Advocating For Our Clients – Part 1 Cultural

Posted in: Technical Track

What do companies need from their database professional, MySQL or otherwise? How can we exceed those expectations as a remote team?  This is my first in a series of blog posts discussing exactly how we do so at PalominoDB – regardless if the technology is MySQL, MongoDB, Cassandra, Oracle or ottherwise.

Cultural: 

The majority of our clients are start-ups.  Some are small teams experiencing their first three year growth pains, while others are in the three to seven year period, have proven the effectiveness of their business model, yet retain a strong sense of start-up culture and personality.  When looking for staff, their focus is rightly on people who have passion, drive and personalities that fit with their unique corporate cultures.  How can a remote resource, much less one that is not dedicated to one company full-time, understand not just clients’ product and technology, but the people, the schedules and the drive that support clients’ success?

Quite often clients want PalominoDB to have a single point of contact who gives us individual tasks and who functions as a filter between their organization and ours.  While we will work with whatever model is requested, this method builds a certain level of isolation that can limit our effectiveness in the bigger picture.  Being in operations requires a certain push and pull with engineering and product groups to meet business demands and ensure availability and performance. We also require knowledge of a company’s business goals and project portfolio.  Otherwise, how can we react with urgency at the appropriate times?  How can we know which issues require escalation and which require push back?

Once we understand company strategy and priorities, we can start to tailor the decisions we make to our clients’ needs. For example, if we know a particular system is crucial to the success of a client’s key project, we are much more inclined to work until 2 am to complete the project or to meet a release deadline. If we know that two months of late nights and weekend work are crucial to helping a client with a customer launch, beat the competition and grow successful, my staff and I willingly devise a plan to support that customer. However, if we perceive that a customer’s demands for last minute changes or large amounts of off- hours work come from poor planning, poor communication or a poorly prioritized product plan, we are much more inclined to put our efforts into improving the underlying processes around change management and project planning.

As operational professionals, we understand the importance of urgency and the product delivery speed that the modern start-up must work with.  Because of the breadth of our experience, we also know that if production teams had their way, all tasks would be P1s, all reports would be real time and there would never be any downtime (and all work would happen for free) and we act in accordance with this desire to the best of our ability.  When we know that the task we are working on is crucial to our clients’ ability to maintain their competitive edge, we are motivated to work the 12 hour days needed to get it done.  Alternatively, when we know a date is flexible, we can choose not to tax our operations team and evoke the risks associated with working too many hours and making crucial decisions under fatigue. As CEO and principal at PalominoDB, it is my job to work within my clients availability and take care of my staff  Work-life balance is not simply a concept to which I pay lip-service; I believe that a happy, rested and alert operations staff is essential to customer up-time and to keeping human mistakes to a minimum.

Another question we often get asked is how do we as remote team members correctly align with business so that we can support them at their pace and intensity?  We’ve had the most success with regular knowledge- shares and participation in operational team meetings.  While taking part in our clients’ company-wide sessions has been unnecessary, we have found that attending operations and architecture team meetings where information can be shared down and around is an excellent start.  Getting onto operational team distribution lists is another method we use to learn about what is going on.  Obviously, every DBA on our team cannot do these things for every one of PalominoDB’s clients, but the primary DBA assigned to a particular client can, and, as they filter out relevant details, they can share pertinent information with the rest of the team.

Having that primary DBA serve as a client’s advocate is crucial, and a point I will continually discuss in my writings.  It is the primary DBA who asks questions when information is not forthcoming, who reviews the org charts and introduce themselves to engineers, project managers and QA/release folks.  The primary DBA gets contact info from all of these folk, documents it in CRM, and plugs it into GTalk, Skype or whatever medium is appropriate.  The primary DBA will hang out in a clients’ IRC and campfire rooms and soak up everything they see.  The primary DBA even reads powerpoints (yes really)! Finally, and most importantly, the primary DBA makes on-site visits.  PalominoDB’s operations team makes it a point to try and come on-site at least once every two months.  Some of that time is spent in meetings and some of that time is spent simply dining or hanging out.  Regardless, these on-site visits allow us all to connect, to put names to faces, and to get to know each other. It helps to ensure that our clients understand that PalominoDB is not a faceless company full of replaceable DBAs.  We are a company made up of individuals with skills, quirks, personalities (usually BIG ONES), and we know our clients are the same.

Does this take time? Yes. However, I ask our clients to think about the savings in cost they accrue by using us instead of maintaining a full-time staff.  The extra time spent on meetings, emails and IRC conversations does not add much in overall cost, yet it is invaluable when building relationships.  Constant contact replaces the water-cooler meetings and impromptu conversations at lunch. That small investment of time in camaraderie and in team-building pays-off in more ways than you can imagine.

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