Behind the Scenes: A Day in the Life of a DBA

Here’s a look at how a DBA collaborates with colleagues, helping to analyze data, strategize with business leaders, and lead teams at work.

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Kevin Kline began his career at NASA, working on the team that built the International Space Station’s water recycling system. He was one of the few people working on the Oracle database. At the time, he says, it was 128 megabytes. “We thought that database was huge and infinitely huge,” he said.

Now “Head Geek” at SolarWinds, Kline helps customers with enterprise architecture, IT leadership skills, troubleshooting, and adoption of best practices for optimal database performance monitoring, on-premises and in the cloud.

After NASA, Kline was addicted to data. “I loved the whole aspect of the data. One thing that’s really interesting is that even if the app you’re using is overhauled, or a new version is released, or even if it’s canceled, if you have the data, you still have everything valuable to you.”

Data isn’t “that abstract thing that only exists in the ether,” he said. “It’s this real thing that changes and improves people’s lives. And that’s when I decided not to just focus on writing code, but on data, which does that mean? What does that mean, it tells a story? And can we interpret that story to go from there?”

A DBA is a second career for most, Kline said. He himself worked as a developer for six years after college, and many of them end up as system administrators or people who administer and build servers. Being a DBA was not something colleges were training for back then. This is why there are still not enough DBAs, he said.

Kline learned many of the necessary skills on the job. Back then, around 1994, after his time at NASA, you couldn’t just take online courses to do it. But, fortunately, his company funded his training.

In some ways, the job of a database administrator is similar today to what it was in the early days. “Today we are able to do things faster, we are able to automate a lot of things,” he said. Moreover, his role is more interpersonal than one might think.

“DBAs constantly meet with different teams within the company,” he said, like development teams, to figure out how to design the right database. “We help design the business logic, where that logic resides, whether it’s inside the database, in stored procedures, or maybe outside the database and applications or now with the cloud – it can be in things like Azure Functions or you know, some kind of micro-service or something like that,” he said.

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His work therefore covers a lot of time to “prepare” different databases and consult with business leaders, Kline said. Figuring out what happens if the server goes down, how to recover data, for example, “so that we never lose more than 10 minutes of data,” he said. There are all sorts of considerations, such as how much to spend on hardware.

“It feels a bit like a negotiation, when in fact it’s really you advising them on what their current decision means,” he said. “And then maybe they adjust their decisions through the discussion process.”

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Kevin Kline, “Head Geek” at SolarWinds

Image: Kevin Kline

Kline grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, near the Marshall Space Flight Center and the US Army Redstone Arsenal, where the Army’s missile systems are designed. As a child in the 1970s, his father was a computer engineer at Boeing, and they had a Commodore 64 at home, which he said “was a rare thing back then.” By the time he was in high school, he could program in Fortran. His classmates had parents who worked for NASA or the ISS or on Hubble.

In college, he studied database design and learned SQL. He even sent his master’s thesis to a magazine and had it published as a book – the book was about “Oracle’s new move from character-based systems to this fancy new operating system called Windows”.

He learned that “true value isn’t just that you put data into a database, it’s the information you take out of it, you know, data doesn’t necessarily have value on its own. It’s when you aggregate the data and, and kind of turn it into something informative,” he said.

“What I’ve found most fun about being a DBA is that you can help business people understand and extract value from the data they’ve collected,” Kline continued. .

Kline wants to support new DBAs, with all the new options available. “Now we have all these different databases, not just SQL-based, like SQL Server and Oracle, and MySQL and PostgreSQL. But we also have all these databases, like MongoDB, Cosmos DB, and Cassandra. They have strengths where they work really well, so you have to learn at least the basics of those. And then we have all kinds of different programming paradigms,” he said.

In her current role, Kline sees herself as “that nice, cool, younger aunt or uncle who would push you aside, you know, and they’re like, ‘Your parents want you to do everything, but we’re going to tell you about the real world here,” Kline said.

Kline does webcasts to help share this knowledge. “I think [about] all these many years of experience as a DBA, as a developer, as an enterprise architect, and I pass it on to our community, usually in blog posts and webinars with lots of demos. So I always keep my coding skills sharp, and my knowledge of database, etc.”

During a typical day, he takes care of things like backups, corruption checks and preventative maintenance, Kline said. And meet with customers to find the best solution for what’s to come.

“And most DBAs spend a lot of time fighting fires,” he added.

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