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When Atlas Stumbles: Lessons for Preventing DBA Burn Out


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You're a database administrator, working hard, never catching up. You keep the databases humming morning, noon and night, weekdays, weekends and holidays.

Or at least you try to. But things happen. And it's not always your fault. Databases crash. You try your best. But sometimes that's not good enough.

Your company grinds to a halt. Sales are lost. It's all on you, and you’re alone.

This type of stress is causing a serious problem in today's business world as the rapid expansion of databases crashes head-long into the 20-year shortage of DBAs we rely on to keep these complicated systems functioning. Today's global businesses need to find the solution to burnout among DBAs who suffer Atlas Syndrome, a feeling the weight of the entire business is on their shoulders.

Studies have shown the amount of information being stored in a database grows three-to-five times its size every three years. The technology supporting these massive data stores is increasingly complicated. Even the types of data are getting more complex. Numbers and letters are joined by video and sounds clips, and spatial data.

What's more, an application explosion means businesses are using their data in new and different ways to gain a competitive advantage. And then there are the security issues, as DBAs are on the front line in the war against data theft.

DBAs make all this work. Without DBAs, your information is at risk, which means your business is at risk. Without DBAs, your business cannot survive, much less thrive in the global economy and the Internet Age.

Yet, 21st century businesses are still plagued by a 20th century problem: The two-decade shortage of DBAs. Simply put, good DBA’s are hard to find, hard to retain and hard to train. Good DBA skills take years to acquire. Given how important database administration is to your business, how do you deal with this 20-year problem? How do you make sure the information your business needs to stay competitive keeps flowing? How do you prevent DBA burnout and turnover?

In my career as a DBA and as the founder of a remote DBA company, there are nine lessons to learn about retaining, nurturing and protecting your DBAs.

Lesson 1: We know it's easier to keep a customer than to find a new one, and the same is true for employees. It’s better for your business and your customers if you keep an employee happy rather than lose them. With the shortage of DBAs in the marketplace and the growing demand, losing that DBA means you may not easily find a replacement. You will most likely have to use a recruitment firm that will only drive up the cost of replacing that lost DBA.

A 2003 workplace survey by CIGNA Behavioral Health called "Worried at Work: Mood and Mindsets in the American Workplace” detailed the extreme costs of turnover. For each employee you lose, the turnover costs range from 120 percent to 200 percent of annual salary. In the case of a DBA, I think we can all agree the cost is even higher.

The survey reports an average new employee's performance takes 13.5 months to reach maximum efficiency. Again, I would suggest it’s even longer for a DBA. It's cheaper and easier to keep a DBA than to hire and train a new one.

Lesson 2: Despite the demand for their skills, DBAs are just like any other employee. They want to know their job is secure. As your company goes through changes like reorganizations and management shakeups, it's important to maintain a secure work environment. If the employees feel their jobs are secure, they are less likely to look elsewhere.

Lesson 3: Money is not everything, but it does help us feed our families. What I have learned in my business practices is that compensation is a bell curve, and you have to choose where you want to be on the curve. That decision will greatly impact your ability to attract and retain talent.

In my businesses, I have always tried to pay in the dead center of the curve. Fifty percent of the companies pay better, and the others pay worse. I then try to provide a work environment that is respectful, challenging and fun.

Lesson 4: Invest in your people. People want to know they work for a company that values them and invests in them. These investments will make them more value in the marketplace and more valuable employees for your business.

This is even more critical when it comes to a highly technical role like a database administrator. Where the technology is constantly changing and evolving. A great way to keep your DBA's skills current and reward them is to let send them to a major user group conference, such as the Independent Oracle Users Group (www.ioug.org,) or the Professional Association of SQL Server (www.sqlpass.org). To retain DBAs, make a serious commitment to training.

Lesson 5: Stress is your biggest enemy. The world of the DBA is an incredibly stressful one and it is even worse in smaller organizations. If you have only one DBA, he or she knows that they alone have to keep the database up and running, or the business will stop running. This causes the Atlas Syndrome, named after the Greek myth of the Titan condemned by Zeus to hold up the heavens on his shoulders.

Providing adequate staffing and opportunities for mentoring can help your DBAs reduce the stress and burden. Companies can also augment their in-house DBA staff by contracting with a remote DBA firm, a new breed of vendor offering database expertise and support. The remote DBA firms, staffed with seasoned database experts, can even offer your in-house DBA mentoring, on-the-job training, and critical support.

Lesson 6: See your employees as people, too. Work is just one part of a person’s life. As an employer, you need to understand and be respectful of the other pressures that affect your employees. Anyone who has teenagers or little ones at home knows exactly what I mean. There are times where the work-life balance must tip towards the family, and there are times when it must tip towards the business. It must be a give-and-take if you want to minimize employee turnover.

Lesson 7: Reward and recognize. Build a reward system that uses positive reinforcement whenever possible. Take time to listen to your employees and let them know you value their opinion. Take time to celebrate your successes. Upgrading your database to the newest version is an excellent time to recognize the contribution your DBAs have made to the company and a great reason to celebrate success.

Lesson 8: Good communication is very important. People are not like mushrooms. You can’t throw them in the dark, pile them high with manure and then wonder why they don’t thrive. The more your DBAs understand the company vision, the more involved and more productive they will be. Employees want to know your vision, and specifically, how they can help the company accomplish it. All employees want to know they make a difference.

Lesson 9: When you lose people, understand why. There are good and bad reasons for losing people. When someone decides to move on, take that opportunity to learn from it. Here are some questions I like to ask when people leave.

  • Why are you leaving?
  • In hindsight, what could we have done differently to have kept you?
  • What were the catalysts that triggered your decision to leave?
  • If you were in my shoes, what would you have done differently?

When you ask these questions, check your ego at the door. Remember, by answering these questions, the departing employee is actually helping you.

The most valuable resource a company has is its people. Surround yourself with great people, and provide them a work environment that is respectful, challenging and fun. Those people will always exceed your greatest expectations – and stick with you.


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