Career Planning for DBAs: Your Next Two Years

You’ve been doing this database thing for a while, and you’re ready to get serious about it. What’s the next step?

Step 1: Define your specialty in one sentence.

If you say you do everything, you compete with everyone.

You want to be the only one they want. That means you’re:

  • Actively sought-after
  • Uniquely qualified
  • A very high value for short bursts of time
  • Respected for your opinion
  • Worth more than your competitors (more on that later)

This sounds selfish, but remember – it’s not about you. It’s about your customers (whether they’re internal or external) and your ability to help them.

To pick your specialization, lemme show a slide from our live instructor-led training classes where I talk about the different types of DBAs and what they specialize in. Here’s one of the important slides from that session:

Common types of DBAs
Common types of DBAs

Most of you out in the crowd are going to say, “But I do all of these.” Sure you do – today. But we’re talking about where you want to be two years from now if you’re going to really stand out. Not only am I encouraging you to pick one of the columns, but I’m even encouraging you to focus on a specific horizontal row.

Examples of specialties include:

  • “This server has to be reliable. We need AlwaysOn Availability Groups. I know just who to call.”
  • “We need to manage thousands of servers with easier automation. I know the right person for the job.”
  • “Our SQL Servers in VMware are just too slow, and nobody knows whose fault it is. I know who can tell.”
  • “We need to offload our full text search, but we have no idea what to use. I know somebody who does.”

Notice that I’m phrasing these in a one-sentence pain point. You need to be known for resolving someone’s pain. This is the funny thing about business and consulting – you get paid the most to relieve urgent pain, not to provide keeping-the-lights-on maintenance.

The first step in your two-year plan is to write the one-sentence pain you want to resolve.

Step 2: Assess your current skills and your target skills.

Thinking about your one-sentence pain point:

  1. How many times have you relieved that pain?
  2. How many times have you failed to relieve it?
  3. When you hit an impasse, who did you escalate it to?
  4. Have you sketched out a process for diagnosing it? Has anyone?
  5. Have you documented the process for others to follow?

The more answers you have, and the more confident you are giving those answers aloud to someone else, the better your skills are. What, you expected a true/false multiple choice assessment test? Technology moves so fast that often the questions aren’t even right, let alone the answers.

Here’s a longer version of that assessment that I use for my own skills testing:

  1. I don’t know where the pain is coming from.
  2. I can identify the pain in clear terms.
  3. I know several possible root causes of the pain.
  4. I can identify exactly which one is at fault here.
  5. I know several ways to relieve that pain.
  6. I can identify exactly which one is right here.
  7. I’ve documented my triage process.
  8. I’ve hit situations where my process has been wrong, and I’ve learned from it.

From those levels, what level do you think you get paid for?

Surprise – it’s #1. You know plenty of people who are getting paid right now even though they have absolutely no idea where the pain is coming from. However, the higher your level, the easier it is to get paid more. (Don’t think that just because you’re on level 7, you’re making a bazillion dollars – there’s plenty of folks who aren’t great at negotiating their value, either.)

Figure out what level you’re at today, and get a rough idea of what level you want to be at in two years. Now let’s figure out how to get there.

Step 3: Build a 2-year learning plan to make that leap.

Divide the number of levels you want to jump by the amount of time you have. If you want to go up four levels, and you’ve got two years to do it, then you need to progress a level every 6 months.

This sounds really easy, but there’s a problem: you’re probably not repeatedly solving this pain point at your day job. You probably solve it every now and then, but not over and over in a way that helps you refine your technique.

That’s why a 2-year learning plan is really a 2-year sharing plan.

Nothing teaches you something like being forced to teach it to someone else. Heck, even building this blog post (and a presentation on it a few weeks ago) made me flesh out my own philosophies!

But to share, you have to get permission. Start by having this discussion with your manager:

Dear Manager – Recently, we ran into the problem of ____. To get relief, I did ____. Are you happy with that relief? If so, I’d like to talk about what I learned at my local SQL Server user group. I won’t mention our company name. Is that OK? Sincerely, Me

By having that discussion, you’re also making sure the manager is really satisfied with your pain relief efforts and that they saw value in your work. (After all, think of them as one of your first pain relief clients.)

Once you’ve got permission, here’s how you build the 2-year sharing plan: every level jump equals one user group presentation.

  1. Write the user group presentation agenda in 4-5 bullet points.
  2. Write a blog post about each bullet point. (The words in your blog post are what you’ll say out loud in your session – think about it as writing your script.)
  3. Build slides that help tell the story, but the slides are not the story. Don’t transcribe your blog posts word-for-word on the slide.

For example, if you need to hit the level “I know several ways to relieve that pain,” and your specialization is improving the performance of virtual SQL Servers, your user group session could be titled “5 Ways to Make Your Virtual SQL Server Faster.” You’d then write a blog post about each of the 5 ways. Presto, there’s your session resources.

At the end of your 2-year sharing plan, you’ve built up a solid repertoire of material, plus built up your own level of expertise. (You’ve also built up a little bit of a reputation – but more on that later.)

Step 4: Decide what lifestyle works best for you.

How much risk can you tolerate?

  • Some. I could miss a couple of paychecks a year and manage my own benefits if I earned more.
  • Lots. I’d be willing to go without income for a month or two per year if I could earn lots more.
  • None. A very predictable salary and benefits are absolute requirements for me.

This determines whether you should be a full time employee, a long-term contractor that switches positions periodically, or a short-term consultant. In a nutshell, the differences are:

Consultants tell you what to do. They listen to your business problems, come up with solutions, and guide your staff on how to do it. They are typically short-term stints – a couple of days per month at a client, multiple clients at a time.

Contractors do what they’re told. They get a list of required solutions from the business and implement those solutions. They typically work together for long stints, showing up at the same client every day for months at a time, with only one live client relationship.

Full time employees do a mix of this. They come up with ideas, plus implement some of those ideas.

There’s no one answer that’s better for everyone. Heck, I’ve even changed my answer a few times over the last several years! It comes down to finding the right risk/reward balance for your own lifestyle needs, and then bringing the right customers in the door.

Step 5: Decide how you’ll market yourself.

Consultants sell advice, not manual labor, so they have many clients – which means doing a lot of sales.

Contractors sell labor, so they have fewer clients – which means less sales efforts.

Full time employees (FTEs) only have one sales push every few years when they change jobs.

Our company is a good example of the work required to do marketing and sales when you want to scale beyond one or two people:

  • We have tens of thousands of regular blog readers
  • Thousands of them attend the weekly webcasts
  • Hundreds of them email us per month asking for help
  • A few dozen turn into serious sales opportunities
  • Around a dozen will book consulting engagements with us

This funnel approach demonstrates inbound marketing – using lots of free material to get the word out about your services and invite them to contact you for personal help. It’s a lot of hard work – very hard work.

The other approach is outbound marketing – cold calls to strangers asking if they’ve got your specialized pain point, and then trying to convince them that you’re the right person to bring pain relief. (You can kinda guess how I feel about outbound marketing.) Sure, it sounds slimy – but the takeaway is that it’s hard work, and every bit as hard as doing inbound marketing.

But only one of those options polishes your skills.

Inbound marketing is a rare two-for-one in life – it’s both your 2-year sharing plan, and your 2-year marketing plan. You don’t have much spare time, so you need every bit of it to count. Choose inbound marketing, do your learning and sharing in public, and you’ll write your own ticket.

Presto – You’re two years away from success.

No matter what pain you want to solve, how you want to solve it, or how you want to get paid for it, this simple plan will have you on the road to success. Now get started on writing down that one-sentence pain point!

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18 Comments. Leave new

  • Smarter than Brent
    July 24, 2014 10:26 am

    You also must write this article is for “Accidental and/or L1’s DBA’s”
    Stop making people fool by your blogs. Enough!

    • Smarter – you are right. Henceforth, I shall quit blogging. I have seen the error of my ways. You have shown me the light.

    • Seriously, you think you should only plan for the next two years in your career, periodically assess your skills, create a learning plan and learn how to market yourself only if you are an “Accidental and/or L1’s (sic) DBA’s (sic)”?

      Apparently, you must have the world and SQL Server completely figured out. Clearly, this website is not for you. For the rest of us, Brent please continue to deliver insight and lessons learned from your experiences.

  • AnonymousDBA
    July 25, 2014 6:52 am

    My spin on the “Accidental and/or L1?s (sic) DBA’s (sic)”, and to add my $.02. If you want it bad enough or want a change bad enough you have to grab it. If your volun-told to be a keep-the-lights-on DBA, you still have an obligation to your employer to make sure that light switch does not get turned off.

    In my industry I have noticed more 3rd applications using SQL server and there is more data to be measured. No matter the size of the instance or version of SQL, its very likely to be a critical part to some business process. I have always wanted to step into the full-time DBA space, and when I got the chance it was scary with all the responsibility I took on.

    A key piece to what you said Brent is to find that pain and solve it. User groups and blogs such as this one are a great resource. My first user group meeting I saw Brent talking about SQL on VMs. I went because that was my pain at the time.

    Thanks to Brent and all your group to the service you provide the SQL community.

  • Nic Neufeld
    July 25, 2014 2:05 pm

    I like to think Smarter is just a puckish knave trolling us all.

    Brent Ozar Unlimited: We Stop Making People Fool.

    Insightful and thought-provoking as usual.

  • nice tips and good job bro…

  • This is the best guide to improving your career (and your income) that I have ever read.

    I love the fact that you have made it so practical and implementable.

    It’s made me think, and it is superb advice. Thank you for taking the time to share this Brent.

  • Ewald Cress
    July 27, 2014 8:21 am

    +1 for an excellent piece of writing. Something about this makes me think “Yes! I can be the face of Derelicte!”

    Or possibly the realisation that I should go back to my coal-mining roots…

  • As a ‘L1 DBA’, this is great advice!

    I’ve only been a Junior DBA for 2 months but it helps paint the picture a couple of years down the line.

  • Nishad Jadhav
    July 28, 2014 6:18 pm

    This is wonderful article! As important as a favorite query in a DBA toolbox. Thanks for this great blog.

  • Great post! Re step4 funny how we each see ourselves at the top of some pyramid ?.

    As a long term contractor, I see (below me on the left) permies too timid to earn what they are worth, and inevitably becoming de-skilled as there environments become stable.
    Below and to the right I see the consultants, who sold out for the management dollar. And inevitably too become deskilled as they talk the talk ?

  • Werner van Zyl
    August 2, 2014 6:13 pm

    Thanks for the tips Brent. It was well worth the read.

  • Excellent article! I always appreciate practical suggestions and this is truly practical. Thanks again.

  • nice tips.

  • This is wonderful article! Thank

  • This is wonderful article! Thank Man


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