How to Identify Important Characteristics for a DBA Job Candidate

In the last year or so, there have been a lot of articles, blog entries,and forum posts on the kinds of technical questions hiring managers can ask a prospective DBA candidate in order to determine their technical proficiency. While technical skills are important for a DBA, I think a lot of hiring managers place too much emphasis on hard technical skills, and don’t place enough emphasis on the characteristics (personality traits) that DBAs need to have in order to be successful. In the rest of this blog entry, I want to suggest some characteristics that I think all DBAs should have.

Below, I have listed each characteristic, a brief explanation of it, and three questions you might consider asking that can help you tell if if a job candidate has that characteristic or not. While some of these questions include technical aspects about being a DBA, what you are wanting to determine is how well the job candidate fits a particular characteristic, not to judge the technical part of their response. There are no wrong or right answers below. What you are looking for is to see if the job candidate has the characteristics that you think make for a good DBA, and by asking these kinds of questions, you will be one step closer in determining if a particular candidate is best for your organization.

Enjoys Technology: If a DBA doesn’t enjoy technology, what’s the point of being a DBA.

  • What’s your favorite part of your job as a DBA?
  • Can you give me an example of how you implemented a new technology in your last job?
  • How many computers do you have at home, and what do you use them for?

Enjoys Challenges: A DBA’s life is once challenge after another. If a job candidate doesn’t like challenges, then he shouldn’t be a DBA.

  • What’s the biggest challenge you have had as a DBA, and how did you handle it?
  • What’s the biggest challenge a DBA faces on a daily basis?
  • When faced with a difficult problem, how do you normally go about solving it?

Good with Details: A DBA’s job is all about small details, and doing them correctly.

  • When you create a new SQL Server Agent job, what steps do you follow?
  • How do you generally go about verifying that a SQL Server is running properly?
  • Tell me about how you document the processes and procedures you create?

Embraces Change: A DBA’s work is always changing, and you want someone who can keep up with fast-paced change.

  • If you were told that all of the SQL Server instances in the company had to be upgraded to SQL Server 2008 within the next month, how would you approach this project?
  • If you had been assigned to one project for a while, then were suddenly pulled off taht project for another project, how would you deal with this change?
  • Do you like your work to be fast-paced, or slower, and more leisure-like?

Enjoys Learning: Database technology is constantly changing, and a successful DBA must keep current.

  • How do you keep up with SQL Server technology?
  • What’s your favorite way of learning: classes, seminars, conferences, books, the Internet?
  • What was the last new thing you learned about SQL Server that has made your work a little easier?

Accepts Responsibility: DBAs take on a lot of responsibility, whether they realize it or not.

  • When was the last time you made a critical mistake, and how did you go about correcting it?
  • If you saw that someone in the organization was making poor choices that could damage the integrity of data stored in a database, what would you do?
  • If you accidently deleted a table on a production database, what would you do?

Maintains Professionalism: I define professionalism as respect for others in an organization, which is important, as DBAs often work with a lot of different people.

  • If you are asked to participate in a project, but don’t have the time to participate, what do you do?
  • If you find that a co-worker is having a difficult time with a project, what do you do?
  • If you have trouble getting along with a co-worker, how do you deal with that problem?

Trustworthy: DBAs are privy to many company secrets, and you want to ensure that they are capable of keeping them.

  • Do you think it is OK for DBAs, or anyone with the proper security, to peruse data in databases just to see what is there?
  • If you discovered that someone was accessing data in a database without authorization, what would you do?
  • If you discovered that the organization you are working for is involved in illegal activity, what would you do?

Dependable: If you can’t depend on someone, who wants them around?

  • If you promise someone that you will perform a task for them be a particular deadline, and for some unforeseen situation you can’t complete the task on time, what would you do?
  • If it’s almost time to go home and you just them realize that a database backup has been failing for the past week, what would you do?
  • If you are going to be late for a meeting, or for work, what do you generally do?

Can Work as Part of a Team: DBAs are almost always part of a larger team, and need to know how to work well with others to accomplish common goals.

  • Do you prefer to work alone, or with a team of co-workers?
  • If you are a member of a team, and others in the team aren’t pulling their own weight, what would you do?
  • As part of a team, you are asked to perform a task that you don’t want to perform, what would you do?

Can Communicate Effectively: DBAs have to communicate with many different people to successfully execute their job.

  • Have you ever presented in front of a large audience?
  • Have you ever had any of your writings published?
  • If you had to convince a committee that you need to purchase a new, very expensive server, how would you go about making that presentation?

Listens Well: Listening is just as important as communicating.

  • An end-user calls you on the phone telling you that the database is down? What do you do next?
  • An end-user calls or e-mails you over and over about the same problem, which you have fixed. How do you resolve this discrepancy between what you know is true, and the user who doesn’t believe you?
  • When someone you are talking to doesn’t seem to understand your explanation of some issue, how do you deal with it?

Realistic: DBAs need to be realistic about what they can and cannot do given the resources they have available to them.

  • If a SQL Server is having performance issues, but you are told there is no budget to get a larger server or to purchase performance tuning software, how would you approach resolving the performance issue?
  • If you were told that your budget was to be cut by 20% the upcoming fiscal year, how would you deal with this?
  • If you have a great idea for improving a process that would make a significant improvement in productivity, and then were told that your idea was no good, and that we have always done it this way, what would you do?

Patient: Many DBA tasks take a long time, or it takes time for decisions to be implemented. DBAs must understand that patience is an important virtue.

  • When installing a new Service Pack on a SQL Server instance, what do you generally do with that time between starting and finishing the process?
  • The new server you just ordered has been delayed by 6 weeks from the vendor, how do you deal with that?
  • A co-worker asks you a long and difficult question that will require a long and complex answer. How do you deal with that?

Enthusiastic: You want a new DBA to land on his feet running when he starts his new job, and being enthusiastic about the job, and about being a DBA, is a good sign of this.

  • Do you participate in the SQL Server community? How?
  • What is the best thing about being a DBA?
  • If you could make any change in the last organization you worked for, what would that be, and how would you go about making that change?

This is a long list of characteristics and questions, and if you asked them all, your interview might take hours. If you are a hiring manager, I suggest to pick out those characteristics above that are most important to you, and then ask the job candidate several questions about them. In some cases, you will know right away if a candidate meets the characteristic, and other times, you may have to follow up to be sure. In any event, by asking these kinds of questions, in addition to technical questions, you will end up with better information in which to select the best candidate for the job.