Beyond 2012: The Future of Data Management Careers

There are reasons for optimism about the prospects for current and future DBAs.

Let's tie together the last several columns on "2012 Might Really be The End of the World." In this series, I discussed several megatrends in the general IT industry that will have a tremendous impact on the database administration (DBA) profession.  The megatrends include both software-related (virtualization and cheap cloud database services) and hardware-related (SSDs and massively multi-core CPUs).  These technologies have the potential to obviate many of the core competencies of the DBA, with the first two eliminating or lessening the need for server and hardware configuration and provisioning, and the last two diminishing the need for IO tuning and query tuning, respectively.  But those are trends that will take years to reach fruition.  What about the near future?

In actuality, I'm very bullish on the prospects for current and future DBAs.  Here are a few reasons.  First, most companies, even many Fortune 500-sized organizations, aren't getting basic database administration right in the first place.  They can't institutionalize the benefits of basic information management techniques until they've had a few years of solid experience with their data.  These organizations, both great and small, need some time to understand their database before they can exploit their data assets or effectively extract business intelligence from them.  I'm doubtful that immature organizations can leapfrog into the newest technologies without wasting a lot of money, time, and morale.

Second, there aren't enough DBAs, and there won't be for the foreseeable future.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows there are currently 380,000 people working under the title of "database administrator."  (The most recent data I could find was from 2009.) Of course, many more do the work of a DBA without that title.  However, database administration and its variants are considered high-growth.  There's only about a 4 % unemployment rate for DBAs, and demand far outstrips supply.

Third, our higher education system just doesn't get it.  It's not turning out the kind of graduates needed to step immediately into database management professions.  I serve on the curriculum advisory board for two universities (Purdue-Calumet and University of Washington).  Even the most savvy and progressive of universities don't think deeply about data.  They're still focused primarily on algorithms (for the Computer Science department) or requirements and business analysis (for Information Systems majors).  And those who do think about data usually offer, at best, two courses on database management. 

So, a new graduate must spend at least a few years in the trenches before he or she can become an effective part of a data management team.  This effectively winnows out many potential candidates.  It's also given rise to the term "accidental DBA," which we see daily in the SQL Server world on blogs and conference presentations.  The accidental DBA is someone who was given DBA responsibilities with no formal training on the subject.  He or she might be the best SQL developer on the dev team.  Or they might be the most analytical of the business analysts.  Sometimes, they just happen to be the person standing closest to the server rack when the boss says, "We need a volunteer to be a DBA - ah, you!" 

With so many accidental DBAs put in charge of valuable data assets, organizations essentially start the cycle all over again, which goes back to my first point - companies aren't getting even the basics of database administration right.

So, yes - if you're a DBA today, you have some things to learn and some things to worry about in the future.  But you have plenty of time to learn them.  Once you learn new technologies like virtualization and IO tuning with SSDs, you'll be able to leverage those skills into promotions and pay raises.  Because as long as we have "accidental DBAs" coming up from the trenches, large organizations will have to pay a premium for the elite data management professionals who know both the best practices for operational database administration - and  how to take advantage of the newest technologies.