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The Ego, the Id and the DBA

By Louis Davidson (@drsql),

Leaving aside, for a second, Freud's psychoanalytical definitions, the term "ego" generally refers to a person's sense of self, and their self-esteem. In casual usage, however, it usually appears in the adjectival form, "egotistical" (most often followed by "jerk").

You don't need to be a jerk to be a DBA; humility is important. However, ego is important too. A good DBA needs a certain degree of self-esteem…a belief and pride in what he or she can do better than anyone else can. The ideal DBA needs to be humble enough to admit when they are wrong but egotistical enough to know when they are right, and to stand up for that knowledge and make their voice heard.

In most organizations, the DBA team is seriously outnumbered by headstrong developers and clock driven managers, and "great" DBAs will often be outnumbered by...well...the not so great. In order to be heard in this environment, a DBA will not only need to be very skilled, but will also need a healthy dose of ego. As Freud might have put it, the unconscious desire of the DBA (the id) is for iron-fist control over their databases, and code that runs in them. However, the ego moderates this desire, seeking to "satisfy the id in realistic ways that, in the long term, bring benefit rather than grief". In other words, the ego understands the need to exert a measure of control and self-belief, but also to tolerate and play nicely with developers and other DBAs.

The trick, naturally, is learning how to be heard when it is important, but also to make everyone around you welcome that input, even when you have to be bold to make the "I know what I am talking about, and you…well...not so much" decisions.

Consider a baseball team, bottom of the ninth inning of the championship game, man on first and down one run. Almost anyone on that team will have the ability to hit a home run, but only one or two will have the iron belief that they can pull it off in this critical, end-game situation. The player you need in this situation is the one who has passionately gone the extra mile preparing for just this moment, is bursting at the seams with self-confidence, and can look the coach in the eye and state, boldly, "Put me in, I am your best bet".

Likewise, on those occasions when high customer demand coincides with copious system errors, and panic is bubbling just beneath the surface, you don't need the minimally qualified support person, armed with the "reboot and hope" technique (though that sometimes works!). You need the DBA who steps up and says, "Put me in" and has the skill and tenacity to back up those words and to fix the pinpoint and fix the problem, whatever it takes, while keeping customers and managers happy.

Of course, the egotistical DBA will happily spend hours telling you how great they are at their job, and how brilliantly they put out a previous fire, and this is no guarantee that they can deliver. However, if an otherwise-humble DBA looks you in the eye and says, "I can do it", then hear them out. Sometimes, this burst of ego will be exactly what's required.

Louis Davidson (guest editor).

To find out more about the essential characteristics of a DBA, check out Louis's "What Counts for a DBA" series, over at Simple-talk.com.

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