Data caretaker and/or data interpreter – what exactly is the role of a DBA anyway?

There is a nagging thought that made its way to the back of my mind in the last few weeks. I’ve been watching or listening to a variety of technical presentations / podcasts – mostly on topics related to SQL Server – and after a while I started to see a pattern: the majority of topics and discussions were purely technical in nature and dealt directly with the SQL Server database engine itself … how to keep it running, how to make sure performance was good, how to take care of backups / high availability and so on. It seemed to me that not much thought was given to the actual data that was supposed to be passing through this database engine – the very reason for why we’re doing all these things we’re doing with SQL Server.

I got the impression that many DBAs or consultants who were involved in these discussions were more than happy to spend hours arguing the finer points of the new cardinality estimator in SQL Server 2014 (for example) but when it came time to actually try to make sense of the data passing through their hands they’d rather not have anything to do with it. To them data is just a black box – they’ll take care of it but they’re not interested in trying to make sense of it … that’s somebody else’s job.

So I started to wonder – what exactly is the role of a DBA anyway? Are DBAs strictly caretakers of data (making sure that it’s always there for use) or are they supposed to be much more than that – interpreters of data, helping the business make sense of all these bits and bytes that are getting collected all over the place?

Sometimes it seems to me that DBAs feel safe speaking the geek language of database engine specifications and features but they’re afraid to venture outside of that world where they might actually run into users trying to make sense of all that data. We don’t think that’s our job – that’s for application developers and business/data analysts.

Is that really the case?

I came across the article below (from a few years ago) where the author argues pretty much the same thing – that the DBA role should probably evolve to where DBAs get more and more involved in understanding the relevance of the data they’re managing:

Does the Role of the DBA Need to Evolve?

That article generated quite a few comments on the site –

What do you think of all this? Are DBAs strictly data caretakers or should they be more than that? Does it depend maybe on the size of the business/company where these DBAs work? Do DBAs really get to spend all their time having fun with technical aspects of the engine itself and not be bothered by users who need help understanding and fixing their data?

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