I deliberately dilly-dally every morning while I add sugar to my daily decaf in the office kitchen. Sometimes, I take the long way around the office in the hopes that I can strike up a conversation with a co-worker. I have a photocollage on the wall of my cubicle, displaying the friendly faces of my loved ones. These habits do brighten my day, but there’s a larger purpose to my unconventionally friendly work presence.
I know that as a database administrator, I am going to interact with a lot of people while they are experiencing acute frustration. Sometimes they even take it out on me! So these efforts help me connect with people when they are at their best, and see me more as a full person, which helps us all do our jobs with more ease and trust each other through the hard moments because we have fond memories to fall back on.
Activism has taught me how to “hold space” for someone while they deal with stress, conflict, anxiety, insecurity, depression, fear and more. Through activist training with the Earth Quaker Action Team and Mountain Justice, I’ve learned to practice listening and mindfullness when people are upset around me (or upset with me!) – ever a work in progress, by the way! Finally, my activism has given me a chance to strengthen my imagination muscle. In this post, I elaborate on what these themes have to do with being a database administrator – and I push the database admins among us to take these questions even further.
Listening, de-escalation and root cause analysis
Three times in the past week, people quite literally yelled at me because our database wasn’t operating the way they expected it to, or they were having trouble logging in. Sure, I’d rather people didn’t yell at me (and I’m taking steps to contain this!) but I also completely understand #technofrustration and that people need an outlet to vent. Often, that outlet is ME and I understand that it comes with the territory.
During these experiences, I connected to a memory from an action at the West Virginia statehouse, where I helping to orchestrate a rally and “banner drop” against the coal industry and coal-influenced legislators back in 2013 (see photo above, RIP yellow pants!)
The role I played in this action was to be a “de-escalator” and engage with counter-protesters, who approached us with an anger and a vehemence that I had frankly never experienced. One of the things I learned, while I was spiritually preparing for this action, was to match my conversation partner’s level of emotion. If they’re yelling, yell with them (not at them!) and slowly notch down until you are both in a more calm place (without necessarily asking the other person to calm down or chill out). I used strategies like (“I can tell you’re REALLY ANGRY RIGHT NOW!” Which usually elicited “HELL YEAH I’M ANGRY!” and enabled us to get into a conversation (a loud one!) about where that anger and distrust came from, with me doing a lot of listening and reflecting back their ideas and feelings.
Oh my gosh, this technique proved to be SO HELPFUL this week when I encountered my three very angry database users! So here is my question for you: How can database administrators foster greater compassion and listening as we support frustrated database users?
Getting real about feeling stuck
Another angle that I use when I am talking with angry users (and to be clear – most of my users are sweet as can be!) is to listen for what’s happening externally (database isn’t doing the thing we want it to do) with what’s happening internally (“I am incompetent” “I can’t figure this out” “I am running out of time” “There will be negative consequences for me as a result of getting stuck” “I have gotten stuck before and I think I will be stuck forever”). OMG with all of this going on, I can completely understand when someone loses their temper with me!
Plus, I can often fix the database problem relatively quickly once I understand what is truly wrong. Then, the work changes to helping my users understand the solution. Frankly, sometimes I do the easy thing (“Let me just take care of it for you”) but really the question I want to ask is, “How can database administrators help our users develop database confidence and resilience?”
How adults learn
I think a lot of adults are fairly well insulated from having to learn new skills, so asking folks to learn new database systems and functions (which is basically my career!) is a huge undertaking, and one that brings up a lot of insecurity for many people.
The truth is, I am asking my users to trust me and take a risk! Often times, they literally don’t have a choice (it’s a job requirement or an applicant requirement that they MUST use the database), but at the end of the day, users have to face down some heavy emotions in their learning curve… like “I am bad a math” or “I hate computers” … in order to reach their goal. And let’s be honest, a lot of those voices in our heads are strengthened/conditioned/influenced by factors like racism and sexism.
Activism has taught me a TON about asking people to take risks for something they believe in, and I think most of my users believe in the work they do, but in order to get there, they have to overcome the hurdle of using a database. Whether the risk is taking action, planning an action, leading an action, public speaking, civil disobedience, or going against social norms as we wage non-violent campaigns for justice… or figuring out how to login to our system, dagnabit!!!, I have seen people grow into risk taking time and time again.
I think the key here is in providing “baby steps,” coaching, and LOTS of reflection and debriefing along the way. So this yields the question, How can database administrators become ever more caring, supportive and deliberate in our day to day work with database users?
Change is possible
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” – Arundhati Roy
Through my volunteer activism, I have learned to resist the status quo and “business-as-usual.” We have inherited a social hierarchy (boo!), economy, military, corporate-ocrisy (more boo!) – but we believe that it doesn’t have to be this way. We believe that change is possible and we pursue campaigns and strategies and tactics to make it so.
This is the exact kind of thinking that helps me be a good database administrator. When I see systems and logic that are not working, that are repetitive, confusing, inconsistent, misleading, inconvenient, expensive, etc. it’s my job to figure out how we can improve the system, either through training, documentation, automation, finding an app or custom solutions. It’s my job to refuse to accept things that just aren’t working.
Database administrators have a reputation for being inflexible, unavailable or downright condescending (“we are stuck with it how it is!”) or (“go see the guy in the basement”) but actually, I think when we make the role into everything it CAN BE, we are called to be quite visionary, creative, flexible, reflective, and humble. We are changemakers ourselves and we are accountable to changemakers in our organizations. So the question I want to pose is, “How can database administrators continue to incorporate vision, possibility and humility into our database planning and leadership?”