Ordinary Oracle Joe

Just an ordinary DBA's thoughts

Becoming an Oracle DBA

Posted by oakesgr on April 21, 2010

I was asked a seemingly simple question the other day by a member of my family… ‘What do I do?’

A member of my family is looking for a career change at the age of 30-ish. He’s been working in mental health care but would like to move on to something completely different.

We got into a conversation on what I do, what it involves (all that weekend work!), what it pays (roughly!) and all the other facets of the job. How do you describe what the Oracle RDBMS is, and what it can do without boring the socks off of someone that’s never heard of it? Not to mention all the other parts of being a DBA that doesn’t even involve the database (OS skills, dealing with developers, users, managers)

I thought I’d start with the data aspect…

Me:  ‘It’s all about storing data. Keeping it safe. Making sure it can be accessed quickly and easily.’

Him: ‘Right. And that’s it? It doesn’t sound very difficult.’

Me: ‘Well no. There’s a lot more to it than that.’

Him: ‘Such as?’

I then thought I’d explain write and read consistency, how oracle handles them. Undo. Redo. I was talking for half an hour before I’d realised that I wasn’t getting the broader message across. It’s a difficult thing to explain without drowning in a sea of technical facts or missing the point entirely.

He then asked … ‘If I wanted to become an Oracle DBA how would I go about it?’

I was completely stumped. How does someone with no IT background (either academic or practical experience) become an Oracle DBA?

Almost every Oracle DBA I know started out as something else. In fact most DBAs I know didn’t even study IT at university. I studied Geology and worked in an exploration department for a large energy company. I fell into Oracle. Or Oracle fell onto me 🙂

Most DBAs I know stumbled into IT. They then spent a number of years in application support, or programming in some language or another. At some point they then had something to do with oracle and found some affinity with it. It ‘tickled their fancy’ for want of a better phrase.

So how does someone with no IT background whatsoever start on the path to becoming an oracle dba. It’s no good just signing up for courses and doing the OCP exams. Who in their right mind would hire a prod DBA that only has academic experience?

So that makes me think that the only way to become an Oracle DBA is by accident! Very peculiar. More than anything, being a DBA is about being trusted with the organisation’s most precious asset. Despite what HR say the data is more valuable than the people that work there.

Any bank out there could lose their most profitable trader and survive. If they lost significant amounts of data they wouldn’t.

Getting back to my earlier point then. How do you go about making such a radical transition? My suggestion would be something along the lines of…

1/ Find a 1st level IT support role (and study in your spare time, learn SQL)

2/ Try to find a more application support type role (2nd / 3rd level support) and continue to study in your spare time (PL/SQL, UNIX)

3/ Progress to development, specialising in PL/SQL. Try to progress along the OCP route in your spare time. Maybe turn into a dev dba

4/ Start looking for that first elusive DBA role.

If you’re lucky and join a supportive company most of those steps can happen in the same place. If they’re not so forward thinking then you’re going to have to move around a lot. Which is what I did.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a formalised career progression path to become an Oracle DBA. I’ve seen Oracle’s suggestions on which courses to take, but that’s not the same thing.

There almost needs to be some kind of apprentice scheme. An opportunity for people taking those first few courses on SQL / PLSQL to shadow dbas in the real world. Maybe make those courses 2 weeks long, the second week being on work experience with a number of participating organisations.

Think about it… everyone wins. The ‘student’ gets real life experience that they can put on their CV. The organisation gets to see what new potential dbas are out there. I’m sure a few of these up and coming junior dbas would be worth poaching and training up.

Even Oracle wins. It would have a new flagship training policy. It would have closer ties with the companies taking part. Plus I’m sure it could charge more for the longer courses.

That’s my bright idea for the year. I can relax now.

After all that I think I put him off… he’s now studying psychology and is likely to stay in mental health care!


10 Responses to “Becoming an Oracle DBA”

  1. mwidlake said

    Nice, thoughtful post.

    It certainly seems to be true that nearly all DBAs did not start out as DBAs and those of us who can remember Oracle 7 and 8 came into IT without the benefit of a relevant degree (I’ve got a Genetics and Zoology background!). But it seems to me that, more and more, younger people have a related degree – If not IT then mathematics or engineering or something that involved using computers a lot. I bet someone with a Life Science degree now would stand little chance of getting straight into IT, unless it was with the computing as only a part of the job, and with all things you use computers in biology more and more.

    I’ve actually come across quite a few people trying to get into being a DBA as either a first job or with only one or two years’ experience. I used to have to hire in to an organisation where the salaries were not competitive, so taking on trainees was one method to potentially get good staff. Problem was, we were flooded with applicants, many of whom had become OCP as part of their college course or soon after, via intensive 6-week courses and the like. The odd thing? Those who were OCP were generally poorer than those who were not. It was as if those who were OCP had either got certified as they knew they were not that good or, because they were OCP, felt they had done enough. I wanted to hire someone with the correct attitude of looking at problems and wanting to sort them out, of setting things up correctly, of getting solutions to real problems. Not someone who could remember the exact name of half a dozen init.ora parameters. I have a manual for that. It rather put me off OCP.

    India seems to be pouring out graduates with Oracle skills on their CVs, we used to get dozens of them applying. Thing was, these people had all somehow come top of their college. All of them. And all had a dozen Oracle skills as expert already. After 3 years of college. I was never convinced as the few I interviewed were no better, no worse, than IT graduates in the UK who had done Oracle as part of the general course and then OCP.

    Anyway, I keep wondering about throwing in the Oracle stuff and doing Psychology you know?

    • oakesgr said

      Hi Martin,

      you’re straying into the very dangerous territory of OCP being useful or not 🙂

      I completely agree that being a DBA is not first job material. The company has to trust 100% the person they hire. There is too much at stake. Is it possible to be a technically proficient dba just from doing the OCP / graduate courses? I believe it PROBABLY is. However, so much of our job is not about ‘can it be done?’ but rather ‘should it be done?’.

      That judgement only comes from years of experience. As you mention, I now have a terrible memory for syntax, parameter names and the such (I used to have an awesome memory for that kind of thing). However, that doesn’t really matter unless you’re interviewing.

      I’m not sure where I’m going now! I’ve argued myself into a corner. Anyway, thanks for commenting – psychology sounds interesting!

  2. Doug Burns said

    I really like this post Graham. It’s a conversation I’ve had with many friends over the years who aren’t as lucky to have jobs that they really enjoy and pay well.

    My thoughts are pretty similar to yours, too, although I might go even further in a moment of hopeless optimism and hope for old-fashioned long-term Oracle apprenticeships or more modern vocational qualifications. It seems a better mapping on to the reality of life as an Oracle DBA than most academic approaches. Which is not to decry them, I’m just not sure how great they are as preparation for DBA life …

    P.S. One of my best DBA jobs was in the exploration dept of a large oil company, too. Those geologists – now they’re *really* into their subject! LOL

    P.P.S. I’ve always had a keen interest in Psychology 😉

    • oakesgr said

      You know what Doug? I started that post with the idea of long term Oracle apprenticeships and realised half way through that I was being so hopelessly optimistic that I might as well not bother!

      It seems that the days of those apprenticeships that taught plumbers, bricklayers, electricians and the like have died. So not much chance in them being introduced for IT folk. Not unless Oracle showed an interest to drive it forward – and is there enough money in it for them?

      Those geologists – now they’re *really* into their subject! LOL >> DO NOT get me started on volcanoes / earthquakes and the like! Oracle is just paying the bills, geology is the REALLY interesting stuff (even more than psychology, sorry Martin!)

      • Doug Burns said

        Now that I think of it, I remember the guys at Miracle tried a book-based apprenticeship but I’d damned if I can find a suitable URL or know how that worked out in the end …

      • mwidlake said

        WHAT “Geology is the REALLY interesting stuff”? No, Biology is REALLY interesting. OK, so the crust leaks or bends a tad occasioanally and it’s impressive, most of it is so sloooowww. Hills don’t chase each other across the Savanah, or live inside each other or rely on a million complex reactions all working in one cell…
        OK, Each to their own 🙂

      • A great post! And the idea of apprenticeship is exactly what I was thinking about some times in the past: Finding a promising trainee and bring him up to a professional level within about 3 years. With a set of formal trainings and numerous in-job-training I’m sure it is feasible, if the trainee provides adequate skills and interrests.
        But even elaborated I never proposed this suggestion to my current company – a telco is not the right place for a 3-year-plan. 😉

      • oakesgr said

        Hi Martin,

        thanks for reading and also taking the time to provide a comment. Apologies for the late approval, for some reason you were sat in my spam folder for days. A telco probably isn’t the best place for a 3-year plan, and to be honest an investment bank probably isn’t either! However, HR are very keen on defining career paths etc. so maybe I’ll bring it up with them. It could be worth having the conversation just to see how they respond. I’ll feedback the outcome in a future post.


  3. […] by oakesgr on May 24, 2010 In an earlier post I discussed how I believed a framework or apprenticeship should be created to promote the career […]

  4. Such nice posting. Fresher Oracle DBA has some difficulty to fetch job from market. It is due to company doesn’t want to take risk for their critical and important database server. But once you get job after that there is no problem for making career as Oracle DBA. There is very large scope for Oracle DBA in this global market.

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