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DBA career paths could lead to business intelligence

Business intelligence could prove to be an ideal specialty for SQL Server DBAs who feel like they've hit a wall with their current jobs.

One of the most common questions heard from database professionals regarding their careers is, "How do I move up?"...

While titles and certifications are all well and good, success is measured by more than just a piece of paper in the current economy. During a time when most organizations are tightening their belts, promotions can be tough to come by.

One of the issues IT professionals often run into is the lack of a clear-cut career path. Oftentimes, once a DBA has done a particular job for a while, he or she tends to hit a wall in terms of career growth.

"Unfortunately the IT world is kind of bottlenecked in a way," said Kevin Kline, a technical strategy manager for SQL Server solutions with Quest Software Inc. "After a certain amount of time, typically to get more salary growth, you have to make the jump into management. Otherwise you kind of top out as a technologist eventually. "

Kline is scheduled to speak on the fundamentals of IT management at PASS 2009. He said that the major roadblock facing IT and database professionals is that in most cases, the skills they've used to excel as administrators are usually not the same skills required to make a successful transition into a management position.

Database administrators also face the challenge of technological advancements actually working against them, an irony that can make things even more difficult in the current economy.

"More and more aspects of the database are being abstracted away from the DBA," said Kline, adding that the implementation of storage area networks and virtual environments has taken a certain level of control away from database administrators. "It always used to be one server, one application. It's not that way anymore."

I think many DBAs and developers get away from the fact that we are here to provide business value to the people who employ us.
Kevin Kline, Technical strategy manager for SQL Server solutions, Quest Software

For this reason, he said that one of the keys to continuing a successful database career is to remain knowledgeable about the areas DBAs now deal with less frequently, such as storage, hardware and virtualization.

"You have this situation where you've been a DBA for six, eight, or even 10 years, and you've been fantastic at your job. What do you do next? You have to broaden your skill set in different directions in order to get that next promotion," Kline said.

Making a name for yourself

A broad skill set is the key for many IT professionals, particularly those who have found success in the current economic climate by branching off into other related areas of IT. For some, this includes pursuing freelance writing and public speaking opportunities.

"You have to get out there and become known," said Kevin Beaver, an IT security consultant with Atlanta-based Principle Logic LLC. "Really, in doing so, you gain the benefit of being able to share what you've accomplished with your writing, speaking and groups you've joined. You can add that to your resume or bio, which can actually help you land your next [job]."

Kline echoed this sentiment, saying that forms of expression such as blogging and tweeting can be extremely important for DBAs to differentiate themselves from others in such a competitive environment. He also stressed that visibility within a DBA's current organization is just as important as becoming known within the IT community in general.

"In my opinion, the economy definitely has crystallized the whole idea of what we do as IT or database professionals," Kline said. "I think many DBAs and developers get away from the fact that we are here to provide business value to the people who employ us. We need to be able to articulate what it is our business does, and how it is that our information technology works and actually has value that makes life better."

He used the example of a DBA working for a shipping company. If that DBA doesn't know anything about logistics, he or she is put at a disadvantage when compared to another DBA with a strong understanding of how the business works.

"We need to know what it is at the end of the day that we are trying to accomplish," he explained. "We're not just there to automate things because we like to automate things. We do it to provide value; to actually enable the company to make more money or to improve service to the customers."

Beaver said that visibility in a current occupation is critical for IT professionals in terms of keeping their jobs and moving up in a company.

"You have to go the extra mile. Get out there and get things done by either asking for more responsibility or just doing it yourself without waiting for someone to tell you," he explained. "This will help you gain that visibility and also build trust. [It shows] that you're interested in moving the business ahead."

BI demand on the rise

Another important career decision for database professionals involves choosing the right specialty. The upcoming SQL Server 2008 R2 has been dubbed by some as a "BI release" from Microsoft, and Kline says that business intelligence and data warehousing skills are particularly in high demand right now.

"When you look at all of the major database platforms, nobody is churning out as many exciting new features for BI as Microsoft is," Kline said. "So with things like PowerPivot and all these new features that are coming down the pipeline – it's just some really, really exciting stuff happening. But there is an incredible shortage of BI talent out there, especially in the Microsoft SQL Server space."

He described business intelligence as a "very hot, high-growth area" and a great specialty for those trying to figure out which direction they want their careers to head in. "There is so much work to be done, and there are so many capabilities in the Microsoft technology that other vendors don't have. This is a really, really great area to specialize in," he said.

Forgo the cloud – for now

One area, however, that DBAs might not want to invest as much time with is the cloud. Brent Ozar, a SQL Server expert with Quest Software, said that in terms of cloud computing with SQL Server, it's the developers that are the real focus for now.

"I don't think DBAs are the target market for SQL Server in the cloud," Ozar said. "If a company has enough database needs to hire a full-time DBA, then they also probably have enough needs to build their own database server infrastructure internally as well."

Kline said he has remained unconvinced of the value of cloud-based databases – at least in the short term.

"I've gone on the record early on that I have been very skeptical, and still skeptical today – not of the value, and not that clouds won't eventually be something that we'll see all over the place – just the immediacy of it," he said. "The cloud is just not reliable enough for enterprises, and it won't be for years. I don't know how many years. It could be two years or four years -- it could be more. But it's just not reliable enough now."

While Kline stressed that he doesn't feel cloud technology is quite ready for the enterprise, he still considers it wise for DBAs to at least keep their fingers on the pulse of cloud computing. He also agreed that the cloud should currently be of much more interest to developers.

"You can absolutely start to build some stuff with it to get an idea of how this is going to work for you," he said. "But if I was back in the enterprise and responsible for keeping that enterprise up and running – although the value proposition of the cloud is enormous -- I wouldn't build my business on it. Not a chance. It has too many issues right now."

Check out more preview coverage of PASS Summit 2009.

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