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Career Spotlight: Database Administrator

Career Spotlight: Database Administrator

From the CEO to the marketing manager, today's business executives understand the importance of managing a company's data. It's no surprise, then, that the database administrator can play a key role in ensuring an organization's success.

"Data is the driver of the information age," says Craig S. Mullins, author of Database Administration: The Complete Guide to Practices and Procedures.

DBAs, as they're often called, are considered linchpins in high-pressure projects, from e-commerce initiatives to manufacturing systems. If the flow of data is not seamless, a company's customers, sales staff and virtually every department may be hobbled. The job requires nimble problem solvers able to talk to everyone from developers to nontechie product managers.

"DBAs are always in the middle of interesting projects," says Mullins, who is director of product strategy at San Francisco-based Embarcadero Technologies. "As a DBA, you will get to be involved with many of your organization's key initiatives, because most mission-critical applications today rely on database software to store the data."

DBA Job Basics

DBAs administer, manage and handle other tasks involving database management systems, such as the creation of databases, data warehousing, and database performance and tuning. Junior DBAs will likely focus on administration, while senior-level positions demand DBAs who are adept at data architecture, strategy and design.

Given the number and variety of players involved in database projects, DBAs need to work well with the team. "The better you get along with your colleagues, the better you will be able to succeed as a DBA," says Mullins. "If you don't get along well with people, consider another job."

Given the nature of the work, expect a demanding schedule. "Be prepared to work long hours -- sometimes in the middle of the night or on holiday weekends," says Mullins. "Although many database maintenance tasks are becoming more flexible, DBAs still need to be available to perform administrative operations during off-hours to minimize downtime during critical hours. This means working at less-than-desirable times."

DBA Education and Training

A computer science degree is not required to work as a DBA, but employers increasingly demand it. DBAs must be well-versed in an assortment of technologies beyond databases, which typically exist at the center of sprawling systems that interact with applications, reporting tools, servers, operating systems and networks.

"Having a broad background of working with, and being successful at, different technologies can help you to succeed as a DBA," says Mullins.

While a degree is not a must, DBAs often need certifications in order to stand out. Major database vendors like IBM, Microsoft and Oracle provide certification programs. "Keep in mind that there are typically various levels of certification, from basic to programming skills to administration, and that progressing through the certification levels can help to advance your dexterity managing and accessing the database," says Mullins.

Breaking in as a DBA

DBAs often enter the field from working with databases in other capacities. "In my experience, the best DBAs were previously application programmers who wrote code to access databases," says Mullins. "This gives them the broad experience necessary to engage in the administration process from a knowledgeable position."

Just don't expect a huge salary hike at the start of your DBA career. "Although experienced DBAs are usually paid well, you might have to wait a few years at a lower salary as a junior DBA to get to the senior DBA pay grade," says Mullins.

And most importantly, you need to be willing to learn -- and reinvent yourself -- as databases evolve. "Be a voracious reader, not just about data and related technologies, but about any technology, especially newer ones," recommends Mullins. "For example, XML is being closely tied to database technology today, but most DBAs, at least the good ones, read up on and experimented with XML well before it made its way to their databases."

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