In a couple of previous posts (Part One and Part Two), I shared some thoughts about starting a career path as a database professional, including some notes from my own journey. In this final segment, I’ll share a few discrete tips that will hopefully be useful to those interested in this field.
Build Your Foundation: You’re going to need some base skills outside the immediate scope of SQL Server. Regardless of what role you pursue (DBA, database developer, or BI engineer), you need to have at least a decent understanding of the technologies that support SQL Server. Get to know how Active Directory works, particularly with respect to users, groups, and authentication. Learn about Windows server architecture, including clustering technology. Spend some time learning about disk configuration, RAID levels, and SAN architecture.
Get Training: Be proactive in training yourself. If your employer won’t provide training, don’t use that as an excuse – remember that you are the one with the most skin in the game in your career development. Take advantage of the training resources available to you, many of which are free (here’s a good list to start with). Get a developer copy (nominal cost) or an evaluation version (free) of SQL Server, and start practicing. Get a couple of books and spend the time reading them – in fact, most beginner SQL Server books will have some examples you can work through to get some good hands-on work with the product.
Get Experience: Spend some time getting your hands dirty with real projects. Even though you won’t find a DBA job without having previous experience, there are ways to build tangible, legitimate, documentable experience even if you’re not working full-time as a database professional:
- Get experience at your current job. Do you have a DBA at your place of work? Spend some time with that person or team, and find some ways you can assist them, even if you’re performing menial tasks during your lunch break. If your place of work doesn’t have a DBA, are there currently any SQL Server instances there? Volunteer to run the backups, or to do a test restore to test your disaster recovery procedures. The key here is getting your foot in the door; prove you can do a good job with small things and you’ll eventually receive more responsibilities.
- Volunteer. There are a lot of organizations that would welcome volunteer labor to assist with their technical needs. Talk to the folks at your kids’ school, local nonprofits, places of worship and the like, and find out if there are any SQL Server-related projects needing some attention. You may even find structured volunteer opportunities, such as GiveCamp (FWIW, I’ve participated in GiveCamp for a couple of years, and it’s a great opportunity). Even though you’re working for free, you’re building experience on legitimate projects which will improve your skills and provide documentable evidence of your work.
Get Involved in the Community: Much has been written about the benefits of being involved in the SQL Server community, and I won’t try to reproduce it all here. Suffice it to say that active involvement with other similarly-minded professionals provides an avenue for learning and advice, and can expose career opportunities not otherwise available to you. Join PASS and take part in their free webcasts. Find a local SQL Server user group and attend regularly. Join Twitter and follow some SQL Server tweeps. The community is open to newcomers, and most venues welcome even the most basic questions for those trying in earnest to learn about SQL Server.
Pay Your Dues. Know up front that you’re not going to walk straight into a DBA job. With hard work and perseverance, you can eventually work your way into a role where you're handling difficult problems and working on cutting-edge projects. To get there, however, you’re going to have to start small, running database backups, changing tapes, and reviewing log files. Note that paying your dues may include some seemingly unrelated tasks (see Build Your Foundation above).
Above all else, keep your chin up - don’t get discouraged by the “Can’t get a job without experience, and can’t get experience without a job” cycle. Put yourself in an employer’s frame of mind: would you want to hand over the keys to the kingdom to an untested, inexperienced rookie? Know that it won’t happen overnight, and that you’ll most likely take a series of small steps rather than a huge leap into this field. Prove yourself worthy with the small stuff, and the big stuff will come in time.
Good luck to you!