Today is DBA Appreciation Day (@dbaday, https://dbaday.org), where we take the time to celebrate the often-unacknowledged role of database admins. Suggested appreciation gifts are pizza, ice cream, and not deploying a migration that forces your DBA to work over the weekend!
DBA Appreciation Day is a welcome gesture, injecting humor into these difficult times when many DBAs are working incredibly hard. But, the celebration also forces us to reflect on how dramatically the world of data storage, retrieval, and information processing have changed in recent times.
When I started my career working with databases in the mid-1990s, relational databases were almost the only game in town. I was trained on Oracle 7.3 and obtained my first certification on Oracle 8i. I was sure then that the demand for relational database management system expertise would never wane. Boy, was I wrong… sort of?!
Changes in the database technology space have touched every aspect of the data platform. It used to be that a database administrator (DBA) career path included having, or developing, knowledge of the entire application stack. This stretched from storage and infrastructure to the internal workings of the application itself. If you wanted to progress, then the DBA role could be a stepping-stone to the larger world of full-stack architecture. So, what changed?
Well, to begin with, this career path is no longer so easy to define, as outside influences impact the relevance and value of the DBA role.
The introduction of new technologies such as NoSQL platforms and the rise of Cloud computing models have played a part. Data sources have proliferated and include the introduction of mobile, the birth of IoT, and the rapid expansion of edge devices. Software development and the production of code-based intellectual property and services have been revolutionized with the adoption of agile models, and the desertion of less flexible waterfall models. And, we cannot discount the effect that changes in deployment models and automation have had. The impact of both infrastructure-as-code and containerization is phenomenal.
The Everything-as-a-Service world we inhabit today is unrecognizable from where many of us started, just a few years before. Gone are the days when a DBA defined the low-level storage parameters for optimal database performance. Gone (or mostly gone) are the days when a data architect was a part of the application development team. Gone are the days when a DBA built their entire career around the configuration and tuning of one database technology.
In the majority of organizations today, the value of this role is no longer self-evident. While some may disagree with this mentality, and many DBAs may not like the trajectory of the trend, at this point, there is no denying that things have changed.
Does this mean that the value of this skill set has also disappeared? Are database gurus extinct? Certainly not. In many cases these experts have simply moved into consulting firms, extending their skills to those experiencing critical issues, who need in-depth expertise.
There are many factors that played a part in taking us from the world where relational DBAs were indispensable, to where we stand today. The move towards DBaaS and the (false) perception that this will provide companies with a complete managed service certainly plays a part.
Skilled and still in-demand
Many of the companies I work with on a regular basis no longer hire in-house DBAs. Instead, they are increasingly choosing to bring in outside database expertise on a contract basis. This represents a dramatic shift in perception and should provoke wider internal and external discussions on the pros and cons of this policy.
Fundamentally, it is important to remember that solid database performance continues to be based on the quality of the queries, the design of the schema, and a properly architected infrastructure. Proper normalization still matters. Data-at-scale continues to require sound data architecture. Business continuity demands robust fault-tolerant infrastructure. However, many companies now don’t have the internal capacity required to achieve these demands in the same way they did in the past.
Database consulting is now a booming market. This is, in part, due to the perceived diminished need for in-house DBA expertise. But, the truth is, there is still a need for that capability and expertise.
With the appetite for employing in-house DBAs gone, filling the expertise gap falls to those few consulting firms that employ people who have these skill-sets.
For the firms who built their stellar reputations on the availability and quality of their DBAs, now made available by the hour and for pre-agreed engagements, it’s a great time to be in database consulting and managed services.