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How to Become a Database Administrator

How does a bank update your checking account information instantaneously when you pay a utility bill online? How are you able to track the delivery of a parcel containing your new purchase from an electronics factory in Asia? And, how do online retailers know exactly what items you might be interested in purchasing, based on what you've browsed and bought before?

The answer to all of these questions is: somewhere, a database administrator has done their job.

Database admins (DBAs for short) tackle challenges like these and other critical functions on a regular basis, placing them among the tech elite in many organizations. The relational database has been a tool of the public and private sectors for decades, but the growth of Internet commerce, social networking, and online government-citizen interaction over the last two decades has resulted in an explosion of database growth, activity, and expanding functionality.

This explosive growth has had a direct impact on the demand for DBAs. It has also created a subset of data management specialties which all stem from the field of database administration.

It takes an extensive amount of training and experience to join the prestigious ranks of database admins. But, the effort can result in a highly-rewarding and fulfilling career path.

Table of Contents

    1. What Does a Database Administrator Do?
      1. SQL Developer
      2. Database Administrator
      3. Database Developer
      4. Database Designer
      5. Database Security Administrator
    2. Database Management Degrees
    3. Database Management Salary
    4. Database Management Certifications

Database Administration Specialties

What does a SQL developer do?

SQL developers are specialized database workers who create and work with the underlying code that makes databases more than just static bins of bits and bytes. SQL, which stands for Structured Query Language, is a programming language used to search, store, and retrieve information from databases. SQL developers use this language to create and maintain databases. Depending on their job scope, a SQL dev might be responsible for the following tasks.

  • Developing SQL databases
  • Creating applications to work with SQL databases
  • Creating and testing modifications to database structures

SQL devs can be employed in a multitude of industries, as well as in various branches of government. Other SQL devs may work in finance, enterprise management, information firms, or education services.

Strong analytical and problem-solving skills are important qualities of SQL devs. Effective communication is also key, as SQL devs may be part of a larger development team, or may have to work closely with business owners or vendors as a part of their job.

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What does a database administrator do?

A DBA manages and maintains complex software and file storage systems. Databases drive business. Nearly every company in the United States relies on a database of some kind, ranging from off-the-shelf organizational software to powerful, custom accounting and manufacturing solutions. DBAs perform the following functions:

  • Define the parameters of each database in a company's platform.
  • Ensure access, up-time and data integrity.
  • Manage both the physical equipment and the software required to maintain complex databases.
  • Defend data platforms against threats from external sources and internal failures.

Senior DBAs often act as system architects, envisioning the combination of hardware and software required to meet an employer's needs. Mid-tier DBAs often partner with project teams tasked with digging into complex data for insight into company operations. Entry-level DBAs handle routine chores like archiving, optimizing and backing up large database storage volumes. Most of the work happens at a computer workstation, but DBAs increasingly participate in company planning and project meetings.

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What does a database programmer do?

Database programmers write code, perform quality assurance checks, and design the protocols of enterprise access to a database or data warehouse environment. Nearly all companies that make extensive use of a database need a dedicated professional on staff to ensure it stays in proper working order. DB programmers write scripts, functions, and stored procedures that define the parameters by which employees access database information. Database development tools can vary, and the specific coding tasks of a DB programmer will differ from framework to framework.

With the rise of data warehousing and the business intelligence field, DB programmers may find themselves working with Online Transaction Processing (OLTP), for traditional relational databases, or Online Analytical Processing (OLAP), for enterprise data warehouse systems. The sets of skills appropriate to these two different types of data environment are nearly opposite, despite the similarity in their titles.

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What does a database designer do?

Database designers, also known as database architects, develop strategies for the design, modeling and implementation stages of the database lifecycle. They design database infrastructure and applications -- including interfaces, data partitions, global temporary tables and function-based index mechanics -- to ensure efficient database operation. Many of these designers work to create enterprise solutions, and each business or industry has its own set of IT requirements. Professionals with database designer training often collaborate with software architects and system analysts to understand and best address the particular needs of certain businesses or industries.

DB architects draw the blueprints of a database, which technicians and other specialists then use to put the technology together. Here are some of the key goals that influence the design of strong systems:

  • Demonstrate technical functionality such as reliability, security and performance
  • Provide support for business applications to promote performance and system scalability
  • Organize load-balancing processes for efficient system backup
  • Produce intuitive standardized procedures for query and archiving

DB architects also develop data models, metadata tables and related database structures for applications.

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What does a database security administrator do?

Database security admins ensure the safe storage and transfer of vital business and personal information. Basic tasks include managing the availability and confidentiality of data, as well as the installation, troubleshooting and monitoring of core security technologies and network devices. These IT professionals are also known by similar titles such as data security admins or information security analysts, according to the Department of Labor's Occupational Information Network or O*NET website.

DB security admins often work at small or medium-sized companies, since the amount of data is usually manageable enough for the roles of administration and database security personnel to be combined. Enterprise and government data environments that handle large banks of sensitive information generally divide data management and security tasks between teams of professionals specialized to each job class.

Here are a few of the responsibilities that DB security admins handle:

  • Encrypting data transmissions and erecting hardware and software firewalls.
  • Installing and managing software for database security analysis.
  • Monitoring and reviewing violations of database security procedures.
  • Performing risk assessments to determine the effectiveness of security measures.
  • Training database users in secure access procedures.

It's also important for DB security admins to be able to communicate with network and computer systems security specialists, in order to build strong multi-level security infrastructures and policies.

These roles require extensive technological experience, and admins may work with software such as the following:

  1. Authentication server software
  2. Internet directory service software
  3. Network monitoring applications
  4. Network security programs
  5. Transaction security or virus protection tools
  6. Virtual private network (VPN) management tools

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Database Admin Degrees and Education

Courses and industry standards

Though BLS data suggest that vendor accreditation is the industry standard for database administration training, IT pros really drive the point home.

Craig Thorstead has more than 14 years of hands-on experience working as a DBA. He recently told Certification Magazine that accreditation is necessary for both entry- and advanced-level database administrators.

"I think in today's world, [certs are] becoming more critical," he said.

Thorstead specifically recommends that those just getting started in database administration training go for CIW Database Design Specialist accreditation. This course provides general introductory training to database specialization while remaining vendor-neutral, making it a good way to prepare for further training, according to CIW information.

The Oracle Certified Associate (OCA) cert is also a good option for those seeking entry-level database administration training. The vendor suggests that this cert is best for "users that know the basics, but have not yet obtained the experience gained by professional MySQL DBAs or Developers." This database administration course includes several exams, including one about SQL and another covering basic database management. There are also a number of more advanced Oracle certs for database administrators, ranging from the mid-level Oracle Certified Master (OCM) and Oracle Certified Professional (OCP) to Oracle Certified Expert (OCE).

Software giant Microsoft is also part of the DBA scene, with Microsoft SQL Server database administration courses and accreditation available ranging from Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) and Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) to the terminal Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) certifications.

Additionally, the Certification Magazine report shows that database administration training and certifications are also available for MySQL. Offerings include the entry-level Associate and more advanced DBA and Cluster DBA.

Learning SQL

Nearly every career path in database administration begins with learning the SQL language. Every job role related to the database admin field will require some familiarity with SQL. This training can often be taken as part of a Bachelor's Degree in computer science or a similar major, but sometimes learning SQL comes after university or college.

As it is such a popular language, SQL training is available from a wide range of sources. There is no shortage of technical schools that provide several levels of SQL training, from introductory to intermediate and beyond. Some product vendors and third-party industry associations also offer classes in SQL, particularly in the context of SQL's use with specific database management products from industry heavyweights such as Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM.

Prior experience with computer programming can be helpful to students training in SQL. The query-based SQL system doesn't use the same expressions as object-oriented language, but being familiar with the concepts of syntax and detail precision can translate well to working with SQL. Subject matter taught in SQL training can include the following:

  • Table design and implementation
  • Data types and indexes
  • Common execution plan elements
  • Data merging
  • Designing effective clustered indexes
  • Enforcing data integrity

Although these concepts might seem esoteric to a new student of database management, training in SQL can help the pieces fit together into a valuable career skill with strong upside in the workforce.

What training is necessary to become an SQL developer?

When entering the industry as a SQL developer, the required education is generally a Bachelor's Degree in computer science, computer programming, or another computer-related discipline. A thorough knowledge of the SQL language is obviously required. According to the BLS, DBAs (a category that includes SQL developers) often work as data analysts or database developers before advancing to an administrator position.

What training is necessary to become a database administrator?

The average education requirement for DBAs is a Bachelor's Degree in computer science, computer information systems, or a similar computer-related discipline. Some entry-level DBA positions may call for only a two-year certificate program in database administration, while more advanced positions can require a Master's Degree specializing in database management.

What training is necessary to become a database programmer?

Most DB programmers entering the industry will need to have a Bachelor's Degree in computer science, computer programming, mathematics, or a similar field. However, there are also a number of shorter associate degrees in database programming/development available from some colleges and technical schools. More advanced positions may call for a Master's Degree in software engineering.

Most database development courses offer a detailed analysis of database design and function. Here is a list of components that are usually covered:

  • Database architecture
  • Normalization
  • Database security
  • Data modeling
  • Web applications

Alongside these fundamentals, students dive deeply into SQL, including such aspects as error handling, data partitioning and working with user-defined functions.

What training is necessary to become database designer?

The role of DB designer is related to a number of education options. A Bachelor's Degree in computer engineering, software programming, or information systems are all applicable to this job role. Greater specialization in the form of designing database management software systems may be gained through associate degrees from colleges and technical schools.

What training is necessary to become a database security administrator?

A database security admin is, in essence, a specialized DBA who focuses on database security. As such, the education requirements for these two job roles are similar: a Bachelor's Degree in computer science, computer engineering, software engineering, or a related field. However, because of the increasing complexity of online attacks, many employers may prefer a specialized technical degree in information system security or advanced information security training.

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Database Administration Salary and Job Outlook

What is the job outlook for SQL developers?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of Software Developers is expected to grow 22% from 2012 to 2022. While SQL devs occupy a subset of this category, the growth in demand for database services across all industries and the public sector should translate to increased employment of SQL devs as well.

Job TitleProjected 2012-2022 Growth
Software Developers, Systems Software - U.S.20%
*This data is sourced from the 2013 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

What is the salary for SQL developers?

SQL developer salary information is not reported separately by the BLS. However, the agency does track wage information for software developers. Here is some data for this job category:

*This data is sourced from the 2013 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

What is the job outlook for DBAs?

According to a Forrester Research report, global businesses spend more than $3.5 trillion on their information technology budgets every year. Even though that figure represents growth in four of the last five years, corporate spending on outsourcing and consulting has slowed as hiring managers focus more of their resources on building a bench of strong internal IT professionals.

Recruiters and hiring managers may take longer to fill an open database job, but they're often more willing to pay for top talent and a long-term commitment. Since few companies have ways to cultivate DBA talent internally, recruiters almost always look outside an organization to fill empty jobs.

Job TitleProjected 2012-2022 Growth
Database Administrators - U.S.15%
*This data is sourced from the 2013 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

What is the salary for DBAs?

The most recent salary information from the BLS indicates that many DBAs earn more than workers in other professions. Compensation levels can be further influenced by total education, experience, and relevant industry certifications.

*This data is sourced from the 2013 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

What's the job outlook for database programmers?

According to the BLS, jobs for computer programmers are expected to grow by 8% from 2012 to 2022, which is the average for all occupations in the US. DB programmers are a more specialized type of computer programmer, which makes these jobs less vulnerable to being shipped offshore to regions with lower prevailing wages.

Job TitleProjected 2012-2022 Growth
Computer Programmers - U.S.8%
*This data is sourced from the 2013 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

What is the salary for database programmers?

Data from the BLS shows that the median annual wage for computer programmers (of which database programmers are a subset) is consistent with the larger group of all computer occupations.

*This data is sourced from the 2013 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

What's the job outlook for database designers?

O*NET data suggests that the largest number of database designers tend to find employment in government positions, designing systems to house several specific types of vital data.

Database designers may find employment in a variety of industries, as in the top five fields listed by the BLS:

  1. Computer systems design and related services
  2. Management of companies and enterprises
  3. Insurance carriers
  4. Colleges, universities and professional schools
  5. Management, scientific and technical consulting agencies

Other information services, including data hosting and processing firms, also represent a large portion of employment for database specialists. Candidates should expect stiff competition for especially lucrative positions, but overall job prospects should be excellent.

Job TitleProjected 2012-2022 Growth
Insurance Claims and Policy Processing Clerks - U.S.8%
Computer Systems Analysts - U.S.24%
Management Analysts - U.S.18%
*This data is sourced from the 2013 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

What's the salary for database designers?

Some database administrators may be responsible for database design, but usually this task is performed by specialized database designers. The BLS includes these designers in the applications software developer category, and these professionals earned a mean annual salary of:

Job TitleBottom 10% Annual WageAnnual Median WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Insurance Claims and Policy Processing Clerks - U.S.254003623054190
Computer Systems Analysts - U.S.5029081190125460
Management Analysts - U.S.4520079870145920
*This data is sourced from the 2013 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

What's the job outlook for database security admins?

According to the BLS, job opportunities for database administrators and information security analysts are expected to increase much faster than the nationwide average for all occupations between 2008 and 2018. Some industries employ a higher number of data security administrators than others.

Job Title
Information Security Analysts - U.S.
*This data is sourced from the 2013 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

What's the salary for database security admins?

Salaries for database security administrator positions can also vary by industry. Typically, job sectors with fewer staffed positions offer higher wages.

*This data is sourced from the 2013 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

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Database Administration Certifications

Beyond university education, one method that database professionals can use to distinguish themselves, is to earn one or more industry certifications. IT certifications are available from a number of vendors and vendor-neutral organizations. Some of the vendors of database management systems who offer certifications for their products include Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM.

The value of IT certification cannot be overstated. One key finding from the "Microsoft Certification Program Satisfaction Study" (published in April 2012) says it best:

"91% of hiring managers consider certification as part of their hiring criteria."

Quite simply, earning a database-related certification is one of the best ways to show a potential employer that you have the skills and knowledge necessary to benefit their organization.

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