Traits of a DBA – Part Two – The Personal Side of a DBA

Over the years I’ve been asked a number of times what does it take to become a DBA, or what kinds of traits should I be looking for when hiring a DBA.  Those traits can be summarized it two categories: Technical and Personal.  In my last article I discussed the technical traits of a DBA.  In this article I’m going to complete my list of DBA traits by discussing the personal traits that make a good DBA.

Personal Traits

What are personal traits?  These are the personal distinctive qualities or exceptional characteristics that a person possesses.  Personal traits are more about the passion, behaviors, attitude and emotions that a DBA brings to the work place. A good DBA will use their personal traits in conjunction with their technical skill to provide exceptional service when managing databases and/or working with customers that use the databases they manage. 

Below you will find a list of the personal traits that I think are important.  This is only my thoughts on those important personal traits a DBA should have.  This is not an exhaustive list.  If you feel a DBA should have some other personal traits then by all means add them to your list.

1) Problem Solving Skills

As a DBA you run into all kinds of interesting issues–some inherent in managing SQL Server databases, while others are created by programmers/developers.  People look up to the DBA as the resource to help solve their problems.  Therefore a good DBA will have excellent problem solving skills.  I’m not saying they will know the answer to every problem.  What I’m saying is they have a standard approach or methodology for resolving problems. They use their problem solving skills to methodically identify what is causing or may be causing the problem, and then develop a solution or numerous solutions to resolve each problem they encounter.  It is also important for a DBA to keep an open mind when solving problems, and understand there is almost always more than one way to resolve any issue they run up against. Therefore they need to be able to evaluate different options objectively so they can pick the best options for resolving a particular problem.

2) Mentoring Skills

Most of the time, but not always, the DBA is one of the most senior people in an organization.  They have a vast knowledge of how SQL Server works and how applications within the organization interact with the SQL Server.   A good DBA will share his knowledge with his fellow co-workers.  He should have the skills necessary to train others and have a passion about sharing his knowledge and should willing mentor more junior staff. 

3) Automating Everything

Many people require the DBAs time.  This makes a DBA a very busy person.   In order to free up their time they should have a desire to automate the manual tasks that they perform.  Being able to automate those manual tasks will give the DBA more time to work with customers. A good DBA should have a desire to design and build a lights out DBA environment.  By lights out environment, I mean the DBA shouldn’t be spending time monitoring the SQL Server environment manually.  But instead they should be buying or building a proactive monitoring environment that will contact the DBA when there is an issue with SQL Server.  The more things the DBA can automate the more time the DBA will be able to spend working with others and solving those problems that revolve around database management.

4) Looking for Process Improvement Efforts

For every problem solved there is most likely a better way to resolve the problem.   A good DBA will analyzes every problem to develop a number of different options to resolve the problem.  They keep an open mind and think out of the box when defining options.  Once all the options have been identified they than determine and implement the best solution to the problem.  Even when they are done with resolving a problem they still look for ways to improve the process. An excellent DBA will continue to look for better ways to do business to make a better managed environment.

5) Following a Standard Methodology

There are lots of different ways to design, and build things.  Every developer will have his own ideas on how to build database objects, and scripts.   As a DBA you need to be able to develop a standard methodology for interacting with the database.  DBAs should have a passion for following a standard method for accomplishing work.  They do this by developing database naming conventions, standards and guidelines for working with and interacting with databases, and SQL Server instances. 

6) Attitude

It is all about attitude.  Regardless of how bad things are the DBA needs to keep a calm and positive outlook.  By keeping a positive attitude and a cool head a DBA can more easily stay focused on the problems related to whichever database service is not working properly.  Staying focused and having a calm attitude provides the DBA more energy and drive to getting database services back online quickly, when they are down.

7) Community Oriented

A DBA will be involved in the SQL Server Community.  A good DBA will leverage the community to extend his network of support.  He will do this by participating in online SQL Server forums and in-person SQL Server communities.   He will give back to the SQL Server community, by sharing his knowledge.  He does this by speaking at local user groups or larger events like SQL Saturday or the annual PASS summit.  Additionally, some exceptional DBAs will write technical white papers, articles, and even books to share their knowledge with the SQL Server community.  

8) Ethical

A DBA needs a moral compass to follow.  By using a moral compass a DBA is able to make sound business decisions that fall within the norm of what customers and managers of his corporation expects.  As a DBA it is important to treat people fairly and evenly, having a strong ethical background allows him to accomplish this.

9) Prioritizing Work Correctly

There are always lots of different tasks a DBA needs to accomplish.  A good DBA will know how to prioritize these different tasks so work is completed on time.  DBAs use their prioritization skills when working with customers to identify time frames and expectations of when work will be completed.  By knowing which tasks take five minutes and those that will take days to accomplish help keep those simple database changes moving forward while they work on those long tasks that will take days to complete.    

10) Leadership skills

A DBA needs to be a leader in his organization.  He needs to be able to set direction and get people to follow that direction.  He is willing to take charge to analyze issues and resolve problems.  He willingly volunteers to take on difficult tasks.  DBAs actively seek out opportunities to lead efforts both database and non-database related.

11) Communication Skills

DBAs need to be able to communicate with customers and management staff effectively.  They need to have good interpersonal skills to accomplish this communication.  Being able to lower the stress level of frustrated and upset customers helps quickly and calmly resolve database related problems.  Oral communication skills also help in making presentations to management, and mentoring/training other staff.  Another communication skill that is useful is listening.  Being able to let customers communicate their thoughts shows a DBA is able to empathize with the customers while disengaging from their own agenda.  Additionally a DBA needs to have good written communication skills.  This will help when interacting with customers via email, or when developing standards, guidelines or other documentation associated with database management.

12) Customer Service

A DBA needs to have good customer services skills.  He is able to turn technical speak into a dialog that customers can understand.  When working with customers to walk through their problems he uses his communication skills to help understand the problems from the customer’s perspective. When the DBA works with others he sets expectations of when work will get done and then strives to meet or exceed those expectations. 


I hope that between this article and my prior article I’ve provided you some characteristics that make a good DBA.  Just because a person has a good set of technical skills doesn’t necessarily make him a good DBA.  A good DBA needs to have good technical skills but he also has to have good personal skills.  By having good personal skills he is able to communicate and work effectively and efficiently with others.  Keep in mind it may be rare that any one DBA will have all of these traits.  When you judge a person to determine if they will make a good DBA determine the number of technical traits and personal qualities they have.  The more traits a person has the more senior and better DBA they will make.

See all articles by Greg Larsen

Gregory Larsen
Gregory Larsen
Gregory A. Larsen is a DBA at Washington State Department of Health (DOH). Greg is responsible for maintaining SQL Server and other database management software. Greg works with customers and developers to design and implement database changes, and solve database/application related problems. Greg builds homegrown solutions to simplify and streamline common database management tasks, such as capacity management.

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