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How NOT to present November 30, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes.
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I’m at the UKOUOG this week and, as ever, the presentations vary in quality. Most are excellent {or even better than that}, some are not. I was in one first thing this morning and, I have to say, it was rushed, garbled, unclear and there was a definite air of unease and panic. I’m not even sure the guy got to his big point and I could think of at least three major things he did not mention at all.

I think his main problem was just starting off in a rush and never settling down. You see, I was stuck on the top floor of my Hotel and had to run to the venue. Yes, the poor presentation was by me :-(.

I usually present well {modesty forbids me from saying I am a very good presenter – but modesty can take a hike, my ego knows I am capable of giving great presentations}. I am one of those lucky people for whom presenting has never been particularly frightening and, in fact, I find it easier to present to a group of people than talk with them.

But not today. I was already worried about the session, have been for weeks, as I was doing interactive demos. But last night I ran through it, wrote down the names of the scripts and the slide numbers so I could just bang through them and timed it all. 50 mins, I would skip one unneeded section. Calm. I got a reasonable night’s sleep, got up early and ran through it all one more time, making sure my Big Point demo worked. And it did. Yes.

Went down to breakfast, had breakfast and back to the room to pick up my stuff. And realised I was late. Less than 10 minutes to do the 5 minutes over to the venue. So I fled the room, stuffing my laptop in my bag. But not my notes. Or my conference pass. I did not think of this as I stood on the top floor of the hotel, I just thought “where are the lifts?”. They were all below me, ferrying hungry people to and from breakfast. After what seemed like an hour and was only 4 or 5 minutes I decided 16 flights of stairs was OK to go down and, to give me credit, I managed those stairs and the few hundred yards to the venue in pretty good time. I did pause for a few seconds at floor 7, I think, when I remembered my notes. Too late.

But I was now panicked and arrived as a dash. I had to mess about with the Audio Visual guy to get going and started 2 mins past my slot start – and then did the 5 minutes of non-relevant stuff I had decided to drop. It was game over from there, I was failing to find the correct scripts, I was skipping relevant sections and I was blathering instead of just taking a few seconds to calm down and concentrate.

Oh well, my first time in a large room at the UKOUG and I messed up. At least I had the key lesson drummed into me. TURN UP EARLY!!!!

Friday Philosophy – The Worst IT Person I Have Met October 15, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy.
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A couple of weeks ago I extolled the virtues of someone I felt was a great person to work with. This week I’m going to do the opposite (and it will be interesting to see which posting gets more hits).

The worst person I have worked with in IT is Mick. I’ve only known a couple of Micks {and if you are one of them, but you don’t know Barry, you are not the Mick}. In an ironic twist of fate I met Mick at the same time I met the best person I have worked with, Barry. We were all in the same team you see, a UNIX sys admin team I got parachuted into. Maybe the vast difference between the two help make them so distinct in my mind.

Mick was very knowledgable and technically very capable. No, that is not fair, he was extremely good. He actually knew all this system admin stuff and several variations of shell programming, perl, C and a few other two-steps-from-assembler type languages. And he was an absolute and utter pain in the behind.

Barry and I did not know much (or in some cases, any) of this sys admin stuff. If we needed to do something and did not know how, Mick was supposed to show us. It worked something like this:

“Mick, I need to copy all the files that were changed last week from this directory on box X to box Y, keeping the directory structure – Can you help?”. Mick would not hear. He suffered from “intermittent deafness” – though he never missed any announcements about free food. You had to go and stand by Mick and wait for him to deem to notice you. If you actually interrupted him he would swear at you and utterly refuse to help, you had to wait quietly. If it was a good day he would deem this acceptable after a minute or two, but he would do his utmost to convey the impression he despised your lack of knowledge and your concerns were beneath his talents… but he would stoop to help.

You would repeat the task you were trying to do and, pausing only briefly to pour scorn on such a trivial thing, he would turn his back and start typing. He’d write a script to do it. “no, no, don’t write it, just tell me the basic commands and I’ll work it out!” No, he insisted on writing the script.

The script would be a thing to behold. Mick would write it in as few lines as possible and the least number of letters. For ages. Oh, he would have a working version in about the time it took Barry or I to explain the task, but he would not give you that version, oh no. He would ignore you until he had made all variables 1 character, took out all whitespace, replaced anything obvious with something obtuse, replaced a small chain of simple commands with one or two arcane commands. Every script was an attempt to win an “obfuscated code” competition. If we waited for the end result, it was impossible for Barry or I to decipher. The only benefit to the process was you would see the commands he was using and you could wander off and start with the unix Manuals yourself and get the job done.

He had other methods with which to demonstrate his greater worth.
Mick would agree to help (under duress of the boss telling him to do so) with an urgent task, but keep asking you to wait all day – then go home without doing his bit.
He seemed to love to intercept anyone coming to you for help, tell them he would sort out the problem for them – only to not. And then tell the user the next day that it was Barry or My problem to sort out. Correct, Mick would not have mentioned this to us.

Mick was fair though, he would treat everyone the same. With scorn. Any expertise in a field he did not know was unimportant and anyone with skills in his field was just competition to be shown who was best. Sadly, he usually was best, if best means biggest smartass.

Over time, as Barry and I learnt stuff (almost never from him), Mick became redundant. Not because we caught him up, not by a long way, but because no one else in the department would ask him anything. They would come to Barry and I. We might be slow and we sometimes screwed it up but we did not sneer and we fixed the problem in a way they could understand.

The reason Mick is the worst person I ever worked with is, unlike people who simply break stuff or lie about their skills or are stupid, he was actually very talented and capable – and yet took a perverse pleasure in not doing so. Mick would put effort into the art of maximizing his unhelpfulness. It was the difference between his potential to help and his drive to not do so that made it so hard for me to deal with him. I’d rather work with a talentless, idiot liar because at least you don’t need or expect much from them.

*sigh*

Friday Philosophy – The Best IT Person I Have Met September 24, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
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3 comments

I’ve had the pleasure of working with and meeting a lot of talented and capable people in IT – some of them have even been nice people too :-) {In fact, most people I have met do not match that annoying myth about IT’s reputation for social awkwardness). However, for me one person sticks out in my mind as the best person I have worked with in IT.

It’s Barry. I’m pretty sure none of you have met Barry, and in fact as I knew Barry back in 1996 I’m not so sure I would recognise him (and I have no hope of remembering his last name) if I met him now.

Barry and I met when I got press-ganged into a Unix system administration team. I was just getting started at being an Oracle Performance person and knew very little about Unix Sys admin. But, for reasons I won’t go into now, I went home on the Friday as an “Oracle expert” and came in on the Monday to find my desk had been physically lifted and moved into the Unix sys admin corral and I was now a “Sys Admin not-expert”. My protestations were listened to – and then ignored, with the information that if I did “not knuckle down and get on with it”, the money would stop flowing. So, rather dazed and just a tad unhappy with the situation, I sat – and sulked – at my desk. And there, sat next to me, was Barry.

You are probably expecting me to now tell you that Barry knew Unix sys admin inside out and how he took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. Well, he didn’t. I have no idea where they got Barry from, I think he was a pro-C developer, but he had just been similarly abused by management and deposited into a team he had not signed up for. And he knew even less about being a sys admin than I did. I at least knew my way around a few monitoring commands like top, w, ps, “glance” etc.

Barry was also not very quick with IT. Don’t get me wrong, he was not stupid, but he was not one of these people who just had an affinity for technology and spent all his spare time building their own media server when CD-ROMS for PCs were still quite new. In fact, he seemed to find the whole of IT to be something of a challenge.

What Barry had though was enthusiasm, commitment and curiosity. Not in an annoying, bouncing all over the place crying “this is great” way, but more a case of “OK, server Falcon has run out of disk space. What can I do about it? How do I find out where the storage has all gone, who is using it and can I get it back off them?”. And he would set to. He’d start with what he knew (which was little more than the “Man” {Online Manual} command in the first week) and the bits he could suck out of my head and work through it. Every few minutes he’d be tapping me on the shoulder and saying things like “Look, you can get information about disk usage here, and map it to the real physical disks by greping for this”.

It was Barry’s attitude that made him stand out, and also his ability to infect you with the same attitude. I started off in that team furious and demoralized, determined to find a new position and resign ASAP. But Barry got over his annoyance and started working. He asked me for advice and discussed the issues over with me, even though I was as clueless as him. When he found something he showed me it. When I found something, he was keen to learn it.

Between us, we got by. We knew very little and it was hard work, but because Barry was not daunted and would keep working on the problem until he had it sorted, he dragged me along with him. Often I would still be there with him into the evening, sorting something out when everyone else had gone home. He did not just take on every problem people came to us with though, he would stick with what he felt was the biggest issue until it was sorted, and he would keep with it, and ask for help, and try what you suggested.

{oddly enough , the worst person I ever worked with was already in this team. Maybe that is why the others left and Barry and I were pulled in!}

It only lasted a few months as we both escaped to jobs more suited to our skills, but I learnt a few things. One was that a crummy job could be made a lot better just by your attitude and another was that some people (Barry, not me) had a real talent for enthusing people and thus getting things done. And also, that you did not have to be highly intelligent or knowledgeable to do a very good job. That’s lucky for me, then :-)

Team Work & The Science of Slacking July 23, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management, Perceptions.
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We all know that working in a team is more efficient than working on your own (and I did say a week or two back how I was enjoying the rare privilege of working in a team of performance guys). Many of us also know about team dynamics and creating a balanced team of ideas people, completer-finishers, implementers, strategists and so forth. Those of use who have been exposed to training courses or books on team management know all these good things about teams and how we are supposed to get the most out of them.

How many of us, though, have been introduced to the work of the French Agronomist Max Ringelmann and the aspect of teams named after him, the Ringelmann Effect? In summary the Ringelmann Effect proposses that people in teams try less hard than they do when working alone. Especially if they think no one is watching them.

Back at the start of the 20th century Ringelmann tested out his ideas using a tug-of-war experiment. He would get people to pull on a rope as hard as they could and record their efforts using a strain gauge. Then he would get them to pull on the rope as part of a team, from 2 to 8 people. As soon as people were part of a team, they pulled less hard. With two people in the team, each pulled 93% as hard as on their own, with three people this dropped down to 85% and with 4 it was just 77%. By the time there were 8 people in the team, effort was down to 50%.

This idea of shirking work more and more as the team increased in size became established in modern psychology and was given Mr Ringelmann’s name. Psychologists explain that when someone is part of a group effort then the outcome is not solely down to the individual and, as such, is not totally in their control. This acts as a demotivating factor and the person tries that little bit less hard. The larger the team, the greater the demotivation and the more significant the drop in effort. Ringelmann found that effort was down to 50% in a team of 8 so how bad can the impact of the team be? I think most of us have at least witnessed, and quite possibly been in, the position of feeling like just a cog in a massive corporate team machine. Thoroughly demotivating (though, of course, we all of us still tried as hard as we could, didn’t we?).

The effect is also know under the far more entertaining title of Social Loafing.

Monsieur Ringelmann was far kinder at the time and pointed out that these chaps pulling on the rope could well have been suffering from a lack of synergy. They had not been trained together to pull as a team so that could account for the drop in effort, they were not synchronising their effort.

However, in the 1970’s Alan Ingham in Washington University revisited Ringelmanns work and he was far sneekier. Sorry, he was a more rigorous scientist. He used stooges in his team of rope-pullers, blindfolds and putting the one poor person pulling for real at the front of the team pulling the rope. Thus he could record the effort of the individual. Ingham found that there was indeed a drop in efficiency due to the team not pulling as one. But sadly, this was not the main factor. It remained that the drop in effort was mostly down to the perceived size of the rest of the team. The bottom line was proven to be the human capacity to try less hard when part of a team and that the drop in effort was directly proportional to the size of the team.

We are of course not immune to this effect in the IT world and someone has even gone to the effort of checking that out, James Suleiman and Richard T Watson.

It seems the ways to reduce this problem are:-

  • Don’t give people boring jobs.
  • Don’t give the same job to several people and let them know they all have the same job.
  • Ask people how they are getting on and give them mini-goals along the way.
  • Atually reward them for success. Like saying “thank you” and NOT giving them yet another boring, hard job to do as they did the last one so well.

I think it is also a good argument for keeping teams small {I personally think 5 or 6 people is ideal} and split up large projects such that a single team can cope. Then give tasks to individuals or pairs of people.

If you like this sort of thing you might want to check out one of my first blog post (though it is more an angry rant than a true discussion ofthe topic) which was on the Dunning-Kruger effect, where some people are unaware of their own limitations – though I did not know it was called the Dunning-Kruger effect until others told me, which only goes to show that maybe I am not aware of my own limits… Read the comments or click through to the links from there to get a better description of some people’s inability to guage their own inabilities.

Friday Philosophy – The power of cooperation June 27, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, performance.
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3 comments

Being the person responsible for the performance of an Oracle-based system can be an oddly lonely working experience. It can also be a very gregarious position as you get to meet a lot of people and discuss lots of different aspects of many systems – all systems seem to have performance issues and so people come along to you, hoping you can identify a “work faster” database setting for them.

But you are often the only person who specialises in Oracle performance. You generally need to be in an organisation that is very large or where performance is key to success for there to be justification for dedicating a person to the topic. To have more than one person dedicated to performance your organisations has to have a very strong focus on getting the best performance out of the Oracle and related systems {or really, really atrocious performance issues :-) }. So usually there is no one else around who is as experienced (or more so) as yourself to discuss such things over with or ask for a second opinion.

Which is why I am very lucky at the moment. I’m working in a team of oracle performance people. There are 2.5 of us (one is a manager with other responsibilities, so he only counts as half). Being able to say “Hey, Dave, What do you think of the wait times on scattered reads?” or “how in heck do I force this nested subquery on a view to use a hash join?” and get some other ideas is very valuable.

What is also interesting is how opinions and preferred techniques on tuning can be different and just as valid. As an example, last week I was working on a poorly performing statement. I was at home and it was the evening, so I was not communicating with the rest of the team. I managed to get the code down from 40 minutes to just under 20 by using a combination of a LEADING and USE_HASH hint. I sent the code back to the user. Only to see that within thirty seconds of each other my colleague Graeme had also sent the user a response, again getting the code down to around 20 minutes. Graeme had pulled a chunk of the code into a subquery factoring “WITH” clause and added cardinality hints. Totally different changes.

So Graeme and I then had a “philosophical” discussion about the different changes {“Mine is best” – “No! Mine is, yours is all bloated and complex”- “Your hint is less future-flexible!!!”}. Only joking, we actually discussed the changes and why we each chose what we did. Graeme commented that is showed that tuning was an art and not a science and I countered that it was a science, as we had both identified where we felt the execution plan could be improved but used different techniques to get there. The thing is, Oracle is so complex and has so many options to influence the optimiser that you have flexibility to chose different tools and techniques.

We had both identified the same main improvement but had each come up with different tweaks for later in the plan.

The end result was that we went with Graeme’s main plan {he is bigger than me} but we pulled in my tweak. That bought the execution time down to around 10 minutes, so about four times faster over all and twice as fast of either of us alone. That is one of the advantages of not working alone.

We also then discussed how we could get this code down to seconds with the use of either Materialized views or changing the process that generated the report to do so incrementally and store the daily results. Until one of us realised we had reached the boundary of compulsive tuning disorder. The report running in 10 minutes was enough improvement to satisfy the business, the report was only going to be run over the next couple of months, so spending a day or two re-working it further was going to be fun – but of no advantage to the business. We told each other to finish for the day. So another advantage of not working alone is that not only do you get more technical input but your help prevent each other losing sight of the overall aim.

It really does help to have two people working on the same area.

{There is a sneaky way of getting beyond being a lone performance specialist. If you are in an organisation long enough you can usually find some other idiot who is silly enough to want to learn more about performance and you can train them up. It does not take long before they know enough to start coming up with things you never thought of. Oracle is, after all, full of many ways to do the same thing and you can’t know it all}.

Friday Philosophy – Madness demands Attention May 28, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, Friday Philosophy.
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2 comments

Many years ago I had a good friend who was a psychiatric nurse. We were talking about his job once and he was saying how some patients just took up much more time than others. These were generally the ones who would be deemed “the most mad” in a non-clinical manner {and is pretty much how my friend the psychiatric nurse put it}. These patient’s actions or need for intervention would put demands on the staff far more than other patients. As a result, all the nurses tended to get to know (or know of) such patients better than others.

I thought of this the other day when a few of us were talking about some awful bit of application we were concerned about. This thing inserts rows from a MSSQL database into a table in an Oracle database. Triggers on the initial table fire and populate another table, in a 1-to-many relationship. This second table also has a trigger on it that further inserts into another set of tables. A regular process then aggregates this data – and sticks it back into the MSSQL database it came from.

Said process is done as a single transaction for all rows inserted for the day. Irrespective of the growth in rows. Or the fact that one source “application” has grown to 10 and soon will grow to 50. All rows in one transaction. The intermediate tables are never cleared out and get bigger and bigger. No one else needs any of this data in the Oracle side of the system.

There are several “madnesses” to this process – why put it into Oracle only to put it back in the source system, why use a busy production system to hold and process transient data, why no clean up, why are the records not processed in batches, the cascading triggers magnifies transaction data volumes…

This process is well-known in our group. I’ve been involved. Both the guys I was talking to have been involved. I can see from my desk 4 or 5 other people who have been roped into bullying this process thought before now. In fact, I reckon half the department have had to work on this damned thing at some point.

Can you see why I was reminded of my conversation with my old nurse friend?

The application is simply mad. And as a result it is demanding not only on our database but on all of the team, as so many of us have had to get involved working on it. We have all got to know it so well.

I’m glad to say that treatment for the application is planned and, hopefully, it will soon be a lot happier.

So will we.

Enrichment of the Code Monkey Environment April 15, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy.
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In animal welfare there is a concept called “Environment Enrichment”. This is where you do things to make the life of the animal in captivity more enjoyable. Often it is centred on how you feed the animal – either hiding their food so they need to forage or presenting it in a way that better matches their natural behaviour . So, for example, you might take your gerbils out of their cage and then hide seeds and bits of fruit around the place {or get Ben Fogle dragging chunks of meat behind a Land Rover through the lion enclosure at Longleat Safari Park so the lions can chase after it}. Or you might buy some of that expensive, transparent, coloured plastic tubing that plugs together in little mazes – as Gerbils of course run around pink, blue and orange transparent tubes in the wild…

Where I am working at the moment, Environment Enrichment for the captives is achieved by relocating the coffee cups in the kitchen overnight. We all turn up in the morning and go up in little groups to play the “open the cupboards in random” game in order to track down the mugs. Never the same cupboard two days in a row – except occasionally just to keep us on our toes.

We also have several fruit bowls and someone occasionally fills them with a selection of fresh fruit. Of course, as we are Code Monkeys, the bananas are most popular. What most of my fellow inhabitants have not yet worked out is the occasional bonus cache in the pot that looks like a flower vase. It’s usually apples.

The best bit of the environment enrichment is at the end of the week though. 5pm Friday, with the gentle tick of cooling laptops and the gentle lowering drone of hard disks winding down, and the glow of the LCD sceens dimming, the oasis is opened. A bottle of beer or can of coke can be obtained and you all stand around and discuss anything but computers. Well, OK, maybe computers a bit, but they have to be non-work computers.

Relax with Good Security :-) April 14, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture.
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It’s nice to know that your computer system is very secure. It allows you to relax.

Is this because you feel confident that your data is protected and that your systems cannot be compromised by malicious actions?

Well maybe, but in my case, today (*), this is not why I can relax. Security is allowing me to relax as I’ve been locked out of my account at my client’s site and it is hard to tune SQL/review design documents if you can’t log on. It is a little bizarre that my account expired today as I know the date my account is set to self destruct – I filled in the relevant forms myself and simply had my boss sign them before I popped them over to the security team. Unfortunately, I can’t pop back over to them to jolly things along as I am now in a remote location (really, very, very remote!).

I just have to wait patiently for HR, Security and Management to complete the complex little Morris Dance they have to do to confirm I am a real person, need the access and have not recently been asked to leave {I hope I am not going to be asked to leave!}.

I’m not really complaining. Having worked for the NHS back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I have shocking tales to tell, such as of taking home confidential patient clinical reports in order to play with “SQL*report writer” on my personal desktop, and similar stories about modern organisations in the private sector {well what do you know, person X owes HOW MUCH?}. So I am glad security is an order of magnitude better now. {No, honestly, it really is! No matter how bad you think things are where you are now, you should see the stuff I saw back then. These days, you at least have the ability to lock things down, if not the real-world reality.}

But, like all process-oriented things, it has to be designed to work well to be, well, effective. I got locked out of the same systems in a similar way just before Christmas. How many people are being paid a day’s wage to ring up the helpdesk and drink endless tea?

(*) I wrote this blog a while back. It might even have been before I had a blog. But a similar incident reminded me. Oh, and what was my reward for an enforced day being paid to drink tea and read a copy of “Oracle Scene”? Three days of working like a madman to catch up on that lost day. *sigh*. I did not get paid overtime.

Making Things Better Makes Things Worse February 11, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in development, Management, Perceptions.
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This could be a Friday Philosophy but I’ve got a couple of those lined up already. Anyway, I am suffering at work at the moment. I’m encountering a phenomenon that I have talked about with Dennis Adams a couple of times. It probably has a proper term, but basically it is the odd situation that when you make things better, you get more complaints. {Dennis, do you know the proper term?}

{Update. Dennis was good enough to link to this paper he wrote on customer feedback}

Anyway, Let me explain. You have an application sitting on a database. The screens are slow, the reports take an age to come out, your might even have considerable system instability and unplanned outages. The users are not unhappy. They were unhappy last year. Now they are just cynical and they just expect the system to be slow, unresponsive, flaky. So they do not report any problems.

Then things change. The system gets some much-needed care and attention and now the slowest reports get tuned up, the screens come back faster and less spontaneous department-wide coffee breaks are caused by the system crashing. Everything gets better. But not for the help desk, now they start getting calls. “This report is too slow”. “Why can’t I jump straight from the customer screen to the pending orders screen?”. This happens because the users now realise that something can be done. There is a point in complaining as there is a chance their piece of misery could be made better. I certainly went through this many years ago when I inherited a system that crashed every week. No one mentioned it, they just went to tea and complained about it. The first time it crashed after I arrived I could not believe that no one had called before I had realised it had died. Once it had been up solidly for a couple of months, then when it crashed boy did we hear about it!

Also, when you improve a system and things generally get better, occasionally something will improve and then fall back a bit. Hardly anyone says “thanks” for the initial improvement but they will say something if it improves and then drops back.

That is what is happening for my main client at the moment. The system was not that bad, but it needed some help. Why else would I be there? I’ve been beavering away with the rest of the team and we are making things better, so far mostly at an underlying “getting the overall system straight” level. A new chap has joined to help concentrate on performance and he is really making inroads into specific things, individual reports and processes that need a good sorting out.

So now that things are getting better and performance is generally improving, anything that is still slow is being brought up by the development and support teams. Also, we’ve made a few things slower (I’m sorry, it just happens like that) and they certainly get mentioned.

So, I’m busy. And I could get annoyed at people asking why X is slower when Y and Z are faster. But I don’t, because Dennis explained this counter intuitive theory to me.

I know things are getting better as people are annoyed as opposed to apathetic :-)

Friday Philosophy – Software being Good is not Good Enough February 5, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Uncategorized.
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In a previous Friday Philosophy on In Case of Emergency I mention that something being simply a “Good Idea” with technology is not good enough. Even being a GREAT idea is not enough. It also has to be:

  1. Easy and simple to use. After all, using that funny stick thing behind your steering wheel in a car, to indicate which direction you are turning, seems to be too much of an effort for many people. If installing some bit of softare or running a web page is more than a little bit of effort, most people will not bother.
  2. Quick. No one has patience anymore, or spare time. This will probably be the fourth year in a row I do not plant any vegetables in our garden as I need to spend a day or two clearing and digging over the spot for said veg. You can’t beat home-grown veg. Similarly, I won’t use a web pages that takes as long to load as it does to plant a carrot seed.
  3. Known about. There could be a really fantastic little program Out There that allows you to take a screen shot, add a title and comment and pastes it straight into a document for you, converting to half a dozen common formats on the fly. But I do not know about it. { ScreenHunter is pretty good, I have to say, and when I have shown it to people a lot of them like it}.
  4. Popular. This is not actually the same as “known about”. For a stand-alone application to be good for you, you just need to know where it exists. Like maybe a free building architecture package. Whether thousands of people use it is moot, so long as you can get your extension drawings done in it with ease, that makes it great. But something that relies on the community, like a service to rate local eataries, unless lots of people use it and add ratings, well who cares. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of such community “good ideas” started every day but unless enough people start to use it, it will fizzle out, as the vast majority of them do.

Point 4 is highly relevant to “In Case Of Emergency” as it is simple, quick and relativley known about. It just needs to be ubiquitous.

I became very aware of point 3 a few years ago and also of the ability for very clever people to be sometimes very stupid when it comes to dealing with their fellow humans.

I was working on a database holding vast quantities of DNA information. If you don’t know, DNA information is basically represented by huge long strings of A, C, T and G. So something like AACTCGTAGGTACGGGTAGGGGTAGAGTTTGAGATTGACTGAGAGGGGGAAAAATGTGTAGTGA…etc, etc, etc. These strings are hundreds, thousand, hundreds of thousands of letters long. And Scientists like to search against these strings. Of which there are millions and millions. Not for exact match mind, but kind-of-similar, fuzzy matches, where for example 95% of the ACTGs match but some do not. It’s called a BLAST match.

Anway, suffice to say, it takes a lot of compute power to do this and a fair amount of time to run. There was a service in America which would allow you to submit a BLAST query and get the answer in 20 minutes or so {I have no idea how fast it is now}. 

Some extremely clever chaps I had the pleasure of working with came up with a faster solution. Same search, under 5 seconds. Now that is GREAT. We put together the relevant hadware and software and started the service.  Now I thought it went beyond Good or even Great. It was Amazing (and I mean it, I was amazed we could do a fuzzy search against a billion such strings in 2, 3 seconds using a dozen or so PC-type servers).

No one used it. This was because almost no one knew about it and there was already this slow service people were used to using. People who used the old service never really thought to look for a new one and the chances were they would not have found ours anyway.

I pushed for more to be made of this new, faster service, that it should be advertised to the community, that it should be “sold” to people (it was free to use, by “sold” I mean an attempt made to persuade the scientific community it was worth their while investigating). The response I was given?

“If the service is worth using, people will come and use it”.

No they won’t. And indeed they didn’t. It was, I felt, a stupid position to take by an incredibly inteligent person. How were people to know it existed? Were they just supposed to just wake up one morning knowing a better solution was out there? The internet pixies would come along in the night and whisper about it in your ear? In the unlikely event of someone who would be interested in it just coming across it, were they then going to swap to using it? After all no one else seemed to know about it and it was 2 orders of magnitude faster, suspiciously fast, how could it be any good?

The service got shut down as it was just humming in the corner consuming electricity. No one knew it existed, no one found it, no one came. I can’t but help wonder how much it could have helped the scientific community.

There must be thousands of other “failed” systems across the IT world that never took off just because the people who could use it never knew it existed. Depressing huh?

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