What Counts for a DBA: Being Replaceable

Replaceable is what every employee in every company instinctively strives not to be. Yet, if you're an irreplaceable DBA, meaning that the company couldn't find someone else who could do what you do, then you're not doing a great job. A good DBA is replaceable. I imagine some of you are already reaching for the lighter fluid, about to set the comments section ablaze, but before you destroy a perfectly good Commodore 64, read on…

Everyone is replaceable, ultimately. Anyone, anywhere, in any job, could be sitting at their desk reading this, blissfully unaware that this is to be their last day at work. Morbidly, you could be about to take your terminal breath. Ideally, it will be because another company suddenly offered you a truck full of money to take a new job, forcing you to bid a regretful farewell to your current employer (with barely a "so long suckers!" left wafting in the air as you zip out of the office like the Wile E Coyote wearing two pairs of rocket skates).

I've often wondered what it would be like to be present at the meeting where your former work colleagues discuss your potential replacement. It is perhaps only at this point, as they struggle with the question "What kind of person do we need to replace old Wile?" that you would know your true worth in their eyes.

Of course, this presupposes you need replacing. I've known one or two people whose absence we adequately compensated with a small rock, to keep their old chair from rolling down a slight incline in the floor. On another occasion, we bought a noise-making machine that frequently attracted attention its way, with unpleasant sounds, but never contributed anything worthwhile. These things never actually happened, of course, but you take my point: don't confuse replaceable with expendable.

Likewise, if the term "trained seal" comes up, someone they can teach to follow basic instructions and push buttons in the right order, then the replacement discussion is going to be over quickly.

What, however, if your colleagues decide they'll need a super-specialist to replace you. That's a good thing, right? Well, usually, in my experience, no it is not. It often indicates that no one really knows what you do, or how. A typical example is the "senior" DBA who built a system just before 16-bit computing became all the rage and then settled into a long career managing it. Such systems are often central to the company's operations and the DBA very skilled at what they do, but almost impossible to replace, because the system hasn't evolved, and runs on processes and routines that others no longer understand or recognize.

The only thing you really want to hear, at your replacement discussion, is that they need someone skilled at the fundamentals and adaptable. This means that the person they need understands that their goal is to be an excellent DBA, not a specialist in whatever the-heck the company does. Someone who understands the new versions of SQL Server and can adapt the company's systems to the way things work today, who uses industry standard methods that any other qualified DBA/programmer can understand. More importantly, this person rarely wants to get "pigeon-holed" and so documents and shares the specialized knowledge and responsibilities with their teammates.

Being replaceable doesn't mean being "dime a dozen". The company might need four people to take your place due to the depth of your skills, but still, they could find those replacements and those replacements could step right in using techniques that any decent DBA should know.

It is a tough question to contemplate, but take some time to think about the sort of person that your colleagues would seek to replace you. If you think they would go looking for a "super-specialist" then consider urgently how you can diversify and share your knowledge, and start documenting all the processes you know as if today were your last day, because who knows, it just might be.

Louis Davidson (Guest Editor).