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What Type of DBA Are You?

Tales from the trenches, by Donald K. Burleson

As a whole, I find that DBAs are intelligent, persistent and hard-working IT professionals. However, I am always surprised at their diverse personalities. A DBA can be shy or gregarious, immaculate or slovenly, charming or abrasive.

As a DBA consultant, I have worked with hundreds of DBAs over the past 20 years and I meet new DBAs every week. As a consultant, I do not always have time to get to know a DBA on a personal level, and I must make a quick evaluation based on limited data. Over the years, I have developed three personality types for DBAs to help me to understand them better and to allow me to work with them more effectively. I call my categories the Scientist DBA, the Gung-Ho DBA, and the Empathetic DBA.

Disclaimer: This article is only intended as a light-hearted look at the DBA profession, and it is based solely on my unscientific observations of DBA personality types. It is my hope that you will see yourself in some of these DBA personality types and that these descriptions will remind you of a fellow DBA.

The “Scientist” DBA

The scientist DBA is brilliant and sometimes shy, hates disorder, chaos and conundrums, and greatly enjoys diving into the internals of their database. The scientist DBA tends to have a love of music and gravitates towards degrees in “pure” majors such as History, English, Math, or Physics. Scientist DBAs usually keep their offices neat and orderly, with everything in its proper place. Their motto is “Prove it,” and they love to try out their database hypotheses on their test systems. Common indicators of the scientist DBA may include:

      • Attention to detail — Scientist DBAs like order in every area of their lives and their database is no exception. Every tablespace and table must stay optimized, and the scientist DBA gets visibly disturbed when a table takes too many extents or when a tablespace becomes fragmented. They miss nothing, and pride themselves on their close attention to every detail of their database.
      • High professional standards — The scientist DBA believes that a database can be described with mathematical equations and every assertion about database behavior can be proven with experimentation. They sometimes require all developers to “prove” their changes in the test database, before allowing changes in production. The scientist DBA hates “rules of thumb” and revels in finding exceptions to any general assertion about database behavior.
      • Highly reliable — Scientist DBAs spend their days in the test systems, posing hypotheses and cranking out scripts to “prove” their theories before making changes to their production system. The scientist DBA is very careful and meticulous and will always justify every database change (often with extraordinary detailed experimental evidence) before changing their production database.
      • Extremely eloquent — Some, (but not all) of the scientist DBAs can be identified by their grandiloquent prose. These DBAs love to use obscure words and complex verbal syntax, and normally keep an Oxford English Dictionary (OED) close at hand. They love puns and double-entendres, and enjoy using obsolete words that have not been popular since the early 1800s.

The “Gung-Ho” DBA

The Gung-Ho DBA is generally characterized by a “can do” attitude. They are always bright and outgoing, and they always seem to be in a hurry. They tend to be impatient (especially with stupid developer questions), and they never “suffer fools gladly.” Even though their office is in complete chaos (with stacks of paper two feet deep, and Post-it notes cluttering the walls), they amaze visitors by being able to find exactly what they need within seconds. The Gung-Ho DBA likes stimulants, and may drink volumes of coffee, keep lots of candy and sweets on the desk, and may be a chain smoker.

The Gung-Ho DBA is often a pragmatist and prefers experiential learning over database theory. They gravitate toward degrees in “real world” majors such as Computer Science, Engineering, or Business Administration. The Gung-Ho DBA is competitive and may love sports, especially one-on-one competitive engagements such as golf or tennis. Their motto is, “Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.” Characteristics of the Gung-Ho DBA may include:

      • Highly creative — The Gung-Ho DBA likes to think “outside the box,” and often develops novel approaches to solving DBA problems. The Gung-Ho DBA loves new database features, and likely has a history of causing unplanned production outages while implementing new and exciting DBA techniques. They love to upgrade their databases, try new approaches, and if left to their own devices, they will spend all day applying patches and tuning their system.
      • Highly dedicated — Gung-Ho DBAs always excel at their jobs, and takes every DBA certification exam that has ever been offered. The job is the most important aspect of their lives, and they are first to volunteer to work on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
      • Strategic orientation — The Gung-Ho DBA is more concerned with long-term results than operational details. Hence, they are not at all concerned that their tablespaces are fragmented or if a table has high extents unless it is adversely affecting performance. The Gung-Ho DBA relies more on heuristics (rules of thumb) than experimentation, and does like to “waste time” experimenting with changes in the test system.
      • Highly productive — If you are on a deadline and have a problem requiring a Herculean effort, the Gung-Ho DBA can be counted upon to get the job done on-time and under budget.

The “Empathetic” DBA

The Empathetic DBA is outgoing, friendly, and reminds you of your favorite Aunt or Uncle. Being people-oriented, the Empathetic DBA is more concerned with the social aspects of DBA work, and loves to participate in group activities such as application design sessions and database analysis sessions with end users. The Empathetic DBA is sometimes lacking in technical skills, but people don’t care because they are such nice people. The Empathetic DBA makes a great manager and is highly skilled at team building and is very tolerant of the shortcomings of coworkers.

Empathetic DBAs tend to gravitate toward people-oriented majors such as Psychology, Sociology, or Education. Their hobbies may include working with animals (dog showing), or volunteering with civic organizations. They like sports that include team activities such as soccer, but avoid one-on-one confrontation sports. Their motto is “No one ever wrote on their tombstone I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

Characteristics of the Empathetic DBA include:

      • Charming — You cannot help but like the Empathetic DBA. They are generally extroverted and always sensitive to the feelings of others. Empathetic DBAs make great bosses because they care more about ensuring that you spend quality time with your family than getting a DBA project done on time.
      • Technically stable — Empathetic DBAs have no great interest in new DBA features or the latest patches, and are content to keep their systems stable. They excel in situations for which 24 x 7 availability is required, and they will never apply a database upgrade or patch unless they have a compelling reason. In multiple DBA shops, they feel no need to compete with the other DBAs.
      • Modest — The Empathetic DBA may get certifications, but they will never have DBA certificates hanging on their wall because they are concerned that their co-workers may think that they are being pretentious. Even if they win prestigious awards, they appear almost embarrassed about any public recognition.
      • Values family over work — The Empathetic DBA places family above DBA work in importance. They sometimes refuse to work evenings or weekends, and cannot understand why anyone would devote their whole life to their databases.

Getting Along Together

By themselves, any of these three personality types do an effective DBA job with their systems. However, the fun begins when shops have more than one DBA of different personality types. As we might expect, there is often conflict between DBAs, and it is great fun to listen to each DBA type complain about the shortcomings of the others. Here is a synopsis of the complaints that I commonly hear:

      • Complaints from the Scientist DBA —The Scientist DBA tolerates and likes the Empathetic DBA, but has a real problem with the Gung-Ho DBA. The Scientist DBA feels that the Gung-Ho DBA is a “loose cannon” and cannot understand their impatience and disregard for detail. Secretly, the Scientist DBA thinks that the Gung-Ho DBA is dangerous, and cringes at their propensity to rush into every database upgrade and pach application without supporting justification.
      • Complaints from the Gung-Ho DBA — The Gung-Ho DBA sees Empathetic DBAs as being lax and slow, and also faults them for having highly misplaced priorities (because they put family before work). However, they have a much bigger problem with the Scientist DBA, whom they see as rigid and overly cautious. Secretly, the Gung-Ho DBA thinks that the Scientist DBA should “get a life” and stop wasting time proving theories.
      • Complaints from the Empathetic DBA — Privately, the Empathetic DBA does not understand the high dedication of the Scientist DBA and Gung-Ho DBA, but they would never say that out loud because it might hurt someone’s feelings.
      • Complaints from developers — As every DBA knows, all developers are secretly studying database administration and actively plotting to take their jobs. Hence, most developers complain that DBAs are self-righteous jerks whose sole purpose is to impede their progress and make their lives miserable.

Again, these DBA personality types are just my observations, and they are not based on any one individual, living or dead. If I am on target, I would love to hear from you, and I welcome any feedback or suggestions on how to improve my model.


Don Burleson is one of the world’s top Oracle Database experts with more than 20 years of full-time DBA experience. He specializes in creating database architectures for very large online databases and he has worked with some of the world’s most powerful and complex systems. A former Adjunct Professor, Don Burleson has written 15 books, published more than 100 articles in national magazines, and serves as Editor-in-Chief of Oracle Internals. Don is a popular lecturer and teacher and is a frequent speaker at Oracle Openworld and other international database conferences. Don can be reached at

Contributors : Donald K. Burleson
Last modified 2005-06-22 12:06 AM
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