Interview – Adam Machanic

I decided to start a series of blogs where I interview key people in the SQL Server community. Instead of me asking technical questions, I plan on asking about their outlook on the future, books they read (non-fiction and/or technical),  and their overall thoughts on where technology (mainly SQL Server) is headed. You can find more interviews here.

Next up: Adam Machanic (b | t):

Adam Machanic
Adam Machanic

Mohammad: Where do you see SQL Server technology evolving to 5 years from now? More cloud focused?

Adam: Over the next five years there will definitely be a continued push toward the cloud. And this only makes sense; competition will continue to drive down pricing (albeit slowly), and for most companies, at some point it will simply become fiscally unwise to continue with the cycle of managing and replacing a large amount of in-house hardware.

Beyond that–and this is pure conjecture on my part–I’ve recently noticed Microsoft getting more interested in helping with manageability and troubleshooting insight. This probably ties in to its own requirements for managing its SQL Server PAAS offering, but either way the result is a lot of cool enhancements making it into the “box” product. I think, and certainly hope, that we’ll see a lot more in this area. Anything Microsoft can provide to make the product easier to work with will be welcomed by all.

Mohammad: Do you ever see the traditional SQL Server DBA role being replaced/eliminated?

Adam: I think it’s already happening! For me, a “traditional DBA” means a pure ops role: manage the SQL Server instance, HA, DR, and monitoring. Maybe manage the OS, maybe hardware, but oftentimes not even that.

This kind of pure ops DBA is a dinosaur, for two major reasons: evolution of technical processes and expectations in most companies, and evolution of cloud offerings.

The first issue–evolution by companies–has created the demand for technologists to have a broader focus. Think DevOps. The kind of DBAs who were previously able to sit in a dark corner and manage backups of anonymous databases they didn’t even vaguely understand? That kind of behavior simply won’t fly in a nimble organization. DBAs need to be able to contribute to the bottom line–the business–and if they can’t, companies will find someone who can.

As for evolution of the cloud, that creates a few interesting twists on the DBA role, and we need to think about the various forms of cloud offerings. IAAS is a popular choice as a first step or for more complex projects, and I don’t see that going away anytime soon. This is the arena that will require the most in terms of traditional DBA style work. Thinking about database PAAS, there’s not nearly as much need there for a traditional DBA, but a database pro still needs to think through appropriate sizing, setup, and configuration. The big cloud-based threat to the traditional DBA is in fact the evolution of SAAS. As data and application vendors move away from customer-hosted databases and toward on-demand API and web models, there will be fewer and fewer in-house database servers demanding the attention of a lonely backup jockey. Fewer servers and databases means companies will need fewer ops DBAs. But they will need a lot more data integration people. Data professionals as a whole will go nowhere.

Luckily I think there are very few of these “traditional” pure ops DBAs left in the world. People have gotten the message and have ventured into new realms, and most companies no longer hire people who only have ops skills. What is still left that bothers me is the term “DBA” itself. We need a new term, because today’s “data professional” isn’t an “administrator.” Calling yourself a DBA if you’re a data integration specialist is not reflective of your true skills and, given the changing technical landscape, is bad marketing for your personal brand.

Mohammad: What are you most proud of doing/accomplishing for the SQL Server community so far in your career?

Adam: Without a doubt, creation of sp_whoisactive is the best thing I’ve done in my career to date. I rely on it every day, and apparently so do a whole lot of other people. I am constantly getting pinged with questions and comments, and it’s awesome knowing that something I wrote is not only broadly used but also really helping a lot of people do their jobs. I’ll also add that most of the features I’ve put in have been a direct result of user requests–so even though I’m the sole author, it’s really been a community-driven and collaborative project from the start. Really a great highlight for me!

Mohammad: What non-technical/non-fiction book/s would you recommend? If you only read technical books…what do you recommend?

Adam: I actually read very few technical books these days. There is just so much information available in focused short form–article, video, or live presentation–that taking the time to plow through a 1,000 page book no longer seems quite as appealing as it used to.

Books I’d recommend? For fiction I’m a huge fan of David Mitchell. I read “The Bone Clocks” a couple of years ago, and recently picked up “The 1000 Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.” Both novels really captured my attention, and have stuck with me. If I’m still thinking about it a year later, I know it must have been special! On that note, one of my favorite reads in the past five years was Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.” A hugely detailed, epic, and fairly dark book that is not only very well written but also intriguingly plotted. That’s another one that really sticks around in my brain.

On the nonfiction end of the spectrum, I’m a bit dull and tend to read books that focus on some element of one of my hobbies–food and/or running. One recent great read was “The Perfect Mile” by Neal Bascomb, which details the stories of three runners who were each (independently) trying to break the four minute mile around the same time in the mid-1950s. Another book I found to be very interesting was “Proof: The Science of Booze” by Adam Rogers. You get to read about booze and call it an intellectual pursuit because it’s science. Not much better than that!

Mohammad: For someone who’s career focus has been on one aspect of SQL Server (i.e. Database Engine), do you think it would be wise for them to become a “jack of all trades” by starting to learn, SSRS/IS/Azure, etc. or remain focused on their area of expertise? In another words, which would you say is more valuable? mile wide / inch deep or inch wide / mile deep?

Adam: There is no right answer here. Everyone has different learning styles and work styles, and some people are more adapted for deep focus than others. Both have their place. But ultimately as technicians we’re shaped by the demands of our work. I happened to get caught up in a major performance tuning project early in my career, and it forced me to become proficient in that area. Had I not taken that job, maybe I would be data visualization specialist, or something totally different, today! I don’t think there’s any benefit in trying to unnecessarily or prematurely go deep or wide in a technical area. Things change too quickly and if you don’t apply something it won’t really stick. You should ideally always be open, alert, and on the lookout for any kind of learning opportunity. In my opinion the best course of action is to find some smart people to work with and put things on autopilot. From there your knowledge will go wherever it needs to go.

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