The infamous life of the Magician

What follows is the synthesis of several years of frustration. Before you start reading please note that the things written in the dark age section do not apply for the high end environments like Oracle. That’s mostly because starting an Oracle project without a DBA on board is an interesting and creative way to get bankrupt in few months. Obviously things evolves and maybe in the next decade my Oracle fellows will join me in this miserable situation.

A long time ago… 

In the 1998, long before becoming a DBA, I spent few months working as tourist entertainer. For me it was a life changing job, my nature changed dramatically. I was very shy, afraid of human contact. After that job the real me came out, I discovered the pleasure of interacting with people and the shyness disappeared forever. I remember different aspects of this strange job. I entertained children and adults, I learned the art of balloon twisting, acting on the stage and, of course, how to do magic tricks.

From the common people point of view the magician seems a normal guy capable of doing impossible things. From the magician point of view… what a laugh. Everything is a cheat. When I first learned the tricks that fascinated me during my childhood I couldn’t believe that somebody would trust me. Then, with great difficulties I discovered how a fluid movement combined with voice and face expression can lead people to loose their tracks and believe the unbelievable.

Often after the show children came to me asking how learn to do magic. I was vague, I talked about hard work, special attitude and magic powers secretly shared across the magicians. I didn’t want to spoil their childhood dreams. What if they discovered that the disappearing foulard was possible because of a cheap fake thumb anybody can buy in a magic shop? The magician knows the secret behind the tricks. He dispense joy and wonder but he can’t enjoy the magic anymore because he knows that, after all, there’s no such thing like magic.

Here we go again

Fast forward to 2004. I started another life changing  job. I left the software development for good and I joined the elite society of the Oracle DBAs. For me was like discovering a whole new universe. A dimension where the data is almost a living entity and where the DBA can manipulate those data, exposing them to the common people transformed through a fake perception. Again, I started doing magic; This time the knowledge were shared across a restricted group of high skilled persons. The DBA team, the developers which had a solid database background and the designers which built and refined the data structures. In particular the design team acted like a glue between the DBA and the developers sometimes having different point of views. The magic were shared and everybody worked actively in the same direction, pushing the database and the data access to the maximum possibilities.

In this new world the children were the end users. They saw the magic and they believed things were simple and clear like presented. Ignoring the hard work and the carefully designed structures behind their magical interfaces. They didn’t asked about the magic accepting it like as a fact of their experience. All worked quite well. 

 The dark age

Year 2015, the era of big data, the full stack developers and the data ignorance. In those days I often feel like Obi Wan Kenobi, longing for the old civilised times. The equation is still there. The magician the extended circle who knows the magic and the children. It’s only completely unbalanced. An example will help you to understand better.
Let’s consider a developer with a great idea. The developer knows that there is a technology which can build easily and without hassle this idea. Then the project starts from the wrong direction, from the application layer, going down to the logical data layer and finally to the physical layer. This crazy approach is like building a terraced house from the roof. But, ``hey it’s just a proof of concept right? We need to have something working to show to the funders”. Nothing wrong with this except that when the money comes in, when the ball starts rolling nobody make this simple question: ``what happens if we are successful?“. If the project is successful, usually the same people which caused the problem of scale (because of scale that we are talking), start a brainstorm for finding new solutions in order to mitigate the issue with short sight. The loop is something like this.

With this approach all the fixes are lasting no more than few months, which incidentally is the horizon of the events given by the agile methodology. This approach have another bad effect. The skyscraper built on the terraced house foundation is patched and changed only on the upper side. The building becomes more unstable every time is ``fixed”. Sooner or later the brainstorm will consider the possibility to get on board somebody who understands the database layer. Compared to ten years ago doing this of job is pretty frustrating. Speaking of data integrity or normalisation is like talking in a foreign language. Even the simplest task of adopting views or functions like a database interface is a game of will, where any idea needs constant and exhausting explanations.
In this environment the magician still does the magic. The difference is that the magician only knows that the magic happens because of his hard work. The extended circle of knowledge that supports the magician is completely missing. All the things happening behind the scenes are hidden and unknown. And the children ignore completely that their perception is just a trick. They truly believe that things are working smooth because of their capabilities.


 It sucks being a magician

I’m a DBA and my job is horrible. Quite strange isn’t it? I feel like I was an Alcoholics Anonymous trying to get rid of an addiction rather an IT professional. But it’s true, my job is horrible. Being a DBA requires dedication and hard work in antisocial hours. I bet anybody wants to spend the entire Sunday night working on databases instead of sleeping or clubbing right? I wouldn’t change my job for anything else. Sadly in the last few years the pleasure of my job has become a burden. Ten years ago the hard work was a known fact across sufficient people to build a critical mass, a support group against the children’s push back. Today the miserable magician is left alone. Nobody understands what he’s doing. Often the proposal for any improvement are hampered. The others see him like a disruption to the general work flow rather than a resource.


When you do things right…

…people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all. Said God to Futurama’s Bender. That’s true. Unfortunately this is a two edge blade. In the years I’ve learnt how to do super critical tasks with confidence generating a minimal disruption to the production. In fact most of the time nobody will notice anything. And that’s quite bad because in the general perception it will seem that you are a lazy bad tempered ugly jerk. And that’s all true for me, except for the laziness. With this particular skill a DBA can fix things under the hood with people barely noticing something happened, except for the things running better. There’s nothing wrong in this but maybe a better recognition that things aren’t happening by real magic it would help. Maybe it’s just time to stop doing magic in the background, put the people in front of their responsibility and let the children grow.

Federico Campoli avatar
About Federico Campoli
Federico is a data engineer and an amateur python developer. He started his career as Oracle DBA in 2004 and fell in love with PostgreSQL in 2007.
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