The Database Artist

This past Friday I journeyed to the local bookstore and picked up a copy of Seth Godin’s  latest book titled “Linchpin“. This book explores the concept of work and how we can become truly valuable. In this book Seth encourages us to become artists; to recognize the difference between doing a job and creating art.

The book offers a simple definition of art: “Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient.” He further explains that the essence of art is not a measurement of a person’s skills or the quality of the end result; but in the gift and change aspect. This prompted me to think about how I and others approach our roles as database professionals.

Majority of us were hired as DBAs (or the many variants of that role) with specific tasks and responsibilities in mind. If asked what we are paid for many of us would have no problem identifying these items. This would be what we define as our “job”. We were hired to protect the confidentiality, integrity and accessibility of the data that is stored within the many databases throughout our companies. We were hired to backup these same databases and restore them when needed. We were hired to maximize and preserve the performance of these databases. We were hired to architect and build data storage systems to which data is efficiently maintained.

In general, the grand majority of us fulfill our job with a high level of skill, effectiveness and consistently. It is what is expected when our employers cut that paycheck with our name on the “pay to the order of” line. It is when we exceed our obligatory fulfillment of duty in a fashion that changes those around us to which we truly become valuable. It is when these activities are sprung from our passion rather than through expectation of financial or positional reciprocation that we discover the artist in ourselves.

Imagine Frank, the DBA, being invited to a Marketing project meeting. It is clear that he has been invited specifically for their understanding of the existing databases and how the data that they need to complete the project can be gleaned. Frank confidently and competently answers their questions. Upon the meeting’s conclusion the Marketing department is satisfied. Frank met their expectations and the project was completed as it was originally planned.

Now Imagine Chuck, the DBA, being invited to the same Marketing project meeting. He too was invited for his understanding of the databases and how the data can be gleaned to complete the project. Chuck confidently and competently answered their questions. In addition, Chuck identifies an overlooked aspect of the project and presents the issue in non-technical terms. The Marketing department is elated. The project, and the business, was changed for the better due to Chuck’s contribution.

What differentiated Frank from Chuck? Chuck regularly takes the time to visit the Marketing department. He gets to know the employees of the department, the tasks that they perform and the challenges that they face. Through his semi-casual conversations with the Marketing Director he learns of the department’s visions and constraints. Not only is Chuck a more knowledgeable DBA because of these practices, he has established a trusting collaborative relationship. While Frank performs his job very well, Chuck masterfully performs his art.

Albert Einstein once said “Try not to become a man of success, rather try to become a man of value.” I believe that this quote expresses the gist of Seth Godin’s message through his excellent book. Are we satisfied with the letters DBA meaning “Database Administrator” or should it be “Database Artist”? In the age of the expendable employee I contend that it is a critical change in title.