Important Soft Skills for the Entry-Level Data Professional

Important Soft Skills for the Entry-Level Data Professional

Now Hiring - No Experience Required

Perhaps I'm over-exaggerating just a bit, but when looking to fill an entry-level position, you really are expecting to interview candidates with no (or very little) technical experience. That's what I've been doing as of late. In my "day job" before I don my SQLAgentMan cape and mask to fight problem technical implementations worldwide and whisk SQL pros off on SQL Cruises, I'm the Lead for a medical system's SQL Database Administration Team. I've assembled a really good team, too. The three of us: myself, Senior DBA, and Junior DBA manage, to support the entire SQL Server footprint—about 200 instances and 3,000 databases and climbing—for 11 hospitals and we've never lost a byte of data in the 15 years that there has been a SQL DBA.

Now, we have budget to hire a purely entry-level person to serve as our fourth team member. We expect SQLRobin to grow and mature into a Data Superhero, but we know that time, education, and experience stands between those two career points. Of course, in today's economic landscape, we may end up interviewing candidates willing to work well below what their experience and skills would get in a better market, but we truly are expecting to get the greenest of candidates.

What Do You Look For When Technical Skill is Not a Requirement?

Last Friday on Twitter, I posed that question while mulling this over waiting to be picked up after getting stranded in my home airport due to weather conditions while trying to get to the Microsoft MVP Summit and PASS Summit in Seattle. 

Here are a few of the responses:

"Good communication"


"Basic problem solving skills"

"Motivation and ingenuity, but those are hard to measure in an interview."

"Consciousness" (though in retrospect this was clarified as an auto-correct issue for misspelling "Consciencessness".

"I would say enthusiastic even more than smart. You don't actually have to be SMART to be a DBA."

"Passion, enthusiasm, integrity, and ability to get along with others. You can teach skill."

"Ability to pull focus back enough to predict what actions taken will affect others & future of project / application."

"Being a team player. That includes putting your ego aside and trusting your teammates."

I'd like to single out a response from Adam Machanic (blog|twitter), who stated:

"I look for smart + enthusiastic. It's a rare person who is EXCITED by database work. That's a great DBA in the making."

Database work is not exciting when you look at it from the outside. If you find someone (one of us freaks of nature) who really enjoy working with data that is also smart and enthusiastic (but again not just about technology), then I'm sold. 

While these are all extremely good answers, so many of them are not only hard to quantify but as one respondant said, they're almost impossible to measure in an interview. Many touched upon what I already had as a perception in my mind and had been using through the hiring process when meeting with the candidates I had to date. My dream candidate would be one that would demonstrate many of the following non-technical traits:

  • Passion; not just passion about technology. While that is important, I also want to work with well-rounded individuals. I want someone who will have passion for learning and pride in what they do while in the office, but also has a reason to cut out of work when the day is done and perhaps work a bit harder throughout the day so they cut out a bit early. I want that person who finds new ways to do things, so they can get more done in a shorter amount of time so they can get on with the things in their life that they're earning money to fund doing. I want a person who works to live, not lives to work.
  • Communication skills beyond the norm. I, nor any of my peers, would be where they are in their careers if they were not able to communicate what they do. This does not mean that you blog or write books. It means that, if necessary, you can convey the complex things you do or need to do for someone in simple enough fashion that even your grandmother can understand it. If you can do that, then odds are good that anyone in a leadership role that you need to win over, will understand it, too.
  • Curiosity. This is a selfish one because I have this disease, and it's been a direct influence in my success—I can't stop being curious and wanting to learn new things. One of the questions I always ask is the same one that was asked of me 15 years ago when I was breaking into the world of data:

"If you don't know something how do you approach figuring it out?" 

My response all those years ago was that I crack a book. Funny, now that many of those same books are written by people I consider close friends and have had in my home, on SQL Cruises and in some cases in my weddings. Today, I would expect (or want) to hear answers that speak to blogs, books, online training, and so forth. Bonus points for "I'd reach out to my network" but I'd not expect this from an entry-level candidate. 

  • Which leads me to one of the most-important activities for being a success—but is not necessarily a trait—Networking. Building a network is not just important, it's critical.  To have a group of individuals you can bounce ideas off of, consult when something is under your skin or to flesh out an idea is so important.  Data is too broad a landscape to be able to be the master of it all.  You need friends, peers and associates to help out and to be one of these people for others in return.  I guess to frame this in the theme of what we're talking about here it would be the amalgomation of the three previous traits.  Being good at networking requires you to be able to communicate, have passion for your career and be curious about the world around you. 
  • You also have to have charisma. Note that I'm not talking about physical beauty. I'm refering to that intangible of being likeable. Being likeable is always going to give you a head start over anyone as smart and talented as you are in whatever you do - and a substantial head start at that. This is one of those traits that does actually measure well in an interview. If it doesn't then either the candidate has a low die roll for charisma (pardon the Dungeons & Dragons reference) or they are not capable of selling themselves to strangers which can be an indicator of poor customer service skills and can also be a potential pain point for your team's reputation with customers and leadership alike.

My sixteen year old son, who is already wise for his years, gave me the best answer, though, and without hesitation when we were discussing this topic as I was struggling with a closing:

Austen: "Adaptabilty."

Me: "How so?"

Austen: "You're not going to succeed going down any new path if you aren't able to adapt to new environments, people, or ideas."

(I could not have been prouder and I had my closing!)

What Do You Think?

I'd love to hear what your thoughts on the matter are. Please take time to share with us all using the comments below.

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