The Future of the DBA

Where do you want to take your career?

January is the perfect time to take stock of your career. Strains of Auld Lang Syne are echoing in your ears, and the ink is still drying on your New Year's resolutions list, which includes plans for developing your SQL Server career over the next year. Are you ready to take your SQL Server career to the next level, boost your earning potential, and win the plum projects at your company? Do you want to be a SQL Server expert?

In this article, I present my views about some key changes, such as the emergence of Microsoft .NET and the evolving role of database professionals, that I see shaping the SQL Server world over the next 12 to 15 months and how you can stay up-to-date and even take advantage of those changes to boost your career. Even better, I've asked several other contributing editors to share their views about this topic. I hope these insights help you as you plan your SQL Server career in 2002 and beyond.

The Changing Role of the DBA

More than a year ago, my weekly SQL Server Magazine UPDATE commentary ("Birth of the Data Tier Architect,", InstantDoc ID 15789) described the emergence of a new role I call the data tier architect (DTA). I noted that instead of simply managing data, SQL Server has evolved over the years to offer functionality that was once the domain of other back-end servers. Now, with the database at the center of e-business, the lines are blurring between database technologies and the server products you use to build e-solutions. Consequently, the lines between the professionals who support these technologies are also blurring, giving rise to a new professional: the DTA. DTAs will need to handle the complex data needs of the scalable, distributed systems that today's businesses use.

The birth of the DTA goes hand in hand with the gradual decline of the traditional production DBA. In the not-so-distant past, most DBAs hung out in the server room and made sure the database was up and running. They managed backups and performed basic housekeeping tasks, but they rarely had responsibility for building or designing new systems. Additionally, their day-to-day tasks rarely required any hard-core programming skills, with the exception of using the SQL procedural language to build stored procedures. Although traditional DBAs will continue to exist for some time, the fact is that SQL Server is becoming increasingly more reliable and easier to manage. At the same time, application development is becoming more complex and requires more expertise to ensure the database is working efficiently in n-tier systems. I predict that the DTA role will become more common in the business world while the traditional production-only DBA fades away.

So what's a SQL Server professional to do in the face of all this change? I believe you must do three essential things to thrive in this new world order. First, as you assume the role of DTA, you'll need to become a jack-of-all-trades across all the technology areas that touch your database. You don't need to be an expert in everything. However, you do need to be conversant with the disparate networking and development technologies that affect your database. Second, I believe that you must become an expert in at least one or two narrowly defined areas of specialization within the database arena. The rest of this article presents my rationale for the need to specialize, along with several specialization recommendations that will give your career a solid boost in the coming years. Finally, all SQL Server "back end" professionals (DBAs) need to cultivate stronger COM and .NET development skills as the role of the production DBA continues to decline and database professionals become more involved in application design and development tasks.

Narrow the Field

Let me explain why I think choosing an area to specialize in is mandatory as you strive to take your SQL Server career to the next level. I thoroughly enjoy what I do, which is more than many people can say about their jobs. However, I'm constantly honing my skills so that I can reduce tedious tasks, work on stimulating projects, and maximize my earning potential. I suspect that you're concerned about the same things, especially your paycheck. The strategy for being paid well in the IT world is surprisingly simple. First, pick a specialty in which market demand outstrips the available supply of technical professionals, then become an expert in that specialty. Here's a secret that's jealously guarded by "the experts": Often, becoming an expert isn't all that hard. What's an expert, after all, but someone who knows more than most people in the same field? Knowing more than the other person usually means simply knowing where to quickly find the answer.

One of the quickest ways to become an expert is to specialize in a field that's relatively new so that few people have developed significant skills in that area. However, it's equally important to choose a specialty in which the market demand outstrips the available supply. (See the SQL Server Magazine UPDATE commentary "Can Generalists Handle Complex IT?", InstantDoc ID 7778, for more insights into the need for specialization.)

Can you expect to become an expert in everything related to SQL Server? The short answer is no. I've worked with SQL Server for 10 years. In the days of SQL Server on OS/2, before Books Online (BOL) existed, all the manuals shipped in printed form in the box with SQL Server. Back then, I read the manuals cover to cover and had a pretty good understanding of almost all the functionality SQL Server supported. Today, if the printed documentation shipped in the box, the box would need to be the size of a small refrigerator. And I've barely used huge areas of SQL Server functionality in a production environment. I know a lot about SQL Server application tuning and T-SQL development, but I haven't done much replication, and I've barely touched full-text search or Active Directory (AD) integration. In other words, I might be a SQL Server expert, but I'm not an expert in all areas of SQL Server. If you have super-human brain capacity, congratulations. But if you're like me, specialization in one or two areas is the way to a successful SQL Server career.

So, you've decided to specialize and you recognize that you'll make more money specializing in an area where demand outstrips supply. What are your best options? The sidebars to this article explore four specialization options within the world of SQL Server that fit the criteria I mentioned earlier. I can't make promises, but I'm reasonably confident that each of these areas will provide SQL Server professionals high-growth career opportunities over the next few years. In "Intelligent Business," page 24, I discuss the business intelligence (BI) specialty. Three other contributing editors weigh in on specialties they think offer the best opportunities for SQL Server professionals in the future. In "Ride the Wave with ADO and ADO.NET," page 20, William Vaughn gives the perspective of a long-time surfer of the technology tides. Brian Lawton argues for Data Transformation Services (DTS) in "Mastering DTS," below. And Michael Otey discusses the importance of keeping up with core changes to SQL Server in "Programming Model Changes," page 24.

This list of specialties is by no means exhaustive; for example, we don't explicitly discuss XML, which will have a huge impact on the life of a SQL Server DTA over the next decade. However, I believe that each of these four areas of specialization is a wonderful place to hang your SQL Server expert hat for the next few years.

A common thread that runs through the sidebars is the need for back-end database professionals to improve their programming skills. Developing efficient applications has always required a solid understanding of the database, but planned core changes to SQL Server, such as .NET stored procedures running natively in SQL Server, will demand even more rigorous programming skills. Ignore that trend at your own risk. You might have poked fun at the COBOL and mainframe "dinosaurs" during the past few years. On one hand, we've all come to realize that mainframes and many languages, including COBOL, have a place in modern business computing architectures. On the other hand, the job market for mainframe programmers is clearly shrinking, while the job market for people skilled in the latest technology trends is rapidly growing. The sidebars to this article explore some areas of growth that apply directly to SQL Server professionals.

Are you a "traditional DBA" who's strong in T-SQL and database modeling but somewhat weak on the application-development side? You need to begin to define a plan to update your skill set before you become a dinosaur of the database world. What will happen if you plod along on your current SQL Server career track without choosing an area to specialize in? What will happen if you don't upgrade your resume, adding solid programming skills to your strong back-end database experience? One of these days, people will be snickering about DBA dinosaurs who are too set in their ways to learn new tricks. It won't happen this year or the year after. But it will happen sooner than you think, and learning the skills discussed in this article's sidebars might take more time than you expect. Don't get caught in a time crunch. Prepare for the future today.

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