10 March 2011

What Counts for a DBA: Humility

In football (the American sort, naturally,) there is a select group of players who really hope to never have their names called during the game. They are members of the offensive line, and their job is to protect other players so they can deliver the ball to the goal to score points. When you do hear their name called, it is usually because they made a mistake and the player that they were supposed to protect ended up flat on his back admiring the clouds in the sky instead of advancing towards the goal to scoring point. Even on the rare occasion their name is called for a good reason, it is usually because they were making up for a teammate who had made a mistake and they covered up for them.

The role of offensive lineman is a very good analogy for the role of the admin DBA. As a DBA, you are called on to be barely visible and rarely heard, protecting the company data assets tenaciously, even though the enemies to our craft surround us on all sides:.

Developers: Cries of ‘foul!’ often ensue when the DBA says that they want data integrity to be stringently enforced and that documentation is needed so they can support systems, mostly because every error occurrence in the enterprise will be initially blamed on the database and fall to the DBA to troubleshoot. Insisting too loudly may bring those cries of ‘foul’ that somewhat remind you of when your 2 year old daughter didn’t want to go to bed. The result of this petulance is that the next “enemy” gets involved.
Managers: The concerns that motivate DBAs to argue will not excite the kind of manager who gets his technical knowledge from a glossy magazine filled with buzzwords, charts, and pretty pictures. However, the other programmers in the organization will tickle the buzzword void with a stream of new-sounding ideas and technologies constantly, along with warnings that if we did care about data integrity and document things, the budget would explode! In contrast, the arguments for integrity of data and supportability tend to be about as exciting as watching grass grow, and far too many manager types seem to prefer to smoke it than watch it.
Packaged Applications: The DBA is rarely given a chance to review a new application that is being demonstrated for the enterprise, and rarer still is the DBA that gets a veto of an application because the database it uses has clearly been created by an architect that won’t read a data modeling book because he is already married. More often than not this leads to hours of work for the DBA trying to performance-tune a database with a menagerie of rules that must be followed to stay within the  application support agreement, such as no changing indexes on a third party schema even though there are 10 billion rows instead of the 10 thousand when the system was last optimized.
Hardware Failures: Physical disks, networking devices, memory, and backup devices all come with a measure known as ‘mean time before failure’ and it is never listed in centuries or eons. More like years, and the term ‘mean’ indicates that half of the devices are expected to fail before that, which by my calendar means any hour of any day that it wants to fail it will.

But the DBA sucks it up and does the task at hand with a humility that makes them nearly invisible to all but the most observant person in the organization. The best DBAs I know are so proactive in their relentless pursuit of perfection that they detect many of the bugs (which they seldom caused) in the system well before they become a problem.

In the end the DBA gets noticed for one of same two reasons as the offensive lineman. You make a mistake, like dropping a critical production database that had never been backed up; or when a system crashes for any reason whatsoever and they are on the spot with troubleshooting and system restoration plans that have been well thought out, tested, and tested again. Not because there is any glory in it, but because it is what they do.


Note: The characteristics of the professions referred to in this blog are meant to be overstated stereotypes for humorous effect, and even some DBAs aren’t quite this perfect. If you are reading this far and haven’t hand written a 10 page flaming comment about how you are a _______ and you aren’t like this, that is awesome. Not every situation applies to everyone, but if you have never worked with a bad packaged app, a magazine trained manager, programmers that aren’t team players, or hardware that occasionally failed, relax and go have a unicorn sandwich before you wake up.

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Louis has been in the IT industry for 15 years as a corporate database developer and data architect. Currently he is the Data Architect for Compass Technology in Chesapeake, Virginia, supporting the Christian Broadcasting Network and NorthStar Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. Louis has been a Microsoft MVP since 2004, and is an active volunteer for the Professional Association for SQL Server working in their Special Interest Groups. He is the author of SQL Server 2005 Database Design and Optimization.

View all articles by Louis Davidson