The Self-Taught DBA

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You can’t go to college to become a DBA. Sure, you can take some basic classes on database theory and design, and maybe even a couple classes on specific databases, but there is no comprehensive college program you can take to become a DBA.

Of course, there are the one-week classes many training centers offer on SQL Server, but as probably already know, they just cover the basics and don’t really teach you everything you need to know. Besides, these can cost a fortune to attend, and if you have to foot the bill yourself, or if you don’t have a training center in your city, they are probably not a practical option.

So what options does an intelligent individual, such as yourself, have if you want to become a DBA (or to become a master DBA, if you are already a newbie DBA)? If you can’t get the training you really need from classes, where do you turn?

If you are like most DBAs I know, you go the self-taught route. This is not an easy path, but if you are serious about becoming a DBA and making it your career, I think you will find that doing it yourself is the best possible route.

What You Need to Learn

You may not be aware of this if you are new to databases, but there are actually many different sub-specialties of database work. The major ones include:

  • DBA (Database Administrator): Generally, responsible for the day-to-day administration of SQL Server and its databases.
  • Database Modeler/Designer: Models and designs databases.
  • Database (Transact-SQL) Developer: Writes Transact-SQL applications, generally writing scripts and stored procedures.
  • Data Warehouse Specialist: Administers, and perhaps develops, data warehousing-based applications.

The focus of this article is on becoming a DBA. In many ways, the DBA has to be the best-rounded person (as compared to the other sub-specialties) in regards to knowledge of SQL Server. To be a successful DBA, not must you only know how to administer SQL Server, you need to be familiar with all aspects of SQL Server, including database design, development, and data warehousing. No, you don’t have to know everything about each sub-specialty, but the more you know, the better you can perform your job. You really need to become a SQL Server jack-of-all-trades. As you can imagine, this can become a large undertaking.

So Where Do I Begin?

Fortunately, there are many good books on SQL Server, so the best place to start in your journey to becoming a master DBA is to begin building a library of top-notch books, and of course, reading them from cover to cover. In some cases, I find myself rereading some books over and over again, picking up more information each time I read them.

Here are the books I recommend, and in the order I suggest you read them. Of course, you can read them in any order you want, and you can skip subjects of little interest to you.

Books Recommended for all Up and Coming DBAs

Optional Books for Those Who Really Want to Excel as DBAs

To find out more about each of these books, click on the book’s title.

You may have noticed that the above list focuses on SQL Server 2000. That is because it is the current version of SQL Server, and it has the most books available. Even if you will be working with SQL Server 7.0, the books recommended above will still be very useful. There is not that much different between the two versions.

Reading the first set of recommended books will probably take you over 300 hours. This is a big number, but don’t let it scare you away. If you devote just one hour a day to reading these books, you will have them all read within a year.

There are a lot of books available on SQL Server 2000, and I feel that the ones I have recommended above are the best of the lot.

Other Learning Resources

While reading books is one of the best ways to learn much of the material you need to know, it is only way to learn more about SQL Server. Since you are reading this article at a website, you already know that websites on SQL Server often include much content that can help you along your path of becoming a master DBA. While my web links page has many links to SQL Server-related websites, several of my favorites include:


I like these sites because they have a lot of original content that you can’t find anywhere else on the web. And as you can imagine, Microsoft’s website has thousands of web pages devoted solely to SQL Server.

If you live in a larger city, you might be able to join a SQL Server user’s group. Most meet at least once a month, offering programs to help you better master SQL Server. Do a search on www.google.com to find a SQL Server user’s group near you.

You can also learn a lot by dropping by the various SQL Server newsgroups (find list here). And if you run across a question in your self-study that you can’t find an answer to, you can ask them here.

Practice What You Learn

While reading about SQL Server is important, it doesn’t replace getting your hands dirty by using it. That means you will need access to a computer that has SQL Server on it. Fortunately, several of the books I have recommended above come with a 120-day evaluation copy of SQL Server 2000, so you should have no problem getting access to it.

I would suggest following as many of the various examples in the books you read. Besides this, I suggest you try to come up with some practical project you can develop on your own, such creating a personal database to track your books, CDs, DVDs, or whatever you collect, to get even more practice. Or if you have a friend who runs a business, volunteer to develop a SQL Server database for them.

Getting Real World Experience

This is the toughest part, and one I can’t help you with much. Even the best read DBA in the world is not really prepared to face the real world without some experience. But how do you get the experience if someone won’t give you the opportunity?

Most of the DBAs I know didn’t plan to become DBAs, they fell into it because they were working on a related project. For example, perhaps they were developers, NT or Windows 2000 administrators, or maybe they became a Microsoft Access wizard, and then decided to trade up. In other words, they didn’t start out which any formal training or experience either, but when the opportunity arose to use SQL Server in some way, they took the opportunity to gain as much experience as they could, and then leveraged it to become full-time DBAs. That’s what I did.

If you are really interested in becoming a DBA, for whatever reason, the barriers aren’t insurmountable. All it takes is time, patience, and a desire to learn.

Brad M. McGehee is a full-time DBA with a large manufacturing company, and the publisher of http://www.SQL-Server-Performance.Com, a website specializing in SQL Server performance tuning and clustering.

He is an MVP, MCSE+I, MCSD, and MCT (former).

Brad also runs another website called http://www.WorldClassGear.com It provides independent gear reviews for backpackers, trekkers, and adventure travelers.

The Self-Taught DBA
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