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How to Become a Better DBA

Whether you’re just starting out or already a few years in the game, you’re probably wondering how you can become a better DBA.

Here’s what works for me:

1. Learn a Lot…of what you Find Interesting

There are no shortcuts – You have to learn. But it’s a lot easier if you focus on things that you find interesting. 

One of the things I learned over time is that it’s ok not to love something, and trying to force it is just a waste of time. The last brick in the wall of this understanding was a fantastic presentation by Brent Ozar called “Brent’s Crazy Career Challenges”. Among other topics, Brent talked about the way to choose what to focus on. And guess what: Things you hate are not worth focusing on.

As a DBA, you have tons of options to choose from: Database engine, BI, virtualization, Azure, storage, data architecture and so on. And those are only the big topics – inside each one there are tons of sub-topics to focus on. Choose the topics that interest you and start learning. 

Now let’s talk about where to learn, and from what type of media. I call this the day-to-day learning stage:

  1. On the road – Listen to a podcast

  2. Got a spare few minutes or time to pass? Read some blog posts on your PC or Smartphone

  3. Now and then, take an hour off to watch a video

When I’m on the day-to-day learning stage, I juggle around within the boundaries of topics that interest me. When I see a new post/podcast/video that looks interesting, I try to cover it. Of course I don’t expect to cover everything as there’s just too many new materials that come out.

The day-to-day learning stage is extremely important. It builds your knowledge and exposes you to new ways of thinking. But it’s not enough. Now you need to..

2. Challenge Yourself!

While the learning stage will take you forward, the really big jumps in your DBA career will come when you challenge yourself.

Here’s a few examples:

When I was just starting out in IT, my team developed a new major version for the system we were developing and supporting. My manager, who knew I started to love databases, asked me if I wanted to be responsible for writing the migration scripts. I didn’t really know what it meant at the time, but I immediately accepted, and it paid off. I learned tons of new stuff, and in retrospect, it’s the main project that helped me get my first real DBA job.

About a year later, I got into a big project where my role was to write an ETL process for transferring data to a data warehouse. I had to improve my T-SQL skills and learn what an ETL and data warehouse were, efficient data loading techniques, advanced logging and tons of other stuff. I worked more than 60 hours a week for a period, but it was worth it.

A few months ago I delivered my first user group presentation. While preparing for the presentation, I learned everything I could on the Plan Cache, and again, I learned a lot.

Other challenges can be:

  1. Certification: What about becoming an MCSE or an MCSM?

  2. Check if your current data warehouse can benefit from the new Clustered Columnstore Index

  3. Find an open bug and fix it by applying a technique you’ve just learned

  4. Record a tutorial for the community and put it on YouTube

And so on.. Keep your eyes open and jump on the challenge opportunity when it comes.

The important factor is this: Commit to a deadline you can’t bend:

  1. Tell your boss you’ll finish the task in x days

  2. Tell your user group organizer when you will give your presentation

  3. State the deadline on your blog or Twitter

Need help in setting your deadline? This site allows you to define a deadline and risk your money on it. If you don’t meet the deadline, the money is donated to charity organizations you hate. How’s that for an incentive?

During the challenge stage, put the day-to-day learning stage on hold. Focus on the task in stake and learn only what you need in order to get the job done.

During this stage, I find the articles, blogs, videos and podcasts I need in order to get the job done. Sometimes I’ll also grab a book that talks about the subject (I’m less of a books person, but books are very well organized and often explain a subject in a more structured and comprehensive way than other mediums). Also, obviously the amount of learning changes between tasks. I won’t spend a week of learning for a task I can close using an example from Books Online.

And one last fun fact:

Remember we chose to focus on the topics that interest us? Challenges will sometimes make you deal with topics you don’t like. But because you’ll be goal-oriented, you’ll magically have the energies to learn what you need of that hated topic.

So what are your next challenges?

Mine are three two of the ones I stated above (I’ll wait with certifications for now). I’m currently checking if the new Clustered Columnstore Index is a good fit for us and working on a video. Making the video is not as easy as it may sound, but it will be online very soon.




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