What Does a Database Administrator Do?

The job of the database administrator (DBA) has been front and center in the corporate world for decades.

Ever since the first and most primitive databases appeared in computer mainframe systems, database administrators have handled the tough job of fully implementing database designs in business operations.

Database administrators are often “the boss” when it comes to getting key data into databases and managing it while it’s there. Look at database administrator job ads and you’ll still see words like “monitor, back up, and manage” data, along with items like “performance tuning” and “database support.” Database administrators may be deeply involved in troubleshooting, ticket maintenance, etc., while also handling routine maintenance, special projects or even migrations. Since they wear these different hats, database administrators are often asked to be on call to handle specific database problems. (Here are a few handy tips for DBAs: 6 Efficiency Tips for Database Admins.)

Software and Protocols

Database administrators have to be competent with specific protocols used for handling retrievals or requests from a database.

In the past, the most common of these was SQL, or “Structured Query Language.” SQL served as the major vehicle for handling data requests. Its set of commands and syntax facilitated grabbing key business information out of the database and making it useful in an enterprise environment.

Nowadays, that landscape has changed somewhat. The emergence of PostgreSQL and other protocols has diversified the database management world.

In navigating this more sophisticated environment, database administrators may use secondary software such as Oracle and Teradata resources.

“Database administrators use a specialized software to store and manage the data,” says Brett Helling, owner of tech startup Ridester. “This role may include capacity building and planning, installation, configuration and designing the database. This also includes troubleshooting the problems that occur during installation or after maintenance of the systems is required. Performance monitoring of the systems is thoroughly checked, as well as backup of the systems.”

Migration from Traditional Models to New Models

One of the big responsibilities of a database administrator is to follow the evolution of the database through its successive stages.

There’s probably no better example than the sea change from traditional SQL databases to a new “NoSQL” system.

The NoSQL database is replacing the traditional relational database in many business operations. NoSQL offers the ability to create an application without defining a schema, more versatile data structure features, easier scaling, and in many cases, open source development avenues. PostgreSQL itself is also an open source tool, and in evaluating any database administrator job, it’s worthwhile asking how a company weighs both open source and proprietary license products in its overall IT strategy.

People and Processes

Ideally, database administrators should also have people skills. As with other kinds of job roles, they will need to work through chains of command, establish buy-in and be able to pass the baton when warranted. That’s why many companies also specify “verbal and written communication skills” in job ads, and why the interview process so often includes a “human touch” even in this digital age.

“Some database administrators are … in charge of training various employees on the proper and effective use of the database,” says Sean Si, CEO and founder of SEO Hacker and a data analysis and urgency junkie who spends his time inspiring young entrepreneurs through talks and seminars.

Businesses are built of people and processes – administrators play a crucial role. They’re “managers” of a kind – and that means navigating people-centric processes, even when they are so centered on tech (in this case, the database as monolith).

Every Day, Every Week, Every Year

Essentially, database administrators have to be there in case there’s a problem with the database, a need to start a new initiative or pilot project, or really any major business change in data management. Take a look at job ads for database administrators, and you’ll see requests for on-call rotations, items involving team leadership, and other “tells” that this is often a time intensive role. In some senses, database administrators never have a “day off,” because even when they are not in, the database itself is “in.” (Here's what not to do as a DBA: 5 DBA Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs.)

Raw and Unfiltered Data

Another of the main responsibilities of the database administrators has to do with the desired state of data assets.

Anyone who has read up on data governance or master data management is familiar with the challenges of handling raw data.

Raw or unstructured data is data that is not inherently presented in “neat little rows” – it may be resident in a relational database, but it’s not immediately retrievable by SQL. Often, the state of each individual record differs, with partial fields, stop and start data streams, inscrutable acronyms, non-matching tags and other headaches.

The database administrator can be a major point person in the Herculean effort to conform, constrain and delimit data, for the purposes of better enterprise use.

“A database administrator – or DBA – builds, maintains, and optimizes the processing of the information contained in the data layer,” says Randy Carlton, senior product engineer at LogoMix. “Historically, a DBA would maintain the data layer in a traditional relational database like Oracle and MySQL. Today, the role of DBA has grown with the revolution of the cloud and big data, and modern DBAs have to be able to leverage cloud databases, on-premises databases, and other data stores ranging from key-value stores to search engines and everything in-between.”

Next time you think about what a database administrator does, keep in mind all of the above philosophies and standards, and realize that it’s really quite a big job. These professionals have always sat on the helm of the database as a critical enterprise tool, and whether it’s linked to a data warehouse, served by middleware, virtualized, containerized or outsourced to collocation, companies still need someone to manage the DB – that’s the DBA.