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Hey, it’s not my fault I can’t spell. June 10, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
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1 comment so far

*Sigh*
I just got pinged by someone to let me know of some spelling mistakes in my blog. I know, I know, just leave me alone OK?!

Do you remember doing the “colour blind” test at school? {And, for our American cousins, “color blind”}. You know, you are shown a few images made up of dots, with numbers in them.

Most of the colour blindness images are far less obvious than this

Well, most people are shown 5 or 6 images and shout out “8”, “16” etc promptly five times and are then shown out – nothing more is said. Some people cry “7”, “34”, “dunno, give me a clue” and after 10 or 12 images get told they can’t distinguish blue & green or red & brown or something and so can’t drive trains or fly fighter planes… Me? I was in there for 5 minutes, coming up with what must have been very confusing answers. They even started showing me the same images again and I remember occasionally going something like “it’s 16 not 6, isn’t it”. Eventually they told me my colour vision was fine and threw me out as a time-waster. I wonder if I can fly fighter planes?

What they should probably have spotted (and a school teacher friend of mine got quite angry about this when I told her this story, as she thought they should have spotted this even back in the late 70’s) was that I could not read for toffee – as I have mild dyslexia. She had been taught how to identify dyslexia in children and one of the easiest ways was, she said, issues with the colour blindness test but without being colour blind.

When I read things I don’t do what a lot of people do, which is kind of pick up the start and end of long words and “see” it. I do it in little spirals. I do not know that I can explain better than that, but if I hit a long word (more than six letters) I start at the begining, flick to the back of the word and work back and if the two don’t meet I spiral in. I wonder if there is a cunning lexical trick I can sell to Oracle Text on that one?

It’s no where near as bad as many, heck I’ve managed to get by OK with it, but spell checkers have been a boon to me. The problem is, I don’t always remember to use them and, even if I do, a word spelt wrongly but is itself a correct word will not be picked up. I know, many packages now also have Grammer Checkers that could pick some of it up, but I find Grammer Checkers so infuriatingly useless, I turn them off.

So, sometimes my spelling is terrible. It’s because I have an IQ of 73, OK? The thing is, I probably got pinged in every exam I took because of it {except Maths, where in all honesty I got past the exams at age 16 and then it all stopped being logical. Sorry Mr Winters, I did my best as you know, but my brain could not do all that more advanced stuff}. I even got bollocked told off during my degree for carpals and carpels but heck, to me both read crapals.

I had particular fun a few years back when I introduced Oracle Partitioning to British Gas. No one had used it before but I had a quiet little application that I was passing over to the production DBAs to look after that did. So, I went over to Hinckley (oooh, thats a doozer to spell) where all the proddy DBAs lived and gave a presentation on Partitioning. Except I was doing it with white boards and OHP and every time I spelt Partitioning I wrote “rtit”, then went back and put in the “Pa” at the start and then tried to finish it off. Usually I managed. That was what prompted the chat with the teacher, I was telling her how that sort of thing happens to me and it’s annoying and she asked about if I had ever been tested for colour blindness.

So, there you go. It’s my excuse. Now you know that either I am right, or I have munchausens syndrome {just look it up, OK? Try this here}.

The odd thing? I can’t always spell “who” but I never get “Dyslexia” wrong.

The Knowledge Curtain. June 8, 2009

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

I came across the concept of “The Knowledge Curtain” in the late 90’s, from a man called Lee Young, who I worked with for 2 or 3 years, along with a friend Mike Cox, who was key to showing me how to peek through the curtain.

The below is taken from a powerpoint presentation I sometimes give on project disasters (how to avoid, not how to encounter!):

When systems designers talk to end users, both parties usually end up not really understanding each other

When systems designers talk to end users, both parties usually end up not really understanding each other

The basic principle is that, the knowledge of your users/customers is partly hidden from you. When you ask people for whom you are designing a computer system about their job, they don’t tell you lots of stuff.

  • Things that they assume you know.
  • Things that it does not occur to them to mention.
  • Things that they do not want to admit to doing as it sounds silly or badly managed.
  • I’ve even had people not mention parts of their job as they don’t want their manager knowing they do it.

But that is OK, when you talk about information technology and computer systems to them, they have exactly the same problems with what you say :-).

Lee’s presentation, with N. Mehandjiev, predated the all-encompasing rise of the internet and this is one of the few references to it I can find. {Among the relatively few other hits on the topic, amongst the ones about knowing how to make curtains, are references to the “Knowledge Curtain” as the concept that the Web is not as available in other areas of the world. A related but very different issue}.

So, how do you peak beyond the knowledge curtain? Systems designers and developers with experience learn how to ask the questions “what are the exceptions to what  you have just told me” and “what else do you do” in many, many ways and without giving offence. After all, you have to keep asking these two questions and people naturally get irritated with that and some feel you are suggesting they are either stupid or lying. It can be tricky. 

I think that unless you have someone who is fully IT literate and has done the job the computer system is to assist with, you will inevitably only catch a part of the requirements.

For massive projects over many months or years, I think this lack of a clear understanding of what people do is a major factor to their failures. This is made even worse when the analysis is done by one group of people and the specifications are then shipped out to an external party for the application to be developed. With all that missing knowledge, it is no wonder some systems are initially so poor.

I only know of one method that reliably allows you really see beyond the knowledge curtain. That is prototyping and user feedback. Only when you show the people who are going to use the system what you have put together to help them will they know if it works. These sessions are incredibly valuable and only in development projects where they have been key to process have I seen the project deliver something truely useful.

I now have a general way of developing anything.

  • I ask the users for 3 or 4 major things that they want the system to do.
  • I develop those 3 or 4 features as quickly as possible and show them to the users.
    • One will be almost exactly what they need.
    • One or two will be close to what they need.
    • One will be utterly useless.
    • During the above, one or two critical new needs will come up.
  • Fix the close ones, dump or redo the useless one and add the new needs to the list.

Simply cycle around the above, asking for new features when you have got less than 4 features you  are actively working on. And only polish features (add all the nice screen touches and widgets) once is is exactly what they need or pretty damned close. {You hardly ever run out of features before you run out of time and money!} You end up with an excellent system that evolves to better help the customer as time goes on.

There are lots of development methodologies that have the above principle (or a variation of it) as their core, so I am certainly not the first person to find that this method works. Which is why I find it difficult to understand why so many projects don’t use it?

BTW, I thought I would just add that one of the factors in my starting a blog was a comment by Andrew Clarke on his, several years ago before Blogging really took off. It was for a presentation I did which included the Knoweldge Curtain concept. He was very nice about my presentation and I still appreciate it. This is the link, but as it is an archive you will have to search for my name.

Fear of Databases May 29, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Management, Perceptions.
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4 comments

“It’s all in the database!”

I’m sure most of you (if you are in the UK, I must remember that the web is a world spanning medium) have seen the adverts by the wonderful TV Licencing authority or the DVLA. If not they go something like:

“We keep records” {background music}
“We know if you have paid…or not.” {Music become more sinister}
We will find you, you cannot hide” {more affirmative music}
“It’s all in the database” {doom-laden musical flourish}

OK, maybe I lay it on a bit with the music.

Now, as a database professional, I see “it’s all in the database” as a good thing. With luck it will be a well designed database with referrential integrity and all nicely validated.

Nearly all news media stories about actual or perceived threats to electronic privacy also site “The Database” as the core.
“They {who?} will hold all your web searches in a vast Database”.
” A laptop holding a Database of 1 million double glazing customers has been stolen”. I bet it was actually 10 thousand and in a spreadsheet.

It’s getting to the point where I don’t feel comfortable telling people I meet outside of the IT world that I am a database expert. Databases are hardly ever now seen in a good light, they seem to be linked only to things bad and Orwellian.

The Database is also often cited when companies get things wrong for their customers. You ring up to complain about some aspect of non-service and are often told “Oh, it doesn’t agree with you in the Database” or “the Database has got it wrong”. No it hasn’t, the person putting the information in the database got it wrong. I’ve been in the unusual situation of being told a lie where the database was given as the cause but I had access to that database. So I checked and the database was fine. It was being used as a convenient and much maligned excuse.

Very little is mentioned of the beneficial uses of databases.
For most of us our salary is processed via databases and it is a lot cheaper and more reliable than having half a hundred pay clerks doing it manually in pen and ink.
Databases are used to hold or index much of that vast quantity of stuff that you can search for on the net. Even the useful stuff on Klingons.
I for one would welcome a UK-wide database holding my basic medical details so that when I go to my GP or hospital, they do not need my memory (and in fact my consciousness) to tell them my medical past. If I have an allergy to a common drug I damned well want all medical people to know that before they put 10cc of the stuff into my veins.

And to wrap up my bad-tempered tirad, I now find it particularly tricky to talk about what I still feel is my most significant achievement in IT, namely an 80TB Database of genetic information. Without getting into the topic of Bioethics, which is beyond the scope of this blog, Genetics and a lot of biological stuff is now painted grey, if not deep, murkey, scary Red by the media. I tell John down the pub that I created a huge genetics database, he is sure I am either working on a secret government project to know all about his inner workings or some evil company combining tomatoes and monkeys into some awful, new thing that {and he has seen the movies to prove this} in all likelihood will turn into a zombie killer, escape and do for mankind.

Maybe I’ll just tell people I shoplift for a living, it might be more socially acceptable than being involved in Databases or Genetics.

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