IT Management

Retaining Expertise and Transferring Knowledge

No longer are DBAs expected to develop expertise in just a single technology. They’re increasingly considered data experts whose depth of knowledge goes beyond the database to include the applications that access the data. This has been a reality in most progressive DBA organizations for three or four years now. Many senior-level DBAs who cut their teeth in the mainframe world have found themselves much more involved with multiple layers of their production environments, including higher-level activities such as establishing data architectures.

They also have daily administration responsibilities, such as managing database objects, and often find themselves involved with tasks related to both application performance and development. This mixture, while indicative of the important part played by senior DBAs, also reveals the extent to which they’re relied upon to perform tasks that don’t always represent tangible business value, and often represent an area that causes frustration for DBAs and managers alike. Adding a heterogeneous environment to the mix is a challenge that can’t readily be accomplished without prioritization on the part of the business as a whole.

DBA managers, and those at the levels above them, wrestle with the need to derive value from their senior DBAs while ensuring that Service-Level Agreements (SLAs) are met. Because of the requirement to support both internal and external audiences, managers are faced with a difficult choice. They must meet the needs of multiple constituencies with a near-zero downtime allowance while also adding value to the business—a goal complicated by the fact that their most direct route for doing so is through the capabilities of their senior staff members.

Because DBA staffs aren’t growing at the same rate as the volume of data they’re expected to manage, DBA managers concerned with retaining top performers have to find ways to shield them from getting bogged down in daily database administration tasks. This means enabling senior staff to remain focused on tasks that deliver value to the bottom line, and providing them with the tools they need to quickly discover the root cause of an issue, diagnose and resolve it, and get back to their job. Likewise, less experienced staff need to be empowered with the tools to accomplish as many daily issue resolutions as possible without requiring senior-level intervention. While a worthy goal, the time necessary for this scenario to become a reality may be limited, making it difficult for many organizations to develop practices that clearly delineate where a less-experienced DBA’s responsibilities end and where a senior database expert’s responsibilities begin.

Looking Ahead

Adopting an entirely new platform to run business-critical databases and applications is a daunting task. While the long-term business and technical merits of a switch to Linux running on big iron are easily understood, the initial implementation hurdles are often best overcome with the help of business partners who can help navigate the landscape. DBAs stand to benefit from this partnership, too, as they’re given the opportunity to develop and hone their skills with new technology, while delivering tangible value to the business.

IBM’s zSeries IT co-op program and the IBM Academic Initiative for System z are both aimed at helping foster a new generation of mainframe professionals. Through this initiative, IBM is working with universities to provide mainframe education and practical experience worldwide to address the shortage of mainframe professionals. They also have a “Master the Mainframe” contest that gives university students the chance to show their stuff.

There’s only so much IBM can do, however. Many mainframe professionals learned through the guidance of a senior IT professional or mentor during their first job. In an era of tight budgets for IT staff, these relationships may be more difficult to foster; they’re also not always treasured among young IT professionals.

In his article, “The Coming IT Crunch,” in last year’s August/September edition of z/Journal, John William Toigo outlined the current IT skills landscape and what we can expect if organizations fail to recognize that “people are the strategic asset.” While deploying z/Linux makes sense from a fiscal standpoint, reducing technology, ongoing maintenance, and recovery costs, it’s critical that IT shops realize it’s their skilled mainframe team members who will continue to deliver the real value.

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