Saturday, May 25, 2013

Oracle Certified but not Oracle Employed

I see variations on a common story fairly frequently on forums and Linked In groups. An individual decides they want to become an Oracle DBA. They are told (often by an instructor for a training course) that Oracle Certified Professionals find positions easily and rapidly. They take the course, they pass the exams, and they get their certification. However, the story derails at this point. No employer rides out of the mists on a white horse to offer a great job with an incredible salary (after a brief glance at the shiny new certificate).

I wrote an article several months back with some tips on getting your first job as a DBA. If you have not read it, you might take a look: I Just Got an Oracle Certification - How Can I Get Hired As a DBA? An individual who is living the story above read that article and wrote to ask me if I could provide any further assistance. Frankly, I’m not sure that I can. I looked at the article this evening and I think my tips were reasonably comprehensive. I decided to take a somewhat different approach in this post.

I worked in tech support for various companies (including Oracle) for many years. One of the things I learned from that is that once you completely understand the problem, you are eighty percent of the way towards finding a solution. Anyone who believes having an Oracle certification without having Oracle experience will always lead to rapid employment does not yet understand the problem.

Anyone that goes to fast food restaurants much has encountered 'The New Employee'. This is the employee on their first day of work being trained on the register. Your order will take three times as long as it should and either the newbie or the trainer will apologize and note it is the cashier's first day. You never get an apology about someone's second or third day.  This is because it takes less than one day to learn the job of a cashier at a fast food restaurant. This is also why these employees are paid so little, which is why fast food restaurants have such high employee turnover rates, which is why we encounter so many employees running a cash register on their first day. A job that can be learned in a day will never provide much job security or income.

This post is not targeted at prospective fast food engineers, but prospective Oracle Database Administrators. The paragraph above is to point out that what makes Oracle DBAs valuable is the amount of time required for them to learn their job. It is simply not possible to learn to be an Oracle DBA in a single day. If it cannot be done in a day, then how long does it take?  Would it make sense to measure the time in weeks? No, I do not think anyone would accept weeks. If not weeks, then would measuring in months make sense? Frankly, I think any experienced Oracle DBA would not accept that either. The rule of thumb is that it takes three to five years of experience with Oracle to become a reasonably knowledgeable DBA. Senior DBAs would be expected to have more experience than that. Companies will often hire junior DBAs with less experience, but they would be expected to work under the supervision of a more experienced administrator.

The question then becomes how Oracle certification compares to Oracle experience. To do this, it makes sense to compare time spent studying to time spent working. When talking about ‘years of experience’, specifically the assumption is that the years are for a full-time job with a forty-hour work week. The amount of time a candidate needs to study in order to pass Oracle certification exams varies widely. I wrote an article here that deals with some of the variables. As a general rule I spend about a hundred hours studying for exams. This is not a hard number. Some exams take more time and others take less. I’m also a fast reader and very experienced with the exams. I would expect most individuals to require more study time. To be reasonably conservative, I will triple that figure. Three hundred hours of a full-time job would be seven and a half weeks. On this timetable, the three exams required for the OCP DBA track would take about five months assuming forty hours per week. However, time spent specifically reading documentation or other study materials is more valuable in many ways than an equivalent amount of time spent working as a DBA. On the job you tend to do the same things multiple times.  You are not constantly learning something new. If I were comparing two candidates for a junior DBA position – one with an OCP and one without, I’d probably grant the person with the certification as having the equivalent of an additional year of experience, possibly as much as eighteen months.

And now (finally) we have the problem defined. Most companies expect a DBA to have three to five years of experience before they are placed in charge of a database. I doubt most people have given as much thought to it as I have, but no one with knowledge of Oracle will treat someone with an OCP but no experience as equivalent to someone with three years of experience working as a DBA. That does not mean the certification has no utility.  The equivalent of twelve to eighteen months of Oracle experience is a great deal more than zero months, which is what you (presumably) have without the OCP. However, it is generally only enough by itself for a junior DBA position.

As I indicated in the article mentioned above, the one thing that you must not do is sit back with your certificate in hand and wait for the job offers to roll in. Implement the suggestions from that article on making yourself more visible to employers. Keep in mind that what makes Oracle professionals valuable is the knowledge contained in their head combined with their experience using the database. Being visible is good, but if you want to be recognized as valuable, you need more knowledge and more experience. You also need a way to demonstrate that you have it. One of the things that make Oracle certifications valuable is that they are one method of demonstrating knowledge. Find others.

Oracle XE is free. Download it. Build databases using it that are well designed and actually do something. Document what you have done. Build an ERD for your system. Create (and document) a backup strategy and a disaster recovery plan for your database. Create a website using Application Express and build an application that showcases what you have been doing in Oracle. You can build one for free at or you can get a professionally hosted one for as little as ten dollars a month. My OracleCertificationPrep website is hosted with MaxApex but there are many others out there. One thing that you can do with a hosted Apex instance that you cannot do with one at Oracle’s free site is point a custom domain name to it. Registering a domain name for a year costs about twenty dollars. This means that for less than the price of one certification exam, you can purchase a year of a website with a domain meaningful to you showcasing your skills with Oracle. You can then put that URL on your LinkedIn page and your resume.

The above suggestions are off the top of my head. There are countless things that you can do to increase your knowledge of Oracle and your experience with the database. Pick one and do it. Anything that adds to what you know right now can only be beneficial to your Oracle career.