SQLServerCentral Article

An interview with the Exceptional DBA of the Year


Dan McClain, technical lead for the SQL Server team at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, has been voted as the 2008 winner of the Exceptional DBA of the Year Award.  More than 1,000 votes were cast by the SQL Server community for the five finalists in the competition, sponsored by Red Gate Software.

McClain spends his day overseeing the health and performance of more than 4,000 databases on 300+ SQL servers.  He has been working in IT for more than 25 years and with databases for more than 12.  He was nominated by co-worker Jeff Bennett, who cited his leadership in the following areas:

  • implementing new versions of SQL Server;
  • creating fully automated administration scripts for SQL Server 2000 and 2005;
  • designing a web-reporting service that allows developers and management to see SQL Server performance in a dashboard;
  • mentoring co-workers; and
  • continually learning and teaching.

Freelance writer Bob Cramblitt spoke to McClain about the role of the DBA and his approach to the job.

You’ve been elected as Exceptional DBA of the Year by DBAs from around the world.  What is your definition of an exceptional DBA?

An exceptional DBA is a team player who is willing to go the extra mile to accomplish the task and maintain a high level of customer satisfaction.  This is someone you don't hear much about – he or she is rarely mentioned because stuff just works.  His systems are standardized and normal day-to-day tasks are automated, because he took the time to make this happen.  This frees up time to troubleshoot problems and monitor abnormal behavior.  An exceptional DBA is available to junior members of the team and shares knowledge freely.  A broad IT background and good business knowledge are also important.

What does this award mean to you?

This is awesome.  To receive this recognition from my peers is outstanding, and it brings a great deal of pride to me and the team here at Anheuser-Busch.

What is the biggest challenge you face as a DBA?

We’re currently maintaining thousands of databases, so we face many challenges, but my biggest challenge is probably standardization – consistency and reliability.  With such a wide variety of applications using our databases, reining in all the databases into a three-tier environment has taken more than three years.  We still have a lot of developers who try to tell us how to do our jobs to some degree, but in time we have shown we know what's best for our team and the business.

I also provide the infrastructure backbone for our team’s database maintenance process through a single self-maintained script.  Through standardization we have been able to provide reliable systems for our customer’s application.

What do you think are the biggest challenges you’ll face over the next couple of years?

Virtualization of SQL Server will be a big challenge.  We’ll also be seeing more career specialization within the DBA field, as the features of SQL Server improve in the areas of reporting, analysis and integration services.  There’s also the continual challenge of trying to be prepared for the future in this ever-changing world we live in.

Why did you choose a career as a DBA?

I lucked into it.  I started as a programmer in the IBM mid-range systems environment (IBM s/36, AS/400).  When the DBA decided to move on during the dotcom period, my opportunity arrived.  The boss looked at me and said “You have relational database experience, right”?

That started my SQL Server DBA career.  I’ve never looked back and enjoyed almost every minute of it.  A colleague said it best: “Dan loves what he does and it shows in the time he spends sharpening his skills during working and non-working hours; he calls it ‘playing.’”

Who has been your biggest professional influence?

There are two – one is the person who first hired me at Anheuser-Busch.  His name was Luther, and I remember him saying “it’s only a computer, just ones and zeros.”  The other is my friend and ex-coworker Simon, who mentored me early on in my DBA career.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

A mid-range application that is still in use today that I programmed more than 20 years ago.  You don’t typically see that type of longevity for an IT application.  Also, the first thing that our team performs after installing SQL Server is to apply a script that I put together to automate every database maintenance task and metric collection process.  My whole team embraced this and as a result, we have SQL systems that perform administrative tasks in a uniform manner across the enterprise.

In his nomination, Jeff Bennett mentioned the value of your mentoring skills.  What mentoring approach works best for you?

My mentoring style is to allow my team to think things through on their own.  I then ask logical questions that hopefully bring them to the best solution.  As you know, in IT you can have multiple answers to a question.  But usually through this process of mentoring we can come up with the best answer.

Do you think DBAs “don’t get no respect” as Rodney Dangerfield would say?

It’s somewhat true, but we always get the call when the database is not performing well.  This award will certainly help in the respect category.

What do you do away from work?

Play on the computer at home, enjoy sci-fi and ride my Harley.

What kind of beer do you drink?

That’s a rhetorical question, right?  Working for a great beer company like Anheuser-Busch I have so many choices, but I prefer Michelob Light or Budweiser Select.


4.44 (18)




4.44 (18)