Do You Have What it Takes to Be a World-Class DBA? 

In today’s data-driven world, it’s hard to find a company that doesn’t take its data management and protection seriously. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been quoted as saying that every 2 days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. This statistic alone highlights the importance and need for top notch database administrators (DBAs) to manage the fast-growing data landscape among today’s modern heterogeneous database environment.

DBAs must possess the skills and knowledge to direct and perform all activities related to maintaining a successful database environment so information is available at a moment’s notice. This may include designing, implementing, and maintaining the database system; establishing policies and procedures pertaining to the management, security, maintenance, and use of the database management system; and training employees in database management and operations, all while staying up-to-date on the latest design approaches, managing multiple database platforms, and leveraging the newest technologies to ensure optimal database performance.

Add to this today’s organizational shift to the cloud, and DBAs are being tasked with managing databases both on-premise and in the cloud, resulting in DBAs everywhere finding themselves tasked with migrating and managing hybrid database environments to power their organizations’ business-critical applications. Fortunately, to combat the complexity, DBAs have access to an entirely new portfolio of software tools that can now transform historically mundane, time-consuming tasks into a one- or two-click process that manages, protects, and ensures optimal performance of mission-critical workloads across multi-database environments from a simple common view.

The role of the DBA has changed drastically over the past 30 years as organizations look to leverage the industry’s fast moving technology advancements to gain a business advantage.  So what does it take to become the world-class DBA candidate that organizations everywhere are looking to hire? To answer this, let’s first take a look back at how the position has evolved over time.

A History of the DBA Role

1970s & 1980s—Inception of the Role

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed some of the technology industry’s most recognizable milestones and world events. The Microsoft Corp. was founded in 1975, Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak created the first Apple computer in 1976, and Sally Ride became the first female astronaut in space in 1983. This was also the era of the DBA role. 

The 1970s and 1980s represented a far simpler time for the DBA. The internet and cloud computing didn’t exist yet. DBAs typically focused on one type of database and it probably ran on the mainframe! Data storage devices typically came in the form of paper tape and punched cards. These now-archaic data storage methods were superseded by direct access storage devices, or DASD. The most common and recognizable DASD option of the 1980s was the refrigerator-sized 3380 disks variety, which contained only 1.2GB of storage at the astronomical cost of more than $200,000. As a reference point, you can buy a 1TB hard drive for just $50 today.

The primary responsibilities of DBAs in this era were pretty similar to those of today: performance and availability of the database, since database performance and availability largely determines the application’s performance and availability, which is what application users will notice.  In this era, DBAs had to be much more cognizant of the hardware, storage, and servers that were running the databases they managed. 

1990s—DBA Proliferation

The early 1990s saw the evolution of off-the-shelf applications and, consequently, the rise of the database’s importance. The commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) application evolution, for example, was directly linked to relational databases such as IBM DB2, and Oracle UNIX that roamed the corporate IT landscape.

At the mid-decade mark, Microsoft SQL Server was launched as the relational database engine on Windows, which added even more diversity to the relational database world primarily dominated by Oracle, IBM, and Sybase. With the emergence of SQL Server, the responsibility of the DBA grew, as did the number of solutions and tools available to help manage day-to-day database operations. As DBAs began to leverage these tools, they happily realized a task that would normally take an entire day’s work could now be completed in a mere few hours.

Then came the rise of the World Wide Web in the late 1990s, which brought with it a focus on web and app servers capable of managing multiple clients from the internet that communicated with back-end databases. The internet era demanded a new type of DBA capable of corralling dozens of databases and applications, and the days of the single-database DBA were officially over.

2000s—A New Type of Database

The turn of the century saw the maturation and scale of SQL Server on Windows, along with an explosion of the open source operating system, Linux. In fact, Linux became so widely deployed that Oracle, Sybase, and DB2 all quickly moved to support it, forcing DBAs to learn yet another operating system.

The mid-2000s then saw the emergence of another member of the database family: the non-relational database. To overcome the limitations of relational databases in dealing with unstructured data, the emergence of non-relational, or NoSQL, database vendors spread like wildfire in the mid-2000s.

While non-relational databases looked to be a great option for big data demands, it also brought with it a new set of challenges for the DBA. A company could have dozens or potentially hundreds of databases that a DBA was responsible for managing at any given time. Each of these databases, Oracle, MySQL, DB2, SQL Server, for example, could be running on different operating systems, adding even more complexity. To keep up with this, DBAs were forced to sharpen their skill sets to not only be well-versed in a variety of database “languages” but also in the wide variety of software tools available to help monitor, manage, and keep this heterogeneous database environment up and running.

DBAs have always adapted to their ever-changing environments. Adaptability and resourcefulness are both qualities required for the job that set apart the good from the great.

Becoming a Top-Notch DBA Today

New England College expects the demand for DBAs to increase 31% between 2010 and 2020. With DBAs being one of the most sought-after positions in today’s IT job market, it’s no surprise that competition among potential candidates is fierce. So what does it take to be a stand-out DBA these days? 

  • Be “flavor flexible”: With this ever-evolving industry, applicants must be flexible and adopt a swivel-chair mentality. This means that a top-notch DBA possesses the ability to swiftly move from one type of database to the other, without tripping up or stuttering. Top DBAs are well-versed in each “flavor,” whether it is relational, non-relational, or even cloud-based. So how do DBAs become “flavor flexible?” Through research; study up on the history of databases. Know the ins and outs, and always be prepared for the worst.
  • Learn to be multilingual: Microsoft, Oracle, and other providers have completely different “SQL dialects” for programming within databases. Becoming fluent in each of these variations will set you apart from other candidates and allow DBAs to do their job with greater ease and fluidity.
  • Demonstrate poise under pressure: This job is demanding. Period. There will be countless high-pressure situations where future DBAs will be required to handle the most crucial of your responsibilities while working against the clock. They must be able to go undetected and make updates to databases without flaw. The most successful DBAs are precise and keep their composure when they’re under significant pressure.
  • Know the tools of the trade: It takes more than an individual DBA’s hard work to keep up with demands of the job today, and resources and tools are out there to help such as database monitoring, automation, replication, and backup and recovery. Today’s rock-star DBA knows that these tasks should no longer be done manually and stays on top of the latest world-class tools available to make their jobs better and ultimately positively impact today’s data-driven business.

In order to stand out and ahead of the curve, a DBA applicant must acquire a specific set of skills, stay acclimated with the ever-changing industry landscape, and possess a natural poise when the going gets tough. These qualities are not only important but are make-or-break characteristics when looking to land a position as a DBA in today’s fast-paced, data-centric business climate.