What Do You Do? A DBA Fairy Tale

How do you describe what you do?  I have a couple of good answers for this, depending on my audience.  Two of the best answers I’ve heard are the recently posted description from John Sansom, (blog |twitter) which inspired this post, and the three-layer answer from Thomas LaRock (blog | twitter). However, I feel like those kind of expect at least a passing familiarity with IT. I was once asked to describe what I do by a person with almost no familiarity with IT.  The most technologically advanced thing I think she ever used was a CD player, or maybe an ATM machine…? So how do I explain what I do?

I’m going to tell you a story… (Oh, hell – here he goes…)

Once upon a time, any time, any place, there was a Business.  This Business provided a good and helpful service to it’s community. Like all businesses, this one kept records of all it’s transactions with the members of that community. Both for legal reasons, and so that it could reference previous transactions when helping someone with their next transaction.

As time went on, the number of records grew and grew until it became difficult to manage the amount of information The Business had to maintain. The Workers at The Business began to spend more and more time just hunting down records rather than helping the people of their community, and the community was sad.

“We need a better way.”, said The Leader of The Business, and since he was a Good Leader, he went out into the world seeking help, and returned with “The Machine”.  The Machine was a large and complex machine, but it was capable of managing the many and various records that The Business required.  Records were fed into The Machine, and The Machine stored them according to the instructions given to it by a special team of people called The Developers, who’s job it was to teach the machine how to store and manage the records. By use of a special language called “SQL”, The Workers could ask The Machine for a particular record or set of records, and The Machine would return those records within a fraction of the time it took The Workers to look up those records by hand. The Business returned to the duty of serving it’s community and the community was happy again.

As more time passed, the number of records grew and grew.  The Business, which had gained a reputation as a Very Good and Helpful Business, had begun serving other communities outside it’s own. Those communities were happy, but The Machine began to grow sad and tired. The Machine began to slow down under the weight of all the records it had to maintain. While The Machine was still somewhat faster than The Workers at looking up and storing records, The Workers were beginning to wait longer and longer for the information they needed to serve the community.

The Leader first turned to The Developers to see if they had any new instructions for the machine. The Developers were Good and Helpful Developers, but their knowledge of the inner workings of The Machine was limited. They knew how to talk to The Machine, but some of the responses from The Machine were cryptic or just plain nonsense to them. The Machine became slower and slower. The Developers tried everything they knew, but even a brilliant Developer has a limit. And the Developers were sad.

The Workers began to complain. The community began to complain. The Developers complained. The Leader knew not what to do. The Workers blamed the Developers. The Developers blamed The Leader.  The Leader, in desperation, blamed The Machine. “Maybe I need a bigger Machine? A faster Machine?” So The Leader began talking to other Leaders about their machines, but it turned out that even the larger, and much more expensive machines, fared no better. And The Leader was sad.

One day, The Leader was having lunch with another Leader, who mentioned something very interesting. “I know of a person”, said the Other Leader, “who is in the business of making Machines run better. You should talk to this person.”  Business cards were exchanged, and The Leader called this Person.

“Hello?”, said the mysterious voice on the other end of the phone.

“Hello.  My name is The Leader.  I have a Machine that is getting very tired and sad. Another Leader I spoke with said that you may be able to help me.  Would you come and talk with my Machine?”

“I would be happy to talk to your Machine. But before I do that, tell me about your Business, your Workers, your Developers, and your Community.”

The Person listened with a patient ear while The Leader spoke about the Workers, the Developers, the Community, the Business, and how they all related to each other. The Leader also waxed melancholy about the recent performance of The Machine, and how it made everyone sad. “That is OK.”, said the mysterious person. “You have described a picture of a situation I have seen many times before. Now, tell me what you would like to see. What should this picture look like?”  The Leader went on to describe a much different picture.  A very efficient and happy picture. “OK.”, Said the Person.  “I will come and talk with your Machine, but I will also talk with your Workers, your Developers, and with you…”

So the Person came to The Business and had many long, thoughtful and meaningful conversations. The Person was not a Developer, but they understood The Machine very well, and knew it’s inner workings. He taught The Developers about different and more efficient instructions to give to The Machine. He taught The Workers new and better ways to query The Machine. He even gave some of The Workers special knowledge about how to get detailed information from The Machine. These Workers became a special team, called, “The Reporters”.

Finally, the Person had a long and meaningful conversation with The Machine itself. He gave The Machine special instructions about maintaining and storing its information in new and more efficient ways. After all the conversations were done, and everything was understood a little better by everyone, The Business was back up to top speed, and everyone was happy again.

“Please feel free to call me if you ever need me again.”, said the Person.

“I will.”, said the Very Happy Leader, “But what should I call you?”

The Person smiled, and said simply, “I am The DBA.”  Then the DBA left, promising to return if there was ever any need.

Thanks for reading.

-David.

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