Kindergarten DBA

No, this is not the screenplay for the worst Arnold Swartzenegger sequel ever.  1,000 poo-flinging chimpanzees could not come up with something that rivals Twins 2: Triplets (staring Arnold, Danny DiVito, and Steven Segal).  This is a post about how every decision matters; even those you make as a child.

Much has been said about The Butterfly Effect – how the beating of the wings of a butterfly in a far-off place where they still have butterflies and nature trigger reactions that ripple around the globe.  This is a story about how I became a DBA based in large part because of a decision I made at the ripe young age of 5.

Even though in miles I am much closer than those 36 years, Greenwood Elementary seems a long way off now.  The decision, and that is really not the proper word – let’s call this circumstance – that forged a friendship in 1973 led directly to what I am professionally today.  Not university, though I am sure that has an impact; not family, geography, or luck has as much bearing.  I don’t recall the details, but I formed a friendship with Scott Semyan that school year.  I am fairly sure much of it was that he and I walked the same paths home – me turning off about 3 blocks before he, but that probably had much to do with it.  Scott was a grade above me so there may have been a protection situation going on as well – protect the kindergartener from the bigger kids and all.

Walking to school?  Yes, we did that back then kids.  At that age, and about a mile.  Shocking huh?

Let’s fast forward through many many years…

Scott and I spent many hours in the basement of his house listening to Rush and Def Leppard; Pink Floyd and AC/DC.  Playing computer games on the Commodore VIC 20.  Drinking underage and being the dorky midwestern white kids we were. 

We lived together one summer when he was back for a bit to pull his grades up from a dismal second year in university and I was heading into my sophomore year at my respective university.   Many stories came out of that summer that are under an NDA so let’s move on.

Eventually he moved out to Seattle.  I ended up staying local, eventually convincing a woman to spend prolong periods of time with me to the point we got married.  Kids followed.  Scott followed a similar path in the Emerald City, though his arc on the domestic life took a longer span.  We were Best Men at one-another’s weddings and continue to meet up in Seattle or here in Kalamazoo at least once or twice a year.  Sometimes we meet up in between; be it Vegas or otherwise.

In the case of the story of my becoming a DBA it is a trip to Moab, UT to do some mountain biking in 1998 that I would like to drop out of fast forward mode and spend some time on…

I drove solo out from Michigan to Utah to meet up with the group from Washington and Idaho that had already been there a week.  It was welcome respite from a job that I had hated for years, but paid the bills.  I worked for a small printing and pre-press company that was family owned.  Working as the Estimating Supervisor, I was responsible for fulfilling bids for potential work.  My boss was theboss – the owner of the company.  When I won us work his impression was that it was because I bid the job low and we could have made more money on the work.  When we lost the bid he felt it was because I quoted the work too high – we should have undercut the pricing that won the work.  In other words he was a dick.  Prone to swearing like a drunken sailor with a ravaging case of tourettes.  That gives you an idea of my frame of mind when Scott and I were taking a run into town from camp to pick up more three-two beer.

I vividly remembering rounding a mesa on the winding drive into town.  Sunny day, 80s and clear.  While venting about my job, Scott said (and I can still quote to this day) “you should look into becoming a DBA.”  My reaction was very similar to what I get from friends and family who ask what I do for a living when I fail to simply say “I work in computers.” 

“What the hell is a DBA?”

“It’s a Database Administrator dude.”

“What the hell is a Database Administrator?”

“It’s someone who works on databases, making sure they’re up and running and that people can get the data they need out of it quick and correct.”  (I’m not sure if this is exactly what he said, since I was not following him anymore at this point.  He lost his audience at this point.

Anyway I tucked this little nugget of a conversation in the back of my head.  Lodged securely between the folds of my brain that was storing my elite Microsoft Excel VBA skillz and sponginess devoted to my nights playing Civilization on my PC.

I went back home thinking about this conversation though.  We had a FileMakerPro developer tasked with re-writing my Excel-based estimating program as a database solution.  (I know, this is the Apple O/S equivalent of Microsoft Access, but it was the late 90s and things were very odd at that time.  Hell, people listened to Michael Bolton and watched Rosanne for farts-sake.  My only exposure to database was via FileMaker and a disastrous dive into the Progress and 4G database platforms.

I decided to take a different approach and looked into teaching myself Transact-SQL based upon a recommendation from Scott.  I had decent skills in Visual Basic 5.0 and when I picked up a “Teach Yourself T/SQL in 21 Days” book it fit well with my existing understanding of development.  I was taken in by how common-sensical of a language it was (SELECT lets you select things – INSERT lets you insert things….) and I ate it up.  My wife at the time was working in recruiting and one of her co-workers left to start her own firm.  (Let me be clear, she is still my wife, at the time she was a recruiter.  Sorry Babe.)  The now-headhunter had heard about the situation I was dealing with and saw the toll first-hand on myself and my family.  She ran across an Access Developer position and I jumped at the chance to escape.  While it was not something I was formally trained in I had the forms development skills from FileMakerPro and the T/SQL (sketchy) knowledge from my foray into self-learning.

It was an interesting situation I was stepping into.  There was no Manager for the team I was interviewing with.  The position was open as well.  I met with two members of the team that were being tasked with converting almost 1,000 Access 2.0 databases into Access 97.  This was November of 1999 and Y2K was the spectre we all feared.  Access 97 was Y2K-compliant; Access 2.0 not so much.  I went through the standard battery of questions.  The one that landed me the job, I am told, was the following:

“If you do not know how to do something, what do you do?”

My answer was simple (and it was also Web 1.0) “I get a book and start reading.”  Today the answer would have mentioned Google or Bing, my two Junior DBAs.

After a second interview with the Director and a third with the full team (which included the question: Which cartoon character would you be and why?  To which I answered Batman andWile E. Coyote because neither one was anything extra-ordinary but both could make some pretty cool things with a little bit of work and knowlege, not to mention that Wile E. would dust himself back off after falling off a cliff and getting out of rehab and go back at that Roadrunner with some new gadget.  It’s amazing that he could do that.  Could you imagine the amount of pain meds he must be hooked on?  Also have you ever seen a roadrunner?  There is no meat on those things!  The one on the cartoon must have been on steroids and have a thyroid condition that would render it dangerous to eat anyway.  They are not the size of an ostrich as the brothers Warner would like us to believe.

But I digress.

Being the new Access Developer was great right around that time as well.  I ended up as the only staff member for the IT department not working on New Year’s Eve that year at the ready for when the world came to an end due to Y2K.  From the Too-Much-Information Department my youngest son should be greatful for that.  It gave him life

Fast forward again now to Spring of 2001.  Our company had decided to cease supporting Access as a database platform and we had switched to two camps: Oracle and SQL Server.  I started learning SQL, while the other Access Developers went the Oracle route.  I took some Microsoft Certified classes locally and did things on my own.  Eventually my Manager paid for me to go to a boot camp in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains outside of Denver for two weeks to seal the deal on my Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD) certification.  I came back that April with certification earned and knowlege of SQL Server and Visual Basic 6 Development hardened.  Two weeks later the course of my professional path, however, changed once again.

My team lead stopped by my desk.  “Let’s go for a walk.”


“Tim, we really can’t have the Server Engineers continue to support our SQL Server.” (yes, a single one – 13 databases.)  “Therefore we need you to become our new SQL DBA.”

“New one, we’ve never had one.  Oh, and do you realize the last year of my life was devoted to learning SQL development?  I don’t want to just sit around and make sure the DB has space!”  (Not only was I not happy, even 3 years removed from my initial talk with Scott I still had no clue what a Database Administrator did apparently.)

However, I did transition into that role and now, just six weeks shy of my 10 year anniversary with this company and also in the field of Information Technology it is amazing how far I’ve come.  Our SQL environment grew to a high of 80+ databases with almost 2,000 individual databases at the high point, though thanks to clustering and a consolidation effort we are down to those same databases on slightly more than half as many instances.  Up until last year this was all done with a single DBA.  I now am blessed with 30% of an FTE who supports our Oracle environment as their fourth DBA the other 70% of the time.  (That says something for the amount of support Oracle needs, huh?  Particularly with a fraction of the databases of our SQL environment!)

Furthermore I’ve gone on to lead volunteer teams inside of The Professional Association for SQL Server, become the President of our local SQL Server users’ group, and last week was awarded MVP status by Microsoft.  I’ve done so not because of my skills, but because I fell into something I thoroughly enjoy and take great pride in.  That elevates talent like nothing else can.  I enjoy what I do, who I do it for, and why I do it.  My actions directly affect patient care for almost half of the state of Michigan.

How did it happen?  There were many different factors.  A helluva lot of butterflies, the attraction of facing new challenges, the motivation of escaping a depressing situation, and the friendship first forged while I carried a Peanuts lunchbox to work and ate Spaghetti-Os out of a thermos.