Acing the DBA job interview: Getting back to basics

DBAs are again in high demand, but this should not be viewed as a free ticket to a new, higher-paying job. Having superior credentials does not mean that all you have to do is submit your resume and wait for an offer. You still need to follow the basic business principles for landing that next job. In other words, you have to get back to the basics and earn it.

This is part one of a three-part tip series for the DBA job seeker. Click here to read part two, "DBA 102: Beyond the basics."

It may surprise you that DBAs, and most IT-related positions for that matter, are again in high demand, much like they were during the dot-com era. There is an alarming shortage of talent. This shortage is due to many factors, including the retirement of the baby boomers and the subsequent decline in college degrees in IT. The market is quickly turning from an employer-friendly to an employee-friendly market. But let's not celebrate just yet.

While the market conditions are certainly welcome news for most DBAs, it should not be viewed as a free ticket to a new, higher-paying job. Having superior credentials does not mean that all you have to do is submit your resume and wait for an offer. You still need to follow the basic business principles for landing that next job. In other words, you have to get back to the basics and earn it.

Back to the basics

Over my 20-year career related to database support, I have hired and managed well over 50 DBAs and have interviewed or at least evaluated the resumes of thousands of candidates. Believe me, when it comes to the interview process, there isn't much that surprises me anymore. However, I have noticed a few trends that do concern me. Instead of selling themselves for a better career, IT folks today are developing a sense of entitlement -- a "You need me more than I need you" mentality. The market conditions have allowed DBAs to slip from self-confidence into downright arrogance. Let me be the first to warn you, this is an attitude that will get you into trouble!

The purpose of this article is to review the basics of the interview process and what I (and I am sure most hiring managers) will look for in a candidate. My hope is that this article serves as a reminder to some that anything worthwhile (including good jobs) must be worked for.

With that said, let me elaborate on what I personally look for in a candidate.

The resume

Most career sites will say that this is the most important first impression you can make. In the days when one could easily expect to get hundreds of resumes for any given position and have to narrow it down to a handful of applicants, this may have indeed been the case. But now, when an Oracle or SQL DBA posting may produce only a handful of truly qualified resumes, the resume certainly cannot expect to hold as much weight as it once did. However, it is still the first step to getting noticed and must be taken seriously.

There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of Web sites with free templates and tips for resume writing. My simple advice is to use them! With all of this free advice and help out there, there is simply no excuse for a poorly written resume. The resume is the first impression you will make of yourself, so make it a good one.

I look for a few key elements in the resume:

  • Cover letter -- This is still an absolute must! Express why you are interested in the position and why you feel you would be a good fit. Back up the cover letter with evidence from your resume. Do not use a template that will fit just any job: make the cover letter specific to the job you are interviewing for. This may require you to do some homework.
  • Brevity -- While the days of one-page resumes are arguably over, the worst thing you can do is have a 10-page resume detailing everything you did over the last 20 years. Instead, focus on the jobs in the past three years or the jobs that are most relevant to the position you are applying for. Make sure you summarize in the first half of the first page. If you don't catch a recruiter's interest immediately, often the rest of the resume is pointless and unfortunately will not be read.
  • Readability -- Never submit a resume in plain, unformatted text unless you are instructed to do so. Use MS Word (it is the industry standard) and better yet, include an HTML or .pdf version to be safe. Do not get too fancy with the font. To be safe, use 10-point or higher Arial or Roman fonts. The bottom line is: If I cannot read it, I do not read it! Neither will a recruiter.
  • Accuracy -- Spelling and grammar are crucial and mistakes are just downright inexcusable. Remember, DBAs are expected to be professionals and as such must be able to communicate in writing. Do not rely on spell checkers alone as these can miss some misplaced, yet correctly spelled, words and grammar. To be safe, have a few people that you trust proofread your resume for you. An extra set of eyes can often catch mistakes that you may overlook.

Scheduling and phone screens

It is surprising to me how many people today are not very flexible when it comes to changing their personal schedules to accommodate an interview. What message are you sending when an interviewer offers to sacrifice his or her personal time and you refuse to interview because you have an aerobics workout on that day? The message you are sending is that your personal life is more important than the job and/or the company, that you are inflexible and ungrateful and that you do not really care about the job. Is that aerobics workout really more important than the rest of your career?

In addition to being flexible, you must also be enthusiastic, polite and courteous to anybody you talk to through this process, and I mean everybody! I have often turned away candidates simply because they were short or just plain rude to my administrative assistant or recruiter.

The first interview

In my opinion, nothing is as important as the first impression of the interview. There are many ways to ruin an interview, but I suggest that you follow these basic steps to avoid a quick rejection:

  • Arrive on time! This seems obvious enough, and yet is the No. 1 reason I will turn away a candidate. My advice is to plan ahead and know where you are going at least one day beforehand. Know what the traffic and parking is like, how long it will take to get through security, up the elevators, etc. Leave no stone unturned and be prepared for the worst.
  • Call ahead! If you expect to be late, at least have the professional courtesy to call ahead to apologize and let the interviewers know. My rule of thumb: five minutes late with no notice equates to a missed interview. Being respectful of others' time is a simple matter of proper business etiquette.
  • Prepare and rehearse! Know what the position is, what the hiring manager is looking for, who you will be interviewing with, etc. If you can anticipate the kinds of questions you will get and rehearse your responses, you will have a great advantage. Again, there are some great career sites that highlight the typical questions that you can expect, which often include:
    • Describe your strengths.
    • Describe your weaknesses (often the hardest to talk about).
    • Talk about a time when you went above and beyond to succeed.
    • Talk about a time when you failed. What did you learn?
    • Why did you/are you leaving your current job?
  • Do not bash! Avoid taking any invitation to bash your current or previous company, boss or co-workers. Bashing others sends a message that you might be a malcontent in other jobs. Dale Carnegie once said, "Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain -- and most fools do." Please, don't be a fool!
  • Research the company! Know what the company does and be ready to ask good questions -- questions that cannot be answered by information readily available on the company Web site. Instead, focus your questions on the company culture. Believe it or not, about 50% of the applicants I have interviewed had no idea what my company did. Not knowing the company shows over confidence and arrogance and is sure to get you sent home without further consideration.
  • Be confident! Never underestimate your abilities. If you do not know the answer to something, admit it. Focus instead on your ability to find the answer and your willingness to learn.
  • Don't be arrogant! Yes, you can be overconfident to the point of being viewed as cocky, inconsiderate, and even rude. A good rule of thumb here is to focus on the team accomplishments as well as the "me" accomplishments.
  • Avoid negotiating too early. Sell your value before discussing money and titles. If you can avoid it, never discuss money until you are sure that you have proven your value. I often recommend saving negotiations for after an offer is made.

10 statements to avoid

Just for fun, here is a list of the top 10 things I have heard recently in interviews that will surely get you removed from consideration. These are actual quotes by actual candidates:

  1. "I can't start for another five weeks as I have a vacation planned."
  2. "I don't really need the job, I am just seeing if there is something better out there."
  3. "Can we wrap it up? I have to leave for another interview."
  4. "I can't make a phone interview at that time. I have to work out, then I have to eat, shower, watch TV and go to bed."
  5. "You need to make me an offer today, I have several other companies interested in me."
  6. "I hate the people I work with, they are a bunch of [expletive removed] idiots!"
  7. "I shouldn't have to tell you, you should already know why I am the best fit for this job."
  8. "I really don't want to be on call or work off-hours, it interferes with my 'me' time."
  9. "Can you tell me what your company does?"
  10. "I took a class on SQL tuning, but it was way over my head!"

The follow-up

The follow-up can make or break the entire deal and yet is often the most overlooked element of the interview process. Let's look at a typical scenario. I interview three candidates that are all very strong. As I weigh the options of who to hire, I get a real nice thank you letter in the mail from candidate A. Candidate A thanks me for my time, says she enjoyed talking to me, reiterates the things we talked about, tells me why she is a good fit for the position, and describes the value she is confident she will add for my company. I get a simple canned "thank you for your time" letter from candidate B and I hear nothing from candidate C. Who do you think I will hire? Who would you hire?


In summary, if you want to land that next dream job, you must review and acknowledge the basic principles on how to interview. You must also remember to be thorough, polite, confident, courteous and professional throughout the entire process.

Employers want applicants to be enthusiastic about working for them. The worst thing you could do is to take for granted that you are in demand or that you are a perfect fit, that all you have to do is publish your resume and somebody will find you. Sure, you may get a job like that, but chances are that it will not be a good one. There are plenty of good jobs out there, but the best ones have to be worked for and not taken for granted. Follow the basic principles outlined here and don't miss the perfect opportunity that you really want.

Some recommended career resources

About the author

Michael Hillenbrand directs and manages the AES Select Outsourcing group at Access Enterprise Solutions. As director, Michael is responsible for defining processes and procedures, assisting with sales and marketing efforts, defining and governing service levels, and ensuring continued quality and success for AES Select customers.

Michael began his career as a DBA with US Steel then moved on to manage the corporate Oracle DBA team at Alcoa. For the last 10 years Michael has been leading remote support efforts. Having been in a leadership role throughout most of his 20+ year career, Michael has hired and managed over 50 DBAs and supported well over 100 clients. Michael's specialties include best practices (ITIL Foundations Certified), quality improvement and daily operations. Michael also has a strong background in database support, including Oracle (OCP Certified), SQL Server and DB2.

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