DBA 102: Beyond the basics

Learn how to go beyond the basic roles of a DBA -- these hard and soft skills will help you prove your value to management and ensure your job security.

This is part two of a three-part tip series for the DBA job seeker. Click here to read part one, "Acing the DBA job interview: Getting Back to Basics."

In my first article of this series, "Acing the DBA job interview: Getting Back to Basics," I focused on providing details about how to get a good job as a DBA. The objective of this article is to concentrate on what to do after you get the job.

With the constant pressure to reduce IT costs, DBAs can no longer afford to be viewed as cost center overhead. Instead, DBAs must strive to be recognized and prove their value to the organization. This article will focus on both the technical (hard) and non-technical (soft) skills you will need to survive as a DBA. I will also provide suggestions on how to deal with management and ensure job security by consistently adding bottom-line value. So get ready to step out of the traditional DBA role, go beyond the basic database administration tasks, and prove yourself as an invaluable corporate asset.

Hard (technical) skills

Analysts and experts agree that the future role of the DBA will be less focused on traditional maintenance (backups, tuning, space management, patching, etc.) and more focused on specialty areas (compliance, applications, business intelligence, high availability, virtualization, etc.). If you want to succeed as a dba, you must go beyond the administration basics and strive to learn one or more of these specialty areas.

Evolving relational database technologies will influence the technical skills you will need to succeed as a DBA. There are two predominant trends that are changing the face of database administration:

  1. Increased functionality: The functionality (and often the complexity) of the software expands significantly with each new release. DBAs are constantly faced with a myriad of new features and technologies to learn. DBAs must welcome these changes and embrace any opportunity to learn something new.
  2. Increased automation: The simple, administrative and repeatable tasks of the traditional DBA are becoming more automated as database vendors continually try to create and market the "self-managing" or "self-healing" database. Toolsets like Oracle's OEM are becoming more robust and new features like self-managing tablespaces, undo segments, automated backups, etc. are making physical database maintenance more automatic.

Does automation mean that all DBAs should start looking for a new career? Definitely not! While automation and functionality may be forcing the typical DBA out of his/her comfort zone, the expanding technologies will ensure plenty of good work and job security for the foreseeable future. Do not fear new features, but rather embrace them! Technological advances are often more complex and difficult to manage (take 10g RAC as a good example) and actually force a greater dependence on highly skilled DBAs.

Since highly skilled DBAs will always be in demand, all DBAs should strive to stay ahead of the technology curve. There are many ways to expand your technical knowledge and add value, and you can and should start right now! The key, of course, is to be proactive and not wait until it is too late. Some specialized areas you may want to focus on now include:

  • Compliance management (Sarbanes-Oxley, auditing, security, etc.): Compliancy issues will continue to dominate public businesses and are even now spreading into the private sector. Volunteer to assist with audits -- it will be a great learning experience (not to mention it will look good on your resume).
  • Best practice frameworks (IT Service Management, ITIL v3, ISO 20000, etc.): ITIL is becoming the most widely accepted framework. ITIL focuses on IT service delivery and support including the help desk, incident management, change management, problem management and service-level management. These are all areas that are relative to the DBA and must be embraced. If you haven't heard of ITIL already, I guarantee that you will soon. Get a head start by researching ITIL (there is a ton of information out there), reading the literature and ultimately getting ITIL Foundations certified (another good resume builder).
  • ERP application skills (Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP, JD Edwards, etc): If your organization is using an ERP package, take advantage and learn it. While you may not be expected to become a functional expert (i.e., accountant), you must be able to support the application from a software or technical standpoint.
  • Data management (data modeling, archiving, data mining, retention strategies, consolidation, etc): The amount of data in organizations is growing rapidly as is the business dependency on it. This is great news for the DBA. If you can, get involved in any development or data-related strategies in your organization.
  • Hardware and storage (disk farms, storage area networks (SANs), grid computing, virtualization, etc): Stay on top of new technologies in hardware and storage. SANs may be the big thing now, but the industry is already buzzing about the future of the virtual database.
  • High-availability solutions (standby, failover, clustering, RAC (Real Application Clusters), etc): Whether it's Microsoft clustering or Oracle 10g RAC, high availability is an absolute must for growing organizations. These skills also require an advanced understanding of the operating system and disk structures.
  • "The next big thing": As I write this, there may already be a new technology or trend developing out there. The key to staying on top of technology is to read about it! Don't let those free trade magazines pile up on your desk unread. Use whatever free time you have to search the Internet for white papers, tips, articles, blogs, etc. There are plenty of great sites to start with and chances are that you are already on one of them. Remember, the secret to success is to find out where people are going, and get there first!

Soft (non-technical) skills

Soft skills are also of great importance for what lies ahead for the future DBA. Below are some of the soft skills that you will need to succeed as a DBA.

  • Communication skills: Everyone preaches about the importance of communication, both verbal and written, and justly so. As a DBA you are expected to be a professional in everything you do, in everything you say, and in everything you write. While basic communication skills are a must, a DBA must also be able to explain difficult technical concepts in easy-to-understand layman's terms. This takes years of practice and effort and is a true skill that few DBAs (myself included) have yet to fully master.
  • Problem-solving skills: As most DBAs will tell you, most problems originate as "database" issues in the eyes of the end user. Consider the database guilty until proven innocent. A DBA must have the ability to dig into technical issues that nine times out of 10 end up being related to the application code, network, Web server, hardware or operating system. Root cause analysis, corrective actions and future prevention are key areas to focus on for every problem.
  • Stress management: If being on call 24x7 is not stressful enough, you must often deal with unreasonable and irate customers and/or users. Work on stress relief techniques and always remember to never take things personally. You must remain professional, calm and collected at all times, no matter what the situation.
  • People skills: Listen to your customers and end users, make sure you understand their issues, communicate that you understand them, take care of their issues promptly, and most importantly, leave them feeling like you really care for them. Be professional and polite in all your interactions, no matter how difficult the situation may seem.
  • Time management: A DBA absolutely must be able to multitask. On any given day, a DBA will be asked to work on several priority projects, handle several problem calls, assist with development efforts, plan for an upgrade, research new technology, and still find time to perform preventative maintenance on the database.

Dealing with management

If you are lucky enough to have a boss or manager that actually understands what you do, then consider yourself blessed. However, most DBAs will complain that they are not understood, that they feel undervalued and even unappreciated.

"Technology is ruled by two types of people: those who manage what they do not understand, and those who understand what they do not manage." -- Mike Trout

Having a strong database background myself and having managed dozens of DBAs for over 15 years now, I can authoritatively say this -- if you feel your manager does not understand you, chances are you need look no further than a mirror to place blame. In other words, if your manager does not understand you or the importance of your role, then you (and only you) need to change this. When was the last time you actually communicated with your boss? Do you provide weekly or even daily status reports? Do you explain difficult terms in easily understandable terminology? Do you provide charts and graphs showing how the databases are performing? Can you speak intelligently about the financial or business impact of downtime or poor performance?

My simple advice is to quit whining about your boss not appreciating you and start taking responsibility to change your situation. Here are some tips that should help.

  1. Communicate in business terms

    In order to succeed with management as a DBA you must be able to explain difficult concepts in terms that most management will understand. Namely, you must be able to speak about technical terms in business terms. All managers and executives are concerned with budgets and the bottom-line financials of the organization. The higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more chance you will find that the company financials will directly impact an executive's personal financials. Talk about hitting them where it hurts! You can take advantage of this fact by simply communicating your technical achievements or arguments in financial terms. The following table lists some examples of typical status statements with the same statement revised for upper management:

    Typical DBA statement (technical) Revised DBA statement (business)
    By increasing the database buffers, I have lowered the physical disk reads by 15% and decreased read times by 10%. Through my extensive tuning efforts, I have been able to successfully improve performance, increase customer satisfaction by 25%, and avoid the need to add hardware, thus saving the company at least $22K!
    I have tuned and tested the disaster recovery process. Through my backup and recovery tuning efforts, I have decreased the average time to recovery from six hours to two hours, thus saving a potential four hours of downtime and the lost revenue of $50K!
    We must upgrade the database or the vendor will no longer support us. Without support, we run the risk of taking an unexpected and extended outage should we run into a newly discovered bug. A 48+ hour outage could cost the business over $400K in lost or unrealized revenue and cause irreversible damage to our reputation!

  2. Know and learn the business

    In order to provide value statements or business cases like those above, you must actually understand the business and the financial impacts of the services you provide. Just as you expect and want your manager to understand the technology that concerns you, so in return your manager wants and expects you to understand the business. By showing an interest in the business and the bottom line, your will quickly gain the respect of your manager. Speak in terms that are important to managers and managers will quickly recognize the value you are adding for the organization.

  3. Provide data to back up your statements

    Most managers have a "show me" attitude when it comes to technical or financial claims. This is not because they are from Missouri, but rather because it is their job to be skeptical and inquisitive. In order to show management the benefit of what you have done or what you are doing, you must be able to show them the state of affairs before your efforts. It isn't enough to claim that you saved the company thousands of dollars, that you prevented downtime, or even improved overall system availability, you must be able to prove it. While documentation and measurement data is important, know that most managers will only understand pictures, so charts and graphs are the best way to present your conclusions.

  4. Hone your presentation skills

    Once you have your data, understand the business impact and can prove financial benefits, it is time to present your business case to management. Do not take this task lightly! Being able to comfortably present in front of peers and especially in front of executives is a necessary skill that everybody in IT should possess. If you find that you are uncomfortable presenting, my best advice is to prepare, practice and rehearse in advance. I also strongly encourage you to take a course such as Dale Carnegie or join a club such as ToastMasters as these are invaluable ways to overcome the fear of presenting.

Conclusion

A lot has been written in the DBA blogs recently about how DBAs feel unappreciated and misunderstood. It seems that many DBAs are falling into the rut of career regret and/or falling into a self-pity mode. Don't let yourself become that regretful and bitter DBA! Bitter DBAs tend to spread their bitterness among others and quickly become the "virus" of the IT organization. Rather than becoming a virus, stay positive and focus instead on improving your current situation. Sharpen your technical and soft skills, expand your knowledge into new areas and learn how to deal with management. Embrace change instead of resisting it. If you follow the guidelines presented here and take responsibility for your own future, you will soon reap the rewards and become the invaluable and respected employee that most of us want to be.

With that said, I will leave you to reflect with this one final thought:

"We cannot become what we need to be, remaining what we are." -- Max Depree

About the author

Michael Hillenbrand directs and manages the AES Select Outsourcing group at Access Enterprise Solutions. As director, Michael is responsible for defining processes and procedures, assisting with sales and marketing efforts, defining and governing service levels, and ensuring continued quality and success for AES Select customers.

Michael began his career as a DBA with US Steel then moved on to manage the corporate Oracle DBA team at Alcoa. For the last 10 years Michael has been leading remote support efforts. Having been in a leadership role throughout most of his 20+ year career, Michael has hired and managed over 50 DBAs and supported well over 100 clients. Michael's specialties include best practices (ITIL Foundations Certified), quality improvement and daily operations. Michael also has a strong background in database support, including Oracle (OCP Certified), SQL Server and DB2.

This was first published in June 2007

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