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Hiring A DBA

By Chris Shaw,

Hiring a DBA is a lot like taking a road trip across country for Christmas dinner with relatives. Before any trip there is a lot of preparation that needs to be done. When you're finally on the road it can seem like it takes forever to get there, and when you finally arrive you once again end up listening to your Uncle Henry tell the same story he's told you a thousand times, "I had to walk to school in 3 feet of snow, uphill both ways." However, if you take the time to prepare and map out your strategy, you might be able to get to your destination more quickly, enjoy the Christmas dinner and make it out the door before Uncle Henry even knew you were there.

Over the last 5 years I have had to hire a number of DBA's, and in my search for the "perfect candidate" I have found that there are a number of key indicators to watch for in trying to find just the right person. The upside to a road trip is that the interstate signs tell you how many miles there are to your destination. Unfortunately, when hiring a DBA, there aren't any mile markers in the office saying "Only 40 more interviews until the perfect candidate!" So, after a number of interviews, I found myself asking, "Are there any signs that that will help me decide who I should take a closer look at for the position?" The worst part about picking the wrong candidate to interview is that you end up not only wasting your time, but wasting their time as well.

Based on my experiences I have compiled the following indicators to watch for when trying to find the right candidate for a position, some being more subtle than others. These signs can be broken down into a four categories; defining the search, posting the position, the resume, and then the interview. In this article we will review some of the not-so-obvious things in each area.

Defining the Search

Companies out there fit into one of two categories. One may want a strong DBA that is very focused in one or multiple areas of SQL Server while others want a DBA that can do multiple things like networks, Exchange and so on. If we look at the first category of the focused DBA we can include Administrators, Architects, and Developers along with other categories.

Here is a tip to help you out in defining exactly what you may be looking for. Start a Word document and list everything that needs to be completed in the next 30 days. If you can get a list of four of five items that need to be completed within a month, it will give you a good starting point in defining the search for the perfect candidate. Secondly, make a list of the tasks that need to be completed within the next six months. Once you have compiled these lists it can be easy to determine exactly the type of DBA needed. If there are more developmental tasks than administrative tasks, you know how to focus your search. If the type of DBA you need is not obvious after compiling your lists, go back and refine them.

After determining the type of DBA you need, knowing the experience level of the DBA you need becomes extremely important on multiple fronts. Most often the level of DBA is decided by how much money is in the budget for that position. When decisions on who to hire are made based on budget constraints, in the long run it will end up costing the company more money than was budgeted for in the first place. For example, if a senior level DBA is needed but there is only 75% of a senior level DBA's average salary available, the candidate may keep looking for better wages elsewhere and the position could remain open indefinitely.

Once the level of the DBA and the salary are defined, be prepared to negotiate on the salary. An underpaid and overworked employee is usually quick in trying to find a new employer. Eventually the costs of training, hiring and searching will catch up to the amount that the company was not willing to negotiate.

Having task lists before an employee starts has multiple advantages. There have been a number of times that I have been brought into a company where my first 30 days of employment was time spent trying to figure out what I supposed to be doing. Actions (or should I say lack of action) like this will leave people wondering if they are really needed. When that chain of thought is followed, it is easy to see why someone may continue to look for positions elsewhere even though they were just hired. You'll again be looking to hire a DBA with work continuing to pile up.

The Posting

The better defined the posting is, the better the candidates that you will receive. The number of candidates that apply may not be as high as they would with a general posting, however, the candidates will be better focused as to what you are looking for. I have achieved the most success when I have used the pre-defined lists I have made of tasks that need to be done. For example, I know that within the first 30 days of the new hire's employment that they will need to be able to review the backup plan and other maintenance issues. Obviously I am going to need a DBA that is familiar with backups, DBCC's and indexes.

Salary information should always be included on the posting. If it is not included on the posting, the question of why it was left out will come into play. Some may choose not to apply because they feel like the posting may be trying to hide the fact that the salary offered is much lower than the current average rate. What can be worse is a candidate applying, you spending time reviewing the resume, technical interviews are done and applications have been filled out only to find that the candidate is no longer interested because of the salary offered.

With every day that passes, more and more candidates are looking at what the company is offering as added benefits. The standard benefits should be listed in the posting, however, non-standard benefits are important to post as well. Some items, if available, that should be posted are flex-time, flexible spending accounts and bonuses. When listing a bonus, it's always beneficial to include how many times bonuses were paid in the last two years at the company. For Example: The Company has paid 7 of the last 8 quarter bonuses. I can think of at least one time I have been hired with the promise of a bonus only to find that it was never paid.

After the .com boom, many people found themselves without employment, most of them never experiencing a recession because of their young age. Not wanting to find themselves in this situation again, many candidates are now looking for stability with a company as well. The posting should include how long the company has been in business and what the history of the company has been. If there has been growth over the last five or ten years, include this information on the posting.

If you are not receiving any resumes after posting the DBA position, compare your posting to other postings from other companies. Many companies spend a lot of money listing the position on the internet. Dice.com and Monster.com are good locations to post the position. The best candidates I find usually come from a local user group or from personal references. Don't forget to talk to your current staff and let them know what positions are open. Your staff may know the perfect candidate but that candidate may never cross your path if your staff doesn't know a position is open. Many people who attend my local user group have received positions because of the professional networking that happens there.

Resumes

Over the last ten years resumes have gone through a big change. When I first started out in my adult life, I was taught that a one page resume was best. The truth of the matter is, today all the information needed may not fit on one page. With that being said, I would continue to look at well formed and well defined resumes.

I have a number of pet peeves when I look at a resume. However, there are some that, in my opinion, point out obvious warning signs. Resumes that do not have an education section at all may be hiding the fact that the candidate does not have a degree, not that this is a bad thing, but a clear understanding of the experience and education needs to be made. A candidate's certifications are always a benefit because they show that the candidate has spent the time needed to study and that they have passed the certification tests. Large or extended Mission Statements or Objectives may be covering up lack of information elsewhere.

Past employment should be listed back to the first job the candidate held that is relevant to the position you are hiring for, or for the previous ten years. If the candidate has had one position in the last ten years and the employment was continuous, than that resume may float to the top of my pile. Along the same lines of past employment, I take a long look at organizations that they are a member of that they may have listed. One thing to look for is a professional membership and/or a user group membership along with any officer positions they may have held. A resume that lists the National Bird Society may not seem relevant, but they may have held an official position and that may show leadership skills.

I have found the biggest warning sign of the not-so-ideal candidate to be lack of information and space filling. The biggest and most unimportant resume filler for technical positions, in my opinion, is the E-Mail reference. There have been a number of times when I have seen resumes for a senior level DBA position and the candidate will list an E-Mail client as one of the software tools that they are familiar with. In my opinion this is the equivalent of saying they can turn a computer on. E-Mail, Web browsers, and software to the like always catch my attention (and not in a good way). If they are applying for a DBA position, I would expect them to know how to run most of these programs. There are always exceptions, especially if the candidate has an extended knowledge in one of these areas and they are an MVP or a trainer.

The Interview

I always wonder who is dreading the interview more, the candidate or me. To think that I have to make a decision as important as this based off a resume and a couple hours chatting with a candidate scares me to death. And I always have at least one case where I have reviewed the resume, thought it to be well presented and indicative of a good candidate only to find in the interview that the candidate was nothing like what I had expected from their resume.

When I start an interview, I always reassure the candidate that the answer of "I am not sure" is always an acceptable one. Even though I state this more than once during the interview, I always end up with at least a few candidates that think I did not create my questions and that I don't know the answers. Since many questions can have multiple answers I come up with very difficult questions, questions that I don't expect them to be able to answer. I do this because I want to hear "I am not sure, but if I were in that situation I would look for the answer in books online" or a comparable answer like that. A good place to come up with difficult questions is from list servers; there is always something being posted that is a very rare situation.

Some things to keep an eye on… Did the candidate take time to prepare for the interview? Fifteen years ago it was a lot more difficult to research a company than it is today. Watch to see if they make or keep eye contact. Are they more interested in the map on the wall behind you? I specifically interview in a room in our office that has a really neat picture of Earth. I want to see what they are more interested in, the interview or the photo. Look to see if their clothes are pressed and clean, make sure the answers are answers to questions you ask. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I have heard it all. In one interview I gave, every answer from the candidate to every question I asked, somehow ended up in the candidate questioning me about everything besides the position.

Make sure that the interview is gradable. I may give up to four interviews a day. By the time I reach the last one I want to be sure I can remember how well the candidate from the first interview did. I also like to have someone else from my staff attend the interview I'm giving. It gives my staff the chance to see that their opinion does matter and we can discuss likes and dislikes of the candidates together.

Most of all, remember this; the hiring process will leave you with one resume and maybe two interviews of a candidate that you could soon be spending a great deal of time with at the workplace and whom you may be placing a large amount of trust in. Make sure you check the references. I never used to check references until my Human Resources department came and told me that they had been checking them. They informed me that a candidate I was going to extend an offer to, never was employed at a company where he claimed he worked. The amount of time and preparation you spend before you hire someone may save you a large amount of time and anguish later.

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