Carpenters vs. DBAs

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9530113595_907e63b28a_mLet’s get the caveat out of the way up front, I work for a tool vendor.

If you look around at the tools landscape for the Microsoft Data Platform, it’s really interesting. There are a few tools vendors, primarily clustered around monitoring tools, and then there are a bunch of point tools for helping with various aspects of operations against the Data Platform (mostly SQL Server). Some of these are free tools. Some are pay only. Some are a mix. There are variables in the quality of these tools, and I’m sure not going to comment on that. Instead, I find one thing really interesting.

Let’s step back a bit. My neighbors have both worked as carpenters (well, one carpenter, and one general contractor who also does carpentry). They both go out of their way to ensure that their basic tool set is what they consider the best (want to start a fight, ask about hammers, it’s fun). They pay for these basic tools themselves. They also might pay for some of the smaller power tools themselves. The larger tools will be supplied at the work site.

Compare this with your average DBA or Database Developer. Some of the tools available for the Data Platform are clearly “work site” tools, especially the monitoring tools. These must be supplied by the organization (gods above & below, the last thing we want is each DBA or data pro to bring in a different monitoring tool). Then there are the “hand tools” of the Data Platform pro. Interestingly enough, many of these support a floating license such that you could purchase the tool and then “carry” it with you from job site to job site, like a carpenter. Instead, most every Data Pro I know will insist that the company has to supply them with these tools, or that the tools be free (although, you then see the company that won’t let you use free, but unapproved, tools on their site). They refuse to purchase any tool with their own cash. Even though having this tool could improve their work, maybe even make them look better than their peers.

I find this mind-set fascinating. It’s especially so because the average salary for a carpenter and the average for a DBA are somewhat far apart (40k to 70k). You’d think that making nearly double the amount of money, a DBA wouldn’t hesitate to purchase a piece of software that would make them better, as an individual. By and large though, you’d be wrong.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. This is just a pitch from a tools vendor. Well, duh. Yeah, it is. However, I also have purchased my own software in the past and it has helped me be better at my job than my peers. As a wise man once said, “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t fightin'”. As much as our community is all about sharing, and I believe in sharing, there is still a competition when it comes to getting and keeping jobs. You’d think that you’d go for any advantage you can get. I sure have. That includes buying a piece of software that helps me do my job better, out of my own pocket. While I do want you to buy tools because I’m selfish and want to keep earning a pay check, I also think you should be purchasing tools so that you can become better at your job. Embrace the healing power of “And.”

Oh, why would you buy anything but a straight claw hammer?


  • Being the son of a carpenter (well builder, later architect) and having done quite a bit myself, I partly like this analogy.

    The problem I have is that when I buy a hammer, it’s mine. I own it. Almost always, with software, I’m getting a license, and quite frankly, trying to figure out the licensing terms is a pain in the rear. And most I’ve found either aren’t portable, or even if they are, don’t make sense since even after I leave, the job I worked on may want to continue to use the tool (here I’m thinking of the children’s shovel Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel) so it doesn’t behoove me to buy a tool and then have to leave it at the jobsite.

    So while I appreciate the analogy, I’m not sure I buy it (or license it 🙂 100%

  • The upside of a hammer is that you don’t have to pay a maintenance fee every year to keep the hammer up to date. That’s where a lot of these tools fall down (in the “buy your own” space).

    There are also additional challenges with tools in that they have to be approved to be used where you work. For example, in the highly security restrictive place where I am right now, we are not allowed third party utilities into SSMS in the data center. This means that a lot of very useful tools just are not available to me (there is a strong sense of frustration around this, but I can’t change that). In this, even were I to pay my own license fee, it does not mean that the tool would be available to me.

  • Greg,

    Total agreement. If I expected to leave the tool at the business… no. Sorry. That doesn’t work for me. No way I’m buying tools for the business out of my salary. If the company wants a tool, they can buy it. That’s not at all what I mean though. I’m talking about my own tools. One example, SQL Prompt.

  • Kevin,

    The point tools, like SQL Compare, SQL Prompt, are. The server tools like SQL Compare, SQL Backup, are not… except… well, there’s wiggle room there. I’d go with the easy definition. Point tool, yes. Server tool, (mostly) no.

  • Nic,

    I have worked for places that wouldn’t approve tools and even wouldn’t let me install anything on my laptop. I feel the pain. Usually a few long discussions can get through this (sometimes, some places are not flexible, ever).

    As to ongoing costs…. yeah. The analogy breaks there. Can’t argue. Doesn’t change the fundamental point though. If a tool makes me better at my job, I may just buy it (assuming I’m not at one of those inflexible companies).

  • Peter

    All of this greatly depends on the tool and the cost. I remember PromptSQL for sale for ~ $50 way back in the day. I bought it within a week. Red-Gate bought them out and the cost is now significantly more and then you have a Pro version and maintenance if you want to keep up to date. That changed from “I can buy this without too much of a problem” to “this will have to be a company thing”. SSMSToolspack – paid for out of pocket, mostly for the “Query History” functionality that helped me so much.

    The analogy breaks down a little bit in that a tool for a carpenter might be necessary to complete a job in a reasonable amount of time, but will also last for decades in many cases because that tool and the work doesn’t really change. That’s not the same for software. I’ve already bought each version of the SSMS Toolspack (worth it, but had to buy the latest each time for it to work w/ the latest SQL Tools). SQL Prompt is up to v7 now. While I could have stayed with some earlier version, keeping up with the toolset means I’d likely have had to upgrade at least once and out of pocket, that’s not a small amount.

    I agree in general that it can be worth it, but it would be a lot easier to do that if the costs were more in the realm of something I could justify paying out of pocket instead of something that’s easily 1/2 a paycheck or more.

  • Chris Harshman

    I may have a different take on what we are calling database “tools” but one thing I’ve taken with me from job to job as my portable tools are a large set of queries and scripts for administrative, investigative, and maintenance type tasks. These are T-SQL, PowerShell, and even good-old CMD script files that help me do things better and quicker. Most importantly I have built up a number of meta-data queries that I can use to quickly build other scripts!

  • Grant, I get your point, but I think we should be careful what we wish for! Right now the expectation is that the company buys the tools or we get by without them. What if that changed (on the employer side) to we hire based on the tools you own or are willing to buy to get the job? What if we buy RG, but they prefer one of those other guys? Doom and gloom!

    More seriously, Im not sure this is good for the company. Many tools end up being part of processes, leaving a gap when the user (and the tools) leave. Hard to argue about a DBA buying their own Prompt, but much past that Im not sure.

    I think it’s up to us (vendors + users) to make the case for why the company will benefit from the tools.

    Though if you want to push the envelope, you might have a program where companies with ‘official RG DBAs’ can get discounts off of the list price.

  • Pirate

    I wholeheartedly agree and this is the kind of attitude which separates the men from the boys.

    I take my own laptop to every job site, I have my own scripts, my own tools and that is what makes me so good at my job. I can enter any workplace and immediately have everything I need to do the job.

    Of course this doesn’t always work depending on the sector, many financial services companies are so shit scared that they enforce using their equipment and their tools – I generally don’t go for jobs like that because I don’t like sitting waiting 3 weeks for IT service desk to install the correct applications on some 5 year old desktop just so I can do some damn work.

  • Brian Twardzik

    The difference is that the tools of a carpenter apply against physics, which doesn’t change and the tools no matter how old they get, remain applicable in some way. Tools to run against software only last as long as the interface is maintained with the system. Only as long as you continue to pay yearly maintenance.

    Tools in the DBA world are services, not capital. That’s the difference.

    If you’re talking about capital, or the equivalent of capital, that’s knowledge. So invest in knowledge, not services.

OK, fine, but what do you think?