Although technologies have been changing rapidly since the creation of databases, the basic tasks that a database administrator (DBA) has performed have been a stable foundation of professional database design and support. But now NoSQL technologies, the cloud, and new SQL Server features are affecting DBA jobs, tasks, and careers.
Our panel of SQL Server experts share their current experiences in the data profession. They share what they believe you should be working towards now and in the future.
It seems that there’s so much to learn when you are first working as a production DBA. What do you focus on first? How should you prioritize your learning? What things should you automate and measure? What skills are core to your job, no matter how long you’ve been a DBA. These are the things that we think that all production DBAs need to know and continue to build upon.
In our DBA Fundamentals presentation on The Minimalist Guide to Database Administration, Thomas LaRock ( blog | @sqlrockstar )and I (@datachick) discussed the core skills one should have when filling a DBA role. That presentation has been recorded (I will update here when it is posted). I hope you were able to join us or will stop by and watch the recording.
10 Tips for the Minimalist DBA
- Protecting your data is your number one job. I’m betting that no one else in the company has a to-do list to protect the company’s data. Maybe someone at the strategic level, but not to actually ensure it’s available when it needs to be. That means your first job is to ensure backups and recovery are working. Test your backups, test your restores. The first thing I do on new projects is to ask about the backup and recovery configurations. I once found that the production system had not been backed up for more than five years, even though everyone else thought it was backed up daily. Don’t just ask. Go look.
- Don’t waste time alerting yourself of things that don’t require a reaction. You may be tempted to set up alerts so that you get an email and a text message to notify you every time a backup successfully completes. Or when your online monitor finds your database upright and smiling. However, that soon leads to alert blindness. You will miss the real alerts that you need to do something about. Hard drive getting full? Response times approaching ice age times? Those are things you’ll need to be ready to deal with.
- The best DBA is a lazy DBA. Not a sleepy DBA, but a DBA that automates as much as you can. Think of this as a Driven, Lazy DBA (DLDBA). Do you have tasks that take 15 minutes to do, require no human decisions and that you have to do multiple times a week? Those are automation candidates. Be lazy so that you can spend your already overscheduled time on tasks that need your awesome data professional skills.
- You can’t manage what you don’t measure. If you don’t know it exists, or whether it is still up and running, you will be stuck in a perpetual firefighting mode. Tom thinks that firefighters would make great DBAs, but that doesn’t mean that great DBAs are in 24/7 firefighting mode. It’s also good to understand what’s the best way to measure these things. Almost all measurement consumes resources. Do you understand what make sense for each case?
- You need to understand the basics of all kinds of things. Always be learning and looking forward. Just because we picked a few things to focus on doesn’t mean you can ignore all the rest. You need to build your basic literacy of things that aren’t your primary responsibility. Storage basics, database design methods and practices, web services, development tools and methods…yes, there’s a lot. Start with the things that are causing your databases the most pain and work out from there. It’s sometimes a bit overwhelming when you attend a conference or pick up a book and realize how much you just don’t know enough about. In fact, there’s a name for this: the Dunning-Kruger effect. The more you know, the more realize how much you don’t know. The only way to deal with this is to always be learning and looking forward. Sure, there are some people making RAID-loads of money supporting COBOL and IMS systems, but overall staying afraid of new technologies like cloud, NoSQL, BI, and big data is going to keep you blissfully ignorant.
- You must practice everything while your database isn’t burning. It’s not enough to watch a one hour presentation on how backups and restores work. It’s not enough to download a script. You need to get in-depth, hands-on experience doing these things. Not just a one time in a class thing, but practice with real world situations and data. You need to schedule that time to do this. And your boss needs to support this. Then you need to practice with intentional errors. What happens when the time on the server is messed up? What happens when you don’t have the right log files? What do you do if the SAN is down? Where are your restore procedures and checklists documented? You don’t want to be “learning on the job” when your PHB boss is standing beside you and there’s smoke coming out of the server.
- Writing stuff down is good. It’s Agile even. The Agile software method calls for the right amount of documentation. Many read this as “no documentation”, but they are wrong. Yes, sometimes to you can just walk over and ask the person who set up the job why they did something, but on my projects that person has moved on to 6 more teams since I last saw him. I recommend using wikis or SharePoint collaboration areas for these things, so that they are all in the same place and can be accessed with any device. By the way, do you know if your documentation is backed up? Redundantly available? Restores aren’t just for databases.
- The more you install, the more you have to manage and troubleshoot. Install only what you need. Of course, that may mean looking a bit forward for planned uses, but there’s no need to install everything “just in case”. You might even want to look at Server Core as an option, since it has a tiny footprint, requires less management and you can still use your remote GUI tools to manage it.
- Don’t be the one that panics. Practice and documentation mitigate stress and panic. This is where all your laziness, planning, testing and learning pay off. You’ve seen the guy that sits in front of a server, rapidly pulling cables, pushing buttons, running scripts and wizards and has no idea that he’s making things worse. Don’t be that guy. The more calm you are, the better job you’ll do. And the more calm everyone else will be.
- Empathy is a highly-valued trait. For users, for other data professionals, for everyone. Empathy isn’t sympathy or feeling bad for others. It’s about understanding what their pain points are and why they feel the way they do. If you can reflect that empathy, work will be easier and progress towards a common goal can be made. If you come at all issues with a zero-sum game approach, you’re going to have issues getting in the way of doing your job.
We also listed these links as great places to find more information about these skills or to practice them:
- Sampling Database Backups https://www.simple-talk.com/sql/database-administration/statistical-sampling-for-verifying-database-backups/
- Are your Backups Available? http://www.sqlservercentral.com/articles/Administration/areyourdatabasebackupscurrentandavailable/2309/
- SQL Server Virtual Labs https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/sqlserver/learning-center/virtual-labs.aspx
- Windows Azure VMs http://windowsazure.com
- What to Do if Your Database Catches Fire http://thomaslarock.com/2013/11/database-catches-fire/
- SQL Server Troubleshooting http://thomaslarock.com/2013/11/sql-server-troubleshooting-useful-links/
- DBA Survivor http://www.apress.com/9781430227878
What advice did you wish you’d had years ago? What else should a minimalist DBA know about?
What do you think are the minimum skills a person should have before they are allowed to manage a database? Does it matter whether or not it’s a production database? Does it matter how much data is there? What kind of data? Is recovery a goal or a symptom? Does it matter how old you are? Or how old the database is? What is the meaning of all this anyway?
Thomas LaRock ( blog | @sqlrockstar ) and I will be talking about what a Minimalist DBA is, what skills we think they need, and how to ensure that they have them on 3 December at Noon EST for the DBA Fundamentals Virtual Chapter of PASS.
Every profession has a core set of responsibilities that are expected of every practitioner. For anyone that has the letters “DBA” in their job description their job function is a black box to anyone on the outside. "What do you do here?" is a common question for most DBAs.
Some DBAs are a part-time data modelers, SAN admins, VM admins. Sometimes they know all about security, or Active Directory, or .NET. It differs from one shop to another. Whether it is day one or one hundred in your career as a DBA you need to make certain you stay focused on your core duties. If you slip up then you will find out why DBA often stands for Default Blame Acceptor.
Attend this webinar to make sure that no matter what your level of efficiency and laziness you are able to focus on the bare essentials (the minimum) necessary to be a Rockstar DBA."
Karen Lopez is a senior project manager and architect for InfoAdvisors. A frequent speaker at conferences and local user groups, she has 20+ years of experience in project and data management on large, multi-project programs. Karen is a chronic volunteer, a SQL Server MVP, and an active advocate for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and data quality. She isn’t a DBA, but loves to talk and debate about the effectiveness of lazy DBAs. She isn’t sure if the minimalist thing is a strength or an excuse.
Thomas LaRock is a Microsoft Certified Master, a SQL Server MVP, a VMWare vExpert, and a Microsoft Certified Trainer with over 15 years’ experience in the IT industry in various roles such as programmer, developer, analyst, and database administrator. He is also the author of “DBA Survivor: Become a Rock Star DBA” (http://dbasurvivor.com) and has participated in the technical review of several other books.
Currently, Thomas is a Technical Evangelist for Confio Software. This role allows for him to work with a variety of customers to help solve questions regarding database performance tuning and virtualization. Thomas also serves on the Board of Directors for PASS as Vice President of Marketing. You can find out more information about him at his blog: http://thomaslarock.com/resume/.
You can probably expect our usual level of snark, debate, levity and great info for this presentation. Bring your ideas and snark, too. I always ensure that the audience is part of the presentation, so expect more the a slew of bullet points and demos. And even though this is hosted by a SQL Server organization, all we will be talking about will be applicable to multiple platforms. That’s how real enterprise database systems are anyway, right?
You’ll need to register, but it’s free. By the way, if you also register on that site, you’ll become a member of that chapter. And that’s free, too.
This month’s webinar (2PM EDT/11AM PDT) focuses on how DBAs and Data Modelers can collaborate better. You know what it’s like: we both love our data and what databases to purr. But what happens when our points of views differ? Is performance more important that some data quality? Should we all be using the same tools? Who should be calling the shots? Who should be “in charge”? What deliverable should we be preparing?
Our webinars are very interactive. We open the chat to everyone and offer a formal Q&A for asking questions and giving feedback to the panelists. You can even join early to chat with us and we tend to stay about after to have “off the record” follow up conversations. So this isn’t a lecture, but an online community event to chat about what we can do as a team to provide data and database solutions to our organizations.
We are sponsored this month by CA Technologies, the makers of CA ERwin®. Thanks, ERwin team!
You’ll need to pre-register, but it’s free. Do it now. It will be fun.
About the Presentation
We invite you to join us in this monthly DATAVERSITY webinar series, “Big Challenges with Data Modeling” hosted by Karen Lopez. Join Karen and two or more expert panelists each month to discuss their experiences in breaking through these specific data modeling challenges. Hear from experts in the field on how and where they came across these challenges and what resolution they found. Join them in the end for the Q&A portion to ask your own questions on the challenge topic of the month.
This Month’s Panelists
- Yanni Robel, Lead DBA, Database Operations Team at Amazon.com
- Yanni (@yannirobel) manages the Database Operations team at Amazon.com in Seattle, WA. She is a very active Senior Database Administrator as well, leveraging more than a dozen years of experience working with Microsoft SQL Server products and technologies.Yanni specializes in bridging communications between the business, the developers, the sysadmins, and the DBAs to help everyone understand what it is that they depend on. As an active member in the SQL community, previous developer, and parent, Yanni knows the importance of knowing what you don’t know and leveraging the collective knowledge of others and the community to learn and grow. Yanni is pleased to give back to peers, coworkers (past & present), and recruiters by sharing knowledge.
- Javed Mati, Sales Director, Myriad Solutions UK Ltd
- [Bio Pending]
- Paul Agnew
- Paul Agnew is an author, consultant and speaker with more than 20 years experience in the data modeling and data integration fields in many different industries. He is the co-author (With Len Silverston) of The Data Model Resource Book Volume 3: Universal Patterns in Data Modeling, which describes universal data modeling patterns. Mr. Agnew, has been a featured speaker at the prestigious DAMA International conference, and has presented papers on many different aspects of data management field.Paul has extensive, hands-on experience working in many different industries, including financial services, insurance and re-insurance, health care, healthcare informatics, sales and marketing and manufacturing. Paul is an expert in solution architecture, data architecture, data quality, master data management, data warehousing, big data and data governance.
Craig Mullins ( @craigmullins | blog ) has written a post about how data modeling supports metadata management and therefore better IT systems. You may know Craig through his evangelism about DB2 and Database Administration.
So how do you ensure that you are exploiting the metadata you are collecting to the fullest, possible extent? How do you make sure that your metadata is easily accessible and effectively used across your organization? Well, this is where modeling comes in to play. Modeling is important to metadata management.
Effective communication is at the heart of the metadata value proposition. Data managers must be able to interpret the data coming into their organization and then provide a roadmap to everyone else so that they too can reach their destination. Modeling adds value to metadata management much the same way it does for data itself — by serving as a standardized language, easily understood by everyone from business users to application developers to DBAs.
It’s always good to see people on the more technical side of data management (databases and technology) appreciate and support data modeling efforts. You should read his whole post, then leave him a comment.
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