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How to Become a Top-Notch Database Administrator

January 13, 2020

Database administrators are more important than their title might reveal to the layman.

They often stand between a data breach that can cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars and data privacy. If data is the new gold, data protection, grooming, and accessibility are more important than ever – database administrators are crucial to a company’s success.

What is a database administrator?

A database administrator (DBA) stores, organizes, manages, and secures data in large databases. The top goal is to maintain data integrity, i.e. ensuring the validity and availability of data.

What a DBA does

Database administrators have a multitude of responsibilities that make their job difficult, yet rewarding.

DBAs have to do the following tasks: 

Understand and serve an organization’s data needs
Design, install, upgrade, and patch databases
Install and configure network components
Report on database performance, issues, and availability
Test and benchmark database uptime and response time
Define coding standards, architectures, and quality assurance for the company
Maintain and groom existing databases
Plan and coordinate data migrations
Implement database encryption
Audit database security
Create data archiving workflows
Develop backup and recovery plans
Govern access to data
Monitor and optimize database performance (performance tuning)

Database administrators typically work in banks, insurance companies, software companies, and universities – among other places – and closely with systems administrators and data analysts. The role is universal enough to create many jobs in different industries, especially now that almost every company is a data company. That makes it an especially sought-after role for startups.

As data becomes more valuable in our world, it’s also at a higher risk to be stolen and exposed. DBAs deal with financial records, purchasing histories, and all sorts of other customer details, even social security numbers. Data is growing at an exponential rate, which means someone has to be the gatekeeper.

How much can you make as a DBA?

DBAs make a much higher salary compared to other jobs. According to the BLS, the median income for a database admin in 2018 was $90,000/year while the median average pay across all jobs in the United States as of May 2018 was $38,640. Of course, there are discrepancies between coastal cities like San Francisco vs. New York City and other inland cities.

On top of that, DBA jobs are growing faster than average. Database administration jobs are supposed to grow 9% or greater between 2018 through 2028 according to the BLS. Since 2018, over 115,000 workers carried the title “database administrator”. That makes it a promising job for the future.

What do you need to know to become a DBA?

The skill bandwidth of a database admin is high: from knowing programming languages to database systems, clear communication, and analytical thinking – DBAs need to know a lot. Much of that comes from on-the-job learning, but some parts can also be learned from books and courses.

As every job, database admins need to bring a sound package of hard and soft skills. 

Hard skills, aka the technical skills required as base-level knowledge for the role: 

  • Programming languages: SQL (Structured Query Language), Hadoop, Oracle databases, PostgreSQL 
  • UNIX/Linux 
  • ETL, which stands for “Extract, Transform, Load” and describes the process of extracting data from one database and loading it into another 
  • PowerShell, Bash 
  • Common database systems: MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle 11g, IBM DB2, Sybase 
  • Analytical thinking: evaluating complex information and monitoring system performance 
  • Clear communication: reporting and explaining problems; creating reports 
  • Attention-to-detail: noticing small issues and differences 
  • Problem-solving skills: finding creative solutions to complex problems

Soft skills, most of which can be learned and developed on platforms like Udemy, Pluralsight, or LinkedIn: 

Another way to develop DBA skills and get a taste of the job is through good, old-fashioned book learning: 

But nothing replaces continuous self-development. Everybody needs to invest time in developing soft and hard skills – DBAs are no exception. 

How do you become a database administrator?

You’ve probably asked yourself how to become a DBA by now. The common career path starts with a Bachelor’s degree in computer science, information science, information technology, or software engineering. The degree covers topics like data mining, web applications, distributed systems, and database management. Some firms require applicants to have degrees in data-related areas like database management.

A good idea is to do an internship before working full time (which is true for pretty much all jobs). You get a taste of what the job is like and gain valuable experience to learn from and add to your resume.

The next step in a typical database admin career is an entry-level job as database developer, analyst, or manager. These roles often require no work experience and come with training. Some students develop their own databases during their Bachelor’s degree to learn and have something to show in front of a potential employer. 

RELATED: If you’re curious to play around with that, check out our list of free database software.

It’s suggested to get certified by vendors like Cisco or Microsoft. You might have to have a bit of experience on the job before doing a certification, but in the long-run, it helps your career. Some employers offer certifications as benefits.

After a couple of years of work experience, DBAs have several career options: information systems manager, network architect, computer programmer, systems analyst, or pursuing a Master's degree. 

Computer and information systems managers make a median salary of $142,000 and do work on the computer-related needs of a company from a higher-level perspective.
Network architects plan and design communication networks like LAN, WAN, intranet or others. One major aspect of their job is enhancing security to ensure data isn’t breached.
Computer programmers build systems directly in C/C++ (lower-level programming languages), write algorithms to improve metadata usage and troubleshoot code. This career path is geared more toward software data processing and is a step away from hardware.
Computer system analysts consult with companies on improving databases and analytical systems. It’s a step deeper than database analyst and a role that’s heavily involved in the bigger picture of database design

The role of DBA offers three specializations: systems admin, application database admin, or performance database admin. 

Systems administrators  have a background in system architecture and are responsible for physical and technical aspects of a database like installing patches, upgrades, and optimizing databases.
Application DBAs  use complex programming languages to write or debug database-related programs. They’re focused specifically on integrating databases into applications.
Performance database administrators  focus on database performance by optimizing memory and RAM usage and the connection to remote databases. As the name gives away, their responsibility is to improve the performance of a database.

Start with formal education and build on top

There are many career paths to becoming a database administrator, and it’s smart to start with a structured education. But then, it’s up to you to build on top of that with specific skills, certifications, and staying up to date on the latest practices.

Still want to learn more? Check out G2’s rundown of database software and find the right solution for your needs!

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