With the rapid adoption of cloud database migration, many database professionals have concerns and questions regarding their futures and career prospects in database management. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with two industry veterans– Brent Ozar, a Microsoft SQL Master and owner at Brent Ozar Unlimited; and Pinal Dave, a SQL Server performance tuning expert and consultant at SQLAuthority.com for Quest’s Ask the Experts Database Performance Roundtable where the two candidly answered numerous questions about careers in database management—how to start, how to advance, and what to focus on along the way.

Starting careers in database management

When it came to starting their own careers in database management, Brent and Pinal approached it from different angles. Brent actually began in a customer-facing role in the hospitality industry. Realizing that he didn’t want to work weekends and holidays led him to the technology industry, where he loved computers and worked in software development. After seeing that development is “really hard,” he asked himself, “What's can I go into that has really expensive software where I don't have to learn new languages?” It ended up being databases, which is where his love for SQL Server began. He noted that when you work on something really expensive, your costs look cheap in comparison. Brent’s famous recipe for success is to “find the most expensive thing in the data center, sit as close as you can to it, and wait for it to break.”

Pinal on the other hand, started as a technician in a data center, where he pulled and replaced hard disks from servers. It was difficult, physical work in a noisy data center, and he too was interested in earning more money in a position where he didn’t have to wear headphones. He researched the highest paying jobs in his company, came upon database administration and knew he had found a winning match. So, he set himself to studying it.

Where should newbies focus their technical training?

Of course, the best way to learn varies by the individual – some do better with books and classes, but Pinal found that he learned best by studying the agent jobs that were currently running. As he analyzed them, he tried to figure out what the job did and what would happen if he stopped it. This kind of analytical skill is particularly useful in a database management role. Often, you’re working with code and configurations that you didn’t write or set up. So, you need to reverse engineer other people's mistakes.

When moving beyond starting out and keeping the lights on to really ensuring things perform well, Brent’s recommendation is to sit down with the right people in the company and hear what their complaints sound like and here’s why.

Are database administration jobs going away?

As more companies move their databases to the cloud, many database professionals wonder what this will mean for them. Both Brent and Pinal assured us that DBAs will always have a job, particularly those who are looking ahead to the activities that add value and can’t be automated.

Brent advised first taking a look at the parts of the job that you hate, like backups, doing restores, checking for corruption, patching, building high availability and disaster recovery, and answering the phone when the database goes down off-hours. The more your organization moves toward the cloud, the things that you dislike the most about production database administration go away because cloud providers take care of almost all of it. Database professionals should be ecstatic about this – especially since they rarely get recognition for doing them.

Once the mundane items are covered by the cloud provider, then database professionals can focus on things that really matter, like performance tuning. This becomes important because cloud costs can quickly spiral out of control if queries are using excessive resources to run. So, if you’re able to save the company money by fixing performance and can quantify the outcome of your efforts, you become more valuable than someone just doing routine tasks.

To put it a different way, don’t spend time getting good at the things that Microsoft Azure or SQL Server will do for you. Direct your efforts to learning what will save money in the cloud – like improving queries and indexes.

Pinal also had encouraging words because the database management profession keeps evolving and database software keeps changing. Database professionals are not using the same software or doing the same things they were five years ago. Since databases will be with us for a long time, you’ll always have something to do and something new to learn. Pinal also recommended honing your query and index tuning skills, since these will always be in demand on-premises and in the cloud.

Of course, database management requires a systematic approach so there are many other ways to build your expertise beyond performance tuning. Compliance with data privacy regulations, protection of sensitive information from threats and hacking, integrating DevOps practices into the organization – these are just a few of the ways you can elevate your profile and advance your career.

If you’d like to learn more about the database management skills that will help grow your career, here are some additional resources to help you along the way:

Why SQL Performance Tuning is the Most Important Database Management Skill to Have

Five DBMS Trends Impacting Database Administration

SQL Server Performance Advice from Brent Ozar and Pinal Dave

And for more insight from Brent and Pinal on all things database management and performance, the full video is available to view.

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