… Other Duties as Assigned

I’ve mentioned once before that at one of my clients I describe my job as “DBA and other duties as assigned.”

This phrase has really been on my mind this week, especially during a phone call with another client yesterday. This second client is a local consulting company that has hired me a few times to back them with my skills in SQL Server and MS Access. This time around the work they’re looking for is definitely SQL Server related. It was refreshing.

But it reminded me of my last two weeks with two of my other clients. One is having an issue with their app (that they always call “the database”) that is most likely a design issue that I need to dig into. This is a perfect example of what I call “software archeology” where I at times have to shift through “pot shards” to determine what the original developer was thinking. At times it can be fun and interesting, at other times, frustrating. I’ll be shifting through more pot shards in the near future to get to the bottom of this problem.

For my largest client, I spent most of my hours with them last week trying to true up a file with some financial data in it. In this case it’s part of an ETL process where I receive data, compile it and send it to a vendor. The process uses a combination of PowerShell and Pentaho. So while they interact with the database, the work I was doing wasn’t in T-SQL or directly on the database server.

The numbers weren’t adding up. There was an undercurrent of “Greg, your numbers are wrong” or “You’re filtering on the wrong criteria.” I kept pointing out that “I simply add up the numbers you give me.” Eventually the problem was narrowed down to the fact that in the source system, which is the system of record, they had deleted rows. Arguably, one should never be deleting rows in such a system, but rather issuing a 2nd row (a credit if you want to reverse a debit, or a debit to reverse a credit) and this was typically what was done. But in this case the maintainers of the source of record decided to wholesale delete these rows. I explained that from day one, since deletions are never supposed to happen (and given the way the system works, extremely hard to detect) all I do is either insert new rows, or update existing rows. In any event, with one minor schema change, some updates to the rows in question and an updated PowerShell script, I was able to make the numbers come out to match with theirs. So, is that really DBA work? Not in the traditional sense. But it’s definitely other duties as assigned.

Now that’s not to say I didn’t do what some might consider actual DBA work. On Saturday morning I patched one of their servers. And at one point during the week, I deployed a script to production. So, out of 18 hours of work for the customer last week, I think I can say maybe 1-2 total was “dba work” or about 5%.

Now, I want to be clear. This is not a rant or a complaint. I’ll admit I tend to prefer to work directly with SQL Server, but I was reminded of a quick discussion I had with a fellow DBA over the weekend about how they probably needed to start to learn PowerShell for their job.

I’ve been arguing for years that the role of a DBA has changed, and will continue to change dramatically over the next few years. Once where we might spend days head down slinging T-SQL code, setting up backups and restores, tuning indices, etc. now much of that is automated or at least far easier to do. Which is a good thing. In years past, a DBA might be responsible for a dozen machines or so at the most. If it was more than that, we’d feel sorry for them. That’s no longer uniformly true. I know a DBA who is responsible for over 100 machines. They’re the soul DBA. But, through PowerShell and other modern tools, it’s generally not an overwhelming job.

However, like the online presentation from the Atlanta Azure Data User Group I attended last night on SQL Database Edge, there is a growing list of things DBAs need to learn. Steve Jones recently posted about whether DBAs need to learn Linux? The short take away is not necessarily, but it’s probably a good idea, but we definitely need to learn about containers.

I have heard for years, “Microsoft will automate everything and the DBA’s job will go away.” Not only is that not true in my experience, the exact opposite is. I think being a successful DBA is in some ways harder than it was a decade ago. There’s so much more to be aware of and to learn.

Off the top of my head, without any real priority I came up with the list below of technologies that a modern DBA might find useful to know. This is not to say I know them all, or that one has to be an expert in all of them. And I will note, this is far from an inclusive list. I also left out third-party tools which are so common place. But I think it illustrates just how broad the required skillset of a good DBA is these days.

  • T-SQL
  • PowerShell
  • Query Store
  • Linux – at least at the most basic level
  • Containers
  • SSIS
  • SSAS
  • SSRS
  • Storage – (at least how different types can impact performance and the advantages and disadvantages of each)
  • Azure
  • SQL Database Edge
  • git or some form of version control

In conclusion, I’ll say, I’m not going to make any predictions about where the Microsoft data platform will be a decade from now, but I can tell you that DBAs will still be needed but their skillset will be as different from today as today is from a decade ago.

And post conclusion, I’ll add I’ll continue to rely on #sqlfamily and all my fellow DBAs to help me out. And continue to help them.

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