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What’s the Best Path to Becoming a DBA?

I received a blog comment from a nice chap recently, concerning a subject that I’m often asked about and I wanted to share my thoughts with you here. I only have a finite number of keystrokes left in me after all, so I’m blogging my thoughts and replying to the comment with a link to this post.

Hi John,

I just obtained a degree in Information Systems with a focus on database administration. I wish I can say I learned a ton, but honestly most of what I know has come through self-teaching and the degree is more of just a piece of paper to help me get into the field.

I currently work a tech support job and now that I graduated I would like to push my career forwards. So I guess my question would be is there a particular field you would recommend over anything else to get started? For instance, would I be better served focusing my efforts on extending my knowledge on MS SQL or Oracle? Do you think the best route would be to strongly focus on learning SQL or TSQL and attempting to get a job as a developer to gain experience, or dive right into learning the fundamentals of being a DBA? There are so many different paths I can think of I just can’t decide which would be the best for my future. I have a million questions in my head, but I’ll stick with these for now. I look forward to going through the information here as well, hopefully it can answer some of my questions.

Thanks so much for all of the information here, although I have only scratched the surface it. Overall my biggest question is which direction I should begin moving towards in order to have the best chance of success. Again, I greatly appreciate all of the work you have done here!


Thank you for your email and congratulations on your desire to become a DBA. It’s a wonderful time to be pursuing a career in technology and it always makes my day to hear from readers, whether it’s asking for advice or sharing what you’ve been getting up to as a Data Professional in the community.

You’ve got a million questions that need answering you say? That’s great! We’ve got a Forum packed full of bright folks (both experienced and just starting-out) who are passionate about their craft and love nothing more than discussing tough career questions. It’s a friendly place with a great vibe and I encourage you to take advantage of it.

The Value of a Degree is not Just in the Subject

Congratulations on achieving your degree! It is without a doubt, a great step in the right direction. It shows that you are committed, can see a goal through to completion and can manage your own learning but as you are discovering, it’s not the magic entry key into the job market that we are lead to believe.

It sounds as though your experience was quite similar to my own. I read Computer Science at University and was initially disconcerted by how much self-study and learning I had to do. The University’s role was to provide an environment for learning, to give direction and provide support. The actual learning however, was entirely on me. The responsibility for the success or failure of my degree was irrefutably my own.

Looking back now, I can tell you that the development of this skill (How to learn) has become an essential component of my career as a Data Professional and it must become an essential part of yours if you are to succeed. From what I’m reading, you are already off to a great start.

Which Direction Should I Take For The Best Chance of Success?

Best-Direction-For-A-New-DBAThe one that you are most interested in! Honestly, I assure you this is not a cop-out. It’s just the simple truth. The most successful people in all walks of life invest their time in work that they enjoy. It’s not about whether Clustering, Performance Tuning, PowerShell or T-SQL mastery is more advantageous than the other, it’s about which is right for you.

When it comes to actual Database Administration tasks, mastering DBA fundamentals is naturally more valuable than learning Erlang. Core skills should be exactly that, at the heart of your learning. Things only start to become disorienting and the way forward unclear, when you begin to consider all the ancillary subject areas. The ones that would likely be valuable to obtain(the extent determined by individual circumstance) but are not necessarily essential to success.

For an excellent guide on what you need to know in order to thrive during your early life as DBA see Thomas LaRocks outstanding book DBA Survivor. I recommend this as essential reading to all those considering the path of the DBA.

I appreciate that when you are first starting out the volume of subject matter out there, the view of the learning mountain before you can seem enormous, overwhelming even but that’s okay. It’s all about perspective. You just need to start climbing. The summit or rather reaching it, is immaterial because you can’t actually get there…

Learning for Life

Consider that you cannot possibly learn all that there is to know about technology and take comfort in understanding that this is a remarkably wonderful thing. It means there will always be something more to learn, something new to discover and enjoy. There will always be new skills you can develop and knowledge you can acquire. When it comes to career development, being spoiled for choice is a blessing masquerading as a challenge.

One of the great things about learning is that you will continually find new ways to apply your existing knowledge and skills. Things that you learnt originally for a different purpose or had perhaps since discounted, can often resurface in new and unexpected ways in the future.

Appreciating these truths makes choosing the “best” path from a set of good ones inconsequential. Once you’ve taken care of the core skills, so long as you are moving forward you are heading in the right direction. The right path for you, is your own and is unique to you. It’s the one that you decide to choose. As ambitious Data Professionals we really are able to create and mold the ideal career we want for ourselves.

I’m not trying to be cryptic here. My point is that I know that whatever path you consciously choose forward, it will be a positive step toward becoming a “stronger version of yourself”. There is no right or wrong decision to be made, as all roads that you take consciously will lead you to good things. All you have to do, is make your choice……

Thanks for your message and I wish you the very best of luck…

What do you think folks? What’s the “Best” Direction for a DBA looking to grow?

Further Reading

John Sansom - SQL Server DBA in the UK

John Sansom (Blog | Twitter) is a Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) of SQL Server and publisher of the free SQL community ebook DBA JumpStart, an inspiring collection of advice for Data Professionals, written by 20 SQL Server experts. Awarded the Microsoft Community Contributor(MCC) award, John is a prolific blogger and can be found regularly writing about SQL Server and Professional Development over at www.johnsansom.com.


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