Before we start on the main part of the interview on the topic of being a SQL Server Database Administrator, tell us all a little about yourself.
I’m a father and husband living and working in the South West of the UK. I’ve worked with SQL Server since 1999 looking after all data for a local non-profit company. I am one of two UK Regional Mentors for PASS, I run the SQL South West user group in Exeter and am a moderator on the SQL Server Q+A forum ask.sqlservercentral.com.
Most DBA’s I know like to brag, so go on tell us how big it is and how many instances you have to manage.
Heh, not much to brag about; we have about 30 instances if I hunt out every dev and SQL Express installation. The data sizes are not big either as we are working with data specifically restricted to our region in the UK, our biggest databases are sub 30GB.
Have you found that virtualization has made things easier in terms of managing instances or would you say that it has added complications?
We have some dev and test servers that are virtualised but currently all the production data is on dedicated hardware with direct attached storage so virtualisation hasn’t really had much effect on me and my work.
How would you describe a typical day?
In part it’s pretty standard DBA tasks – checking backups, scheduled jobs, systems are online etc. After that then there is sometimes project work that needs me to switch into systems analyst/developer mode or there may be some upgrade work that I need to plan or complete. We upgrade hardware ever 5 years so there is generally something that is going out of service or coming online. Add to that monitoring of the systems for poor performance and tuning slow running code and it’s a nice variety of activities.
Everybody I speak to seems to have a slightly different path, how did you become a DBA?
I used to work for a Local Council and was very interested in computing so as PC started to replace the mainframe terminals I was curious. I was lucky enough to have one of the first 10 PCs in the Council and started investigating VBA in Excel 5.0. This really grabbed my attention so I started looking for and applying for a job in IT. I got the job titled Information Systems Engineer and was the guy sat closest to the SQL Server. In early 2000 I was on a SQL Server training course and I have effectively been a DBA ever since although I have never had that as my actual job title!
Much like the route into a DBA position the role itself seems quite diverse. How would you define the role of a DBA?
Wow, in my opinion the DBA very often has the proverbial ‘keys to the kingdom’, it is quite possibly the most crucial role in a company. In terms of business continuity there is very little that can stop a company in its tracks as fundamentally as a loss of data. Buildings can be rebuilt or you can relocate, staff can be recruited but if you lose your customer database how would you know who to bill or who to pay? What data could you report on? Within a very few weeks the business would cease to function. These days up-to-date, valid and accessible data is the life blood of a company, the person that ensures it’s availability, security and reliability has to be your most valuable member of staff. A DBA has a duty to make sure that the company can use the data it gathers and creates in the most effective way possible so that the company can survive and thrive.
What advice would you give to someone who would like to become a DBA?
Take the whole job seriously. You need to understand the company and how it does what it does, you need to work with people from all sorts of backgrounds (technical and non-technical) and have a lot of patience when they don’t work the way you do. You will be at the core of the business and liaising with all departments, you need to be a good communicator as well and technically capable of running your SQL Server. I’d wholly recommend reading the “What counts for a DBA” series of blog posts by Louis Davidson (@drsql / http://www.drsql.org) at http://www.simple-talk.com/blogs/author/2155-louis-davidson/ . On a practical side, the first 3 things you need to get sorted out as a DBA are Backups, performance counter collection and security permissions.
Being on call is often a requirement in a DBA role, what precautions have you put in place to make sure things run as smoothly as possible? After all we all love our beauty sleep.
I’m pretty lucky as we are not a 24hr company and system availability is not a requirement at the weekend so there is no on call. Even so I have tools in place to monitor the SQL Servers with alerts configured to email me if/when problems occur. I have lots of regular jobs keeping indexes and statistics in good order. All backups are restored to a test server and have DBCC CHECKDB run against them nightly so I am wholly confident that we don’t have any corruption of data or at the very least I know about it very quickly after it occurs.
What would you say are the 5 most important traits of a DBA?
Again, I’d refer you to Louis’ articles but the top 5 …
Integrity, Curiosity, Tenacity, Ability and Durability.
DBA’s get strange requests all the time, what’s the weirdest thing you have been asked to do?
While working on a calendaring system and explaining the idea of recurring items I was asked if a recurring event could be different for each occurrence. I had a tricky time trying to explain that if each one was different then none of them were actually recurring ….!
What would you say was the most complex project you have worked on so far?
It started out as a simple two or three table database to manage a few assets better than the rather complex spread sheet that was in use but it grew to a pretty impressive asset and facilities management system. We’d never have found anything like it as an off the shelf product and as it was a custom build it has a web interface for some staff and a custom app for others.
Technology is always moving forward which means that administrators have to keep up with it. How do you stay current?
Being involved with the SQL community is a huge benefit here, not specifically because I am a PASS Regional Mentor or a user group leader but simply from being on Twitter, SQL Server forums and attending user groups. The best thing is that it’s free and easy to get involved with.
On Twitter follow the #sqlhelp hashtag and then start following the people that are answering questions there. Check those people’s following lists and follow a few of them too. You’ll soon have a constant stream of jokes, friendly banter and some gems of hints and tips about SQL Server features.
As for SQL Server forums, there are plenty. I’d recommend http://ask.sqlservercenral.com, http://sqlservercentral.com, http://stackoverflow.com as a start. Read the questions being asked and answer them. If you don’t feel ready to answer questions on the forum just read the answers and see if they coincide with what you would have said. You’ll soon be contributing and getting a whole lot more from being an active member of the forum.
User groups in the UK are easy to locate, check the details on http://sqlsouthwest.co.uk/national_ug.htm to find the group nearest to you and get in touch with the user group leader. They will give you details of where and when the next meeting will be and then it’s down to you to go along. I have visited a lot of the user groups in the UK and they are all really welcoming and pleasant meetings to take part in.
There are other free events such as the community day at SQLBits and SQL Relay that I would also recommend as great ways to meet other SQL Server users and learn new things.
What are your ambitions for the rest of the year?
For me 2013 is going to be a big year, SQL South West are running a SQL Saturday in Exeter, the UK user group leaders are organising SQL Relay 2013 and to top it all off I have a job change coming up in March. My ambitions would be to have two successful conferences where we find lots of new people interested in being involved in the SQL community so that user groups grow their numbers and everyone can then share their knowledge and experience.
You’ve mentioned you’re organising a SQL Saturday event, tell us all a little more. How are registrations?
Thanks for your time Jonathan, all the best for the New Year
You can find out more about Jonathan on his blog: http://www.simple-talk.com/blogs/author/13359-jonathan-allen/ He also runs a user group in Exeter which you can find out more about at this link – http://sqlsouthwest.co.uk/
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