This is my sixth post in the Spatial Career series. In previous posts I’ve written about how to prepare for a career as a GIS Software Developer, as a Geospatial Analyst, as a Cartography/Visualization Specialist, a Geographic Information Scientist and a Spatial Statistician. In this post I will describe how to prepare for a career as a Geospatial database administrator (often abbreviated to DBA). This career path is similar to the GIScience and Spatial Statistician paths in that you have to be interested in database admin work in general, not just the spatial data component, because you may have to start your career in a “non-spatial” position to gain experience.
Pursuing a career as a Geospatial database administrator would be an excellent option for someone who has a degree in Geography/GIS and technical aptitude but isn’t having good luck finding a job as a GIS analyst or technician. If you add a few specific technical skills (not GIS related) you may just find yourself in much higher demand. Go do a quick search on Monster or Dice or some other job board and you’ll find hundreds of high-paying SQL Server or Oracle DBA jobs. I found a SQL Server expert who tried to charge me $350 per hour for his consulting services. I told him I wouldn’t pay that kind of fancy lawyer rate and he basically stuck to his guns, saying that was his standard rate. He seemed like a bright guy but at $350 per hour he better be able to do brain surgery and IP litigation while writing stored procedures. This makes me believe that there’s a supply and demand imbalance in the database admin world. So, I think the timing is good if this path interests you. And, this can be a great way to get your foot in the door of an organization and learn how a business works and then learn additional skills to move into software or data analysis or management – whatever you prefer. Having these core computing skills at your disposal will be an advantage regardless.
So, here are 4 steps that should put you in good position for a career as a GIS database administrator.
Step 1. Don’t go to grad school. Unless you’ll be paid to work on spatial database stuff with tuition benefits and a stipend – that would qualify as a paying job. A bachelor’s is enough for this path and just some college coursework would suffice. If you already have a graduate degree that’s okay too. It probably won’t hurt you and may open up opportunities at Universities and/or government labs where you can gain good experience.
Step 2. Read everything you can about databases, spatial databases, etc. Cover all the key database technologies including SQL Server, mySQL, Oracle, PostGRES, etc. Just head over to the local Barnes & Noble, grab a coffee and read everything on the shelf that has SQL or DBA in the title. Look for books published by O’Reilly or Wrox for good applied material. After you have familiarity with a topic then dig deeper by searching for good blogs. Find out who the gurus are and follow them on Twitter, read what they recommend and tap into a community of practitioners.
Step 3. Build your own database with a simple interface to access the data. Ideally, this would be a real project that someone will actually use but take whatever you can get and just make something up if necessary. You need to be able to point to a successful “live” project that someone can evaluate first hand. You don’t need to be good at web development or interface design – focus on the database design and keep the interface simple. Maybe find someone who is good at interface design and collaborate on the project for mutual benefit. Be able to describe how you put the database together, the technologies used, the challenges faced, etc.
Step 4. Get certified. And I don’t mean acquire a GISP certificate. Instead, get a Microsoft SQL Server or Oracle certification or something similar (check job advertisements to see what’s hot). This would likely open doors at medium and large companies who have enormous data volumes that require maintenance. Maybe consider an A+ certificate or a similar sort of credential so that you can provide general IT support and work with networks/servers as well. You might be able to find this kind of thing at your local community college or via on-line course-ware. If you can work effectively with back-end IT infrastructure and databases you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a decent job to launch your career.
Again, the DBA path can be a great way to go and earning potential is excellent. Once you’re drawing a good paycheck learn everything you can about the organization you’re working for and keep your eyes open for opportunities to get deeper into geospatial data handling. You will have to engage in a fair bit of self-study and the coursework and materials may feel pricey, especially if you just finished an expensive undergraduate degree, but it should provide a pretty good bang for your buck. A good DBA with a few years of solid experience can reasonably expect to make $50k+ and, if you become a guru, you can earn over $100k in some markets.