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One Piece of Advice for the Aspiring Junior DBA

This post is part of the SQL Community Project #DBAJumpStart by John Sansom (Twitter | Blog).

“If you could give a DBA just one piece of advice, what would it be?”

John asked 20 successful and experienced SQL Server professionals this exact question. I share my own thoughts with you below and you can find all our answers together inside DBA JumpStart, a unique collection of inspiring content just for SQL Server DBAs.

Be sure to get your free copy of DBA JumpStart.

Advice for the jr DBA

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John Sansom recently asked me and 19 other bloggers “What’s the one bit of advice you’d give a junior database administrator (DBA) to achieve greater career success?”.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what the other bloggers have to say.  The folks that John hand selected are all top-notch and will, I’m certain, be providing true nuggets of wisdom.

I’m wondering if my advice might be a bit different than what the other bloggers will be giving you.  For some reason, I’ve got it in my mind that you’ll be getting more technically-oriented counsel from many of them.  In my case, I’ve not only spent many years as a hard-core enterprise DBA, but I’ve also made the leap into management and leadership in some very large and successful IT organizations.  And so I thought I would go “off road” a bit compared to others by providing advice about a more decidedly non-technical approach to career growth for the IT technologist.

You could probably make an argument that I’m providing two distinct pieces of advice. But I believe that these two seemingly incongruent thoughts are in fact like threads which are deeply intertwined:

1. Find and grow a strong relationship with the very best mentor you can, and, to…

2. Spend as much time as possible on deliberate practice of your technical skills.

Now, I’ll explain what I mean.

 

Mighty Mentors Cultivate Powerful Protégés

In the first thread, I tell you to find and grow a relationship with the best mentor you can find.  But what does ‘the best mentor’ look like?  Of course, in an IT career, a good mentor is certainly one with above average technical competency.  But with the grow of outstanding, high-quality bloggers, you can read lots of great technical advice on almost a daily basis from the likes of Paul Randal and the team at SQLSkills.com, Brent Ozar and his team, Adam Machanic, Aaron Bertrand, the Microsoft SQLCAT, and many others.  That somewhat lessens the need to have a technical mentor just over the cubical wall.

And in our case, the very best mentors are the ones who provide not just technology wisdom, but wise counsel about office politics, the social fabric of the work, and work/life balance.  So that means you’ll want to identify a friendly person at least a few years more advanced in their career than you who have both a career and personal values that you’d like to emulate.  This might potentially be your current boss.  But in many work environments, a boss in another department might be a better choice since you might want advice about dealing with your boss, deadlines, or other things that are a little tougher for your line manager to advise on impartially.  It might also be a person who’s not a boss at all, but someone with real world experiences that are valuable and applicable to your situation in life.

Some companies have formal mentoring programs.  That’s great. Take advantage of it, if it’s available. But here’s the tricky part – it’s really up to you to plant the seed of a relationship and to cultivate it to fruition. I’ve encountered many people over the years who said “I had a great mentor, but we eventually lost touch”. Maintaining that relationship falls to you, not the mentor.  So make it happen and invest the time and energy into it that it needs to thrive.

One of the things that good mentors do is to help you see your blind spots.  In this case, blind spots mean a couple distinct things.  Your first blind spot might be in terms of promote-ability and social conduct.  For example, we all need someone who likes us enough to say “Better stop bringing the garlic & basil salad in for lunch before the big monthly meeting. No one wants you to open your mouth for the rest of the day”.  IT pros are notorious for being a bit unrefined in the social sphere and so it’s always a significant way to set yourself apart when you get good advice about how to best dress and behave in your current corporate culture.  Another significant blind spot many of us have is our broader “brand”.  Are you known for thoroughness?  Do people say good things about you and your work?  A strong mentor will help you understand your own brand and how the consequences of your actions, which might not be obvious to you, will play out over the coming days and weeks.  Finally, and this is where I bring in the second thread of this advice, your mentor may advise you to burnish your technology skills.

That thought leads me to….

 

Deliberate Practice Leads to Definitive Improvement

When you encounter a deficiency in your skills or an area where you’re strong and want to get even stronger, research has shown an absolute causal link between mindful, deliberate practice and improved performance. In study after study, researchers find that performance-minded professionals, from musicians to managers to top-dollar athletes, who spend time in focused concentration to improve their skills will achieve prodigious capabilities.  It requires many hours and lots of repetition.  But it’s literally a proven fact that practice makes perfect.

And to further tie this back in with your mentor of things both technical and social, you need to practice the soft skills in a mindful way just as you should be practicing your Transact-SQL programming, query turning, and database modeling.  Your mentor will help you identify the areas where you need to improve – then go do it, just like Nike says in their commercials.  “Just do it”.

Too busy fighting fires?  Then make time for practice, just as you should make time to interact with your mentor, preferably at the start of your day before you jump in to your regular workday.  When you probe many top-caliber IT professionals, you’ll find that a surprising large number of them start their day with “quiet time” for study and reflection.  So should you.  And once you make it such a habit that it becomes part of your daily or weekly routine, you’ll find in retrospect that your skills and your career hit a tipping point on the day you got “deliberate” about it.

 

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Many times you get highly technical advice from highly technical people.  And that is 100% useful and valuable to advance your career.  But when you examine the most successful IT people, you’ll usually find that it’s neither their skills nor their knowledge set them apart from everyone else in the IT world.  Other people in their organization are just as skilled and knowledgeable.  It’s almost always a set of well-honed non-technical skills combined with a strong technical talent built through an awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses.  If you enlist a mentor to help you suss out your strengths and weaknesses and who will help you to successfully navigate office politics and combine it with deliberate, mindful practice in both technology and soft skills, you’ll be unstoppable.  Now – go forth and conquer.

 

Let me know what you think. What’s your input? How would you mentor a junior DBA? What would you add to the mix?

I hope to see your response here or on John’s page.

-Kev

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