Craig S. Mullins

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August 2003





The DBA Corner
by Craig S. Mullins  


How to Curb the Curmudgeon in the Corner

Sometimes viewed as prima donnas, DBAs can be curmudgeons who have vast technical knowledge, but limited people skills. Just about every database programmer has their favorite DBA story -- those famous anecdotes that begin with "I have a problem..." and end with "...and then he told me to stop bothering him and read the manual." DBAs simply do not have a warm and fuzzy image, which probably has more to do with the nature and scope of the job than anything else. The DBMS spans the enterprise, effectively placing the DBA on call for the applications of the entire organization.

The fact that DBAs often must sit down and work things through on their own can be a mitigating factor for this poor reputation. Many database problems require periods of quiet reflection and analysis to resolve. And, due to the vast knowledge most DBAs possess, their quiet time is usually not quiet; constant interruptions to answer questions and solve problems are a fact of life.

DBAs should not be encouraged to be anti-social. In fact, DBAs should be trained to acquire exceptional communication skills. Data is the lifeblood of computerized applications. Application programs are developed to read and write data, analyze data, move data, perform calculations using data, modify data, and so on. Without data there would be nothing for the programs to do. The DBA is at the center of the development life cycle -- ensuring that application programs have efficient, accurate access to the corporation's data. Many DBAs are so caught up in the minutiae of the inner-workings of the DBMS that they never develop the skills required to relate appropriately to their co-workers and customers.

A manager who rises from DBA to DBA manager might not know how to curb the curmudgeon. Worse, he might agree with the behavior. DBA management must help to grow the DBA staff in the desired direction through encouragement, opportunity, and incentives. More importantly, the DBA manager must lead by example.

If your DBAs are curmudgeons, here are some ideas to help turn them around:

  • Purchase automated DBA tools to streamline database administration by offloading some of the more tedious day-to-day tasks to software. Doing so can do a world of good for the mindset of a busy DBA.
  • Pony up some technical training budget, because a well-trained DBA is a happier DBA. This tactic is not just for the DBAs, but for the application development staff as well. Many DBA nightmares are focused on tuning poorly coded applications, so a better-trained programmer will also reduce stress.
  • Dangle the carrot of incentives in front of the curmudgeon DBAs. In other words, make interpersonal skills part of their quarterly objectives. Better behavior can be encouraged in some DBAs by making it worthwhile for them to interact better with the IT staff.
  • And you might even consider having some of your better application folks in the organization contribute to the performance appraisals of your DBA staff. When someone knows that the people they serve will have input into their annual report, it is amazing how quickly a spirit of cooperation can blossom.

The bottom line is that DBAs cannot afford to be curmudgeons. In this day and age of interconnected systems and complex technology, interpersonal relationships and teamwork are required for a DBA to succeed.

From Database Trends and Applications, August 2003.

2003 Craig S. Mullins,  All rights reserved.