In Praise of Expendable Support DBAs


As I am an operational DBA, I take exception to the idea of expendable support DBAs.

It is all very well to be a project DBA who can list their acomplishments in their LinkedIn profile. I know it is a very good feeling to have achieved something at the end of the project. And it is very comfortable to get into the flow of problem solving and to be able to work on something without interruption.

As I noted in my comments on Don’t Multitask: Your Brain Will Thank You, my job as an operational DBA is built around interruptions. I am doing a good job when nothing untoward is happening, when the graphs are boring, and all of the alarms are silent.

As for being expendable, I would disagree because very few DBAs want to be operational DBAs. They want to have that accomplishment of having solved a very difficult, and possibly writing an insightful blog post or article or giving a presentation about it. And I, as an operational DBA, am very appreciative of this valuable corpus of work. But the reluctance of others to be in operational work makes me a Linchpin. It is about doing work no one else wants to do, and doing it well despite the lack of recognition and prestige.

When I started my IT career (sometime after the end of the last Ice Age), I was very reluctant to become a maintaince programmer, and to work in operations support. I was dragged kicking and screaming into those roles because they were part of my programming apprenticeship.

And I was glad that I was forced to do so. It took me years to appreciate the valuable skills I picked up then. I think these skills are a quick appreciation of the ways that other people express themselves in writing code and documentation, and ways of dealing with very difficult people who demand the impossible yesterday.

So, I am glad that I am an expendable support DBA. The work is very frustrating, unrewarding, and very few people can do it well (even if they wanted to). I think that being an operational DBA helped me to passed the OCM exams because I had to make quick decisions in the face of ignorance and tight time constraints.

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One thought on “In Praise of Expendable Support DBAs

  1. Seemingly endless on call, fixing issues no one else seems to be able to, and trying to juggle a hundred issues and people and tasks at once! I’ve been an ‘expendable support DBA’ for a long time (though not since the Ice Age), and I agree that what we do should not be considered expendable. It’s a valuable service and a dedicated one, particularly coming from a DBA with ethics.

    But working with hundreds of companies in a support role I have to say, I see DBAs getting lumped more and more into the outsource bin. Some get replaced with high priced consulting companies that cost more than the DBA did but fall under a different budget, and some get replaced with a team of much less skilled DBAs. It’s a sad state of affairs, because I believe that a company can seriously benefit from having skilled support staff behind the scenes that can quickly identify issues, deploy new systems, etc. with the speed you’d expect from an Oracle expert.

    Being an operational DBA absolutely did help you with your OCM exam; it was designed to test those critical skills, caution and calm in the face of difficulty, and speed of choosing the right path to take. It’s a great accomplishment that I hope you’re proud of. I know I’m proud of mine.

    But one other note. Many operational DBAs are project DBAs and just don’t know it or articulate it when it comes to their business. Did you work with the development group from the start in order to ensure a smooth release? You were an active part of the product lifecycle then, not just a support role, waiting for someone to tell you what to do. Did you attend the planning discussions for a new project and offer advice on the database architecture, setup, and maintenance? Did you set up monitoring so you can identify issues before they happen? If so, then you were a valuable part of the project, and many companies appreciate those contributions far more than they appreciate the tireless hours you spent fixing a bug or upgrading a DB or tuning some queries. Whether it’s right or not, the pre-emptive involvement is considered more worthwhile than the reactive support.

    Here’s to us, operational DBAs all.

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