So You Want to Become an Oracle DBA? Part 2 - Learning Oracle on your own

Thursday May 13th 2004 by Steve Callan

The second half of this two-part series on how to become an Oracle DBA in today's almost non-existent DBA job market focuses on inexpensive and effective means of learning Oracle.


This is the second of a two-part series about how you can become an Oracle DBA in today's almost non-existent DBA job market. This article focuses on inexpensive and effective means of learning Oracle. The bad news: short of someone else paying for your education, you can expect to spend some of your own money to learn Oracle. How much you spend and what you spend your money on is up to you. The good news: there is more than one way to learn database administration (and developer) skills.

What diminishes the good news is the lack of a clear, definitive path on what it takes to become a DBA and what, specifically, the DBA is supposed to know. It's not like becoming a lawyer where the path is defined as graduating from an accredited law school and passing the bar exam. There are many law schools and each covers the same core curriculum, which is good, because it standardizes the body of knowledge required of attorneys. The same cannot be said of what it takes to become a DBA and what the DBA is supposed to know.

There is one absolute involved with the learning Oracle process: you, and only you, have control over the quality and quantity of what you know. If you are trying to learn a particular topic, there is no shortage (for the most part) of free documentation, books, schools (Oracle University or otherwise), seminars, websites, subscriptions and mail groups from which you can scour in your quest to become almost god-like in your knowledge of Oracle. Let's get into the where's and how's of obtaining an Oracle education.

What to avoid

Sorry to say, and probably at the cost of my own personal goal of ever working for Oracle, do not attend Oracle University classes (with two exceptions). A typical 5-day course will set you back $2500. In fact, any instructor-led course (the in-person kind) is $500 per day. What do you get for your $500 per day cost of attendance (assuming you are not having to take vacation time)? You get a cardboard box filled with the official course of instruction for that topic. You get a plastic combination pen/hi-liter and a small spiral bound notebook to use for taking additional notes. You may get documentation on a CD. You get to share a computer/workstation with another student. You get to hear the gospel as dispensed by the disciples of Larry (note: the instructors are typically very good and quite knowledgeable). You get free coffee and beverages and breakfast rolls/pastries, and if you really score, you get freshly baked cookies in the afternoon session. You get some personal attention if you are struggling on one of the several labs you do each day, but the class cannot afford to wait for you.

Don't get me wrong - attending a class from Oracle University (OU) is a great experience. The facilities are nice, you are well greeted and treated and you walk away with the definitive source of test questions for that topic's certification exam. Why should you attend an ILT class from OU? One reason is that someone else is paying for it. The other reason is that you have to in order to meet a requirement for certification.

What to pursue

We will start with free and work our way up in terms of cost. I am not including the cost of a personal computer because you probably already have one for other reasons.

1. Download Oracle documentation and software. The only "cost" here involves having to register with Oracle Technology Network (OTN). Being a member of OTN is something you want to do. There are no negatives associated with belonging to OTN. All the documentation and Oracle software you could ever want is available here seven days a week at the same low cost to one and all: free. The only software you cannot get here is patch software. In a learning mode, the likelihood of you running into a bug that requires a patch is very low. What you miss out on by not having access to patches is exposure to the patch installation process. The top books or guides you should read are Concepts, Administrator's Guide (and its Windows version, plus Getting Started for Windows), Installation Guide for <fill in your OS> (and the release notes), Backup and Recovery Concepts, Net Services Administrator's Guide, and SQL*Plus User's Guide and Reference. That is over 3000 pages - and that is just to start with because there are plenty of other guides you will need to read.

2. Subscribe to Oracle Magazine. Published six times a year, this complimentary subscription provides news and information about Oracle straight from Oracle. Several of the regular columns are very good, first and foremost being Ask Tom by Tom Kyte. You should plan to make regular visits to Mr. Kyte's website at OTN.

3. Visit Oracle DBA websites. Most of these websites, including the originating source of this article at, have a free question and answer forum. There are many very knowledgeable contributors to these forums. Some are exceptional in their knowledge. Be aware that all answers are not always correct, but even the wrong ones may help steer you in the right direction at times. Before posting a question, make some attempt on your own to have researched the answer. You can learn a lot by reading what is posted, but you will learn much more and much quicker if you participate in providing or posting answers. If you see a question no one has replied to yet, look up the answer and post it. This means spending a portion of your day surfing the websites and doing the research and writing, so be aware that this type of internet usage during working hours may not be condoned by your employer (i.e., do it on your own time).

4. Join a local user's group. These generally are not free, and many companies will sponsor their employees in these groups. Some groups have free access to online technical information (even without being a member). Many groups have quarterly meetings with guest speakers who cover a wide range of topics. Better yet are the groups who host annual training days. Oracle's OpenWorld event is the ultimate in this realm, and it commands a hefty price just to attend. Oracle also hosts (free) Technology and Developer Days, which are half to full day events where Oracle representatives put on demos or present lectures on some aspect of a new or hot Oracle feature.

5. Buy books, and lots of them. What is missing in one is usually covered in another similar book. You are no longer in the land of the free (really, that's not a political statement), so you'll need to contain your costs here. eBay is an excellent source of acquiring books. One of the best places to purchase new books is at Bookpool virtually always beats Amazon and other online booksellers, and it always beats the price you pay when buying from a "brick and mortar" store. Barnes & Noble, Borders and other storefront sellers (including their online stores) almost always cost more than what you can find at Bookpool. Which books to buy? Anything from O'Reilly is going to be good. Oracle Press is a mixed bag of quality and is generally my publisher of last resort. Oracle8i DBA Bible by Jonathan Gennick et al is excellent. Mr. Gennick co-authored O'Reilly's Oracle Net8 Configuration and Troubleshooting, which is a superb reference on Oracle networking. Once you are ready for the nitty-gritty details, you will need Expert One-on-One by Tom Kyte (now published by APress, and previously by Wrox). This book is the gold standard of Oracle. Do not buy books for older versions of Oracle. Buying the complete reference set for Oracle7 is a complete waste of money, as are many of the Oracle8 books (do not bother with the Oracle 8 exam prep book either). Oracle8i books are still quite relevant, and there have not been that many definitive books on Oracle9i.

6. Buy a set of certification books and get certified. I happen to like the Sybex series for OCP. Not only do the books provide you a fair amount of preparation for the certification exams, they also come in handy as reference books (they are full of examples and command syntax). The package deal for 8i (three books) is cheaper than buying each book separately. In addition to buying the certification prep books, you should be certified. Do not cheat yourself and go down the cheat-sheet road for certification. Put in the time to study and pass. Not only do you learn Oracle, you get some recognition for it as well. Some tests are easier than others are, but it always feels good seeing the green bar being longer than the red bar. The Self Test Software exam prep programs are dead on with respect to what the real exams are like. Individually, they are around $100 each, but STS frequently has sales promotions where you can realize significant savings. The online version is the cheaper way to go. You do not really need the CD's after you pass an exam.

NOTE: If you are thinking about getting Oracle8i certified, today is not too late to start. On May 1st, Oracle announced the retirement of the 8i track. You have until the end of 2004 to complete all of the 8i exams. If you have any aspirations of becoming an Oracle9i OCP, your path here should include first becoming an 8i OCP. Your cost to become a 9i OCP is one upgrade exam. No ILT requirement. That alone saves you $2500. It's not too late, but time is running out.

7. Purchase an online training program (or use what your company may already have). Oracle has self-study CD courses, as do other vendors. At $250 per day for instructor-led online courses, you can "attend" the same classes you pay $500 per day in person. You can also purchase a one-year subscription to an online library with over 400 courses. Here is a tip if your company is in the partners program: did you know you already have a free subscription to this online library? Otherwise, the cost is only $280.

8. Pay for training on your own. At the high end of the cost scale, you can pay for classes and training at a private company. Before signing a contract and spending around $3000 for a three month or 250 hour long program of instruction (POI), do some homework. Is the company reputable? Has it experienced a lot of instructor turnover? Are the instructors well qualified to be teaching Oracle database administration in the first place? Do you get your own workstation or PC while in class? Any guarantees of retaking a class module if you fail an exam? Do they offer financing? Are other package deals available (e.g., learn UNIX and Oracle at the same time)? Is the company being sued for copyright infringement (using some other company's training material and isn't it strange the front page is always missing on their handouts)? Do books come with class, or do you buy those on your own? If they come with the class, see if you can purchase them on your own and save some money. Most employers offer tuition reimbursement, but do not be surprised if your employer will not or cannot offer this to you. The reason why? Because tuition reimbursement programs require that the POI result in an academic grade.

Do not forget to look into your local community college or university. Many universities offer courses in database administration, and sometimes this is at the Master's level so be prepared to spend more money and time this way. There's nothing wrong with pursuing the Cadillac option of learning Oracle, but there is no guarantee that having an MS in Computer Science will land you a job either (it's that experience Catch-22 problem again, but you are in much better shape than someone with no degree in computer science or no degree at all).

In closing

I hope that this two-part series has been useful to you, the aspiring Oracle DBA. As mentioned, there is no one clear path or set of guidelines on how to become a DBA. What is clear is that virtually no one hires DBA's with zero experience. The first article discussed how you can get close to Oracle by working in jobs related to Oracle, and this article went into detail about ways you can learn Oracle. When the time comes, will you be ready to be an Oracle DBA?

Follow up from the first article: Thanks to reader Russell Johnson, who pointed out that a key benefit of working in a help desk position is the opportunity to develop strong troubleshooting skills.

» See All Articles by Columnist Steve Callan

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