What Is a Database Administrator? Will DBAs Disappear?
“Hug a DBA,” by Killa DBA, is by far the best hip-hop track I’ve ever heard about database administration. Granted, until I listened to his new full-length debut album with which it shares a title, it was the only song I’d ever heard about database administration.
There’s no denying that I first experienced the track as pure novelty. Did this database administrator — given name: Homer McEwen, I’d soon learn — really go through the trouble of writing, recording and releasing a straight-faced, well-produced ode to database design and maintenance?
But by the third or fourth listen, it was clear: the track — anchored by throwback-y 808 production and a dexterous-but-easygoing delivery that quickly telegraphs McEwen’s Atlanta roots — is a pretty effective earworm. I’d catch myself singing it around the house.
“I keep this thing up all the freakin time / SLA always on point / 99.9!”
What Is Database Administration?
Of all the cuts on Hug a DBA, McEwen himself was feeling partial to “SQL Server 2019” when we spoke a few weeks after the album’s release. “Hybrid Buffer Pool / to let a playa see what that memory do” is the couplet he recites at home. It’s one of what you might call McEwen’s “technical” tracks, celebrations of nitty-gritty database specs. The album also includes tech-cultural examinations, like “Women in IT” and “Be a Nerd,” plus a pair of parodies. (“Migration Plan” riffs on Drake’s “God’s Plan,” “Back That NAS Up” spoofs, well ... you get it.)
The title track, on the other hand, is a bit more existential, despite its bounce-along melody. When we spoke, McEwen nodded often as I asked him about the transitional moment in which database administration seems to be — upended by a series of technological and organizational shifts. The first verse of “Hug a DBA” directly references the DBA role’s diminished stature:
“Database management / Yes, that is the key / I remember back in the day when they treated us like kings / But today it’s not the same / Oh wait, is it just me? / The respect level isn’t quite where it should or used to be.”
A Role in Flux
What’s to blame for the DBA’s decline in prominence? To answer the question, you have to look at the traditional core duties of database administration. Those include things like provisioning new databases, patching databases, tuning queries and maintaining back-ups.
A lot of those tasks are now partially or fully automated, thanks to the rise of cloud-managed databases. The big three cloud computing services each offers fully managed options, most notably Amazon RDS, Google’s Cloud SQL (which has service for MySQL, PostgreSQL and SQL Server) and — in the Microsoft world in which McEwen operates most — Azure SQL Database.
McEwen knows the pitch well: “We got you! You’re in the cloud! We’re taking care of your upgrading, your security, your storage, your maintenance — you just worry about making more money for your business, which is very attractive to companies.”
Those who opt against migrating to managed databases sacrifice convenience for a level of control they probably don’t actually need, Asya Kamsky, principal engineer at MongoDB, previously told Built In. “You can still get access to all the logs,” and if you do need to provision a new machine, it’s a button-click away, she said. “I think that, in a few years, it’s just going to be inconceivable that we even considered hosting data centers ourselves,” she added.
“I thought, if I put this in a song, I’ll have a leg up ... I know my lyrics, so I’ll know the features.”
It’s not just nimble-minded startup culture that’s been affected. Automation has arrived in the legacy database world too. Last year, Oracle released its autonomous database, which claims to automatically handle a slew of traditional DBA tasks. As TechRepublic noted, Oracle even advised database administrators at the time of its release to pivot toward the data architect role and embrace data modeling over “routine maintenance.”
“There’s so many different changes,” McEwen said.
It’s uncommon to find the title “database administrator” in a startup. The closest analog is the site reliability engineer. The precise nature of SRE work varies by company, but it almost always involves writing code to automate routine processes, building tools to allow developers to work with infrastructure and taking on-call rounds to respond to any potential fires.
SRE emerged at Google in the wake of DevOps before catching on across the tech landscape. In short, DevOps was the turning-point union of development and operations. Traditionally separate, the two work together under the DevOps philosophy, with the operations side — which would include DBAs under the older paradigm — releasing, deploying and monitoring what the development team builds.
“New applications would now be developed, maintained and monitored by product-aligned engineering teams,” wrote Paul Gentle, a United Kingdom-based database administration consultant who runs Data Minister, in a blog post last year titled “The Future for the DBA.” “Their responsibility would include supporting the database layer of the application, which would have previously been looked after by my DBA team.”
In a deflating irony, McEwen himself hadn’t disentangled administration from development in his own mind as he was starting his career in 1997. The split came from the top down at his then-employer, which favored a traditional corporate tech structure. “I thought they were all in the same — and they were all in the same, until [I was] at Home Depot,” he said. “They really split it up. We had developers, modelers, the admin, maybe even one or two more levels.”
A Day in the Life of a Database Administrator
Of all the turbulence to hit database administration, the most disruptive event for McEwen (left) has been one that’s uprooted roles across the spectrum: the pandemic. He worked for 10 years as a DBA for BCD Travel, a business travel agency that was suddenly faced with no business travel to manage. He was recently given a choice: six additional months of furlough, or severance. His last day was October 31.
These days, his time is devoted to a mix of freelance work, job prospecting and professional development — plus, of course, music.
McEwen recently spent two months on a contract assignment, helping a client combine two data centers into one at a new location. He’s also back in school, going for his master’s in computer science at Georgia Tech. And he’s fielded a couple of job interviews — one with Amazon, one with a company that found McEwen through his music. “He heard ‘Hug a DBA’ and said, ‘Anybody that passionate about databases, I want on my team,’” McEwen said. (The interview process is still ongoing.)
But McEwen’s recent professional experience offers a good window into what life as a DBA looks like circa 2020. It was a combination of subject matter expertise, incident response and running point for key infrastructure tools and projects.
McEwen was BCD Travel’s point man for Denoda, a data virtualization tool that essentially gives users a central view from which to query different — and different kinds of — databases. BCD was among the first companies to have a Denodo cluster, with three nodes, according to McEwen.
“There was a lot of prep, setting up LDAP rule configurations and scheduling and maintaining jobs,” he said. “It was new territory, but it was fun.”
Other duties included specialized maintenance — McEwen was the subject matter expert for the company’s customer-facing DMZ database — and on-call duty once every seven weeks or so.
As for projects, McEwen headed up an ambitious migration, which moved databases off dozens of old servers and, in the process, upgraded each to SQL Server 2016. They also configured files to future-proof against potential IP address changes. A single database move might take as little as a week or as long as a month, depending on levels of complexity.
Stereotypes paint old-school DBAs as surly oppositionists who live to revoke access. But moves like the one described above — and McEwen’s perspective on them — betray a deep sense of cooperation.
“What was fun, I got to really know a lot of the people,” he said. “You meet the business owners, the application developers, the super users of the application, because you have to work with everyone to coordinate the migration.”
Of course, in other ways, McEwen’s experience couldn’t be more different than a typical DBA — which brings us to how that upgrade to SQL Server 2016 had significance beyond just infrastructure. McEwen was taken with advances in the database, so much so that it inspired his first technology-related track, a love letter to the new database simply titled “SQL Server 2016.”
The track was also something of a personal study aid, to make sure he knew the ins and outs of the new version to his bosses’ satisfaction. “I thought, if I put this in a song, I’ll have a leg up on my teammates,” he said. “I know my lyrics, so I’ll know the features.”
McEwen had been involved in music to varying degrees for years before then, moving in the same circles as Outkast, Lil Jon and LaFace Records staff. He formerly served as CFO of an independent label that released a compilation dotted with some of the era’s leading lights of Atlanta hip-hop — Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz, Pastor Troy, Khujo Goodie, Jazze Pha. But he’d never joined his two loves until that track.
Eventually, Microsoft caught wind of the song and contacted McEwen. He was expecting a cease-and-desist demand. But the company loved it. In a short time, he was performing “SQL Server 2016,” along with a handful of other new tracks, at a SQL Saturday event on the Microsoft corporate campus. More conference and summit gigs followed, even a song commission.
He hasn’t performed live since June of 2019. “Two things have slowed me down: COVID-19 and school.” Like all artists, he looks forward to the day he can perform his material live again.
New Skills for a New Day
McEwen is well-positioned despite being solo during these transitional times in database administration. And not just because he’s using quarantine time to go back to school, or the fact that his music doubles as a can’t-forget cover letter.
On one hand, yes, database administration as traditionally defined is waning. Interest in the role has dipped slowly but steadily over the last 15 years, according to Google Trends data. On the other hand, “database and network professional” was just listed as one of the top 20 job roles in increasing demand across all industries in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs Report.
The best explanation might have to do with overlap. Two ways DBAs can still prove their worth in a post-managed database world is through owning ETL and streaming data tools, and also developing and implementing schemas, according to O’Reilly’s Introduction to Cloud Databases.
Those may now be considered the realm of data engineers and data architects, respectively, but DBAs often find their hands in that work. McEwen, for instance, recalled the time that a team at his previous employer needed to upgrade from Access databases to SQL Server due to size and security limitations and ended up helping them model data and set up ETL processes.
“It wasn’t in the realm of our job description duties of what the admin is supposed to do. But because I was working with them so closely,” he said.
It’s the kind of thing that might repeat itself several times for a DBA across large organizations. “I probably had five or six processes that were not considered in our realm, but I wrote up detailed tutorials and had meetings with the BI team so that they could [smoothly] take it,” he said.
McEwen is excited to dive further into cloud databases as a graduate student. When he left BCD, the company was about to take the full AWS plunge — Redshift, AWS Glue, Aurora, RDS, the whole nine yards. It was exciting for McEwen, who’d spent the majority of his time working with virtual machines and on-prem physical machines. “I was teased with all this cool stuff we were going to do with Amazon!” he joked.
Still, he found opportunities to learn his way around the cloud beforehand. Like the time the company VP created his own Azure database, which turned business critical and had to be roped in by admin for security and maintenance.
You might even view the Killa DBA project itself as a kind of beyond-comfort-zones upskilling — one with greater risk than garden-variety professional development. Killa DBA proved to be a hit, and McEwen is now a beloved figure in the SQL Server community. But that was by no means guaranteed.
McEwen often finds himself the only Black person in a meeting room, or at a tech conference. In a recent panel discussion about diversity in data, he recalled the time two colleagues were urged by family to not relocate to Atlanta, because they claimed Black people there had been made violent by oppression.
Did such prejudice give him pause before taking his music public? He recalled Microsoft double-checking with him before posting about Killa DBA on the company blog in 2017. “They said: ‘Once we put this up, people are going to know who you are. Are you OK with that? They may say anything.’”
The tracks were just too good, he decided. And his willingness to perform paid off. To invoke “Hug a DBA,” the respect level was where it should be.