Beyond the Buzzwords - The 60-minute DBA Interview By Richard Ouimet It's 4:00 pm on a Friday afternoon and your passing thoughts of the great weekend ahead are interrupted by the alerts generated by your PDA, electronic calendar, and office phone. You quickly remember that you have to interview a candidate applying for the SQL Server DBA position open on your staff. You also are reminded how in years gone by, you have not been so connected to the world with so many "electronic leashes." However, you know that the "technology armory" at your disposal in the data center next to your office would not come close to meeting your company's 21st century business needs without the advances in the technology over the last 10 years. You rush down to the security desk to greet an eager young man, five years out of undergraduate school, ready to accept the challenges of your hectic DBA environment. As the technical lead/project manager/senior DBA/, you have 60 minutes to complete an interview. You escort the experienced DBA back into the conference room and start the interview. Fortunately, you have taken a few notes as reminders prior to the interview to optimize the interview time, and to avoid mundane questions like, "Tell me a little about yourself," "Where do you want to be in five years?" and "What was your college GPA?" You glance down at your notes, and look up and notice that the candidate has "dressed for success" and seems ready to answer any question you fire at him. Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving. As you look at your notes, you scan through the "top 10" of interview categories (in no particular order) designed to screen out unqualified DBA candidates. Planning Analysis Design Development Implementation Operations Customer Support Hardware/Software Education People The category list looks strangely like a technology project plan, which is exactly the point of the categories. The DBA will be doing project work, and you need to assess his skill and experience levels in each category. You have only 5 minutes in each category to complete your section of the interview, leaving 10 minutes to wrap up and answer questions from the candidate. You have dutifully jotted down a few questions and notes next to each category so that you can determine if this candidate is truly a master SQL Server DBA as his rÃƒÂ©sumÃƒÂ© states. Planning How have you applied the planning skills you learned in college to enhance the quality of your work? What project planning is required of a "Master DBA," and support your answer with real world examples? What planning did you do to prepare for this interview, and what research did you do about our company? Analysis If you spent 30 days on a project from beginning to end, what percentage of the time would be spent on analysis? Specifically, what tasks would you personally complete during that time? Give some examples of past projects. Design Describe one example of your design contributions in both logical and physical database design. If you could do it over again, what would you change? Development Do you consider yourself a database developer, database operator, database manager, or all of the above? If you consider yourself a database developer, what database development role have you fulfilled on project teams? What technology and tools did you use to assist in the process, and why? Implementation What steps in a past project plan do you consider as "database implementation." What was your role? When did development stop and implementation start? How did you know implementation was successful? Operations What does "database operations" mean to you, and what steps have you taken to improve the efficiency of database operations at a past employer? How do you feel about "on call" and "DBA burnout?" Customer Support Who is the "real" customer for your services as a Senior DBA? What have you done in the past to improve customer service and support? Why did you take this action? Hardware/Software Describe in "lay terms" the technical SQL Server process from the time a customer initiates a database query to the time the customer receives a reply from the database. Now describe the same process in technical terms. What hardware configuration is best for a "cluster" and why? How do you know you have enough memory on the database server to meet customer needs? Education Do you plan on pursuing additional education or certifications? Did you have a good experience as an undergraduate? What classes interested you the most? The least? People Skills Describe a situation where you (as a DBA) were confronted by an angry customer. How did you react to the situation? Do you consider yourself a good listener and communicator? If so, tell me why, and give some examples from your experience. It's now 4:50 pm, and it's time to wrap up the interview. But first it's time for the candidate to get a chance to ask you questions. A red flag should pop up if the candidate does not have any questions at all. One of two things has happened if this occurs. Either the candidate is scared to death and exhausted after answering your questions and wants out of the building, or the candidate came unprepared. High quality candidates will ALWAYS have questions for you. If all that the candidate wants to know about is benefits and salary, then you should be prepared to keep looking. However, if the candidate asks strategic and thoughtful questions about your company and the environment there, then pay heed. You may have a winning candidate. Listen, listen, and listen some more through the whole process. Let the candidate talk and share experiences. It will be easier on both of you. It's now 4:58 pm and time to go. You thank the candidate for coming and escort him to the security desk after reassuring him that you will get back to him within one to two business days. However, if the candidate is clearly not a match, tell him right there at the end of the interview. There is no use keeping him hanging on false hopes. You are the decision maker and have to make tough, on-the-spot decisions. However, do not make commitments to a great candidate until HR has completed their work such as background and reference checks. Use all this information to make your decision. Be professional, polite, and timely. After completing this 60 minute process, you should be ready for that long weekend. This particular candidate seemed promising. However, the other top two candidates to be interviewed on Monday and Tuesday also have great credentials. The poor economic climate has left many qualified DBAs out of work, and it is definitely a "buyer's market." You smile as you jump into your SUV that you have pre-packed with your camping and fishing gear so you could get a jump-start on the weekend. You smile as you know that your interview preparation has paid off, and that by the end of next week you will have identified a "Master DBA" to join your team. Life is good. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Richard Ouimet has over 10 years of Microsoft SQL Server experience as a developer, master DBA, project/team manager, and technology consultant. Richard has experienced SQL Server since its inception on Sybase up through the current Microsoft SQL Server release in a number of different industries including manufacturing, banking, finance, customer (call center) support, engineering, and medical research. Feel free to email Richard at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments or feedback.