Is experience the most important arrow in your IT quiver?
It is tempting to state that job experience is universally acknowledged as the single most important factor when evaluating a candidate for a position as an Oracle Database Administrator. The universe is a really big place, however, and there is an exception to every rule. In 20 years of working with the Oracle database, I have never met that exception. Neither do I have any suggestion what criteria someone might put forward as being more important than job experience. Companies that make use of Oracle for their database generally use it to store information that is absolutely critical to their business processes. When hiring employees to administer their enterprise database, it follows that they are extremely reluctant to hire someone who has not done the job in a production environment for several years.
Very few job listings for Oracle Database Administrators specify fewer than three to five years of experience as a requirement. This leads to something of a chicken and egg problem, of course. Because companies prefer to hire experienced database administrators, it is often difficult for people to get their first few years working as a DBA. Some administrators begin their careers as an Oracle developer or another position where they work closely with the database and move towards administration over time. Others are hired as an assistant to a senior DBA, or to administer non-production databases.
Five years spent working as a DBA is one of the more common milestones. It would be impossible to count the number of job listings I have seen for Oracle Database Administrators with five years in them somewhere: “three to five,” “five to seven,” and “five to 10” being the most common. The real trick for Oracle database administrators is to make it through the wasteland of years zero through five.
Once an Oracle professional has hit the five year mark, everything is gravy and they are on Easy Street for the rest of their career. They can just sit back and let subsequent years of experience roll in. It is self-evident that a DBA with 10 years of experience is much more valuable than one with only five years under their belt. A 15-year veteran DBA is manifestly more valuable than a mere 10-year newbie. It is difficult to even calculate just how staggeringly valuable the information in the brain of an Oracle administrator who has been on the job for 20 years or more. In these days of a tight economy and shrinking budgets, senior management would never question whether a large salary differential was justifiable when comparing a DBA with 20 years of experience to one with only seven years, right?
I hope that by the end of the just-completed paragraph, it is obvious that, when taken to extremes, the concept of experience being everything starts to drift away from reality. There is absolutely no doubt that experience counts for a great deal with Oracle DBAs, as with many other IT posts. In fact, all of the points in this article leading up to the previous paragraph are concepts I firmly believe in. I have read many articles, forum postings, and blog posts, however, that push the “experience is everything” button without taking into account the reality of diminishing returns. Until an Oracle professional has worked as a DBA for five years, each additional year is arguably more valuable than the one before. After year five, the value of additional years begins tapering off. After year 10, the process of diminishing returns accelerates.
There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, the vast majority of what individuals must know about the daily duties of a DBA will be learned in the first five years. Much of the job of administering an Oracle database is cyclical, and fits into daily, weekly, and monthly routines. Other tasks are not routine, of course, such as performing unscheduled recoveries, diagnosing problems and so forth. After five years on the job, however, most administrators will have experienced most of the curveballs that can be thrown by the database.
A second problem is that after about 10 years, some of the early experience will start becoming obsolete. I have been working with Oracle for just under 20 years now. When I started, the current release was Oracle 7. I have no desire to work for a company that is still using Oracle 7 (or for that matter 8i or 9i). Frankly I would be leery of most companies that have not cut the cord on Oracle 10g and upgraded to 11g by now. The database itself, as well as the tasks performed by database administrators, have changed significantly between Oracle 7 and Oracle 11g. The march of Oracle releases does not invalidate all of the experience of veteran Oracle administrators. It certainly invalidates some of that experience, however, and is a factor that acts as an equalizer when comparing them to DBAs who have worked with Oracle for considerably less time.
It is my opinion that Oracle administrators who rely solely on years of experience to make them stand out in the marketplace are going to find that to be a losing proposition in the end. Once they have mastered the core administration skills, Oracle DBAs should look for ways to actively strengthen their credentials in other ways. One of the tools I use for career development is that I try to add a couple of professional certifications each year. Many experienced DBAs feel that certifications hold little or no value. I disagree, but it is not a point worth arguing here.
Certifications are one means for pursuing career development but certainly not the only means. A different path might be to pursue a Masters degree in Database Administration. I have considered this but never decided to allocate the time, effort, and money. There are many different ways that experienced DBAs can add to their credentials over the years. Oracle professionals who plan to still be working as a DBA five years in the future really should be thinking about what they can do now so that on that future date, they have something to point to when asked what it is that makes them valuable.