My job titles typically include words like ‘database’, ‘DBA’, ‘SQL’, ‘Server’ but that’s just a corporate technicality, really. But if we met and you asked me who I am, the most likely answer you would get is that I am an eXplorer.
An eXplorer! Perhaps it is not the most obvious answer, especially in a professional, an office setting. It took me quite a while to realise it myself. One day a colleague called me the most intrinsically curious person he has ever met. I’m not entirely sure how it was meant but I took it as a compliment. And then I realised that he might be onto something.
I want to know! How are things made? How do they work? Why this and not the other way? I want to know what are the limits and what is beyond them? What is out there?
And being like that, I suppose, I could be a mechanical engineer or a car mechanic. But those professions don’t appeal to me at all! Too obvious. Too practical. Too palpable. In a sense too easy while at the same time too much hard work! I’m drawn to problems that require building complex abstractions in mind, understanding rules, but at the same time being creative.
That curiosity and the need for the not-so-obvious has got me to where I am now. Professionally it started with games on ZX Spectrum. To understand how games are made I found an interest in programming. Programming led to an interest in how computers are made. Assembly programming back in the day was such fun and a way to explore the hardware. You cannot really see the registers in the CPU or the bits in memory but if you got it all right, it was possible to write your own keyboard drivers, or modifying the VGA memory and push the limits of what seemed possible. From there I got into networks, switches, routers, servers. Somehow bits, ones and zeros travel from a computer to computer and make stuff happen. It is all difficult to see so abstractions, mental models had to be created on every level of the OSI model. Database engines were the next obvious choice as they appear to be the things people I worked with found difficult and obscure while at the same time being the things where hardware and software, infrastructure and algorithms come together.
And then it stopped there. At least professionally. Sometimes I wonder if the Peter Principal applies to personal development too? Are the databases (and data they contain) a problem difficult enough for me? Have I stopped because I reached my own level of incompetence? Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just the fact, that there are limits to the time and space, and what one can do within those constraints?
The time is an important factor as the same forces, the curiosity, the taste for mental gymnastics shaped my other interests too. I speak 4 languages and I continuously study more (not very successfully, I must say). I studied music. Bassoon to be exact. I still spend a lot of time playing all sorts of instruments, experimenting with algorithmic music, sometimes composing. On a day off I go caving or cave diving in tight, muddy Welsh sumps. Not for the pleasure of scuba diving. There is no pleasure in it. Being submerged in a freezing cold muddy water, finding my way mostly by touch in a complex three-dimensional space. No, ‘fun’ is definitely not the word, but that is one of the last frontiers that doesn’t involve space flights. There are still places no human has ever been to before on Earth. There are still places for which there are no maps, places which are beyond known limits. I go there to see what is out there, to eXplore, to be the first.
So perhaps, the real answer to the question of why do I do what I do, why am I a DBA or a data professional is that nobody I know is paying for being a cave diver, and while the consequences of getting things wrong are different, the risks and problems faced are almost exactly the same. Yes, the way I see them they are almost exactly the same. The same traits that make me a reasonable cave diver, make me a decent production DBA too, but that’s another story.