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How to become a DBA

What is a DBA or Database Administrator?

A DBA is a specialized individual responsible for the performance, integrity, and security of a database.

  • A DBA will typically analyse and monitor servers.
  • They perform necessary support and maintenance where needed.
  • They keep an organisations databases and infrastructure related to the databases in top form for optimal performance.

These points are a very high level overview of what a DBA does. Your duties as a DBA can get extremely integrated and detailed depending on what type of DBA you are or want to be.

Check out this video by Technology Profession for a great explanation of what exactly a DBA is and what a DBA does:

There are many types of DBA’s. The type of DBA you are classified as varies largely depending on what your duties, for which organization, and how the organizations structure is laid out.

Common types of DBA’s

  • Operational DBA (sometimes called System DBA)

    Operational DBA’s are responsible for monitoring the operation of databases including uptime and performance. Operational DBA’s will act on numerous amounts of issues such as performance issues, space related issues, data corruption issues etc. Operational DBA’s are also, usually, responsible for backups strategies on the production databases as well as any other operational critical elements of the databases.

  • Database Architect

    Database architects are responsible for creating large enterprise grade data architecture. In short, Database Architects plan, design and develop databases which will later be used by the business to fulfill a specific needs or requirements such as storing data for a new software product. Database Architects are responsible for the planning and development of the data architecture, such as the servers which the databases will run on, the physical design of the database according to best practices, the implementation of the database architecture etc.

  • Database Analyst

    Database Analysts are responsible for the planning of data collection from various business entities or departments. Database Analysts develop and manage the flow of said data between departments. Data Analysts used to be called data administrators. A database analyst is one example where their duties may overflow with those of a system DBA.

  • Data Modeler

    Data Modelers are responsible for gathering the requirements of data for business entities or departments. The data modeler will then design a data model adhering to these requirements and needs. Data Modelers and Data Analysts frequently work fairly close together and in some instances their duties may also overlap.

  • Application DBA

    Application DBA’s design and develop databases for a specific application. They are experts in writing and debugging extremely complex SQL statements and make sure that the database design, application design and code standards work seamlessly together adhering to best practices for optimal performance.

  • Task Orientated DBA

    Large organisations and corporations sometimes appoint DBA’s whose sole purpose is to focus on one specific area or task. Although this is not very common, they do exist. An organisation will, for instance, appoint a DBA who is specifically responsible for the backup plans, processes, and procedures on their enterprise systems.

  • Performance Analyst

    A performance analyst is a type of task oriented DBA whose sole responsibility is to monitor the performance of the server and immediately act and resolve any issues which may affect the performance of the server. Performance Analyst DBA’s are experts in understanding the inner workings of the Database Management System server, how it fits together and what may or may not cause these performance issues.

  • Data Warehouse (DW) Administrator

    DW administrators are responsible for the day to day activities and upkeep of data warehousing systems. Data warehouse administrators are extremely skilled in data migration, data flow and the tracking and monitoring of data changes.

In more common environments, you, as DBA will ultimately fulfill more than one of these roles at a time and will most likely experience, and be labelled as, every one of these DBA types during your career. As a DBA you will wear many hats and you never know what you will be doing next. That’s half the fun of being a DBA.

Database Management Systems (DBMS)

 

JJ Prinsloo: SQL Expert - Database Management System

DBA’s spend most of their time, if not all, working directly with the Database Management System, or DBMS for short, in which they specialize. Although we focus a little more on Microsoft SQL Server in this article, there are many database management systems out there.

Some database management systems are used more on some platforms than others. It is for instance more likely that you will see much more of MySQL on web platforms than you will see Microsoft SQL Server or Oracle.

Some of these database management systems are also more common in the enterprise arena than others. You are very likely to come across all of them during your career as a database administrator.

5 Common Database Management Systems

How to decide which DBMS and DBA Path is right for you

It’s not an easy choice to make and definitely not a light hearted decision either. There are so many options and I can fully understand the frustration and confusion, especially if you are completely new to all of this DBA wizardry.

There are a couple of questions you have to ask yourself before you decide which DBA career path you should follow.

Five common question you need to ask yourself before becoming a DBA

  1. Who are you and what type of person are you?
  2. What is it that you enjoy doing?
  3. What is it that you want to do?
  4. What excites you about being a DBA?
  5. What convinced you to start looking for this article in the first place?

When you have asked yourself the difficult questions, you know, those types of questions for which you will be better off lying horizontally on an uncomfortable couch before answering, you should have a pretty good idea as to what type of DBA will suit you the most. Follow your gut and go for it. There is nothing worse than being stuck in a job where you do the same thing over and over and you do not enjoy it. Trust me, that’s life. A lot of being a DBA is doing the same thing over and over again.

Now is the time to choose in which Database Management System you want to specialize in. As mentioned previously there are many options. I have listed the top 5 most common database management systems but there is a wealth of others out there. It’s up to you to choose the right one. To help you choose, there are a few considerations you have to keep in mind when deciding which DBMS you would like to specialize in.

5 Things to keep in mind when choosing a DBMS to specialize in

  1. Job availability

    Do research about how many jobs are available for individuals who specialize in the DBMS which you are considering. Is there a need for someone who specializes in the DBMS which you are considering in your current organization? Speak to the relevant team members and managers and get their input about the DBMS which you are considering to specialize in. These guys are in the industry and they come with experience. You might just find that they will invite you to join their team after successful completion of your certifications. This means you can skip the job searching and build up great experience alongside people you most likely already know.

  2. Can you make a living?

    Research the market related salaries in your area for entry level DBA’s and work out for yourself if you can make a living by specializing in the DBMS which you are considering. This may not be an issue if you are younger but if you are already established in a position which pays good money, it will be something to think about. Specializing in a different DBMS might just give you that little extra to get you through the month in the beginning stages.

  3. Surrounding technologies

    Technically, there are a lot of technologies out there that will be able to interact with each other in one way or another. With enough effort you should theoretically be able to integrate different technologies with each other such as using Microsoft SQL Server Integration Services to read data from Oracle or IBM DB2 both of which are not Microsoft products. The cases in which these combinations exist though, are rare. It is more common to start a job with an organization where all the surrounding technologies are from the same vendor. Microsoft is a perfect example of this. Organizations who use Microsoft SQL Server as the DBMS tend to stick with Microsoft’s surrounding technologies such as SQL Server Integration Services for ETL Processes, SQL Server Reporting Services for reporting and SQL Server Analysis Services for their Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing requirements.

  4. Transitioning

    Consider how difficult it would be to transition from one type of DBA to another. From experience I can say that in the Microsoft SQL server space this should not be too difficult as the exams prepare you for the full range of DBA types. Furthermore, many of the tasks between the different DBA types overlap. It is fairly simple to transition into a new DBA type.

  5. Career growth

    Where do you want to be in 5 years? It is highly unlikely that your answer would be in the line of “Still backing up databases”. Consider the career growth opportunities when deciding on a DBMS. Career growth is usually coupled very closely to role transitioning and supporting technologies. If there are more supporting technologies to sink your teeth into, there will be more roles for you to fulfill and in the end more career paths and better career growth.

Getting Started

Great! You have successfully decided what type of DBA you want to be and in which DBMS you want to specialize in. You can get off that uncomfortable couch now. It’s time to pull up your sleeves and start working on getting to know your DBMS so that you can get those certifications to start your career as a DBA.

You will need training, and lots of it. Luckily, you live in the age of the internet. Online training and various other sources are available everywhere. Most of them for free.

3 Resources to get you started as a DBA

  1. Youtube

    Doing a quick search on YouTube for tutorials on your chosen DBMS will reveal a wealth of tutorial videos which will help you jump over that first hurdle. Search for your chosen DBMS tutorial i.e. “SQL Server 2016 tutorial”

  2. Google

    Google is a DBA’s best friend. No day shall pass without using it. Whether it is to check your syntax or finding a script, it is your best friend. In this instance you can use it to search for getting started tutorials on you chosen DBMS.

  3. Websites

    Free information could be a little more difficult to come by if you chose a less common DBMS to specialize in. For more common DBMS’s there is a wealth of information available for free on various websites. Websites such as w3schools and onekeydata are valuable resources for SQL training where the latter also has training for Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence. Remember, SQL (Structured Query Language) is, as its name states, a language. The SQL language is used across multiple DBMS’s. The structure of the language may vary over the different systems but the underlying concepts remain the same. This makes it a valuable skill to have.

Get DBA training

 

Database Administrator Training

Using resources to get you started on your new adventure as a DBA is a great start. You will soon be familiar with all the different tools that are used as well as some of the terminologies used in the field. It is, however, always a good idea to get some sort of training which relates directly to the exams which you will write should you decide to get certified. The internet is full of institutes, websites and services where you can get the required training and exam preparation to prepare you for your certification exams. This training will also prepare you to be a DBA. You can find training in various formats and it’s up to you to choose which form of training works for you. Here are a few common training mediums which you should consider:

  1. Old school classroom training

    Some may say there is nothing better, although I am not a fan. There are many great institutes where you can do old school classroom training which will prepare you for you journey. The only downside to classroom training is that usually the schedules are not flexible and it takes forever. The courses are laid out in specific time frames and there is no way for you to study at your own pace. On the subject of becoming a Database Administrator, this could take quite some time. Unfortunately, with some DBMS technologies and paths, you have no choice but to go the classroom training route. Be sure to keep this in mind when you choose a DBMS to specialize in.

  2. Books

    As the saying goes, “There is no friend as loyal as a book”. Check your favorite book store. This could be online or offline. You will find tons of books containing a wealth of information on the DBMS you have chosen. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned DBA, there’s a book out there just for you. Some books were written with the certification exams in mind which will prepare you for all of the modules which you will be tested on in the DBA certification exams.

  3. Online Training Courses

    Digital content has taken the internet by storm. Gone are the days where you have to sit in a crowded classroom where you cannot study on your own pace. Online courses give you the ability to train anywhere you like, whenever you like. The training courses are usually presented by industry leaders who have years of knowledgeable experience. Experience which they share with you through their training videos. Most of these online courses such as the CBT Nuggets & AppDev courses work alongside the exam specifications. This means that they train you to understand each module which you will be tested on in your exams when doing your certification.

Top 5 DBA online training sources

Top 5 sources to get books for DBA’s

Additional SQL server book resources

Get Certified

Time to ace those exams and get your certifications. Which certifications you get will be based on which DBMS you chose to specialize in as a DBA. There are certifications for every major DBMS and some certifications have different paths which you can take if you don’t decide to complete all paths. The first levels of the certification though will give you the groundwork to start your career as a DBA. Microsoft is a good example of this process. On the Microsoft learning website, the SQL server Certifications are laid out quite well according to the different levels. At the entry level you will complete the Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA): The fundamentals of IT – Database exam. This exam provides you with the fundamentals of IT databases groundwork which will make following exams easier. If, however, you are already in the IT field this exam may be skipped. It is possible to start on the next level though it is up to you to decide if you want to do this. The next level is the Microsoft Solutions Associate (MCSA) exam. This will give you the groundwork to be a DBA. At the time of writing the two paths that are available are for SQL Server 2016 and SQL Server 2012/2014.

Get certified as a DBA

Microsoft SQL 2016 Path

When following the SQL 2016 path, which is a good idea as it is best to always stay current in IT, there are three paths which you can take. All of these paths have 2 exams which have to be written to obtain the associated certification

Each of these paths will give you the Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate qualification in the associated field. If you are really motivated, you can do all three.

After successfully completing one of the SQL 2016 MCSA certifications you can move on to the MCSE: Data Management and Analytics certification. To obtain this MCSE certification, you need to pick one of the following exams:

Which exam you choose to write is directly dependent on which path you want to take. For instance, if you decided on becoming a Database Administrator, it would make sense to write exams that relates to DBA work and not on Business Intelligence.

After successfully passing any one of these exams, you will have successfully obtained you MCSE Certification for the associated field.

Microsoft SQL 2012/2014 Path

When following the SQL 2012/2014 path there is basically only one path that you can take to obtain your Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate certification which can be obtained by writing the following three exams

After successfully completing your MCSA certification you can move on to the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) exams. As with the MCSA certification, there are also multiple paths which you can follow here.

  • MCSE: Data Management and Analytics

    • You can also continue on with the MCSE Data Management and Analytics certification as outlined above in the SQL 2016 path after you successfully obtain any one of the SQL 2012/2014 MCSA certifications.

Congratulations, you will now have successfully obtained an MCSE certification in Microsoft SQL Server.

Oracle Path

To get certified in Oracle, you can visit the Oracle University website. Pick one of the options under Database Categories section. For the purpose of this example, pick the Oracle Database option. Pick the Oracle Database product which you want to get certified in. All of the certifications which you can obtain for the Oracle product will now be listed. The path which you need to take is perfectly outlined on the page. There should be no confusion as to how, and in which order, you should write the exams.

Certification Conclusion

As you can see there are many paths which you can follow to becoming a database administrator. The path that I would choose, as a Microsoft guy, is as follows:

  1. Obtain one of the MCSA certifications as outlined in the SQL 2016 Path.
  2. Obtain the MCSE: Data Management and Analytics certification by writing any of the exams listed in the SQL 2016 Path. As a DBA I would write all the exams in the following order:
    1. 464 – Developing Microsoft SQL Server Databases
    2. 465 – Designing Database Solutions for Microsoft SQL Server
    3. 473 – Designing and Implementing Cloud Data Platform Solutions
    4. 475 – Designing and Implementing Big Data Analytics Solutions
    5. 466 – Implementing Data Models and Reports with Microsoft SQL Server
    6. 467 – Designing Business Intelligence Solutions with Microsoft SQL Server
  3. If you really want to you can complete the other SQL 2016 MCSA exams you can do so. I would consider doing them. There is always something to learn.

By following this path, you will successful complete and obtain all MCSE certifications in both the SQL 2016 as well as the SQL 2012/2014 paths. I don’t know if you have noticed but all of the exams required to obtain the SQL 2012/2014 MCSE: Data Platform and SQL 2012/2014 MCSE: Business Intelligence certifications are also listed in the SQL 2016: MCSE Data Management and Analytics certification. This means by following the one path, you can get all of the certifications.

 

Get a Job

Get a Job as a Database Administrator

This is the difficult part. Landing a job. I won’t be going into the whole interview process of what to wear, how to answer questions, how to stand etc. For that you can check out the below list of interview articles. Make sure you read these immediately:

Also be sure to check out this post from Brent Ozar: SQL Interview Questions. It’s extremely insightful.

Where to look for a DBA Job

Finding a job as a Database Administrator could prove to be difficult. The area in which you are looking to find a job also has an impact on this. The best place to start looking for a DBA job is online. Go visit your best friend, Google, and start looking. Here are a few of my favourite sights which you can use to start looking for a job as a DBA:

 

South Africa

United Kingdom

United States of America

Pnet.co.za

OfferZen.co.za

Indeed.co.za

Careers24.com

CareerJet.co.za

CareerJunction.co.za

Indeed.co.uk

Monster.co.uk

Reed.co.uk

TheLadders.com

Indeed.com

Monster.com

 

These are some great places to start looking for a job as a DBA. Keep in mind though, nothing is stopping you from actually applying directly to companies which you would like to work for so brush up that CV of yours and start applying!

DBA Salary Averages

A DBA’s salary varies widely depending on where you will be working. I have listed some of the averages for South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The averages are also categorized by level of experience.

Database Administrator Salary

Keep in mind the following when reading this table:

  • These are nation-wide figures. You will get a clearer picture of what type of wage you can expect if you drill further into your region like Johannesburg, London, and New York.
  • The figures on the tables are “median” salaries. This means that it’s a normal, average salary calculated from all salary data for the specific role. Go to the payscale website to see the minimum and maximum values for your desired experience level:
    1. South Africa
    2. United Kingdom
    3. United States of America
  • I personally think these figures are a bit low. Especially in the UK. I have seen a lot of positions in the UK for an experienced DBA that pay about £55,000 upwards.

Experience

South Africa

UK

USA

Entry Level
R147,395 £29,974 $62,578
Mid Career
R232,943 £37,492 $80,445
Experienced
R428,979 £35,468 $89,257

This graph, along with a little bit of research from your side should give you a clearer understanding about the wages you can expect as a Database Administrator. This will ensure that you can negotiate fairly and that you get a market related salary.

Conclusion

Being a database administrator is great. I personally specialise in Microsoft SQL Server. I just love all the surrounding technologies and the amount of things you can accomplish by knowing what to do with it all. As a DBA your world will always be interesting. Whenever you start a new venture or project, start working at a new firm or in a new industry, things will be different. You will always have something new to learn every day.