11 Lessons Learned for being an Effective Database Admin

Gang. I’ve learned a ton working as a database admin.

Obviously, there’s the technical stuff I never thought I’d ever know. Like what it takes to build a Salesforce flow, the difference between coding languages (ish), and even how an API works.

Not that I could tell you what API actually stands for.

But working in tech, especially as someone who didn’t see myself here originally, I’m most fascinated – and grateful – for the non technical lessons. The stuff that keeps the job interesting, rewarding, and makes me feel like there’s no end in sight to the learning.

Here are some of those big takeaways. I hope you can relate to something here – whether you’re currently an admin or aspiring to become one.

Description: Porcelain pomeranian and turtle figurines
My WFH desk mates while I’m adminning it up.

1. There isn’t enough time to do it all. 

If you locked me in a room for an hour, I could maybe spec out ~70 tasks for our database. Integrations, cleanup projects, automations, and other fun things.

But when you’re a small shop, there just isn’t enough time for all that cool, beneficial stuff. Accepting that reality has taught me how to thoughtfully prioritize and delegate to my team.

2. Data hygiene needs to be a priority, or it won’t happen.

We all agree that data quality is important! Yet when something urgent crops up (basically all the time), it’s often the first thing to fall to the bottom of the list. 

*she says as she stares at her orphaned accounts report*

Your director may not be hounding you to clean up those duplicates or implement that naming convention. But to build a system that is useful and usable, this needs to consistently rank high on our priority list.

3. The tasks with the biggest impact don’t always resonate with users.

Our coordinator successfully updated ~400K addresses with the two-letter US state code. I was delighted for our data and super proud of their accomplishment!

And I’m sure our staff appreciates it. But it’s usually the peeps who wrestle with data regularly that truly recognize (and celebrate) the impact of these efforts. So typically, people like us.

Database administration isn’t always a visible or glamorous gig. And that’s okay! I doubt any of us got into this work for the fame.

4. The biggest obstacle to doing this job well is…people.

If you’re reading this because you’re an aspiring database admin, I’ve got comforting news! Don’t worry about trying to grasp all the tech.

The toughest part is figuring out how to support the people you work with.

I’ve worked with some great teams. But we’re all human! And the times when I’m stuck or frustrated, it’s often because I’m trying to counter very human barriers to embracing our database – like spreadsheet dependencies, people not checking the documentation, and so forth.

5. The key to success in this job is… also people.

Tech introverts get a bit of a bad rep! The idea that we don’t like to be social, and so choose a career where we spend our days behind a computer, is….okay, a bit of a dream, I confess!🤦🏻‍♀️

But to succeed in this role, I can’t hide behind a desk. I need to understand how our teams do/don’t use our system – which means building relationships with staff and interacting on a regular basis.

If that made you grimace at all, remember this! Staff who want to use a system put good data into it, get good data out of it, and move the work forward.  It’s a great feeling to facilitate that synergy.

6. You have to pick your tech battles.

When the day-to-day of your work is so black & white, it can be jarring when you suddenly find yourself in a situation or conversation with lots of grey area.

For example: needing to defend a migration, getting deadlocked on a project, or disagreeing with leadership on moving in a certain direction

I may be the subject matter expert for our database, but I’m not always the decision-maker. Sometimes all I can do is give my informed opinion, see how it’s received, and support the final outcome as best I can. 

That’s a hard pill for some people to swallow. But once you decide to let that be enough, it really does free your mind.

7. You’ve got to be a bit of a detective.

I say this in two respects. First is working with end-users. When staff take a prescriptive approach to an issue (like requesting to add a multi-picklist field), I know that I need to dig deeper to understand what they hope to achieve and the best solution for it.

Otherwise, we’d have multi-picklist fields everywhere.

The second is working across your org. I’m always listening for initiatives or challenges that could be addressed by our system. Whisperings can lead to conversations, which can lead to a useful, nearly-missed project opportunity.

Plus, you’d be amazed at what staff would never think to ask you for.

p.s. I recently spoke with prospect researcher Joan Ogwumike on her blog about how admins & fundraisers can best work together. You can check that out here!

8. Believe that everyone’s got a draw.

To all the non-admins out there who just love getting lost in reports & spreadsheets…..you are my everything.

But most people in our orgs aren’t this way – which is okay! So what else have we got to entice them?

For visual peeps, that can mean a stunning dashboard. For my convenience-loving friends, maybe it’s the ability to subscribe to a weekly email report. Or the automation of a really mundane task. At the end of the day, it pays to figure this out because this gets people enthused about the database. And isn’t that the point of all this?

9. Document as you go. Or you risk putting your org in a bad spot.

No, really. This isn’t just me being your database mom, nagging you about outdated word docs. 

Data has become an increasingly sensitive subject in recent years (cough GDPR). It’s digital currency that our constituents trust us to handle. So as your org’s tech stack grows / more systems talk to each other, you need a clear reference for how all those moving pieces work.

That’s why I document every new data project. I summarize the real life process it’s designed to support, and outline the technical components (using this nifty framework.). I’ve also started the mega task of documenting our Salesforce instance. More on that when I finish in 10,000 years.

10. Your physical comfort matters.

Dee (that’s me) on a laptop is very different than Dee with a monitor, mouse and pillow behind her chair. Not only can I do the job faster, but I’m far more comfortable working this way.

It’s hard to be your best admin self if you’re feeling stiff, tense or otherwise in pain for most of the day. Don’t be afraid to ask your org to invest in something that would help you perform your job more comfortably. And if they won’t bite, do what you can to help yourself.

Even just one small thing (for me, it’s computer glasses) can go a long way. 

11. Aim to be effective and impactful.

In the beginning, I focused mainly on my own effectiveness. I focused on how I could do everything I needed, in the fastest way, that would be most helpful to my end users.

But when I think about my org’s mission, the lens shifts. It makes me ask the questions that are larger than my role: like what data should we track to move our work forward? How can we measure the impact of new offerings? How do we make data more accessible to our teams?

For those of us removed from the front lines, this is the closest we’ll get to the mission. And speaking personally, these questions often lead to the projects that are most exciting.

To wrap up…

There’s lots of room to grow technically in this line of work. But it’s also super cool that success doesn’t just boil down to technical knowledge!

It’s a mix of tech, process, and people that have really helped me as an admin. And I’m sure there’s more lessons to come.

Share your thoughts!