How Do You Manage DBAs? Part 2: Training Budgets

In part 1 of this series, I explained how to measure your DBAs. Today, let’s talk about how to make those measurements better.

Your DBA wants to get better at what they do, but … they don’t know exactly what it is they do, or how to get the business to pay for it. Here’s how.

My I Need to Learn List - man, where do I even begin - by Luis Llerena
My I Need to Learn List – man, where do I even begin – by Luis Llerena

Encourage them to start an “I Need to Learn” List – maybe as a text file, in a notebook, or in a shared spreadsheet.

When they’re working on help desk tickets, server outages, or architectures, and they want to learn something, they open up the list and add:

  • The problem they’re trying to solve (and be specific here)
  • Who needs them to solve it (departments, VPs, staff names)
  • How much time or money they spent working on the solution

That last one is important because your team is probably always going to find a solution even if they don’t understand the problem well. They’re going to reboot the box to make the problem go away, or apply some script from an Internet stranger, and they’re not going to feel terribly confident about what they just did. As far as the business is concerned, Mission Accomplished for now – and that’s fine. The “I Need to Learn” List is about knowing where these gaps were and what they cost at the time.

The DBA is never allowed to add a line “because I’m curious” or “because it sounds awesome” or “because all the cool kids are doing it.” This is about real business pains, because that’s where money comes from.

How to Turn the “I Need to Learn” List Into Money

Once a quarter, meet with your DBA and go through the list.

Look for a common theme. There’s probably one area of trouble that pops up over and over, like clusters or query tuning.

This forms your business case – you can say things like:

“This quarter, we’ve spent 35 hours of outage troubleshooting on the the sales team’s SharePoint cluster and the BI team’s data warehouse. We need to cut that troubleshooting time down, so I need $5k to send Ann to DBA training for that topic.”

“This quarter, Andy has spent 80 hours tuning slow queries for the developers. He’s run out of easy buttons, and he doesn’t feel confident with the advanced problems they’re hitting now. We need to invest $5k in training him to make that tuning time more effective going forward.

This suddenly makes it easier for management to open wallets, and you can even go to these other departments to get them to fork out training money as well. (Hey, look, I gotta be optimistic here.)

Microsoft SQL Server DBA Training Options

We’re lucky in the SQL Server community because we’ve got so many options. Here are the most popular ones – note that the price estimates include travel, but not human hourly time:

Blogs – free, but unorganized – you can learn a lot by regularly reading blogs, but they don’t help you start from zero and go to hero in a short amount of time. The articles aren’t focused on a clear progression. This option is best for DBAs who have a long time to learn and no urgent requirements.

Books – $50, but slow and not interactive – for some reason, people seem to think that buying a book will make them an expert. I’ve tried keeping them on my bookshelf for months, but that just doesn’t do the trick. You have to allocate a lot of time to actually read the book, and most human beings can’t read a technical book start to finish in one week while actually absorbing the material. You read some, get up, do other things, come back, read some more, absorb some of it, and so forth. Technical books often take weeks to fully absorb.

Training videos – $200-$300, ready when you are, but require focus – these cover a technical topic in a logical order, start to finish, broken up in easy-to-digest modules. You can spend 30-60 minutes a day absorbing a topic, tackle a few demos, and take a quiz to see how they’re progressing. The material is ready whenever the DBA is ready to start learning the topic, and you can learn it as fast as you can dedicate the time.

SQLSaturdays – $250-$500, but not often, and topics aren’t organized – these awesome one-day events take place all over the world, once a year in major cities. They’re run by volunteers, and often you can see great sessions – all free. Don’t just wait for them to occur in your city though – at this price, it can make sense to drive to a regional event. Thing is, the sessions are relatively short, and you can’t learn a topic start-to-finish at these events. Again, best for DBAs who have a long time to learn and no urgent requirements.

Pre-Conference Sessions – $500-$1,000 – not often, but fantastic deal – on the days before & after major conferences, speakers put on one-day classes at a bargain price (typically $200-$500). This is a good way to learn a topic in an organized way, although you can only go so deep in one day. You don’t have to attend the entire conference to buy a pre-con seat, which can sometimes make this a heck of a bargain. Conferences with pre-con and post-con sessions include the PASS Summit, SQL Intersection, SQLbits in the UK, and SQL Server Live 360.

Full Conferences – $2,000-$4,000, but topics aren’t organized – these are 2-4 days of material, broken up into 60-75 minute sessions, but the sessions are all over the map. You shouldn’t expect to learn a single subject start to finish here, but rather learn a variety of things about the current and next version of SQL Server. That list of conferences above is a good starting point.

Training classes – $3,000-$5,000, in-depth coverage of a topic – if you need to make a serious skills investment, set aside a week of your calendar, put someone else on the on-call duty, and go to a training class to focus for a week. This gives you the most interactive learning time because you can ask plenty of questions – to both the instructors and your fellow attendees – and maximizes your chance of fixing a serious gap on your “I Need to Learn” list.

Make the DBA Prove the Money was Well-Spent

No matter which training method you and the DBA choose together, give them a homework assignment.

They need to write a Book Report – summarize what they learned, in their own words, and how it relates to the pain points they wrote down in their “I Need to Learn” List. Have them talk about how they would have handled each of those past situations differently, knowing what they know now.

Telling them about this homework ahead of time is critical.

It keeps them focused on why you’re sending them to training – not to buddy around or get drunk with strangers, but to learn things to relieve real business pains.

And that’s how you get the training budget renewed.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • “What I Need to Learn on my Summer Vacation” — why am I getting Cheech & Chong flashbacks? Excellent idea!

    I’ll be attending my first SQL Saturdays next week in El Paso and then next month in Denver: El Paso is two hours away and though Denver is a 600 mile drive, I have a friend who lives somewhat nearby and will put me up, or put up with me, for the conference. Net cost to my employer? One hotel night in El Paso, a car and meals for the two driving days to/from Denver and $200 for the two pre-conference sessions. My out of pocket? A tank of gas for El Paso and two dinners since I paid $10 in advance for the conference lunch and the hotel does breakfast.

    Considering how minuscule our training budget is, I think they’ll be an excellent value. Plus the networking opportunity with other SQL Server folks is very valuable.

    The “book report” is a good idea, at a previous job we did a presentation on what we learned. Of course, if you’re the sole DBA/developer, giving a presentation may not be very valuable to the rest of the group.

  • > The DBA is never allowed to add a line “because I’m curious”

    While I’d understand excluding it from paid training on a limited budget and you should absolutely knock off important low-hanging fruit first, any good company interested in retaining its employees should allow some time and accommodation for curiosity.

    Good DBAs are curious about everything but also a little self-directed learning always results in completely unanticipated business rewards down the line.

    Take a business claiming not to care about encryption because it’s going to be too disruptive for the programmers to implement. Any DBA unfamiliar with that technology will not know how to articulate whether this is a correct assumption or not, and what the risks of action and inaction are. With a little of that “curious but not essential” training a potential disaster could be avoided.

    And the benefits of training do not always have a dollar value. What operational DBA wants to learn about Master Data Services when they are busy managing 100 servers?

    Except that MDS is also an excellent tool to leverage to record server information. Meanwhile other teams are going out paying for tools to do what MDS can do itself, or using MDS and following some poor practices (accessing the internal tables instead of using subscription views anyone?) Allowing for a little training in MDS for a DBA that is curious can go a long way!

    Or how about Service Broker? Message queuing is an application developer technology and almost certainly ridiculous for any DBA to learn. Until you watch one of Michael’s “Overlord” sessions and see how it can be used to centralise and audit changes across all of your servers, and save your bacon when things go wrong down the line.

    Just saying.

  • Great Idea !
    It will go great with the long list I’m creating on the next page – “What I have learnt”!

    Here I keep track of all the new/funky stuff I have learnt and where I found it….
    I also note the books I have bought (Amazon is great for used books), the hours I’ve spent watching the Ozar Crew on Webinars and other research/self learning that I have done.

    Not only is this handy for when I want to find things again but I also intend to use it when it comes to appraisal/review time.
    Also, if the boss knows that you are keen and making all this extra effort, hopefully he’ll be more likely to find the budget to help you with your “What I need to Learn’ list.

    Thanks for making it fun!


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