How I Became a DBA

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September 18, 2009 by Mike Hillwig

I don’t know any DBAs who started their careers wanting to be a DBA. It seems that everybody has grown into the position or their position has evolved into a DBA role. Mine is a bit of the two.

I’m originally from Pittsburgh, and that’s where I lived most of my adult life. Most of my early career was spent working with Lotus Notes databases. I was a Lotus Notes administrator, but that was mostly server, infrastructure, and security administration. At one point, I was doing a lot of work with Crystal Reports against this monster Lotus Notes application I had inherited. This was with a company that had contracted out most of their IT positions for various reasons. I was also managing Exchange and other various Windows servers.

In early may 2003, I got a call from the client services manager from my employer. She told me that my client was pulling my contract, not that I had done anything wrong, but that my client was having serious financial problems. Memorial day weekend of that year, I was unemployed. The same day I was let go, so was the SQL DBA I had worked with.

The next three months had me interviewing, but the market was pretty dreadful. I had a recruiter call me, asking if I knew anything about Crystal Reports. I wasn’t all that good, but my skills were decent. More importantly, I met her client’s biggest criteria–I could start the next day. Seriously. They needed me for eight weeks.

In no time, I was doing Crystal Reports development for a public utility company as they rolled out their new client billing system. This client had one particular rule that still makes no sense to me: Reports were not allowed to pull directly from database tables. Every report had to have a stored procedure under it. As I was getting my feet wet, I was introduced to our DBA. His name was John, and he happened to be the same DBA I had worked with at my previous company.

Before too long, I was writing some pretty involved stuff. The next thing I knew, I was doing doing some database development on the project. Not only that, one of the managers I was working with went on maternity leave, and her big project fell into my lap–the bill. That’s right, I was designing a utility bill using Crystal Reports. No, really. I’ve never seen anything quite so complex before, or since. Having a trusted coworker as my DBA really opened my eyes to the value of a DBA, and that certainly got my attention.

Sixteen months later, my eight week project came to an end. That was the point where I decided to move to New England. I started in Providence, and 30 days later, I was working for a Boston-based construction company as an “Application Support Analyst.” Long story short, I was managing database applications. Over the next four years, my position actually evolved a ton. Not only was I managing and supporting database applications, I was developing reports, and eventually I became the company’s first DBA.

Being the first DBA in a company can be difficult, and that’s another blog post for next week. We had developers on-hand who were used to doing pretty much anything, and a lot of that weren’t best practice from my experience. It was a long, hard road, but our developers were good guys. After almost four years, I took an opportunity at my current company. The job started as a DBA and hasn’t changed a whole lot. I still support Windows servers and somehow became our VMWare guru. Really, I have no idea how that happened.

My experience is pretty varied. That has been a great strength for me, but it’s also a huge challenge. When something needs to be done, if I have room on my plate, I’m the one implementing new technology. That’s given me a great opportunity to learn. At the same time, it has challenged my focus, too. I’m constantly forced to remind myself of my core job responsibility.

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