DBA best practices..from the DBA from Heaven

I met Tom Roush for the first time around 9 years ago – at a PASS Summit. If I recall right –  Kendra Little introduced him to me as a colleague from Microsoft and a friend of hers. I met him at several summits following that – found him a kind person with extraordinary cheer and warmth. Our friendship really took off when I started to read his stories. I am an aspiring writer myself, and hope to be one full-time some day. I loved his style of narration and the emotional appeal in them. One of my favorite ones was the one with three christmas trees, which was shared by someone on facebook. I posted a comment there on how much I liked the story. He responded and sent me a friend request. I write little story-like stuff on facebook from time to time – mostly real life happenings that have touched me in some way. He would send me private messages on the story. ‘I liked how you explained that’, ‘this line shows emotional maturity’, ‘on this line you have said this, but perhaps you meant that’…and so on. He did this entirely on his own – somehow sensing that the budding writer in me was so thirsty for feedback.  I learned from some mutual friends of his illness. I never asked him about it as I thought it was personal to him. He shared it on his own one day, and sent me link to the blog where his family wrote on his health and progress. I read it regularly. My mother had passed because of cancer. I knew from reading that his illness was serious and he had limited time.
Sometime during the fall last year – I got an offer to author a book from Apress publishers. It wasn’t exactly a book to write – but more like a series of interviews with data people who were very good at what they did. The choice of people to include in the book was up to me. Tom came to mind immediately. But I did not know if his delicate health would be able to stand the rigors of the hour long interview that the book demanded. So I asked him if he’d be willing to write the answers for me instead. I needed material to fill 10 pages – so there would be considerable typing involved. Tom sent me the answers. It was short of what I needed – so we decided to do another round – after his chemo last week. He said how excited he was to get his name on a ‘technical book’ and promised that he would do it. But that was not meant to happen. Below are Tom’s answers – for your reading. I sorely regret not being able to put them into the book and have it published while he was around. But we got it started, and now, people will read it for sure.  And if you are a DBA, double check if you are doing what he said. Because doing nothing is unacceptable. Even if you are battling cancer. The rest of us have no excuse. NONE EVER. Bill Gates said of Steve Jobs, on the latter’s passing – that knowing him was an ‘insane honor’. I want to say the same – knowing Tom was an ‘insane honor’.  I am honored to publish as below, Tom’s last interview.

1 Describe your journey into the data profession.

[Tom Roush: ] photography – first photojournalism, then freelance, created database to keep track of business – eventually used those skills to transition into IT

2 Describe a few things you wish you knew when you started your career, that you know now and would recommend newcomers to this line of work know?

[Tom Roush: ] I came into it from a photography background – where there’s the right way and every other way to do stuff – understanding in IT that there were SO MANY right ways to do something was really, really hard.

My path was something like this:

Health insurance company

application support

application developer

application administrator for group of 5 people

move to Microsoft

application support/administrator/developer (but for group of about 1000 people globally – comprising 10 databases (there’s more to this) all supporting MSN

report/graphing developer

Move to Getty Images

SQL developer

SQL dba dev/test/staging/load

SQL dba dev/test/staging/load/production

Move to Avanade

            SQL DBA dev/test/staging/prod


3 What is a typical day in your life as a professional?

[Tom Roush: ] this has been very interesting because there’s so much change in it. I used to be the sole dba, keeping about 140 servers running.  This was too much, the work/life balance was completely off, and we ended up expanding to a follow the sun model and hired 5 other dba’s to help me, and we ended up with three in India, 1 in Manila, 1 in Buenos Aires, and me in Seattle.  The Buenos Aires one transitioned to a fellow in Toronto.  My role in this is constantly migrating from being a production Tier2 dba to being a production Tier3 lead dba – meaning I will occasionally write code, I get called on for some deep troubleshooting, but a lot of my job involves checking email and trying to keep track of who’s doing what and deconflict various tasks that are being done on the same server.  So – a lot of my day is spent dealing with email from dev teams in  India, my ops team in India, Philippines, and Toronto, and then solving the problems they’re dealing with or unblocking them.  I also spend time passing on knowledge or training them.  A tremendous amount of what I do has to do with training my team, learning about and overcoming cultural issues.  This is tremendously important because the words we use are not necessarily heard the same way by the various people on the team.  Example: for a time I was dealing with the culture of all the folks mentioned above, and they all had varying skill levels, different work ethics, different things that motivated them. (What motivates the team in Bangalore is radically different than what motivates the fellow in Manila.)


5 Describe a few things which any data professional should know as best practices?

[Tom Roush: ] do not try to reinvent every wheel you need. 

Every problem you face will likely be a problem someone else has faced before.

Know that there are people who will want to help you if you are brave enough to ask.

Monitor, monitor, monitor – and know what to do when you discover something wrong.

When troubleshooting – start with the simple – but be prepared to go deep.

6 Describe a few things which any data professional should avoid as worst practices?

[Tom Roush: ] doing nothing (unacceptable)

No backups (unacceptable)

The 9 letters that can get you fired RPO/RTO/CYA

being a lone ranger.  Definitely get involved with others – don’t have lunch by yourself if you can avoid it; take the time to get away


8 Describe your experience with cloud adoption.

[Tom Roush: ] we have moved many of our systems, in whole or in part, to the cloud, from iaas, paas, and so on.

My personal experience has been that my team does the work

9 What are some of your favorite tools and techniques?

[Tom Roush: ] tools? Frankly, ssms is what works and what I can use.  Having the budget for tools I’d like to purchase has been an issue – so I end up either writing my own tools or finding tools/scripts out there.  Those would be:


The SP_blitz family of scripts

Ola Hallengren’s scripts

My own scripts – I write code so it’s dynamic – meaning it knows which datacenter it’s in, which environment it’s in – code that’s written this way may, for example, not have backups running in the test environment, but does have them running in production.  In essence, got a GPS on it.  The code is identical on each server, the variables are dynamically generated values for each individual server.


11 What are your favorite books/blogs/other means of learning?

[Tom Roush: ] SQL skills, BrentOzar sqlserverperformance, sswug – various things that pop up in the twitter feed.

12 What are your recommended ways of stress management and developing healthy work-life balance?

[Tom Roush: ] flying in a sailplane, writing stories, walking by the beach, prayer, meditation, totally disconnecting from electronics (this is a struggle for me).

13 Describe your style of interviewing a data professional – what do you look for and what are some examples of questions you ask?

[Tom Roush: ] Conversationally – I use Brent’s interview questions with my own additions.  They’re always open ended questions that are very specifically real life types of scenarios.  I’ve been in the business long enough to be able to have a few.  I look for flexibility in thinking, the ability to start with the basic questions and work toward the complex, I also insist that they explain things to me in a non-technical way – like they would explain to an elderly relative.

Numbered questions are below

  1. If I give you a new sql server and tell you to set up backups, what do you do?
  2. tell me something about sql that mystifies you
  3. explain diff between a clustered index and nonclustered index.
  4. multiple users report sql is running slow for the first time today – what do you do?
  5. explain diff between simple/full/bulk logged recovery models.
  6. when you have to work on a server you’ve never touched, what’s the first thing you do?
  7. phone rings. server’s down – what are the first three things you do?
  8. tell me about your favorite script. what does it do?
  9. non urgent sql problem – can’t find answer in web search result.  what do you do?

10 urgent sql problem – down server. what do you do?

  1. a vendor app has slow queries, what are some ways you can do to make them faster?
  2. latest thing you learned the hard way about sql server.
  3. how to you keep from running a query on the wrong server?
  4. explain RPO and RTO (six letters that get you fired)
  5. name two ways you can tell sql has restarted unexpectedly the night before.
  6. situation: blocking, you get alerts, but you don’t know which db. What would you do to track this?

14 What are your contributions to community and why do you recommend people be involved iwth community?

[Tom Roush: ] I spoke at several SQL Saturdays, spoke at the SSWUG virtual conference for three years, blog, and I do my best to stay involved in community.


[Tom Roush: ] treat everyone with respect.  Know that not everyone has gotten to where they are using the same method you used, everyone has different experiences – and strengths come from those.


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