Hey DBA Managers, Don’t Be Like the Secret Service!

Continuing from yesterday’s advice to DBAs…  Three Four (hey it’s for managers, brownie points…) lessons for management from the Secret Service “issues”.


Trust But Verify

At the White House “upper management” at Secret Service didn’t realize how bad things were with recent lapses. At least I hope they didn’t and I’m going to assume they didn’t for this point. Though I don’t know what is worse – not knowing or knowing and not fixing… But problems have been slowly building to the point that a handful of layers of security could be missed, a few warning signs missed and a breach occurred to the depth it occurred at a place that is supposed to be pretty secure.. Oversight is either missing or incompetent.

In offices that look like yours DBAs are treating management like substitute teachers sometimes get treated (“Oh no, Mrs. Smith… When Mr. Jones is here he always lets us take naps on our desk and throw spitballs at each other..”). Maybe it’s small things. Maybe it’s big misses. But some manager someplace is being snowed a bit by their team.

So.. I am not saying that to be an effective DBA manager you have to be a DBA yourself. But knowing something about the technology and the demands and needs is big. It makes you a bigger ally of your team, it makes you speak more effectively to your team’s needs when talking with upper management.. It also, though, means that you can trust your team but periodically check on them. I don’t mean in that “You better behave – because mom and I could come back at any minute!” attitude that micromanaging looks like.. I mean, though, that you can detect excuses, lies and trouble as it brews.. And do something about it. Stay currentish with the technology your team works with. Look into projects, have engaging 1:1 meetings with your teams and ask for explanations.

Bonus tip… I was talking about this post with Andy Leonard after writing it up. He mentioned this article, Why Tech-Savvy CEOs Rule the World, and it is a great article. I’m not saying you have to be a DBA to manage DBAs but there is a “tax” on managers who don’t understand the skills and tools their teams work with. I guess we can call it the Substitute Teacher Tax.


Spend on Training

DBA's Need Training Budgets
If this is your DBA team’s training budget? You’re doing it wrong!

At the white house I can only imagine that training budgets have been scrapped. On the clock security teams such as the Secret Service should be doing one of three things while on a team such as the President’s protection teams… They should be training, patrolling or at a duty station completely ready to do what they’ve spent their training doing.. At the tomb of the unknown soldier – the Old Guard spends a ton of time training, rehearsing, getting mentally and physically ready. You may not see them out on large shifts – but they are in their quarters training like you wouldn’t believe. As Brian Kelley mentioned to me in an e-mail thread about my post last week – Air Force flight line security does the same thing. They are always training, always ready.

In offices that look like yours this year, several DBAs have been told “I’m sorry.. there just isn’t a budget” when it comes to training. I get that.. Good training is expensive. Conferences are expensive.

But… There is an opportunity cost of not going to training. There is a cost to not encouraging active learning in your teams. For one thing – you’ll lose your best staff – they don’t want to get soft and lazy – they want to be challenged and growing. They’ll leave when they find a fit.. For another thing? The cost of serious failures is high. The cost of  bad decisions today can be very expensive for a long time to come. If you commit to train your teams up. If you send them to conferences, encourage User Group participation, if you invest in their learning? The results can be priceless.. You’ll have the “A-Team” at your company. They will have their roles down better, they’ll hopefully be more proactive and save disaster spends by the skills they are learning and growing.

Set Expectations

At the white house the Secret Service has been getting a slightly bad rap about partying, drinking, having fun while on away trips – and worse… Did this cause the recent issues? No not directly. But it is a sign of there possibly being a culture of low expectations. Once a culture of low expectations has been set – you end up getting low results in all areas.

In offices that look like yours DBA teams are sometimes getting away with bad attitudes. Sometimes they are missing alerts or not even setting them up. They aren’t doing regular checks of their environments. They aren’t seeking outside advice or review because they are afraid of the results.. And in some of those offices? Those teams are getting away with it… Because low expectations have been set. I’m not saying you have to micromanage – that can be worse sometimes!

So… I am saying raise the bar. Demand excellence. Coach towards excellence. Demonstrate excellence. Raise the bar high – make sure your staff is trained to meet the bar, support them and help bring them up to that bar and then trust them to meet it – while verifying their results.  When you send them to that conference? Ask them to give a report of what they learned – so you make sure it wasn’t all party for them. When there is a problem? Talk about it. Ask for mea culpa’s if they were at fault – and coach them in making the situation right. Bring in an outside review to do a quick health check or once over in your environment – to prove you are good and teach the team where there is room for improvement. Not to be a bully.. But to show a commitment to excellence from the top down.


Support and Trust Your Team

At the white house a bunch of agents swore they heard gunshots one night.. Their command that night? Told them to stand down and get back to business.

In offices that look like yours managers and project managers are having “go/no-go” meetings that some DBAs secretly call “g0/go” meetings.. Because they know the game by now.. They know if they raise serious issues, they’ll be ignored. They know it’s “DELIVERY DATE!!!!!” at the expense of quality sometimes.. They raise issues and talk about real root problems and they are ignored. They talk about the need to make an upgrade and point to a lot of data but the time isn’t given to review.

You need to trust the team you’ve built. You need to back them up and listen to them. If they say “I know I heard gunshots. It was clear” then turn the lights on and do a thorough check. If they tell you “this can’t go live because we need 2 more days to get this done and here is what will happen if we don’t” – when what they said actually happens – that beats them up inside. You’ve made an enemy and they are going to start shutting down soon. You are paying them good money to make the best choice. Give them some latitude, trust their instincts (keeping all the other points – like verification – in mind) and partner with them and cheer-lead their position up the chain of command. You may find yourself eventually being thanked for the time you stopped that train from derailing any further.. (or you may not.. and then maybe your chain of command needs to learn from the Secret Service oopses, too).


 Image courtesy TheOtherMattM on Flickr

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