15 February 2011

What Counts for a DBA: Skill

“Practice makes perfect:” right? Well, not exactly. The reality of it all is that this saying is an untrustworthy aphorism. I discovered this in my “younger” days when I was a passionate tennis player, practicing and playing 20+ hours a week. No matter what my passion level was, without some serious coaching (and perhaps a change in dietary habits), my skill level was never going to rise to a level where I could make any money at the sport that involved something other than selling tennis balls at a sporting goods store. My game may have improved with all that practice but I had too many bad practices to overcome. Practice by itself merely reinforces what we know and what we can figure out naturally. The truth is actually closer to the expression used by Vince Lombardi: “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

So how do you get to become skilled as a DBA if practice alone isn’t sufficient? Hit the Internet and start searching for SQL training and you can find 100 different sites. There are also hundreds of blogs, magazines, books, conferences both onsite and virtual. But then how do you know who is good? Unfortunately often the worst guide can be to find out the experience level of the writer. Some of the best DBAs are frighteningly young, and some got their start back when databases were stored on stacks of paper with little holes in it.

As a programmer, is it really so hard to understand normalization? Set based theory? Query optimization? Indexing and performance tuning? The biggest barrier often is previous knowledge, particularly programming skills cultivated before you get started with SQL. In the world of technology, it is pretty rare that a fresh programmer will gravitate to database programming. Database programming is very unsexy work, because without a UI all you have are a bunch of text strings that you could never impress anyone with. Newbies spend most of their time building UIs or apps with procedural code in C# or VB scoring obvious interesting wins. Making matters worse is that SQL programming requires mastery of a much different toolset than most any mainstream programming skill. Instead of controlling everything yourself, most of the really difficult work is done by the internals of the engine (written by other non-relational programmers…we just can’t get away from them.)

So is there a golden road to achieving a high skill level? Sadly, with tennis, I am pretty sure I’ll never discover it. However, with programming it seems to boil down to practice in applying the appropriate techniques for whatever type of programming you are doing. Can a C# programmer build a great database? As long as they don’t treat SQL like C#, absolutely. Same goes for a DBA writing C# code. None of this stuff is rocket science, as long as you learn to understand that different types of programming require different skill sets and you as a programmer must recognize the difference between one of the procedural languages and SQL and treat them differently. Skill comes from practicing doing things the right way and making “right” a habit.

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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