IT career roadmap: Database administrator

As information becomes ever more strategically important for organizations, database administrators continue to play a vital role in the success of enterprises.

database woman in tablet mobile
Getty Images

If data is the currency of the digital business environment, databases might be considered the bank vaults. And as information becomes ever more strategically important for organizations, databases take on an even more vital role in the success of enterprises.

Databases are organized collections of data, and the IT professionals responsible for overseeing these valuable resources are database administrators (DBAs). These individuals are tasked with making sure databases run efficiently, and that data is available to users and secure from unauthorized access.

The role of DBAs might encompass areas such as database design, system installations and configuration, capacity planning, migration, performance monitoring, security, maintenance, and data backup and recovery.

Other responsibilities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), include backing up and restoring data to prevent data loss, identifying user needs to create and administer databases, ensuring that databases operate efficiently and without error, making and testing modifications to database structure when needed, maintaining databases and updating permissions, and merging old databases into new ones.

Many people in this role are general-purpose DBAs and take on all of these duties, BLS says, while some specialize in certain tasks that vary with an organization and its needs. Two common specialties are system DBAs, who are responsible for the physical and technical aspects of a database such as installing upgrades and patches to fix program bugs; and application DBAs, who support a database that’s been designed for a specific application or set of applications such as customer-service software.

Professionals looking to take on DBA positions in many cases need to possess a number of skills, such as a knowledge of database queries, theory and design; experience with database management systems; understanding of structured query language (SQL); and a general knowledge of distributed computing architectures, operating systems, storage technologies, and networking.

Demand for DBAs continues to rise. The BLS Employment Projections program forecasts that the employment of database administrators will grow 10 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.

“Employment growth in this occupation will be driven by the increased data needs of companies in nearly all sectors of the economy,” the bureau says. “Database administrators will be needed to organize data and present them to stakeholders in a user-friendly format.”

The increasing popularity of database-as-a-service, which allows third parties to do database administration over the internet, is expected to increase employment of DBAs at cloud computing providers in the data processing, hosting, and related services industry, the bureau says.

Employment of the professionals in the computer systems design and related services industry is also projected to grow, according to BLS. “The continued adoption of cloud services by small and medium-sized businesses that do not have their own [IT] departments is expected to increase the employment of database administrators in this industry.” it says.

What does it take to become a DBA? To find out, we spoke with Ashley Zayas, database administrator at aviation and aerospace company TECT Corp.

ashley zayas database administrator at tect corp Ashley Zayas

Education/Early life

Although Zayas did not initially set out to pursue a career in an IT-related field, like many others in her generation she did have an early interest in technology in general.

“As a kid—and I haven't grown out of this yet—I played a lot of video games and some of the macros and event triggers I wrote for early online games were coding, although I didn't know it at the time,” Zayas says. “The biggest influence for choosing my specific career path came from a job I had before college at a company called ChoicePoint.”

The company performed employment background checks, and many counties did not have online searches available at the time so contractors across the country did searches in person every day.

“My role was to call the contractors and follow up on orders that had been outstanding or that customers requested updates on,” Zayas says. “But there wasn't a way to sort the orders by contractor and sometimes I ended up calling the same person four times a day, which was frustrating for both of us.”

Eventually Zayas was able to get a day-old data feed of orders and import it to a platform from which she could group the orders by contractor and fax the information to them. The contractors could then fax back the estimated times of completion on background checks. “Or at least we'd both have a copy of all the orders to look at when I called,” she says. “That was my first experience with SQL, and I was impressed with how much I was able to improve my job process. The experience made me decide to focus on data and automation in my career.”

In 2010 Zayas received a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science from Georgia State University, with a specialization in databases and knowledge-based systems. “I've considered graduate school several times and almost took the plunge with a data science program at Northwestern, but ultimately an advanced degree wasn't necessary for my career path,” she says.

Job history

Zayas continued to work at ChoicePoint during her time in college, then transitioned to an internship in the human resources (HR) IT department of Georgia Pacific.

“The job I was assigned to do at Georgia Pacific was support on a timekeeping application,” Zayas says. But she met a business intelligence (BI) programmer at the company who did purely database work, and started checking in with her every morning for tasks she could help with.

“I learned so much from her and the practical experience I gained from that internship helped me immensely at my next job, although it didn't help at all in actually landing a job post-college,” Zayas says. “I thought I had a strong resume, but after tons of rejections and lack of responses to job applications I ended up getting my next job at Integratec through a friend I met at a dance class of all places.”

The friend had seen a post Zayas placed on Facebook related to SQL, and her company happened to be looking for a database professional.

Integratec Services, a provider of software and services that manage the full lifecycle of real estate investments, which has since been acquired by MRI Software, at the time had about 50 employees. The IT team was so small that Zayas, who was hired as a technical support analyst, got full production access to everything and was able to learn much about various aspects of IT as well as database development and administration.

While at Integratec Zayas advanced to positions including software analyst and senior software analyst.

After working for the company in these roles Zayas began getting emails and calls from recruiters, which is how she landed her next position at LOMA as well as subsequent jobs. At LOMA, an international association of insurance and financial services companies, Zayas worked for about two years as a programmer analyst.

At this position, Zayas learned a lot about data warehousing and honed her skills in SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS), a component of the Microsoft SQL Server database software that can be used to perform a range of data migration tasks.

Next, Zayas went to work as a software engineer for cyber security company Leidos, and then as a senior data engineer for Hiscox USA, a specialty insurance company. While at Leidos she was contracted to do work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and learned about the public health industry.  

In February 2020 Zayas moved into her current role as data administrator at TECT. Her current position is focused on bringing best practices and standardized approaches to different areas of the business.  

In each of her recent roles, Zayas has gained more in-depth experience with SSIS; SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS), a server-based report generating software system from Microsoft; and several other data warehousing and reporting tools.

Memorable moments

Walking out the door at 5 p.m. to go home from work and having a coworker run up to her, panicked, saying she deleted a bunch of production data by accident and urgently needing Zayas to restore a database backup. “I think this stands out because it highlights the ups and downs of the job,” she says. “There are sometimes unexpected high-pressure situations. But being able to resolve them is rewarding.” In this instance it involved customer financial information and she was able to restore the data.

Biggest inspirations

The programmer colleague at Georgia Pacific was a big inspiration for Zayas while she worked at the company. She has also been inspired by several speakers at SQL Saturday and other Professional Association of SQL Server (PASS) industry events. “And from my personal circle, my dad and grandparents have also been a big influence,” she says. “My dad owned his own business and designed products for use in public safety, which was pretty interesting and I think helped spark a creative spirit that's been surprisingly helpful for problem solving in my career.”

Short-term and Long-term goals

“I've job hopped quite a bit over the last decade, which was great for learning about different industries, technologies, and company structures,” Zayas says. “But my goal now is to stop hopping and focus on building as stable an environment as possible, filled with best practices and self-fixing code so I never have to touch anything old again. My favorite part of my career is still automating and making process improvements, and I try to work on as many of those types of projects as possible.”

Best career or life advice received

“You can do anything,” Zayas says. “This advice was given to me by a former coworker at a job I worked between high school and college. Everyone was pretty negative there and it was nice to hear someone have an unexpected positive attitude.” 

Advice for others seeking a similar path

“My advice would have been to get involved with PASS, especially for those looking to work with the Microsoft technologies,” Zayas says. “But sadly they are closing down. That said, there are still many other user groups and those would be a great way to learn more about a specific technology and network with people who are using the tools you want to use on the job. Also, don't hesitate to talk to recruiters. Finding that first role is the hardest.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

InfoWorld Technology of the Year Awards 2023. Now open for entries!