Degree - Do you need a degree to become a DBA?

degree or no degree? That is the question.

This is a question that has been hotly debated since I started my career, do you need a degree, in computer science or any other discipline for that matter, to get a job as a DBA? Opinion seems to be divided in the community; K. Brian Kelley on his blog over at SQL Server Central (http://www.sqlservercentral.com/blogs/brian_kelley/archive/2009/08/25/the-need-for-a-college-degree.aspx) has sparked quite a debate. Personally I don�t think it is essential but I would also say I think it helps, I think it helped me most at the beginning of my career when I first started out. I do agree that more experience and skills you have in a real work environment, the less the degree is needed to swing a job in your favour. I would also say that my BSc in Business and MSc in Computer Science definitely helped me get my DBA career off the ground.

What does a degree give you?

If you have been a DBA working with SQL Server, or any other RDBMS platform for that matter for many years, with many successful projects under your belt and demonstrable skills in the platform then I think it is fair to say that all a degree gives you is a piece of paper that says many years ago you passed some exams. If you only have a couple of years experience or even a complete rookie looking for a start in the industry I think it is also fair to say that a degree can give you a little something extra over a candidate without one when it comes to applying for junior DBA positions.

If part of the job for which you are applying requires you to be able to demonstrate your ability to learn new skills, commit to that learning process over an extended period time and be able to answer questions (work) under exam pressure then I think it does demonstrate and evidence your ability to learn and to a certain extent apply yourself in pressure situations. Which, I think any experienced DBA reading this will agree, are essential skills for anybody who wants a career as DBA. That doesn�t mean the person without a degree doesn�t have those skills; it simply means that they cannot use a degree to demonstrate them.

Skills needed to be a DBA

The DBA(s) in any organisation are generally, fairly senior people in the IT department. I have read a lot about the �accidental DBA� a person who has been working for the organisation, possibly as a developer who ends up becoming the DBA. The reason for this, I think, lies in the fact that as a DBA it is helpful to know as much about the business you serve as you do about the technology you work with. As my friend JHD has said in many of his articles, Data is one of the most important assets of any organisation and if you are going to have ultimate responsibility for that data then you need to know how and why that data is important to the business. In my opinion that is why people with experience of the business as well as the technology tend to become the �accidental DBAs�

I work as a contractor/consultant and when I start working for a new client I like to know and learn as much as possible about the business that I am working with, to ensure I know how their data is important to them. This knowledge then helps me when making suggestions and decisions about backup/recovery procedures, Infrastructure design and high availability, all made with the business in mind. Therefore I believe it is important that the DBA has business knowledge and the importance of its data in order to be effective.

How can you prove that you have the skills?

So you are a new DBA/Developer or you want to become a DBA, it doesn�t matter if you have a degree or not, how can you break into a market where every job I have ever seen advertised, regardless of whether or not a degree is required expects applicants to have at least some experience, usually at the very least one year�s worth of experience! That is a little more difficult and will take initiative and dedication from the applicant.

I started out as helpdesk operator, frontline support for local authority in the UK. The helpdesk system used was run off SQL Server we had certain privileges on the database to write reports and queries to report on the helpdesk performance, this I how started out with SQL Server, learning a little TSQL. I then changed employers but remained with a local authority and became Web Developer/Manager responsible for the web and intranet sites, some of the web apps used SQL Server as the backend so again this further developed on my TSQL skills programming skills gained in my first job. As part of this process I had my own �sandbox� environment for developing applications which included a couple of SQL instances. This is where I learnt many of the DBA skills that I used to secure my next job...Installing and setting up SQL Server. I learnt the hard way the importance of backups and how you should never make fundamental database changes without one. I also learned about the importance of indexes and their affect on performance. My employers at the time were kind enough to put me on a programming SQL Server course too which aided my learning. I must state that the authority did have a team DBAs looking after all the production environments and most of the development environments but I did get to look after my small environment. It was at this point that I decided to pursue the DBA career path.

I applied for my next job, which was a fully fledged SQL Server DBA role, with another government organisation. The jobs although not titled a junior position was definitely pitched at that end of the market, they wanted to take on someone with a small amount of experience but also with the necessary potential and train and develop them to eventually become a Senior Analyst in the database team. The job was pitched at a relatively inexperienced DBA with one year�s worth of experience with SQL Server. The job description stated you must have the ability to work under pressure and all the usual team player, good attitude stuff that you would expect. With regard to the degree it said a relevant degree with one year�s SQL Server experience or three years SQL Server experience. At the time I had been working with SQL Server as described above for just over two years, I held a BSc in Business and MSc in Computer Science. My degree and my experience definitely helped me secure my first DBA role.

Hopefully this has given an insight into what I think my degree(s) have done for me. My education definitely helped me get my first job. I think experience and skills and being able to demonstrate them are most important. I think it is obvious that any organisation looking to employ the services a senior DBA will look at someone of ten years experience achieving success and delivering results more favourably than any graduate with no experience at all... but my degree definitely helped me along the way.

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