The Approachable DBA

DBAs are the gatekeepers, but if we make it an unpleasant process then people will find a way around the gate. It’s common to think of DBAs and developers being polar opposites that don’t speak to each other. This is wrong! It’s not one of the database-themed answers of “it depends”, this is just flat wrong.

DBA with a bat

I may look calm, but in my head I’ve killed you 3 times.

The issue with this is that when you take a polarizing position you get a polarized result. Take Grant Fritchey’s use of his Hickory Stick of Education for example. He goes on a rant about databases needing to be backed up, which, as protector of the data, is the proper view to have. However, the harsh approach many DBAs take to this role, with this being an exaggerated extreme, alienate their coworkers.

His coworkers on the other end of this conversation, we’ll call them developers to go with the theme here, will take one of two initial views. “I better do what he says, or he’ll beat me”, or “I don’t need this, I don’t need him, I have my reasons, and I’ll do it my way without discussing the details with him.” Unfortunately, both of these answers are wrong, and the ensuing conversation with HR may also be unpleasant.

Although they’re opposite responses, they’re both wrong for the same reason. Neither developer is going to discuss the details. The first developer is going to start backing up the database at any cost, but is a full backup and restore the best recovery option? The second developer isn’t going to back anything up, but are pieces of this database unique and need to be recovered in a disaster? After all, you’re responsibility as a DBA isn’t making sure you’re backing everything up, it’s making sure you can put it back to where it was in accordance to the written agreement you have with the business owners. In this case it could be data that is pulled from 30 different locations and the best option for recovery is to pull that data again, or you could have 90% static and the best option is to have a static backup of one filegroup and nightly backups of another, or…talk to the developer.

The number of details they tell you is directly proportional to how approachable you are. If you use a polarizing approach that sets your approachability to 0 then you’ll get 0 details, even to the extreme that people will try to spin up production servers without your knowledge. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also seen those same developers come back later and ask us to restore something that was never backed up because we never knew it was production. You can’t allow the recovery conversation to be the first time the developers talk to you because that will end as well as trying to do a restore without a backup. It’s your responsibility to make sure there is communication going on.

So, would I hire a DBA with a reputation for not working well with developers? Maybe, after a long conversation about how to work well with others, not as my only DBA, and it would take a lot more in other areas for to convince me I was making the right choice. I need to have a DBA that will talk to the developers, go out to lunch with them, and have the developers accept someone protecting our data as one of their own. When they get to that point the developers start asking questions that help them use the database as smoothly as possible and the DBAs start asking questions to find out why the bad practices are so tempting in the first place.

Stop and think about this. Would I hire you? I would hire Grant because I’ve met him outside of an interview and feel his is much more approachable than his nicknames and this blog post. Just look at his posts directly before this post where he’s acknowledges the issue saying “I’m pretty sure most people don’t talk to their Dev teams if they can help it, and it does seem like most Dev teams seem to be on less than a perfectly chatty basis with their DBAs”, and after this post where he mentions the struggle to resolve this issue stating “I spent years at my previous job trying to do a better job interacting with the development teams.” The thing is, Grant’s an odd one; he’s a SQL Server MVP which means I can find more than one piece of information about him. Does your future manager know other details about you or is it possible that one rant is the only piece of your reputation they’ve heard? Chances are, if I ever heard pieces of this about you then it’d be an uphill struggle to get to an interview, let alone a job offer. Even worse, IT is a small world, and if you live in the same city as me then I can find someone who has worked with you before that’s not on your list of references.

Now think about it from the side of your current job. Yeah, you just kinda won the fight with making sure this database is backed up, but the developers are starting another project as well. This time they’re making a new database from scratch, didn’t involve you, and it’s an ORM reading and writing directly to tables. Everything’s a clustered index scan or table scan, but it works great with 1,000 rows of sample data. There are no cases where they’re reading from a view, no writes are being done through a proc, and they’ve built a lot of stuff on this foundation before you knew any details of the project. You know if you were involved from the start that it would have been done better from the start, but, still licking their wounds from their last conversation with you, the developers avoided you as long as possible. There’s a big mess, it’s your own fault, and a lot of people are going to be paying for it for a long time.

I’m not asking for you to be a pushover. Instead the point is to discuss the situations, find all of the details, give them proof of your logic when you differ in opinion, educate them as you accept their invitations to educate you, and go out of your way to be viewed as approachable. The result you’re going for is the same, which is recoverability of data, and I’m not advocating letting off until you achieve that goal. However, that’s not the only interaction with the developers you’ll ever have, and this approach will help you “win” this interaction quicker at the expense of not being able to work together through every other interaction. The only thing I’m going for is that DBAs as a whole need to develop the proper soft-skills to work with developers. This is going to help a lot of people in the long run, including you, your family, the developers, and me.

You: Your job will be easier. Things that would be issues will be handled before they’re big issues, and a lot more things will be set up right from the first place. Your reputation will be where you want it, allowing you to enjoy the job you have and get the job you want.

Your Family: You’ll be coming home from work less stressed, actually enjoying your interactions with developers. Beyond that, you’ll be more and more desirable, getting better and better jobs, bringing home a better income to help provide for your family.

The Developers: Problems are avoided, they have a mentor on the database side, and going to work is more enjoyable.

Me: I get really tired of this whole “Us vs. Them” mentality, hearing DBAs talk and only half jokingly say “and maybe even, ‘gasp’, talk to your developers”, and developers, rightfully so, assuming DBAs their enemy from the start. If for no other reason, all of the DBAs in the world should be more approachable to make my life easier!!! The only thing you bullheaded DBAs do is give developers ways to slow down! Why do I always have be here to fix your problems? The whole profession is nothing more than a bunch of socially awkward nerds on a power trip going out and telling developers “NO” with a smile on their face every chance they get. Who needs you?!?!

You know what? The developers that don’t talk to DBAs are usually right in their logic. Why ask someone a question if you know the answer is no, you just don’t know how you’ll get belittled on your way to that answer? In many cases developers aren’t talking to their current DBAs because of experiences at past jobs, but it’s still your problem to fix.

I’ll end this post the way I started it. DBAs are the gatekeepers, but if we make it an unpleasant process then people will find a way around the gate.

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One thought on “The Approachable DBA

  1. Pingback: Approachable? Sometimes! | Home Of The Scary DBA

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