October 17, 2014

Data Therapy: 10 tips to optimize your Database Administrator

Fast, good, cheap. It’s the unicorn we’re all searching for, but does it really exist? The answer is yes, but only if you know where and how to find it. Sadly, most of us are going about it all wrong.

One of the most frustrating aspects of being a database administrator (DBA) is the sense of urgency born from lack of planning. When we rush to glean data, it is almost always at the expense of data integrity. Running queries and doing the analysis isn’t rocket science; however, there are only eight hours in the work day, and some requests require sign-off from more senior staff which can slow down an urgent request.

Let’s be honest: the role of the DBA is unique. Very few people in an organization understand the technicalities of a DBA’s job or how they do what they do (an issue certainly shared by other nonprofit staff!). What they do know is that the DBA is the go-to person who will produce the valuable data that is essential to the livelihood of organization. But your DBA is only as good as the data they produce.

Laying some groundwork and following a few guidelines will help ensure that you’re getting the best data you need in a way that’s quick and cost-effective. Here are 10 tips for the DBA and those working with DBAs to create a friendlier data environment.

For those working with DBAs

  1. Engage your DBA in the entire process. We all know that fundraisers and key officers spend countless hours of planning and strategizing. During these sessions, how often do you include the individuals that will be responsible for pulling the data and doing the analysis? Including your DBA early and regularly will help them understand your goals so that they can easily generate the most relevant data to drive your mission.
  2. Plan ahead and ask early. Good data = $$$. But a rushed job could produce undesirable results. You may need data quickly, but if your DBA is helping someone else, you may get bumped to the bottom of the to-do list. Remember, your DBA doesn’t just work for you, so plan accordingly and allow enough time for your request to be filled.
  3. Familiarize yourself with your database. DBAs understand you’re all busy. How long does it take to simply pop in and become better acquainted with your database? If you don’t know where to begin, ask your DBA. They will be happy to show you around.
  4. Know what you’re asking for. How many times have you received data and thought, “This isn’t what I was looking for?” Most likely, you didn’t get what you were looking for in part because you didn’t ask the right question.
  5. Update the data! Data output is only as good as the input. Work together as an organization as to help the DBAs keep the info and contacts as current as possible.

For the DBA

  1. Know your database. You can only play the “I don’t know” card so long after you start as a new DBA before you’re expected to know how to pull extensive reports. Familiarize yourself with the code tables and gaps in records that may impede good results.
  2. Ask questions when you receive a request you need clarified. Returning wrong data to stakeholders when you know from the get-go you didn’t have all the pieces of information means you will have to do your work a 2nd or 3rd time. More importantly, it lessens your credibility to pull accurate data and frustrates those who rely on you for information.
  3. Create standard operating procedures. This simple document ensures data is input uniformly and in the right place.
  4. Train your staff. Proper training can reduce your time for fixing bad data and allow people to take initiative to perform simple tasks.
  5. Don’t say NO before you have listened to the whole idea. There are many ways to be creative when pulling certain data sets. You may need to think outside the box.

When it comes to creating a more data-friendly atmosphere, working together is key. By building a rapport and having open communications channels between the DBA team and other departments, you can all work more effectively to set realistic expectations and achievable goals.

These tips are simple, but they work. As long as you and your DBA are willing to do a little extra work on the back end, “fast, good, cheap” can soon go from a storybook fantasy to your organization’s everyday reality.

Alan Gordon
Alan Gordon is the Senior Director of Data, Analytics and Operations at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For over a decade, Alan has implemented core technologies at mission driven organizations to efficiently manage data and produce key analytics for operations, philanthropy and finance strategies. You can follow Alan on Twitter @MoskvichGeek.