Tuesday, February 02, 2010

DBA's Strengths

Did you ever get so engrossed doing something that hours passed by and you did not even realize? It might have happened while watching an interesting movie or playing your favorite video game or similar fun stuff. But did it ever happen while doing your DBA job, the job which pays you salary? I am sure it must have happened unless you are in a completely wrong profession. However, how often does it happen? Do you enjoy doing everything that you have been doing as a DBA? Most likely your answers would be “rarely” and “no”. Imagine how productive you would be if we flip this situation such that most of your job related activities fall under the category which you enjoy doing? Such activities are basically your strengths and you have a natural inclination towards such activities.

Marcus Buckingham, a speaker, trainer, researcher and author has been involved in finding solutions to exactly this type of workplace issues. I got chance to read some of his books (First Break All the Rules, Now Discover Your Strengths, Go Put Your Strengths to Work) and a core finding in his books can be summarized as:

We should try to identify our strengths and focus on our strengths to further grow it rather than spend all our time and effort on our weaknesses. Also, the best managers work hard to understand what their employee’s true talents/strengths are and then shape the job to allow the employee to perform to their maximum. It doesn't pay to focus on people's weaknesses; focus on their strengths.

In his book “Go Put Your Strengths to Work”, he lists following four signs that can help you identify your strengths:
  • When you do it, you feel effective
  • Before you do it, you actively look forward to it
  • While you are doing it, you feel inquisitive and focused
  • After you’ve done it, you feel fulfilled and authentic

If you are interested to learn more about his works, I would recommend reading his books. I would not be able to create the same impact in this blog even if I try to. However, here I would like to analyze his suggestions in context of DBA job and DBA team.

Traditionally, DBA roles have been classified as Application DBA, System DBA, Development DBA, Production DBA etc. These are very broad classifications and DBAs under each category still end up doing many of the activities which are not their strengths and they don’t enjoy doing it. The challenge is how to setup a DBA team where each DBA enjoys doing most of the activities that he is doing. First I will approach this problem from a DBA Manager’s perspective and then from an individual DBA’s perspective.

First of all, each DBA in the team should try to find out if they even like doing DBA job or they should pursue a different profession. After this high level elimination round, the team should be left of only those DBAs who really like being a DBA. Next we have to focus on how to distribute the responsibilities in such a way that most of the DBAs enjoy doing most of their assigned activities. For that, we have to first list down the activities on a more granular level that can really be associated with the likes (strengths) and dislikes (weaknesses) of a DBA. For example, here I have listed some of the DBA activities. They can be made more granular if required. Many more such activities can be added to the list.
  • Analyzing new application requirements and associated database changes
  • Converting a new database logical design to physical design
  • Creating new database
  • Storage capacity planning
  • SQL tuning
  • Configuration parameter tuning
  • Creating database standards and naming conventions
  • Performing database upgrades
  • Physical design of DDL changes
  • Implementing DDL changes
  • Performance diagnosis
  • Setting up performance monitoring
  • Troubleshooting database errors
  • Automating repetitive and mundane tasks
  • Exploring and implementing DBMS new features
  • Managing database scheduled jobs
  • Reacting to database user complains
  • Performing database security review

After listing the activities on such a granular level, each DBA should try to identify top 4 to 6 activities that really show the signs of being their strengths. The activities which show the signs opposite to that of strengths are the weaknesses and each DBA should also identify top 4 to 6 activities that are their weaknesses. In fact more activities will get added to the list while DBAs will be trying to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Once all the DBAs have identified their strengths and weaknesses, the responsibilities should be assigned in such a way that each DBA should be doing more of their strengths and less of their weaknesses.

A common concern about this approach is, if every DBA will be doing the interesting stuff, who will do the boring stuff. In my experience, interesting and boring words are very subjective. Something that is interesting to me does not have to be interesting for others also and vice versa. One can argue, who will find it interesting to resolve an alert in the middle of night. However, we should try to separate the actual activity with the circumstances under which we are doing it. We have to find out if the DBA hates resolving the alert or just because it’s in the middle of night. I agree there are few mundane things that most DBAs will hate doing. Wherever possible such mundane activities should be automated. This way, analyzing each activity carefully and assigning the responsibilities considering strengths and weaknesses of individual DBAs will result in a team where each DBA will do more of what they enjoy doing and will enhance the team productivity.

In reality, going through this whole exercise will not be as simple as it sounds here. For an individual DBA, just identifying his strengths and weaknesses will require lot of introspection over a period of several weeks. Some caution is required while identifying the strengths and weaknesses. Normally, we attach a hypothetical superiority or inferiority with each activity and we desire to do only the superior activities. We think that we will enjoy doing those activities and they are our strengths. However, our strengths are those which pass the litmus test of above mentioned 4 signs and not the activities which we think superior and desire to do it. Strengths should also not be confused with Skills. There are many activities that we are very skilled at because we have done it several times, however they might not necessarily reflect the 4 signs of strengths. This strength based approach of assigning roles and responsibilities within DBA team will require more introspection from each individual DBA as well as more managerial effort from the manager, however it’s worth doing.

If you are a DBA and your manager has no interest in strength based assignment of roles and responsibilities, you can still apply these techniques at least for you (or maybe along with some of your colleagues). You might be thinking that you do what your manager assigns to you. However, consciously or sub- consciously you also play a major role in deciding what activities you do more and what you do less. After identifying your strengths, you can try to volunteer more in the areas of your strengths and wherever possible reduce your involvement in the areas of your weaknesses.