Gaining a competitive edge with database monitoring

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I was recently joined by Chris Yates, Senior Vice President, Managing Director of Data and Architecture at Republic Bank for our webinar, Gain the competitive edge with a monitoring tool. The session sparked an insightful conversation around estate monitoring from the perspective of a Senior VP, and I wanted to share some of the key take-aways.

With years and years of experience as first a DBA and now a VP responsible for data and architecture, Chris has a deeply informed and valuable viewpoint about how companies can use database monitoring to gain real business value, as you’ll find from the following Q&A:

How did you create your objectives or success criteria when getting started with database monitoring?

Every company is going to have their own way of doing things, because each company is different. You need to ensure you tailor your objectives and criteria to meet your specific needs. Thinking strategically is key, and I’ll keep using that word strategically because you need to look at it from a bigger picture. For example, when I started here 11 years ago, I was a DBA focused on specific tasks while now in my current role I can see the full strategic picture, and monitoring plays a huge role in that.

Also, strategies change over time, so the objectives we have as a business change alongside them. I think it’s important to keep this in mind with these things. Looking at where we started and where we are today, we have to grow with the industry.

Was there a resistance to change among the teams when implementing monitoring?

I wouldn’t necessarily call it resistance, but change is going to be hard for anybody. Anything that is new obviously requires some time to get used to. I do think it has helped in the collaboration effort though.

We often talk about silos between DBAs and Devs, but I think I’d take it a step further. Look at your infrastructure teams, your networking teams there’s been an age-old persona, where each group says That’s not us it’s not the database’s fault, it’s the network. Or It’s not the network, it’s the developer code.

It’s a repetitive cycle that’s been around for a long time. Having a tool of this nature for monitoring allows others to be involved. If you can partner with these groups and bring them along with you on the journey, you’re setting yourself up for success. That’s what this tool has done for us: it’s brought people closer together by identifying problems and encouraging cross collaboration within teams which is huge. It starts the conversations to bridge those gaps.

Have you found that monitoring has started to foster a relationship of trust between teams?

Absolutely, by being able to see things in real time. Let’s take you and I, for example. I write a piece of code that gets pushed but it performs very poorly. You see this in our monitoring tool and come to tell me, and now it’s a problem shared. I’ve seen the impact my code is having in real time, and together we can make it right. It’s fostering these types of relationship, even when you don’t even know it, which has a lot of benefits.

The other thing we come across is that, traditionally, people will just try and monitor their production environment. So when something’s on fire in production, they know about it before they get a phone call and can push it further down the chain. But if you’re also monitoring pre-production and development environments, you’ve got that visibility before it even touches production, making you more proactive. If you can catch things earlier, you’re only going to benefit from it. Think about all the efficiency gains that you will pick up along the along the way and the ROI. They’re also huge benefits.

If monitoring makes a team more efficient, does that mean you can reduce headcount?

It’s a great question, and the answer is no. From my standpoint, rather than spending time manually monitoring, it frees you up, allowing you to do other things within your role, and even beyond that. I’ve been in the shoes of building something out on your own. I’ve done it, it’s challenging, it takes a lot of time, and takes you away from doing things that can add value.

You can take that time saved and the extra resource to get the team doing things they may not have been able to do previously because they’ve been tied up doing this one specific thing. It allows them to grow. Think about the growth and career development of those people, investing in them to elevate themselves and look at the next challenge or problem to solve. I could see that maybe several years ago implementing monitoring could lead to a decrease in headcount, but I don’t think that’s the case today.

Whether you build or buy a monitoring function, there’s a cost associated with it. How do you try to prove the ROI of a monitoring tool?

There are several different things in play with this question. When you think about the ROI you need to think about how much time you’re spending on your tech stack, and where you’re currently at. If it takes a team of four people to figure out a homegrown solution, that’s four people’s time and four salaries, all going to this one thing.

It’s also hard for a homegrown piece when you have a very large estate and the company continues to grow. It’s going to be very difficult for it to keep up. If you have to get senior team members such as business heads involved, you also need to consider how much time they need to spend answering questions and providing support. You have to attack it with a strategic view, as I alluded to at the very beginning. You can’t focus purely on your one role and what you’re looking to accomplish, you need to consider the vision and view of the whole company.

Just knowing what you’re wanting to accomplish strategically can save you money. You can become more efficient in your job and in your duties, freeing you up to do other things. Being able to deliver a new project is no small feat, and it’s no small cost either. If you can deliver an extra project or two a year because you’ve got the headcount, that’s a huge value addition before we even consider the cost savings.

Again, each company is different. You might have 10, 25 or even 60 projects in your backlog but if you’re trying to maintain a homegrown system and deliver all those other projects, it’s going to be very difficult to make any progress with either.

What do you think of the idea that having a monitoring solution in place gives you a competitive advantage?

It’s definitely an advantage and absolutely enables you to become more proactive. Way back when I first came into the industry and was trying to automate things, John Sansom wrote an article, Good DBAs automate everything, and that really resonated with me. Throughout my career I’ve found this to be true. You want to be proactive and alerted to things that go bump in the night, customizing alerts right out of the gate so you’re not always in that reactive state.

But I think the actual monitoring tool itself goes far beyond that. Being able to see what your estate looks like and what’s in your estate immediately on a user-friendly dashboard in a matter of seconds, I think is key. Then on top of that, there’s just being able to look at what versions you’re actually running inside your company. If you’re running the latest database servers all the way down to older versions from ten years ago, what does that look like? When you get to hundreds of servers across an estate, you may not know what versions you’re running, or even if they’re still running. A monitoring tool enables you to see a huge footprint in a matter of seconds, and that’s hugely important.

It also allows for reporting up and down the chain. We talk about different regulations and auditing but having the information visible upfront, and in present time is a real game. If I came in as an auditor and said I wanted to see XYZ, having instant access to that information versus coming back three hours later goes a long way. It’s definitely very helpful to have the information already upfront and in your hand.

How has the evolution of data privacy and protection impacted your role within the heavily regulated finance sector?

Auditing has definitely increased over time, and you also have regulations like the GDPR and US initiatives now. But what most people don’t think about is when your data footprint grows, and your assets grow within a bank or financial institution, there are different tiers that you have to take into consideration. Also you have SecOps, DevOps, all these different avenues that are coming into play, and it’s ever growing and changing.

What I am thankful for, especially in my role, is the relationship and partnership that an InfoSec team provides to the technology stack. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s challenging because there’s something you just need to get done, and of course you want to do it the right way, but that means going through all the proper channels and processes. This goes back again to that strategic overview, partnering with everybody, and being invested in the other areas outside of your specific role. If you can build those relationships and partnerships along the way, it sets you up for further success.

As a Senior VP, how hands on are you with your monitoring solution day to day?

I use it on and off for different things. I’m blessed to have some great teams and managers in this area. I use it if I’m preparing for an auditing piece, or I’m reporting to executives on performance. I can see that we have 99.7% uptime or look into things like forecasting space or disk usage, for example. Things like that I’ll check in on from time to time as I’m always keen to ensure things are progressing, and that we have plans in place. What you can actually see and expand on is very thought provoking from a leadership level. In short, I definitely still use it, just from a different lens or angle.

The events of the past few years have changed how we collaborate with peers and others in the industry. How has this impacted your role?

We now have people working from home every day and you just don’t get to see colleagues in real life. I don’t know how it is with you, but when I come into the office and see people’s faces, I tear up a little bit because I’m a face-to-face, people person. It will be interesting to see when people start coming back together, how collaboration and communication changes.

The change to remote working has, I believe, forced us to communicate more, and better. I say that, because you can’t just walk over to somebody sitting two desks down and have a conversation, you have to actually make the effort. Personally, it’s difficult sometimes and being able to have those conversations outside the walls definitely helps. There’s a saying that I have adopted and use regularly: We is greater than me. So, when you talk about teams coming together to get stuff done, a lot of this ties into the monitoring piece.

Having a web-based monitoring system kind of levels the playing field in terms of where you are and how you interact as well. We’re talking about toolsets and one thing you could really look at is, how does the tool bring people together?

What is your advice on getting buy-in and budget approval for tools such as monitoring?

I think you have to do your homework. You need to have conversations with a myriad of folks before you bring a proposal to the table. And again, each company and scenario will be different. It entirely depends on your specific situation but lay out a proposal and make sure you understand what ROI looks like, and where efficiencies can be gained. It’s not always easy to have that conversation and I think it goes back to the culture thing. If you have a culture where you’re able to have open and candid conversations that goes a long way.

Something I’ve experienced over the years is having a really clear understanding of the ‘why’ before you approach senior leadership. Have it really clear in your head why you need what it is you’re asking for. Savings are great, but you don’t just wake up one morning and go Hey, we need to monitor. Being able to tell that story is important and is something to think about.

It’s funny how many people I’ve talked to where it’s not about the money at all when they come up with a business case. It’s about increasing uptime, it’s the time gains from scaling with a small team as your estate explodes, because let’s face it, we never get rid of data. Data just accumulates and how do you handle the technical debt? I mean, that could be a whole conversation for another hour, but you compound issues with technical debt, and you’ve got to be able to forecast for that.

The shift to the cloud has been both sudden, and a long time coming. Is that something you found challenging?

Absolutely. From an industry standpoint, in finance we are historically slow adopters. It’s slow moving and you’re never going to be able to operate in the same way as a FinTech right out of the gate. I think over time adoption has increased and as companies dip their toe in the water it will become more of a common thing

But then it’s also about what do you want to do with it? That’s the question you need to continue to ask yourself. Why are we doing this? Why do you need to move to the cloud? What’s it going to do for you? Understanding this is key.

What would you say is your key takeaway from today?

Simplify complexity. See what you can do to simplify the environments that you have and monitor those environments.

Find out more about Redgate’s database monitoring tool, SQL Monitor, and how it can help your organization build a competitive advantage.


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