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PepsiCo's database head offers DBA career advice

Managers' expectations of DBAs are not always clear-cut. A former head of the IOUG offers up her perspective from both sides.

Uncertain just what people in management really want from their database administrators (DBAs)?

Kimberly Floss knows. One of three managers of database services for PepsiCo, Floss has been on both sides of that discussion in a lengthy career as a DBA and a manager.

In a session entitled "What I Wish DBAs Knew … From a Manager's Perspective" at the recent Collaborate '08 conference in Denver,

she offered tips on some of the skills and steps DBAs can take to make things better not only for their supervisors but for themselves.

"These are things that would make my life easier and that would sure make [my DBAs'] lives easier," said Floss, former president of the Independent Oracle Users Group (IOUG), who now supports Oracle, SQL Server, Teradata and DB2 databases. "If your boss is happy, you're happy; and if your boss is miserable, you're miserable. I wish I could say I did these things for my boss."

For example, tedious as they may be, status reports can go a long way toward demonstrating how much work you do as a DBA.

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"I've spoken with a lot of people who say someone took credit for my work, or my manager doesn't know what I do," Floss told attendees. "People may not know how hard your job is. Status reports are a way to get there. It doesn't have to be PowerPoint, daily or published to the world, but you want to be sure your contributions are known."

It's also important to use terms understandable by businesspeople, she said. It's great if you built four instances, but who made money? What problem did you solve, or what customer or constituency in the business did you help?

Keep track of your time

Whether or not there's a formal time-tracking process in your business, you need to know how long you spent on a project, Floss said. There is no better example of how this can pay off than when a new CIO comes in and decides to compare the current database administration costs to database outsourcing .

"If you don't have these numbers, you're going to have to go get them," Floss said. "If you do it all in a day and your numbers are wrong, you and everyone else could be gone. Make sure you're cost effective compared to other solutions. This drives DBA funding."

Keep training
Managers may send staff out for training, but it's important to remember that it's your career, and you need to manage it. If your company doesn't have budget for training, that doesn't mean your career should stagnate.

"You need to know what classes to take and [what] conferences you should go to when someone asks you," Floss said. "Sometimes, when you get money, you get money for a day. What if I have $10,000 for training and ask, 'Do you have any needs?' and you say 'No'? You could get asked once every three years, but don't blow the opportunity. Know training budgets. They get cut."

Monitor team cohesion
You need to be aware of people who don't pull their weight. Everyone is afraid to talk about it, Floss said, but don't keep it all to yourself.

"From a managerial perspective, I don't want to be paying somebody who is not doing [his] job," she said.

On a related note, it's important to make sure people know what you do. Save your self-evaluation documents. Many people don't like to toot their own horn, Floss said, but it's those that do who get heard.

Some other DBA tips

  • Be proactive. Don't let your manager be blindsided in the hallway by some problem you've been working on. "You'd be surprised at people who are up all night fixing a problem and don't tell anyone," Floss said.
  • Be flexible. Are you willing to pitch in on anything? "My favorite person is the person who will do anything that needs to be done," she said. "It's also great résumé material. You get an opportunity to learn new databases, new operating systems."
  • Find outside interests. Don't let work be your world. "There are some people for whom work is their whole world," Floss said. "We used to love those kinds of people. The problem is when work isn't going so well, you can really tell. It helps to have somewhere else to funnel your energy."
  • Have fun facts ready. It's always a good thing to be able to articulate the size of your environment, whether it's by database management systems, operating systems, gigabytes or terabytes, or the number of instances.
  • Make sure you are recoverable. Recovery is Job 1; make sure you can recover. "There's testing, but what I'm finding now is [that] the fact that it works isn't good enough," Floss said. "Can you do it fast? Does it take three hours or 10 minutes? Because that's system downtime."
  • Highlight SOX vulnerabilities. Try to be friends with SOX auditors. If you know what the exposures are, you can fix them before auditors come in, or you can use SOX as clout to fix them. "It's not a good thing if a SOX auditor comes in and lists 82 problems with your world, and you knew about 80 of them," Floss said.
  • Balance quality versus time to deliver.
  • Understand the applications and provide value to them. "If customers were asked to give anonymous feedback, what would they say?" she asked. "Treat our app development peers as customers. Try to exceed their expectations at times."
  • Sharpen Excel, Word and PowerPoint skills.

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