How I Became a DBA

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The DBA job title is an interesting one. While everyone can understand “programmer” or “software tester” or even “system administrator”, the DBA role is so misunderstood by both muggles (I’m going to hell for using that word) and colleagues alike. In fact, at this point I’m fairly certain that it stands for “Don’t Bother Asking”. Other’s call it “Default Blame Accepter”.

But it’s an unquestionably fun role to be in. Though my professional adventures are fast moving beyond the traditional DBA role, I have to say that if there’s one IT position I’d take on forever it’s database administration. Yes, there are those nights where you want to stab your database with a rusty drop statement, but for the most part the combination of performance guru, disaster recovery god, development consultant, project manager, and storage administrator is just the right combination to keep busybodies like us satisfied.

With that on my mind this morning, I thought it would be fun to share how I got into computers and became a DBA.

The DOS Alchemist

8086 ProcessorWhen I was around 9 or 10 my aunt and godmother Concetta gave me my first computer. It was an 8086 with a monochrome screen, two 5.25″ floppy drives, no hard drive, and 512KB RAM. One floppy held the OS (DOS 2.1 I think) and the other held whatever amazing programs I could run on it (so‚Ķnone really). Actually, I think it may have run WordPerfect. Despite that setback, it allowed me to learn DOS and GW-BASIC, and before long I was coding awesome little programs that did stuff like this:

HELLO steve. HOW MANY TIMES DO YOU WANT TO HEAR CRAZY TRAIN?
2
PRESS ENTER TO LISTEN

beep beep. beep beep, beep beep, beep beep.

Beeps added for emphasis. It used the little main speaker like a boss.

After that aunt Chats (that’s what we call her) came through again and gave me an 8088 computer she wasn’t using. This thing was a beauty. 16 color EGA graphics with resolution so high a pixel was actually smaller than your head. I continued my journey and learning on that, thankful for the awe inspiring high technology that I possessed.

The BBS Alchemist

My EgoWhen I was a teenager I begged and begged my mom, made business plans and poster boards for an advertising campaign, and did whatever else I could until she finally relented and bought me a Packard Bell 486SX25. This puppy had a Sound Blaster, math coprocessor, and could play Wolfenstein 3D like it was nobody’s business. It also came with a 14.4k US Robotics modem which allowed me to explore bulletin boards, play a lot of MUDs, download my first copy ever of Linux (Slackware on 40 or so floppy disks), and continue learning how to program. Looking back, I have to consider how awesome my mom was–those computers were about $2,500 back then and completely baffled my parents, so buying one for a teenager who insists that it is important was a huge leap of faith. It was a fun and weird time, since most kids my age had barely touched a computer beyond playing Oregon Trail on an Apple IIe until grandma died of dysentery.

By the time high school rolled around I was fairly versed in Windows 3.1 for Workgroups, slightly knowledgeable in Linux, and even acquainted with some other stuff. I was also fairly full of myself as a result. Despite my budding McDonald’s career and low C average, I was going to get into computers damnit.

My creative writing kind of sucked back then.

The Oracle Alchemist

So one day I decided to prove myself by trying to break into the high school computer system. I knew from goofing around that you could exit the library search program by pressing CTRL+C and terminating the batch job. From there I was able to search the code and find that the ‘graceful exit’ password was “carat”. From there, I was able to see the teacher’s Novell Netware login screen.

I read through every BBS post and 2600 article on hacking I could find but there was nothing about how to break into Novell Netware. So I decided to write a spoof program. Using QBasic, I would recreate the login screen for teachers and place it in on the library computer at random intervals. When a teacher would enter their username and password, I’d intermittently record their response, throw a strange error, and take them to the actual screen. By the time anyone figured it out, I’d have dozens of passwords ready to use.

But it never came to pass. Oh, it looked good. Nearly ready to implement. But one day while writing some code in my notebook in study hall, a friend of mine saw what I was doing. He was impressed by how I was able to write code using pencil and paper without a computer nearby. Then one day he let me know that he had told his dad about me, and his dad wanted to meet me to talk about a job. After my shift at McDonald’s, I went for an “interview” at Applebees where he treated me to dinner. And soon enough, I joined his company Lambda Consulting (my manager at McDonald’s told me I’d regret it, as I could be manager one day) as an Oracle Developer (with a smattering of DBA work) making $9.50 an hour. For a high schooler I was in heaven, strutting the halls like a fat cat professional. Several years later when his contract ended I moved on to other companies where I got more and more into the DBA field.

And that’s how it happened. tl;dr: I got my first Oracle job by trying to hack my high school computer in QBasic.

Have a story of your own? Share it in the comments!

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17 Responses to “How I Became a DBA”

  1. Wow, the similarities to how I started with Oracle are just eerie. Started on the 8088, determined to write a major game in GWBASIC. Did linux and BBS’s. I never rose to the heights of stealing passwords at school but I did write programs that would make people’s computers send personalized messages to people sitting on the other side of the computer lab during class. Like “hi fred, don’t forget to bring your trumpet to band class next hour!” I was amused by their total bewilderment. Also got the first programming job in high school as a result.

  2. Nice and amazing Article

  3. That was a real beautiful past.

  4. I started with 8086 in college that my dad bought me. I finished ECE but was hired by a software company before I even took the board exams, They hire us based on IQ, the usual outcome of a normal recruitment exam is 0 to 2 passes out of 50 examinees. After that they just give us UNIX and Informix SQL and 4GL Manuals and left us on our own to learn. I did pass the board but never left IT. I became an SCO Unix System Administrator and Informix Online DBA besides still doing 4GL programming. I took a computer loan at the office to buy an i486 and study foxpro so I can do sidelines outside work. Eventually I learned oracle and powerbuilder from other teams. After 10 years I decided to go freelance. Now a days there are free databases I can use for my clients like Oracle XE and SQL Server Express and I already do web programming. As freelance IT Consultant, I am a jack-of-all-trades in IT, doing everything from analysis, db design, programming, server configurations, network setup, sometimes even giving business advice =),

  5. Martin Klier says:

    Wow, how similar things can go. NEC V20 8088 clone from Commodore, overclocking it, WFW 3.11 and Novell 3.12 at parent’s company, P133 for first IT pay, Linux-infected from a friend’s Mandrake CD, sneaker networks for a retail company needing a Linux admin, becoming Oracle DBA by order of a boss, happy with it. :)

  6. baskardba says:

    Fantastic.

  7. Steve Karam says:

    Thanks for the great comments guys!

    Jeremy, that’s definitely eerie. I did similar pranks in high school when I figured out how to send messages (I think it was a NetBIOS tool or something) and mess with people’s programs. That landed me in trouble when my adolescent side decided to change everyone’s QBasic Nibbles game to have a different name (But teacher, I just vertically flipped two of the letters!).

    Martin, getting Linux infected was just FUN. I remember playing with Slackware and thinking, “Man, this looks like a BBS operating system!” How little I knew…but it was great understanding how software installation worked and all the awesome tools that were available at the ‘lower levels’.

    Nick, that’s the dream man. Being a consultant rocks, and the road you took to get there sounds very familiar. But ugh, Informix…that’s one I’m gladd I never had to get into.

  8. Enrique Aviles says:

    Excellent blog post as usual. My first computer was a Commodore 64, then I upgraded to 386 and 486 with a whopping 4MB of RAM and 20 MB hard drive. I remember people raving about the Sound Blaster (I never had one). I also skimmed through 2600 every time I saw it on the magazine rack. I played MUDs, that stuff was addictive, and also had a 14.4K modem. The connection noise was music to my ears. My first job out of college was developing in Pro*C. I’ve been hooked with Oracle ever since.

  9. jgarry says:

    Huh, I have the USR and Slackware disks still hanging around in the basement. The 386 mutated like Vger, until it finally was also relegated to the basement. Along with the other computers that predated PC’s.

    I started relationally with USER-11, first hit upon Oracle when evaluating ERP’s around 1983. I impressed fellow programmers with how quickly I picked it up, having the ability to think in sets. It was not selected, in favor of migrating to VAX/VMS the custom system we had already written, using relational design concepts on the more standard DEC hierarchical files.

    I still work on the bastard grandchild of USER-11, which is a 4GL that happens to work with Oracle, with a suite of ERP and other apps.

    I was doing DBA work all along from my first Jr. Programmer job, and eventually even got it as a title.

  10. I started my Oracle career when i was an MS ASP & MS SQL server developer and studied at the 3th course at the University. I’d installed Oracle Database 8.1.5 as usual: setup.exe > next > next> next> … > finish. Than i was really dissappointed when saw sqlplusw first time (after MS SQL graphical interface :) and when Oracle asked me about SYS password. I didn’t know it because i hadn’t read any manual, screen instructions, etc. So i launched ICQ messeger and found few people who had “oracle” keyword in their profile descriptions. Most people rejected my question about default SYS password: They said they couldn’t tell me their password by security reason. And only one said that it was CHANGE_ON_INSTALL. :-) Later there was more beer drinked with this guy. I learned that i had to read installation guide before installing oracle and so on. And now i’m working at support and installation department and i do SW, HW design specifications, HA & DR configurations, install and support Oracle & Billing solutions for some GSM Cell phone operators in Russia, CIS & EU

  11. No kid ever said “when I grow up, I want to be a DBA”, or so I thought, until now.

  12. SK Lim says:

    I started my journey on a Commodore 64K in the mid-1980s while I was in secondary school (equivalent of high school in the US). I ended up in college with a fairly good understanding of Basic programming from my messing around. I recall similar pranks on fellow students including one poor guy who had mysterious hidden characters keep appearing in his COBOL source code that prevented it from compiling (Ray, if you are reading it, I apologize profusely now).

    I ended by a DBA by necessity, my software development company needing somebody to provide all sorts of DBA support and not having one. I was several years into this role of developer/DBA learning by experimentation and manuals before I attended my first formal Oracle class in 2006.

  13. pavani says:

    Awesome article!!! Kool !!

  14. pavani says:

    Your blogs are very inspiring and encouraging!! You are Alchemist!! No doubt in it !!!

  15. Murali Venkatraman says:

    I started my journey programming in 8085 and z80 micro programming. It was fun writing in Assembly language, C and C++. Later, I got interested in systems programming. I was very fascinated in user interfaces and the data storage. That drove me to start programming in dbase, FoxPro and clipper (never was interested in MS Access for some reason). Later became a serious RAD developer for Power Builder.

    My first tryout with Oracle 6 database administration in a Tata Unisys environment. Later was playing with Oracle 7.3. Time passed by as oracle 8, 8i and 9 came by. I had fun in creating scripts to copy archivelogs from prod to dr and perform auto recovery in Oracle 9. Had fun building RAC environments in 10g/11g, Data guard, streams and Golden Gate. Now more hands-on in Oracle11gR2 (11.2.0.3) with a 12c OEM.

    I have worked on several fortune 500 companies on different industries, software companies, insurance, automotive, health care and finance. Been a DBA and System administrator, architect, PM, Resource Manager, IT Risk assessment and enjoyed doing that. Even though I played multiple roles, my interest in oracle and database administration is still fresh.

    Performance Tuning is one of my most favorite activity. Reviewing the AWR/ADDM reports, auto trace SQL Queries and reading trace files is something I don’t mind doing forever.

    Even though I played with SQL Server for 5+ years, my heart is still with Oracle even today.

    You know, at the end of the day, what matters is, when you provide a solution to your client and seeing their happy face is worth all the time and efforts and makes me feel that I had made a difference for them.

    Thanks
    Murali

  16. Dan Banco says:

    I am not yet a good DBA – though I have spent few years on it. I cry.

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