Database Administrator: The Modern-Day Atlas
BackBy Lindsay Edmonds Wickman — April 2008
Picture the mythical Atlas not with the weight of the world on his shoulders, but with a computer at his fingertips and the security, recovery and integrity of a company’s entire database on his shoulders. Now multiply that one database by 12, and that sums up Dave Geis’ job as a database administrator (DBA) for dbaDIRECT.
A DBA, as the name portrays, is responsible for the totality of a company’s database, including assessing performance, planning security measures, providing backup and ensuring the integrity of a database.
Geis is one of dbaDIRECT’s 67 database administrators who deal with more than 3,000 corporate databases 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. With such a breadth of responsibility, Geis, who is the team lead for the Sybase platform, has remarkably normal working hours. He starts around 8 a.m. and leaves between 5 and 6 p.m.
“We do get a lunch in there, so we are allowed to eat, contrary to popular belief,” he joked.
Although Geis has working hours much like the rest of corporate America, there are days when work extends beyond those predefined times. For instance, one week each month, Geis and his team are on call, which can lead to some sleepless nights.
“If I’m on call and I’ve been working the issue throughout the day, I’ll just go ahead and take it that night because I’m the one more familiar with it, although I can hand it off to our off-hours support,” he said. “There are times when I have been up late at night. It’s not often, but it’s happened a few times where it’s urgent enough [and] the customer has got to get the system back up or figure out the problem before the next morning, before the start of the business day. There’s always that timeline that you’re working under.”
In Geis’ Footsteps
A typical day for Geis, if there is one, is split between proactive and reactive work.
“We have monitoring in place that does a lot of proactive monitoring, so I go in and make sure that’s all working and fix things, tune things before problems happen. That’s the goal of it all,” he said. “Then, of course, there’s times when you’re reacting and problems do happen. You have to act fast, contact customers and get servers up and running as quickly as possible. That’s part of it, too.”
Geis’ day starts with a team meeting of all the database platforms such as Sybase, Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server.
“We all get together in the morning and talk about the critical events that happened the last day or night,” he said. “We get on the same page and make sure all those critical events are being attended to and that the person working them has solutions, and if they don’t have solutions, [we’re] making sure that they have the tools or the resources to get them. We make sure nothing falls through the cracks from the previous day, and then after that meeting I concentrate on just Sybase.”
If a customer has an issue, a ticket is generated and relegated to critical, warning or OK status. The Sybase team can have anywhere from 50 to 100 tickets per day.
“The hecticness isn’t judged by ticket volume, although it can be,” Geis said. “One ticket can take a week to work. If a customer calls in and they’re having a really big performance problem, [such as] their reports aren’t finishing and the servers are just really slow and it’s not obvious what’s wrong, that takes time for us to analyze the situation and then recommend a solution.”
“Unpredictable” is an accurate description of Geis’ job, but not knowing what he might encounter from Monday to Friday is what Geis enjoys.
“It’s not boring, [and] it’s never the same,” he said. “We support so many different customers, and each customer’s system is different, so whoever’s having the problem, that’s who you are going to work on that day.” Geis explained that dbaDIRECT’s customers come from a range of different industries, “from banking to medical, [and] each customer has [his or her] own different set of problems.”
One ticket that sends Geis’ team into a flurry of action is when a client’s server has crashed, which is a critical alert. Everyone’s pagers go off, and each Sybase team member switches from the current task to investigate the downed server. The first step in a critical alert is contacting the customer.
“[We] work with the customer and tell them, ‘Hey, you’ve got a problem; if you haven’t noticed your server is down,’” Geis said. “We’ll tell them what our next steps are going to be and discuss how we’re going to recover the server. Normally they just say to start as soon as [we] can and do whatever [we] have to do. So we’ll go ahead and log on to their system and look at the air logs to see why the server crashed. Something will clue us in to what happened.”
The team’s next step is to start the server back up and contact the customer to provide a report. “We tell them what was in the air log, why it crashed and give them some recommendations [on] how to prevent [it] in the future,” Geis said.
Being a DBA demands a significant amount of creativity, and that’s what attracted Geis to the position.
“There’s a lot of research, exploring, putting pieces together,” he said. “Lots of times you’ll get a really cryptic error. It really means nothing until you go and research it and put some other pieces together with it. There’s definitely creativity and investigative skills needed. [You need to be able to put] the whole picture together, not just look at the one problem that’s obvious.”
What Does English Have to Do With IT?
Geis earned a bachelor of science degree from Northern Kentucky University. He majored in information systems, the 1990s equivalent of information technology. Because of his affinity for writing, Geis also minored in English, deviating from the norm.
“I was good at writing essays and short stories, and I thought, ‘Why give that up?’ Back then people emphasized that if you’re going to be an IT guy, you might [also] want to concentrate on some other skills,” he said. “It really does help to have decent communication skills because you find all these problems, and you’re trying to talk to the customer [and] that customer may or may not be technical. You [may] have to communicate with them on a pretty basic level so they can make a decision and make it quick. You don’t want to just spew all this technical stuff they don’t understand because then they can’t make any important decisions.”
Geis hasn’t completed any certifications because his job hasn’t demanded it, but he has completed the first exam for the Oracle Certified Professional just to branch into something different.
Some key core technical skills needed to work as a DBA include knowing how to upgrade servers, how to build servers, how to maintain database logs and where to look for problems.
While completing his bachelor’s, Geis got his start working as a computer operator for health insurance provider Humana/ChoiceCare in Cincinnati. Once he received his degree, he became a programmer and then moved on to his current job role.
“Our database administrator left, and they opened the position up internally to our IT department and that seemed really interesting to me,” Geis said. “It was my next jump in my career path. It was more responsibility, more decision making, more projects to lead, and they gave me free reign of the system.”
Geis hit the ground running, asking constructive questions such as, “‘How can we make this better? How can we improve it? How can we fix this and fix that?’ That was all on me, and I thought that was neat.”
After 13 years with Humana/ChoiceCare, Geis decided it was time to move on, and the next logical step was dbaDIRECT, where he has been for two years.
“It was a big change. ChoiceCare was a very stable environment. The same problems kept coming up. You knew what to do: no-brainer. That can be good and bad, [as] you don’t learn as much in that kind of environment,” he said. “This kind of environment is definitely busier, but I learned a whole bunch more because it’s a whole separate set of problems.”
Geis said he feels secure in his job because there is a current demand for DBAs that will only grow, and in his opinion, no technology can make his position totally obsolete.
“They’re always going to be needed,” he said. “There’s more to the database than just a database. There are things outside that are totally out of [our] control, like people. People sometimes use the database incorrectly and do things that corrupt it. The operating system itself can have problems and affect the database. Somebody will always need to get in there and investigate that.”
– Lindsay Edmonds Wickman, firstname.lastname@example.org