How To Find A Good DBA
The internet is full of places for you to get career advice. You can get help in putting together your resume, find tips on how to interview, and even find tips on how to train for the career you want to have. And all of that information is geared towards an individual trying to find employment.
But what about employers trying to find an employee? What options do they have? Where would they turn? Most often the answer lies with either a recruiter or with posting an ad with an Internet job search engine.
The trouble with either of those approaches is that it is a crapshoot. You have no idea who you are going to get. It would be the same as if you went looking for love and posted an ad online. When you think about it, you are looking for a partner in either situation. And yet so many people continue to use the same methods to find employees and are continuously frustrated with the results.
I put together this page in order to help an employer understand how to locate and hire the SQL Server experts they are looking for. I try to answer the following two questions. First, do I need a DBA? Second, where do I find a SQL Server expert?
I Have A Business, Do I Need a DBA?
Often a company already has a DBA and are looking to either add to their staff or replace a current headcount. Few companies would ever go from having one DBA to none, but some companies may have no DBA and no idea if they even need one. So, if you own a company, how do you know if you need one or more DBAs? here are some quick questions to ask yourself:
- Do you have a database?
- Do you have a recovery plan for that database?
- Have you ever tested your recovery plan?
- Does your database have performance problems?
- Are you tired of throwing hardware at the problem and never seeing improvements?
Answer yes to one or more of those questions and you are in need of a dedicated database administrator. Yes, I said dedicated. Unless it makes sense to you to have someone protect and recover your data as a part time job. In that case, do whatever you want. But for those of us that don’t live in Fantasyland, we prefer to have someone focus on the administration duties and take them seriously. You don’t send that same message if you ask someone to do it on a part time basis.
Where Can I Find a SQL Server Expert?
If you were a company that needed a DBA, where would you go? Typically I see companies turn to recruiters and to internet job engines. Which means that I also see them make two huge mistakes by turning to recruiters and internet job engines. Complicating matters further are the job descriptions that list every possible thing under the Sun. Most often these descriptions are written by someone in HR or the hiring manager and bear little resemblance to the actual day to day job duties. The result of this is the fact that many people will tell you that job descriptions are simply a starting point for a conversation.
See, people already know that most descriptions are not entirely accurate. So in order to get a chance at an interview they will rework their resume in order to have all the necessary buzzwords (or, worse, the recruiter will do this for them). They do this so that the conversation can take place, but the end result is that you end up with a person in the wrong room. I should know, it happened to me many years ago when a recruiter told me that I needed to put down C++ on my resume otherwise I wouldn’t get any interviews, then sent me on a bunch of interviews for C++ focused jobs despite my real experience having been with PowerBuilder (stop laughing at me!)
So where is it that companies should go to find a good DBA? The truth is that companies should always be actively searching for good employees all the time. If you wait until you have a specific need then you are going to find it very hard to fill that need anytime soon. Your best bet is to start meeting as many people as possible now.
Local user groups are a great way to meet others with a similar interest. You can build a lot of good relationships over time with a lot of good people. The best part is that the people that go to a user group meeting are the very type of people you want to hire: those that go the extra mile to learn something new (or eat free pizza, it’s a win-win).
Same as a user group, at a SQL Saturday you are going to meet a lot of people that are willing to go the extra mile to learn something new. Attend one and exchange some business cards with a dozen or so attendees. Keep in touch with them and over time you’ll be rewarded on the day you send out an email asking if anyone is interested in an open position that you have to fill.
The Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) is an independent, not-for-profit association, dedicated to supporting, educating, and promoting the Microsoft SQL Server community. If you are looking for a SQL Server expert then you could do far worse than to rub elbows with some of its members. And, in fact, you already have done worse by now so why haven’t you tried to leverage PASS for some help in finding a SQL Server expert? Did you know that PASS has a section of their website dedicated to helping with the job search?
OK, I Found One, How Do I Talk To Them?
That depends, of course, on where the conversation is taking place. If the first time you are meeting someone is during a part of your hiring process then you are going to treat them very differently. In fact, we have laws that dictate what you can and cannot talk about. But if your conversations are of a different nature, say you strike up a conversation with someone at a SQL Saturday just to get to know them better, then you have a little more freedom for a casual conversation.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front: your job descriptions are awful. Nobody is going to want to apply for a jobs description that has so many bullet points it is longer than Lindsay Lohan’s criminal record. You are not enticing people when you list three full time jobs and offer below market rates for their skills.
OK, I feel better having written that, but this section is about how to communicate with a DBA during an interview. Let’s press on then, shall we?
By now you should realize that interviewing is a lot like dating. So if you have met someone for the first time as a result of placing a job ad then you are really doing the same thing as if you were interviewing people to find a date. And think about the relationship you are asking to build from this stranger. I have been told that a business partner is someone that you need to trust as much as your spouse. And aren’t you also going to have a level of trust with an employee or colleague? Maybe not to the level of a spouse, but this is someone you are going to need to rely on in a lot of key situations in the coming months and (hopefully) years.
So if the end goal is to essentially ask someone to enter into a relationship with you, why would you ask them a standard set of technical questions such as “please tell me the difference between a clustered index and a non-clustered index”. Would you ask a person you met through a personal ad “please tell me the difference between analog and digital television broadcasts”? Or “tell me four reasons why Blu-Ray is superior to regular DVD format”? No, you wouldn’t. You would ask them a different set of questions, the conversation would have a different style and flow, and you would get to know that person a little bit better.
Here’s the real catch, though. You would take time to get to know the person. Wit the job applicant we already know we can’t have the same type of conversation, and we also don’t have the luxury of time. Or do we? Who says we have to do everything inside of an hour? Why not spend a longer time? Why not take the person to lunch? Of course the best thing would be to have already networked with enough DBAs such that you wouldn’t need to meet total strangers, but let’s assume that you are meeting people for the first time here. Why does everyone feel that they need to do this within an hour?
Make certain you know more about the needs of the team before you start having your conversation with the total stranger you just met. If you have no idea on how to judge the difference between a good or a bad DBA then get out of that room immediately because you shouldn’t be doing the interview. If you do know the difference then make certain you know exactly what is needed for the role you are trying to fill. The next step is easy: just talk. Here are some guidelines:
- Find out more about the person, how they became a DBA, etc.
- Find out a few things they are proud to talk about having worked on in the past. (Good for more probing technical questions)
- Ask them why things were built in a certain way. (Perhaps their environment had limiting factors)
- Ask them where they learned to do such things in a certain way. (How were they trained? Self taught? Classes? Books?)
- Ask if they had a mentor. (Always a good thing to talk about, almost like getting them to pass the torch someday)
- Ask if they are active in the Community. (Do they have a network of people willing to help when they have a question?)
- Ask them if they have ever done any volunteer experience. (As a DBA you are always helping others for little or no reward)
- Ask them if they have ever taught anything to others. (Great for learning patience. So is having kids, but you can’t ask that)
Is the above methods and thoughts foolproof? No, it is not. But it is better than what I see 98% of everyone else doing.
How To Keep Your DBA Happy
One thing that gets overlooked by people that are asking about the whereabouts of SQL Server experts is the reason that they are looking. Often times it is because their current DBA has left the building. And without even asking themselves “why did we lose that one?” they simply start up the hiring process machine again in the hope of finding a new appliance to replace the old one that just left. Can you imagine if your toaster got up and walked out of your kitchen? Would you just go down to the nearest Tar-Jay and buy a new one, or would you sit up and say “Hey! My toaster just walked out of my kitchen!”
So, what can you do to help ensure your toaster doesn’t get up and walk out? I’m glad you asked.
Do you really listen to your DBA? Or do you just pretend to listen? When your DBA suggest that the current database design that was built by three developers for the past eight months doesn’t scale beyond 100 rows do you roll your eyes and say “just make it work and we can’t touch the code at this point”?
If you want to make a DBA happy on any given day then all you really need to do is listen to what we are saying. And if you don’t like the fact that we tend to rain on your parade at the 11th hour of a deployment I have another tidbit for you…
Inclusion is always better than exclusion and perhaps you should consider having us take part in the same meetings as your developers when projects are kicked off. But if you don’t want to talk to us at the 11th hour I’m not sure I can convince you to talk to us sooner, especially if all we do is spout doom and gloom about one thing or another. Maybe the reason we do such things is because we don’t feel…
It is a hard thing to show everyone they have value. I know, I have been trying to do it for over twenty years. Every person has a different set of motivations. But we are always motivated to do the things that end up showing how we are valued. Listening and inclusion may not be enough to show your DBA that they are valued. Perhaps your DBA is feeling stretched because they are being asked to run Sharepoint and Exchange as well. Or maybe they are tired of being called at all hours for performance problems that aren’t really problems at all. There are lots of reasons why a DBA may start to feel less valued and more like an appliance. And when that happens, if left unchecked, it is only a matter of time before they will move on to someone else that promises them that they will be more valued somewhere else.
For some people money is the valuing factor. For others it could be training. Once I got to a certain point I decided to draw the line at the MCM exam. When my company didn’t see fit to invest in me to take part in the exam I took that as a good indication that I no longer had value or held any promise for my employer. I knew it was time to move on at that very moment.
But when one door closes, another one opens. Now I just need to help everyone do a better job at finding themselves a new DBA (and keeping them).