After You’ve Been a DBA, What Do You Do?

You’ve been managing database servers for a few years.

Now what?

Get more technical – every time a new project comes in, sharpen your skills. Get more involved in failover clustering, storage, virtualization, or the cloud. Write technical presentations to teach your own company’s staff, and then the public.

Business intelligence – if you’re constantly surrounded by valuable data, and you’ve got a creative eye, you can help make sense out of all those letters and numbers. There’s never been a better time to help people get actionable insight out of your tables. It’s a wildly different career path than DBA – it involves more time with people, and less time with maintenance plans.

Consult – get technical enough, and develop a reputation for solving tough problems quickly, and you can change gears entirely. Instead of working for a single company, you can move around from company to company, giving guidance on how to put out more fires faster.

Contract – in some markets, you can keep doing what an employee does, but as an outsider. Consultants tell companies what to do, and contractors do what they’re told. If you enjoy the job duties and don’t really care for the big picture, contracting can be more lucrative.

Management – if you have enough IT pros around you, and you’ve got a knack for people skills, you can really shift gears and manage people instead of servers. Caution, though: this is nothing to do with databases whatsoever. The skills that served you so well troubleshooting a cluster may not help you motivate an employee you don’t like to do a task they hate.

Architecture – your constant interactions with developers teach you more and more about building large systems. Because you’re more senior than other folks in the shop, you end up giving design guidance. Eventually you spend more time doing guidance than managing databases, or they hire a junior DBA in to backfill your production duties.

Stagnate – keep doing exactly the same thing. You’re going to get all of the servers into pretty good shape – not perfect, but good enough that your phone isn’t ringing every night. You’ll have more time to spend playing 2048 at work, but you’re not going to make dramatically more money if you’re not doing dramatically better work.

So what’s your plan?

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29 Comments. Leave new

  • SELECT * FROM AboveList WHERE ShortDesc NOT IN (‘Management’,’Stagnate’)

    Being a DBA means we interact regularly with the BI folks, the application developers, etc. Efficient DBA’s eventually *should* have time to continue refining their skills by networking, reading, testing – essentially getting more technical. Consulting and contracting is always nice outside of the day job to help keep the lights on at home. Who knows if it may lead to a full time gig one day.

    I thought earning my Masters would open up management doors, but it doesn’t seem very common for DBA’s, as we don’t grow the same relationships as most others on our IT staff (because we spend most of our time in the trenches, ideally going unnoticed). Continuing to strengthen my skills as a DBA has been much more rewarding, both personally and professionally (certifications, etc.).

  • “AD is just a big database,” was what launched back over the wall to systems admin/architecture. Going to AD is always an option because of similar considerations.

  • I’m the accidental DBA turned corporate DBA. And I’m the only one who is going to manage it all. So now I’m getting more technical, getting into BI, dealing with management and spec’ing out our architecture for a warmsite. The dev’s build tsql and table design without really talking to me, and I have to figure out the bottlenecks after the fact.

  • keeping it 100, my combo looks like this “Get more technical/Contract/Stagnate”.
    1. You always gotta get more technical, unless you can quote the BOL, there is something about SQL Server you don’t know. And you know 2014 buzz is happening this week.
    2. Contract. I won’t say which but I do Contract using an online market place. And yes I do what i’m told. It’s frustrating because I have a 50% chance of doing it the right way, but I just make sure I always clearly state as a DBA/Dev professional, my thoughts and then I just do what i’m told, but it’s extra money.
    3. Stagnate. I guess this kinda contradicts #1, but sometimes me getting more technical is for my benefit, meaning you can’t really just stay in place cause you will get left behind, so getting technical means keeping up to be stagnate 🙂

    In any case my luck of work has been to work for small companies where I do DBA\Dev\BI\and other duties as assigned. So after 15 years, I have to keep up that type of well rounded atmosphere because I don’t think I could survive in just one role.

  • I moved to “Contract” in 2007, now more of a consulting contractor. The next move is to start new business or 2. Just need to say no the contract roll over requests… that’s hardest part!

  • Broadening your technology focus is another option that comes to mind. Easier said that done, but worth the effort in the long run.

  • I really like the breakdown and I find it to be true no matter what technology you are pursuing.
    For me it was simple: NEVER STAGNATE
    I started down the general systems admin path, back in MS Server 2003, and quickly realized that to keep up I would need to have more in my tool belt than Microsoft Servers and AD. I got “technical” and expanded my skills in virtualization, large storage architecture, backup technologies, Exchange, and SharePoint. Then I took my skills to the road and worked as a engineer for a year and a half. Now I am back in house for a local healthcare provider playing the “jack of all trades” at an architecture level. Placing myself in this roll has shined a bright light on my deficiencies including ,but not limited to, SQL which will be my next “tech up” adventure.

  • While the stagnate option holds zero interest to me, 2048 ruined my productivity for the first hour of my day. *sad*

  • I dream of running an ice-cream shop, where the most complex question is ‘Do you want sprinkles on that?’

  • I’m going to buy a big ranch in Montana and open a commune for wayward DBAs. We’ll build our own log data center with servers cooled by mountain stream water and melted snow. We will be a DBA consortium known only by the name Sven.

  • I’d like to pursue the architect role are there any good books, videos, etc to start with?

  • I would like to second your comment about “Management – if you have enough IT pros around you, and you’ve got a knack for people skills, you can really shift gears and manage people instead of servers. Caution, though: this is nothing to do with databases whatsoever. The skills that served you so well troubleshooting a cluster may not help you motivate an employee you don’t like to do a task they hate.”

    The norm I have found is “Hey this person has great technical skills lets make them a manager.” Manger by my definition is someone who is great with inanimate objects and spreadsheets. If you do not have people skills don’t go into management and make everyone’s life you effect miserable, including their wife, kids, aunts, uncles, fiends, moms, dads etcetera. Do what you love and are good at, not what will make you the most money and destroy other peoples lives in the process.

    Leading people is a skill that is as artful as doing great database management, I admire people that are great at being a DBA. A role model leader inspires you to be the best you can be or better then you ever thought you could be. If you can not do that then stay a DBA.

  • Plan for Retirement

    Get a job at a Swiss Bank, copy all customer accounts to a DVD, sell DVD to the German Government, put feet up and drink cocktails.

  • Brent, I have a great amount of respect for you and your knowledge/mastery of SQL Server.

    However, you ARE EVIL for introducing me to 2048! That game is addictive! So much for being productive!

    No, I don’t play it at work, but after hours. WOW. Even my 9 year old daughter is addicted to 2048

  • Brent,

    Thanks for this. I’m not a DBA but subscribe to your newsletter as quite regularly a little gem comes through.

    The idea at the start of this post to write a technical presentation for colleagues gave me a kick up the arse…I’ve just booked to run an “Intro to PowerShell” session next week for anyone who want to learn.

    I’m nervous but excited. Now I’ll need to go back over your posts on presenting…

    Thank you!


  • Something I’ve seen through a few comments here is the assumption that management roles are the same as leadership roles – and are the only way to move up the ladder, and that’s not always true.

    Yes, in a nutshell management is the leadership of people and making sure they deliver business value. Leadership however can be owning the strategic innovation and growth in your functional area – not the people.

    If you currently own the decision about what version of SQL Server you deploy by default, volunteer to own the same decision about the Oracle or Java component of a future project. Leadership doesn’t mean doing all that work on you’re own – delegate it to subject matter experts but it does mean becoming the person everyone looks to when they need the final decision.

    When you’re a consultant, you typically have 0% management capability yet they’re paying you to be 100% of their leadership capability. There are lots of CTOs and senior level people who don’t have any people reporting to them, yet they can have more influence than anyone else about which direction the ship sails in.

  • Brent,
    Over the last few months I’ve gone from senior production DBA to “The guy who makes everything run faster”. Needless to say I’ve turned to the optimization side of SQL server. I use your queries (Blitz etc.) and my trusty SQL Sentry Plan Explorer. I really scored a big win (Thanks to your great TempDB series) by adding 3 data files to the most heavily utilized instance of SQL we have. Instantly, that day the performance improved more than 100%. I look like a hero and now the client see’s the real value of having a DBA that does optimization and query tuning. They now want me to block out at least 1 day a week to devote to this. I’m learning a new skill set and they reap the benefits. It’s a win-win. Over the years I’ve found that I do not advance my skillset until “the client needs it” but now I see that has to change. I believe from other conversations I’ve had with other DBA’s this is not uncommon. We get comfortable delivering the results expected with the skillset we have and do not push ourselves until more needed by the client. Anyway great post please keep doing what you do best. Make us laugh at ourselves…

    • Aww, thanks! I’m a big fan of chasing value at companies – find the thing that’s the most valuable, and do that. If it’s improving TempDB performance, do that. They’ll see the benefit and it’ll pay off regardless of your job title. Have a good one!

  • I work for product based IT company. DevOps concept is growing. Expectation from DBAs also are growing. Expectations now include knowledge on Monitoring tools, DevOps automation tools, Scripting, AWS etc.

  • What, you mean there is life after being a DBA?
    I thought this is as good as it gets….I mean, it’s pretty good, right?

    Jokes aside, I don’t think you’ll ever not be a DBA (at heart), you might end up being paid for different duties but your experience and thinking like a Query Engine will always apply in every aspect of life.

  • Hi Brent
    I have been semi stagnant for the past year or so but i am going after my MCSA for SQL SERVER 2014 but i wanted to know which other technologies can help me for the next 5 – 10 years?
    What i have found online are the following:
    Big data management
    Designing database solutions for sql server
    Data analytics
    Cloud computing
    Sharepoint application setup with SQL SERVER
    Database security
    Business Intelligence
    MCSE – Data Management and Analytics

    What do you think is a good path to take?

  • Hi Brent
    I started as an oracle dba but my company required more work on sql server so I did basic dba tasks, installation, upgrades, migrations and got into security
    Lately I was involved with supporting a sharepoint project where SP is being used as an Edms. So I’m running your blitz scripts and learning about performance tuning, memory issues and performance issues.
    So I guess my main tasks are general admin tasks. I’d like to strengthen my skills but I don’t know where to go. As I want to return to Canada in a year so shall I go into performance tuning or BI or data analytics?
    I don’t want to be a programmer that’s for sure but I am good at it and scripting so I’m learning powershell. Shall I get my mcsa in 2012/2014?

    • Kai – I really can’t do personalized career planning on the blog. Do me a big favor though: check out that video I linked you to. It explains what kinds of options you have for your career going forward.


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