How To Start a Career in Database Administration

How To Start a Career in Database Administration?

Last updated on 05th Oct 2020, Artciles, Blog

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Manikandan (Lead Data Engineer )

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 Database Administration consists of everything required to manage a database and make it available as needed. The database administrator (DBA) is the person who manages, backs up and ensures the availability of the data produced and consumed by today’s organizations via their IT systems. The DBA is a critically important role in many of today’s IT departments, and by extension, their organizations overall.

For example, consider a commercial bank: the DBA is the person who ensures that the bank teller has easy, fast access to your information, and can quickly access your bank balance and transaction history. In this example, the DBA is a system or application-database administrator—a general DBA role responsible for most aspects of the organization’s databases. However, this is not the only kind of DBA.

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A database administrator’s responsibilities may include:

  • Installing and upgrading the database server and/or application tools.
  • Planning for and allocating the database system’s physical requirements, such as memory, disk space, network requirements, etc.
  • Modifying the database structure using information provided by application developers.
  • Creating users profiles, and ensuring system security by careful allocation of user permissions.
  • Ensuring compliance with database vendor license agreement, including number of installations, and taking care of licensing renewals.
  • Creating a backup and recovery strategy for the database, and regularly testing the backups to ensure usability.
  • Monitoring technical support for both database systems and related applications.
  • Creating reports by querying from database (as per need). These reports can be in the form of pre-formatted reports using the application frontend, or custom-made ad hoc reports by the database administrator.
  • Monitoring and optimizing the database’s performance using either manual or automated tools. This may be the DBA’s most important task.
  • Migrating database instances to new hardware and new versions of software from on premise to cloud based databases and vice versa.

Starting with MySQL or Oracle is the initial step that most will suggest when you have your eyes set on becoming a database administrator. If you have any constraints that make attending regular classes difficult, you can learn SQL online. There are online courses for Oracle, too, that you can take at your desired pace and convenience. Since data storage is at the heart of all businesses, there’s a rapidly growing demand for database professionals in the allied domains of information assurance and security. Starting a career in database administration means becoming a database administrator (DBA) who handles a range of functions related to database storage, development, installation, testing, troubleshooting, retrieval, and security. Since corporations use massive data systems to store information, you will often work as a DBA with data communication and network system analysts who will design, run tests, and assess systems like WANs (wide area networks), LANs (local area networks), corporate intranets, and the Internet.

So, here’s how you can get the ball rolling for your career in the domain of database administration.

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Most database administrators hold a Bachelor’s degree, and you should have one, too — preferably in information systems, computer science, or the management of information systems (MIS), since employers these days prefer such applicants. Your chosen bachelor’s degree programs should ideally include courses that cover topics like database systems, web page applications, discrete structures, data mining and data structure, data communications, databases and distributed systems, as well as database management systems. In addition to your degree, you should try doing an internship that introduces you to a range of tasks, which you may have to do as a database administrator. With this experience, you would have an edge over your competitors.

2. Take Online Courses

If you don’t have a college degree but still aspire to begin a career in database administration, you can search for online associate degree courses offered by several colleges in the field of computer science, information systems, and database programming. If you have no education or experience in computer science but are still interested in the database administration landscape, you can test the waters by taking up a certificate course in programming or computer office systems.

3. Learn SQL

This is a fundamental step in starting your career in database administration. Since SQL is the programming language that’s used for writing database queries, you will have to learn it. Be it enrolling in a classroom course or choosing a certificate in IT or programming that emphasizes SQL in particular, when you decide to learn SQL online, you will have options galore. In fact, whatever you learn, you will have to learn SQL anyway. So, it pays to focus on this standard query language, which is supported by several relational databases.

When you take SQL courses, you will find that most courses are focused on MySQL, which is the most widely used database that runs on both Linux and Windows. PostgreSQL is another popular SQL database that tech companies use. You can even take SQL certification exams once you have some knowledge in the field. However, if you aim to earn difficult yet prestigious certifications like the MCSE Data Platform (for database professionals who create enterprise-level data solutions in cloud environments or on-premises) or MCSE Business Intelligence (for database professionals handling the development and deployment of business intelligence reports and solutions), you should be ready to put the effort and time that passing such certifications demands.

4. Learn Oracle

If Oracle is more your style, you can learn Oracle online or otherwise in a way that would teach and test your database knowledge in a wide variety of subject areas. You can take up Oracle certification programs that offer a variety of tracks and specialties. While learning SQL helps development DBAs, in particular, who have to handle coding, Oracle helps application DBAs who work for companies that need third-party software such as PeopleSoft, Oracle, etc. So, aim to get strong fundamentals when you choose to learn Oracle and try to get some hands-on experience after you have mastered the basics.

5. Learn to Differentiate Between the Programs and Decide Accordingly

For some people, Microsoft SQL Server is misnamed as “SQL,” but SQL is different. In fact, you should have a clear idea of MySQL (open-source database), MS SQL (Microsoft’s relational database management system), and Oracle SQL (for working with SQL in Oracle database). Database administration is somewhat different in all these areas based on the difference in supported programming languages, server-side scripts, APIs and other access methods, partitioning methods, etc. Depending on where you want your career to start from and reach, you have to decide which of these you want to learn. Since many programs that facilitate you to learn online are available these days, you just need to do some homework to test which ones would help your career the most and are the right fit for your skill level to shortlist the most valued certifications and programs that you can take.

Database administrator training and certifications

For most employers and hiring managers looking to hire someone with experience, a minimum is a four-year bachelor’s or two-year associate’s degree in any ICT field. However as we saw before, some are starting to leave out this requirement altogether and opt for technical training through online learning and other sources. Still, a college degree in ICT, engineering, or statistics [GE1] will give you an advantage over other applicants.

Next, it is a good idea to get certified in one or more commercial database systems. Your college degree may have taught you the basics of database administration, and you may have even learned some SQL, but this is only an introduction. Most companies will focus on hiring people with certification and DBA training in the specific database software they use. Some of the big players and their database administrator certifications are:

Might consider adding in Statistics. This tends to be more for the data science jobs, but I’ve seen this start to stretch into the admin roles as well in SMBs as they’re looking for the admin to do more than just admin.

  • Oracle: Oracle DB Certified Associate, Oracle DB Certified Professional
  • Microsoft SQL Server: MCSE (Data platform and Business Intelligence) and the older MCDBA
  • IBM: IBM Analytics Certification
  • Oracle: MySQL Database Developer, MySQL Database Administrator
  • MongoDB: Certified DBA, Certified Developer
  • Cassandra: Certified Cassandra Administrator, Certified Cassandra Architect, Certified Cassandra Developer

If you already have a job and are looking to move into the database administration field, it is a good idea to find out if your organization is already using one of the widely-available database platforms listed above. If they are using some little-known, obscure platform instead, it doesn’t hurt to get certified in a lesser known platform so you can kick off your DBA career. But, you should still look at supplementing your entry-level database administrator resume and increasing your marketability later on with something more common. If you don’t already have a job and are looking to start, then first make sure you research the available database platforms. One good place to start is to take a look at how many database administrator jobs are advertised and list specific certifications. This will give you a good idea of how many openings there are, and therefore how much comparative demand there is for a certain database administrator certification.

Many of these database administrator courses and training are available online. Simply pay a fee, download the course and train yourself. 

Employment outlook for database administrators

Being a database administrator or database manager is a rewarding, challenging career path. It also means handling significant responsibility as the custodian of an organization’s data, in addition to being responsible for turning the raw data into actionable intelligence. Let’s turn back to the commercial bank example: Bank staff enter thousands, perhaps millions of pieces of data about their customers every day, including bank balances, loan applications, loan repayments, new account openings, account closures, new checkbook requests, etc. These pieces of discrete data held within the database are not really useful as is. What is very useful is extracting information from them, by analyzing trends and patterns. For example, you may run a report and notice that a certain type of client is the one at the highest risk of defaulting on their loans, or that 65% of clients order new checkbooks in November and December. This is the real value proposition of databases, and by extension, database administrators—the ability to transform raw data into real business intelligence.

The ubiquitous nature of computing, coupled with the self-evident advantages of databases, means that demand for good DBAs in today’s workplace is quite high. Pay for DBAs is of course tied directly to level of seniority, years of experience and the specific database system specialization. The ‘traditional’ database platforms are the so-called relational databases, such as the Oracle DB, Microsoft SQL Server and IBM’s DB2. There is a newer breed of database called non-relational databases designed mainly to handle very large volumes of data (called Big Data), typically from large websites such as Google, Amazon, Ebay and Facebook. 

According to remuneration-tracker Payscale, the median base database administrator salary across the U.S. was $67,733 in 2015, or a base hourly rate of $22. However, this is simply a rough average, ranging from a starting salary in the low 40ks for an entry-level DBA position, to the high $200ks for an expert, senior database administrator in charge of multi-terabyte distributed databases for large corporations. These senior-level positions are far less likely to be concerned with the technical day-to-day aspects of database management. Instead, they are strategic-level senior management positions within the ICT department, and often head large, multi-site teams of DBAs. Nevertheless, most senior database managers begin their careers as techie DBAs, tinkering with and learning the various aspects of databases and database management.

Another remuneration tracker website, ITcareerfinder, lists a median DBA salary of $58,000. However, SQLMag conducted a 2015 survey to track database professionals’ salaries, and concluded that they range from ~$70,000– $160,000, showing increases of 5–9% over the previous year, depending on specific job description. Demand for database administrators is projected to grow at 15% annually for the next 10 years, so DBA job-growth is also more or less assured. In fact, the magazine US News ranked database administrator sixth in its top 10 list of Best Technology Jobs.

Of course, experience level and specific training in specific database software could mean significant deviation from this mean. Other factors affecting DBA remuneration are:

  • Location: DBA jobs in large cities and technology hubs such as San Francisco generally pay 10–40% better than similar database administrator jobs elsewhere.
  • Job specialization: Different specializations within the DBA field also pay very differently. The best-paying positions are in the newer sub-fields for which there are still not many people, such as Big Data engineers ($140k median) and data scientists ($130k median), as well as senior-level positions such as database manager ($140k median) and data architects/developers ($120k median).
  • Specialist skills: This means a specialization in specific database software, such as Oracle, SQL Server or MySQL. Being certified in one of these softwares generally adds 7-15% to a base database administrator salary, since they demonstrate an ability to manage the specific system that a company’s database is hosted on. Think of it as the difference between having a general pilot’s license and some flying hours, versus having the training and certification to fly a Boeing 737—an airline with a large number of 737s in its fleet is probably going to be more interested in someone with that kind of specific certification.
  • Industry sector: Database admins in the tech sector command premium salaries—think Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. Note that these are all companies that generate and manage huge volumes of data. Other excellent job prospects for DBAs are in the financial and healthcare sectors. These are also industries in which the players typically have many clients, and each can generate a large amount of data.

Pathways to a successful database administrator career

There are two main paths to become a database administrator: Focusing on being a DBA from the beginning of an IT career, or (more commonly) starting in a general ICT field, such as helpdesk support or development, and gradually becoming more proficient in database administration.

Either way, being a proficient database administrator will not occur overnight; one first needs to develop certain proficiencies that are also necessary in most ICT careers:

  • Excellent troubleshooting skills: When presented with a problem, especially one you have not encountered before, the ability to think through the possible causes and then eliminate or follow them logically to the end is absolutely crucial. A good DBA is one who can see an error, and then quickly determine potential causes and construct possible solutions.
  • Logical thinking, common sense and above-average memory: The natural ability to think methodically using an elimination-based approach, coupled with a good memory, is also important. This includes the ability to recall technical facts about various systems and platforms relevant to your setup, such as how to increase a table’s size in your SQL Server database, how to add a new disk on your Linux server, and how to delete a user in your PostgreSQL database. Likewise, keeping in mind several specific facts about your particular environment (Do you operate in a LAN or WAN? What are the administrator passwords to the databases? How many users do you have? When is your next database audit? Where are your backups stored?) is crucial.
  • Curiosity and a strong desire to learn: Curiosity and drive will help ensure that you do not stagnate in your database administrator career. The IT field is ever-changing—only the ability and hunger to keep learning new things will keep you from being left behind.
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Starting a career in database administration doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start work as a DBA.

Many professionals who work today as DBAs once started their careers as data analysts and database developers — and you, too, can follow in their footsteps after earning your Bachelor’s degree. While the job of a data analyst would make you become familiar with the collection and analysis of data contained in databases, working as a database developer would require you to gather information (that would then be inserted into databases), design and execute database technologies, and examine the efficiency of databases. To stand out of the competition, you should also work towards earning industry certifications. Whatever route you decide to take, make sure to have a clear idea of what you want to do and where you want your career to go. Knowing this will help you make smart decisions.

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