How to Get Your Very First Full Time DBA Job

It's about time.
It’s about time.

Step 1: get a job as a developer or a sysadmin.

Step 2: stand near the database.

Step 3: wait.

Almost every DBA I know got their start this way. Sooner or later, something went wrong with the database, and management grabbed the nearest person and yelled, “You! You look smart and helpful! Can you figure out how to get this thing back online?”

This person then spent more and more time doing stuff related to the database until they began calling themselves an Accidental DBA. At that point, the acronym DBA still wasn’t on their email signature, and they still didn’t feel comfortable using that acronym by itself. They were still a developer or sysadmin.

But wait a little longer, and that person’s next job – either at the same company, or another – was full time DBA.

There are no shortcuts. Here’s why.

Almost everyone who isn’t a DBA thinks they can somehow shortcut this process. They think they can present a near-empty resume and say, “I’ve learned a lot about databases by studying them and playing around with them. Give me a job managing your databases.”

Thing is, when companies have enough databases to hire a full time DBA, they’re saying, “Our data is valuable enough to warrant a full time professional watching over them.” That means they don’t want someone without real-world experience. After all, if they have that many databases, they likely also have a lot of developers and/or sysadmins, and they’ve likely been already filling the Accidental DBA role. The company isn’t likely to hire you in as a full time DBA if they have people on staff with more real-world experience than you.

Certifications aren’t going to get you there, either, because the Internet is chock full of braindumps – sample questions and answers that are sometimes from the actual tests themselves. Seasoned IT managers understand that certifications are icing, not cake – they don’t prove that a candidate can do a job. Certification tests aren’t even related to the job tasks that IT workers perform, as I ranted about on the Away From the Keyboard podcast.

If you want a DBA job, start with the job you have.

Stand near the database server. Look smart. Be helpful.

And above all, remember that the people who will hire you for your next DBA job are already around you.

Previous Post
Cheat Sheet: How to Configure TempDB for Microsoft SQL Server
Next Post
What Is a Staging Environment and How Do You Build One?

33 Comments. Leave new

  • …….and if they haven’t had one, you won’t have to wait very long!

  • Uh – that’s me!

  • Alternatively, stumble backwards into a DBA job without realizing what you’re getting into, which is exactly what happened to me out of college. I think saying “MySQL” more than once sealed my fate.

  • Sysadmin for 5 years before the DBA team approached me and asked me to be the new DBA. Best move I ever made!

  • Great advice. I ‘stood near the database’ at my prior job (as a sysadmin) and got some gradual SQL exposure. The real shot in the arm was 3 years ago, when my current company’s database architect left and they wanted to train a replacement but not hire one.

  • Been doing this a LONG time and still stand by the database servers trying to look smart and listen – NEVER hurts to keep listening

  • Many years on the help desk, then went back and finished my degree. That’s when I got asked what I wanted to do next. I said I wanted to manage the help desk. They said, what else would you like to do next? I said DBA and they said they could make that happen. The rest is, as they say…….

  • Got first job as AS/400 operator, waited for company to start moving to SQL. Watched, learned, figured stuff out.

  • Front Line Support for a major computer company ->
    Accidental Web Developer ->
    Accidental Programmer ->
    Accidental IT Manager ->
    Accidental DBA (although called an application administrator for an ERP system)

    I’m just an accident waiting to happen

  • Thanks for posting this Brent.

  • I was constantly complaining about my company not having a DBA. Guess what they did to shut me up? 17 years later I still won’t complain about any personnel shortage, no matter how obvious.

  • Working in data is a second career for me. I was a musician and music teacher for 12 years. In 2010, I was telling a friend of mine, who is a MicroStrategy developer, how I was burned out and wanted to change careers. He told me, “learn SQL and you will always have a job.” I had no idea what SQL was. I bought some books and studied for about 9 months and took the SQL Server 2008 Development test. I passed and that helped propel me into a job as a SQL Server DBA in Dallas, TX. I never in a million years thought I would be doing this. Not having any real-world experience, the Cert did help me at least get my foot in the door for a Junior DBA interview, that was offering training. From there, I was able to get the gig and the rest is history.

    • Michael, I’m happy to hear your story as I am in a similar situation now and am scared shitless. I graduated with a BS in Public Relations and worked in customer service and journalism out of high school. While working at a small newspaper, the web editor quit and I had to teach myself HTML and project management. Few years after that I was working at a call center and asked why they didn’t have chat as a customer contact channel. The director told me I should develop something and I did – with the help of a third party vendor. In that role, I add un-official corporate trainer to my list of growing skills. From there I applied for a help desk / end user support role with the parent company of the call center. It’s been a year and a half in that role and in two weeks I start my position as jr dba. Did I mention that I’m scared shitless. Mostly that I don’t know what I don’t know and there’s A LOT that I don’t know. I’m not starting out as a sysadmin or a developer and they hired me anyway. Are they crazy or am I?

      • Good news! There’s more free training around the MS datasphere than in any other tech I know. Join PASS and a virtual chapter or two. Hit your nearest SQL Saturday. You’ll be fine.

      • Fredric Shope
        January 19, 2016 1:21 pm

        Congrats! I was there about a year ago… I jumped from SME (subject matter expert) on a SQL-based application to Jr DBA.

        Learn all you can from your Senior DBAs, and slowly take over tasks they don’t want to do. Ask lots of good questions; don’t just bombard them with stuff that’s easy to figure out. If you have more than one Sr DBA, spread questions out among them. Make friends. Be careful with Production servers. Read Brent’s blog, join the DBA StackExchange, and get all the free and paid trainings you can.

        (This list ended up seeming like a lot, and I didn’t mean it to. I was trying to reassure you that you can do it with some simple steps. Bottom line: just pay attention and learn what you can.)

      • What I found as a Jr. DBA is that they don’t expect you to know a lot. Depending on the shop, you will be given tasks that with some help you will be able to complete. Ask lots of questions. I was never afraid to say, “I dont know how to do that”. In my circumstance, the Senior helped to train me up and gave me stuff to work on that stretched me to learn, but also a lot of redundant stuff, like backup failures and drive space issues. If you like to learn you will do fine.

    • You guys are totally right. One week down as a jr. dba and I’m loving every minute of it. It’s really cool to connect and understand what I learned from supporting the applications that use SQL server to what I’m learning now. The senior dbas are awesome and they are taking the time to show me the ropes. I’m starting to get small tasks thrown my way like permissions based requests and restores and I can’t wait to take on more. So exciting!

  • Started with SQL 4.21 and created a FEPI (Front End Programming Interface) mainframe program against VSAM files and used an extend stored procedure to run it from SQL Server. (Was a mainframe Assembler and COBOL programmer). It was a way to get data from the mainframe to the PC. Then as a developer did some data warehouse loads from VSAM files. Developed front ends for it. Was a developer until around 1999. Then was drawn in to supporting Pivotal CRM Relationship 99. Then while supporting that became an ‘accidental production DBA’ for it but I already had been for a while really.
    The environment grew rapidly from there and there were a number of consolidations and de-consolidations that I survived.
    Been a long road and a lot of challenges and products supported. The skills have even changed a bit. At one point I did a lot more SQL Reporting services. A lot more clustering too but nowadays the organization leans towards virtuals heavily.
    Have worn some other hats along the way such as domain admin and VMware admin (virtualizing SQL Server) along with some firewall and windows admin.

    Very true that you need to stay open and go with the flow and seek to add value and help when wanted to work with something. Greatly increases the chances.

  • Hahaha, exactly.

    Step one: Develop websites in Cold Fusion, ASP, and ASP.Net.

    Step two: Flee into comforting womb of system administration. Get handed all the SQL Servers for the software that requires them because I “know them best.” Fix broken SQL stuff.

    Step three: DBA job.

  • Jennifer Champagne
    January 19, 2016 3:09 pm

    I suppose I am the exception to the rule. My first job was for a small company as Junior DBA for Oracle & SQL Server. 14 years later, still a DBA and loving it.

    • Jefferson Elias
      January 20, 2016 12:21 am

      Jennifer Champagne is not the only exception there… I started four years ago as an Oracle DBA without any particular knowledge, but an excellent DBA was in place and I had the opportunity to learn.
      Afterwards, I became an “Accidental” SQL Server DBA.

  • Sinister Penguin
    January 20, 2016 3:45 am

    Working out how to extract useful data for colleagues/the boss from a database has much the same effect.

    Even if its through some rubbish data query GUI in a vendor tool. You’ll soon find yourself considered the “expert” & in change of the database – worked for me anyway.

  • Wow, that’s exactly what I did, and I just got administrative right on production servers a couple of days ago, due to many “Accidental DBA” situations, as you call them.

    That’s so good to me. I’m still young (24 yo) but thanks to a lot of study (and you, Brent) I became more that I expected!

    I hope I’ll get the DBA position one day 😉

  • “Seasoned IT managers understand that certifications are icing, not cake – they don’t prove that a candidate can do a job. Certification tests aren’t even related to the job tasks that IT workers perform, as I ranted about on the Away From the Keyboard podcast.”

    Thanks for that. It’s what I’ve been saying for the last year and a half. Unfortunately, our CIO isn’t all that seasoned. He only got the job because he was deputy CIO when our former CIO suddenly died a couple of year ago. It has become mandatory that we get certified or lose our jobs. My 20+ years of database experience count for nothing. The theory is that he expects to force us all to become certified so that our organization will become ISO certified and he can use that to springboard his career to a better position. So, I find myself having to look for another job when I’m only two years from retirement. We don’t have time to do the work we have, much less study for some certification that won’t be of much use.

  • That’s exactly how it happened for me. Sys engineer –> developer –> hired to a new company as a software engineer / junior DBA –> lead DBA quit and I fell into the role –> Love my job.

  • Me too. Developer first. I was asked to see why SQL Server 6.5 was not working on a server many years ago. Got the server up and running. BTW, it was a very basic security access issue. I then went back to development and next thing I know it, my title was changed to DBA.

  • Miguel Bermudez
    February 2, 2016 10:21 am

    Here is my path. After the first job the rest where somewhat accidental.

    Cobol Programmer –>
    IBM OS/2 warp Admin –>
    System Support –>
    Windows NT Admin –>
    Oracle on AIX Admin –>
    SQL Server Admin –>

    Long road but fun!

  • You people are totally wrong. Here is how it works:
    Step 1: Enroll yourself in a 4-6 month course. Learn how to answer interview questions.
    Step 2: Build a resume saying you have 8 years of dba experience & get offer
    Step 3: Start your career as a dba
    You dont need to be developer, network administrator, nor you have to have a Bachelor, associate or even a high school diploma.

    • Jabin – HAHAHA, there you go. But if you’re going to lie, why become a DBA? Why not CEO? Or banker?

      • Brent, few of my friends, got the dba jobs this way. One of them even didn’t have a HS diploma.They all are making 90k or more. Here I am with a BS and a Grad Cert making 60k. I didn’t feel like lying on my resume(lol).
        Lying CEOs? Then check out resumes of all Indian CEOs.

    • Jay Ramachandran
      March 7, 2016 8:03 pm

      @Jabin, we were interviewing for a position few months ago , it was not hard to figure out if someone is lying or they have genuine credentials. If you ask them about deep internals they usually don’t have a clue. IMO I am not sure if 4-6 months of training is going to help them understand advanced concepts.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.