DBAs and extreme productivity

In DBA on July 1, 2011 at 22:15

In May 2011, Harvard Business Review published Robert Pozen’s two principles on Managing Yourself: Extreme Productivity.

Principle 1: Know Your Comparative Advantage
Principle 2: It’s Not the Time You Spend but the Results You Produce

The article is CEO oriented by the same principles hold for DBAs:

First (principle 1): try to delegate DBA work to others even if you think that you are the most skillful for the task in question. The more you do at the same time the bigger the chance to make a mistake or two. Not to mention that the quality of the work will suffer.

And second (principle 2): DBA work is not measured in hours of work done by the DBA but rather in hours of downtime caused by the work of the DBA.

Many managers have the (wrong) perception that DBA productivity is derived from tools and automated (even routine) tasks. Sure, they help and impact the work but DBA productivity and efficiency are purely based on skills, knowledge and most of all experience.

You can often witness the fact that the great ideas of middle management on how to improve DBA productivity are not eventually that great. And there is a perfectly sane explanation: how do you improve something you have never done? How indeed?

You get your DBA skills as a combination of your knowledge and experience. The broader the knowledge and the longer the experience, the more skillful you are likely to become.

The knowledge part is rather tricky for DBAs. Versions of database vendors change faster than people change cars. Every new version comes with (1) a set of new features and (2) a set of obsolete features. Not to mention the set of new products developed and used around the database.

So how do you keep up with the new information (and information is not knowledge) flooding us day by day? Granted you are expected to work for 8 hours! Did I just say eight? DBAs need at least 20% white time to spend on self-training, external training, seminars and conferences, reading internet forums, white papers and blogs. They need that time to test and prove concepts, read books and magazines, attend web seminars, talk to other DBAs.

But as Oscar Wilde said: “Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

The experience part is even more tricky. Companies are looking for DBAs with experience and very seldom for junior DBAs and on other hand I have personally noticed that long-term DBAs can be often categorized as rusty DBAs. You do not get much time to enjoy and stamp the experience of say Oracle 9 with Oracle 12 knocking on the door.

DBA experience is something very, very relative. You might have spent years and years working for the same company and same set of databases but that helps you specialize in a certain set of tasks. I exclude here Data Center DBAs who have more challenges and feature-facing than even desired.

So does 20 years of DBA experience count? Yes and no. Nobody needs your skills on how to perform a successful upgrade from 7.3.4 to 8.1.5. On the other hand, the routine tasks you have done 100s and 100s of time will certainly be beneficial. What matter is the ability to move out of your DBA comfort zone and look for new challenges and experience. Experience to mess up a database or two.

And I will quote Oscar Wilde again: “Experience is the name everyone gives to his mistakes.”

So, how to become an excellent DBA: a very knowledgeable and experienced one? Try to overcome The Paradox of Excellence. As Tomas and Sara DeLong say: “To achieve continued success, you must open yourself up to new learning experiences that may make you feel uncertain at best and incompetent at worst.”

It is not important how well the DBA knows the old stuff. What matters is how fast (s)he can learn the new things. And as time goes by, the productivity will increase. People will notice it and you wil make the difference.

  1. Hi Julian,

    brilliant article!
    Every CTO (or CEO) should read this article to gain right perception how to increase DBA productivity.

    Best Regards,

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