Joey on SQL Server

Plotting Your Next Move as a DBA in the Cloud Era

With the tech landscape changing so rapidly, many IT pros are at a crossroads: Practice and perfect core skillsets, or get a head start on bleeding-edge technologies?

A common question in the era of the public cloud is: What will be the cloud's impact on IT professionals like system and database administrators (DBAs)?

Another common question, one I was asked by a younger professional at a recent event: Around which cutting-edge technologies should you focus your career?

Both of these questions are common in a world where technology changes so quickly. I completely understand this fear, particularly among less-experienced professionals who lack a longer view of the history of technology. I always joke that I can never teach a five-day Azure class without some feature in Azure changing during the week.

The first point I always like to make to IT professionals is that the most important thing you can do in your career is to not chase the new, shiny technology. It is tempting to dive deep into a new technology like Kubernetes. However, it is equally important to have a grounding in your main focus area before trying to expand into new technologies.

This means that if you are a system admin, you have complete understanding of the OS platform you support before you try to learn database skills. Similarly, if you are a DBA, you should have a mastery of your RDBMS before you pursue a business intelligence or virtualization path.

While many pundits are concerned about the impact of the cloud, realistically, there will remain a strong market for DBAs for at least the next decade. (And if you are database developer, I think you can safely count on having work for the rest of your lifetime.) Having strong DBA skills like data security, data protection and performance tuning will make you marketable for the foreseeable future. Nearly all of these skills will translate to the cloud, even if you are using a Database as a Service offering like Azure SQL Database or Amazon RDS.

Another interesting career point about the cloud is that it makes it easier for IT professionals to quantify the impact of their performance-tuning efforts, since their bosses get an itemized bill of their company's cloud usage costs every month.

However, it is still important to branch out -- not just to ensure that you are keeping up with technology, but because in most firms, the DBA or system admin role has a ceiling both in terms of salary and status. In order to prepare yourself for higher-level technical roles like architect, you are going to want to advance your skills in other areas.

I don't have one magic bit of advice for how to do this. To a degree, you need to follow your own technical interests, but I would lean toward learning automation skills, simply because it will increase your technical aptitude and leave you with more free time to work on other skills.

While you may be happy to be a DBA, to advance your career (and salary), you typically will need to broaden your horizons to either become a consultant or an architect. The DBA role sits at the nexus of application and infrastructure support, which means by expanding your skillset down the path of either data management or infrastructure architecture and design, you can be well-suited to move into a data or infrastructure architecture career.

Let's take a look at what each of those two paths look like.

Infrastructure Architect
This was my last real job title when I worked at Comcast. This was the first job I had where I was no longer responsible for production systems; my job became much more about money.

I was tasked with reducing licensing costs, designing a hardware platform and building standards for the DBA teams. While this role was less technical than being a full-time DBA, it was still quite technical. I had a large programming effort when we built our private cloud, and I built one of the first Hadoop clusters in the company.

In current times, I would expect this role to support public clouds in terms of standards and design, and manage integration between on-premises and cloud. And yes, I would expect Kubernetes would be a key part of this going forward. Building automation across systems platforms is something else I would expect to be part of this role.

Data Management
Unlike the infrastructure path, moving into a data path tends to be more focused on your specific business area, rather than a general technology area. To understand your company's data, you will first need to understand the business problems you are trying to solve with your data. This role will also involve classifying data, determining systems of record and potentially even addressing the security of data.

While this may feel like it may be less technical than an infrastructure role, you will most likely be doing a large amount of data modeling and scripting to wrangle correct data, as well as working directly with business units to address their data needs.

This role is probably the most future-proof, as no matter what service you company stores its data in, someone needs to be around to manage that data and understand the meaning of the data to the business. In terms of future-proofing, this role as secure as any, and will only become more critical as data and artificial intelligence (AI) become more important to all businesses.

What Should I Do?
One thing that I think all data professionals (and IT professionals) should do is start speaking and writing about technology they are interested in.

There are many upsides to this. There's the PR and networking and meeting people, the resume benefit of having events as part of your work experience and, most important, the deeper understanding of the technology that you get as you read and write about it.

You can do this at very little financial cost. There are always local user groups that are looking for speakers and you can create a full blog. Beyond that, ensure that you are keeping the lights on and learning deeper in your main role, while trying to expand your horizons into other technologies.

About the Author

Joseph D'Antoni is an Architect and SQL Server MVP with over a decade of experience working in both Fortune 500 and smaller firms. He is currently Principal Consultant for Denny Cherry and Associates Consulting. He holds a BS in Computer Information Systems from Louisiana Tech University and an MBA from North Carolina State University. Joey is the co-president of the Philadelphia SQL Server Users Group . He is a frequent speaker at PASS Summit, TechEd, Code Camps, and SQLSaturday events.


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