A database administrator (DBA) is responsible for the structure and configuration of a company's databases and the regulation of (often massive) database systems. The job is all about system stability, and ensuring that people within the organization can retrieve data as quickly and securely as possible.
In a typical week, a database administrator might do everything from migrating existing databases to solving a critical downtime issue. To carry out these tasks, a DBA must be familiar with the software in use, including SQL databases, Oracle Database and DB2 from IBM.
DBAs Don't Appear Overnight
Anna Frazzetto, CRO at global workforce solutions provider Airswift, says some of the hardest jobs within an IT structure revolve around anybody who's involved with data.
“The database administrator is responsible for maintaining that data, and there's lots of challenges with that, from how the data coming into the database to how it will be scrubbed and cleansed if need be,” she says. “It's a huge responsibility within the company.”
Becoming a database administrator is not something that happens overnight—one needs to have a computer science degree, but most organizations are going to want somebody who comes with at least five years of experience (hence the high salaries). “Depending on how you feel about your data, that could be your bloodline,” Frazzetto says. “Therefore, you want to make sure somebody who's going to be managing your data is going to come with a certain level of experience.”
Stephanie Gruss, senior IT system engineer at ExtraHop, says she spent a few years working in general IT support at companies with a very "traditional" approach to database management. Her initial role was an administrator in access and identity management, outside of the DBA function.
“I found myself in a position where I was supporting both the application and database components for many on-premise systems including legacy finance and ERP platforms,” she says.
Over the course of a few years, she moved to smaller companies with less defined teams and more opportunities to learn. At ExtraHop, she was given a chance to demonstrate her love for data (and in-depth knowledge of SQL JOINS).
Career Starts at Companies Large and Small
Frazzetto says larger companies will often have entry-level positions where you’re partnered up with somebody who's more seasoned.
“Then they have their own internal bootcamp, where you can work a little bit in the networking space, in the sysadmin space, and work your way through the organization,” she says. “If you're going to be starting off in a much smaller company, most likely they're not looking for just the DBA alone. They might be looking for somebody who wears two hats, and therefore that might be your entry point.”
A successful database administrator must have a healthy sense of curiosity, a strong analytical mind, and strong people skills, as DBAs will also interact with team members and stakeholders on a regular basis. “I work primarily in partnership with other tech teams and in support of our business partners,” she explains. "In meetings, I listen for opportunities to share my skills or insight when it comes to data management."
When working with others, she focuses on listening for what people need. Beyond that, it’s a matter of working with them to define requirements before architecting solutions. “I spend a lot of time thinking through logic puzzles in terms of data flow from system to system; security issues, including keeping others out of our sensitive data and keeping the permissions to their least-privileged ideals. And data integrity—for example, ensuring that everyone across the organization gets the same sets of numbers, no matter how they are getting to them," she says.
Gruss thinks that aspiring database administrators can look for the right crowd or team at a larger company, or find a smaller company where DBA-style roles aren’t quite as defined. “Some of the companies that are doing the most interesting work seem to be ones that have rigorous adoption of cloud-based tools,” she says.
For those who want to get started with database work, she recommends starting with the basics.
SQL, RDBs, Snowflake and Tableau
What defines “the basics”? It could include learning the foundations of SQL and developing an understanding of how relational databases (RDBs) operate. “RDBs form the backend for many business applications used daily by enterprises and are typically how you get data out of systems,” Gruss says.
She points to companies such as Snowflake and Tableau that offer some online training and webinars. These resources can help beginners understand both the mechanics of databases and the potential application of that data. “My number one advice: be nice to the DBAs at your company,” Gruss says. “They have a lot to teach you, even if you’re not directly part of their team.”
Moving into Management
Frazzetto says that, as a DBA gains experience and becomes established, learning to apply more sophisticated methods within the database realm, there are some career choices one can make.
“Sometimes the database administrator wants to become a database architect and be involved in the design and the architecture of how the data is going to be organized,” she says. “I've seen some progress more into a senior-level IT resource within a company and into leadership roles, at the management and director level.”
DBAs have one advantage: they carry a broad spectrum of knowledge because data touches so many different areas of the business. “If you have a desire to move into a team leadership and into a management role, you can also go down that path,” Frazzetto notes.