One of my favourite things about the SQL community is the exquisite diversity of talent of it’s members. Today for the “What’s it Like To Be a DBA” post series, we’re privileged to have with us a gentleman that not only flexes his technical muscles regularly on his blog but who also encourages us to get the grey matter really working with his thought pieces and professional development posts. I really do enjoy this authors work, his content has a wonderful air of class, a distinguished style and I know many of you enjoy it too.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr Mike Fal (Blog|Twitter).
True confessions: when I make small talk, I usually lead with “what do you do”. It’s a little lame, but something we all can answer. However, what’s usually a more interesting follow-up is “how did you end up doing that?” After all, whether we’re speech therapists, inside sales reps, garbage collectors, safety managers, etc….it’s usually an intriguing tale of how we got there.
My tale is twisty enough. I went to college with a desire to be a classical bass trombonist. After 4 years of typical college hedonism at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I got my Bachelor of Music Performance (insert B.M. joke here) and ventured out into the “real world”. That’s when it got hard. I found myself working in a warehouse, trying to get to graduate school, and wondering if I had made the right choice for what I wanted to do with my life. Don’t get me wrong, I love music, but it’s a hard road without a lot of reward. Your love of the art form can be quickly burned and ground out of you.
Enter my first system administrator. I’ve always been a geek and had an interest in computers, how they worked. He noticed my interest as he fixed printers, replaced hard drives, and did the usual day to day crap. Through him, the company offered me a modest tech support job, which led to some basic work on our Access application (SQL 7 backend), which then lead to query writing and application design. Suddenly, this former musician was another I.T. geek, with an appetite to learn and a hankering to tinker with things.
What followed was the usual host of job changes, fire-hose drinking sessions, and late nights/long weeks. I toyed around with Oracle, .Net programming, Access (gah), Linux, NT Administration, and a host of other roles and responsibilities. SQL Server always was the glue holding my other work together, the path I managed to hold to throughout the changes. As the years passed, I kept on playing and experimenting. I think the biggest question I kept asking myself was “Is there a better way to do this?” Usually the answer was yes, every once in a while it was no. No matter the answer, I kept learning and building on the knowledge of all these experiences.
Now that I’ve been doing this for 10+ years, I can’t say I’ve seen a typical day. While my current job is your standard operations Database Administrator position, the actual work varies from day to day. Here’s the sort of stuff I find myself doing:
How much of this I do day to day varies. Sometimes I spend the whole day (and more) fighting fires. Some days are all about documentation and research. Overall, I’d say that roughly I spend 50% of my time on the maintenance aspects of my job, with the other 50% filled in with research, planning, and administration (meetings, paperwork, etc.). My week is roughly 40-45 hours, though I confess that I work on keeping it down to that level. You often hear of the horror stories of regular 60 hour work weeks. In being a DBA, I’ve learned the value of having a life outside of SQL Server and manage my time accordingly.
Often I’m asked, “How do you become a DBA?” As you can tell with my story, my path wasn’t well defined or particularly repeatable. I just found one day that I was doing it and liked it. Talking with others in the community (or reading about them, in the case of Mr. Swart’s excellent post), my situation is not unique. I think becoming a DBA is very much an evolution and a career that chooses you, not the other way around.
That being said, there are a few things I tell people who want the gig. The first is to make folks aware that there are actually several different flavors of DBA (I’ll avoid my rant of the broad-brush use of the term “DBA” for some other post on my own blog).
No matter which path you want to take, some of the steps will be the same. For anyone who asks about being a DBA or wanting to learn more about SQL, I also recommend the following books:
After this, get out in the blogosphere. The wonderful thing about the technical community now as opposed to when I got started is the amount of Internet resources available. The best place to start is Tom LaRock’s blogger rankings, where you’ll find an excellent listing of online bloggers focused on SQL server. From there, explore and build up your own list of blogs to follow. The clue is to satisfy your thirst for knowledge.
Also remember, not everything out there is right. Trust, yet verify.
Then, play and learn. Apply your study to gain practical experience. Unfortunately, there’s very few jobs advertised where you can go in cold and learn how to be a DBA. You will need to create your opportunities. Talk to your DBAs, see if they have anything you can help with. Look for a mentor within your own company who can guide you and give you tasks to work on. Track your accomplishments, either through a blog or some other journal. It’s these accomplishments that you can take with you wherever you go. Every interview I’ve been in, the team I’ve interviewed with has cared more about what I’ve done than the SQL trivia I can recite. Do and then show that you’ve done it.
One of my music instructors over the years (a tuba player, don’t hold it against him) said “Music is a means to an end. You never get to the end, but you gotta dig the means.” This is true of any calling, from artistry to hacking assembly code. If you love working with data, your own evolution as a data professional will grow within that. Your own path to being a DBA may not be the same as anyone else, but it will be no less worthwhile and fulfilling, so long as you dig the means.
Thanks out to John for letting me share my thoughts and experiences about being a DBA here. I look forward to other stories from the trenches, and I also want to see the common threads. The SQL Family is drawn together by our experiences and the desire to share them with each other, which is what makes our community so strong. If you liked this, consider putting your own thoughts to paper, sharing with the rest of us, enriching the SQL community.