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What were you doing 10 years ago? December 24, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions.
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It is coming towards the end of December 2009. What were you doing 10 years ago today? If you were at school or college I don’t want to know, it just depresses me. You might have been doing last-minute Christmas things, you could have been traveling to see friends , loved ones or maybe {and often less pleasurably} relatives. If, however, you were working in IT I probably know what you were doing:

You were somehow involved in preparing for “The Y2K bug!!!” (Cue dramatic drum roll, ominous music, thunder-and-lightening video and the quiet shrill laughter of consultancy firms running all the way to the bank).

Remember that? I’m a little surprised not to have seen anything much in the media yet celebrating it, {I’ve not seen it in the UK anyway}, which is odd as it was such a very big deal back then. You remember? All the nuclear power plants were going to blow up, air control systems go haywire, bank systems crash and generally the whole of modern civilisation was going to crumble.

It did not of course. It’s biggest impacts seemed to be firstly to give old Cobol and Fortran programmers a bit of a financial boost to help them bolster the pension fund and secondly so much time, effort and planning was spent on Y2K preparation that 75% of other IT programs were shut down to cope. There certainly seemed a little less work to be had in the immediate aftermath.

I never decided who was more to blame for the hype and the fear. The Media, who can never pass a chance to boost revenue by outrageous scare tactics, or business/it consultancies who can never pass a chance to boost revenue by… I better stop there, in case I ever decide to go back to working for a consultancy.

I personally learnt a couple of things.

One was to prepare. In my particular case, I had planned a big Y2K party with a bunch of friends, hired a big house to hold a dozen of us plus kids and found somewhere to buy big fireworks from. All in 1998. And for 18 months before the event told anyone I went to work for that I would not be available for that particular week. I put it into my contract. Of the two or three companies I picked up contracts with during that period, none of them batted an eyelid when I mentioned this. Of course, this meant nothing. With 3 months to go before Y2K, the missive came rolling out from top management that no one, absolutely no one in IT was being allowed to take New years eve off.
I said to my boss “except me”. No, no exceptions. “It’s in my contract, I stated when I joined I was not available that week”. No exceptions. “Bye then”. Huh? “Well, I said at the time and I am sorry to upset you, but you see, this is a job, we had an agreement and what I have organised is my life and well, you lose”. I was a little more diplomatic about it, but I insisted. After all, we had fully Y2K tested the app I was responsible for and I had an agreement.
I had the week off (with a mobile phone by my side, admittedly, but I was not in a fit state to do much by the time midnight came around). I learnt that if you have an agreement and you calmly refuse to capitulate, and you negotiate a little, you can avoid “no exceptions”. {My friend Nasty Mike took the more direct approach of swearing loud defiance. He won also, but maybe with more bad feeling…}

The other thing I learnt was that companies will not pay less than they expect for a job. The five of us had written this app and it used four digit year dates all the way through the system. It was on Oracle 8. It worked. But no, Top Management wanted the system Y2K proving. So they asked a company to test it. This company wanted something like £50,000 to test it and it was to come out of our development budget. Ouch. That was pretty much half the budget.
So one of the team put forward a proposal to Y2K test the system via their company, for about £5,000.This was refused; it was too cheap to be believed.
So we put exactly the same proposal forward through another of our companies for £15,000 plus expenses and an exorbitantly hourly rate if extra work was needed.
This proposal was accepted.
So we did the work, we ran all the tests we specified, rolled the system past Y2K, repeated the tests, then…did a full refresh of the O/S, oracle and the app and recovered a full backup from before the initial tests. We were delayed by 24 hours as central IT screwed up the full oracle restore, so we got to charge the exorbitant hourly rate.
We handed the test results pack to the central IT team and their one question was “Why had we refreshed the O/S and re-installed Oracle? Well, we said, how do you know that going past Y2K had not set some internal variables within the O/S or the database that just setting back the system clock would not fix? The O/S is a complex thing.
The head of central IT looked ever so worried. No one had mentioned that before. And they had spent a lot on external Y2K testing consultancy…

Isn’t business odd at times?

Friday Philosophy – What Was My Job Again? December 11, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Management.
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How much control do we have over what job we are in?

I know I have mentioned this before, but I did not choose to work with Oracle - I fell into it by accident. I found myself in a job which I was no longer enjoying, for a boss who had issues with me and I had issues with a salary (mine, of course). So I decided to apply for a job with a company a friend of mine worked for:

For those of you who are not UK-born or have seen less than three decades go by, in 1990 “Oracle” was a teletext company that provided information on your TV screen for the TV company Channel 4. Basic news, entertainment, sports etc via chunky text and chunkier graphics thrown up in glorious low-res.

I honestly thought I was going for an interview with that company, as opposed to the other “Oracle”, some database company with the same name which went on to pretty much conquer the corporate database and applications world. That was a pretty lucky break for me and I made a conscious decision to stick with this database stuff.

Many years later I was on a contract doing database performance tuning. Someone, a manager, came and asked me about how they could save space, not in the database world but in the Unix filesystem world. So I made the suggestion that they check out the man page on compress. We compressed some big files and he went away happy, leaving me to get on with my database stuff. My big mistake was, when he came back a week later and asked how he could get the compressed data out, I promptly showed him. I revealed too much knowledge.

I came in to work the next Monday morning and my desk had gone. There was an oblong square of dust and hula-hoop crumbs, nothing else. Even my pile of “documents to get back to” from under the desk was gone. Had I been sacked? No, I had been put in the Unix system administration team. My desk had been picked up and physically moved across the room to the Unix Corral, along with everthing on, under or next to it.

No one has asked me, it had not been mentioned to me at all, the managers had just realised on Friday that half the existing team (contractors) had left at the end of the week and no replacements had been found. That devious manager I had helped had told the others I was a whizz at Unix and so my fate was sealed. I was not a whizz at Unix, I was barely competent at basic shell programming. But I learnt a bit before deciding I wanted to stick at the Database stuff and went off to a contract doing that again. I still kind of wish I’d done the Unix a little longer though.

The final shift I’ll mention, and is probably more commonly echoed in other people’s experience, is coming in one day to find you are a manager. This had happened to me small-scale a couple of times, taking on a contract where I ended up in charge of a team, but in this particular case I was a permanent employee managing a team of 4 DBAs and my boss left. Within the week I found that I was being treated as the manager of 5 or 6 teams, totalling about 30 people. More by them than by upper management, but upper management cottoned on and asked me to do the job. Long story cut short, I resisted the move upwards but it happened anyway. Not, at that time, what I wanted at all.

I’ve told the above story a few times when doing presentations on management-related topics and many people, a surprising number to me,  have said to me afterwards that the same sort of thing happened to them. I am also now chair of the Management and Infrastructure Special Interest Group of the UK Oracle user group. That SIG is full of people with a similar story.

What is the point of this particular Friday Philosophy? Well, these experiences have made me realise that a lot of people are probably doing jobs they just found themselves in, or in the case of managers, just got pushed into.

If you did not chose your job, you are unlikely to be a good fit, especially to start with.

I’m sure most of us have experienced this and, looking back, can see that initially we lacked the skills, the background, even the inclination for the role. But we either got on, moved on, or become morose and bitter.

This also means that we are all probably encountering a lot of people in that exact situation, all the time - People doing a job they just found themselves in. So, if someone seems to not be doing a job as well as they could, check how long they have been doing it. If it is a recent change, remember your own experience and cut them some slack. You would have appreciated it when you were them.

It also explains Morose and Bitter Geoff who manages Accounts too, doesn’t it?

Friday Philosophy – when do we learn? October 17, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: ,

I’ve had a theory for a while that there are two times when we learn:

  • When we are under extreme duress
  • When we are under no duress at all

I think all technicians would agree with the former. We learn a lot when something very important needs doing urgently, like getting the database back up or finding out why the application has suddenly gone wrong {Hint, very often the answer is to find What Changed}. Another example is when a decision has been made to implement something a manager has seen a nice sales presentation on and they really like the look of it. We technicians have to make it actually work {and I admit to once or twice having been the Manager in this situation :-). I apologise to my people from back then}.

I’ve also believed for a while that the other time you learn, or at least can learn, is when things are unusually quiet. When work is just at it’s normal hectic pace, it’s hard to spend the extra effort on reading manuals, trying things out and checking out some of those technical blogs. You spend all your spare effort on The Rest Of Your Life. You know, friends, partners, children, the cat.

So I think you need some slack time to learn and that is when the most complete learning is done. Yes, you learn a lot when the pressure is on, but you are generally learning “how to get the damned problem resolved” and probably not exactly why the problem occurred; did you fix the problem or just cover it over? Did you implement that new feature your boss’s boss wanted in the best way, or in a way that just about works. You need the slack time to sort out the details.

When do we get slack time? Weekends and holidays. How many of us have snuck the odd technical book or two into our luggage when going on holiday? {And how many of us have had that look from our partners when they find out?}.

Well, at the end of this week I am going on two and a half weeks holiday, over to New England in the US. A few days in Boston, up through Maine, across to Mount Washington to a little hotel where we had possibly the best meal of our lives, down to Mystic and then over to Washington to see some friends.

I am not taking any manuals. I am not taking any technical books.  I am not taking a laptop with Oracle on it. I am not even likely to blog for the duration. Why? I have not been as mentally and physically shattered as I am now since I finished my degree 20 years ago. I just want to switch off for a while.

So I am revising my theory of when we learn. I now think we learn when:

  • When we are under extreme duress {that just does not change}
  • When we have spare mental capacity and the drive to use it.

Right now, I think I have the mental capacity of a drunk squirrel. So from the end of next week, I’m going to sleep, read sci-fi, eat and drink well and maybe do a bit of culture.  The computers and the learning can wait for a little while.

Friday Philosophy – Cats and Dogs October 2, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions.
Tags: , ,

I like cats. Cats are great. I don’t like dogs. I’ve been attacked by a nasty bitie dog and that is my reason. And dogs growl at you. And woof.

This is of course unfair, I have been bitten by cats lots more than dogs (seeing as I own cats and have never owned a dog, this is to be expected), cats scratch, cats hiss at you and yowl and they have been known to leave “presents” in my slippers.

My animal preference comes down to personal, even personality, reasons as opposed to logic. A dog needs attention, a walk twice a day, they follow you around and always want attention and tend to be unquestioning in their affection. Cats can often take you or leave you, will come when called only if they had already decide to come over and the issue of who owns who is certainly not clear. If you do not keep your cat happy, there is always Mrs Willams down the road who Tiddles can up and go and live with instead.

These same illogical preferences riddle IT I think. People make decisions for what I sometimes term “religious” reasons. As an example, I’ve worked with a lot of people who either are strongly for or against Open Source. There are logical and business reasons for and against Open Source, but it seems to me that many people have decided which they prefer for personal reasons {often, Open Source people tend towards anti-establishement and anti-corporation views, Open Source detractors tend towards supporting business and personal wealth}. They then will argue their corner with the various pros and cons but you know there is no swaying their opinion as it was not derived from logic.

In the same way I will not stop preferring cats to dogs. And I know I personally have a couple of Religious decisions about IT that are not based on cold logic {And I am not changing them, OK!}.

I think it helps to realise that people do make decisions this way (some make most of them this way, most make some decisions this way) and it’s not worth getting that angry or annoyed when someone seems to be intractable in their stance against your ideas. After all, you might have made a “religious” decision which side you are on and they can’t understand why you don’t agree with them :-)

opinions formed in this manner are difficult to change. They can and do change, but usually only over time and in a gradual way, certainly not from someone saying to them they are an idiot for preferring Sybase to Ingress and verbally berating them with various arguments for and against.

So, if it is only a work thing {and heck, computers and software really are not that important} be passionate, but try and be a little flexible too.

This post was, of course, just a shallow excuse to include a link to a Cat thing – my favorite cat animation. Sorry Dog lovers {It’s your own faulty for liking nasty, smelly dogs}.

The Sneaky WHAT Strategy!? June 15, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in biology, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,
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OK, I can’t resist any more, I have to write a Blog about this. I apologise up front for any offence I cause anyone, it is not intended.

There has been a bit of a thread between my and Richard Foote’s blog about the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is his post on it. The Dunning Kruger effect (Jonathan Lewis told us what it was called) is where people have an over-inflated opinion of their own ability. Since the names of behavioral traits came up, I have been unable to get something out of my mind.

When I was at college I studied Zoology. In one lecture on animal behaviour we were told about the “Sneaky Fuck3r Strategy”. Yes, you read it right, that is what it is called. {I’ve stuck a ’3′ in there as I’m concerned I’ll blow up some web filters}.

It was described in the context of Red Deer. A single dominant male has a harem of females during the breeding season. Other big, strong males will challenge the Dominant Stag and, if they win, will take over the harem. So, this one Stag has all the lady deer at his disposal, only challenged by similarly large, aggressive males.

Well, not quite. What sometimes happens is that, when the dominant stag is fighting off a challenge, one of the younger stags will sneak into the herd and mate with one of the females. Thus the term “Sneaky Fuck3r strategy”. Genetic testing shows that quite a few of the deer born are not fathered by the dominant male!

The one little twist added during my lecture was that it had been observed that one young male, male(A), would go and challenge the dominant stag whilst another young male(B) snuck into the herd. Then, a while later Male(B) would challenge the stag and Male(A) would have his turn. I don’t know if that was an unsubstantiated embellishment but is suggests smart as well as sneaky.

I really thought she was pulling our legs about the name, but the lecturer wasn’t. It is a real term, used by real zoologists, though mostly UK-based. You can google it but I won’t blame you if you want to wait until you are not at work to do so!

Many people lay the credit for the name to John Maynard Smith But this article with Tim Clutton-Brockhas an excellent description of the situation {click on “show Transcript” and I suggest you search for the word “sneaky”}. I am not clear if Tim did the original work on the subject though. For some reason I can’t fathom, wikipedia does not mention the strategy in it’s entries for either scientist…


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