Doing Business as a Database Administrator
Although you can obtain credentials by passing an exam, certification is much more than that. Certification is a process that develops a particular skill set. It’s more than the exam: It includes training, studying and gaining experience. Having a database certification indicates that you have an understanding of the database system as a tool—or rather, a set of tools—and that you know how to use it to accomplish database tasks.
Being certified does not mean you are a better DBA than someone who is not certified. It does, however, prove that you are better than before you began the certification process. It indicates that you have made progress in your skill development—that you have passed a milestone. No matter how good you are, once you have been through the process, you have a much better understanding of the software and how to use it. Few IT certifications will grant you expert status. A certification is like a driver’s license: It proves that you are less likely to make mistakes and suggests that you will probably do things right the first time.
When a company requires all of its DBAs to hold a “driver’s license” for its systems, that company is confident that mistakes will happen much less frequently and that the DBAs will be able to rectify them more quickly when they do happen. By investing in employees and helping achieve certification, an employer is effectively and inexpensively reducing long-term labor costs by retaining skilled employees. It will also reduce the costs that typically arise due to inexperience or lack of knowledge.
Ian Gilfillan, author of “Mastering MySQL 4,” made some shrewd observations on getting a team of DBAs certified at his employer. He wrote, “From the employer’s point of view, it was not the piece of paper I was after. Rather, the improved productivity that properly trained MySQL users could provide. The benefits have been noticeable. The number of badly written queries has decreased, saving everyone time and effort. The developers feel more confident using MySQL, and can use features they previously had not known existed.”
Getting a certification is not just about getting a piece of paper to hang on the wall (although it’s a perk). From the manager’s point of view, it’s about improved productivity. You may not notice the effect on the individual level or in the individual queries, but the overall improvement for a team of certified developers and DBAs can be quite astounding.
Gilfillan’s last point, that developers become aware of features they did not know existed, is more important than you might think. I’ve heard even hard-core MySQL DBAs who had previously been unwilling to take on the task of getting certified explain how much they learned from the process.
Whether as a consultant or an employee, a DBA is the company’s insurance against data loss or other problems that may occur. The DBA is there to make sure that data is not suddenly unavailable for any length of time. The role of the DBA is, depending on the size of the company, to develop or to aid in the development of applications that go into making up the company IT infrastructure. Sometimes, the DBA also acts as a developer, and oftentimes as an adviser or consultant for other developers. The DBA becomes a central person in the company’s infrastructure.
Until recently, with MySQL, the developer and the DBA have been the same person. While this is still true in many organizations, companies that have been using MySQL are starting to become more dependent on specialists. There are plenty of companies looking for DBAs, and you can bet they will be using certifications to determine who will be considered and who won’t.
While many companies are willing to expend resources to train their personnel, they are leery of asking the same people to take certification exams. This is strange because certification is one of the best metrics available for evaluating whether the training actually yielded results. Not only that, being able to hang a certificate of achievement on the wall brings personal satisfaction to many people.
If your employer doesn’t see the value of certification, you may have to pay for it on your own. Getting the certification shortly after going through training is a good idea, and it’s best to take the exam while the information is still fresh in your mind. Even if you have to do some extra studying, you will have the peace of mind that you retained what you learned. And don’t forget: Being certified not only increases your value to your current employer, but also makes you more marketable for future positions.
Once you are certified, you need to stay current: Be aware of new books and other resources that become available. Once certified, you are more likely to want to dig into technical articles that deal with some DBA aspects in detail. MySQL offers the Developer Zone site, and other vendors have similar article libraries. It’s important to allocate time to look through these kinds of resources. This will make retesting for the latest version of a certification easier. More importantly, it will help fill any gaps in your knowledge as new features become available.
Also, consider taking an occasional training course. Never underestimate the value of training. Even when you have been certified, specialized courses that focus on specific aspects of DBA technology can get you to an expert level faster. Such training programs can be hard to find and are sometimes quite expensive. However, with careful research of the various training programs available, the payoff can come quickly and your efforts will be justified.
If you intend to do business as a DBA, or if you intend to hire DBAs, certification is by no means guaranteed to land you the perfect job or get you the perfect candidate. But whichever end of the hiring table you’re at, certification will give you the confidence that your databases are in good hands.
Carsten Pedersen is certification manager for MySQL. He can be reached at email@example.com