Corporate culture is a BIG deal when it comes to job satisfaction, and it is interesting to see how different sectors can be. Today we talk with Doug Purnell, DBA at Elon College in North Carolina and Jamie Wick, DBA at William and Mary in Virginia about their experiences working in the university system.
Check it out compañeros, and have fun on the SQL trail.
Transcription: Working at a University
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Children: SQL Data Partners.[music]
Carlos: Compañeros, I’m super-excited to have Doug Purnell and Jamie Wick on the show today. We are talking about being a DBA at a college campus, and going to look at a little bit of the human resources or the professional development perspective of that.I have known both of them personally. They’re great folks. Doug is the DBA for Elon University. He’s been there for four years in Elon, North Carolina. Elon is near and dear to my heart. It’s where I grew up. I actually went to Elon Elementary. Doug, welcome to the show.
Doug Purnell: Great, great to be here.
Carlos: Jamie has worked at the University of William and Mary in Williamsburg for the last three years. He spent some time with us in the Richmond SQL Server Users Group, and is instrumental lot of times in our SQL Saturday that we have in March. He’s also spent some time in the University of Australia, so we may touch on that a little bit as well. Jamie, welcome to the show.
Jamie Wick: Thanks.
Carlos: Question, right? Ultimately, what led you to pursue a path in the university system? Doug, let’s start with you.
Doug: For me, it was something I’d never done before. I was working for a public automotive company. We had the Sarbanes-Oxley, all the K10S, all that regulation. A friend of mine, still works there as a sysadmin. I heard a little bit about the change of pace, a little bit different. It’s all about the students and the professors and helping them succeed, instead of the shareholders.For me it was a great opportunity. I would be the lone DBA, the only DBA there, and look forward to helping them with their data needs. They didn’t have one before.
Carlos: This almost goes back to that culture, the culture of the organization, purposes and motives behind why it is you’re there.What about you, Jamie? What drew you to the university perspective?
Jamie: I guess a series of steps, really. I started out as a desktop support tech at Oregon State University. Started there just because I was wanting to get into IT. It was where I did my undergrad. Then when I went to the University of Queensland, then I actually got into being a DBA.Once I’d made the step from one university to the next university, and I really liked the university environment, the learning, the emphasis on learning. When I came back to the States, I was looking around and thought about going private industry, and decided that I just liked sticking with university work.
Carlos: That’s something we’ve talked a little bit about, branding, on another show. We had Steve Jones on, talked about branding and building a name for yourself, or a brand. Is there a brand of being a DBA in the university system? Do you have opportunities to network with other folks that are in the college system?
Doug: A little for me with the ERP system we use, Colleague. It’s from a company called Ellucian. There’s a yearly conference that I help run in Myrtle Beach. It’s actually coming up in November. A lot of those shops came from a different database platform. They’re moving to SQL server. A lot of schools don’t have full time DBAs. The Colleague environment is usually meant for small community college programs.I’m lucky in the sense that it’s an opportunity for me to help train other university staff on the way SQL server can benefit the organization. From that viewpoint, I guess it’s more of a branding thing. I can help out in that way.
Carlos: Jamie, you had mentioned going from university to university. Is there a benefit with William and Mary, which is your current employer, to already have worked in the university setting?
Jamie: Getting hired on at a university in most IT, I’ve done desktop. I’ve done Windows Server and DBA in pretty much any university that I worked at. There is a…I shouldn’t call it a preference, but an inclination towards hiring people that worked at other universities, because the university environment is very different from higher government type organizations and/or private industry in that you’ve got budgetary restrictions.The universities try and foster the cooperative, interactive learning. You get a lot of anything, any request tries to be met. If a professor comes up with an idea of, “I want to do something that relies on a database,” say, teaching something, researching something, and you need a database, there will be an effort made to try and come up with something to make that work.
Carlos: Support them in their effort there.
Jamie: Right. You don’t get a “No” unless it can’t be done for a financial or policy reasons. Whereas, when I worked in private industry, it was more of a, “You don’t get to do it, unless you can show a financial benefit,” or in government, “You don’t get to do it unless you can show it’s not a cost to the government,” or something like that.It is a different way of looking at things. Because of that, the universities, they do tend to hire people that are more familiar with it. If you come from an area that’s very structured, very rigid, that’s a lot harder to make the change into the university environment.
Carlos: The transition to get into that culture. We’ve talked a little bit about the culture’s a little bit slower-paced. It’s not so hectic, it’s focused on the student. There are some restrictions, however, with the budgets.I know you guys go to conferences. You’re well-connected in the community, so you hear all the people talking about new technologies, different things. Do you feel like you get to play or have, from a professional development or a skill development perspective, you feel like you have the resources that you need to be effective and continue to be competitive?
Doug: I do, I find it very similar to other jobs, though. I think you make your own opportunity in that area. I think having friends with a sysadmin and the SAM guys, you bring them doughnuts, whatever it is. Doughnuts in my case. Shout out to NC Jelly Donuts, by the way.You foster that relationship. Spinning up a VM for, say, the CTP release of SQL 16, or trying out availability groups and spinning up some VMs. That, I think, helps. You have to have that mindset.
Back early in my DBA career, in the SQL 2000 days, I didn’t have that same mindset. I stayed on SQL 2000 even through the 2005 release. That urgency wasn’t there. Now as I’ve gotten older, you have to stay ahead or stay up to date. It’s hard, but I make that a priority.
Jamie: I agree with what Doug says. A lot of it is, the access to training really varies university to university. I’ve worked for universities that had no training budget. You did not get to go anywhere. At best, they would buy you a book from Amazon. You read that, and that was your training.I’ve also worked other places that would fly you halfway around the country for a weekend conference. A lot of it is how the university’s doing for a budget. It can change year to year. You can get a great training one year, and not get any training for the next three.
Carlos: A little bit of feast or famine there.
Jamie: Yeah. I guess as far as what you get to play with, a lot of that has to do with what your university’s licensed for. If you got a pretty good Microsoft agreement where you’ve got access to things, if you’ve got the time and the hardware available, you can spin up test machines and learn what the new features are.That’s a lot of what I do, is trying to be proactive in looking at the new features of the SQL release, then taking that to the management or letting the information be more disseminated around, saying, “Hey, there’s this new feature that could make our situation better by using backup encryption,” for example. “It gives us better security. It gives us better everything.”
But, being able to proactively do that, because otherwise it’s reactive. You don’t do anything for [inaudible 10:59] .
Carlos: Some of that revolves around the licensing that the universities get. They get a little bit of a breakthrough. This is not a show about licensing, but I guess you can explain to us a little bit about how that works.
Doug: For my understanding, we have an enterprise agreement. It includes software assurance. “We got you signed up for premier support in addition to that.” That gives you some other benefits from some hours.
Carlos: Access to things.
Doug: Access, yeah. But from the licensing standpoint for SQL server, it feels like a site license, but we’re licensed for a certain number of people and resources, but it’s enterprise. I can spin up enterprise when I need to.During the true-up period, we go through that and make sure that everything’s in line, but it’s great. The discounts are substantial. The 7,000 per core for enterprise is out there. But, in education world, it’s a lot less than that. A lot less. It is nice.
Carlos: Colleges tend to be localized. Sports teams, everybody follows their favorite college and whatnot. You’re at parties, you’re at your in-laws’ house, maybe that’s a better example. Then you talk, and you’re like, “Oh, I work for the university.” Any prestige working in the university there?
Jamie: Depends on the university, I think.
Carlos: [laughs] The university? OK, interesting. I wasn’t sure because if I could say, you work for Elon, private college. Do you get a bump, or are you like, “Oh, OK. You…”
Doug: In North Carolina, some people, “Oh Elon, they have a really nice campus.” The landscape crew does an amazing job. They’re working on their persona in North Carolina and trying to attract some students. You run into an alumni or something like that, it’s great.I ran into one last week. I wore my Elon hat. He was a grad. It was cool to talk with him about things. There’s a little of that, but it’s not like Michigan, and University of Florida, where it’s football, sports, that kind of stuff. With Elon, it’s more about the education, I think, and the campus. It’s cool, I’m proud. It’s a great place to work, so no complaints.
Carlos: Not that either of you two are looking at moving, but the downsides of working at a college? We talked about budget already.
Jamie: Budget’s the big one, pay freezes. A lot of it also depends private college versus public college.
Carlos: I guess you’re not managed by the state legislature.
Doug: No, it’s all private. Budget-wise, it’s OK. It reminded me a lot of a traditional IT shop. You have to submit for training. For example, the PASS Summit I go every two years. I’m a co-leader for the BI User Group in Winston-Salem, so I get the free registration. The other co-leader, we switch off every year. That helps save some money.It feels a lot like a traditional IT shop. It’s run like a traditional IT shop, which is nice, so I’m used to that.
Jamie: See I’m on the other side of it where we’re public, and so we’re actually controlled by the state legislature.
Carlos: You’re still considered a state employee?
Jamie: Yes. The Board of Visitors for the college has a certain amount of discretion in how they run the university, but technically, we’re still classified as government employees. Because of that, when it comes to hiring practices, they’ve got the whole tiered structure of, you get hired in at this level, and you have to stay within the high-medium-low rankings.When government decides that there’s no pay increases, or a hiring freeze, or whatever, we often get hit with that kind of stuff.
Carlos: Now, I think you’re the only DBAs. It’s a little harder to maybe compare with other people. I know the state level, pretty much all across the board, you either get a three percent increase or whatever a lot of times, or you get nothing. They have other incentives for you too like that?
Doug: Yes. There’s a small percentage bump each year for salary. Some of the other benefits, for example, you can audit some undergrad classes. I can get my MBA for free there, so I can sign up for the classes and do that. They’ll give you time away from work to take some classes within reason. That’s neat.There’s also a tuition exchange program that Elon’s a part of. I believe there’s other hundreds of universities that take advantage of it. I don’t know if William and Mary’s on that list. But if there’s, for example, someone at University of North Carolina is interested in coming to Elon, and someone at Elon wants to go there, there’s some exchange that can happen, so you can save some money for your children.
There’s some benefits there, plus all the facilities around campus. The sporting events are free. The cultural events are free, so it’s nice. There’s some things you can take advantage of.
Carlos: Is it the same way in the public side?
Jamie: Not quite that nice.[laughter]
Jamie: No. Depending on the university, because it’s actually been different at every public university I worked at. Sometimes you get tuition remission, or free tuition, whatever you want to call it. Sometimes you get subsidized tuition. Some places I’ve worked, you don’t get anything. It really varies.At William and Mary, they do let us take one class per semester tuition free. If you want to do an actual degree program, though, you have to qualify for those degree requirements. If you want to get your Master’s, there’s a requirement that you do your first six months on campus in a certain order. You actually have to take a leave of absence from work to be able to do the first couple semesters. It can cut both ways.
Carlos: Jamie, you worked at a couple of different places. Let’s say that someone wants you. They hear this, and they’re like, “Hey, being a DBA at a college sounds like something that would be interesting for me.” What kind of questions should they be asking in an interview to decide that the culture is right for them?
Jamie: Culture questions at university? Getting a feel for the group dynamic that you’re interviewing with is the big one, at least from my perspective. Most of the groups that I’ve interviewed with, whether it’s a department level, a faculty level, or a university level position, you’re going to be working with a certain core group.You need to find that out, because it’s like working with any group where some of them are very, very rigid, and some of them are very relaxed. I know some IT groups that they’ve got work from home options, where you can work from home one or two days a week. Other ones where it’s, “No, you’re in at your desk in a cubicle eight to five.” Then any outage times.
Just learning what the co-workers you’ll have in your group do. How they work and seeing if that works for you, because that’s the fastest way in and out of a group in a university is if you don’t mesh with their dynamic, you’ll get out pretty fast one way or another.
Carlos: They’re going to push you out. Now, both of you have started speaking at different events. We’re here, we’re at the SQL Saturday in Raleigh, North Carolina. Any points for starting to present at some of these, opportunities to take that back into the team? Doug, you’re the lone wolf, if you will, so maybe a little bit harder.
Doug: Yeah. I got my start from attending the DBA user group in Greensboro. Kevin Good was the leader at that point. It was pretty much, put me on the spot and said, “So when you speaking next?” I said, “Well, I’ve never spoken before.” I gave him a four-month “I’ll do it in the summer.”
Carlos: It seems like forever.
Doug: I know. All that time, I was like, “What am I going to speak on?” He was, “Something simple like, what kind of a small project have you done? Did you learn anything new?” I just did a general Tips and Tricks on DBA presentation at the local level. Then with that bug, I took it back to work and did some brown bag lunches, like a Lunch and Learn. That helped a lot.Then I believe my first SQL Saturday was here in Raleigh last year. I’ve done D.C., I’ve done Chattanooga.
Doug: Richmond. It’s fun. There’s plenty of opportunity. I enjoy it. It’s giving back. You’d learn a ton developing your session. I go over the slides over and over again. I research, and I research, and I research because you want to get the right content, you want to be able to answer some questions and give the attendees some useful resources. A lot of work goes into it, but it’s great. It’s fun.
Carlos: Jamie, your team is a little bit bigger. Any options to take that back into the house and share with some of them?
Jamie: The team might be big, but when you get down to it, there’s myself and one other guy that do the SQL servers.
Carlos: I see. The audience is pretty small there. [laughs]
Jamie: Yeah. There’s no opportunity to take it back, but caveat on that is when I started getting into the presentation stuff was a couple of years ago at PASS Summit. I did the networking dinner. That was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made, because I ended up at a table with John Morehouse and Mike Hillwig. They’re very involved.They’re sitting there looking at me going, “Why haven’t you gotten involved yet?” They’re both great guys. I like them both. They definitely did a little bit of spiel promo towards getting involved.
Carlos: Twisting your arm a little bit there?
Jamie: Yeah. I got involved with Richmond, and decided to do a presentation and go from there. My bringing back is more presenting at SQL Saturday and at the user group, and getting more from that direction because I don’t have people to interact with so much at work. If I’m going to keep learning, I’ve got to get with the people that do this.
Doug: That’s the biggest part of being the only DBA at Elon is I don’t have…
Carlos: The escalation path. [laughs]
Doug: The other day, I implemented a change data capture for one of the databases in one of the developers. It had a specific need of tracking changes for a table. It was great. I was, “It’d be nice to talk this through with somebody, and whiteboard it out.” I talked to my manager, I talked with the developers, and they just wanted to see the changes in the table. They didn’t really care.
Carlos: They just want the result. That’s all they care about. [laughs]
Doug: I used the local user groups, and SQL Saturday is my networking ability to talk in front of some PEAT folks, and use that opportunity to help with their DBAs. That’s my outlet. That’s why I do it. It’s fun.
Jamie: One thing I’ll say on that is I’ve got a similar problem. The one that helps me the most is the good old SQL help on Twitter.
Doug: Yeah, I’ve seen you use that.
Carlos: You use that quite a bit.
Jamie: Between Doug and some of the other guys around here. When I post something on Twitter, they’ll comment. But if I’m really stuck, that’s really the way I have to go.
Carlos: You mentioned talking to your manager. From a review perspective, your manager’s technical. Are they over the group?
Doug: My manager, she’s also a developer. She does some coding in the group as well. She understands a lot about databases, which is great, so we can talk database design and that kind of stuff. It’s good.In review process, I used, like we talked about, the drive for learning new stuff helps in the review process. It’s constantly showing learning new things, or introducing new concepts, change data capture for example, to the group. It wasn’t there before. It definitely drives me.
Jamie: I guess, from my standpoint, my direct supervisor is a great guy. He is definitely not a database guy, though. He’s more into security and some things like that. As long as the SQL servers are running, and running well, he’ll do whatever he can to support me to make sure that I’ve got the time and whatever I need to do what I do. He doesn’t get too involved with what I do.
Carlos: Thanks for talking with us. It’s always interesting to see the other side. Sometimes you tend to think that the field’s always greener on the other side, so to chat with you guys about your experience.Before we let you go, we have a couple of standard questions we want to ask. We like to try to provide value to some folks, so we want to know what your favorite SQL tool is. It can be paid tool, a free tool, but why do you use it and why do you like it, or how do you use and why you like it?
Doug: For me, it’s SSIS. Automation is key, especially I’m the only one there, so anything I can do to find a repetitive task and automate it. We do a lot of data feeds to third parties or internal movement of data. I grew up on DTS and SQL 2000, and gone up from there. It’s a great automation tool. The logging it has, the ability of sending out emails, whatever it is, it’s a great tool. That’s my go to tool for automation.
Jamie: I don’t know if you’d call it a tool or not, but I have to say that the thing that I get the most value out of is probably PowerShell. Just being able to make it interact with jobs to interact with active directory for doing stuff to SQL, and handing off data to other systems, and harvesting data from other systems. That’s probably my go-to thing.
Carlos: That’s interesting, which I hadn’t recognized. You’re the first group that hasn’t provided a third-party tool. We’ve talked about the Microsoft licensing. Do you have the opportunity to purchase these other third-party tools, or is it pretty slim pickings?
Doug: Pragmatic Works has a great add-on to SSIS, some extra components. We use that for some secure FTP. What else? We have Redgate SQL Compare for schema comparisons, that’s good. There’s some money, but it’s not…
Carlos: You haven’t used the tools sets in what will become the SQL server.
Carlos: That’s good. We do have one last question. Before we do that, let’s hear about another way folks can learn about SQL server.[background music]
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Carlos: Our last question of the day, if you could have one superhero power, what would it be, and why would you want it? Doug.
Doug: What is it, teleportation? I think just to be able to bounce from place to place at speed of light, just boom, there. It would be cool.
Carlos: I agree. That would be very, very fancy. Jamie?
Jamie: You know what I do for a living, I would have to say somewhere along the lines of being, what is it, omniscient or something. Not having the stress of banging my head against a wall, figuring out why something doesn’t work. Just knowing what the problem was.
Carlos: There you go. Knowing all the answers. Don’t you think things are going to get a little boring after a while?
Jamie: I can make a lot of money.[laughter]
Jamie: I can take a lot of time off work.
Carlos: There you go. Very good.Carlos: Well said. Doug, Jamie, thanks again for being on the show. We really appreciate it. Compañeros, we’ll see you on the SQL Trail.
Children: SQL Data Partners.