So You Want to be a Database Administrator?

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A database administrator, also known as a DBA, is responsible for gathering, storing, organizing, and processing data. This job is ranked as one of the ten best technology jobs in the world. DBAs frequently work with other data analysts, assuring the right people can access the data they need. They are, in fact, an organization’s data gatekeepers. Some of their responsibilities include installing server software, configuring database servers, and backing up data to protect it from accidental loss or distortion.

A DBA’s primary responsibility is to maintain the data’s integrity. A database that is fast and accessible is useless if the data is inaccurate or distorted. Bob Watkins summed up a DBA’s responsibilities quite clearly, saying, “It’s been said that the database administrator has three basic tasks. In decreasing order of importance, they are: protect the data, protect the data, and protect the data.”


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Some database administrators are specialized, with the specializations falling into three categories: system DBAs, development DBAs, and application DBAs. System database administrators primarily focus on the physical and technical aspects of the database, which includes performing upgrades and correcting program bugs. A development DBA works on developing data model designs, which includes SQL coding and tuning. Application database administrators are focused on specific applications and can write and debug programs.

Technical Skills

A database administrator must have a good understanding of Database Management Systems and database languages. Structured query language (SQL) is the most popular database language currently available and is used by several organizations. Additionally, a DBA should be familiar with PowerShell (used for Windows) and Bash (used for Linux), which are also quite popular.

An internship may be an option for entering this field – especially if it is a paid internship. Applicants are trained for the challenges a DBA faces by completing tasks that are performed on a daily basis. This kind of training experience can be invaluable, exchanging theoretical knowledge for hands-on experience and increasing the chances of being hired by the company offering the internship.

Not surprisingly, many organizations hire candidates who are certified in systems and languages the organization uses.

Sybase, Microsoft SQL Server, MySQL, Oracle 11g, and IBM DB2 are some of the commonly used DB management systems, and job candidates should be familiar with at least one of these systems. If you can find out what is being used by a company in advance of a job interview, even better.

The general responsibilities of a database administrator include:

  • Securing data by restricting access only to those who are authorized.
  • Designing a database that meets the organization’s Data Management needs.
  • Identifying, analyzing, and repairing database problems as needed.
  • Installing new databases, maintaining databases, and transferring data, as needed.
  • Designing and implementing solutions for distributing and archiving data.
  • Creating and implementing backup and recovery plans in case of a crash.
  • Monitoring storage capacity, server performance, and disk space to prevent bottlenecks.

A database administrator works closely with managers, researchers, and other staff. The DBA focuses on monitoring and maintaining a high level of system performance. Database administrators are responsible for performing regular system backups so no data is lost during a power outage or other type of disaster. They also work to ensure that the data being captured is reliable, error-free, and available at any time.

Social and Administration Skills

Organizations have begun prioritizing soft skills as part of their hiring process, and database administrators are included in this shift of priorities. In addition to educational requirements, technical proficiency, and industry supported certifications, so-called soft skills are important factors in a DBA’s problem-solving effectiveness.

Database administrators need to collaborate with teams, which requires good communication. They must also be capable of being both a leader and a team player. The DBA needs to work without supervision, must be detail-oriented, and communicate well with other staff. Soft skills that are especially desirable include:

  • Good trouble-shooting skills and the ability to assess a situation and provide a solution quickly.
  • The ability to communicate with other workers, developers, and managers is necessary, as is being a team player.
  • Attention to detail is a skill sought after by the entire IT industry. When processing large volumes of data, the smallest error can lead to significant problems.
  • Good analytical skills. DBAs must collect information from various sources, analyze it, and come up with intelligent conclusions.

A database administrator does not have a static career. This career field is currently in a constant state of evolution. The successful DBA is adaptable and makes learning a part of their scheduled activities. At many companies, you can spend a few hours per week getting paid to study. Make sure a continuing education program is included in the job description. Some DBAs read magazines, web-based content, and books on a daily basis, while some prefer to attend formal training seminars or conferences. Both forms of education are a good idea.

The Cloud and Database Administrators

Cloud computing is changing the roles and responsibilities of database administrators in dramatic ways. DBAs working with the cloud no longer need to be anchored to their databases. The move to the cloud is steadily shifting the responsibilities of a DBA from hands-on tasks to working on proactive projects that improve efficiency. Database administrators can focus on developing solutions and innovations that assist the IT teams and business users. Steve Daheb, Senior Vice President of Oracle’s Cloud Business Group, said:

“The average DBA spends 90% of their time in maintenance, managing 50 databases each. They’re shifting now to higher-value tasks, from tuning and provisioning to focusing on business analytics. They see it as an opportunity. It’s all cloud-based. For example, the cloud is an enabler for IoT, because if you think about it, where would you store all that data streaming in?”

Capacity planning is a core responsibility of database administrators. Capacity planning is about estimating what resources will be needed – and available – in the future. These resources include computer hardware, software, storage, and connection infrastructure. Fortunately, planning for infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) is quite similar to planning for on-premise. The basic difference in planning is the additional flexibility offered by the cloud. This flexibility allows DBAs to plan for the business’s immediate needs instead of planning for needs three to four years in advance. DBAs can also make use of the cloud’s ability to quickly scale up or down to meet the client’s demands.

Good capacity planning involves responding to the changes made in a cloud’s offerings with the goal of getting the best deals. For example, a cloud service provider may offer a new form of virtual machines or a new storage service that is a better fit for an organization’s workloads. The DBA must be consciously aware of the business’s changing demands and the tools being offered in the various clouds.

Organizing the business in preparation for surge events – such as Black Friday or the start of school in September – and using the on-demand scalability available in cloud platforms is a primary responsibility of the modern DBA. Anticipating and responding to cyclical demands or major events makes the organization much more efficient. Being flexible and increasing capacity only as it is needed is critical in controlling costs.

Monitoring is another basic responsibility of the database administrator and should be performed on a daily basis. Cloud monitoring tools scan for problems which can block or restrict organizations from delivering services to their customers. Fortunately, the major cloud providers offer monitoring. For example, Amazon Web Services has a built-in monitoring service that monitors any kind of AWS asset. Typically, cloud monitoring is performed using tools that supervise the applications, servers, and resources. These tools normally come from two sources:

  • In-house tools from the cloud provider: This is a simple option because the tools are part of the service. There is no installation, and integration is seamless.
  • Tools from independent SaaS provider: Although the SaaS provider may be different from the cloud service provider, that doesn’t mean the two services don’t work seamlessly. These providers also have expertise in managing performance and costs.

Database administrators who monitor often and regularly can troubleshoot problems quickly and efficiently — if not instantaneously.

The Successful DBA

A successful DBA knows much more than how to handle a SQL server. The position requires understanding the hardware, time management skills, communication skills, leadership, and much more. The role of the database administrator is not static, but is still evolving. The successful DBA must be pro-learning. While the soft skills needed for this position may not change, the required technical skills will need to be constantly updated and refreshed, as operating systems and SQL servers continue to evolve.

Useful interview questions can be found here.

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