What I Want Versus What I Can Afford

I got an interesting comment on my article about the Top 10 Interview Questions for Senior DBAs.  AngryDBA said:

“Man, I don’t mean to sound harsh but..you’re an expert DBA? I’m guessing you wouldn’t survive one of my interviews. I only expect the candidates to get 50%. I’ve had them all too. PhDs, Masters in blah-blah-blah, Captain of the Patterns Team at Yale majoring in C#, writing joins since she was in Pampers. Uh huh.”

Answering this requires more than just a comment.

My Dream House Checklist

My Kind of Yard
My Kind of Yard

I use RememberTheMilk to store a lot of stuff, including my list of things that I’m looking for in my dream house. I’m planning long term, baby! It includes things like:

  • No ground-level windows – we don’t like people looking in or breaking in.  We like high windows on the ground floor (like 7′ up).  The other floors can have floor to ceiling windows, though.
  • On the water, but no nearby vegetation – we hate bugs.  Ideally, there wouldn’t be a plant on the property.  I’m not kidding.
  • Within walking distance of at least 2 restaurants – Erika and I really enjoy eating at restaurants.  It’s nice to have other people take care of everything once in a while.  Okay, often.
  • Gadget nook in the entryway – I like having my electronic gear near the door so that I can grab it on the way out.  Ideally, I’d have an inset nook in the wall with electric outlets, and the whole thing would be concealed so that wires weren’t dangling all over the place.
  • Lots of AC ventilation in the kitchen – we love a really cold house.  I’m talkin’ 65 degrees.  Erika loves to cook, but the kitchen always gets hot, because no house’s AC is ever designed to pump that much cold air into the kitchen while keeping the rest of the house tolerable.  Speaking of which….
  • Very powerful but very quiet AC – I don’t want to hear the air conditioning kick on and off, but I want the house at 65, and no, the answer isn’t leaving the air running full blast 24/7.
  • Silent garage door openers – I get up early in the morning and I like taking drives.  I hate it when the garage door opener vibrates in a way that you can hear it in the bedroom.  (Yes, there’s a lot of silent items on this list.)

I could go on and on – the checklist has over 20 items on it at the moment.  That doesn’t include my set of tear sheets with all of the interior design features and furnishings we’ve liked over the years, too, or my Delicious bookmarks tagged dreamhouse.

My Current Housing Checklist

My Kind of Price
My Kind of Price

Back in the real world, since I’m not making seven figures (yet), my housing search checklist is decidedly more utilitarian:

  • Washer/dryer connections – I don’t want to go to a community laundry facility.
  • Good phone/cable wiring – I need high speed internet access and old building wiring presents problems with that.
  • Two parking spots – we’re looking at downtown one-bedroom lofts, and those don’t always come with two spots.
  • Low crime rate – I don’t want to have to carry a gun when I walk the dog.

Notice the difference?  Champagne tastes, beer budget.  I can’t go asking about waterfront property with what I’m payin’.  Asking about waterfront property when I can’t afford it doesn’t make me look good – and in fact, my real estate agent is pretty quickly going to start rolling her eyes when I call.  “Here comes this bozo again, asking about waterfront property for fifty large.  What a jerk.”

How This Relates to Database Administrators

If money wasn’t an object, my interview question list would simply be:

  • Is your name Paul Randal?

However, money is always an object.  Even when you think money isn’t an object, you have to ask yourself if you would hire one super-expert-senior DBA, or hire two solid but not super-expert DBAs.  My DBA interview questions aren’t designed to separate Paul Randal from the rest – they’re designed for companies who need to find somebody reliable without spending a fortune.

One of my favorite sayings is that there’s two kinds of questions: the ones designed to find out how much the other person knows, and the ones designed to show off how much you know.  Showing off in interviews doesn’t impress the candidate – and in fact, it does the exact opposite.  Humiliating a candidate makes them bitter about your company before you even make them an offer.  If your candidates rarely achieve 50%, then you’ve got a disconnect between your tastes and your budget.

Start asking questions that your candidates might be able to answer.

Otherwise, you’re just showing them you’ve got a lot of DBA-ness.

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35 Comments. Leave new

  • I always wanted to live in the middle of nowhere or close to it. I like the great outdoors and Internet Technologies allow us to hone and showcase our skills from anywhere in the world.

    Paul Randall does have Kim (who wouldn’t) and all the trappings, but from reading Steve Jones’ tweets, I’m thinking his life in Colorado is pretty okay. Besides, I am Broncos and Rockies fan so that works for me although I prefer the warm sun to tons of snow.

    Anyway, I suspect one day you will have everything you want too.

    • I’ll never have EVERYTHING I want. I keep changing what I want, hahaha. I’m totally at peace with that, though – I’m a really happy individual. If I had my dream house and my dream car, I wouldn’t be any happier than I am now. It’s just fun stuff to go after.

      One of the founders of Paypal had an interesting story. As he was building the business, he drove through a ritzy Silicon Valley neighborhood, saw a huge house, and said to himself, “I’m going to build whatever it takes to buy a house like that.” And he just worked around the clock until he could do it – not because he wanted the house, but because it was a way to keep score. I’m certainly not that driven, hahaha.

  • Airborne Geek
    July 9, 2009 10:08 am

    I’m intrigued by your “Gadget Nook” and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  • Interesting analogy for sure. I’m more of a warm house guy myself, but I like the rest of the house.

    As far as interview questions, I’m more interested in someone who can get the answers than knows them all, for exactly what you said. There is always going to be something you don’t know and I want to know how you’d find it. It’s interesting that in all the interviews I’ve done for a DBA job the problem has been that the interviewer(s) did not know the right questions to ask.

    • Yeah, that’s exactly why I’ve posted several times about DBA interview questions. So often, it’s a developer manager or a sysadmin manager doing the hiring. They don’t usually understand what a DBA does, let alone what distinguishes a good DBA from someone who just graduated from a certification boot camp. I feel for ’em, and I want to help make it easier to avoid a hiring mistake.

  • Amen, brotha!

  • I’m flattered 🙂 Brent, you need to come visit our house. Maybe strength in numbers would allow me to turn the thermostats down – Kimberly’s a warm house gal and I’m a cold house guy. A gadget nook is very handy once you get into the habit of remembering to plug your stuff in when you get home!

    Nice analogy. Totally agree with your last sentiment. when I used to hire people at MS (I should blog my sort-the-men-from-the-boys programming question) it was of paramount important that the interview candidates a) felt like they learned some stuff (maybe about themselves) b) felt like they weren’t belittled (no matter how unfortunately they’d inflated their resume) c) walked away with a good impression of MS. I used to really enjoy interviewing but I’m glad I don’t do it any more.


    • Ha! You know the other thing that’s good about a gadget nook – it’s easier to remember where you left your stuff. Erika leaves her cell phone all over the place, hahaha.

      Thanks, and glad you liked it! 🙂

  • Paul must have really been flattered to have taken time out of his vacation to respond to this post… 🙂

    In terms of interview questions – I had one guy (a-smarmy-smirky-quasi-know-it-all) ask me all kinds of arcane questions that one would probably never encounter in most situations and I walked away feeling like I must not know much of anything after the many years of being a DBA. Until I found the document which he must have studied before interviewing me – must be a popular document because I had a couple of interviewers ask me the same questions ~in the same order~(a few years later). This time around – the most challenging part of the interview was pretending to think for a beat or two and rewording the response a little and including a few “it depends” in there to make my answers seem more authentic. The silver lining – I think I became a better interviewer as a result. 🙂

  • We should publish and compare our list of dream homes. There may be enough commonality that we could invest in a geeky time share dream home… everybody wins.

    Maybe we could even do the same thing with Paul. We’ll buy into a Paul-share.

    • Airborne Geek
      July 9, 2009 2:14 pm

      Ooo, I’ve got it:
      Let’s just figure out what McGehee’s house is like and timeshare it while he’s off running around the world 😀

  • David Stein
    July 9, 2009 2:54 pm

    “Is your name Paul Randal?”

    I love that. It reminds me of a story a fellow geek told me when he was trying to get me to pursue a career in ColdFusion. The last time he went for a job interview the IT Manager started asking technical questions. After he asked the first one, my buddy took out one of the premier books on CF (One of those numbers that’s 4”+ thick) and said, the answer is halfway through Chapter 10.

    The Manager was taken aback and said that he wanted the answer from my buddy, not some book that he could buy himself.

    My buddy calmly told him, “Look at the author’s name. That’s me. “

    Well, the interview changed directions at that point obviously. I think it would be great if some day I got to the point where I could skip the technical questions and we could just see if I and their company fit.

  • Dear Lord that’s such a good post! And David Stein’s anecdote is priceless, but talk about embarrassing the interviewer himself! Maron! You cant recover from that one — unless the guy has a serious sense of humor.

    Judging from the current job ads for devs, it seems most people are indeed shopping for BMWs while test-driving Priuses — but then the industry has now gone that way I suppose (commodity programming). Sometimes I’m happy I left the coding world…that was part of the reason.

  • That’s it, I’m naming my next kid Paul Randal…

    On another note, my wife bought me a silent garage door opener for Father’s day a few years back. I love it, and it’s amazing how many comments we get about it.

  • Resumes come to my desk every day from every corner of the globe — oozing acronyms from every possible technology and when they do I’d like to see some of that finely tuned ability. Otherwise I might think you’re a report writer looking for a better gig.

    Can’t say I blame someone for trying, but at least come to me with the truth, because if I can’t trust you in the interview process you can damn well bet I won’t trust you with my servers!

    • I hear you, but lemme just throw something out there. Which is more likely:

      – There’s a problem with everyone who’s sending you a resume, or
      – There’s a problem with you

      Sometimes we need to take a look in the mirror and shave with Occam’s razor.

    • I’ll elaborate a little more on why it might be your own fault. If you’re getting flooded with resumes for a job and the candidates aren’t right for the job, you need to refine the ad. Just like I refined my questions about the house in the blog post, you need to be very specific about what you’re looking for, and be specific about the kinds of references and tests you’re going to perform.

      And yes, I know you’re going to come back to me swearing your job ad is completely honest and it must be a problem with all those gazillion resumes that keep flooding your desk. 😉 I wish you luck with the search though.

      • Basing upon his posts/comments, AngryDBA must have invented the database!

        @AngryDBA what is your Twitter Account? Where can I find your blog? You definitely are worth following!

  • yet another dba
    July 10, 2009 4:51 pm

    Somewhere in 2003 after the dotcom bubble burst, the job market was tough.
    I once came across an ad (not my field) from a prestigious head-hunter that required the following:
    “financial auditor, age 28-30 with 5-6 years of experience at international level. Fluent in French, English, Spanish. Outstanding accounting skills. Blah-blah…”

    The candidate had to be an international auditor at age 22 after five years in the university (not counting one year for military service compulsory at this time in France) This is already highly difficult, but the worse was to come. The several years of experience required was about sarbox laws, voted only one year before! This young genius had to be part of the team that designed the law while Enron was still silently cooking the books.

    What does it mean? What happens with such outrageous request?
    The sole persons able to meet these demands are not the real high-skilled people expected, but crooks able to lure a manager and tell him whatever he wants to hear. Serious people auto-eliminate.

    This ad acts like a filter to select only crooks, strictly incompetent but outstandingly able to hide their wrongdoings for a long time, causing maximum damage to the company.

    Morality: if you ask for unrealistic demands, you’ll get answers that eventually become unpleasant.

    (this is not to blame AngryDBA)

    Thank you for your blog anyway.

  • My intent has never been to show what I know–admitedly sometimes it ain’t much 😉

    My line of thinking is inline with ‘”yet another dba”. Too many times people levy these unrealistic demands on candidates. They, in turn–needing a job, are often willing to do or say anything to get hired. Big surprise.

    A quality I like (among others) is the ability to say “Sorry! I accidentally wiped out most of the contents of the phone table a minute ago….”. Honesty isn’t a technical qualification but just as important as how many data pages fit on an extent.

    Anyone can learn this business given the opportunity. It’s the other stuff that’s hard to find.

  • I was working for a company in 2000 that is a very early adopter so we starting working in C# and .Net when it was still in beta. I remember reading many job postings for C# programmers with 3 – 5 years experience. Really? I guess that is pretty normal for any new technolgy, but funny just the same.

    • Interesting, I applied for a job in late 2001 and put down (correctly) that I had 1 year experience with .net I didn’t get the job and had the recruiter ask why (the interview had gone well). I was told they hired someone else because they had more .net experience than I did. Of course, .net had not existed long enough for that to be possible.

  • “Sometimes we need to take a look in the mirror and shave with Occam’s razor.”

    Well, *that’s* going to cause a lot of decapitations… 🙂

  • I will admit that I used to use a technical test that I fully expected people to score under 50% in. That said..
    1) It was a test to be written after the interview, usually a week or so later
    2) I told the people up front that it was difficult and that 50% was a good score
    3) I wasn’t looking for pass/fail, more trying to see where they were strong and where they would need training.
    4) It was a full open book test. I had a stack of books where the candidate could see them, they knew they could use them and they had full internet access. It was possible to get around 30% by simply googling terms

    A couple of the people who wrote it (out of I think 8 total), came to me afterwards to say that they weren’t aware that some of the stuff asked about existed and that they were going to do some reading up. One person said he’d thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of writing it.

  • You can refine the ad, but chances are, especially with certain headhunter companies, you’re going to be flooded with junk resumes that don’t fit the position or where the folks were clearly not vetted. Case in point, two years ago when we were interviewing for a senior server admin position (and it was advertised as such, with the appropriate skills you’d expect), one of the candidates we got in I asked what you would think was a calm-the-nerves type of question, “You have a 10 disk RAID 5 array. Losing how many disks will result in data loss?” The candidate confidently answered, “All 10!” So we clarified and said, “What is the minimum number of disks when you have data loss?” He stuck by his previous answer. It went downhill from there.

    • Yeah, sadly, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve just stopped taking anything from certain headhunters because I know they just promote garbage resumes.

  • Anonymous SQL person
    July 19, 2009 8:17 pm

    Gail —

    I have been on dozens of interviews and encountered interviewers *like you*. It seems your intent isn’t
    to elucidate or hire but humiliate. I have worked for fortune 20 companies and mom and pop shops. I also
    worked for Microsoft. You aren’t running a doctorate-level class, but that’s certainly how you come across. Whenever I encountered an interview like yours, I simply dismissed the interviewer
    and moved on. People that think they have to grill a candidate like that aren’t looking for the best
    match, they are simply looking to make their own position superior. The best interviews I have ever had
    were not technical. We got beyond that – my resume speaks for itself. One of the worst I ever had was
    with an egomaniacal self-centered ‘developer’ at Microsoft some time back who should never have been
    let loose in an interview situation to begin with. I’m interviewing the interviewer as much as the interviewer is interviewing *me*. And I remain amazed at how incompetent most ‘technical’ interviewers are.

    • I’ve been on interviews like the ones you’ve described, but from what I know about Gail, she’s not in that group. She’s very accomplished and she’s not looking to prove anything – she goes out of her way to help others in the community in a humble way.

  • Anonymous,

    having interacted with Gail in the SQL Server community for a few years now, I don’t think your assessment of her is accurate. She spends a lot of time helping folks in forums and tries her best to stay civil even when they aren’t. She has a great deal of knowledge and shares that willingly. If you look at the conditions of what she put forth:

    1) It’s a take home test.
    2) It’s open book.
    3) While 50% is a good score, you can get 30% just from knowing how to use a search engine.
    4) She’s using it as an assessment to see where someone is strong and where they need some assistance.

    And that makes sense with what I’ve come to know about Gail. She’s not going to regurgitate a pat answer to get the credit of answering a post and moving on. Often, she is, as the old say goes, teaching a person how to fish. In other words, how to find the answer so that the next time they can repeat the skill or understand exactly what they are doing in SQL Server. That’s a lot more time consuming that just copying and pasting a repeated answer, IMHO. And that would say, if anything, she is being pretty helpful, not looking to establish a position of superiority.

  • Anonymous,

    I was glad to see someone (K. Brian Kelley) jump in and defend Gail, although she is more than capable of defending herself. I have had the same experience with Gail as Brian has, in addition she has been more than willing to help me out personally when I’ve encountered issues I don’t necessarily understand fully.

    Finally you should note that she says she “used to use”. I don’t know if that means she wouldn’t use it anymore or isn’t involved in interviewing, but it is past tense.

    I took some tests at a recruiter one time and scored lower than I had hoped because of all the enterprise edition questions when I had only dealt with Standard edition. Of course with access to the internet and books, I think I could have done much better.

    I’d actually appreciate an opportunity to try to “pass” Gail’s test.

  • So Brent, really good, qualified candidates are still hard to find and when you find one — they ain’t cheap. Have you considered growing your own crop of DBAs by mentoring, promoting from within etc? Hiring from the outside is fraught with many perils. Maybe some newly minted minions is a better approach?

    This is my time-honoured approach.

    • Yep, absolutely, I try to promote from within whenever possible. Problem is, at some point the company has to grow, sometimes in big spurts. For example, I’ve seen situations where the number of SQL Server instances doubled or tripled as part of company mergers. The individual companies weren’t big enough to need dedicated DBAs, but suddenly the combined companies needed them.

  • Two stories about interviews:

    1. The first DBA position I interviewed for had a total of two questions:
    a) “Do you know your stuff, or can you learn it?”
    b) “Can you do it without p*ssing people off?”

    I loved that – because it simply cut to the chase, no bs.

    2. Another interview:
    I’d googled ‘sql dba interview questions’ and just made sure that there were no surprises. We all have
    our areas of expertise, and some of the questions I’d gotten were out of mine, so I did some research and
    made sure I could answer and understand all those questions.
    I got to the interview, we did small talk, then the interviewer rather sheepishly pulled out a list of
    questions he felt compelled to ask. It was the very same list I’d been working from. It made the rest
    of the interview go much easier. (it’s also where I got hired, and just the other day, around my 2 year
    anniversary, I told him – and we both got a good chuckle out of it.

  • @Tom – Right, so (b) is a trick question because the inevitable answer is “NO” 🙂


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