DBA in training: Preparing for interviews - Simple Talk

DBA in training: Preparing for interviews - Simple Talk

Getting that first job as a DBA is not easy for most of us. In this article, Pamela Mooney explains what to expect when interviewing and how to prepare.

The series so far:

  1. DBA in training: So, you want to be a DBA...
  2. DBA in training: Preparing for interviews

Ah, the big black box – the technical interview. You’ve heard about them, but maybe you have never been through one – and it feels like a final exam without a study guide. Let’s take a moment to discuss the different interview scenarios, the best way to prepare, and some ways of answering the “What is your biggest weakness” and the “What questions do you have” scenarios.

Preparation begins long before you submit applications. Start by downloading SQL Server Developer Edition, installing the AdventureWorks database, or the StackOverflow database – or make your own. Then start working on your TSQL. There are a wealth of resources on the internet to help – both free and low cost. Look at RedGate, SQLSkills, Brent Ozar, Kathi Kellenberger, Bert Wagner (to name a few!). If you are confident in your TSQL skills, then work on actual database management. Ensure that you understand the rudiments of backups, restores, RPO and RTO, security and internals. If you can confidently write queries, manage automated backups and restores, properly write and maintain indexing and troubleshoot issues on your practice instance, that is one step toward being able to manage many instances. If any of this is Greek to you, don’t worry – I will cover these later.

Overall preparation

Hopefully, you have read up on the company when you submitted your application. You should have a basic understanding of what they do and what they are trying to achieve. That can help you to better understand how you can contribute toward that goal.

But what if I have never worked as a DBA in my life! How can I help them?

I am glad you asked! Yes, you’re green, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer. Consider how you have contributed toward the growth of other places you have worked. Can you show where you went above and beyond to meet the need of past positions you held? If you went to school or boot camp, do you have internship experience you can cite? Maybe you have worked in a related field and have experience with TSQL or SAN management that you can leverage.

You may have gone to college straight out of school. In that case, you may have to think a little more creatively. Did you do any volunteer work or projects with databases? How can you demonstrably show your drive and passion for excelling in this field?

When I was breaking into this profession, I did have a work history – just nothing in the technical field. I had to rely on great personal recommendations and what I could come up with to show my passion and ability to be taught. My capstone project in college revolved around SQL Server (and Access). I ensured that I had mentors to guide me. I bought books and began reading whatever blogs I could get my hands on to prepare myself. I won’t lie; I had to submit a lot of applications before the right opportunity came along. If it had not, I would have bloomed where I was planted and waited for my chance while I continued to teach myself. Whenever I see someone going out of their way from the love for what they want to do, it gets my attention, and I don’t believe I am alone in that observation.

Finally, do you have background experience in the company’s field? For instance, if you have applied to be a DBA at a hospital, do you have clinical experience? If you are applying to work in the financial industry, do you have an understanding of business practices? Especially at small companies, having a DBA who understands not only SQL Server internals, but who can also speak to the business users in language that they can understand may provide an advantage that is of interest to the company.

Before I was hired as a DBA, I submitted an application to write reports for the place where I was presently working. After I got the DBA job, my current employer found out (too late) about my application. They would have hired me for the new position, but my application got lost in the shuffle and wasn’t discovered in time. Why would they have hired me for a technical job that I had no experience doing? I had five years’ worth of knowledge of the company, where I had worked for five years. The business users would have wanted that bridge between the business and the technical. Every little bit helps.

I was once helping to interview candidates for an ETL position. One of my favorite questions was, “Tell me about the most challenging project you ever took ownership of, and how you saw it through.” One of the best answers I ever received was from a candidate who told me that she was assigned a project that included technology she had never seen before. Much of it was proprietary, and there was no documentation to reference. The person who had been previously working on it had left the company some time before. Seeing it through required working long hours of overtime for months. She tracked down the former employee, who agreed to meet with her and answer her questions in order to gain the knowledge she needed.

Needless to say, she stuck it out, completed the project and did it well. She was the one I recommended for the job, and she has excelled at it. Yes, she had technical experience, but it was her drive that made her a standout. Technical knowledge can be taught. Passion and drive cannot.

Do many companies look for (and need!) experienced DBAs? Yes, of course. Finding the company who is willing to teach a new DBA can really be the lottery ticket. You could easily find that you need to start in a related field, forge a relationship with a DBA on site who is willing to teach you, and wait for your big chance. You may have to start at the low end of the salary scale to get your foot in the door and earn your experience. If you are persistent – and lucky – you will arrive at the time where you perk someone’s interest enough to have a chat about giving you your big break. And that is where the interview comes in.

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