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DBAs Fishing for an Elevated Role
How Data Infrastructure Management is Creating Career Opportunities

by John Bostick

Anyone who has ever fished off an Oceanside charter can tell you what a great and exhilarating experience it is. You're out on the open water on a gorgeous, sunny day, a gentle breeze in your hair and the warm sea spray in your face while all your troubles sit packed up back on shore.

The best part about it? The ship's crew does all the tough, dirty, routine work - driving the boat out to the right spot, maintaining equipment, baiting hooks, running lines, untangling lines, and handling the fish once it's caught. In the meantime, you get to do the fun stuff, which essentially amounts to getting the fish on the line, fighting it tooth and nail, reeling it in, and then finally having your picture taken with it afterwards when you get back to shore, with the world looking at you like Captain Ahab having conquered the Great White. Ah, if only the whole world could be like that.

Actually it is getting there for database administrators (DBAs). Since organizations started storing all of their important data on computers, DBAs have been responsible not only for the quality, integrity, and use of the data itself. They have also been charged tasks such as loading and maintaining servers, performing backups, testing system integrity, and managing the connectivity and usability of the entire OSI (or more accurately TCP/IP) stack. As a result they spend precious little time fishing for great new insights on how data assets can grow the business because they've been too busy changing the reels.

A new model is beginning to emerge that is taking much of the drudgery out of the position. This model - outsourcing the management of the data infrastructure - allows DBAs to spend far less time tackling tactical or maintenance-level data management tasks, and more time determining how to use the actual data contained within the information stores for the strategic benefit of the organization. It is a sea change in thinking that is helping DBAs around the country raise their profiles within their organizations and add value to their departments, as well as their careers.

No Longer a Strategic Advantage
In the early days of ubiquitous computing, and up through the late 1990s, owning and operating a sophisticated database was a strategic advantage for an organization. It was much the same as having an automated, machine-driven factory rather than hundreds of individual workers at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Because of this, it was important to have some of the organization's best technologists overseeing the day-to-day operation of this important asset.

Today though, nearly every competitor large and small possesses some sort of database containing information on customers, suppliers, partners, or their internal data. The ability to store data in one or more easily accessible repositories is no longer a strategic advantage in and of itself. Quite frankly, the management of the database infrastructure has become much more of a commodity at this point. As a result, the value is not in owning a database but in how you use it and what you get out of it.

Yet even with that, DBAs are still often mired in operational roles that take up the bulk of their time. Among the tasks they perform regularly are:

  • Installing new DBMS versions and applying vendors' maintenance fixes
  • Setting and tuning system parameters
  • Turning the operating system, network, and transaction processors
  • Ensuring appropriate storage
  • Troubleshooting, monitoring, and assuring availability/uptime
  • Managing security and authorization
  • Assuring data integrity and managing data formats
  • Overseeing data migrations
  • Selecting and recommending tools

While all of these are necessary and mission critical tasks, they are all fairly routine and tactical. So while DBAs are being increasingly called upon to think strategically, their work days are filled with the same old maintenance chores. It's not a very effective combination.

Increased Complexity
With data being so critical to today's organizations, the minimum expectation for data availability is five nines - 99.999 percent. Anything below that causes an unacceptable interruption in the operation of the business. Yet rolling out a new technology, particularly if this is a task that's only performed every few years, can create huge risks for loss of service. It is difficult to be an expert in something you only do occasionally.

Once the new system is in place and running optimally, it can still be challenging to get users up to speed. Again, that is particularly true if the organization does not have a standing mechanism proven over years of use. This scenario will create a burden on both the DBAs and the help desk - neither of whom needs anything additional put on their plates.

Data Infrastructure Management Is the Answer
Offloading management of the data infrastructure solves both concerns by removing the day-to-day burdens from the organization's internal IT staff. Third party data infrastructure management organizations are able to focus on the operational side of database administration, rather than having to divide their attention between operations and how the data can (or should) be used. This allows them to manage the operations more closely, maintaining higher availability while reacting more quickly to a disruption in service levels.

This is not to be confused with IT outsourcing, however. In traditional outsourcing arrangements, organizations will bring in IT outsourcers, write them a check, and hold them to a service level agreement. This approach abandons the strategic potential of IT, and instead treats it merely as supporting resources. Data infrastructure management services, in contrast, enable enterprises to continue to manage and enhance their own IT operations, while freeing resources to invest in higher value activities.

The volume of work outside managers do with data infrastructures also means they're in a better position to keep up with the latest technologies and best practices. It is much more cost-efficient for them to dedicate resources to researching new database products and practices, and to sending their personnel for advanced training on the systems they operate. Essentially, they are specialists in the operational side of databases rather than attempting to know a little bit about all the aspects. This creates an entirely new (and better) opportunity for internal DBAs.

The Ultimate Fish Finder
Once free of the burden of infrastructure management, DBAs can place their focus on something that has higher value to the organization as well as their careers - turning the data into information that helps move the sales needle.

Organizations today do not lack for data. If anything they may have too much of it stored in various databases around the enterprise. Where they are challenged is A) determining which of this data is most important to the business and B) how to extract it in a way that is actionable. This is where the opportunities lie for DBAs.

Applications such as business intelligence and predictive analytics hold tremendous promise for organizations. So far, however, these applications have been under-utilized for the most part, often due to a lack of understanding of their inner workings.

By digging deeper into these applications, DBAs have a chance to take on a more strategic role within the organization. Rather than twiddling the bits, they can be:

  • Pooling and parsing the data to show patterns and trends that help the organization make critical decisions on topics ranging from raw materials purchases to inventory/supply chain management to marketing and sales
  • Developing reports that provide new insights into how enterprise resources are being allocated, helping to reduce costs and improve efficiency
  • Creating dashboards that monitor the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, or even minute-by-minute status of the organization's key performance indicators
  • Helping determine which partners are really the 80 and which are the 20 in the 80/20 relationship rule
  • Showing the return on investment of various current activities, or run multiple "what-if" scenarios to help determine future direction

In short, they can be involved in business-level decisions in a way they never have before, raising their personal stock within the organization while helping raise the organization's actual stock price as well. Who knows, maybe they eventually win themselves a seat at the executive table.

Time to Fish or Cut Bait
Managing the data infrastructure internally is not only an unnecessary, time-consuming burden; it's the kind of task-oriented job that can stall a career. After all, it's difficult to land a marlin if you're spending so much time oiling reels and untangling lines that you never throw a hook in the water.

DBAs can advance both their organizations and their careers by turning over the tedious drudgery of data infrastructure management to a specialized outside service organization. With that off their minds, they may even have time to do a little actual fishing of their own.


About the Author
John Bostick is president and CEO of dbaDIRECT, which provides data infrastructure management services to Fortune 1000 and Private 500 firms including SC Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Timberland, Hanesbrands, Warner Brothers, Duke Energy and Old National Bank. He can be reached at john.bostick@dbadirect.com.


Copyright ©2007 Auerbach Publications.