Even when you love being a DBA, working the job can turn into a grind. There’s many times when you’re up all night troubleshooting just to face another day at the office handling user complaints. You hear at the water cooler that you’ll need to improve performance with less hardware for the next year. You get an email that you need to be ready to virtualize everything in the next quarter, but nobody’s even sure which hypervisor you’ll use.
Your perfmon counters show that response times from storage are getting slower, but the SAN administrator says that everything looks better than ever. One of your servers starts blue-screening periodically. Your manager announces at the weekly team meeting that you need to stop being so reactive and start being more pro-active. Right after that, you get an alert for data corruption.
Oh, and by the way: we’re going to need you to come in on Saturday.
Before you know it, you’re on the road to burnout. Your tour looks like this:
Phase 1: Denial
It’s hard to admit when you lose that loving feeling with your job. You just keep plugging away at it.
When your problems have to do either with boredom or a very high volume of reactive work, this just makes the situation worse. You’re spending a lot of time, but you’re mostly spinning your wheels. You’re not learning or growing, you’re just doing what you need to basically keep things together.
Phase 2: Anger
After a while, you get cranky. It’s pretty inevitable when you’re overworked in a DBA job, because you’re surrounded by unhappy people. Users need data faster. Developers and vendors say the problem isn’t their code, it’s your servers and maintenance. Your manager isn’t sure why you can’t keep problems from happening in the first place. The SAN Admin gets a little tired of you stopping by with another stinky performance issue again and again.
Also, at this point people in your personal life start to get impacted as well. You’re starting to get less sleep and grumble more. You vent about politics at work and things you can’t change.
You get to the point where you say things that seem perfectly reasonable in your head, but come out sounding like you’re a real jerk. Sadly, you probably don’t notice it.
Phase 3: Bargaining
Eventually you get tired of being angry. You start to think that maybe the problem isn’t your job— the problem is that you’re stuck in your job! So you decide to go about some self improvement.
At this point you decide to become amazing. You’re going to learn every feature in SQL Server. You’re going to know all the internals and when there’s a bump in the night, you’ll be the one who whips out a debugger, walks the SQL Server stack, and sends a diagnosis to the SQL Server product team. You make a deal with yourself: I’m going to read these twenty books, and then I’m going to fix my job.
Sometimes you try to make the deal with your boss. “If you send me to this training then I’ll revolutionize our team.” Sometimes you get the training, sometimes you don’t.
The bigger problem is that it’s hard to revolutionize your job when you’ve been unhappy with your job for a good long time. You try to make big sweeping changes, but it’s really hard to revolutionize processes and tasks when you’ve already got a full load of work.
Phase 4: Depression
This really is depressing, isn’t it? Honestly, I’m just depressed writing this post after analyzing what I’ve seen in my career.
Once you get to the point where you’ve tried to make big changes and haven’t had an impact, you get tired. You get depressed. You get so that you don’t even want to finish your
Phase 5: Acceptance
Some people reach acceptance with a job they’ve come to dislike, but some people never get here— they quit first.
Acceptance isn’t a happy place. Don’t envy someone with acceptance. Acceptance means that you keep disliking your job, but you limit the negative impact on your life. The one good thing about acceptance is that you figure out some change to make it livable: you keep your hours as close to 40 a week as possible. You do just a bit over than the bare minimum at work. You focus on other things. You distance yourself a bit from it all so that it’s not so much of a disappointment.
In many ways, acceptance is even more depressing than depression.
Phase 6: Action
I’ve got some good news. When your job gets bad, you do go through something like the phases of grief. That’s no fun. But the good news is that nobody is actually dead. And you’re not dead yet, either. There are still SO MANY things you can do!
Even when you’ve been down a long road of trouble in a job, you can still make real changes and make a big difference at your company. You just need to get a fresh way of looking at it, and you need to make small, strategic changes. Your mistake earlier was in trying to make grand, sweeping changes. Most of the time you just can’t win the war that easily.
Here are four successful strategies that I have used, and which my clients use to make long-lasting changes in their workplace.
- Add a 20 minute brain workout to your day. Block out 20 minutes for your personal learning in your calendar and stick to it. Make this your workout period for your brain, and don’t let anything come between you and your learning. Especially if you’re in the “acceptance” zone, this one regular dose of learning can radically change your mindset.
- Smile at people. Seriously. Make your face smile— it will actually change your mood, and in turn change your working relationships. If you’re in a rut, trust us, you’re NOT the only one who feels it. This is harder than it sounds like, and you may need to set a daily task or reminder to get good at it.
- Break passive-aggressive patterns. Some of the hardest burnout problems to solve are poisonous social situations. For hard social problems, find a neutral colleague and ask them for advice on how you can smooth over a bad relationship– but make sure you don’t gossip or blame the other person in the process.
- Bring in a technical influencer. Sometimes clients bring us into short-term gigs to help confirm where the problem is in their system and provide independent validation of where long term investments should be placed. When an environment is full of finger-pointing, as a consultant we have an advantage: we can elegantly point toward a solution without getting embroiled in the political mess.
Your Job Doesn’t Have to Stink: And You Don’t Have to Leave It
It’s a great time to be a database administrator. Technology is growing fast and people are pushing the limits of what they can do with SQL Server all the time. There are lots of jobs out there, but although you’ve been struggling, you may already have a great job.
If your team is stuck in a rut and you can figure out what you can do to make that job better, you’ve just become the most valuable employee on the market: the one who can turn around a bad situation. The secret to getting there is to figuring out the small changes to make it all work.