Making more of our subject matter experts

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Making more of our subject matter experts

By Steve Smith
Senior Database Administrator

Knowledge you give away grows

In most companies Database Administrators (DBAs) are known for being subject matter experts (SMEs) who spend much of their time educating others and providing guidance to their peers. At 15below, we actively encourage knowledge sharing and collaboration. It’s part of our culture, so it has always been an important part of my role and one that I enjoy a great deal

I have always believed that when you share your knowledge it grows; it comes back to you as those people put the information you’ve given them to good use and bring you new challenges. This opens up new opportunities to develop an even deeper understanding. When 15below was a small company I worked closely with all the developers and it was easy to keep the knowledge flowing. People had ample opportunity to use those skills – but since we’ve experienced periods of rapid growth it has sometimes proved hard to maintain the same level of engagement.

Which led me to question: How can one or two DBAs continue to collaborate closely with 60 or 70 developers and keep the skills transfer going in a meaningful way?

This is a recent challenge at 15below that we decided to tackle head-on in order to avoid creating silos of talent. Rather than simply hiring more DBAs we instead decided to focus on a better way to keep knowledge and skills flowing through the development teams with the aim of helping the talent in the developer pool grow at the same rate as the business.

We already have Domain Owners (people who take ownership and responsibility for certain areas of technology or business knowledge) and we decided to expand this to include SMEs – talent hubs that anyone can turn to when they need an expert.

Inviting people to shine

All we needed was a group of talented people that wanted to lead the way, so we asked for volunteers from our Developer and QA teams across our offices worldwide. All we were looking for initially was people with a passion for SQL who wanted to become a SME for the SQL Domain.

Our developers are extremely talented – the demands of working with 50 of the world’s best-known airlines means that they have to be – but we wanted to help them develop their skills and become industry leaders in SQL development. 

Ideally, we wanted one person in each of our project teams to come forward and I wasn’t at all surprised when we soon had a group of 14 developers and analysts – with a wide range of experience - that wanted to become SMEs. The next step was to feed them the knowledge.

Condensing the essence of SQL development

In tech companies we are all continually learning; our daily companions are the likes of StackOverFlow, MSDN and Pluralsight and our new SQL SMEs will no doubt spend many enjoyable hours devouring blogs and white papers in their pursuit of arcane SQL knowledge. 

To give them a kickstart we put together a training programme that condensed the essence of SQL development at 15below into a series of classes. We have years of material from our fortnightly in-house training DevEds and I set about producing a series of eight sessions that would cover the areas of expertise we needed our people to focus on.

What followed was a two-month period of weekly deep-dive sessions on SQL server.  In this time we covered:

  • Advanced Report Writing
  • Query Plan Optimisation
  • Continuous Deployment for Databases
  • Table Partitioning
  • Transaction Handling and Concurrency
  • Indexing and Storage
  • Data Modelling and Normalisation
  • Tracing and Troubleshooting

Plus a whole host of minor topics that were enough to challenge even our most experienced developers. 

The sessions included plenty of real-world examples from our platform, as well as example scripts and data sets that the developers could take away and review themselves. It was great to see so many of the team going away to do their own research too!

Now, when there are changes to the data access layer, the development teams have a SQL SME working alongside them whose expertise they can draw on. They can still go to DBAs when they need to, but we have successfully started to remove one of the bottlenecks in the software development pipeline by filling the skills gaps within the teams themselves.

The developers that have become SMEs can see their own skills growing and their profile within the business improving as their role develops.

Of course, it is going to take time; it’s obvious that you don’t become a true SME from a few months of intensive study.

It takes years to develop the real depth of experience needed to deal with the challenges of developing a modern global enterprise platform, but I am confident that our SQL SMEs have had a good start to their own journey. Now, when I see a conversation on a Pull Request in Git, where a SQL SME is discussing the structure of a transaction with another developer, I smile as I watch the knowledge grow.

If you're interested in joining our team, take a look at our current vacancies.

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