Wednesday, June 01, 2011

What Makes a Great Database Manager? (Part 2)

X-Factor booth with error message on screen

In part one of this blog post, I started to lay out what skills and attributes a great database manager has. Here's the second and final part of this post.

Subject (Business) knowledge

The best Database Managers I have worked with are those who (if necessary, learn to) understand the charity’s business requirements (almost?) as well as the database system they manage. End of story. They are the people who know that the best benefits you will get from the database will be those which match and enhance the organisation’s requirements. For example:

  • Fundraising/Membership/Services knowledge (etc): I realise this can be very broad but if a Database Manager can talk at least to a certain level about major giving, direct marketing, alumni management, membership and so on, then that is going to help so much. They will then learn and understand what the Fundraising Managers (et al) want and can interpret that and apply it to the database. It’s quite a skill but it’s what makes a great Database Manager.

    Managers and end-users have often told me “I don’t know what I want because I don’t know what a database can do…”, so if your Database Manager does know what a database can do and can they can learn the charity’s business then you are on to a winner.

    Two specific areas within this topic are: For UK charities, Gift Aid knowledge - if your Database Manager will be working on a database which manages gift aid, then if they have knowledge of gift aid itself then that will help enormously. And Web 2.0 in terms of being up-to-date and savvy about how all the latest social networking and web 2.0 possibilities could be applied to fundraising et al.
  • Data Protection (DP) knowledge and Awareness of legal issues. It’s incorrect for a Database Manager to be ultimately responsible for DP and legal issues, but it’s pretty important that they can at least discuss the issues with some knowledge of the subject.
  • Finance knowledge. If your database records income then it will help enormously if your Database Manager understands or can learn the nuances of your financial requirements, coding and systems. This means on the one hand appreciating that fundraising and marketing might require one set of codes but on the other, realising that reconciling income with the charity’s finance system might need a different approach.
  • Knowledge of Statistical Analysis/BI-savvy (Business Intelligence): For some organisations, especially those with larger data sets, for the Database Manager to have some knowledge of statistical analysis is quite a bonus. Hopefully, they will be able to work with your other staff in determining what statistics are required, how to get them and what they mean etc, but the more input a Database Manager can give to any such discussions because of their knowledge of statistical analysis is a bonus.
  • Project Management skills. Many aspects of database development are project based, and whilst some will be small or simple, others might be more involved or run over some months. In which case, having some Project Management skills is a great thing for a Database Manager to have. I wouldn’t expect them to be PRINCE2 trained but if they can show they have the sort of skills which fundamental project management needs then that’s a great thing to have.

    What are those skills? How about: communicating to their team and others what is expected of them; maintaining a project plan; co-ordination and centralisation; monitoring resources; understanding task dependencies; risk assessment and issues management; supplier liaison. And potentially much more of course. Okay, this is a heck of a lot to ask for a Database Manager to do, but if you find someone who can then snap them up!

Soft skills

Obviously, soft skills are not just specific to a database manager but here are some which I think great Database Managers have:
  • Building relationships, especially with other departments. The database is almost by definition going to be used by multiple teams and possibly different departments. So if your Database Manager can build those relationships well then that will help.
  • Diplomacy, empathy. Absolutely!
  • Communication: verbal and written. If there was a sub-context running throughout this post [and my eBook], then communication would be it. I have highlighted the need for good verbal communication constantly, but it is also important that a Database Manager has good written communication skills. It is likely they will be writing emails, reports and specifications which others will have to validate, so they need to be able to do so clearly, non-ambiguously, without over-using or un-necessarily using technical jargon and in a structured and readable way. This may sound an extremely obvious statement but you wouldn’t believe how many examples of bad reports and specifications I have seen (or maybe you would!).
  • Pro-active. I think this is a really key skill that great Database Managers have. And on two levels: one, at a pure database level, i.e. ensuring data accuracy, reviewing security rights etc; and secondly, at a “business” level in terms of potentially understanding fundraising (or other) opportunities. This is a real bonus if your Database Manager can do the latter – sure, your fundraisers/staff should be able to ask for information and work with the Database Manager, but very often, database people are far closer to the data than other staff, so if they see something which might be of interest and can communicate that effectively to other users then that’s great.
  • Time Management. As for all jobs.
  • Managerial and delegatory abilities (where they are managing a team)
  • Planning: A good Database Manager plans (and loves to plan!). They don’t jump in with two feet without considering all aspects, without testing, without asking just why someone want to do something!
  • Obsessive about accuracy! Great Database Managers love accuracy! They are almost anal about it. And detail. Everything should be in its place, done in the right way.

    That said, great Database Managers also understand when such obsession is getting in the way of the business and when to let go of a particular instance of when something isn’t done quite to their preferred level of accuracy (if only for a while, until they can come back to it!).

The X Factor

If you can train someone in technical and business knowledge and hopefully soft skills, then why are some individuals better than others? Do they have the X-factor which means they just get it a little bit better…

To a degree, this sub-section is re-iterating some of the points I have already made in this post, but it also adds a few and brings them all together to show what such a person might have.
  • Database and Business Understanding. As already discussed, when someone has great database skills and a great understanding of business requirements, and they can tie the two together, then they have all the makings of a great Database Manager.
  • Analysis and questioning skills. It is quite an art to be able to ask users about their needs, gather all such information, collate it well, translate it into language which everyone can understand and then implement it… but if at the heart of this, you haven’t done the analysis then the risk of not giving users what they really want is increased. Great Database Managers can do this.
  • As I mentioned before, often users will say “I don’t know what I want because I don’t know what a database can do…”. So if your Database Manager does know what a database can do and can they can question a user well enough to learn what they really want, and match the two together, you are on to a winner.
  • Problem solving (and tenaciousness). Refusing to say no when a software supplier tells them that something isn’t possible in their database… Okay, they say, so how can we approach it differently, find an alternative, ask the question differently - how can we do it anyway?
  • The Ability to Perceive Patterns. This is just one of those things which some people have. As discussed before, Database Managers are closer to the data than most other people, and unless your organisation has specialist data analysts, then it might be your Database Manager who sees new issues and opportunities. Seeing patterns in their data, whether good or bad, is something which sets individuals apart.
  • Pro-active. Everything I said before. 
  • They strive for automation. Database Managers much prefer automated routines to the risks which manual data entry, imports etc bring.
  • They have gravitas across the Organisation. This is quite something and pretty hard for a Database Manager to achieve. To be someone which senior managers and influential users respect and go to, to create a culture whereby they are considered and consulted when a key decision which might just affect the database is discussed by another department. If you have that, then you’re a great Database Manager.
  • Slightly geeky…?! So, having said everything I have said in this section, I still like it when a Database Manager is just slightly geeky!! I don’t mean that they want to run everything on Linux or that they name their servers after planets on Star Trek, but I want my Database Managers to like databases! I want them to enjoy working with databases, to somehow find them aesthetically pleasing. That’s a certain style of geek which I love!

(This post is an extract from my free, downloadable eBook, "How to Interview and Employ a Great Database Manager").

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