Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My Journey - Part II

This is part II of my journey to being a DBA. I was "tagged" by Jacob Sebastian, so I decided to make my entry. Yesterday's entry, Part I, looked at my education, and today I'll talk about my career.


I wanted some practical experience, and I thought that an internship would be good. Even if I took another year to graduate, it would help ensure I got a good job, so I started looking around. This was 1991, and the Internet hadn't exploded. Windows was unknown, and computers were being used in business, but they weren't as commonplace as you might expect. The local power company, Virginia Power, had offered internships to students at ODU and since I was still an EE major at the time, I applied.

I'd learned some tricks for interviewing my senior year of college, and one of those was to research the company and prepare a custom cover letter for your resume. Another was to be prepared for the interview by showing some knowledge about the company. So I did that, heading to the school library to look through magazines and the microfiche for information on Virginia Power, which was owned by Dominion Resources. I picked up a few facts, applied, had a great interview and got a job.

I was assigned as an EE assistant to the Surry Nuclear Power Station. When I heard the offer, I was both surprised and a little nervous. I knew little about nuclear power, and wasn't sure how closely I wanted to learn more. But it was a good internship, it paid something like $12/hour in 1991, which was good money, and it was a new experience. Plus I had to get a security clearance. I later learned that was a stumbling block for many people. Luckily I had no major issues in my past.

lotus Working at Surry was interesting. My first few weeks involved no computer time. I worked with electrical engineers, mainly dealing with paperwork and ensuring things were properly signed off and filed. The amount of regulation in this industry amazed me. After a few weeks my boss asked me if I had computer skills and could I help him with a Lotus 1-2-3 project. He was trying to manage a schedule of projects and calculate times for various items. I said I could figure it out and entered the wonderful world of Lotus 1-2-3 macros.

I built one of those spreadsheets that recalculates all kinds of things when it's opened; the kind that makes DBAs cringe. It was a classic example of knowledge being stored in a spreadsheet that would be better stored in a database, but we didn't know how to do that and no resources were available from IT to help. It worked well in a limited capacity, but not great.

Around this time I met the IT guy for the power station. He was rough, gruff, ex-Navy EOD (explosive ordinance and demolitions) expert that ran a tight IT ship. He had 3 people + an intern supporting 1400 people at the station, and roughly 800 PCs. He noticed my work and said that he had a project that was similar and could probably help us better than my spreadsheets. He asked me if I knew about databases, and gave me a book on dBase III. I dug through it in a week and received a book on Clipper for my troubles. His project was based on Clipper for DOS, and I spent a week learning the architecture and basics of how a Clipper program and database was structured. Most of the programming made sense to me and I was off and running, finishing off his work.

I was nearing the end of my internship for the summer, and I realized that EE wasn't the area for me. My boss agreed, and arranged to transfer to the IT department. There was another program designed to manage workloads among various departments in the power station and so my new boss asked me if I wanted to continue working part time in the fall. The internship arrangement was a semester working, then a semester of school, then repeat. I agreed, and took on a heavy load that fall. My schedule consisted of:

  • 4 classes in computer engineering, including Fourier Transforms.
  • Rowing on the crew team
  • Working 2 nights a week waiting tables
  • working Saturday afternoons at the power station

Needless to say I was exhausted most of the time, and eventually realized that I couldn't maintain this schedule. I tailed off after Thanksgiving, quitting the restaurant job and surviving on my savings and a small paycheck. However I also gained some programming experience and built a system that many secretaries appreciated.

I was offered the chance to start my spring internship early over the Christmas vacation. I agreed, and one of my first assignments was to get ready for a new radiation monitoring system that would be put in place on Jan 1. I was assigned to baby-sit the programmer installing the system on Dec 31, being the most junior member of the team. I arrived at work Dec 31 about 4:00pm, expecting to be there late while things were switched over. Around 8pm all work in the reactor area was stopped, people checked out, and the old system was shut down. The programmer started setting up the new system and transferring data from the old system over, converting it to this "new" database. That database was SQL Server 4.2, running on OS/2 1.3.

At midnight we turned on the system, and a few workers started to use it. It promptly crashed. We rebooted the server, it ran about 30 minutes, and crashed again. We couldn't roll back to the old system since it was now illegal to use, and we didn't have a working system.

That next week was interesting, with 4 of us on the IT staff baby-sitting this server, which needed constant reboots. One of our staff was pregnant and assigned to handle daily duties, while the rest of us basically worked 8 hours on, 8 hours off. With a 45 minute commute to work, I didn't do much more than drive home, shower, sleep, and come back. I logged 100+ hours a week for the month of Jan, moving into Feb. In that time I also learned a lot about OS/2 and SQL Server. We upgraded through 4.2, 4.2a, and 4.2b for SQL Server and moved to OS/2 1.3 and then OS/2 2.1. Those upgrades provided a little stability and we managed to lower our hours to a more reasonable 60-70 hours a week.

During that time I read all the SQL Server manuals, learned how to analyze the server, even how to contact other SQL Servers linked to ours through the probe account. I taught myself quite a bit about SQL Server.

It was during this time that I met my first real DBA. The company hired a full-time DBA to work on SQL Server and get the server stable. He spent a lot of time at our station and I asked him question after question. He upgraded us to Windows 3.1 Advanced Server and taught me about keys, referential integrity, indexing for performance, and more. He also let me know that he was being paid $90k a year in 1992 for his work.

I'd enjoyed DBA work much more than system administration over the first few months of 1992 and taught myself a lot of SQL Server. During this time I was offered a position as an application developer using FoxPro. I took it, and continued to develop against SQL Server, the mainframe the company had, and Oracle databases. I began to expand my knowledge of relational databases, and learned a lot. I transitioned to Visual FoxPro and it was time to move on.

I applied for a few DBA jobs, and ended up getting one that was an IT manager for a small company that used SQL Server 4.2, and was transitioning their homegrown application to SQL Server from FoxPro. It was a good fit, and I learned a lot about business and managing projects in that job. I stayed there for 4 years until I again felt the urge to move on, driven by the Internet boom.

Heading West

We decided to move one fall after 14 straight days of rain in my native Virginia. My wife had been working from home for a few years, and so it was up to me to find a new job. We'd both traveled for work to various clients and conferences and a few cities in the Western US called to us. Denver was our top choice, and I began searching for a job. I found a similar job to the one I'd been doing, senior DBA at a small firm that also needed some systems help. I flew out, was offered the job, and planned on moving a month later.

I came out alone in Feb of 1999 and found myself in charge of another DBA as well as in charge of systems. I learned that SQL Server 6.5 under load wasn't very stable and found myself digging into many new issues on this platform. After 2 years of fighting daily fires, upgrading to SQL 7 and Windows 2000 for selected systems, and having spent many nights sleeping on the floor of my office, I moved on.

This time I was strictly looking to be a DBA and found myself at another startup, employee 21 at IQDestination, a learning company. That fit well with my skills and interests, having been writing for a few years and publishing short articles. I'd started writing for Swynk the year before, and enjoyed the publishing business. While I was at this job, Swynk was sold and SQLServerCentral was born.

Working at a startup, wearing a few hats, and trying to develop software on a regular basis was interesting and enabled me to find lots to write about. Answering questions on the SSC forums built my skills further, and helped me at work. It was a great position, and there was a time when I was thinking of asking my boss to work part-time, 3 days a week, and working on SSC 2 days a week. It seemed possible.

Until my company folded.

We knew sales were down, but it was one Thursday that I was called into a meeting with a few other senior IT employees and management. We were literally down to a few weeks of money and our owners were begging for more capital. We were told to be on call for the weekend. Sunday we were called to say that we needed to disable all accounts and come in to work to start shutting down equipment. We literally moved dozens of machines out the door on Sunday to various people's houses as our owner didn't think that the landlord would let him back in when they were told the company was shutting down.

This was 2001 and it was a low point for me. I was a top-notch DBA, I knew a ton about SQL Server, but I couldn't find a job. I had a one-year old daughter, and spent 9 weeks at home, looking for jobs, getting few interviews, and caring for kids. It seemed that all my career efforts had been in vain. Finally I was offered a job at JD Edwards, for more money than I would have taken. That was interesting because they later told me they didn't think it was enough.

After working at JDE for a bit over a year, they were purchased by Peoplesoft. It seemed that the economy and sales were striking again. I had my resume together and started sending it out, in anticipation of being let go. I wasn't, and in fact received a promotion to manage 10 DBAs for all of the Peoplesoft production systems. I also got a great raise, from $86k a year to $88k a year.

Needless to say I was less than excited. More work, back to regular fire fighting, and lots, and lots of phone calls. Between most of my team being in CA and issues with systems, I was literally on the phone 6-8 hours a day. It was a challenge only in that I had to manage keeping batteries charged in my headset and cell phone.

I was sending out resumes regularly when things at SQLServerCentral changed. Andy, Brian, and I were all sharing the duties of running the site. We'd continued to evolve the site over the past 2 years and were making money on the site. However it was also a burden to us, all working full-time jobs. We were considering selling the site when we closed a big advertising deal with Quest in early 2003. They paid us for a year of advertising all at once, which gave us a nice cushion of money. After a few debates over the phone, we decided that one of us would need to manage the site full time if we didn't sell. Since my wife was working and provided me with benefits (medical, etc.), I was the best choice.

So in April or May of 2003 I left my job and started running SSC full-time. At first I took some consulting jobs as well, thinking that I'd need to fill my time and continue to work on SQL Server. That ended quickly as we started up Database Weekly (then Database Daily) and the site continued to grow. By keeping active in the forums, I continued to learn and grow my SQL skills.

The Voice of the DBA

It was at this time the editorials started. We use to run an advertisement in that spot, or announce something like the PASS conference. However as I tried to vary the content, I became bored with simple advertising-type content and started writing about SQL Server and things I thought were interesting. I had no idea that the editorials were interesting until Nov of that year when I got to the PASS Summit. Quite a few people complemented me on the editorials, and I knew that was something I'd be doing for a long time.

I continued running SSC until the summer of 2006 when Red Gate software approached us about purchasing the site. They did, and I went to work for them that November. I've been doing that ever since.

In the years since I left full-time technical work, I've kept myself involved with SQL Server in a number of ways. Constantly answering questions on the forums, often having to research an answer, had helped keep me aware of the product. I read a lot of articles on SQL Server, and I've written a few books and tech edited others. Those activities have continued my journey as a SQL Server professional.

That's my journey, and hopefully a few of you found it interesting. I am not tagging anyone since, well, it's not really something I like to do.

You can read Part I here.

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