What Counts For A DBA: Education

There comes a point in many people’s lives where they stop adding new knowledge and become stuck at a point in time. My father-in-law worked with technology for many years with a telecommunications company until he retired. He was an “early adopter” and a proud owner of one of the first satellite dishes, a big screen TV (27 inch!), and a VCR that took at least two people to move. His remote control had as many buttons as the dash of a Boeing 757 and yet he was able to ‘land any aircraft’ with speed and assurance.  As technology moved on, he upgraded too, but the newer, arguably more user-friendly remote, was never quite his bailiwick. He tended to shun new features, sticking as closely as possible to what was familiar, and even then often complaining bitterly about “why they had to change things”. His memory was stuck in the past, no longer having the capability to acquire new information, even if it was similar to what he had known previously.

Likewise, there often comes a point in many a DBA’s career where it feels like enough information has been acquired to do all the tasks a job requires, without having to find room in the brain for any more new technologies. Their company is slow to move on from older versions of SQL Server, and that suits them fine. Even when upgrades do happen, it turns out that most of what they need to so in SLQ Server 2008 can be done with their old SQL Server 2000 code base! In other words, the DBA starts to “coast”. Now, if you happen to be approaching 65 and already own your vacation home on the Riviera, well then good for you. If you are still 30 years from retirement age, coasting to a finish is probably not optimal.
When your backward-looking company fails you, you’ll find that many other companies don’t feel the same way about new technology. No matter how well you might interview, and answer general questions, don’t expect a senior-level position if you are stuck with knowledge from the previous millennium. All DBAs needs to keep themselves educated and ahead of the curve, within their field of expertise. Luckily, the educational opportunities in our field are really quite amazing. The following list, loosely assembled in the order of desirability, describes where you might get, and keep getting, education:
  • College Degree – consider getting one. You will have a little fun and feel simultaneously older and younger while working on it.  
  • Individual Study – books are an essential resource for personal study, though don’t rely on a single source (even if it’s a book I wrote ;)). When designing our first data warehouse, we relied on Kimball Group’s books, with only partial success. After later attending a class and getting some mentoring from an amazing expert, it became obvious what we had done wrong.
  • Blogs – highly unstructured but useful for filling gaps in your knowledge, and learning from other’s experiences
  • Conferences – 2010 and 2011 have seen an explosion in the number and variety of events available, from free single-day training ( e.g. SQL Saturday) to bigger, paid events (SQL Rally, SQL Teach, SQL PASS, Tech Ed, SQL Bits, SQL Solstice) to monthly user group meetings. There will doubtless be an event you can drive to easily, and probably attend for free.
  • Training Classes – Week-long, in-depth training in a specific skill or technology. Often expensive, and obviously the quality of the teacher is important, but these are invaluable in helping improve your working practices. For example, I recently had training from a great SSIS teacher.
  • Direct Mentoring – either working daily with an experienced co-worker or hiring an expert to help your company with a system. Either way, this is the absolute best type of learning; a good mentor can make a huge difference, especially to a fledgling DBA.
  • Teach, Speak, Write, Answer Forum Questions – all of these will more or less force you to read and research to make sure you get it right, because if you don’t your audience will let you know! Also, the presentations, articles, blogs, forum posts and tweets that you produce can be a wonderful advert to prospective employers

With all of these possibilities, many of which are free, there is no excuse to stop learning. The minute you do, you start to fall behind. Then, when the company you’d “settled in to” fails, you’ll be left staring at a “new remote control”, wondering why things had to change. It’s only a short step from there to standing on the side of the street holding a sign that says “Will DBA for Food (SQL Server 2000 Only)”.

Conversely, a manageable amount of time spent on the above activities will keep you up-to-date, make you attractive to prospective employers and, as an added bonus, may well re-enliven your enthusiasm; turning the your job from a day-to-day grind into something more like a hobby you just spend 50 hours a week on (40 for the man, 10 for yourself!)