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Friday Philosophy – Computer Magazines & Women (Not) In I.T November 29, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
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I often get into discussions about Women In IT (#WIT), even more so in the last 4 or 5 years with my growing involvement in organising and being at conferences. There is no doubting that the I.T industry is generally blighted by a lack of women and other minorities (and I don’t like referring to women as “minorities” as there are more women in the UK than men). Ours is mostly a white, male, middle-class and (especially in the Oracle sphere) “middle aged” world.

Is this part of the problem?

I’ve never been happy with the ratio of men to women in the IT workplace – and I started my career in the UK National Health Service, where the ratio of men to women in technical roles seemed more like 80:20. In all companies since, the ratio I would estimate as been 10-15% women. And I haven’t seen it changing much. And I’m afraid to say, to a certain degree, I have almost given up on trying to correct this imbalance in our current workforce. Note, current workforce.

Why? Well, I’ve tried for years to increase the ratio of women in technical areas or at least to increase female representation. That is, make women more visible:

  • When I’ve hired new staff I’ve given female candidates an extra half point in my head – and part of me hates doing it because it’s sexist, the very thing that is the problem. But the small wrong done to try and right a larger wrong.
  • When allocating pay increases I looked out for imbalance (is Sarah doing the same role as Dave to the same level, but being paid less? Let’s fix that).
  • When I have input to paper selection for conferences, “minorities” get an extra half point. But only half. They have to be good at presenting/have an interesting abstract.
  • When it comes to promotion, it is utterly on merit. I don’t care what’s in your underwear, the colour you are, what clothes you wear that are dictated by religion. If your work is deserving of promotion and I can promote, I promote. No positive or negative discrimination. I take this stance as I know people do not want to be promoted “just because” of filling a quota. Further, if it is perceived that this is happening, it creates a bad backlash.

But, really, it’s had little impact. The problem I keep hitting is that there are simply far fewer women in I.T. We can all try and skew things in the way that I (and many others) do or strive for more women in visible positions to act as role models, which I think is an important thing for our industry to do.

But we can’t magically create more women in I.T. Specifically, we can’t create women who have been doing the job for a long time and so are more likely to be skilled and willing to present. We can only work with what we have. One result of the skewing is a relatively small number of women are constantly asked to present and invariable sit on #WIT panels. We see the same people over and over again.

What we can do is encourage a more mixed group of young people coming into the industry. It won’t help much with something like the database world, or at least the database user community, as you see few young people of any type coming in – we need to fix that as well and I applaud things like the German user group #NextGen efforts – databases do not attract young people, It’s Not Cool. But that’s a whole other topic for another day.

In discussing all this, many times, over the years the idea that we need to go back to pre-work people (that would be kids and teenagers then) and encourage everyone – irrespective of gender,sexuality, ethnicity etc etc etc – to do IT, Science, Art, domestic science, whatever they want and ignore the stereotypes of old – is pretty much agreed to be A Good Thing.

All of this is great but it left me with a question. How did we get into this mess in the first place? Why are there so few women in IT between the ages of 35 and retirement? In the early days a lot of women were in IT compared to the average number of women in scientific areas generally. When I was at school (1980’s) they introduce Computer Studies into the curriculum and there were as many girls as boys in my class. Ability was equally spread. The number of women taking IT at college was admittedly terribly low when I went, but colleges did a lot to encourage women and the numbers were rising. And then stopped. Why? What was stopping girls continuing with computers? Well, a year or two ago I read an article (I think in print as I struggled to find similar online – but if you find one let me know) about the computer press back in the 90’s. And it stuck a chord with me.

The article argued that part (not all, but maybe a big part) of the problem was the computer magazines of the time. I’ve picked on “PC Format” as it was a magazine I bought often and knew, but others were similar. PC Format seemed to me to nearly always have a sexualised image of a woman on the cover, like the one at the top of this article. This was especially true if the image was a bit “science fiction”, say a ray-traced image to promote graphics cards. The image would invariably be of a woman with a, frankly, quite striking and often physiologically unlikely figure. Inside the magazine adverts were liberally decorated with nubile women leaning forward provocatively or with striking make-up & hair and yet wearing nerd glasses. You know, the sort of look you NEVER saw in real life. This was not a style or fashion magazine, it was not an “adult” magazine, it was about mother boards, CPUs, games, programming and general tech.

The covers I found online for this article are not as bad as many I remember (and perhaps I should not be using the worst anyway), but you get the idea. And it was not just PC Format, but that particular publication seemed to style itself as more a lifestyle magazine than just Tech or just Games. Games magazines also had a fair amount of “Dungeons & Dragons” images of women wearing clothes you would freeze to death in and be totally unsuitable for a bit of sword fighting. Why all the women?

When I read the article about this sexism I remembered a letter that had been published in, probably, PC Format. That and the response utterly summed it up. The letter asked why the magazine kept using sexy images of women on the front of a computer magazine. It wasn’t very Women’s Lib. The answer by the magazine was basically “If we put a sexy picture of a woman on the front it sells more. The more copies we sell the more money we make. We are simply giving you what you want; it’s not our problem, it’s actually yours”.

At the time I liked that letter as it said “you the public are in the wrong” and I rather liked stuff that put two fingers up at the majority and I mentally supported the magazine’s position. Looking back now, what strikes me is the abject shirking of responsibility and blatant putting profit before morality. Which I think is the biggest blight on society. Now I’m angry that the magazine just shrugged it’s shoulders and kept on.

When you added the magazines to the depictions of women in science fiction films & TV, and then once you were in the industry the use of booth babes and that nearly all women in sales & PR looked more like models than average (which still is true today) then the whole message was “women – you can be OK in IT if you are able to look like and act like this”. It’s not very inclusive.

The odd thing is, If you look further back at the old Sinclair User or Commodore User magazines, they had nothing like the same level of sexualised imagery of women on the front – they mostly had screen shots of the games in them or art work based on the games. The sexism grew through the end of the 80’s and into the 90’s I think.

So what is my point? We see less of this stuff these days, isn’t it more historical? Well, I think we need to keep an eye on history as it informs. I think it also explains (partly) the lack of mature women in I.T and that it’s almost impossible to change now. But also, it’s not so much “don’t repeat the mistakes of the past”  but “what mistakes are we currently making that in 20 years will be as obvious as that old mistake”. It’s not avoiding the same mistakes but similar ones.

I’ve been talking to Abigail Giles-Haigh recently about her presenting at our (UKOUG’s) #WIT event at Techfest 2019.  Abi is an expert on Artificial Intelligence and we were chatting about the dangers of training systems on historic data, as they can perpetuate historical bias. Also, any system we train now can bake in current bias. It might not even be conscious bias, it can be a bias due to an absence of training data. Some face recognition systems struggle to recognise people with dark skin tones for example. It’s not beyond reason that if we were training AI systems back in the 90’s as to what makes a computer magazine popular, it might have picked up on not just the sexualised lady images but also other aspects of an overtly male-oriented magazine, such as the type of adverts or the language used. Adjustements in light of the data would be made, sales would have gone up even further, and locked in the white-male bias. Only now it would be AI driving it and would we question the underlying, unconscious biases? I do think it’s a danger.

I think it’s going to continue to be a real struggle to encourage more non-white-male-old people into the industry, especially if we try and change the mature workforce. I’m not going to stop trying but I honestly don’t think we can make much difference to the here-and-now.

But we can work more to remove bias for the in-coming generation. And for that we need role models. From the current generation.

 

Presenting Well – Tell Your Story November 28, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting, User Groups.
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I don’t think the key to a really good presentation is the content, the structure, the delivery method, or even the main message. It’s The Story.

Coming to a Conference Near You Soon!

Actually, I’d go as far as to say that there is no one, single key to presenting well – but The Story seems to be at the heart of many of the best presentations I have seen and I think that some of the best presenters I know use The Story.

More and more I strive to present by Telling A Story. It works for me and since I started doing this, I think my presentations have got a lot better.

When you read (or watch) a story, it is about something – a person, an event, how change occurred, overcoming an obstacle. It might be hard to totally define what a story is, but when you read a book and it does not really go anywhere, it’s usually not satisfying and you know it has not really told the story. Some presentations are like that: They have some great content and there is knowledge being passed on but, just as when characters are poorly developed or the plot is disjointed, the presentation feels like it’s made of bits and you come away feeling you can’t join all the dots. With a book lacking a good story you may feel you did not get the whole thing; with a technical presentation you might feel you don’t really understand how you do something – or why.

When people design a talk they usually focus on “what facts do I need to tell, what details must I include”. The aim is to put information in other people’s heads. But facts and code and details are hard to absorb. For many a story helps it all go in more smoothly. You absolutely need the facts and details, but if you start gently, setting the pace – but maybe hinting of things to come or an early nugget of detail maybe  (as you do with story) – then expand the scope and go into the details you stand a better chance of carrying the crowd with you.

If you are now thinking “It’s hard enough to come up with a presentation topic, design the talk and then deliver it, and now you want me to do all that and in the form of a story?!? – that’s going to be so much harder!” well, let me explain why I think it is actually easier.

This man is telling a story of Violence, Despair and… APEX

It’s already a story

First of all, what you want to talk about could be, by it’s very nature, already a story.

If the presentation is about using a software technique or product to solve a business problem – that’s a story about how you did it (or, even better, how you tried to do it and it failed – most people present on successes but presentations on failures are often fantastic!).

If it is about learning about a feature of a language or of the database, your story is something like:

“how do I get going with this, what do I need to learn, the things that went wrong, my overcoming adversity {my ignorance}, and finally reaching the sunny uphills of expertise”.

Flow

A story has a flow. It’s a lot easier to learn a story than a set of facts. Some talks are just facts. In fact {see what I did there} many techniques for remembering lists of things are to make them into a story.

Rather than making it harder to remember, having a story makes it easier to remember your talk and move through it. Each part of the presentation leads to (and reminds you of, up on that scary stage where your brain might burp) the next part. The Story helps remove the fear of forgetting parts of your material, and thus helps Control the Presentation Monster.

For the audience it gives them a progression, a narrative. I find that if a talk does not so much leap from points but more segues into them, it is easier to listen and focus. As I design my talks and add more facts and details, I keep in mind how can I preserve the flow. If I am going to talk about some of the things that can go wrong, putting them all in 4 slides together is easy for me and I have a chunk of “things to avoid” – but it may well break the flow, so I try to mention the things to avoid as I came across them or as I expand my theme. I fit them into the flow of the story.

Added colour

I’m not at all suggesting you invent characters or plot devices for your talk. That really would be hard! I also suspect that, unless you were a brilliant story teller, it would be pretty awful! But you can add in little aspects of this.

If I mention someone in my presentation, I usually give a couple of bits of information about them. Not a biography, just something like “Dave was the systems admin – wonderful collection of Rick & Morty t-shirts and no sense of smell”. There is no need for me to do this, it does not help understand the technical content, but now people have a mental (and possibly even nasal) image of Dave.

Side plots – if in learning about some aspect of say Virtual Private Database I discovered something about PL/SQL functions, I’ll divert from My Core Story and give 3 or 4 minutes on that (as a mini story). The great thing about side stories is that, depending on your time management, you can drop or include them as your talk progresses. If I get asked questions during my talk and it has slowed me down (which is NOT a problem – I love the interaction) I can drop a side plot.

Interaction

All engaged, no phones being looked at…

Finally, when you tell a story you talk to your audience. You are not talking AT an audience. You are explaining to them the background, taking them through the narrative of the topic and leading them, possibly via some side stories, to the conclusion. It is far more like communicating with your audience than dictating to them. And, if you are brave enough to do so, you can look at your audience and engage with them, try to judge if they are following the story and have any feedback or response to it. Mostly any feedback is quite passive (no one shouts out to hear more about PL/SQL functions) but you will catch people’s eye, get a smile, get some indication that they are listening.

For me, discovering that last bit about The Story was when I finally felt I had a way of presenting that worked for me. If I am talking with my audience and I feel there is an engagement, a rapport, that is when I do my best job of it. That’s when I come off the stage buzzing and happy.

Danger Will Robinson!

There is a danger to Telling a Story and that is time. Most good stories build to a satisfying end. Most technical presentations also generally have a main point. But if you are progressing through a Story you might run out of time, in which case you do not get to your Big Expose or you have to suddenly blurt out the ending. It’s like those TV programs where they obviously run out of steam and some kludge is used to end it  – “And then the side character from an hour ago appears, distracts the dragon and you nick the golden egg! Hurr…ah?”.

You can modify the run time with side plots as I say above, but if you are going to Tell a Story, you need to practice the run time more than normal.

You can finish early, it’s better than not finishing at all. But being on time is best.

 

How to (Not) Present – The Evil Threes November 22, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Perceptions, Presenting, User Groups.
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<< I Wish All New Presenters Knew This (and it will help you)
<<<<Controlling The Presentation Monster (Preparing to Present)
. . . . . . . . . Presenting Well – Tell Your Story >>

I’m going to let you into a secret. One of the most commonly taught “sure-fire-wins” to presenting is, in my opinion, a way to almost guarantee that your presentation is boring and dull. Whenever I am in a presentation and I realise they are going to do the “Rule of Three”, a little piece of me dies – and I check to see if I can get to an exit without too much notice. If I can do so I’m probably going to leave. Otherwise, I’ll be considerate and sit quietly. But I’m already thinking I might just watch cat videos on my phone.

The Evil Three!

The Rule of Three is a presenting structure that is useful if you hate presenting and you feel you are poor at it, but an inescapable part of your role is to present information to groups of people, be they internally to your team or to small groups. The principle is this:

  • People will only remember 3 things from your presentation.
  • There are three parts to your presentation – the start, the body, the end.
  • Use lists of three. I have examples below but basically do something like “be more engaging, more dynamic, more able to get the message over”. 3 parts.
  • 3 squared – use the above to create a killer presentation!
    • Tell the audience in the intro the three things you are going to tell them (briefly)
    • In the body explain each one of the three points in turn, in detail (using lists of three)
    • at the end, sum up the three points briefly.
    • Finish. To indifferent applause.

The problem with the Rule of three is it is a formula, a structure, to help the presenter to cope. Which if presenting is not your thing is OK. But it is not a method for engaging the audience or for making a talk interesting. It is in fact a straight jacket on a talk. As soon as it starts you know that you are going to be told three things. You will be told them again – but actually you won’t, as the presenter nearly always has 2,4, 5, or 12 things to tell you and they will “make it fit”. And at the end, you will have to listen to a summary of what you heard twice already – but again, it will be squeezed into the 3-point-rule.

I guess part of the reason I dislike this technique so much is that back when I started presenting, it was ubiquitous. I’d say half the talks I saw were Rule of Three style and they were the bulk of the poor ones. Back then we did not have Smart Phones. Many of us did not even have Dumb Phones (you know, ones that pretty much only made calls and sent texts, but worked for a week between charges). I played a lot of “snake” during those bad talks. Another thing we had back then was more in the way of training courses. And maybe that was the source of the popularity of this style…

After a year or two of my “presenting career” I went on an “advanced presentation skills” course. I checked before hand that it was not a course for those who had never presented or had to present but it made them want to die,  but that the course was aimed at taking you from being competent to being a skilled presenter. They said yes, it was, it was for people who already presented but wanted to be more engaging, more dynamic, more able to get the message over. My next question was “so no Rule of Three then?” They said no, no Rule of Three.

This presentation Sucks

The course was all around the Rule of Three.

Now don’t get me wrong, if your aim is to describe something fairly simple and all you want to do is get that information from your brain into the brains of the people listening, with the minimum of pain to you, then the Rule of Three will work. It is fairly simple and it is efficient. But you better have a topic that has 3 parts to it and you are using this method as you are only presenting as you are being forced to and this is a way to cope.

If you want to Present, then the Rule of Three sucks. It really sucks. It sucks the enjoyment out of the talk, it sucks the energy out the room, and it sucks the oxygen out of the atmosphere.

They heard I was doing a Rule of Three presentation

The one part of the Rule of Three that I do have a lot of time for is having three parts or examples to a phrase or description. “Be strong, be bold, be brave!” Listing three options such as “If you want to wake up a little the try some light exercise. Go for a walk, get on the bike for 15 minutes, or even a jog a mile or two”. This is a pattern the ancient Greeks used a lot, as you will find out (ad nauseam – which is Latin not Greek) if you google “The rule of three”.Two does not seem enough and 4 or 5 seem a little over the top. But don’t use it all the time as otherwise it can make what you say (or write) too formulaic, too structured, too obvious… a bit crap.

Anyway, having got to the course and discovered that it was all on the Rule Of Three, to say I was annoyed would be a serious understatement. The course was not at all on how you make your presentations more engaging or how to identify things to avoid. (And I will do a post or two on those topics next).

However I did manage to have some fun. On all such presentation skills courses you do at least one, if not several, practice presentations to the other delegates.

I did one that went down very well. It was on why I so, so, so dislike presenting by the Rule of Three.

Controlling The Presentation Monster (Preparing to Present) November 18, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in humour, Perceptions, Presenting.
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As I covered before, nerves before a presentation are not a bad thing. In fact, many excellent presenters/performers recognise that those butterflies of anxiety are necessary to make your presentation really sing. But you need to control the Presentation Monster. You want to take it down from lion-taming to annoyed-but-fundamentally-not-evil-cat-training.

Presentation Monster Gonna Get You

Embrace the Emotion

As the linked-to post above describes, nerves before a performance (and presenting is a kind of performance) are normal. So the first thing to do is accept that you not only will be nervous/anxious/really wanting the toilet very badly but that, if you didn’t, your talk is probably going to be poor.

Just accepting that and knowing that the people you see presenting apparently in an island of calm are mostly faking it helps. If they can fake, it so can you. Some of the below will help you turn down the anxiety dial or, if there is a need, even turn it up a little to get you buzzing.

Practice, practice…. practice.

I know it sounds obvious, but this is so true. You need to run through your presentation several times and in the right way. And people often don’t do it well.

When I prepare a new presentation, once it is written, I want to run through it from start to finish, in real time, 3 times. This is where most people go wrong and they make one of the following mistakes:

  • They will spot a problem on a slide, for example some text is garbled or an image is too small. And they stop to fix it, and then continue the practice session. Well, you just stopped the flow of it all and any timings you do will broken. Don’t do this – if you are still correcting big mistakes then your talk is not ready for the practising step, small mistakes you can go back to once you finish.
  • As each slide flicks up they go “yeah, OK, I know what I am going to say” – and move on. Don’t. Say it. Imagine the audience, talk to them, include any anecdotes or side points you plan (or suddenly think of), and speak slowly. It is way better to be faster for the real thing than slower as most presentations lead up to a Big Point or the Most Interesting Bits at the end, and if you run out of time…
  • They never time it. How do you know this takes 45 minutes unless you have done it in 45 minutes?

Practice any anecdotes or jokes. Ideally you want them to sound spontaneous but, like sincerity, you can fake spontaneity 😄. You will know if you are the sort of person who will wander off topic or throw in something you suddenly think of. If you do, the speaking slowly during the practice is vital, and make the talk 5 minutes shorter. You know you can fill it. You can’t so easily drop content without it being obvious and dropping content usually goes down poorly.

Once you have done a presentation for real a couple of times then it gets a lot easier to repeat, but you really do still need to do a full run though before each time you present it.

The aim is to ensure that you know your material, you know it will fit, and you will not be surprised by a slide coming up when you don’t expect it.

Just One!

A Little Glass…

If you partake of alcohol, consider having a drink, ONE drink, about 1/2 an hour before you present. A glass of wine or a beer.

Why? Well, alcohol is a depressant, in that it turns down the nervous system a little (as opposed to making you sad and morose, which it can in larger quantities). It enhances the activity of a neurotransmitter called GABA in your brain. The end result is it relaxes you a little and it also slightly suppresses the social filters we have in our heads to stop us saying things we worry we should not say. It actually helps when presenting if you are a little more… open and verbose.

By having the drink half an hour before you present, it will be having it’s full effect as you get going. By only having one you are still in control. If you are having 3 beers or half a bottle of wine before presenting, you are probably doing this very wrong and should stop!

An alternative is to have a coffee before you present. The caffeine gives you a mild lift, makes you a tad more buzzy.  However, if nerves are a real problem for you, this might not be the best option. But if you want a little more energy, it can help.

Stop Messing With The Content Dave!

A few years ago I was at a conference, the evening before it started, having a drink and a chat with friends. Dave (not his real name, it was Rob) said he was going to tweak his demonstration for tomorrow. An early session tomorrow. I told him to leave it alone, the last thing you need is to stop it working. He agreed.

The next morning I went a little early to Dave’s session as I wanted somewhere quiet to drink my coffee as I was a little …tired from the bar the night before. Dave was already there. He was hunched over his laptop, typing like a crazed chimpanzee with a sugar rush, swearing. “Dave – did you mess with the demo?!?” “It won’t work anymore, I can’t make it work anymore!!!”. And then the audience arrived.

What followed was 45 minutes of high stress for Dave and a somewhat below par session for us.

My advice is change nothing just before you present. People who know me in the presenting sphere know this is advice I don’t always heed myself, I’ve been known to be in a talk before mine, quickly polishing my slides. And it is not a good idea.

The “demo that fails to work” is the worst case, but often you will see people present and suddenly say “oh, I thought there was a different slide there”. Or refer to something they had intend to say, but they dropped or re-ordered a slide. And now they are flustered.

Do yourself a favour: by all means review your slides just before you present, I recommend that. But change nothing of substance. You will be a lot calmer. When you change stuff, a chunk of your brain is now tied up going “you changed the slide on mutating monsters, remember you changed the slide on mutating monsters”

Chat to the Audience/friends just before you start

I find this works for me, maybe it will for you. Hopefully, even if you are a new presenter, some friends will be in the audience. I find there are usually a couple of “dead minutes” before you present, especially at larger conferences. Time is left for people to change rooms and swap over laptops.

I use that time to chat with them (from the stage, I don’t mean go sit next to them and ask about the kids). A bit of light banter or just telling them to shut up and sit down. I might take a couple of pictures of the audience or comment on how early it is/close to lunch it is/too late in the day for this lark it is/did anyone see X talk.

I’m not sure why this seems to help me, maybe it is acting to lower the communication barrier or, like if you are going for a run and jogging for the first minute to wake up the system, it eases you into it.

Post Performance Routine

How does what you do after you present help with your presentation? Well, because it is part of the whole experience. Your enjoyment of presenting is to a large degree down to what you got out of it the last few times. Some of my friends will be at the side of the stage before starting, adamant they are never doing this stupid thing again. But they do so as they know that, despite the fact that the Presentation Monster is currently feasting on their liver, over all they get something out of presenting.

I know some people who really want a quite beer after presenting. I tend not to go to another session directly after I have finished one of mine as I’ve realised I struggle to listen as I am too keyed up. I like to chill & chat to people or check social media, usually with a coffee and also some water.

I recently asked around and it seems to be pretty common for people to have a post-presenting routine and it is usually around calming down and letting the adrenaline that comes with a performance ebb away. One person I know has to go pee a couple of times. Maybe it’s the beer before presenting.

Turning Up The Dial

Sometimes you might have the opposite problem. There are no real nerves or you are feeling flat before you present. That is not good as the adrenaline, the nervousness, that helps make you dynamic when you present. In this case I might turn the dial up a little.

I might talk myself into a little bit of anxiety – “What if they ask me about that bit I never looked into properly, is the relevant product manager going to be in the audience”.

I will probably have a coffee but I find the stuff does not do that much to me, but it might for you.

What I usually do is add in a bit of new jeopardy. I’ll swap my intro slides to something new (or at least different) or slot in a new slide which is sort-of relevant. Or decide to try a joke early on that might not work.

 

The bottom line is you want the Presentation Monster in the room, you want it a little hungry. But you don’t want it to be any larger than you can handle with a good stick and a bit of determination.

Friday Philosophy – Jerks, Plain & Simple November 15, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
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A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on social media by someone who had just encountered a jerk. You know, someone who is an arrogant, bullying, self-important cockwomble (*).

This is a cockwomble, made by Susan Widlake

The offended party had tweeted a link to the thread where the abuse had happened and I went and took a look. It’s not really that important in what manner the jerk was being a jerk, though in this case they were asking for free help that the original poster was giving, and when they did not get as much help as they felt entitled to, they became abusive to the person helping. Sadly, nothing new there.

But what did make me pause was that the original tweet that linked to this tale of the toss-pot ended with the line “Welcome to my world as a woman in I.T.” And I paused – but not for the obvious reason.

I went back and checked the thread to make sure I was right, that I had not missed anything. I hadn’t, not that I could see on the thread anyway.

At no point in this woman’s dealings with this jerk had anything been said about sex, gender, male, female, anything. This person asking for help was undoubtedly not a nice person, the speed with which they swapped from “please help me” through “You have to do more for me” and then on to a tirade of abuse was rapid. And it was nasty abuse – but none of it was sexist.

The woman had made a point that they received this sort of treatment because of their gender – but there was no sign of gender being part of this at all.  And that bothered me. It bothered me for three reasons.

  • I keep coming across people who immediately assume that if someone treats them badly, is offensive, does not like them, or is in any way a jerk towards them, it is because of whatever minority group they are part of. Sometimes sadly that is the case. However, in others it is not – but the offended person has stopped being able to discern that difference. At times I’ve suffered from bullying and being ignored in my own little way but I realized that I was being over sensitive and sometimes I was being ignored just because the person ignoring me ignored pretty much everyone, or was derogatory to everyone. It was nothing to do with my height.
  • Maybe because of that first point, where any issue is perceived as being due to an “..ism”, some people have developed an attitude that all people not in their minority group are against them. For example, I regularly come across the attitude of “all men are….”. I’ve been told to my face that all men think that women are not as good at programming as men. Well, you’re wrong. Not all men think like that. I told the person in question I did not hold that opinion and the reply was something like “well you’re about the only exception then!”. They were determined to hold a point of view in which it was not that there are still some sexist men about – but that all men were sexist, and rabidly so. That’s pretty annoying and it risks making people not want to help fight your corner.
  • I’ve had people say to me “I can’t say anything about X doing this wrong as I’ll only get accused of …ism” – and It’s occasionally been a worry for me. This can lead to a backlash where people get away with poor work or bad behaviour as no one wants to be labelled with an “…ism”

What worries me about this “cry wolf” scenario and the attitudes of “they are all going to be out to get you” is that it actually perpetuates the very thing we need to stand against. When I come across someone who is constantly, always citing all their interpersonal problems as being due to the minority they associate themselves with, I confess I thinking to myself “well, perhaps I’ll be a little wary of you, you seem to have issues here”. It’s like a chap I met who was adamant that every boss he had ever had was “a moron”. He’d had a lot of bosses and he could not accept that maybe, just maybe, at times perhaps the boss was not the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely should challenge behaviour that treats a group of people as inferior, just for being part of that group. We should not condone any “..ism”. We should all ask ourselves if we are being unconsciously prejudiced and, if so, work to stop that. But we should be wary of citing bigotry as a knee-jerk reaction or falling into the error of challenging sexism, racism etc with exactly the same attitude but just from the other side of the fence.

And I think part of this is recognising that sometimes, often, jerks are just jerks. There is no …ism. Let’s just call them out for being jerks. And if there is an …ism, we call them out for being absolute, utter jerks.

 

(*) cockwomble is a term that seems to be becoming more universally recognised. It just means someone who is a bit of an idiot, someone you don’t want to spend any more time with that you need. A Womble is a creature from UK kids TV in the 70’s and 80’s. They are made-up animals that wander around Wimbledon Common (a large park in London), tidying it up and making things out of the rubbish they find. Sue made this cockwomble out of a beany-bag womble and a beany-bag cockerel.

UKOUG TechFest19 Survival Guide November 13, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Meeting notes, UKOUG, User Groups.
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Brighton, December 1st-4th 2019, Grand Hotel, Techfest2019. This is the big Technology event for the UKOUG this year, one of the largest Oracle Tech events in Europe.

All This And More

The UKOUG conference is traditionally the one to finish the European year of conferencing and it is always incredibly popular with both delegates and presenters. There are two things that are not traditional about this year’s UKOUG December conference:

  • It is Technology Focused. We asked our members when they wanted their annual conference and there was a strong split between Business Applications and Technology members, with many Business Apps members finding December a bad time to be out of the office and most of them preferring May/June, so we split the conference and the big Business Apps conference will be in June 2020. However, our Tech members wanted to stick to December.
  • The conference is in the South of England. Birmingham was our conference home for many years and we have been to Manchester & Liverpool, so time to try the South.

I’m really please we are in Brighton as it is a lively, fascinating place. Also, being that little bit further south, it might be less cold. Slightly!

Why Come?

Because there will be fantastic talks, round tables, Q&A sessions, experts to quiz, people with the the same technical challenges as you, Partners able to offer services and, last but not least, it will be fun!

Technical Content

The UKOUG conferences are very popular with presenters. On average we get 5 submissions per presenting slot, more for some streams. We could fill the conference with talks from Oracle ACEs, Oracle Certified Masters, and the best Oracle Corp offer. What we actually do is have stream-specific teams that select not just known speakers but also topics we know are hot, new presenters, avoid repeating content. It’s damned hard work but we aim to give you:

  • Independent experts who will tell you exactly how it is, like Richard Foote on indexes (all the way from Auz, so a rare chance to see him), Frank Pachot from CERN, Security guru Pete Finnigan, Abigail Giles-Haigh, Craig Shallahamer, Jonathan Lewis, Zahid Anwar, Loneke Dikmans…
  • Oracle giving you the latest information “from the horses mouth” and, just as important, the chance to meet product managers and other experts. People like Maria Colgan, Mike Deitrich, Jeff Smith, Nigel Bayliss, Susan Duncan
  • 9 or more concurrent streams across Development, Analytics & Data Science, Database, Systems & Infrastrructure, and APEX. No matter what your interest in the Oracle Tech world we hope your problem will not be “is there a session of interest” but “which session of interest do I go to now?”
  • Roundtable discussions, panels, keynotes, presentations – and the chance to meet the experts around the conference and at the socials

The arrows should not be taken as indicative of any specific type of fun…

Fun

Learning stuff at conference is the name of the game, but so is having some fun. The more enjoyable the conference and the social times after are, the more you you will get out of the content. I know from personal experience that if a conference is just information and being serious, after a few hours my brain shuts off.

Also, it’s when you are more relaxed that the magic thing about attending an event in person happens – you meet people and get to know them better. This opens doors to industry experts, you find people dealing with the same PIA technical issues as you, you exchange war stories. You make friends. I get just as much (if not more) from the people I meet at conference than the official presentations.

Monday evening there will be networking drinks, Tuesday will be the big party (and I’ve been promised No Loud Music!!!). If you are a UKOUG volunteer or speaker, there is a drinks reception Sunday night. (I know of a couple of other events being put on by other companies too, such as Rittman Mead).

We will be having the retro games consoles scattered around the venue again.

And, we are in Brighton! Of course as the UKOUG President I would never encourage you to leave the conference hotel… But as a human being I would say go and look around Brighton, have a bit of fun! You might want to do what I am doing and be in Brighton a day or two before the event (or after) and really enjoy what the town has to offer.  Mrs Widlake is coming with me on Saturday so we can have a mini break.

One other fun thing – Mark Rittman is organising a gentle cycle ride Sunday morning. Details can be found {here},it will be a couple of hours via a cafe, prior to Super Sunday starting. I plan to take part.

Now, the practical stuff:

Getting There

Train

Basically, if you can get to London OK, you can get to Brighton just fine. Trains go from Victoria in under an hour, from St Pancras (very convenient if you come to London on Eurostar), London Bridge (both about 90 mins) and, if you live near Cambridge, you can get a direct train through London to Brighton. There is a direct service from Gatwick Airport taking about half an hour.

I’d strongly advise booking *now*. If you come down on Saturday or Sunday, it can cost as little as £15-20 from London, £40 from Birmingham, Bristol or Leeds.

If you don’t often travel by train just be aware that “open” tickets and booking only a few days ahead can be eye-wateringly expensive. Plan ahead, decide when you are travelling, and book ASAP.

Plane

The best international airport to fly to for Brighton is Gatwick, as there is a fast (1/2 hour) train service direct to Brighton for as little as £10. A taxi will take 40-50 minutes and cost that many pounds.

Heathrow is also sort-of on the same side of London as Brighton but you will either have to go into London to Victoria by the slow Tube line and then out on the normal train services to Brighton, or take the Heathrow Express (15 mins, about £15 each way) to London Paddington and take the tube Central Line around to Victoria.

If you come in to Stansted, basically get into London (Stansted Express) and work it out from there!

For Luton (and Stansted, sort of) Niall Litchfield says

If you are flying into Luton, don’t go into London and change. Take the shuttle bus to Luton Airport Parkway station (10 minutes) and take the direct train to Brighton. If you are going to Stanstead then you should consider your life choices!

 

Automobile

UPDATE – see comments by Niall Litchfield (again, helpful chap), a local who says to not drive in to Brighton as parking is so bad. He is 20 mins away and will take the local train. Best bet if you must is Park and Ride

It’s relatively simple to drive to Brighton. You go around the M25 to the M23 and down that, and keep going when it turns into the A23. I’m not so sure about coming along the more coastal road (A27) – I have bad memories of it taking ages to get anywhere.

But parking can be expensive. If you are not being provided parking by a hotel you are using or you plan to come in and go home each day then you might like to look at https://www.visitbrighton.com/plan-your-visit/travel-information/parking or similar. I’m no expert on parking in Brighton (I last did it 30 years ago) but I’ll ask someone local and update this accordingly. My one hint would be avoid NCP car parks – they are usually very expensive and, as a company, they are terrible. Ask anyone who commutes by train into London or any other major city and they probably hate NCP with a passion.

Walking/Cycling

Don’t be daft, unless you are local, in which case you know more than I do!

 

Under a month to go & lots of hotels available

Where to Stay

I’m afraid you missed the special deal to stay at the Grand (the location of the conference) but you might still be able to book there. However, at the time of writing (see image), there are many, many hotels available around Brighton and you might want to look at Air B&B for something cheaper.

I personally use Trivago to find accommodation but other websites are available. They should all allow you to what I do which is choose the lowest “comfort” level you want and the price range. I then use the map view as it makes things a lot easier than a list of hotels with no idea where they actually are!

I’m actually staying at the conference venue – as President I have a lot of duties so it makes sense for me to be on-site. I also know that there are a lot of presenters etc staying at the hotel so it should add to the vibe, but sometimes I specifically choose to stay a 5, 10 minute walk from a Conference, so I can get away from it all if I should wish. I find a 10 minutes stroll before a conference wakes me up and doing so after gives my brain a chance to turn off a little.

Coffee, Refreshments etc.

It’s been a problem for years at UKOUG conferences. Getting coffee (or tea or whatever) has been a real challenge as the venues always wanted a fortune to provide catering all day. Catering! Just hot drinks and maybe some biscuits! This year, tea & coffee will be available throughout the conference! I’m not guaranteeing it will be good tea and coffee, I’m not daft, but Brighton has a big coffee culture so I have hopes.

Water should always be available.

If your are a coffee snob (looking at one person in particular here) then, look, we are IN BRIGHTON! Go out the hotel and walk 2 minutes, you will soon find a hipster cafe and can get your double espresso skinny latte with raw cane sugar there. And in fact, yeah, do it! Pop out the venue for 10 mins and go to a local cafe. Or get an ice cream. Or, if you are inclined, a glass of wine and a cake. Cafe culture is all around you.

If you don’t like the provided coffee at the conference, don’t tell me. Tell me about other things that are right or wrong but, honestly, the quality of the coffee is not something I want to hear anything more about. This is the UK and it is an I.T. conference, the coffee is supposed to bad!

You will have been asked when you registered for the event if you have dietary requirements and this should be catered for. Vegetarian options should be provided at all meals as a matter of course. Any issues, as the UKOUG staff and they will sort it out for you.

At the social events there will be soft drinks as well as alcoholic ones. Some people like alcohol, some do not, it really is not that important if you drink or not. BUT if you find there are no soft options then let the UKOUG staff know immediately – we had a problem one year where the caterers only provided beer & wine and no one mentioned it for ages. They just got angry and slagged us off after the event.

There will be no secret whisky tasting this year. There never has been. It’s just a rumour. If whisky is not your thing then feel free to not bring a different thing to share at the non-existing tasting.

Chocolate. I’ve also not heard rumours about a chocolate tasting happening…

Other Hints

Go to at least one talk you know nothing about, that is not your core work area. You will probably learn something unexpectedly useful! You might even get a peak at a shift in your career.

Speak to the famous people. They are human, they are *just like you* (only, of course, much much smarter…). Honestly, just say “hi” or “isn’t it a shame about the Rugby world cup final” or “what bread do you like to bake?” (this is surprisingly likely to get an interested response from a growing number of speakers). Have a little chat. But also, please do not stalk. If you find yourself hanging about after a session to chat to the same person you chatted to three time already, you have become a scary stalker and need to stop.

If you don’t know many people at the conference, go to a panel session or a round table. If you can build up the courage, when you see a circle of half a dozen people chatting and you recognise some of them as “in your area”, go and join in. (And, if you are one of those people in a circle of mates, chatting, keep an eye out for people hanging about nearby looking nervous. I wish we did not stand in these circles, backs to each other, but I can’t think of a good way to break the circle.)

Take breaks. If you do 7 sessions in succession I am willing to bet nothing is going into the brain anymore. If you happen to find yourself talking with people just before a session starts and you are enjoying the conversation, maybe keep it going and have a coffee/water. I really do believe that those contacts you make/develop at conferences and the ad-hoc things you learn as just as valuable as listening to Connor McDonald bang on about SQL in his boring monotone again. He does rubbish slides.

 

 

Friday Philosophy – Top Ten Influencers in my Technical Career October 18, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions.
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Earlier this week I was sipping wine late at night and cogitating on what led me to where I am now. Part of that was the more specific topic of what, or rather who, influenced my technical development and career, especially early on. As a little game for myself, I decided to jot down the 10 first names I came up with and did not discard within 5 seconds. And then excluded those who’s influence had been negative!

The ones you will know…

It’s OK, don’t get your hopes up, you are not on the list.

That list was:

  • Cary Millsap
  • Craig Shallahamer
  • Mike Cox
  • Jonathan Lewis
  • Barry
  • Maria Colgan
  • Steven Feuerstein
  • Rachael Carmichael
  • Tim (OracleBase) Hall
  • Dominic Giles.
  • Richard Foote

I really hope you have heard of most of them. I’d be amazed if you know all of them. And yes, there are 11. I was, if you remember, sipping wine late at night. In the morning I looked at the list and thought about refining it or expanding it (and boy, I could expand it to 50 people plus in 10 minutes) but that was not my game. First 10, with very little analysis.

You know what is coming, I’m going to step through the list. I’m so obvious. But the reasons are not always so obvious (though some are, sorry). Remember, I was slightly drunk.

Cary Millsap. I detest Cary Millsap.

I’m joking of course! But a tiny little bit of me always goes “Grrrr” when I think of this man who is fundamentally a really nice person, very bright, and a wonderful presenter. Why? Well, he came up with OFA, the Optimal Flexible Architecture. This specified a logical, sensible way to lay out an Oracle database, it’s files and the directories they went in, file naming conventions etc such that the database was performant, easy to navigate, and you could have multiple databases on a server without confusion. And that could have been me! I came up with almost the exact same thing and I was damn proud of it. And 6 months after I came up with it and thought “I need to make a big thing of this and get some credit for my genius” – I came across OFA. I was gutted.

Optimal Flexible Architecture 8.1.5 style

The thing is, Cary was one of the first people I came across who was putting out stuff to help all us DBA types back in the 1990’s.  I am sure I must have seen stuff he did that became the OFA and it influenced me. His OFA was first published a couple of years before I came up with my design, but I had not seen it. We did not really have the internet back then!

Cary did not influence me simply by producing great stuff, he made me realise that several people can come up with similar ideas and, actually, being “first” is nice – but really the key thing is to spread the knowledge. Making our jobs easier for everyone around you is really doing something for the community. Cary also came up with Method R for performance tuning which is great, but time to move on.

I sometimes mention I have a decent dose of dyslexia. In my mind Craig is Craig “Shalamar”. His last name is too long for me and I “spin” in the middle of his surname “Shallahamer”. Too many repeated letters (in my mind there are 2 m’s too). Thus when I only knew him from printed materials my brain would stick with the wrong name. Few people were putting out stuff in the early 90’s and because his stuff was so good he was a key, early source of received wisdom for me. Then in the late 90’s he disappeared, or at least from my view he did. But now he’s back and I’ve met him. He is about the only person (him and Kerry Osbourne, sorry Kerry) who I have been a little hem-touchy with  (go right to the end of that post). ie went “Oh wow! You are blah blah!” when meeting them (follow the link if you want to know what I mean). It’s OK, Craig let me off. I got him a beer. It was a free beer, it was at DOAG! One day I’ll actually buy him a beer to say thank you for all the help he gave me early on. I might even buy him two, but let’s not get too giddy.

Mike Cox is fundamentally a brilliant developer & incredibly smart and he will never, ever present. It’s not for him. He represents the huge number of very talented I.T people you never hear about as they just get on with the job. I worked with Mike when I was at Oracle in the early 90’s and again at the end of the 90’s when he {grudgingly} told his boss I was not totally useless. His boss knew that was high praise. I remember someone telling Mike his code did not work. Mike replied “Yes it does! I’ve checked it. Twice!”. His code worked. He is one of the few people I know who can write a page of PL/SQL and execute it and it does what he wants, first execution. But that is not what he taught me. He taught me that what we do is create solutions and the absolute one thing you have to do as a developer is create something the user wants to use. I.E. it makes their working life easier. Everything else is secondary. Thanks Mike.

Sharp tools – everyone here is one

If you are in the technical core Oracle RDBMS sphere and you do not know who Jonathan Lewis is, I’m stunned. His approach to methodically understanding problems and how Oracle works is second to none. I think there are one or two people as good as Jonathan is but personally I know of no one better. So that is why he influenced me? Well, yes and no. Oracle Names, those top people (and this is true in all disciplines) are people, just like all of us. Very talented but, fundamentally, normal people. Jonathan is a friend, I like chatting to him in the pub and we will discuss bread and chainsaws on twitter. And he has given me advice and help over the years, as a friend, and I very much appreciate that. And if it is not Oracle, sometimes I’m teaching him. If you meet those presenters and writers of good stuff then yes, of course, respect their skill. But don’t hero worship them. Most of them don’t actually like it. Treat them like regular people (because they ARE regular people) and you might make a friend.

I’ve written about Barry before (and no, I can’t for the life of me remember his last name). Barry taught me that you don’t need to be technically the best to be great at what you do. You need to care and you need to be willing to try and you need to be willing to learn. It’s all about attitude. In the little team we were in we had a guy who was technically superb. And no one liked him, as he was an arrogant and unhelpful bugger. Everyone liked Barry and asked him to help. Be like Barry. I try to be like Barry.

SQL Maria (She’ll probably never lose that nick name in the Oracle sphere) used to the product manager for the optimizer and I was a performance nerd, so of course I knew of Maria Colgan. The number of times she said to the audience “I’m not technical, I don’t understand this stuff…” and then gave a really good description of that stuff. She was a little liar! She knew her stuff (and still does), you can’t present like that and not know your topic. She was also one of the first product managers in Oracle I started chatting to, both about technical topics and as a friendly face. Oracle Names are just normal people and Oracle Names From Oracle are just normal people too. Who knew? Maria now looks after In Memory and stuff like that, but if you google her, the top hit is still “Maria Colgan Oracle Optimizer”. I wonder if Nigel Bayliss, who has been the PM for the optimizer for a few years now (and very good he is at it too) has a doll in a drawer with pins in it…

Well worn indeed

Steven Feurestein. I can’t spell his last name best out of three due to the aforementioned dyslexia. Anyone, and I mean ANYone, who was coding in PL/SQL in the mid 90’s onward probably had/has the Ant Book on their desk, Oracle PL/SQL Programming by Steven. I consumed the first edition of that book, pretty much working it to ruin as I referred to it over the years. I still have it and boy it is tatty. Thanks for that book Steven, and the ones that came after it. However, Steven has influenced me twice. He now works for Oracle, leading the Oracle Developer Advocates team which includes the Ask Tom team. And that’s sort of what I do now, advocate Oracle and the community. Only I don’t really get paid for it. Can I have a job Steven?

{Why did I not pick Tom Kyte? Looking back now he was a massive influence on me as he was on many others, he should be in the list. But he isn’t. So aren’t a lot of excellent people like Arup Nanda, Chris Antognini, Kevin Closson, Uwe Hess…}

I thought I had written a blog about Rachael Carmichael but it seems I have not. Rachel was really active in the Oracle presenting circuit back in the 90’s and early 2000’s and wrote/contributed to several books. I met her at one of my first UKOUG conferences when I was a presenting newbie. Rachael sort of took me under her wing and not only gave me good advice but also introduced me to several of the really well know presenters, a lot of who were in the Oak Table. Both of those things had a big influence on my career.

Rachael then decided she’d had enough of technology and followed a different path and swapped to working with animals. Because she wanted to. You can change career totally – if the current one has lost it’s sparkle, go find something else to do. I did not leave the Oracle sphere (I thought about it) but I decided to stop being mostly a technician and more an enabler, encouraged by Rachael’s example.

 

Tim blogs as well as writing articles

ORACLE_BASE must be one of the most visited and highest quality sources of Oracle technical information on the web. If you did not know, Tim Hall writes it all (I think he writes it all. Maybe he has a team held captive in his basement. I’ll ask him). If I need to check syntax or how a feature works, I google it and if an ORACLE-BASE page comes up I go there. Tim’s a great guy and a very good presenter – but don’t let him near an Oracle panel session. And oh boy don’t let him sit on one! Like me he is a biologist really, so an absolute top, fantastic bloke :-). Tim also has a very philosophical outlook on this Oracle technology bollocks, which I am sure encouraged me to do my Friday Philosophies.

Dominic Giles is a Master Product Manager for the Oracle Database here in the UK. I don’t know what you do to become a Master product manager, maybe just get old? For years Dom has been a real friend to the UKOUG and the conference circuit in general, doing great talks about the core RDBMS, what is new, what can and cannot be done. But the reason he really influenced me is he came to help us when I was working on the human genome project. Most consultants going on-site for a company would never tell the client to “just grow a pair and do it Martin”. Dom did. Bloody brilliant. We did know each other quite well at this point and it was a kick up the arse I needed. Be real with people, it’s so much more effective (if perhaps a little more risky?)

Unfortunately, Richard does not look like this anymore

Finally, and well done for reading this far, is Richard Foote. Actually, I reckon almost no one will have got through this whole list, my wife keeps telling me to split this post into 2 or 3 parts. But Richard will get this far, he wants to know what I say about him and if it includes anything about David Bowie. Richard is a bit of a Bowie fan, as am I. Bowie’s “Black Tie, White Noise” is playing as I type this. What Richard does not know about indexing you don’t need to know. I learnt a lot from him. But then I learnt a lot from many people, so why Richard?
This blog. I stole his layout for mine. In fact, before I changed the graphics for the banner and stretched the format it looked EXACTLY like Richard’s blog. Also, I liked Richard’s presenting style – Relaxed, jokey, but with good technical content. I sort of nicked that too. Part of me just want to be Richard, except for the being Australian bit 🙂

Well done, that’s the lot.

 

OGB Appreciation Day: It’s All About ME! October 10, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in ACED, Knowledge, Perceptions, Presenting, UKOUG, User Groups.
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The Oracle Groundbreakers program, and it’s previous incarnations going back to OTN and beyond, are all about me. Yes – Me!

What a great bunch of people

Well, having hopefully got you hooked in with the ego-laden title and first line, let me explain.

As OracleBase (Dr Tim Hall) describes in this post on Oracle Groundbreakers Appreciation day, today we are celebrating what OTN/ODC/Groundbreakers means to many of us. For me it is quite simple, Groundbreakers, as part of the larger Oracle community, gave me the career and roles I currently have. The knowledge, support, and community they promote made me into the President of the UK Oracle user group. Why do I say this?

Let’s go back in time a little, to the last millennium. When I was first navigating my Oracle career the user community sort-of existed back then. You had big, flappy, paper things called “books” that you could buy and put on your desk. They held loads of information and stuff you did not know. And those of us who were keen to learn would swap white papers and articles by email, which you would also print out and put on your desk, in an ever-growing couple of towers. Why all the paper? We had 14-16 inch screens with terrible resolution, you had no screen space back then, so you programmed on that and had your help on the desk. As for googling things – didn’t exist. At this time I was utterly on the receiving end of community. I was being taught. I did teach back then, but only face-to-face for whichever company was employing me at the time.

Step into the new millennium and I landed a job with the Sanger Institute and the Human Genome Project. The Sanger have a culture of sharing – data, techniques, information, discoveries. As a result I was not just allowed but encouraged to go and talk at conferences. So I did. My first presentations were at Oracle Open World, the Oracle Life Sciences User Group (OLSUG), and the UKOUG conference. Very soon I was helping run the OLSUG events and volunteering at UKOUG events. I just got sucked in. I was still of course on the receiving side of the community, learning from all those great people who present, write, chat etc. But now I was giving to the community too. And there was something about being part of the “giving” community that I had not expected. You learn even more. And you have more fun! I got to meet a lot of fellow presenters, event organisers, and product managers – especially when I was made an Oracle ACE and joined what is by far the largest part of the Oracle community.

The ACE/Groundbreaker program recognises not necessarily the smartest and best people in any given field. It recognises those who put time and effort into sharing, in helping others (which was lucky for me!). You have to know your stuff to teach others (so be technically or business good), but you also need to be willing to, well, teach! To interact with people. So the vast majority of people who are in the program are also friendly & supportive people. Being dropped into that group really helped me.

Not only did I meet all these people from around the globe, I’ve been able to go around several parts of the globe to conferences and meetings. Groundbreakers does a lot to support people going around the world to present and share knowledge. The great thing about travelling is you see other perspectives and cultures. I don’t think we realise how parochial our viewpoint can be until we meet people with different perspectives and experiences.

As a result of my being part of the community and being an ACE/ACED, I’ve continued to learn technically, I’ve got a lot better at interacting with people, my communication skills have developed, and I now know a lot of skilled people in the community. All of these things have of course helped my working career. But where it all comes together is in my role as UKOUG president. I would never have considered putting myself forward for this role if I had not had all this experience with the Oracle community. And I don’t think I’d be very good in the role if I had not learnt all the “soft skills” that I have, and made the contacts that I have.

So Groundbreakers, you made me President of the UKOUG.

I *think* I thank you 🙂

I Wish All New Presenters Knew This (and it will help you): October 7, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Presenting.
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All people new to presenting need to know this:

Me presenting to a large number of people. Yes, I am nervous!

It’s OK to be nervous.

Nearly all those excellent presenters you see at conferences still get nervous. Being nervous actually makes you a better presenter. Embrace nervous. Nervous is your presenting best buddy!

The topic of performance nerves came up on a recent twitter chat I was involved in. Several well known presenters (in the Oracle sphere) all made similar comments, on how they have been doing this for years and that, though you get better at handling the butterflies in the stomach, they still bat madly in your insides before the show starts.

I won’t name names, but over half of the best speakers at UKOUG conferences (as measured by feedback scores) have confirmed to me that they still get nervous. And nearly all of them say the nerves help. Yes, help.

The degree to which you get nervous obviously varies from person to person and if, rather than nerves, it is fear so bad that you want to throw up, then presenting is probably not for you. I say probably – I know of a couple of people personally who seriously wonder if they can do it without losing their last meal, each and every time, and yet they still present. But for most of us presenters the nerves are there. Even those who seem totally at peace, smile warmly as they start, and have not a trace of quiver in the voice – they are nervous.

The first time you present is of course special. You don’t know how you are going to do, you worry.  Will you forget something, will someone have a pop at you, will you freeze, are you an idiot impostor who does not know your stuff? Well, actually those thoughts do remain with many of us, even after years of presenting. But actually, they are baseless fears. Let’s just cover them off:

  • No one knows what you are going to say, so if you forget something then 95% of the time no one in the audience will notice. And if they do notice and ask, well say “Wow! Yeah! Thanks for that, I must say something about…” and off you go.
  • You may well hit a point when you freeze. The next slide comes up, you look at it and realise you have no idea what it is about. In fact, you might suspect it is not even your slide… and for an age you stand there like an idiot, people knowing you forgot… Only, what seems an age to you is about 3 seconds – and the audience think you are just pausing to let them catch up. There really is a massive difference between the pause you experience and the pause the audience does. In fact, one thing I have learned over the years is that I *should* pause occasionally. It makes a better presentation.
  • You know your stuff, you picked the topic. If you really do not know your stuff you should not present. But you do not need to know every last detail and gotcha. If you can tell a work colleague about the topic or, better still, describe it to your mum (other relatives will do) you are fine. And part of why many of us continue to present is, we learn things through presenting. If someone raises a point you did not know, acknowledge it, make sure you understand it – and carry on.
  • No one has a pop at you. When did you last see a talk when someone belittled the presenter? And if you have seen this rare event, you know it is the person having a go who you did not like.

Oddly enough, I’m not trying to stop you being nervous here. I want you to be nervous – but at a level of nervous that is not crippling. You see, those nerves are crucial to you. They are energy and you use that energy to give your presentation an edge. If you do not have some emotion, some drive, then your talk will probably be flat. People I know who perform (play in bands or act ) all say the same – without the nerves, their performance loses something.

Those nerves, that mild (OK, maybe not that mild!) anxiety has a measurable, biological, scientifically understood impact on you. Several hormones are released into your body, including adrenaline and oxytocin, and these hormones “turn up the dial”. Your heart pumps faster and harder, your physical strength increases, you become more aware of your surroundings. Your reaction speed improves and, in some ways, you get smarter. You become the best you for dealing with things – like an audience.

Humour is the most challenging aspect of presenting for me. So I use it.

The degree of nerves also varies from talk to talk. I think I suffer from “The SCARY presentation monster” (as my friend Neil Chandler put it) less than many. If it is a technical talk I have done several times I can pretty much jump up on the stage and do it with barely a flutter of insect wings inside. But if I am doing a new talk or, ever so much worse, it is intended to be a humorous talk, then it is bordering on fear for the few moments before I start.

Over the years I have noticed something about my talks. If I am not nervous at all, I tend to do an OK job. It’s fine. I explain the topic, get the information across and everyone is, well, they’re OK with the talk. Sounds bland? That is because it was bland.

If I do a talk and the nerves are there, then I do either a great talk or a poor one. 90% of the time (I like to think!) it is a great talk. The best talks I have done have all been when I am screaming inside “Why in hell am I doing this!”. I did something more like a performance than a talk in Poland 2 years ago. It is probably the closest I have ever been to doing stand-up comedy – and before I started I could have just walked out the venue, it was the worst case of nerves I’ve had in 13 years. I think it was the peak of my presenting career and people said really nice things about it after. I now actually seek out a certain level of anxiety when I present. If there are no nerves before I get up, I will make myself think about what could go wrong, just to turn up that dial a little and make me better prepared to perform.

Nerves before presenting are natural and normal. Handle them, control them, but embrace them. As I said, Nervousness is your presenting best buddy.

Friday Philosophy – Brexit July 26, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

I don’t really do politics on this blog, it’s often just too damned divisive. But not only am I angry (and vicariously ashamed) of Brexit but I have a strong suspicion of how things are going to go from now…

I’ll lay my cards on the table first. I did not vote for Brexit. Like the vast majority of people I get on well with in the UK, I wanted to remain part of Europe. Half of my anger with Brexit is that I feel there should never have been a public vote in the first place, for three main reasons:

  1. It has been heavily speculated that the issue of us remaining part of Europe was offered as a public vote as the Conservative party wanted to shut down the growing popularity of the more right-wing, xenophobic parties such as UKIP. Thus it was a waste of time, money, and effort to prove a point that I think could have been done in other ways. There was never any expectation by the people who instigated the referendum that a large percentage of the population would vote for leaving…
  2. Whether we are better off being within the EU and what we lose/gain from it is a very complex issue. I’d say 99% of the population knew nothing like enough about it to make a sensible decision. I think I understood more about the influence of the EU on us than the majority of people in the UK. This comes from me having an interest in environmental matters, workers rights, health & safety, and control of big business. An awful lot of our legislation in these areas came from the EU and were good for the majority and poor for the rich and powerful. However, I don’t think I had enough knowledge to make an informed decision, it was more a gut decision. And the political fight over the vote was almost devoid of sense, reason, even honesty, and was more a campaign based on fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It was a vote by the ill-informed on the ill-defined.
  3. The final reason is that our media and politicians have used the EU as a “distant enemy” to blame or ridicule for decades. It’s almost a national hobby. We had stupid stuff like claims the EU said we had to sell straight bananas or that barmaids would have to completely cover their bosoms. Neither were true. But there has been a consistent blaming of the EU for things that UK politicians thought would be unpopular or that the tabloids felt they could sell copy on due to outrage. It’s just like how businesses blame “the computer system” for anything that goes wrong (“Computer says No! – *cough* “) whereas in fact it’s often nothing to do with the computer system. Thus the EU already had an unfair bad press due to all this political cowardice and media tripe. In many respects, we reaped the crop grown from the seeds of our own stupidity.

Anyway, we had the vote, it was really tight, it gave “the wrong” result. And it seems that far more people have swap from “let’s leave” to “let’s stay” than the other way around, when they got a better understanding of the impact – but we are not getting a second vote. That is despite 6 million plus people signing a petition for a second vote and the biggest public protest march we have ever had in this country.

So what do I think will happen from here on in?

Something I have expected to happen for a couple of years now, but has not really, is an attempt by UK politicians to start trying to blame the EU itself for the mess the UK are in. Basically to start saying “Well, we could leave the EU and it would all be fine – but the EU are being mean to us! The EU won’t let us do X or let us have Y! Because they hate us now and they are not being fair!!!”. We are going to see an escalating number of occurrences where the Conservatives will tell us that the EU negotiators have blocked an utterly reasonable suggestion or are making demands that threaten our sovereignty, or are trying to control us. They will announce that the EU is trying to stop us being the great nation we know we are. I fear that Boris will start turning to Trump to be our best friend in the playground.  

From what I have seen so far, I think the rest of the EU have basically been “You want to leave? Are you mad? OK, if you wish, off you go. But I’m sorry, if you are leaving the club you no longer get the club discount at the shops, you no longer have access to the club house, and you don’t get any say in the club rules. And yes, you do have to pay your outstanding club membership until you actually leave.” Which is all very, very reasonable and, if tables were turned, it is what we in the UK would be doing.

I predict that from here until Boris and the Tories do whatever they do in respect of our fundamentally xenophobic “we are still a mighty empire and are too good for you” walking off in a huff, more and more they are going to try and blame the innocent party, the EU. We are going to hear endless stuff about how they won’t be reasonable in negotiations and are bullying us. I don’t think the EU will do that, but really it’s what we actually deserve for our childish behaviour.

End of Rant