Three Consulting Tools to Make You a Better DBA

21 Comments

As a consultant, I solve hard problems, and I use cool tools. These tools could help you, too– and in ways that may surprise you.

Problem 1: The DBA’s Time is Money, and It’s Limited

You know what, DBAs? You’re expensive.

DBAs are frequently involved in every task that touches a database. This includes Windows security patching, writing and running adhoc queries and reports for users, granting user access, deploying code, disaster recovery planning, high availability planning and implementation and performance troubleshooting. Additionally, DBAs must ensure that the database servers are configured in a secure way and that backup and maintenance processes are scheduled and running successfully.

Often, the tasks which are the most valuable to the business don’t get enough attention because of other demands.

The trick to managing your time— which is your company’s money— is to figure out where it’s going.

Consultant Solution: Manage Your Time with Toggl

If you aren't careful, others see you like this.

The problem with most time tracking tools is that they’re too time consuming. You start out and immediately realize you need to start tracking the time you’re spending tracking your time. You get caught in an endless loop and emerge 10 days later looking like a Unix sysadmin.

I love the Toggl interface because it’s seriously easy to use. You can very quickly record what you’re doing and classify it using a timer. You can continue activities from previous days or start new ones.

Typically, people in IT don’t do time tracking unless they’re forced to do so by management. It’s usually dreaded, but the secret is that the data is most valuable to YOU.

Track your time use for one month. At the end of the month, look at the patterns in aggregate. Look for items that took up a lot of time collectively, but which could be done by someone who is less expensive to your company, perhaps with some automation. Identify a more valuable project you could do instead, such as designing a Disaster Recovery plan for the company’s databases. Pitch this to your manager as extra value you can add, and provide the supporting data. Maybe it won’t work immediately, but over time you’re building data to help justify a Junior DBA.

Problem 2: People Don’t Know What the DBA Does

Most of your coworkers don’t understand what you do most of the time.

Solve this like a consultant. When you do a task for someone, give them a Statement of Work.

Consultant Solution: Statements of Work

A Statement of Work, or “SOW” is essentially an agreement that explains what you’re doing, what the goals are, and how much it will cost.

When you’re taking on a new project or task, make a bit of time to write up the goals for the project, how many hours of time each week you expect to devote to it, and how many weeks it will take you to complete. State what deliverables you will provide, an overview of the tasks you will do, and anything that might keep you from delivering on your estimate. This shouldn’t be lengthy or wordy— aim for clarity and brevity. Share your statement of work with your manager and the project owner.

Your statements of work can be sent by email, but store them off in a folder for your reference and review them when you complete a project. The main value you provide by writing this type of email as a DBA is helping others understand your job and see that you’re a professional.

Tip: I know you’ve got a list of things you would love to test, investigate, or research, but don’t have enough time. Once you get good at writing SOWs, you can use these to pitch projects that YOU think are valuable to your company. In exchange, you can trade off some of those time consuming tasks you tracked in Toggl that are a little too manual.

Problem 3: People Don’t See the DBA as a Person

Good news: with tools this good, you don't have to dress up.

There’s a problem that goes even deeper: Many people don’t see the extra hours you spend after a code deployment that caused the website to grind to a halt, or the late night hours you get paged because checkdb failed. Instead, they may see an empty cube in the morning if those late nights keep happening.

What people often notice about a DBA is that they aren’t in the office all the time. In many companies where there is 24×7 on-call support, the DBA may work a different schedule, come into the office less, and participate in more meetings remotely than others.

This is a huge tacit cause of friction, but you can avoid the problem.

Consultant Solution: The Webcam

Whenever I work with clients remotely, I’ve always got my webcam on. This means that no matter how long I’ve been working, I need to brush my hair, but it does something important: it helps people relate to me.

If you sometimes need to attend meetings from home, purchase a webcam, even if it’s on your own dime. Allow people to see that you’re actively paying attention to the meeting by positioning what you are working on near where the webcam is sitting— if you’re making notes on a secondary monitor, it might look like you’re ignoring the meeting.

By seeing you at work elsewhere, people will learn that you do accomplish things when you’re not at your desk. Moreover, they’ll see you much more as a person rather than a missing entity.

Being a Consultant is Fun

The true joy in being a consultant is solving problems. You can already do this as a DBA– without quitting your job! Sometimes all it takes to feel the difference is using a few new tools to help you manage your time, shape your role, and share your work with your colleagues.

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21 Comments. Leave new

  • I like the idea of a webcam as it’s always nice to see who you’re speaking to although I’m not a consultant but work from home occasionally and have to speak to 3rd party app suppliers often. There is one drawback to this though, who’d want to see me? yep you’ve guessed it, my other role is unix sysadmin!

    Reply
  • Excellent post Brent, these types of postings are my personal favorite. It’s always good to be able to communicate your value to an organization. And I’m going to try Toogl, it looks great. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Ah sorry, excellent posting Kendra! (I said Brent)

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  • I thought this was really interesting on the salary range page:

    * Add 5% for IBM DB2 Database Skills
    * Add 9% for Oracle Database Skills
    * Add 10% for SQL Server Database Skills

    Reply
  • Excellent post Kendra!

    I totally agree with the importance of the discussions to problem 3 and it’s something I try to get across in my post: Being An Effective DBA Remotely.

    I think it important to consider that we are ALL consultants on some level. There’s a heck of a lot more to being a DBA than the actual technical work performed. Each of your problem scenarios share a common solution theme, one of the most important soft skills for a Data Professional, communication.

    As technology professionals it can be all too easy to hide behind or accept the stereotypes (various flavours of lacking in communication skills, introverted etc.) and so I would encourage folks to double their efforts on this front and to not become complacent. You can never be too good at communication.

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  • Great stuff Kendra, I’d been struggling to quantify my (existence!) time in the office, sound advice and Toggl looks like it will be really useful.

    Great work, thanks!

    Stephen

    Reply
  • Great post Kendra! I agree 100% on the use of a “SOW” before you begin a project / list of tasks. It really helps when you clearly state what you’re going to do and how long it’s going to take you up front. I think a lot of people underestimate how crucial good communications habits are to being a successful DBA (or IT pro in general).

    I am totally going to take a look at Toggl. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find a good time tracking tool for months, and so far this one looks the best of the lot. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  • Thanks, Kendra – I was going to say (and a bunch of people before me did as well) that these are very useful even if you’re not a consultant. I work for a small company who isn’t “used to” staff working remotely, and also a lot of what I do isn’t “visible” to all the members of the company. I already put Toggl on my desktop this morning and I think it will be a good way for me to show my managers what I am doing and how much time it’s taking! The same as with the Statement of Work – it will be a good idea for me to do those when approached with a new internal project as well as for a project for a client!

    Reply
    • I hope it works for you! Let me know how you feel about it. I’d only used much more complicated tools in the past, so it seems incredibly easy to me.

      Being a remote worker with a small company can be a special challenge, especially if there aren’t many other remote workers. I think it turns you into an internal consultant, which is a pretty cool thing to be!

      Reply
  • Great stuff. I really like the toggl.

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  • anyone have some example SOWs to share, for the template-challenged?

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  • Wonderful solutions!

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  • Kendra, Tks!!!

    It’s always fun and good see your posts. This things that you wrote here, will make me a better DBA. When the DBA is young, he’s not concerned whith this things, but when he pass some things, he descovered that this things that you put here helps and make her a better DBA.

    Always thanks to help us to be a better DBA.

    If you have a time, can you publish a template of SOW please or anyone article!, please….. 🙂

    Reply
  • it is very good for fresher ok so…good

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  • Excellent Post Master!!

    Reply

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