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The most important DBA skill

The most important skill that a DBA must have isn't

As the sole database administrator for SecureWorks, John Scott follows a simple credo: shut up and listen.

Instead of trying to assert himself as an authority, Scott is learning to solicit feedback from his developers and business users regarding the best way to structure custom applications. Sometimes that means swallowing his pride and letting others take credit. At other times, Scott must diplomatically steer software writers toward more effective solutions.

Atlanta-based SecureWorks has evolved since its inception in 1999, growing from a handful of beta clients to 850 paying customers. The company provides intrusion-detection and security services to banks, credit unions, hospitals and utilities. Much of its software is written in house, putting a premium on effective communication between varying divisions of information technology.

Also, the rapid growth rate is slowly changing the company's entrepreneurial culture and its approach to business. Scott says his role as DBA is to serve as "the glue" that binds networking, application development and operations.

"The DBA once was a fiery, passionate role in which each meeting and break-room exchange shaped the ultimate near-term technical future of the company, sometimes in heated debate. Then, we grew," says Scott, who started with SecureWorks as a UNIX administrator nearly five years ago.

"I've always been a person that would interface with developers and security operations personnel, whether a manager asked me to or not. But when I became database manager two years ago, it wasn't a choice anymore. I have no choice but to communicate effectively when people come to me."

Scott is among a new breed of DBAs whose people skills are as valued as their technical competence. During the high-tech boom, database specialists could land good jobs by flashing the usual clutch of technical certifications, since few companies could afford to be picky.

That dynamic changed radically as the economy slowed and companies began to outsource more work overseas, analysts say. Companies now want database administrators to be more versatile and capable of connecting the dots between networking, application development and Web services.

"Companies are looking for much more specific talent from DBAs. If you have six years' experience in Oracle, maybe four of that needs to be in a particular product area or service within your industry," says David Foote, president of Foote Partners, a New Canaan, Conn.-based IT consulting firm. The company publishes a yearly pay survey of the top certified and non-certified technical skills.

Equally prized by companies are non-technical skills like communication, both verbal and written, says Foote. Even during the downturn, companies showed a willingness to pay competitive salaries to DBAs who could read a business plan and understand the bottom-line ramifications of IT projects.

"That's why it's so difficult to jump back in the job market if you have been out of work for a while, because the job you used to do probably has changed and likely requires you to have more business skills," says Foote.

In fact, some companies won't even interview prospective DBAs who lack well-developed soft skills. SteeleTech Inc., a technology training and consulting firm based in Logansport, Ind., shies away from "cubbie-hole coders" who can't grasp the bigger picture. Says company founder Debbie Fierst: "Our clients appreciate that the people who create the specifications and recommend the trajectory of their projects are the same people who write the code. In reality, this approach cuts down on costs, development time, and problems."

Scott recalls the "career moment" when he realized listening was as important as speaking. Having briefly left SecureWorks for a larger company, Scott realized that the passionate debate common in startups doesn't translate well to more established enterprises. One day, following a particularly spirited exchange, a colleague at that larger company pulled Scott aside and imparted some useful advice.

"He told me to chill out and listen more," says Scott. "Since then, I've learned to realize that when people are critical or trying to change something, that there is always a good business reason."

By building amity with other IT professionals, DBAs help retain key employees, says Patti Hathaway, a Columbus, Ohio-based business consultant specializing in organizational change. She cites research by The Gallup Organization that links employees' length of stay and their productivity to how well they get along with their immediate supervisors.

Also, according to the U.S Department of Labor, 56% of employees will not last more than two years at a job. The cost of employee turnover to companies nationwide is $5 trillion annually. "People don't leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses," says Hathaway.

She urges DBAs and data center managers to pursue receive leadership training along with management training. "Many technical managers are not naturally 'people' persons. Yet training that is transformational -- it changes how they think and perceive -- is as important as transactional training that teaches them how-to skills."

Scott puts it even more succinctly. A DBA, he says, "could either be a catalyst or a barrier. It's often just a matter of protocol (that makes) you one or the other."

About the Author

Gary Kranz is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Virginia.

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