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Rick Heiges

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What is the "Right Stuff" of a successful DBA?

When discussing "How did you become a DBA" with almost anyone, it was an accident.  Nobody seems to go to school to become a DBA.  Most DBAs that I know either were developers for a while and they took over the admin duties of the database server, or they were a system administrator and were tasked with taking charge of a database server.  After reading many of the interviews, I don't recall an instance where someone decided to become a DBA on purpose.

What makes a successful DBA?  Are there common traits or aptitude "markers" that are common among successful DBAs?  If someone comes up to you and aks you how to become a DBA, that do you tell them?  Are they "cut out" to be a DBA?

Well, I don't have the answer.  But let's start the list and see where it goes. 

Responsible - DBAs need to take responsibility for Backups and ensure that a restore of the database is possible.  This can't really occur unless the person is responsible.  Now here's the tricky part.  How do you phrase a question to help someone determine if they are responsible enough?  The question phrased like "Are you responsible?" is not a good question to help someone determine if they really are responsible.  A better way would be to present a scenario of some sort and allow the person to either choose one of the answers or perhaps provide an open-ended response.  Its tougher than you think because the scenario must be something relatively common to everyone and not SQL Server specific (the person isn't a DBA yet). 

This is the first thing that came to mind in developing a scenario-based "responsible" type of question.....

Scenario: You just purchased a new phone that does just about everything.  One of the many questions that you asked was "Can I receive phone calls while using the GPS?".  The salesperson assures you that yes you can.  How do you determine if he is telling the truth?

Option A - You believe him and go about enjoying your new phone.

Option B - On your drive home, you text someone to call you as you activate the GPS feature.

Option C - You drive home. Read the instructions.  Test it out at home before depending upon being able to receive calls while using the GPS.

Option D - Free Form Answer....


Option C would strike me as the "responsible" answer, but a free form response may also be very revealing.


Why am I blogging about this here?  In North Carolina, there is a "Lateral Entry" program for people who want to get into teaching for a second career and don't have the time/resources to return to school to get certified.  This made me think about "How do we get more SQL Server DBAs?" because we will not get them from college  I was thinking about formulating 5-10 questions that could be used to help a person who is interested in becoming a DBA know if they have the "right stuff".  These questions would not necessarily be perfect, but it would at least be a tool.  I'm looking for additional feedback/ideas/scenarios.

 What is the "right stuff" that makes up a successful DBA?

Published Friday, June 3, 2011 10:14 AM by RickHeiges

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jonmcrawford said:

I would think that you would need to ask about work style, one of those "how do you organize your workday" type of questions. They would need to be detail-oriented, and enjoy maintenance tasks, or at least not despise them. "Have you ever created a new process or task? If so, did you continue to maintain it, and did you enjoy doing so?"

You would also need to (for a person who was considering becoming a DBA at least) address weekend/evening/on call work schedules. Not everyone will want to be on all the time, or give up family time.

I purchased Tom LaRock's DBASurvivor for the express purpose of finding out if being a DBA was something I would be interested in, and I think he did a great job of addressing these issues.

June 3, 2011 11:05 AM

RickHeiges said:

Thanks for the feedback. "How do you organize your workday" sounds a lot like an interview question. The second question about maintaining the task is a good one.  I think that reveals more of the nature of the individual.  Thanks!  - Rick...

June 3, 2011 12:16 PM

Matteus said:

I think an organised approach to troubleshooting is essential. In an ideal world there isn't much trouble to shoot but when something goes wrong and people are panicking across an enterprise you need to excude methodical calm and confidence and not get rushed into 'throwing switches' by management in order to try and get a quick fix. ou can severely cripple a SQL installation that way.

Therefore I might ask a question about troubleshooting an auto problem at home, or if the person has a development background some debugging examples that were difficult or in the case of an administrator some kind of server problem (Exchange is always a nice one) where they maybe had to check everything from the client to the network.

What I would be looking for is that they had a good idea where to start, they wrote down everything they changed and backed stuff up before making changes, and they went to get better expertise when appropriate (which a lot of people might see as a sign of weakness).

June 3, 2011 1:19 PM

RickHeiges said:

Matteus - Sounds like a good interview question.  Could we change that into a "scenario" with multiple responses?  Something along the lines of this.... You are at home and get into your car in your garage.  You are on your way to show your car to someone who wants to buy it; the buyer is very serious.  The meeting is in 30 minutes.  You go to start the car up, but nothing happens when you turn the key - No sound at all.  What is your next step?

And the you could have 3 canned responses and a free form option.  Something like this could help uncover "composure" and "confidence"

Good thoughts!  Keep'em coming!

June 3, 2011 1:36 PM

calin said:

as they say, paranoia is a good start:-)

June 3, 2011 3:08 PM

RickHeiges said:

Calin - I agree that a certain level of paranoia is healthy for everyone.  The level may be a little higher for DBAs, but too much and it will get in the way of performing well for your organization.  Can you think of a "Scenario Question" that would reveal a level of paranoia?  or perhaps I am out just to get you?  :-)

June 4, 2011 8:47 AM

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