How to Level Up Your DBA Career (Dear SQL DBA)

You’re a Junior or mid-level Database Administrator with no obvious career path. How do you grow the right skills to level up your DBA career?

This is a “listen-able” 27 minute video. Prefer a podcast instead? Find it at littlekendra.com/dearsqldba.

This week’s questions…

Today I’m answering two questions from listeners on one hot topic: advancing your DBA career when you don’t have a mentor at work, or a clear career progression.

Dear SQL DBA,

There’s so much to know within SQL and as a beginner DBA (1-2 years) that I’m not sure what’s a good starting point to becoming a great DBA. What would you say I should really take time to understand? What would take me to the next level.

and…

Dear SQL DBA,

I’m a junior DBA working in a very large company with very few DBA peers, and no one I can really look up to as a Senior. Luckily Production is pretty well-tuned so my workload isn’t overwhelming, and we have consultants who take care of a lot of monitoring and backup tasks.

Without a Senior DBA to mentor me and bounce ideas off of, I don’t have a good path to master my environment and move up (or on to another company). I regularly read community blogs and all the online video training I can get my hands on, but I’m still worried my skills fall short.

Do you have any suggestions for “leveling up” without a Senior DBA’s guidance?

This is a Choose Your Own Adventure moment: you’re at a fork in the road

There are two paths you can take at this point:

Path 1: Level up your career by building projects as work

  • Pros: This can be done entirely during working hours, and is a great resume builder
  • Cons:
    • Doesn’t build your leadership or communication skills
    • Doesn’t connect you in the community outside of your work. (And that’s the community where you’re probably going to get future jobs.)

This first path can get you a decent distance, but I’m not going to talk about it much today, because for many of you I think there is a more exciting and rewarding path to consider.

Path 2: Level up your career by building yourself as a speaker

  • Pros:
    • This builds your leadership skills, communication skills, and your technical abilities all at once
    • It also connects you with tons of other people in your field who may want to work with you in the future, at your company, or at a different company
  • Cons:
    • This requires a significant personal time commitment
    • Public speaking is scary for lots of people, and it takes a lot of courage to get over that

OK, What if I just absolutely can’t, I meant can’t, I mean noooo way will not EVER get up and speak in front of people?

It’s a choose your own adventure moment, right?

You can follow Path 1, where you build your career through doing projects at work! This can work well, particularly if you make a concerted effort to build your leadership and communication skills along with it.

I have a list of specific steps you can follow to identify the right projects to propose and work on in my post, “What’s the Difference Between a Junior and Senior DBA?

OK, for the rest of you guys, who are considering it…

Public speaking is the best path to leveling up your DBA career

I built my career slowly and steadily doing projects at work for years

It can be rewarding, as long as you don’t fall into the trap of overworking yourself to burnout

One problem I realized was that a lot of the knowledge I gained was domain specific

  • I did cool stuff, but you could only understand how cool I was if you understood the exact technical problems I was solving
  • Often those problems were confidential and couldn’t be explained in detail to people who didn’t work for the company

I realized that I needed to start working a healthy number of hours. The hours my employer wanted me to work.

And I needed to start doing public speaking

Public speaking gave me:

  1. New contacts in the speaker community. These are people who I could ask for feedback and bounce ideas off of. In the short term they helped me solve problems at my own job. In the long term they changed the whole trajectory of my career.
  2. A better ability to listen. This is a little counter-intuitive, because it’s speaking, but as a speaker you learn to listen to questions from your audience keenly, and think about those questions for long periods.
  3. Greater confidence
  4. Improved ability to “think on my feet”
  5. Better technical knowledge

The most important note about beginning to teach: pick the right topics

I totally screwed this one up! I made a super common mistake: I thought I needed to blog about a “special” or “advanced” topic. Something that wasn’t “covered already”.

Huge mistake. This leads to spending a lot of time getting to know a piece of nice technology that isn’t very relevant to you, or to many other people.

Pick a common topic that is very useful for Junior DBAs.

Something that you know at least a bit about already, and that’s relevant to your job.

You’re going to learn a TON about this topic. Deep details. Pick something that’s worth the investment of your time, and also worth the investment of time of lots of other Junior DBAs out there.

Topics in this area are things like:

  • Backups
  • Backups
  • Backups
  • (Did I say backups?)
  • Restoring backups!
  • SQL Server settings and configuration
  • Database settings and configuration
  • Any kind of maintenance
  • Any kind of common automation
  • And backups. Consider backups!

When you catch yourself thinking, “I can’t talk about that because ExpertSpeakerX already talks about it, and I won’t be as good,” then stop.

There’s room for you alongside ExpertSpeakerX!

In fact, the community is better with multiple speakers on core topics.

When you’re researching and testing, include materials from a wide variety of sources, and pull from your own experience. What confused you about the topic the most at first, or what were/are you surprised by? What’s your favorite way to solve a problem with that topic, and why?

You will naturally have your own voice and your own perspective.

Look at this from another perspective – your next job interview

Imagine you’re interviewing for a Senior DBA position, either at your company or another company

The interviewer asks you some technical questions about backups

You’re qualified to answer those questions, right?

Picture yourself being confronted with the questions now. (It’s normal to get a little sweaty.)

Now picture yourself being confronted with the questions after you’ve  presented on backups a few times, and fielded questions from the audience.

So. Much. Easier.

The same thing goes for pitching a new project to your boss’ boss, having to fix failed backups at 3 am, and explaining what happened in an incident to a senior executive. Teaching others in the SQL Server community makes you better in all these sweaty situations.

Begin by speaking at a SQL Server User Group or SQL Saturday event

Some people say that you should always start at a local user group

They tend to be small, and low pressure. A terrific choice for beginning! Find a list here: http://www.sqlpass.org/PASSChapters/LocalChapters.aspx

But maybe you’re not near one. Or maybe you’re like me: the closest user group when I started speaking was held at Microsoft in the building where developers coded SQL Server. Regular speakers at the group are Microsoft Program Managers, developers, and the people who literally “write the book” on SQL Server.

There was NO WAY I was going to test out public speaking at my local user group

So I submitted to a small SQL Saturday in Iowa. SQL Saturdays are awesome, and I got lucky– one accepted me!

I’d never been to Iowa. I didn’t know anyone in Iowa. But I got a cheap plane ticket to Iowa.

I figured if it was awful, well, all those kind strangers would just forget my name.

It wasn’t awful. I wasn’t a natural, and I was presenting on the wrong topics, but it didn’t kill me. It was a little exhilarating.

And I kinda wanted to do it again.

See a list of SQL Saturdays here: http://sqlsaturday.com/

If you’d rather start in front of a webcam, PASS has virtual chapters, too: http://www.sqlpass.org/PASSChapters/VirtualChapters.aspx  (Seriously, really, DO USE A WEBCAM!)

Bring what you learn from speaking back to your workplace

Although speaking isn’t part of your job, it will benefit your job

Part of why I’m pushing backups so much as a topic is that speaking always teaches you a lot about your topic

You learn writing the demo scripts, doublechecking things on your slides, and answering audience questions (either live or later on — it’s always OK to say you don’t know and would like to check)

You’ll learn things that allow you to see improvements you can make at work

And once you start speaking, you’ll also learn things from your peers at the events you speak at, too

Regularly talk with your boss about what you learn from speaking, and from others at events

It’s good for your company for you to be a public speaker, and the more they know about it, the more they’ll support you and understand why you want to go to conferences

Becoming a speaker helps you, and it helps the SQL Server community

You’re at a fork in the road. You’re ready to level up your career. Starting to teach others is the best thing you can do — join the team of presenters and teachers! We’d love to have you.

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13 Comments. Leave new

  • Loved your post, Kendra! I can say that my career has benefitted greatly from starting to speak at SQL Server events. Last fall after going to PASS Summit 2015 my goal was to submit an abstract to a SQL Saturday event. I was thrilled and terrified when my session was accepted. I learned a lot about my topic and got better at speaking. I also got a new job, partly because I had more confidence because I had more practice speaking about SQL Server. I’ll be speaking at another SQL Saturday later this month and I may be hooked on speaking!
    I’ve also been really amazed and grateful for help from you and other SQL Server experts on tips on speaking and learning more about SQL Server. The SQL Server community is great. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Wooo, I’m so glad you’re doing another SQL Saturday! That is awesome! I love it!

      Reply
      • Thanks, Kendra! I presented at Madison in April and Jes was really helpful. In June I presented at my local PASS group and on the 23rd I present in Sacramento. If all goes well I may submit to the Portland SQL Saturday. I’m continually amazed at how helpful everyone is.

        Reply
  • Thank you so much Kendra! It’s so true, I’ve learned so much more when I’ve had to train\explain it to someone. Thank you for taking your time to share your thoughts. I’m feeling pumped!

    Reply
  • Certifications are also a great way to build your skills!

    Reply
  • Thanks for this post. You say it is a “choose your own adventure”, but in my opinion, you need to do both to advance your career.
    If you don’t do work projects, your job will get boring and you will lose interest in “working” at work and spend all your time learning.
    If you don’t do public speaking, you will fade into the background of the community.

    Me, I have never done public speaking but I have a topic which I am far from an expert on, but I have learned a boatload at work. I just need to get a good slide deck ready and get some demo scripts ready to rock. The topic: service broker. We recently set it up at work and after a bit of trial and error (ahem… I mean a LOT of breaking the server and cursing and nearly abandoning the project several times), I got it working. It ran perfect in test. I was proud of myself getting it going great. And you probably noticed that: It ran perfect in TEST. We pushed it live and I had high hopes, but instead we got boatloads of deadlocks… then the stupid software we were using didn’t retry transactions and stuff got into a horrible broken state. 4 attempts later, we are now running very happily with service broker.

    Because of that learning exercise, I want to do public speaking on service broker. It is a nifty little tool. I think my demos will be a bit lacking as my powershell skills are quire poor so doing mass messages (to demonstrate the “in-order” and asynchronos behaviour of service broker) may be a tad tricky. BUT that is why I have no date set aside for my presentation on that.

    BUT this post is encouraging me to get working harder on the slides and scripts and to present at the Saskatoon SQL chapter (which I am the leader of).

    Reply
  • […] week, my dear friend Roni Vered Adar told me about a pod cast by Kendra Little entitled “How to Level Up Your DBA Career (Dear SQL DBA)“. Roni told me that Kendra talked about the importance of public speaking and wanted to know […]

    Reply
  • Thank you Kendra , I am a 5 year experienced DBA with a blog [https://sqlrockstardba.wordpress.com/] which I created in WordPress when I was 2 year experienced , where I used to share the notes and few little topics and now its gonna be almost 2 years since I wrote something in my blog .

    It’s very true that we learn more when we are intended to teach others – I have experienced this when I used to study the subject in depth to tech my friends during Engineering examinations .

    I’ve decided to start writing in my blog again and to share the knowledge . Thanks again for the inspiring words , I wish I could become a SQL expert like you one day 🙂

    Reply
  • so if i ever do a speaking session my opening disclaimer will be “If my session sucks, blame Kendra Little for encouraging me” lol

    Reply
  • Great post! I’m about to be a graduating DBA with a job lined up, so this gave me some great insight into building myself in the field. I had no idea about SQL Saturday’s or PASS chapters, so that was great to learn about!

    Reply
    • Glad to hear you are getting into the PASS community. As a PASS chapter leader, having more members is something all chapter leaders strive for. And, if you have time, your local PASS chapter likely would appreciate any help you can offer. Even just offering help is appreciated.

      I recently (November 2017) gave my first presentation and it went well, except I had some bad information in my presentation and the demo gods did not smile on me and things did not behave on my laptop as they did on my work desktop. I posted my slide deck and demos and then posted corrections on my blog.

      Lesson learned – use Azure VM’s for my demos (IF I have internet access). My next presentation on a completely different topic is happening at the end of the month, and after that I will be presenting at a SQL Saturday. 7 years ago, started as a DBA; 3 years ago attended my first PASS Summit; 2 years ago started my local PASS chapter.

      Also, if you catch any of Kendra Little’s webinars that she does, she is an excellent presenter! One of my favorites for sure.

      Reply

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