SQL Server Pros: Surviving or Thriving?

Faced with cutbacks and heavy workloads, database pros still find satisfaction--and recommend IT to others

Database professionals, you've invested time, money, and energy in your careers. You got into IT for many reasons—perhaps you have a knack for computers, you saw a good career path, you enjoy solving technical problems, or you believe IT offers secure employment. And as professionals, you take pride in your work and accomplishments. So it isn't surprising that, in responding to our 2004 salary survey, most respondents told us they like what they do. As Figure 1, page 30, shows, 72 percent reported that they're somewhat or totally satisfied with their current jobs. However, they also report that despite overall satisfaction with the work itself, they're facing enormous business and job challenges—such as working with reduced resources, balancing heavier workloads, surviving layoffs, dealing with outsourcing, and receiving reduced or flat compensation—that eat away at satisfaction.

The Stuff That Satisfies

Let's face it—you didn't get into IT because you thought the job would be a cake walk. And many of our survey respondents tell us that the challenge of their profession is one of the perks. They're a dedicated and hard-working bunch, and most report working well past the boundary of the traditional 40-hour work week. An astounding 80 percent of respondents revealed that they work between 40 and 70 hours per week, and some dedicated souls are putting in 80, 90, or even 100 hours a week. Although many professions see extended hours as exceptional, in IT, the 60-hour week is the norm. (For details about how respondents spend their time at work, see the article "Masters of Multitasking," page 17.) And most respondents said they are content enough with their situation that they're not looking for a change. (For a list of reasons why some respondents would look for another job, see the Web sidebar "Who's Looking?" at InstantDoc ID 44366.)

So what keeps SQL Server professionals plugging away? As Figure 2 shows, compensation is the top priority. But, as we'll see in a moment, many people have experienced cutbacks in compensation, so money isn't the only thing that keeps them going. Most respondents told us that they get a great deal of personal satisfaction from what they do. They take pride in the opportunity they have to implement systems that benefit users and their companies. They know that what they do is valuable, and their skills provide them with the potential for flexibility and growth in their careers. As one systems analyst said, "All other industries (insurance, health care, manufacturing, etc.) require IT staffing of one level or another." A respondent from New York explained that IT skills are valuable because they're "not industry specific. Knowledge of the industry is important to understand the data and business rules, but my knowledge of VB, C++, .NET, Java, and T-SQL can go anywhere."

Respondents felt that data and database management skills are especially vital. A storage administrator in California wrote, "Organizations are storing more and more data and need to...process, analyze, and understand it. There are lots of opportunities for DBAs, data analysts, \[and\] business intelligence professionals." Other comments from database pros echo that sentiment. Respondents said that because applications are built around databases, with a strong background in data management, you can do anything. And they believe that data administration has a strong future. A respondent from Arizona said, "Database administration/use is a skill that will be needed for a long time in the future." One systems architect observed, "Few organizations want to 'deal' with their data—they just want to leverage it. There will always be employment for competent database professionals." An IT director also emphasized that database professionals are performing more analytical tasks, and people who have strong business intelligence (BI) skills are highly valued. "Companies are currently extremely involved in using their data for...business purposes," the director noted. "For this reason, they need people highly skilled at accessing and analyzing this data and pay those people well to do so."

Support from employers is also important to respondents' satisfaction. Many companies have frozen salaries or even cut them, but some organizations are looking for alternative ways to show employees how much they value their contributions. At one systems administrator's company, for example, tuition reimbursement has replaced salary increases, a practice that shows appreciation for an employee's willingness to work at keeping skills current, even when the company is under financial constraints. One application developer said his company is offering increased flex time and telecommuting options. And a database analyst noted that at his company, "more allowances have been made to accommodate working from home when on call. Unlimited sick leave was implemented. Vacation hours increased by one week per year."

Survey participants said all these concrete factors contribute to their overall job satisfaction. But in the final analysis, many people reported that they're satisfied with their jobs simply because they enjoy what they do. One IT manager enthused about the challenges and opportunities of an IT career: "IT can be exciting and demanding, IT is always changing, and you can get exposed to all aspects of a business." A respondent from Wisconsin confessed to finding fun in his job: "For people who enjoy the challenges that an IT career provides, it is a wonderful choice. I love puzzles (problems to solve), and I get to solve them as part of my job." And a network administrator said he'd recommend an IT career to newcomers "only if they enjoyed working with computers. Then they would never have to work a day in their life. It's never-ending change. I love it."

Clearly, what gives SQL Server professionals the most satisfaction is their passion for what they do. But it's not the only requirement for success in an IT career. As one respondent said, "I love being a DBA. It's challenging and important work. I feel that anyone with enough drive and ambition can do it. All you need is focus, determination, and a tough skin." That "tough skin" is something many respondents would recommend. Although the SQL Server pros who completed our survey love their work, they're realistic about the drawbacks of working in IT, especially in the current economic climate. Let's take a look at some of the hurdles they said they face.

Caveat Emptor

Given the generally high level of satisfaction respondents reported, it's not surprising that they would also encourage others to join them. As Figure 3 shows, 85 percent of respondents said they'd recommend working in some aspect of IT (e.g., as a developer, database or systems administrator, IT executive) to young people who are looking for a profession. As one database developer noted, "I believe IT is a base of knowledge that could help the individual lead into other roles within the organization. The more IT experience you have, the more business experience you have." And that belief in the future of IT seems firm, despite recent rocky economic times. "The computer industry might change software- or hardware-wise but the industry itself will continue to grow," one application developer said. "Check out quantum computing in the next 10 years." (Women, who contributed 14 percent of the responses to our salary survey this year, especially recommend IT careers to other women, as the sidebar "Cracking the Glass Ceiling," explains.) However, most respondents were careful to qualify their recommendation of IT with a warning: Be aware of the drawbacks of the current employment market.

Some of the cautions respondents gave are just practical advice ("If you have the desire to code, I would recommend this profession. If you don't like to code, go into marketing..."). But most warnings addressed common concerns about the current state of business, the job market (including outsourcing issues), and money. A Canadian data analyst explained his response by saying, "I would make this recommendation, and at the same time, I would advise \[newcomers\] of the current environment to ensure that they know what they are getting themselves into—hours expected to work, which schools people are hiring from—it's a good field, but..."

Business changes. Many respondents reported that, in an effort to survive the tough economic climate of the past few years, companies have resorted to cutbacks that leave IT personnel with added job responsibilities, limited resources, and typically little or no increase in compensation—a common story in many job sectors these days. A DBA and data modeler in Ohio summed up his situation as "too many directions and changing responsibilities; the current motto is 'Do more with less.'" Burnout is common among those who feel, as one IT director does, "overworked, underappreciated, outsourced." An IT manager in Missouri explained that "in my area of the country, there seems to be a lack of compensation, a desire to hire employees that are a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. This puts too much stress on an employee who is required to be an expert in every aspect of IT." And a New York programmer/analyst said that cutbacks at his organization have created an environment in which "compensation versus responsibility and work expected is too off-balance."

Respondents also report other changes in their work environment that reflect the survival mentality. "Corporate-wide, we have moved from in-house built applications to purchased ERP solutions, a process that was started in 1998," a Web developer noted. And an IT manager observed, "In my experience, employers no longer pay for Internet connectivity for home or cell phones, even though they require us to have them to be available and work away from the office. Little things like this make a difference." Another IT manager reported that since the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, "the pay-increase process at our company is becoming much more formal and involved with HR to a much higher degree." And a Maryland respondent said that at his company, belt-tightening measures included "increase in employee cost for health insurance, modest percentage increases in base pay, loss of tuition reimbursement, decrease in training funds—these \[changes\] will be permanent."

Some IT professionals described scenarios in which they're given extra work that directly interferes with their ability to do their regular jobs. "I think it has gone downhill for the IT pro at my job," one application developer/programmer said. "The higher-ups are okay with the status quo because they think that preserving the current database will save them money. They are using IT pros as Help desk personnel, and it just really sucks." In another extreme case, an information systems analyst said that at his company, "more users are developing their own applications, and when they don't work, we are told to fix them, even if we have to start from scratch. We are asked to do building maintenance work because their staff is too busy."

Outsourcing: surviving the cut. The general trend of outsourcing jobs to save money has definitely influenced how you feel about your jobs. Outsourcing is one of the caveats respondents cited frequently when explaining whether they would recommend IT as a career. Many respondents warned that because of outsourcing and other cutbacks, IT newcomers are likely to encounter a tough job market in the United States, at least for the foreseeable future. "Entry-level positions have virtually been eliminated," one Indiana CTO warned. "Even tenured IT professionals are sometimes struggling to find steady work in some regions of the country. Many recent IT graduates are faced with low wages, long hours, and outsourced positions." And an IT manager summed up the general feeling about outsourcing by saying, "Outsourcing is a serious issue. There are tons of unemployed IT people here, and India and China are competing on an uneven playing field with US labor markets."

However, as Figure 4 shows, 87 percent of respondents believe their company will maintain or increase the number of IT professionals it employs. As Figure 5, page 34, shows, fewer than 50 percent are worried about losing their own jobs to outsourcing. Although respondents cautioned that new people entering the market won't find themselves in as much demand as newcomers were a few years ago and that compensation is lower than it was in the "boom days" of the 1990s, they also expressed a firm belief that IT careers aren't going to simply vanish. One Kentucky IT manager who has seen many application development jobs leave the country cautiously speculated, "Some areas of IT (outside of application development) are still in good shape and provide opportunities as a profession." But a respondent who is working as an application developer/programmer in Texas was more optimistic, saying IT offers a "promising career for people who like to work with technology. \[You\] can advance faster than other traditional career paths (e.g., marketing, management)." And a Colorado Web administrator predicted, "IT is a challenging field for those who want a challenge. There will always be IT jobs in this country. We can't possibly outsource or offshore everything. Also, the pay for IT pros has been very good."

Money matters. The matter of pay is a touchy point. Many respondents remain positive about their pay and count it as only one of the perks of their jobs. As an IT manager noted, "It is an interesting and rewarding job, and generally I have always been among the better paid in any organization I have worked in." However, money does talk, and there's no denying that many SQL Server professionals are dismayed at the change—or lack of change—in their paychecks recently.

Compensation cutbacks that survey respondents reported range from total wage and hiring freezes to pay decreases and layoffs to cuts in health coverage and other compensation besides base pay. (For details about current pay and pay changes of survey respondents, see the article "Who Makes What?" page 23.) Some IT workers are still receiving pay increases, but respondents report that those increases are drastically less than they were a couple of years ago. Some respondents said they don't see increases for extended periods of time (18 months or more). A CTO in Maryland reported that, at his company, "salary hikes have been limited and capped at a bare minimum level, just beating inflation. The jobs are increasing in the market, but the salaries don't show any significant incentive to jump the boat." One Missouri IT manager observed, "There have been no raises or promotions (unless someone left) for the last 3 years at my organization. Previously, promotions and raises happened based on performance." A manager in Pennsylvania pondered, "Sometimes I don't think the management even knows we are here—2 years running and no raises." And a database analyst in New York admitted, "The company does what it can to compensate its employees, considering that the company has been operating at a loss for several years now. What is more important at this point is \[whether\] the company will survive."

Many respondents expressed fear that the changes they've seen might be a sign of a permanent shift in the way their skills are valued. One systems analyst speculated that "the rapid increase of salaries during the late '90s, along with the soft economy and increased productivity, has led companies to limit or even reduce the pay for many IT/development positions." An IT manager said, "Last year, we had layoffs and a few cutbacks. Subsequently, my raise percentages went from the mid-teens into low single digits for the first time in 6 years. I am afraid that \[the change\] may be permanent." And a Web developer said that, at his Texas company, "they say they pay for performance, but there are very few dollars available to compensate employees. Bonuses and raises are almost nonexistent." Consultants, too, report limitations on their earning power. A consultant in California wrote, "At the organization I am consulting at, there has been downward pressure on my consulting rate. Late last year, I was able to increase my rate $5 per hour. I am not anticipating any change in my rate this year, unless I move on and get a new client."

Although many respondents seemed understanding about the financial position of their companies, 46 percent believe their compensation isn't adequate for the work they perform. Figure 6 shows that of those who are dissatisfied with their compensation, 30 percent believe that to be fair, their employers would need to increase their salaries as much as 10 to 14 percent.

The current culture of cutbacks and tight belts affects not just your pay, but also the problems you deal with daily in your job. For a list of the top 10 most pressing work problems respondents reported, see the sidebar "What Keeps You Up at Night?" page 33.

Expecting to Thrive

The variety of comments respondents shared was enlightening. The SQL Server pros who participated in our survey were honest and realistic about the problems they face on the job. But as a whole, their comments convey an overriding optimism about their work. They expect not only to survive but to thrive in coming years, and they strongly encourage newcomers to join them in IT careers. The rewards they cite include generally good pay; rewarding, creative work; being part of something important; and ongoing career opportunities (i.e., despite outsourcing, they don't believe IT is going away).

Many respondents said they would especially encourage young people to enter the IT professional world. A Help desk engineer predicted, "There will be a deepening shortage of capable IT people in the US in the next few years due to the exodus of the Baby Boomers and the explosion of technology that is on the horizon." Respondents touted the challenges and opportunities that an IT career offers. Several respondents expressed a belief that IT is still the future, and one person stressed that "we are in need, in this country, of young people willing and able to learn and participate in computer careers." Another respondent enthused, "For young people just out of college, this still is an exciting time to be in IT development." And finally, in the middle of a time of great transition, SQL Server pros are able to see the bigger picture. As one person explained, "While not for the weak of heart, the dynamic evolution of the IT industry will continue to offer the possibility of personal success and satisfaction."

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