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What Skills Does a DBA Need?

By David Poole,

One question that crops up time and time again in IT discussion forums is along the lines of "What skills do I need to further my career?".

Usually the person asking the question is referring to technical skills and yet it is the non-technical and the "soft" skills that hold the key to career progression. Project / Time Management and People Management skills are valuable skills no matter what your line of work.

If you are in an IT role within a company then you first need to ask yourself "what are the core aims and objectives of the organization of which I am a part?”  Having identified these functions you next question needs to be "How can I leverage the skills I have to help achieve those aims?".

Next, you can start to ask, "what additional skills would be of benefit to the organization in which I work?"  It is these skills that you should aim to acquire. 

You need to be able to demonstrate clearly that you are using your existing skills to further the needs of the organization and that the additional skills you wish to acquire would also be of benefit to the organization.

If you can do so, then you are ready to put the case for training in these new skills at the company expense

There is a very important point in the above paragraphs.  It is not enough to just to use your skills, but to be seen to be using your skills for the benefit of the organization.

I read a book with a quote "I was young and naive enough to be unsurprised that my father's hard work and diligence were rewarded with promotion". The people who are progressing within your organization may not be those with the greatest technical skills, or the hardest working. At least some of their success is down to how they present and market their achievements. You have to learn to market yourself and your skills.

One way of marketing yourself is to be proactive in seeking projects. Don't wait for projects to be brought to you, see if you can identify potential projects for yourself.

If you are not in the position to have any affect on the organization as

a whole then look at a smaller sphere of influence such as your office [or department]. Look at your relationship with your boss. What are the organizational pressures on him? Can your skills help?

Remember that in being seen to help others within the organization you are really helping yourself.

If a project is difficult, then unless it is a political minefield don't be afraid to take it on. Other People will be grateful you took the project off their hands and their expectation is that you will fail. The reality is you [often] have more chance of success than people give you credit for and, if you succeed, you will gain a reputation as someone who can solve difficult problems. This wouldn’t hurt your career.

When working on a project don't present your boss with problems unless you genuinely need his help. If you must present him with a problem, list all the actions you have taken to attempt to solve it, show that you are resourceful and positive. People (and managers) prefer to hear good news.

This brings me to the next point. You have to learn to communicate effectively, outside the field of IT. Presentation skills are always useful in business.

Two books I would recommend are "I can see you naked" by Ron Hoff and "How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie". "I can see you naked" is an excellent beginners guide to the art of making presentations. "How to win friends and influence people" delivers what it says on the cover. It was one of the first self help books. Published in 1937 it says something about the book that it is still on the shelves today!

The ability to communicate effectively is vital if you are to progress within an organization. Being known as a guru who can descend to the level of your audience means that you will be called on by many people within your organization, some of whom will be in positions of influence and whose good offices would benefit your career.

In reading the Computer trade press you could be forgiven for believing that every corporate exec is aware of the importance of XML/JAVA or whatever technology is doing the rounds at the time. Having spent 6 years working for the world’s number 1 advertising agency I can testify that most senior execs probably think XML is a new model from Mercedes.

How do these people function in the modern world? Very effectively because their focus is on the core business, not on technicalities. These people are judged, and in term judge, on the basis of results. They are not overly concerned about the methods or technologies that deliver those results.

Similarly if you are in a technological role within the organization your primary aim should be to leverage proven technology to deliver results. Unless your organization is a new technology company then let someone else go through the pain of proving(or disproving) the new technology.

The thoughts behind this approach are an old DBA trick. If you are wondering whether to apply a service pack, wait for the next service pack and see which bugs in the preceding pack it claims to have fixed. If the bugs are of no real significance, apply the old service pack.

On the subject of bosses: Try to maneuver yourself so that you are working for a boss whose career is clearly taking off.  When he gets promoted in the organization, he is more likely to promote a member of his old team.

Conversely, if your boss is a loser and gets fired tomorrow, his replacement will probably be recruited externally. Senior execs tend to think in broader terms so they won't see that it was your boss’s fault that your department is under-performing. They will look at the entire department as being tarred with the same brush.

To state the obvious: this is dangerous. With their broader view point, the senior execs may decide that the changes to the department should be more far reaching than simply firing the department head. Worst-case scenario is that it could be your head on the block, or slightly less worst, the department gets restructured and you find yourself in a back-water of the organization.

If you are in the unfortunate position of having to look for a new job you will probably be dismayed by the thousands of IT graduates pouring out of higher education, all with the latest skills.

Don’t be. What they don't have is an understanding of industry or the organization in which you have worked. This works to your advantage because a business looking to recruit at a more senior level (such as DBA) is more likely to recruit a person with a proven track record of delivering the goods.

Remember that ANY interviewer is really asking only 3 basic questions.

  • Can you do the job?
  • Will you do the job?
  • Will you fit into my organization?

A proven track record and experience will go a long way to convincing them that you are the person that they are looking for.

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