Motivating the DBA

IT professionals are problem-solvers. In the course of the workday:

  • Programmers encounter problems throughout the application development lifecycle —  from application design, coding and testing through implementation and software upgrades;
  • Quality assurance analysts must address a variety of issues during various conformance processes, such as naming conventions and programming standards, in addition to creating valid test cases and reviewing test results;
  • Systems analysts must juggle the application requirements proposed by the line of business against the current technology assets of the enterprise, then assist in data flow and process flow requirements review to ensure that applications will perform as desired;
  • Project managers must gather task- and work-flow information for small and large projects alike, comparing the time and expertise requirements of various projects against available resources, and ensure that critical tasks are completed on time, and that deliverables are met.

What about the database administrator (DBA)?

Profile of a DBA

DBAs deal with a variety of problems; here are a few examples:”

Application requirements definition. Initial functional requirements state the sources and destinations of data flowing through the application. This frequently involves data storage and retrieval in a database. Here, the DBA takes responsibility for assuring that information requirements are met. Are all required data available from the source systems? Are applications following standards and guidelines for database access? If this is a mission-critical system, how will disaster recovery be handled?

Database design. There are many different database designs that can support the most common business-related applications. Which will perform well? Which provide the best security? How will each design react if complete data recovery is required? What about future data/processing requirements, in terms either of scalability, availability, functionality or performance?

Support tasks. The DBA must be available to handle on-call support issues on a 24/7 basis. These include application contention, system slowdowns, application failures, and some hardware and software issues.

DBMS software support.  These tasks run the gamut from applying recent vendor software patches to implementing a new software version.

As can be seen from this list, DBAs may be simultaneously reactive, active, and pro-active! What motivates them, and how can IT management keep them motivated?

DBA Motivation

It has been noted that simply giving the DBA money(1) isn’t enough. Because of the nature of their work, DBAs seek short-term gratification for the problems they solve. Imagine a DBA who fixes a major production slowdown after several hours of difficult (but exciting) references to documentation, phone calls, and e-mail exchanges. After this intellectual workout, the DBA feels very satisfied: they solved a major problem, thereby rescuing the company from substantial losses.  Their reward?  At some time within the next year (or soon after) their work will be reviewed and evaluated and they … may … get a raise. Perhaps.

No, it isn’t money that drives DBAs. Their need is more internal, intense, and visceral. These needs can be satisfied if IT management understands their need for these two things:

Self-Actualization(2) — the desire to reach one’s fulfillment or potentiality.

Empowerment(3) — the ability to make decisions in regards to assigned tasks.

IT managers should bear in mind these concepts when endeavoring to motivate DBAs.

Here are a few ways to get started.

The Self-actualized DBA

Some DBAs, especially those who are new to the job, consider themselves generalists. This is partially because college and university courses in database administration cover multiple topics but none in-depth. DBAs with little experience find themselves assigned to basic tasks such as creating tables and indexes and running reports.

To grow, DBAs need work with more complexity or nuance. They need education and training in the knowledge and skills necessary to perform high-value tasks.

The move from generalist to specialist must be coordinated with IT management and the needs of the department. Ways to initiate this process include:

  • Investigate online and e-learning possibilities.
  • Attend industry conferences.
  • Collaborate with internal departments. Become an expert on a particular application.
  • Publish standards, tips, and news to internal IT organizations.

The Empowered DBA

The ability to make decisions works best in an environment where employees have some autonomy. However, many IT support organizations have become reactive. This means that much time is taken reacting to problems and arising issues, leaving no time for planning or forecasting. Such organizations have great difficulty supporting new applications or taking on additional responsibilities, since staff time is so overwhelmed with problem solving.

Empowering the DBAs can begin by moving the IT support organization to a more pro-active role.

Several  methods(4,5) exist in the literature describing IT service management and how to increase capabilities. These methods contain elements of quality and process improvement in IT support documentation and processes. Such improvements can be assigned to a new DBA to increase their awareness of service quality.

Functioning in a reactive mode can be a result of poor time management skills. These result when emphasis is put on handling urgent work first, rather than prioritizing based upon importance to the organization as a whole. It is IT management’s responsibility to assess requirements and available resources, and prioritize accordingly. A DBA staff that is overwhelmed with grunt work is a symptom of emphasis on the wrong priorities.

To deal with this, IT management can delegate to the DBAs the ability to prioritize some of their work. This forces the DBAs to communicate with requestors, understand requirements and needs, and plan their work accordingly. By taking ownership of these tasks, DBAs will feel that their input is important and needed, and that they serve a necessary function in the support organization.

Another issue is failure to use a good problem-solving methodology. When faced with a problem, many IT professionals analyze it, consider an alternative, and then attempt to implement it. If their attempt fails, they try something else. While some problems can be solved this way, many complex technology issues demand a more rigorous methodology, including defining the problem, consideration of multiple alternatives, consultations with stakeholders, assessment of risks, and brainstorming with others to develop better choices.

Many of us make common mistakes when trying to solve a problem(6). DBAs can avoid most of these by researching and adopting a common methodology.

DBAs in the Workplace

There are several ways that DBAs can motivate themselves.  Two of these are:

  • Collect, document and publish ‘wisdom’. The DBA has plenty of technical knowledge that can be valuable to the organization. Some of these include: object naming standards; descriptions of standard DBA tasks; locations of common libraries, datasets, and procedures; an enterprise data model; diagrams of application data flows; and other documentation. The DBA can make these available to the organization with regular newsletters, a wiki page, a web site, or other means
  • Lunch n Learn. Being a DBA can be fun, and DBAs should take the opportunity to share this with the larger organization. While this can help DBAs build speaking and organization skills, such presentations have added benefits. Other employees get a look at what being a DBA is like, perhaps assisting them with career choices, and allowing them to broaden their horizons. Last, the inevitable question and answer period gives everyone the opportunity to ‘talk technical’ with teams they must collaborate with.

Motivating the DBA

Database administration is a specialized, highly-technical IT profession. Motivating such a team can be a daunting task. Managers can use the concepts of self-actualization and empowerment to choose tasks and assignments that help DBAs get motivated.

# # #

(1) “Motivating IT Pros”. Article in CIO—-Without-Using-Money.htm

(2) Self Actualization – Definition

(3) Empowerment — Definition

(4) ITIL — Definition

(5) CMMI — Definition

(6) Problem Solving — Common mistakes

See all articles by Lockwood Lyon

Lockwood Lyon
Lockwood Lyon
Lockwood Lyon is a systems and database performance specialist. He has more than 20 years of experience in IT as a database administrator, systems analyst, manager, and consultant. Most recently, he has spent time on DB2 subsystem installation and performance tuning. He is also the author of The MIS Manager's Guide to Performance Appraisal (McGraw-Hill, 1993).

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