How to Become a DBA
Database administrators, also known as DBAs, play a critical role for many organizations in maintaining one of their most important assets: their data. The roles of DBAs are among the most challenging in IT — and experienced and skilled professionals are both highly sought after and well paid. In this article, we will describe a path that you can take to become a successful database administrator
What Exactly Does a DBA do?
The roles of a DBA can vary from one organization to another, but as a DBA you can expect to have some subset of the following responsibilities: installing and maintaining database server applications and tools, installing and maintaining the databases themselves, monitoring and fine-tuning databases to improve performance and access, facilitating backups and restoration of data, providing database-related user support, developing and maintaining database applications, and creating reports.
First Steps Toward Becoming a DBA
Because data is such a critical asset, most organizations require their DBAs to not only be highly skilled but also highly experienced. How do you get this experience if you're just starting out?
The answer lies in getting an entry-level IT support job and working your way up to DBA. However, even getting an entry-level IT job is not that easy, as employers expect people in these roles to have proven skills.
You can get these skills by first getting trained in IT support and then passing industry-standard certification exams, which will demonstrate to employers that you have actually learned the skills taught in the courses. CBT Nuggets offers an array of courses that will help you pass exams such as CompTIA A+ and Microsoft 365 Certified: Modern Desktop Administrator Associate.
Once you have become certified, the next step is applying for IT support jobs. If possible, look for ones that include some type of database responsibility, such as performing backups and restores. Also, during the interviews, be sure to mention your interest in databases and try to gauge what types of opportunities may exist in these organizations for learning and using them.
Advancing from Support to Database Administration
Once you have gotten your foot in the door within an organization's IT department, you have actually taken a giant leap toward becoming a DBA, regardless of how menial or unimportant your first job may seem. This is because with this job should come lots of opportunities for learning and using databases, such as:
Learning on the Job
Even if your first IT job has little or no database responsibilities, you can gain practical knowledge and experience in them on the job. Here are some ways that you can do this:
Developing Relationships with Supervisors
Your immediate supervisor can be a great ally in advancing your career if you have a good working relationship with them. The way to develop this relationship is by making their job easier. Complete your tasks well and on time (if not early), volunteer for special projects whenever they arise, and always project a positive can-do attitude. Let this person know that you are someone that they can count on.
Once you have developed a good relationship with your supervisor, let them know not only about your interest in databases but that you are eager to gain practical experience. To this end, inform your supervisor that you are willing to take on database-related tasks in addition to your normal responsibilities — and that you will do this on your own time.
Not only can you pick up a lot of skills and experience by doing this, but your supervisor could recommend you later for the DBA job that you really want.
Seeking Out a Mentor
Another way that you can gain database skills and experience is through a mentor. Find a DBA working in your organization and let them know about your interest in databases. Also, let them know that you are willing to help them out.
This can create a win-win situation in which the DBA gets to offload some of the less critical tasks that they may have and you get valuable skills and experience. Like with your supervisor, this person may also recommend you for a DBA job in the future.
Learning on Your Own
Whenever you have some downtime, you should be learning as much as you can about database technology. Many organizations have test database environments in which you can create and manipulate databases. Even if they do not have such an environment, you may be able to install a local database server on your computer so that you can practice with databases. If possible, try to develop a database that is similar to one that is being used in the organization and mimic its functionality.
As you learn about databases, do not be afraid to fail. It is from these failures that you will learn. Also do not be afraid to ask for help when you run into problems, either through people at work or through online forums.
One of the most important skills that you should acquire as you learn about databases is Standard Query Language (SQL). Despite what its name implies, SQL is used for much more than just querying databases. DBAs use it every day during the entire database lifecycle, from database creation to reporting, maintenance and fine-tuning. They often also use the language embedded within other computer languages to create all sorts of complex applications that access and manipulate databases.
As most relational databases use SQL as its primary means of data access and manipulation (and many organizations heavily use this type of database for their applications), SQL is a foundational skill for DBAs. So, it is important that you become an expert in it through any means possible.
You should also learn as much as possible about the most popular relational database server products on the market, such as Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle Database and MySQL. If you are interested as well in web and cloud applications of databases, you may also want to learn about distributed NoSQL database products such as MongoDB and CouchDB.
Getting Training and Certifications
While there is no substitute for getting experience, training can supplement what you learn and experience on the job. So, if your organization offers any kind of database training, either internally or externally, you should take advantage of this to the fullest extent possible.
You should also consider getting certifications in database technology, as they will demonstrate to employers that you have tangible skills in addition to the experience and training that you have picked up on the job. A certification can also help you stand out from others seeking the same job.
There are many good database certifications to get, such as MCSA: Microsoft SQL 2016 Database Administration and Oracle Database 12c R2 Administration Certified Associate. Keep in mind that the Microsoft SQL certificate will soon be retired, and, as of yet, it is not known what, if anything, will replace it.
After Getting Your First DBA Job
You still need to keep learning and gaining experience, both of which will help you move into more senior positions, where you will receive increased responsibilities and pay. You can do this through the same means that got you the DBA job: learning on the job and learning outside of it through training.
Many DBAs also develop specializations as their career develops. These specializations often lead to more challenging roles and higher salaries. You can specialize in a number of ways. One way is to become an expert in one or more of the leading database products such as Oracle. Attaining the full set of certificates that a particular database vendor offers can be particularly useful for this type of specialization.
You can also specialize as either a systems DBA or an applications DBA. While a systems DBA focuses on installing and maintaining databases and the technology that runs them, application DBAs focus on the custom software applications that operate upon the databases. The former specialization may be interesting to you if you enjoy problem solving, while the latter specialization may be interesting if you discover that you enjoy computer programming. Don't be afraid to explore your options, you will have more as you gain experience.