Russ Thomas – SQL Judo

The Art of SQL Server Database Administration, Development, and Career Skills for the Technically Minded

Database administration isn’t an art

A few years ago I was reading up on SQL DTA in a Microsoft Press book by Mike Hotek.  In it, he breaks for a moment to make the point that he’s tired of people referring to performance tuning as an art.  It’s not art he states.  [It’s] … “the application of knowledge based on a set of rules to produce a result”.  In other words, a science.  He was right of course and the same argument could be made for a large chunk of specialties within database administration.

His argument stuck with me.  Over the years I continually found myself pondering the statement and carefully avoiding an “artsy” approach to every aspect of my job knowing it would lead to inferior or unpredictable results in a strictly scientific field.  And I was right to do so, mostly.

Looking back on many years of full-time IT employment however, I must admit that most of what has made me successful has indeed been an art.  I can, and will in another post, submit an example where an artful approach even made performance tuning a troublesome sql server a success.

But first let me make my statement, and then defend it.  Database Administration and any other career field within IT that involves other human beings is in fact an art… at least if you want to be good at it.

To illustrate this co-existence consider music.  440 hrz is a perfect A.  440*2 (or 880) hrz is also an A, just one octave higher.  The next octave?  You guessed it, 880*2 – it all comes down to math.  Intervals, whole notes, quarter notes, dotted halfs all follow very scientific rules.  If you want to see the real science of music look into the circle of fifths and how it predicts key’s, minors, majors etc.  If your a relational DB guy and don’t geek out just a little on the circle of fifths… well, ahem, back to my point.  The application of all that science is in fact, without argument, an art form.  Why? because two people can sit down and play the same piece of sheet music without missing a note.  One sounds ok – the other can be literally moving – life changing.  The subtle additions of hesitation, tone, volume, passion make all the difference.  The science is the foundation – without it, the notes would just be chaos – but within the science it’s the presentation, the communication, the timing, the art that gives it meaning, value, and potential.

I hate to tell you this, but your career is much the same.  Two gals who both can equally apply the raw science of performance tuning a database are still not equal in their career potential.  The one who can communicate with the business managers, establish a relationship with the dev team, skillfully negotiate permission to attend training, or a raise, or diplomatically inform an entire department that 8 weeks of work have led to a solution that will destroy all company data as they know it while keeping the respect and friendship of everyone involved.  That gal is going places – and so is the company she works for.

Do you know how to own a mistake that brought a production server to it’s knees ?  Well … you should.  Do you know how to mentor a junior, or for that matter be a good junior?  If you ever want to be a good senior you should.  If you regularly ignore the true art of your field; you my friend, are fated to be mediocre at best.

You may have all the answers, the brains, the intellect – but if you’re so detail oriented that you lack the ability to triage (oh yes, there will be a post on that topic) all your scientific acumen may be of no use to the mustaches upstairs.

That’s where this blog fits.  I have for years admired bloggers like Paul White, Kendra Little, Steve Jones, Brent Ozar and others.  These folks get it.  Their handle on the science is unquestionably top-notch, but frankly I think it’s their knowledge of the art that has made them great.

What you’ll find here is not quite what you’ll find on the blogs I just mentioned.  I’ll present the typical big brain topic from time to time but I’ll also focus as much as possible on the art (some might say the soft skills) of development, database administration, and forwarding your career in a positive direction.

So, why SQL Judo?  Read more on that here.

Image credits – Circle of fifths wikimedia commons.

2 comments on “Database administration isn’t an art

  1. Steve Stedman
    September 30, 2013

    Russ – Nice write up. I agree with your assessment. Part of the art is being able to sleep at night knowing that the database will continue to run well.

    As the technology industry continues to evolve it will require more of an art than ever before.


    • RThomas
      September 30, 2013

      Amen Steve, like I heard it said before… ability to address technical problems isn’t a guarantee of career success, but the inability to address technical problems is a guarantee of the opposite.

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This entry was posted on August 10, 2013 by in Career Skills.


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