role-playing game. I'm convinced this little tidbit helped me get my current job because it made me stand out from other job candidates. I definitely got questioned about it and the interviewers were very amused by my description of the job.
When I decided to go into IT, I couldn't make up my mind what to do. I loved programming and I loved fixing people's problems. The two goals were incompatible. Or so I thought. Then someone mentioned how much more DBAs make than programmers or help desk technicians. I looked up the job description on a whim and instantly fell in love. I had finally found a job where I could do both programming and fixing problems!
The next step was deciding which type of DBA to be. Honestly, I picked SQL Server because I knew where to find the eval software. With a little financial help from a friend, I purchased a refurbished PC at a local computer show for under $200.00. I didn't care that the machine was used and didn't come with an OS. OS eval software can be installed. Besides, since I was planning to abuse the poor thing, I certainly wasn't going to shell out for the cost of a new one.
Books were next. SQL Server 2000 had been out long enough that most of the books written for it could be found on clearance shelves everywhere. I picked up Sybex certification books because they actually contained instructions a total newbie could follow. After I went through the Sybex books a few times, I started grabbing other books to find the things Sybex didn't cover.
For a year and a half, I broke my "server" doing things that you're not supposed to do, rebuilt it, ran through the exercises in all the books, learned networking and server admin skills alongside the SQL Server skills and taught myself basic T-SQL programming. There were holes in my skill set. I never learned how to use the DTS Designer, for example. I knew Replication theory, but with only one box, I couldn't put it into practice. Still, I learned enough and soon passed my MCSA (it was only one additional test to the MCDBA). After that, I gave myself a Christmas present by passing the last exam and becoming an MCDBA.
That was the easy part, though. I had no professional skill set. And no one was in the market for a junior DBA, no matter how much unpaid volunteer work she had on her resume.
Six months after I got my certifications, I was still working in customer service. It was rather depressing. I kept revamping my resumes and sending them out to every single job that had SQL Server in the description. One day, out of the blue, a small software development company called me back. They were looking for a Help Desk tech who knew a little about MS Access, a little about SQL Server and was willing to learn Crystal Reports. I jumped at the chance. It wasn't a DBA job, but it was an IT job and it would put my new skill set to use.
Turns out, the job didn't last long. Only 9 months. But I greatly improved my SQL skills while working on it. Not only did I get real life experience with restoring & backing up databases, but I learned how to fix data problems with the Import / Export Wizard as well as little things like the difference between absolute and non-deterministic numeric data types (learned this last the hard way, unfortunately).
When I went out searching again. It took me a month of unemployment, but I had just enough SQL experience to get on the radar for a 6 week contract job. They wanted someone to set up their backup / restore jobs and do basic maintenance. And, oh, they forgot to mention they needed Replication set up.
The contract job was just what I needed. I was able to validate my earlier skills and put into practice what I had only learned in theory. Now the job didn't pay what DBAs are usually worth, but it did pay more than I had made at my previous two jobs. And since I was gaining lines for my resume, I wasn't about to complain.
After that job, I was unemployed again for a couple of weeks. Let me tell you, not having a job on the horizon was scary both times around. Just as I started to get worried, I got hired by my current employer for a "real" DBA position. My first official, pay commiserate with the title, DBA job. All this in less than 2 years after I got my certifications.
Conclusion: The Trick to Making It Work
It's all about paying your dues. If you want to become a DBA, you have to be willing to work your butt off. When I studied for my certs, I spent all my lunch hours, all my after work hours and a good deal of my weekends playing with my server and learning what I needed to know. It wasn't a "when I felt like it" kind of studying. I treated it like I was earning a college degree.
I volunteered like crazy, even though I only got taken up on it maybe 2% of the time, and did this work for free. At the records retention firm I worked for, their IT help was in another state, so they were more than willing to take advantage of my Power User status. In fact, the reason I accepted this particular job was because they needed someone to baby-sit a legacy Novell server in addition to the regular customer service duties. I took a little advantage myself, volunteering to run new network cables, replace dumb terminals and install new software. Nothing I did was something no one else could do, but no one else wanted to be bothered, so it worked out.
When I did get into IT, I started at the bottom. There's nothing shameful in that. In fact, it helped me out a great deal. I learned just how much I really didn't know and the jobs gave me an opportunity to grow professionally. Don't stick your nose up at the low paying IT jobs if you've never been in IT before. This is how you make your mark. Its what you do here that will count for or against you in future positions.
You may have to wait for some time before you get your opportunity to get in, but keep studying, volunteering and adding job tasks to your resume. Get that cert if you have absolutely no IT experience or degree. It will help. And then start submitting your resume for anything that will use your new skill set, even if it's just a help desk job.
Lastly, always remember: Patience will be rewarded. Everyone started somewhere. And there are a lot of employers out there these days that would rather have a junior or mid-level DBA with a lot of soft skills than a senior DBA with no communication abilities or willingness to work with a team.