I got a question from Ron G asking how to go about changing positions from help desk to DBA. Here’s my thoughts:
Build on what you already know.
If you’re used to working on IBM AIX systems, for example, you’ll want to utilize some of that skillset by working with databases that run on AIX. If you’re used to working on Windows computers (even in just a help desk environment), you want to stay on Windows. Don’t try to learn both an operating system and an application at the same time if you can avoid it, because the faster you can get up to speed on just the database alone, the faster you’ll be able to get paid.
Attend free webinars.
Find third party vendors that support the database you’re trying to learn, and check out their marketing webinars. They’re in the business of helping database administrators learn and grow, and they conduct some great training sessions for free just to get their products in front of you. I’ve done a couple SQL Server training webcasts for Quest Software that cover how to accomplish common DBA chores using the native tools versus how much faster it is with the Quest tools. I don’t know about you, but I learn a lot faster when I’m listening to a real human being talk instead of reading dry text, and webcasts are much more fun.
Join the local database user group.
You’d be surprised how many cities have user groups for databases. Go, and promptly close your mouth, hahaha. Don’t try to contribute, just sit, watch, listen and learn. People will give presentations every month about database topics. You’ll learn a little about databases, but more importantly, you’ll learn about the city’s market for the database you’re trying to learn. Other people will get to know you, and down the road, you’ll find somebody who’s willing to show you the ropes. (Everybody wants to hire junior DBAs.
Volunteer after hours with your DBA.
Talk to the friendliest DBA at your company (or another company in the user group) and tell them you’re interested in learning more. Tell them that you’re willing to show up after hours if they’re doing maintenance and watch & learn. This isn’t going to be an easy sell – with telecommuting these days, a lot of maintenance is done remotely via VPN – but if you’re lucky, you’ll find a taker. At Southern Wine, I had a relationship like this with a junior DBA: whenever I planned after hours maintenance, I’d email him to tell him when it’d take place. If he wanted to join me, we’d meet up at the office that night and I’d explain each of the steps I was doing as I did it. It slowed me down as a DBA, but the payoff came when I wanted to take vacations, because he was already familiar with more systems than he’d ordinarily come across.
Find local database software companies.
Companies all over the US build add-on software for your database platform of choice. They build things like performance monitoring tools, backup software, database utilities, etc., and all of this software needs support. They have a help desk, and they’d love to hire people who want to grow their database experience. You’ll be able to make a quick career change, plus get into a position where you’re learning databases on the job. You can find these companies by Googling for your database platform name plus tools or management, like “SQL Server management” or “SQL Server tools”. Also check the magazines for these (yes, there are database magazines, even!) and look at each of the advertisers to see where they’re located. Call them and ask if they have an office in your city, because some of these companies are pretty big. (Quest has over 3,000 employees all over the globe.)
Avoid consulting companies unless you know another employee there.
I know I’ll get email for this one, but here’s the deal: a lot of shady consulting companies are willing to throw anybody into a position just to make billable hours. They pay you $X per hour, and they bill the client twice as much. Presto, they’re making money off you, and they don’t care whether you know what you’re doing or not. The client won’t find out right away because the consulting company won’t let them talk to you directly – they’ll manage all meetings via a project manager who does all the client interaction. After a few months, when the client figures out that you don’t know what you’re doing, the consulting company can shuffle you off to another project. You won’t learn much (there won’t be another DBA there to help you) and you’ll get demotivated.
Most importantly, be honest.
Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer to something. My official job title at Quest is “SQL Server Domain Expert”, and I get a big chuckle out of that. Yesterday I met with two people for three hours (hi, Eyal and Melanie) and it would take two hands to count the number of times I said, “I don’t know the answer to that.” Granted, my job puts me in the line of fire for some really tough technical questions, but you get the point. Database administrators can’t know everything – today’s databases cover way too much functionality – and that’s okay. Nobody expects you to know everything, but they’ll expect you to know where to find the right answers quickly.
More DBA Career Articles
- Moving from Help Desk to DBA – a reader asked how to do it, and I gave a few ways to get started.
- Development DBA or Production DBA? – job duties are different for these two DBA roles. Developers become one kind of DBA, and network administrators or sysadmins become a different kind. I explain why.
- Recommended Books for DBAs – the books that should be on your shopping list.
- Ask for a List of Servers – DBA candidates need to ask as many questions as they answer during the interview.
- Are you a Junior or Senior DBA? – Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but I explain how to gauge DBA experience by the size of databases you’ve worked with.
- So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star – Part 1 and Part 2 – wanna know what it takes to have “SQL Server Expert” on your business card? I explain.
- Becoming a DBA – my list of articles about database administration as a career.