DIY DBA – hobbyist or menace?

Musings on a consultant’s world.

We’ve all met them.  Either at work, on a project or in social interaction, the person who you meet and they say “oh, you’re an Oracle DBA… me too.  Well, I dabble, you know.  I took my certification tests but …”.  Probably at this point you tune them out; you’ve heard this one before.  In our industry that old adage that a little knowledge can be dangerous has never been more true and yet more and more, we encounter these neophytes in positions where their hands are on the keyboard; the proverbial big red button, the trigger, the plunger (and that’s not a plumbing one)…

The journey from being someone who has picked up a little of the technology into being a competent practitioner of it can be a long one.  There are some gifted people who can get a very good grasp of the practice of Oracle Database Administration in as little as half a decade.  For most of us though, it’s measured in whole decades.  Getting there involves toil, making errors (hopefully not in production), training and experience.  Lots and lots of experience.  To the point where for some of us, we’ve seen it and done it.  We sometimes come across something new – an experience related by another specialist in the field to which you can say “that’s interesting” and add it to the sum of your knowledge.  You can do this because you understand it – not necessarily the exact replica of the experience, but you can synthesize it because it makes sense to you and you grasp the nuances of it.  Of course, you’d probably go home and try that situation on a lab machine.

Those who “dabble” read the odd book, try the odd free course online and perhaps have installed it at home on Windows or even a Linux machine.  Great!  Expanding that knowledge is a good thing.  These skills are valuable and often transferrable, such as good SQL knowledge or scripting.  Yet it falls short of what’s required to support a commercial enterprise’s investment in Oracle technology and that hobbyist knowledge fosters the kind of overconfidence that leads to a pit of despair very quickly.  Forget death and taxes, I’m talking about outages and data loss.

For those who are truly interested in becoming an Oracle practitioner, work experience is one of the best ways of advancing – but in a structured way.  If you are the company’s MySQL database administrator and the Oracle DBA leaves, you may be asked to take over because managing databases is a universal skill, right?  Wrong.  If faced with this situation, you’re in a good position to negotiate.  Your first goal should be training, training, training.  Not certifications or those things that look good on LinkedIn, but practical skills.  Backup and Recovery, Performance tuning, High Availability – these are the skills that your company needs and once you have them, you will be more valuable to your employer as well as any future employer.   Should your employer want you to learn these skills on the job then perhaps they are not that serious about you taking the role (or they are too cheap to send you to training).

Here’s an analogy for you to relate to your boss.  You are both riding on a motorcycle on a busy road and the boss tells you one of the wheels is about to fall off.  Knowing that the only tool you have on you is a spoon, he wants you to lean over and fix it with the bike still hurtling down the road.  Either way, the outcome will be the same – disaster.

So whilst what we seasoned Oracle database people do seems relatively effortless and so simple anyone can do it, it’s because we practiced really hard.  In my analogy, we not only have a spoon, but a whole toolkit and a rig capable of changing a wheel whilst still in motion.  In other words, when engaging with us, it’s not the “step-by-step” skills you’re paying for, it’s the “knowing which knob to turn, level to pull – and when and how much” skills that we employ to avoid impending disaster and implement change smoothly.

If this were easy, anyone would be able to do it.  And they can…. after 20+ years of practice.

As an epilogue, I have to say that I still learn new stuff all the time.  The only time I could possibly have known it all was perhaps with Oracle 6, circa 1992 and then only after a number of years with an unchanged product.

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