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Kevin Kline started his career at NASA, as part of the team that built the water recycling system in the International Space Station. He was one of the few people working on the Oracle database. Back then, he said, it was 128 megabytes. “We thought that database was enormous—and infinitely huge,” he said.

Now “Head Geek” at SolarWinds, Kline helps customers with enterprise architecture, IT leadership skills, troubleshooting and adopting best practices for optimal database performance monitoring, on-premises and in the cloud.

After NASA, Kline was hooked on data. “I loved the whole aspect of data. One thing that’s really neat is that even if the application that you’re using is revised, or a new version is released, or even if it’s cancelled, if you have the data, you still have everything that’s valuable to you.”

Data is not “this abstract thing that only exists in the ether,” he said. “It’s this real thing that changes and improves people’s lives. And so that’s when I decided to really focus not just on writing code, but what is the data? What does it mean, it tells a story? And can we interpret that story to go from there?”

A DBA is a second career for most, Kline said. He himself worked as a developer for six years after college, and many of those end up as system admins, or people who administer and build servers. Being a DBA was not something colleges trained for, at that time. It’s why there are never enough DBAs, still, he said.

Kline learned many of the necessary skills on the job. Back then, around 1994—after his stint at NASA—you couldn’t just take online classes to do it. But, thankfully, his company funded his training.

In some ways, the job of a database administrator is similar today to what it was in the earlier days. “Today, we’re able to do things more quickly, we’re able to automate a lot of things,” he said. Also, his role is more interpersonal than people might think.

“The DBAs are constantly meeting with different teams within the company,” he said, such as dev teams, to figure out how to design the right database. “We help design the business logic, where that logic resides, whether it’s inside the database, in stored procedures, or maybe it’s outside the database and applications or now with the cloud—it could be in things like Azure Functions or you know, some kind of micro service or something like that,” he said.

SEE: Snowflake data warehouse platform: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

So his work covers a lot of time “grooming” different databases and consulting with business leaders, Kline said. Figuring out what happens if the server crashes, how to recover data, for instance, “so we never lose more than 10 minutes of data,” he said. There are all kinds of considerations, such as how much to spend on hardware.

“It kind of feels like a negotiation, when in fact, it’s really you advising them what their current decision means,” he said. “And then perhaps they adjust their decisions through the process of discussion.”

Kevin Kline, “Head Geek” at SolarWinds
Image: Kevin Kline

Kline grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, near the Marshall Space Flight Center and the US Army Redstone Arsenal, where the army missile systems are designed. As a kid in the 1970s, his dad was a computer engineer at Boeing, and they had a Commodore 64 at home, which he said “was a rare thing back then.” By the time he was in high school, he could program in Fortran. His classmates had parents working for NASA or the ISS or on Hubble.

In college, he took database design and learned SQL. He even sent his master’s thesis in to a magazine, and had it published as a book—the book was about “Oracle’s new shift from character-mode systems to this fancy new operating system called Windows.”

He learned that “the real value isn’t just that you’re putting data into a database, it’s the information that you get out of it, you know, data is not necessarily valuable in and of itself. It’s when you aggregate the data and, and kind of massage it into something that is informative,” he said.

“What I found to be most fun about being a DBA is that you can help the business people understand and extract value from the data that they collected,” Kline continued.

Kline wants to support new DBAs, with all of the new options that are available. “Now we have all of these different, not just SQL based databases, like SQL Server and Oracle, and MySQL and PostgreSQL. But we also have all of these, like MongoDB, and Cosmos DB and Cassandra. Each one of them has sweet spots where they perform really well, so you have to learn at least the basics of those. And then we have all kinds of different programming paradigms,” he said.

In his current role, Kline thinks of himself as “that friendly, cool, younger aunt, or uncle, that would pull you aside, you know, and they’re like, ‘Your parents want you to do everything, but we’re gonna tell you about the real world here,'” Kline said.

Kline does webcasts to help share this knowledge. “I think [about] all of these many years of experience as a DBA, as a developer, as an Enterprise Architect, and I give that back to our community, typically in blog posts, and webinars with lots of demos. So I still keep my coding skills sharp, and knowledge of the database, and so forth.”

On a typical day, he’s taking care of things like backups, corruption checks, and preventative maintenance, Kline said. And meeting with customers to figure out the best solution for what’s coming.

“And most DBAs spend a lot of time firefighting,” he added.

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