jump to navigation

Broken Technology – Watching Smurfs Play Tennis July 7, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in humour, off-topic.
Tags: ,
1 comment so far

This post is just a bit of fun. I was just doing some email and I decided to see how the tennis (Wimbledon) was going. I fired up the BBC web site and clicked on the live match – and I’m watching Smurfs play tennis! (NB I added the Federer/Murray picture after I originally put this post up)

 

I don’t know if the problem is with the BBC feed or my reception of it, but it’s kept me amused for half an hour now. Maybe James Cameron could have save a lot of money and filmed Avatar a lot more cheaply than he did (now there was a thoroughly average film made significant almost purely by the technology used for the effects).

Agnieszka Radwańska looks particularly blue, I guess due to the contrast with the “yellow” outfit (which will have been white due to Wimbledon’s strict dress code).

Crowd scenes are particularly good :-)

Oh well, the game has finished. Back to the Email…

Friday Philosophy – Presenting Leads to Drinking, Discuss June 15, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Meeting notes, UKOUG.
Tags: , ,
9 comments

Just a quick Friday Philosophy {the day job is very demanding at the moment, thus the silence on the Blog front}

I’m presenting in Leeds at the start of July on UKOUG AIM SIG on “The First Few Things You Need To Know About Exadata”. As part of the final preparation of the agenda it’s been raised that we should have a beer after the event and put it on the agenda.

Now, when I ran the Management and Infrastructure SIG, there was always a last item of “retire to a pub for a drink or two”. It is a common feature of technical UKOUG SIGs and a great opportunity to chat to the speakers more.

Chat to the speakers. Now I think about it, most of the speakers always make it to the pub after a SIG. If the attendance on the day is 10% speakers, 10% committee and 80% delegates, the make-up in the pub will be 30% speakers, 20% committee and 50% delegates, or similar.

At conferences, the bars in the evening are covered in speakers (all still speaking – loudly and {usually} drunkenly).

So, is it that:

  • Speaking leads to elevated drinking
  • Drinking makes you more of a sucker for speaking
  • Speaking and Drinking have a shared genetic basis
  • It’s just me.

My excuse is that all that hot air coming out my mouth makes it dry and it needs a little wetting afterwards…

Friday Philosophy – The Abuse of Favours March 30, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, rant.
Tags: , , ,
8 comments

You probably all recognise this situation:

Dave needs something doing that he can’t do himself – let’s say it is creating an API for the file management package. It isn’t your job to do but it is something you can do. Dave is blocked until the API is created.

So, being a nice person, you tell Dave you will see what you can do for him over the next couple of days.

So why is it that what Dave hears is “Dave, I love you more than life itself, I am dedicated to this task and I WILL complete it before the end of tomorrow. My other tasks, emergency production issues and the untimely demise of my cat are all secondary to this endeavour.”.

You see, 24 hours later, Dave is at your desk “When will this be done?! I’m blocked until I get this!!!”. If he’s the guy I had recently his next step is to slap his fist into his palm as he utters, almost shouts “I NEED this!”.

No. No you don’t need it. What you need is for that slap to be in your face, followed by “wake up! You don’t go shouting at the guy digging you out the hole!”.

I find this particularly unacceptable when the favour is to be fixing some mess that Dave created, or doing something Dave told his boss he had finished last week. Of course, those are the exactly situations where Dave is most likely to get upset, as he is in real trouble and most likely to commit that ultimate Favour sin:-

Dave to Boss “I Didn’t get my task done as Martin promised to create the API and he hasn’t. I’d be there now if I only did it myself”.

If you are thinking “Hmmm, I think I might have been ‘Dave’ recently” then Shame On You and go beg forgiveness. Of course, if you were ‘Dave’ you may well be the sort of sod who will twist the situation around in your head so it was not your fault anyway. Grrr, bad Dave.

For a while I gave up doing work favours as I got sick of the situation above playing out. Then I started doing favours again but being a bore about saying repeatedly, up front, that this was a favour, it was only if I had time, not to rely on me and, if it is that important, go ask someone else. Yeah, sounds really grumpy doesn’t it? That gave me a reputation for not being a Team Player (which is code for “mug”).

Now I have a rule system. As soon as someone starts getting demanding about the favour, I immediately challenge it. If they get shouty they lose their favour rights. No more favours for you until the requisite number of beers have been bought. It’s three.

Of course, you see this scene played out on help forums all the time. Initial message is nearly always in upper case text speak “PLS HLP ME, IS URGNT! CN U TELL ME HOW 2 DO MY JOB – THNX!!!” and soon degrades into helfull person asking for details of the exact person and Mr Shouty demanding more and more help. I don’t help. After all, this guy is never going to buy me a beer.

Sail Away, Sail Away, Sail Away March 20, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes, VLDB.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

I’m just doing some last minute preparation for the Norwegian User Group Spring Seminar. This is quite a large conference with 5 concurrent streams and a very good line-up of presenters. You can see the agenda here.

What is also a little unusual about this conference is that it is mostly on a boat, or rather a ship. When I was first asked if I would put forward a talk or two I declined – as I am very prone to being sea-sick. Truls Bergersen, who helps organize the event, got in touch with me a few weeks later and said “we are doing a day on land first, do you want to present then?”. Sure! That would be great! So I am, I’ll be doing my talk on Index Organized Tables once more {and then I think I’ll put it to bed for a couple of years}.

Now, I am not exactly sure what made me agree to this, but then Truls asked if I would consider doing another talk I had suggested, on VLDBs (Very Large DataBases), the following day. Yes, why not?

Only, the next day we are on the ship. I’m a bit nervous about this. I don’t think that a good presentation should include the presenter going green and dashing for the door (though I did have a similar experience at Oracle Open World once, as a result of an all-you-can-eat Chinese meal the day before, but as it affected “the other end of things” you really don’t want details of that).

Thankfully, I’ve not been worrying about sea-sickness for the last couple of weeks. That will be because my laptop hard disk died and I lost everything on my still-new machine. It was still so new that I had not started backing it up properly – after all, there was nothing on there I could not replace easily.

It has been a real trial to replace all those things that I could easily replace. At least I had the presentations and some other critical bits on my temporary USB stick backup…

Friday Philosophy – The Answer To Everything January 27, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy.
Tags: ,
3 comments

For those of us acquainted with the philosophical works of Douglas Adams we know that the the answer to everything is 42.

mdw1123> select all knowledge from everything
  2  /

 KNOWLEDGE
----------
        42

This above is a real SQL statement (version 11.2.0.3, just in case you wanted to know :-) ).

This was prompted by a silly discussion at lunch time about the answer to everything and databases and I wondered aloud how you could go about getting Oracle to respond with 42 when you “selected all from everything”. My colleagues looked at me like I was an idiot and said “create a table called everything with a column called all and select it”. Yeah, of course, and I laughed. So much for being an expert at Oracle huh?

Well, I tried. It did not work:

mdw1123> create table EVERYTHING (ALL number not null)
  2  /
create table EVERYTHING (ALL number not null)
                         *
ERROR at line 1:
ORA-00904: : invalid identifier

Damn. It’s a reserved word. But for what? Off the top of my head I could not remember what ALL is used for in Oracle select syntax. Never mind, I could get around the issue to some degree by the use of quotes around the column name (and just for fun, I made the column name lowercase too – this is how you can create lowercase columns but you have to be careful with this, as you will see below):

mdw1123> create table everything ("all" number not null)
  2  /
mdw1123> desc everything
 Name                                                              Null?    Type
 ----------------------------------------------------------------- -------- --------

 all                                                               NOT NULL NUMBER

mdw1123> insert into everything values (42)
  2  /
mdw1123> select "all" from everything
  2  /

       all
----------
        42

-- but be careful of case
mdw1123> select "ALL" from everything
  2  /
select "ALL" from everything
       *
ERROR at line 1:
ORA-00904: "ALL": invalid identifier

I was not happy with this though, I was having to put the quotes in my line and be careful about the syntax.

So, what is the word ALL used for? A quick check of the SQL reference manual:

It is the opposite of DISTINCT and the default, so we never have to put it in the statement.

With the above in mind I was able to quickly come up with something close, but not quite, what I originally asked for. See below for how.

mdw1123> create table everything (KNOWLEDGE NUMBER NOT NULL)
  2  /

mdw1123> insert into everything values (42)
  2  /

mdw1123> select all knowledge from everything
  2  /

 KNOWLEDGE
----------
        42
mdw1123>

Having said it was not quite what I had originally set out to do, I actually prefer this version.

Of course, I cleaned up after myself. It feels odd typing in commands that have an English meaning that would not be what you want to do – I could not get over the nagging feeling that the below was going to cause a lot of data to disappear :-) :

mdw1123> drop table everything purge;

Friday Philosophy – Christmas Cheer and Business Bah-Humbug December 23, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
7 comments

For many, today is the last working day before Christmas and the festive season – So I sincerely wish upon everyone a Merry Christmas.. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, well the intent of my wishes still holds – I hope everyone; whether working or not; religious leanings for, against or indifferent; has an enjoyable few days during whatever end-of-year festives you have.

I’m going to be miserably now. You might want to stop reading here and maybe go to the shops for that last spell of retail hell or some other Christmas tradition. It’s probably best if you do…

You see, despite the best wishes above, generally speaking I am not a big fan of Christmas and have not been for as long as I can remember. It is not the principle of Christmas I am not keen on {I rather like both the religious and secular aspects of the whole thing, especially the seeing-people part like Di and Bri and ringing up old friends}, it is what Business does to it. Like many people, I really object to the bombarding we endure of advertising, selling and down-right commercialist bullying for what seems to be 3 months on the run-up to Christmas. I know, I know, many people make this very same point ad nauseum around this time. What ticks me off the most is that I don’t think it would be an easy thing to change, for the fundamental reason that the businesses that are so set on telling us that Christmas will not be as good as it could be if we don’t buy their food to make us fat/get expensive presents for the kids to break/buy this bottle of smelly stuff so we get more sex/buy this booze cheap, probably for the same reason as the smelly stuff {or to help ignore the lack of sex}/take out a loan to make this Christmas REALLY “special” and you can pay it off for the whole of the rest of the year and be miserable as a result, {pause to catch breath…} as I was saying, any business that sells more stuff as a result of their advertising, no matter how much it annoys other people or adds to the degrading of the whole Christmas experience, will do better than a company that does not. And so will out-compete less tacky, crass and manipulative businesses.

That’s the huge problem with Christmas and other celebratory times. We live in a commercial society and commercial selection pressure means those companies that can squeeze the most out of a situation to sell tat will win. They give not a hoot about if we enjoy ourselves really {we are back to the smelly stuff and booze again, aren’t we?}, it’s profit. Oh, if enjoying ourselves in some way aids them in getting more profit then they won’t object, but it is not in the company mission statement of 99% of companies – and any that it is in are doing it for cynical, commercialist reasons.

So, all successful businesses are Evil and are ruining Christmas for us all {OK, so that’s a bit of a big leap, stay with me….} So, have your revenge!!!

Next year:

  • Don’t buy stuff people probably don’t want. No adult wants 95% of what they get so….get nothing.
  • Tell everyone “I have all the stuff I need, buy yourself something instead – treat yourself on me”. You can buy the stuff you really want from the savings from point 1.
  • Having established the principle of reciprocal meanness above, that’s all that shopping hassle ditched.
  • Get normal food you like {and that does not play merry hell with your digestive system}. Preferably stuff you can freeze or keep a while, so you don’t need to go into the supermarket after Dec 20th.
  • Turn off the TV in December {or at least record everything and skip the adverts}. There is no decent TV in December anyway, it is all being saved up for the end of the month and, heck, even that is pretty awful.
  • Don’t read the paper. Or if you do, if you must, first four pages and last four pages only and scribble over adverts with a felt-tip pen. You’ll get the gist of world events and if your team is winning or losing.
  • That company you work for, that thinks paying you a wage means it owns your soul? It’s Evil, you owe them nothing they are not getting out of you already, so have a nice break at Christmas. {Unless you work at the same place as me, then they will need you to fill in for me as I will be on holiday}.

You will now be more relaxed, less stressed, have more time and generally be a nicer person. Take people to the pub, spend more time with people who like you being around (and this will be easier due to the people who no longer like you as you did not buy them any socks or a rubbish “humorous” golf book). Do things you actually enjoy. This year it is just going to be me, my gorgeous wife and the cat over Christmas and Boxing Day. The cat is really happy about this as we both like scratching the cat’s ears.

I might invite some neighbours over. They won’t come as they have to fulfil their awful Christmas Obligations – but they will like the fact they were invited. Heck, if they do turn up I’ll be in such a fine, happy mood I will even be nice to them.

Go and walk the hills of Mid Wales with your brother and relax.

Friday Philosophy – In Search of a Woodlouse December 16, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Blogging, Friday Philosophy, humour, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
5 comments

I don’t carry business cards around with me. I just never, ever think to get some done (either properly or with my trusty printer) and maybe this says something about my personal failings to sell myself. If anyone wants to contact me I tell them my email address and if they look confused I just say “ahh, Google me”. You see, having a very odd Surname means I am easy to find. {Reading this back I guess it could be interpreted as saying “I am so famous you will find me” but that is way, way, way from my meaning – I am going on the very unusual name that I have and nothing other than that!}

If you google (Bing, Alta Vista, whatever) “Widlake” you will get, probably on the first page – Brian Widlake who was a BBC journalist and had a key interview with Nelson Mandela; Widlake Farm B&B down in Looe, Cornwall ; a court case with BAA (nothing to do with me); an accountancy firm called Holmes Widlake; Me! Hey, not bad for some IT geek! It shows there are not many “Widlake”s out there.

If you search on “Martin Widlake” it’s pretty much just lonely little me. This is good as it means I am easily found. In the past I’ve searched on the names of friends and found it really hard to identify the exact person as there are so many people called “Kate Bush” or “Nicole Kidman” or “Stephen Hawking”.

However, my suggestion is seriously flawed and I should know this due to a conversation I have at least once a week. “And your name is, Sir?” “Martin Widlake”. Pause, faint sounds of rustling paper…”I’m sorry, could you say that again?” “Martin Widlake, with an ‘I'” (rustle rustle rustle) “I’m sorry sir, I can’t find any ‘Woodlock’/’Woodlake’/’Woodleg’/’Wideleg’/’Wiglig’ at all.” {choose word of choice, there are several more}. Carefull spelling ensues and even then, something in the brain of some people cannot shake off the “Wood” and get to “Wid”. And yes, I know about the Martin, Martyn and suggestion about ‘I’.

I had someone come up to me at the OUG conference last week and say they had tried to track me down after last years’ event and could not. No “Martin Woodlouse” to be found. *sigh*.

“martin oracle” does not help, it finds that toe-rag Martin Bach {OK, I admit it, Martin Bach is pretty damned hot at Oracle, and oh so annoyingly a nice bloke), Martin Nash in Oracle Corp {fair enough, and again a nice bloke} , James Martin the cook {what the…? but that will please the realcuddleytoys}, oracle religious Association but I ain’t going anywhere near that…I’m a page or two in, which is not bad actually, I can be happy with that.

My wife has it just as bad. She had a nice, obvious Surname {Parker} before I conned her into marrying me {and I did suggest we adopt her Surname when we married}. She joined one company a few years back where, due to her speaking a couple of eastern European languages, they decided she was (phonetically) “Susan Vidlaaackay”. They seemed to find the real Surname more confusing than their assumption.

So, I am easy to find, but only if you actually know me and my odd Surname. Otherwise, “Martin Woodlock”, “Martin Woodlake”, “Martin Woodleg”, “Martin Wiglake”, “Martin Widesnake” {if only}, “Martin Wiglig”, “Martin Wideneck”, “Martin Wicklick”, “Martin Widelake”, “Martin Windleg”, “Martin Woodlouse” and (my favourite) “Marvin Wetleg” are all terms I somehow need to get into web search engines, if I want people to find me with ease.

Does anyone know of any other takes on my name that people think they know me by? Any rude suggestions or ones based on my being shorter than R2-D2 will be deleted with prejudice!

Friday Philosophy – The Worst Thing About Contracting December 2, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in contracting, Friday Philosophy, humour, rant.
Tags: , , ,
15 comments

A while back I was asked by a friend to blog about being a contractor. In the pub last week my friend reminded me of this and that I had not obliged him. I will – think of this as instalment one Jason…

I’ve been a contractor on and off for 18 years. For anyone not familiar with the concept, it is where you are self-employed and you simply hire yourself out to a company for a period of time or to do a specific job. You generally have less job security than an employee and less rights and benefits – No holiday pay, no paid sick leave, no annual pay increase {OK, so that one is rare for employees too these days}, no training and generally the first out the door when the money gets tight. In return you get more money when working and a lot, lot less to do with office politics, HR, annual reviews and the like.

It is not for everyone but I like being a contractor. It gives me a broader degree of experience.

I like it apart from one main thing.

Recruitment Consultants. For every good one there are 3 bad ones. And for each bad one there are 5 absolutely terrible ones.

There are good recruitment consultants out there, some absolutely fantastic ones who do things like actually read CV’s, understand the business they are hiring into and can be bothered responding to emails and telephone calls. You might even find one who has a mental list of their clients and their requirements and will actively look to place a good candidate in front of those clients. Claire Green at GT-Consulting is one. There are others of course.

However, most do little more than scan the database of candidate CVs for keywords and send the first three found off to the client for them to do the actual work of seeing if they actually have the skills and experience required. It would seem most have no ability or interest in trying to work out who would be a good or bad candidate themselves, like it being the service they are supposed to supply. If you try and get in touch directly to discuss a role, to maybe ask some questions to save both you and the consultant’s client a wasted interview, many will not take your call {“Can I ask who’s calling?” Brief pause whilst they realise you are a candidate not a client company “Ahh, sorry they are out of the office today, they’ll call you back. Who were you again?”}. Only the good ones call you back. You will hardly ever be called back.

If you do speak to them, some will be your best mate – but can’t quite fake sincerity… Sadly, it is often obvious that they have no idea about the business. I had a chap a week or two back telling me I needed PL or SQL to do the role and when I queried if they meant PL/SQL they got tetchy with me. Another a while back was insisting I was not suitable as I did not have 10 years of Oracle 10. As I beta tested Oracle 10 for over a year and thus, with around 8 years’ experience at that time, was well ahead of the pack I suggested that maybe they needed to alter that requirement – or find someone who helped develop it at Oracle Corp…Again, some kindly advice was poorly received. OK, I was not kindly, I was tetchy too. He had stared off being my insincere best mate.

I could just be having a self-centred moan of course, in that the recruitment consultants don’t realise how great I am ( :-) ) and find me lucrative jobs – but I’ve also been the client and had to wade through dozens of utterly unsuitable CVs sent in from them. The last time was particularly awful as we were not able to offer a great wage (but we were happy to take people with experience of prior versions and train them up to the latest-greatest). Most CVs sent in had the words Oracle, database and administration on them but not together. Several lacked any Oracle at all. Every recruitment consultant I dealt with that time gave me the same spiel about having the best candidates on their books, how they vetted everyone and sent only the ones with the best match of skills. They must have been telling a miss-truth about at least one of those claims as there was little match with our requirements for an Oracle DBA.

So, I really like contracting but not the dealing-with-agents bit. Oddly enough, any discussion with other contractors or managers who hire nearly always shows that my feelings are widely shared…

I’ve been thinking about doing this post ever since I started blogging but I didn’t – because many jobs are only available via recruitment consultants. Insulting them is not going to help me get put forward for jobs. However, last time I was mouthing off about Satan’s little Imps in the pub and how I had never done a Friday Philosophy on the topic, due to the fear of the consequences, one of the guys pointed out I was an idiot. Most recruitment consultants can’t even be bothered reading your CV so they are not going to go check out someone’s technical blog! {and Neil has just beaten me to posting about it and how they always ask for mostly irrelevant industry experience}. Any who do are going to be firmly in that rare Good category. I’d go as far as to say that any recruitment consultant who is reading this is in the top 5% of their field. Nice to talk to you again, Claire…

Friday Philosophy – When Things Feel Wrong October 28, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,
4 comments

I got pinged by someone else missing the Friday Philosophy today {BTW, Good news, the technical blogs start again on Monday}, so…

Take a look at the below. It is a rather pleasant spot of countryside on Sao Migel in the Azores, where the area in the foreground has been converted into a bit of a garden to take advantage of the natural beauty.

Nice, isn’t it? Sorry the sun is not shining, but there you go. This waterfall just across the road from a set of water mills and waterfalls at Achada, which is one of the tourist spots that features often in brochures for Sao Miguel. But look at the scene again. Does anything strike you as odd about that waterfall? I could not put my finger on what it was, I just knew it looked odd. (Graham, if you don’t spot this immediately you owe me a pint).

There was a path heading up the valley to one side of the waterfall, one of a network meandering through the gardens, and I went up it. After a short while there was a smaller path heading up the hill more directly. It looked maintained but too steep to be a “wandering around enjoying the scenary” path. So I went up that. At the top of this path was a structure, a concrete “block house” It hummed and it gurgled. There was another path heading back the way I came, towards the waterfall. I followed along it and I found the top of the waterfall…

Yes, the waterfall was a fake. It was coming out of this huge concrete trough fed by a large pipe which went back to the humming, gurgling concrete block house. Returning back down to the bottom of the waterfall I could put my finger on what was odd about that waterfall. There is a valley to the left. OK, that is not so odd, the water could be coming from high land to the right of the valley and draining into the valley at this point. Except there is another valley to the right of the waterfall as well. Both had small streams running through them. This waterfall could only be natural if there was a perfectly formed, shallow middle valley heading up to the hills between the other two valleys and the only point where the water could escape was at the confluence of the lower two valleys. There was also a lot more water coming down this waterfall than was coming down the two valleys.

What has this got to do with Oracle and databases? Well, have you ever been in the position where you look at the output from a system and it just does not “feel right”? I sometimes refer to something I call DBA Intuition. There is also Developer Intuition and there is certainly Tester Intuition. All are where you are not sure why but it just looks or feels wrong (or, you just get a feeling for what a problem is or what the solution might be, all I class as DBA intuition, but I digress).

As an example, you are tasked to look at one of those terrible BI-type reports that consist of two pages of SQL and they want to know why it takes so long to run. Before you dive into the code, you look at the result of the report and you just think “That seems like an awfully large number of people responding to that advertising campaign” or “I can’t believe 10 percent of our income comes from selling baby diapers”.

Usually when I have dug into the actual report or part of the system that feels wrong I find out one of two things. That I had no idea that part of that business really worked that way, or, that the report is utter garbage. Somewhere in that report there a missing table or a logic flaw {nested AND and OR statements are a good place to look}. This of course has the advantage that there is no need for me to tune the report until someone can tell me WHAT the report is supposed to be identifying.

DBA Intuition is, I think, basically a gut feeling you develop in response to experience. I suppose I have more “tuning intuition” these days, I look at how fast some SQL is coming back and the volume of data and I think “seems reasonable actually” or “something is very inefficient here”. I’ve noticed that good system testers have this intuitive knack of just asking the new system to do things in a way or order that does not match the original intention.

So, I encourage you to trust your intuition. If some part of the system feels wrong, go and root around in the system undergrowth; climb up to the top of the data waterfall {OK, I’ll stop with the bad IT metaphors) and see what you find.

Incidentally, after I found the pump house we walked the other way up the valley, following the pipe and the pleasant gardens. It took maybe 20 minutes but we found the "real source" of the fake waterfall, which was a very nice, natural waterfall sitting in the very bottom of a pleasant valley – just where a waterfall should be. It just took a little more effort to get to it. I'm sure there is some moral story in there but I'm damned if I can work it out :-)

Friday Philosophy – The One Absolute Requirement for System Success October 14, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: , , , ,
5 comments

Alternative title “The lady from Patient Admin – she says YEEESSSS!!!!!!”

What must you always achieve for an IT system to be a success?

  • Bug free? Never happens.
  • Within budget/time frame? That would be nice.
  • Includes critical business functionality? Please define critical.
  • Secure? Well, it’s important for many systems but then it is often lacking (even when it is important).
  • That it is to specification? Well we all know that’s wrong.

There is only one thing that an IT system must always achieve to be a success.

User Acceptance.

For an individual system other considerations may well be very important, but the user acceptance is, I think, non-negotiable.

The user must get enough out of using the system for it to be worth their while, otherwise at best they will resent using it and at worst… Well, at worst they will use it but will put in any old rubbish to fulfill the dictate that it be used. You would be better off if they did not use the system at all. Here are a couple of examples from my working past.

In the first one, I was involved in extending a hospital management system so that it kept track of the expected departure times for patients, allowing a predication of when beds would become available and calculation of expected occupancy rates. Yes, this was a while ago (maybe 1990) and on an a system that was old then. The information was needed by someone with the title “bed nurse” {or something similar} so that they could better prepare for bringing patients in and keeping a higher bed usage ratio. This was to make the hospital more efficient? No, it was to satisfy a politically demanded report to the NHS executive. Oh, the overall intention was to increase efficiency but the report soon became more important than the idea. So, we added columns in tables and field on screens and prompts for the ward staff to fill in the information. And they didn’t. The nurses were busy, they were pretty demoralized due to having recently been used by the government as a way to control public sector pay and they had nursing duties to do. They were not going to waste a couple of minutes trying to check when Mrs Jenkins was going to be sent home when Mrs Leonard needed a bed pan. The nursing staff were given a hospital-wide telling off, this information had to be entered. They put in the data – but guessed wildly. The design was fine, the report was logically accurate, only the correct staff could run it, but No User Acceptance and thus a failure.

So I added something else. It was a very crude screen that showed a “diagram” of the ward – Down the left and right side of a VT220 screen you saw little oblong boxes with a bed number, name in it, a consultant’s initials, a medical speciality code and the arrival and departure datetime. This was some information we already had plus the new information we wanted and something quite basic, limited and slow to draw. But it was useful to the ward staff. They could find any patient, they knew who to call if there was an emergency {not the actual consultant of course, but their secretary}, they could check when they were leaving, they could see what time someone was expected. From anywhere where there was a terminal, not just the entrance to the ward, they could see all this information. They used it.  They put in the expected departure time {sobering thought, this might not be expected leaving alive} and the bed nurse could plan and the report could be run.

Second example, different hospital. We were putting together a system to schedule outpatient clinics. We knew what we were doing, it’s pretty simple. You have some people (a consultant and probably a senior house officer), a period for the clinic (3 or 4 hours) and a set of people to see, say 40.  Give some flexibility in slot lengths (some people need 5 minutes, some 15) and allow the patients to be booked in. Check for and stop double booking. We did not go and ask the patient admin staff, we knocked up the design and the screens and asked them to test. After all, I was very experienced now, I’d been doing these systems for 3 years… They very quickly came back to us and said it was rubbish. Oh dear.

We went and saw them. I think it was a couple of us programmers, our development manager, the hospital liaison for the project and the patient admin staff. “What’s the problem?” There were a few but the main one was that you could not double book a slot. Why would you want to? Do two patients really want to be consulted at the same time with the same doctor?.
“Err, maybe, it might happen, can we just be able to double book?” OK, we could maybe alter things to allow two patients to be seen at the same time… The patient admin staff are not looking happy. The hospital liaison is looking confused – “You can’t do that! Patient confidentiality can’t be broken!” he says. It got worse. “We need to book all the patients into the first slot, with the consultant, so the letters go out to them saying come to see Mr Winders at 1pm”. The admin staff are now looking very shifty.

If any of you have worked in the health service you are probably way ahead of me. The admin staff needed to book all the patients in at this first slot so that they would all turn up, the consultant would see the two or three he was interested in – and then go and play golf. The SHO would then plough through the rest of the patients for the following three or four hours. If you have ever had to turn up at the start of a consultancy session and sat there for three hours, now you know why. You see, back then, the consultant was only a very small step away from deity level (and I leave it to you to decide if it was a step up or down). What they said went and if they wanted to go and play golf or store 200 medical records in the boot of their car or refuse to speak to “that stupid idiot in renal medicine” then you worked around it. {I’m assured that things are a lot better now, but I’d love to know how it really is}.

We had designed a sensible system, the users needed a non-sensible {to our mind} system. Even the NHS liaison chap had never appreciated exactly how much the consultants abused the system, he thought they just booked the people s(he) wanted at the start of the session, but no. The consultant decided that day who was interesting and as a result every patient had to be there at the start.

I count myself lucky that I learnt from direct experience so soon in my working life that (a) you have to deliver what the user will accept and (b) the only way to know what they want is to show them the system and talk with them.

{For those of you who do not understand the alternative title at the top, it is all about an old DelMOnte fruit juice advert which became a bit of a catchphrase at the time}

{And are you happy now Dom? :-) }

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 171 other followers