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Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Database administration vs. security

Which path offers the best opportunities?

July  1999
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Edgar fields queries about new directions. A sysadmin wonders whether to pursue database administration or security, and a CS grad wants to dump tech support in favor of software development. What are their options? And where do they go from here? (1,700 words)

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Dear Edgar,

First of all, I would like to thank you for your monthly advice in SunWorld. It really helped me when I last changed jobs.

I have been working as a system administrator for four years, and I've been thinking about what I should pursue next. I believe I should focus on advancing my database administration skills. However, my interest is on the security side.

Unfortunately, the market demand for a security guy doesn't seem as strong as that of a DBA. This situation really worries me.

Which way should I go?

At a Crossroads

Dear Crossroads,

As more and more companies move towards e-commerce, databases and security are becoming the key elements to businesses with an online presence.

The demand for DBAs will only increase as more and more content needs to be transmitted, downloaded, captured, stored, and managed. I also believe that security management will go hand-in-hand with being a great DBA, so you are on target in both respects and shouldn't feel that you need to specialize in one or the other at this point in your career. Your experience with systems has given you a depth of knowledge that will provide you with insight into database management and security.

I would focus on learning about databases, while seeking out projects that have a security twist to them. At this early stage, if you can't find jobs in these areas, volunteer.

To be a great DBA you'll need to know how to deal with a multiplicity of data types. In coming years, video, audio, images, text, HTML, and formats yet to be invented will all be stored and managed by sophisticated applications powered by complex database engines -- and individuals such as yourself will have to learn how to manage this eclectic collection of information.

This said, I don't think that being a DBA precludes you from being an expert in security. On the contrary, with major players betting the bank on Internet-based software (such as Oracle, with its release of Oracle8i), there is now a necessity for any DBA that wants to play in the big time to learn everything there is to learn about security. In the near future, we'll start seeing the demand shift from "Wanted: DBA with experience in A, B, and C" to "Wanted: DBA with x number of years of security implementation experience."

Database skill sets will only become hotter as more data is made accessible via browsers over the Web. The demand for security people is also hot, but companies don't want to advertise their needs here, so it isn't as apparent.

At the end of the day, pursue the field that interests you. Regardless of which way you choose to go, you'll have your hands in the other because they're moving closer together.

Good luck and keep growing.


Stepping up to senior Unix sysadmin


My interest in Unix started in 1994. At the time I was in the Navy and really didn't have an opportunity to become a sysadmin until 1996. One year later, I got out of the Navy and began working in the IT field. Since I never had any formal training and had a limited amount of exposure, getting into the civilian workforce and getting a chance to work in a Unix environment was a big plus.

I believe I have a good skill set and a strong desire to learn. I am the lead Unix person on a team of three, and I am about to assume the title of senior Unix admin. In your opinion, what skills should I have or endeavor to have to become a good senior admin?

New Senior Admin

Dear New Senior,

We went to our Pencom CTO, Mike Petosa, to get his take on what you should keep in mind as you move into your new position:

As a senior Unix administrator, most of the important skills you will need are actually not in the realm of technologies, but management.

You will need to provide technical leadership to your group and be aware of everything they are doing. Know the skill level of individual team members so you can help them increase their knowledge, since this will help the entire team. Think about all the things you always wanted to implement but never had the time for, and start putting them into place. For example, if you know of tasks that should be handled by scripts, such as error log monitoring, or better security monitoring, now is the time to set forth your plans and have your team help you accomplish these goals. If it's comprehensive documentation of your systems and scripts that is lacking, make it your mission to complete this project. Your staff will be looking to you for direction, so know what you want your team to accomplish over the next year and start setting some milestones.

You have taken the first step into management, so understand that you are now responsible for the well-being of the SA group. Chances are your immediate supervisor has set certain expectations for what he or she wants you to do, so sit down and talk regularly to make sure you both understand what the other wants and needs. This will give you the proper perspective and set the correct level of expectations between you and your boss, and in turn between you and your group members.

It's also a good idea to either brush up or learn how to do some basic budgeting or formal project planning, and begin to generally broaden the scope of your business knowledge. Your employer clearly has a lot of confidence in your abilities as an administrator, which has resulted in a promotion. This is usually an indication that there could be bigger and better things in store for you if you continue learning and creating more value for them by taking on more responsibilities.

At this point in your career, buckle down and sharpen your SA skills, but also begin to learn more about the infrastructure and applications that are present in your computing environment. Then start to study and learn about the technologies that run that environment. For example, if you have a wide area network implemented with frame relay, you should first understand how your systems connect with that infrastructure, then learn more about frame relay, and wide area network design, and the protocols transported on the network.

Do all this without detracting from your primary responsibilities, of course, and before you know it you will have increased your knowledge of technology and become recognized as one of the resident experts. Both of these are big positives for your career.

I would also add that in your new position, you're going to have to keep your hand in the technical arena and stay on top of today's technologies. Management will take most of your time, but you will also be expected to provide technical expertise. So keep attending those tradeshows and conferences.

Best of luck.



Where am I going?

Dear Edgar,

I have a Master's degree in computer science and am employed by a very reputable software company doing technical support. But I am unsure of what to do next. I do know that this job doesn't reflect what I studied.

I've always had an interest in software development, and I even went to a couple of interviews, but I felt like I was in way over my head due to the intensity of their expectations.

So what I am asking is this: After a year and a half of technical support experience, how should I go about defining my career path?

I am confused and baffled. Please give me your thoughts.


Dear Confusia,

If you are 100 percent sure that software development is the direction you would like to head in next, you have a couple of options at this point. Since all of your professional experience up to this point appears to be in a technical support role, you really aren't qualified to interview for software development positions that require experience. This is why you felt like you were "in over your head" at those interviews.

One option for you would be to apply for entry-level software development positions. The fact that you work for a reputable software company now would certainly help get your foot in the door for an interview with a prospective employer. The downside to this option is that you will probably have to settle for a pay cut or a lateral offer because this is an entry-level position and you already have some professional experience. However, you're at an early stage in your career and a minor setback in salary now can definitely help your career in the long run, not just in terms of earning potential, but also job satisfaction and career development.

Another option would be to try to get some software development experience with your current employer. After all, you do work for a software company. If the company is satisfied with your work, it will likely grant you this wish. There is a lot of turnover in this industry right now, and companies would much rather switch their valued employees into new roles than lose them and have to hire someone new.


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About the author
[Edgar Saadi] Edgar Saadi is senior vice president of Pencom Systems Inc., the largest open systems/advanced systems recruiting firm in the US. In his many years in high technology staffing, Edgar has helped guide the careers of thousands of open systems professionals. Visit the Pencom Career Center and the new 1999 Interactive Salary Guide, featuring the new online trends magazine Tech-It-Out!.

[Pencom Interactive]

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