In a previous blog post, I began writing about how one might start a career as a database professional, and agreed to share my own experience in doing so. Since every person and every situation is different, I don’t declare my experience to be a recipe for success, but I’m happy to share it in hopes that someone can learn from what I’ve done.
I started my IT career as a PC technician. After working in underpaying jobs most of my life, I was determined to change my situation for the better. In high school I had shown promise in dealing with computers, so I decided to make a go of it. At the time, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do except that I would be working “with computers”. I took a PC repair course at a local community college, did some free PC work for anyone who would let me touch their machine, and finally took and passed the CompTIA A+ certification exam. Fortunately for me, this was in the boom of the late 1990s, so my sparse qualifications led me to a job as a Field Service Engineer for a technical services company in Dallas. It’s tough to earn a living this way, but doing on-site services exposes one to a wide variety of systems and lots of challenges.
Because of the breadth of experience I gained as an FSE, I headed down the natural path of becoming a systems administrator. My next job found me working for a school district as a systems technician, and I was responsible for everything from desktop support to deploying servers and administering Active Directory. I was fortunate to have a good network administrator to work with, and he allowed me to help with some things that I was frankly not qualified to at the time, but because I was willing to learn, he was willing to teach.
At that point, I was making decent money at a very secure job, but I really wanted to move further up the food chain. The people above me were happy in what they were doing, and it was unlikely that I would move up to Systems Administrator in that organization. I explored some other options, including programming (mostly C#, with a little VB, Perl, and C++ mixed in) for automation and reporting. However, as luck would have it, my company bought their first SQL Server as part of an application to replace our antiquated service ticket tracking system. Since we didn’t have a DBA on staff, I volunteered to administer our lone SQL Server installation. It was a very small (less than 250mb) database, but allowed me to learn a little about SQL Server. More importantly, that one installation of SQL Server helped me to discover my passion and ability for RDBMS development and administration.
I was pretty clueless about SQL Server at the beginning, and barely knew enough to do backups and restores. I was fortunate to find some online resources, particularly SQL Server Central, early on, and spent a lot of time reading articles and taking advantage of the discussion forums. It can’t be said enough that you shouldn’t reinvent the wheel, and that includes not re-solving a problem that someone else has already solved. I used what I learned through work, the available online resources, and my own experimentation during my own time to expand my knowledge of RDBMS systems in general and SQL Server in particular.
It was about that same time that I decided to return to college and complete my Bachelor’s Degree. On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked if a college degree is essential for success as a DBA or a technical professional in general. My answer is that you can absolutely be successful without a four-year degree, but there are opportunities that can only be accessed with a Bachelor’s Degree or better. In my situation, the degree didn’t help me get into the business, but it definitely pushed my career to the next level.
As I learned more, I inherited more SQL Servers to administer. Because I could speak with some level of knowledge about the product, I was brought into discussions with vendors and consultants any time SQL Server was discussed, and because of my company’s in-house knowledge of SQL Server (namely, me), we took on more SQL Server-based applications. As a bonus, my experience in system administration and programming were often useful as a SQL Server professional. Again, just being willing to spend time to learn something new directly led to this growth in my career.
Fast forward through a half-dozen years, a job change, two promotions and a Bachelor’s Degree. It took several years before I was confident in my own abilities to reference myself as “the SQL Server guy”, and each year I learn even more. I’m now working for a midsize hospital and oversee over 40 SQL Server instances, hundreds of databases, and one direct report team member. In addition, I have hung out the shingle and am doing database and business intelligence consulting on the side.
That’s my story – again, I don’t paint this as a blueprint for success, but it did work out well for me.
In my final post in this series, I’ll publish a discrete list of career best practices for becoming a DBA, or taking your current database career to the next level.