Getting Into a Database Administrator Position

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.
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38 Comments. Leave new

  • Brent you Rock,dude your a wealth of Infomation. I really appreciate this blog. There is now Light at the end of my IT tunnel.

  • I’d like to pick your brain on certs, what do you think about Microsoft MCTS SQL 2005, and MCITP ADM Certs?? Would this help me get my foot in the door if I had one of these certs under my belt?

  • I’m a little biased on that one, but hey, I’m a college dropout. No, I would not bother with a cert without having the experience. There are two kinds of shops where you might get hired: shops with no DBA, and shops with at least one other DBA. If the shop has no other DBAs, it might get you hired, but you’ll be in way over your head and you’ll have nobody to ask for help.

    If the shop does have other DBAs, they’ll see through the cert and probably think less of you for it. I had several candidates like that – had the cert and no experience – and I looked at them as cheaters, basically. If the person has never used the knowledge at their job, then they’ve already lost most of what they learned in the boot camps and classes.

    Sad, but true.

  • i gotta say that i value experience way over certs. i’m fortunate enough to have both (7+ years as a DBA, MCTS, MCITP as well) and the experience has paid off way more than the certs. i didn’t even graduate from high school, no college, and i am a successful DBA at a very well known media organization. so high school and / or college do not necessarily mean anything to me when i interview candidates. i really look for how focused they are and what sorts of work habits they have, then check their DBA skills and experience level.

    thing about the experience is it takes time and lots of dedication to really learn good DBA habits. this means that your personal life may suffer for a while but just forever. i was also fortunate enough to have a great mentor during the first year of making the transition to jr DBA from a mid level windows server administrator.

    the payoffs of DBA are amazing i must say. salary ranges are higher than almost any IT position. at some point in your career, perhaps after 2 or 3 years, you get to decide what route you want to sort of specialize in, be it data warehousing (etl etc), data architecting, development, sysadmin dba, .net developer/dba, etc… so it keeps you evolving / moving up through the IT organizational structure as well as with technology.

    i agree with Brent tho, i learned only a handful of new skills in DBA bootcamp. the rest I gained with blood sweat and tears experience.

    chad

  • I disagree that “everyone hires Junior DBAs” as that has not been my experience. I had a call today about a SQL Server position and since most of my work experience is as a SQL Developer I was put in that box instead of DBA. Seems like no one wants a junior person handling the database (< 2 years).

  • It is completely true what you say about some consulting companies being shady. I got caught up in one very early in my career, but fortunately I figured it out pretty quickly and moved on.

  • I just spent about an hour and a 1/2 completely absorbed with everything you’ve had to offer on becoming a DBA. Thanks for all the insight and info. I’m about a month into my grail quest and you just confirmed I’m on the right path. Now I need to stand up and stretch.

  • Thanks Brento, It was so motivate for me i am struggling to Become DBA. I did my B.s in Computer science and Masters in Software Engineering, recently gave my Microsoft Certification (MCTS 2005). But still i could find any opportunity. could you tell me how to find Local user database group and Volunteer DBA…

  • Hari – go to http://sqlpass.org and go through the list of chapters. If you don’t find a local one, go to your local computer shops and ask where the local user groups meet. Hopefully you’ll be able to meet other computer folks there who have worked with SQL before.

  • Thanks for the suggestion. I had registered in my Local User Group meet(NJ SQL Server User Group).. Hope i will get any luck… and i will be touch with you Thanks.

  • Brent, I was thinking about going back to school to get my Master’s in MIS. Do you think this would help in getting a database related position?

  • Alpha100 – no, that won’t help get into your first DBA position.

  • Do you think getting a Master’s degree in Database Management would help? Or should I just go for a certification? If so what type?

  • For 10 years now, I have been a 1 person development team, meaning I am the business analyst, developer and development DBA. But my main responsibility is as a developer. I have been one since 1996 and currently using .NET. I work for a health care institution developing web-based apps with ORACLE and/or SQL Server back-end. I would like to pursue a full-time DBA job, preferrably prod DBA but I’m a little intimidated because of the learning curve (just like what you said in one of your article). So if I can find a FT dev DBA position, that’ll be fine. The problem is how to get started. I’m already a Senior Application Systems Analyst and am afraid that I will need to get a pay cut if I get a Junior DBA position. Any advise would be greatly appreciated.

  • Jojo – by this point of your career, your advantage is your network. You have hopefully built up an address book of people who know you’re reliable and a hard worker. It’s time to start making phone calls and visits to folks who can help you get into a DBA position. Your network of contacts should give you a big leg up over the strangers off the street. The best jobs are never advertised – they go to people like you who make phone calls. Hope that helps!

  • Thanks Brent. Btw, I’m a big fan and use of TOAD from Quest. Native Oracle tools doesn’t even come close to the user-friendliness of TOAD.

  • hi brent,

    i have been working in a bank for almost 18 months.but as it is a small organization,i m feeling like a big fish in a small pond.i m not saying that i m the best and rest of them r not good.its like i want to learn more.in here i m all by myself.there is no one train me.there is no competition.so is it the right time to leave this job.what can i do from my side in order to boost my chances of getting a good job?

  • i created a maintanence plan for rebuilding index.
    but today one of my tables index got blocked.i mean the spid to rebuild that index got suspended.becoz of that my application was giving constant errors whenever it tried to access that table.
    so (a) query got a request timeout
    and (b) succeeded

    a.select * from table.
    b.select * from table with nolocks.

    i tried lot of things but i failed

    1. drop index
    2. disable index
    3. delete index
    4. rebuild and reorganise

    then ultimately i killed that process.and bingo it worked.

    it was normal process to rebuild index and command field was ALTER INDEX

    my question is

    HAVE I DONE THE RIGHT THING ?
    WAS THERE ANY OTHER SOLUTION ?
    I CHECKED THE LOG FILES OF THAT MAINTAINENCE PLAN.AND IT DIDNT SHOWED ME ANY ERROR.
    WHY?

  • Hi, Azad. This blog post is about becoming a DBA. Just for future guidance, your best bet is to find a place that’s an active question & answer forum for your particular topic in order to get the best help. Leaving comments on a random blog post might take a lot longer to get the attention you need. I’d recommend checking out http://serverfault.com for questions about SQL Server maintenance.

    For this one question, my guess is that you’re using SQL Server Standard Edition, which locks tables while it’s rebuilding indexes. If you need the indexes to remain online while they’re rebuilt, you’ll need to upgrade to SQL Server Enterprise Edition. Another solution would be to only rebuild indexes during maintenance windows.

    Hope that helps!

  • thanks brent
    for a reply
    but i was underpressure.though it will never haapen again

  • hi brent,

    i had a interview tomm.as i was busy i told them to postpone it.but now they have scheduled a telephonic interview tomm.is it good or bad.or should i go for face to face

    • If there’s any way possible, you should go for a face-to-face. The more personal and personable you are, the better your chances at getting the job. Hope that helps!

  • Hi Brent,

    Your advise is spot on, I’m currently working as a infrastructure technician but helping out on a couple of DB applications with a senior DBA in our company. The experience that I’m gaining is great and it really goes a long way when you’re doing your MCITP and building on some practical experience. I hope that my SQL kung-fu will be just as strong as yours one day.

    Keep up the great work

  • Thanks man!! I’ll try what I just read.

  • Hi Brent!
    I’m learning a lot of stuff the more I keep visiting your site. You are hope to me.
    This article brings me back because I did come from a help desk position. I was hired as a Jr. DBA for the same company, different division back in 2007. I was expecting to work on SQL Server only but they put me to work with Oracle and Informix as well. I guess I must’ve misread the job posting. It is difficult to learn both a new OS and a database. Plus, there was no one to mentor me on Informix. I can relate very much to this article.
    And so after 3 years, I discovered that I really like SQL Server and hope to focus more on it in the future, career-wise. Thanks to folks like you.

  • Hi Brent,

    This is very helpful and succinct. I came across your blog while googling for DBA books recommendation. I concur your blog is superb in exploring SQL. And, ditto on the local PASS chapter, and SQLSaturday events. I recently discovered them and went to my very first SQL Saturday #49. Both events are great in training and especially networking with folks who are experts.

  • hi,
    this is really good article, here iam dba service desk support in top company but i have to become developer dba and wat exact method i have to follow? shall i go back to trianing or it is better to choose production dba plz advice me

    • Sudhi – I wish I could mentor everyone individually, but since that takes a lot of time, I wrote the above blog posts instead. If you’ve got more specific questions please let me know. Thanks!

      • Hey, iam really more Happy to see your fast reply:
        yes i have specific question!!!
        Let me tell about career life,

        iam a engneering graduate.

        i have started my career in IT service Management that is service desk.

        i have some basic exprience in supporting DBA software but iam really interested to know in depth and career prospects in DBA.
        if i do course or if know in depth about SQL DBA, will this 3.5 years of experience of service desk considered in industry?

        is oracle DBA get more job opportunity or SQL one?

        in job market production DBA get more exposure or developer DBA ?

        • Sudhi:

          “if i do course or if know in depth about SQL DBA, will this 3.5 years of experience of service desk considered in industry?” – If your 3.5 years of service desk work were constantly working with SQL Server, then yes. If you were doing general service desk work, then no.

          “is oracle DBA get more job opportunity or SQL one?” – It depends on your area. Check with your local recruiters or job sites like Monster.com. In general, though, your best bet is to use the system you’ve got access to. If you’re surrounded by SQL Servers, then you’ve got a chance to get experience with them.

          “in job market production DBA get more exposure or developer DBA ?” – Hmm, I never thought about that. If I had to guess, I’d say developer DBA.

  • Hi, I am working as a fresher on AS-400 system but my interest is in oracle database and to become a DBA what should i do now as i got stuck in AS-400.

    What are the steps so that i can do DBA are there any courses or training for the same

  • Hello All
    There are equal opportunity for oracle and SQL .it’s up to you , as my experience if you are strong in programming specially on windows platform so move for sql server and in this area job opportunity are bit higher (if you are fresher or experience less than 2 year)
    But in oracle, if you fear from programming language (but SQL knowledge require) and good in OS like Unix, Linux( at least understanding should be) and ready to give time to appear lots of interview without frustrating yourself then you can move for oracle. Even I suggest if you are Linux or Unix administrator , can move for oracle.

    It’s my personal experience as I am working in both technologies.

  • Brent I want to thank you for taking the time to share valuable information. I am currently trying to roll into a DBA position (albeit junior). This blog spot is super helpful.

  • Brent,

    This article is amazing i wish i found it before the end of my college career. Coming fresh out of college with a information science degree mostly based on Database’s, but we only really have learned about the SQL the language. We are require to set up databases, but they are not large scale does this make it harder to get into the field? I have created my own small web projects with databases, but have never used the bigger programs you talk about.

    Thanks!

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