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Friday Philosophy – Why I Volunteer for User Groups May 22, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Presenting, Private Life, UKOUG.
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I’ve just noticed a new page about me popping up on the UKOUG web site – It’s in the section about volunteer case studies, alongside people like Joel Goodman, Simon Haslam, Carl Dudley, Jason Arneil, Brendan Tierney and others who have been stupid good enough to give time and effort to the UKOUG.
{You can get to the page by going to the UKOUG home page (www.ukoug.org) and clicking the Membership or Member Activities tab and Case Studies & Testimonials under that and finally Volunteer Case Studies. Phew. Or follow the link I gave at the start and click on the other names.}

I’m not sure how long I’ve been up on there but only a couple of days I think.

Anyway, Why DO I volunteer for user groups?

The little bio covers most of it but I thought I would put some words here on my blog too. I volunteer because, fundamentally, I am a socialist (with a small ‘S’) – I feel that we are all better off if we all help each other. I’ve been helped by people in my career (presenting stuff I don’t know, giving advice), I guess I feel that I should return that favor. Many of the people who have (and continue) to help me stand nothing to gain personally by helping me. In fact, one or two have helped me when, strictly speaking, they are helping create a rival for work opportunities. I try to do the same to those around me. I know, it sounds a bit “Disney film teaching the kids to do right” goody-two-shoes, but that is the core of it. And there are some other aspects to it too…

Why do I volunteer for the UKOUG specifically? Because they are THE main user group in my geographic area and provide the most support to the Oracle user community here in the UK. Most of the people involved in the UKOUG are just nice people too. But I also support and volunteer for smaller user groups, mostly by either promoting their meetings, going to them or presenting. I started presenting at the main UKOUG conference back when Dido, Eminem and Christina Aguilera where in their hey-days. I also went to the RDBMS and similar SIGs and before long I was presenting at them and then got sucked into chairing one of them – the Management and Infrastructure SIG. I’ve been slowly sucked in more & more as the years role by.

That has led on to me presenting at other user groups in different countries. Actually, I used to do quite a bit of presenting abroad (mostly the US) around 10 years ago, but that was part of the role I had at the time and my employer paid the bills. No employer to pay the bills now, but then as it is my time I try to make presenting abroad also a chance to have a short holiday, I try to take a day or two one side or the other of the event to look around. And actually, it is nice spending time with other people who present at or attend user group meetings.

Another part of it is I just like presenting. This is not quite so Disney Nice Guy, there is an aspect that is more selfish, that standing up, being listened to and telling people stuff that maybe they don’t know makes me feel better about myself. Better about myself? OK, I’ll let that stand for now but it is more that it makes me feel I am achieving something and having an impact. That I am useful. Fundamentally it is still a desire to help and presenting does not scare me (I know it is scary for a lot of people, but then a lot of people are not scared of heights and I am – it all balances out). But with a slice of “look at me!!!” thrown in.

There are also rewards for the effort. I’ve got to know a lot more people as a result of presenting, blogging (and now tweeting) than I would have had I stayed just one of the audience. For me it has helped me make more friends. As I said above, part of what is now nice about user group meetings for me is meeting friends I’ve made who are also on the speaker circuit and there is inevitable a few drinks in the evening whenever there is a user group. It also gives you more exposure in the community and helps lead to job opportunities – or at least that is the theory. No one has yet offered me a job because they liked my blog post or presentation!

That leads me to the last aspect of volunteering. Some people volunteer primarily for selfish reasons. To get bragging rights, get it on their CV’s, to help them get sales contacts or better jobs. The odd thing is, people who do it for those reasons tend not to last – as volunteering for user groups is a lot of hard work to get those rewards. You can usually spot them as they are the ones who don’t actually do a lot or complain all the time about the coffee being bad (actually, usually the coffee IS bloody terrible) and other things. Don’t get me wrong, some of those rewards do come with the volunteering, but if someone is volunteering primarily to get them, it does not seem to work out for them. Or maybe that is my socialism coming out again :-). Fundamentally, I think volunteering only works if, at the core of it, you want to help other people. Maybe that is why other volunteers are such nice people to hang around with.

Why do you do it? (or not).

Guaranteed Method of Boosting your Oracle Skills May 21, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Knowledge, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,
5 comments

I can tell you how to be a better Oracle DBA, Developer, Designer, Architect – whatever your flavour of role or aspect of profession, if Oracle tech is part of your working world I can hand you the key to improvement. And it is easy.

I am totally assured(*) I can do this. It will work for every single one of you reading this post (except for you two, you know who you are). And you must send me $100 before I tell you how…

Hell, no you don’t! This is not some bull-droppings selling piece, it is just advice. And some advice aimed directly at myself too.

When did you last read the Oracle Server/Database Concepts manual? You know, that fairly short book (in fact, from 11G it is really short, with links through to other chapters in other books) that explains how Oracle TM (Copyright), actually does stuff? What it can do? It does not go into too many details but rather gives you a brief introduction of each concept and the fundamental “how it works” information.

Thanks to Kevin Fries who pointed out it would be nice if I linked to the online concepts manuals (as he did in his comment):
Here is the online 12C Database Concepts manual.
Here is the online 11GR2 Database Concepts manual for those still with 11GR2.
Here is the online 10GR2 Database Concepts manual for those trapped in the past with 10GR2.

Read it. Read it this week. I am confident that if you read the latest Oracle Database Concepts manual you will be ahead of the game by a massive step.

Oracle 7 instance diagram

Oracle 7 instance diagram

Why am I so sure? Because we forget what Oracle has been able to do for years and we miss new abilities if our day-job has not touched on them since they came in. I think there is a growing move to learning only what you really need to know to get the job done (as we are all so busy) as we know we can search the web for the rest. My friend Neil Chandler came up with a name for it, JIT learning: “Just In Time” learning). Only, you can’t easily search for what you don’t know (or have forgotten) is possible with the tech you use. If you go through the concepts manual you will be reminded of stuff you forgot, things you missed or {and this is key to newbies} gain an outline understanding of what Oracle can do.

I became fascinated with how many people read the concepts manual about a decade ago and started asking a question when I presented on any Oracle topic. “Who has reads the concepts manual for the version of Oracle you mostly work with?”. In the last 10, 12 years the number of hands has decreased from well over 50%. In 2012, at a UK meeting, it hit the bottom of the barrel, no hands whatsoever. Oddly enough, a few weeks later I was in Slovenia (for none-European people, a lovely country bordering Italy and Austria – google it if you need more help) and the same question resulted in 40% of the audience raising a hand. When I was in the US 6 months later, no hands at all again. In the UK and Europe since, no hands or occasionally, one hand – and a few questions usually nailed down that it was a prior version of the manual they had read.

I took some time to ask this question again at a UK user group meeting about 4 months ago (no hands came up of course) and asked “why?”. The consensus was “we know most of what is in the concepts manual, we just need to know what has changed” – with an undercurrent of not having time to read the now-huge set of Oracle manuals. A few people suggested just reading the New Features. This was a crowd who did not know what a table cluster was (“Ha, look at ME! I know what a table cluster is! Hahahahaaaa – OK, no one uses them.”). (British ironic self-depreciation there).

Reading “New Features” is certainly better than nothing but I feel it is not enough as it does not remind us of the established stuff we have forgotten. I am on a bit of a personal Jihad to explain the basics of Oracle to any Newbie who cares to listen and I have to keep checking my facts with the concepts manual and some chosen expert friends (thank you VERY MUCH expert friends) and I keep stumbling over stuff I don’t know, misunderstood or forgot. And I have been an “expert” in Oracle since… Well, before the millennium bug or Android phones or iTunes had been invented. THAT LONG! I know my shit – and some of it is, well…. wrong.

Actually, I have a confession. I have not read the 11g or 12C concepts manual. I told you this advice was aimed at me too.

So, Go Read The Oracle 12C Concepts Manual. Go ON! Go and read it!!!! Oh. Still here? Well, I AM going to read it – as I last read the 10G concepts manual properly. And as part of my current push to present, talk and blog about the basics of Oracle, I will blog what jumps out at me. I know one thing – I will not be quiet any time until August if I follow my own advice, I will be posting blogs left, right and center about what I learn..

I’ll use the tag 12Cbasics.

Let the learning of basics begin.

Oracle 7 or Oracle 8, 1.5 " of pure info

Oracle 7 or Oracle 8, 1.5 ” of pure info

Thanks to Joel Garry for digging his old manuals out the basement and doing this shot for me :-)

(*) it won’t work if you already read the latest concepts manual. But most people have not! Heck, I did not charge for the advice, so sue me if you read it already.

Fixing my iPhone with my Backside May 18, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Hardware, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life.
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8 comments

Working with Oracle often involves fixing things – not because of the Oracle software (well, occasionally it is) but because of how it is used or the tech around it. Sometimes the answer is obvious, sometime you can find help on the web and sometimes you just have to sit on the issue for a while. Very, very occasionally, quite literally.

Dreaded "out of battery" icon

Dreaded “out of battery” icon

Last week I was in the English Lake District, a wonderful place to walk the hills & valleys and relax your mind, even as you exhaust your body. I may have been on holiday but I did need to try and keep in touch though – and it was proving difficult. No phone reception at the cottage, the internet was a bit slow and pretty random, my brother’s laptop died – and then my iPhone gave up the ghost. Up on the hills, midday, it powers off and any attempt to use it just shows the “feed me” screen. Oh well, annoying but not fatal.

However, I get back to base, plug it in…and it won’t start. I still get the “battery out of charge” image. I leave it an hour, still the same image. Reset does not help, it is an ex-iPhone, it has ceased to be.

My iPhone is version 5 model, black as opposed to the white one shown (picture stolen from “digitaltrends.com” and trimmed), not that the colour matters! I’ve started having issues with the phone’s battery not lasting so well (as, I think, has everyone with the damned thing) and especially with it’s opinion of how much charge is left being inaccurate. As soon as it gets down to 50% it very rapidly drops to under 20%, starts giving me the warnings about low battery and then hits 1%. And sometimes stays at 1% for a good hour or two, even with me taking the odd picture. And then it will shut off. If it is already down at below 20% and I do something demanding like take a picture with flash or use the torch feature, it just switches off and will only give me the “out of charge” image. But before now, it has charge up fine and, oddly enough, when I put it on to charge it immediately shows say 40-50% charge and may run for a few hours again.

So it seemed the battery was dying and had finally expired. I’m annoyed, with the unreliable internet that phone was the only verbal way to keep in touch with my wife, and for that contact I had to leave the cottage and go up the road 200 meters (thankfully, in the direction of a nice pub).

But then I got thinking about my iPhone and it’s symptoms. It’s opinion of it’s charge would drop off quickly, sudden drain had a tendency to kill it and I had noticed it lasting less well if it was cold (one night a couple of months ago it went from 75% to dead in 10, 15 mins when I was in a freezing cold car with, ironically, a dead battery). I strongly suspect the phone detects it’s level of charge by monitoring the amperage drop, or possibly the voltage drop, as the charge is used. And older rechargeable batteries tend to drop in amperage. And so do cold batteries {oddly, fully charged batteries can have a slightly higher voltage as the internal resistance is less, I understand}.

Perhaps my battery is just not kicking out enough amperage for the phone to be able to either run on it or “believe” it can run on it. The damn thing has been charging for 2 or 3 hours now and still is dead. So, let’s warm it up. Nothing too extreme, no putting it in the oven or on top of a radiator. Body temperature should do – We used to do this on scout camps with torches that were almost exhausted. So I took it out of it’s case (I have a stupid, bulky case) so that it’s metal case is uncovered and I, yep, sat on it. And drank some wine and talked balls with my brother.

15 minutes later, it fires up and recons it is 70% charged. Huzzah, it is not dead!

Since then I have kept it out it’s case, well charged and, frankly, warm. If I am out it is in my trouser pocket against my thigh. I know I need to do something more long-term but right now it’s working.

I tend to solve a lot of my IT/Oracle issues like this. I think about the system before the critical issue, was there anything already going awry, what other symptoms were there and can I think of a logical or scientific cause for such a pattern. I can’t remember any other case where chemisty has been the answer to a technology issue I’m having (though a few where physics did, like the limits on IO speed or network latency that simply cannot be exceeded), but maybe others have?

Friday Philosophy – Know Your Audience May 7, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Blogging, Friday Philosophy, Presenting, publications.
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9 comments

There are some things that are critical for businesses that can be hidden or of little concern to those of us doing a technical job. One of those is knowing who your customers are. It is vital to businesses to know who is buying their products or services. Knowing who is not and never will buy their products is also important (don’t target the uninterested) and knowing and who is not currently buying and might is often sold as the key to ever growing market share and profit. But fundamentally, they need to know who the current customers are, so they can be looked after {I know, some businesses are shocking to current customers, never understood that}.

This should also be a concern to me.

Why? Well, I “sell” something. I don’t charge for it, but I put out my blogs and my tweets and my presentations. I’ve even stepped up to articles. So I am putting a product out there and I want people to use it. Any of us who blog, tweet, facebook or in some way communicate information are fundamentally trying to talk to people. It’s fine to just put stuff out there and see who comes, but if I am doing this in order to reach an audience, well, who is my audience?

I know who my audience is. I’m British. I live in the UK, 75% of my presentations are in the UK, 95% of my work has been in the UK. I drink tea as a hobbie, queue as only the British know how, want my ale at room temperature and I am self-deprecating in my humour. At least, I’d like to think I am, but please forgive me if I fall short of your expectations.

My Audience is UK:

Who comes looking from where

Who comes looking from where

My Audience is American.

Dang!

As you can see from the above, my reasonable assumption was wrong. Those are stats I pulled from my blog about visits by country for a recent period. Most of my audience is in the US. For this particular period the UK is my second highest audience and India is third, but I dug in a little more and at times my Indian audience is higher than my UK audience.

Other countries move up and down but the above graphic is representative – European counties, Canada, South America and Australia all are prominent areas for me, and South Korea – big technology country, South Korea, so I should expect a reasonable showing from there. However, I’ll just let you know that last year (different graph, I hasten to point out) I had only 1 visitor from the Vatican, Vanuatu and Jersey (part of the UK!) each. I’m a bit gutted about Jersey, having worked there once, but the Vatican? Does the Pope need a VLDB?

I have noticed a spike of interest in a given month by a country if I go and present there, but it does not last for long.

What about my Tweet world? The below shows where my followers are from:

Peeps wot Tweets

Peeps wot Tweets

It is nice that this graph emphasises that “others” outside the top 10 are larger source of audience tham any individual country, but it shows a similar pattern to my blog. I’m mostly talking to my American cousins, the home crowd and our friends over in India. I suppose if you think about the number of people working in IT (and, to a lesser extent, just simply living) in countries across the global, the numbers make a lot of sense. If I was doing this analysis on a database of the raw data I’d now be correlating for population size and trying think of a proxy I could use for “IT Aware”.

So now I know who my audience is. Does this mean I should alter the tone of my posts to be more American or International, or is the British flavour of my erudite utterances part of the appeal?

I have noticed one change in my output over that last year or so, as I have become more aware of the geographical spread of my audience. I tend to explain what I recognise as odd phrases (above paragraph allowing) or UK-centric references a little more. And I try to allow for the fact that not everyone visiting my blog speaks English as a first language. But in the end, I have to use the only language I know. However, I don’t think I appreciate well when I am using colloquial phrases or referencing UK-centric culture. I’ll try harder.

One thing I do resist is WordPress trying to auto-correct my spelling to US – despite the fact that the app knows I am in the UK. Maybe I should spend some time trying to see if I can force the use of a UK dictionary on it? I won’t accept corrections to US spelling because, damn it all chaps, English came from this island and I refuse to use a ‘Z’ where it does not belong or drop a ‘u’ where it damned well should be! And pants are underwear, not trousers, you foolish people.

There is another aspect of my blog posts that I find interesting, and it is not about where my audience is – it is about the longevity of posts. Technical posts have a longer shelf life. My top posts are about oddities of the Oracle RDBMS, constantly being found by Google when people are looking at problems. A couple of the highest hitters I put up in 2009 when almost no one came by to look. However, my “Friday Philosophies” hit higher in the popularity stakes when first published but, a month later, no one looks at them anymore. Stuff about user groups and soft skills fall between the two. Some of my early, non technical posts just drifted into the desert with hardly any notice. Sadly, I think a couple of them are the best things I have ever said. Maybe I should republish them?

No Local Oracle User Group? Oh Well, Go to a Bar… April 28, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Presenting, User Groups.
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3 comments

Is there no local Oracle user group in your area? Do you wish you could share experiences with like-minded people? Is there no opportunity to talk about the technology you work with? Do you feel you would benefit from expanding your network of friends and contacts? But without a local user group it’s really hard to do any of that! – At least face-to-face. And, let’s face it, meeting for real really does beat meeting on-line. I know, you are sad about it.

Well, go to a bar. Have a drink, it might make you feel better. Especially if you go with Dave in your team. Ask your friend across town along who also works with Oracle Tech. And maybe she could bring her friend who is an Oracle DBA too.

Well done! You now have an Oracle User Group!

It really is that simple to start a user group. You do not need an organisation, you do not need membership and you do not need presenters. You just need three of you and a place to meet. I might be saying a bar above (or, in England, it would be a local Pub, my good chap) but it can be a coffee house, a cafe, a wine bar, the local library maybe or anywhere you can meet easily and relax. Obviously increasing from 3 to 4 to 5 etc makes it all more interesting with more stories, tips and experiences to share.

I’m in a user group just like that, it’s called the LOB – London Oracle Beers. We started in around 2009, 2010. Initially it was myself, Neil Chandler and Doug Burns occasionally meeting for a pint or three (and later arguing about who started LOB). Soon Pete Scott was joining us, then Dawn, then Graham {what happened to Graham?} then Martin Bach… It got serious when I put together a mail list. We’ve been going ever since and although the regularity of the meetings fluctuates, as does the size of the group, it seems to keep going at between once a month to once every 3 months. Thinking about it, we are due a get-together.

How to Start a Small, Social User Group

There is one thing that IS needed for a user group like the above, and in fact for the others I am going to mention.

You need someone to regularly say “let’s meet”.

It does not need to be one person, it can be shared between several people. In the current LOB it is mostly myself that sends out a call but Neil does too. Anyone in the group can make the call and occasionally others do (Dawn, Pete) and some ask me to make the call on their behalf, which I do even if I can’t attend. But that’s really all you need, someone to make the call.

The other thing you need to do is, as a group, invite some others along. Not everyone you can think of, for a social user group let it grow at a steady, organic rate. People drop in and out of user groups so you need to constantly keep an eye on things and if the numbers drop, ask a few others. People’s lives and circumstances alter so they can’t come or they just decide they’ve had enough and that’s fine. For this sort of social-centric user group I would suggest you stick to inviting friends and friendly contacts and try not to let it get too large (A nice problem for a user group to have!)

So Just Do it! If you do not have a local user group and you want one, be the person to ask a couple of friends and if there are 3 or more of you, make that call. And a month or two later, make the call again. The worst that will happen is that it won’t take off and, if it does not, you know you tried (and not many people will know you failed :-) ). I’d honestly be surprised if it does not at least take off for a while.

The Presenting User Group

Another sort of user group is where you start off by wanting it to be a bit more structured, to have presentations involved. This does take more organisation: a location where you can present (it does not have to be the same place each time), someone to present and it helps if you have a sponsor. As having somewhere to speak may well involve renting a room and it’s nice if you can offer some drinks and snacks. You don’t need a lot of sponsorship (if any). Ask some local Oracle-centric firms, the worst they will say is “no” and the best they will say is “sure, here is enough money for some pizza and Rohan in the Dev team is happy to talk about Blargh at the first meeting”. But work out what you need (say rental on the room and enough for a couple of Samosas for everyone) and only ask for what you need. Your sponsor may well want to put up a banner or have someone say something but that is part of the deal.

I’m involved in two such user groups in the UK at the moment:

Oracle Midlands run by Mike Mckay-Dirden. They are about to have their 8th meeting (Follow the link <- over there), on the 19th May in their usual location in Aston, Birmingham. I managed to get to most of their first meetings, spoke at one and sadly missed the last couple due to timing clashes. Might be true for this next one too :-(. Mike does brilliantly on this, he got a local firm (or part of the firm) Red Stack Technology to sponsor him and he has the gall to ask Oracle Ace Directors and other known people to speak :-)

Club Oracle London was started by Jonathan Lewis (I think prompted by the LOB and also what Mike was doing – but don’t blame Jonathan if I have my facts wrong) and is sponsored and run by e-DBA but with a very light touch. This will be their 4th or 5th meeting. I’m speaking at this one and I’ve been to all of them. Again, follow the link for more details and to register for the event on Thursday.

If you visit my blog often or follow me on Twitter you will have seen me promote these events. I’m very keen to support smaller, local user groups.

Again, it needs someone to Make The Call and also get at least the first speaker(s), but you can share the load for that. The other difference is that you probably want to spread the call a little wider. Tweet about it, use Facebook and all those other social media things.  Tell all the people you know who might be interested and ask them to spread the word as you want a reasonable crowd for the speaker.

There is more to organising these more formal user groups but nothing that one determined person or a small group of fairly determined people cannot make happen.

Larger User Groups

The next step up are the large user groups where you have membership and paid-for events, like national, regional (or state in the US) user groups. You need a run up to create one of those! However, they are still user groups, they are all part of the “environment” of the total user community.

These user groups can still be created by a small number of people but doing so is a bigger task and I suggest you contact other people who are involved in such things and really plan what you want to achieve – it’s a topic beyond a single blog post like this. But it can be done and it can grow out of the two sorts of user group above.

I would like to highlight that starting your own local, small user group should be no barrier to being part of the large user groups. I attend, promote and present at the small user groups. Heck, you could say I run one with the LOB (along with other people). However, I am an active member of the UKOUG, deputy-chairing a Special Interest Group that meets 3 times a year and I’m involved in organising the content of UKOUG Tech15 (See the banner -> over there -> – at the time of writing the Call for Papers is open ). We can all live together.

 

Getting Speakers

If you want a speaker at your event (which you can have at the social sort of user group but you need to make sure the speaker is not expecting a projector and can’t user powerpoint!) then you can ask someone in your group to do it, you can do it yourself (we all have knowledge and experience to contribute) or you could try to get a speaker outside your group.

If you are trying to start up the more formal Presenting User Group then a known name will help draw people to your event. But there is the danger that not enough people will turn up for the speaker! You will worry about that. Well, don’t. Just be honest with the speaker about the numbers you expect and be realistic. In many ways I personally like smaller crowds and I know other speakers who do. I’d rather have 5 enthusiastic people than 50 indifferent ones.

Obviously, the more geographically local the speaker is the more likely they will say yes  and asking the stellar stars is likely to get a “no” as they are simply too busy – but if they are Local-local, they may say yes! Remember, potential speakers have to earn a living so are not available at the drop of a hat and some only do conferences. Again, the worst you will get is a “no”.

I’ll make an offer – If you decide to start such a group in the UK and you need a presenter, let me know. I can’t promise but I’ll try to oblige. If you are further afield I’m afraid it is less likely I can help as I have to pay my own travel and expenses. But you never know, the odd jaunt over to Europe does happen.

Also, try looking up local Oracle ACEs and OakTable members. Again,they might say no, they might say yes but Oracle ACEs and OakTable members are generally inclined to help, it’s a large part of why we have those labels.

 

As the annoying advert says “Just Do It”

So in summary: If you want a user group and there is not one, maybe you can start one. If you want it to be a little more formal with presentations, look for a sponsor and ask some local Oracle Names if they would present.

Good Luck!

My First Published Article April 21, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Presenting, publications, UKOUG.
Tags: , , ,
7 comments

I’ve been blogging now for almost 6 years and presenting at conferences for… 12 years (really? Good grief!). I’ve even written and delivered several courses, ranging from 1 day to 3 days in length. However, up until now I’ve never been what I would term published – ie managed to persuade another organisation or person to publish something I have written.

That changed a few days ago when the latest UKOUG “Oracle Scene” magazine came out, which included the first of a small series of articles I am doing on how the Oracle RDMBS works – the processes and activities that underlie the core RDBMS engine. It’s based on my “how Oracle works in under an hour” presentation where I give the audience an overview of things like the redo mechanism, what a commit *is*, how data is moved into and out of memory and which parts of memory it resides in, how a point-in-time view is maintained… things like that. Many people don’t really know any of this stuff, even skilled and experienced developers and DBAs, as you can get by without knowing it. But understanding the core architecture makes a lot of how oracle works make more sense.

The below is a screen shot of the title and first paragraph, but you can use the link above to see the whole article.

Title and first paragraph of the article

Title and first paragraph of the article

I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to publish something other than via my blog and presentations. I know part of it is the fear of putting something out there that is wrong or misleading. If it is on my blog, heck it’s only a blog and I stick to things I give test cases for or my thoughts and opinions (which are intrinsically open to interpretation). My presentations are certainly put “out there” but again I of course try to ensure what I say I can back up. I think the key thing is that in both cases it is very obvious who you can blame if it turns out I have made a mistake. Me.

But when something is going to be published I feel that (a) it might be taken more seriously so I need to make extra sure it is correct and (b) if I get something wrong or, more concerning, mislead anyone then the people publishing the article could also be put in a poor light. I think that is what has made me wary.

The irony is that the first thing I get published, I know that there are some inaccuracies in there! The article (and also the presentation it is derived from) is an introduction to a lot of technology and I have to simplify things and ignore many exceptions to keep it small and easy to digest. It’s how it works 90% of the time and you need to know that so you will better understand the exceptions and finer detail I don’t have time to tell you about. For the physical presentation I spend a minute at the top of the talk saying I have simplified, occasionally lied, but the overall principles and feel is correct. I had to drop that bit out of the article as, well, it took a lot of words to explain that and the article was long enough already!

Another reason NOT to publish is it takes a lot of time and effort to prepare the material in a way that is polished enough to be printed and I know from friends that the actual financial payback for eg writing a book is very, very, very poor. No one I know makes enough from royalties on technical books to make the effort worth while {though there are other less tangible benefits}. But I have time at present so I can afford to do these things.  If you want to make money out of publishing, write about a load of elves, an often-wimpy trainee wizard or something with sex in. Or all three together.

I did nearly put a technical book together about 10, 12 years ago, called “The Little Book of Very Large Databases” as it was something I knew a lot about but the issues were rarely discussed publicly – most VLDBS were (and are) run by financial organisation or “defence” {why can’t they be honest and refer to themselves as “Killing & Spying”} and they don’t talk. O’Reilly was doing several small, A6 booklet-type-books at the time that it would have suited. I can’t do it now, I know nothing about Cloud and some of the 12C features that would help with VLDBS, so I missed the boat. I regret not giving it a go. However, there is a possibility I might be involved in a book sometime in the future.

I have to thank Brendan Tierney for hassling me into doing this series of articles. I’m not being derogatory when I say he hassled me, he did, but Brendan did so in a very nice way and also gave me the odd toe in the backside when I needed it.

I also have to thank Jonathan Lewis. If this article had been a book he would have got a huge mention for being my technical reviewer. He was good enough to look over the article and let me know a couple of things he felt I had over simplified, some things with the flow and also something I had simply got wrong. You know that bit in books about “thanks to Dave for assisting but all mistakes are mine”. Well, I always thought it was a bit overly… defensive? Well now I don’t.

All mistakes are mine. I want no blame falling on the people who helped me!

I still can't take my Bio too seriously

I still can’t take my Bio too seriously

Tips on Submitting an Abstract to Conference April 17, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Tech15, UKOUG.
Tags: , ,
2 comments

<.. The tech15 committee and my role
<…. Who plans the Tech15 content

The call for Papers for UKOUG Tech15 has gone out. This is how most of the content for a large conference is sourced, by asking the community to submit abstracts for consideration. With smaller conferences and user group meetings the organisers can often get enough talks by hassling asking people they know.

mail_image_preview_big

Firstly, I would encourage anyone who has considered talking at conference but never has, to submit an abstract. We could easily fill the whole event with known speakers but we don’t. We have a policy of having some New Blood at every conference. {If you are in the UK and want to try out presenting then a great way to do so is by presenting at a smaller user group meeting, like for example the next RAC/Database UKOUG SIG meeting on July 1st :-) – It’s a friendly, relaxed way to get into presenting. Get in touch with me if it appeals to you}.

You can click on this link to go to the submission page, but before you do…

When you submit an abstract for a conference, you are not actually at that point communicating with your potential audience. You are communicating with the handful of people who are tasked with going through all the submissions and selecting the papers. With the UKOUG conference you are also communicating with the volunteers who will judge abstracts. And we, the agenda planning committee, take those judging scores very seriously. It is a large part of how we attempt to ensure we select the talks on topics that people want to hear about, as well as the people who you want to hear talk.

So when you get to the field where you describe your proposed presentation (the abstract) I would suggest you don’t want to be “teasing the audience” at this point. The people who are judging and selecting the papers are seasoned conference attenders. A catchy title might get you noticed but if the abstract does not clearly state what your talk is about, what you intend to cover and who you expect your audience to be, it makes it less likely that your abstract will get selected.
Also, if you have looked at the call-for-papers page and associated notes and have seen that we are particularly interested in some area (eg “what you need to know about ….” for the database stream) and your paper is addressing it, it is worth making that a little bit obvious. The agenda planning day is hectic, we get tired and tetchy and our brains start to leak out of our ears. If your abstract is clear about what you are talking about, you are increasing your chances of selection.

In years gone by we have given the people the option to give two versions of your abstract – the one for judging and the one for promoting your talk (that is the one that gets put in the conference notes and your potential audience will read and decided if your talk is worth their attention). However, many people felt this was asking for the same information twice so we have reverted back to a single abstract this your. However, you can change your abstract text after your talk has been accepted {but note, we are wise to people trying to change the actual content of the talk later on – we LOOK at the changes!}. So sell your talk to the committee and judges now and worry about the catchy reference to your favorite movie afterwards.

I used to make my submission abstract humorous (well, in my eyes) but I don’t anymore, or at least I tone it down. If anything, I make the abstract factual and simple. As an example:


How Oracle Works in 50 Minutes
—————————————–
This is a high level but technical talk about the key processes that underlie the Oracle database. I describe what an instance is and how the server process is the gateway to the instance. I cover how the redo mechanism works and why it is critical, how data is moved into and out of memory, delayed block cleanout, what a commit IS, the importance of the undo tablespace and how a read consistent image is maintained for the user. The intended audience is new DBAs or developers who have never been taught how the database works and at the end of the talk they will understand how these key processes work.

OK, the description is a bit boring but you know exactly what my talk is going to be about and if it will fit in your conference.

So what happens when you click on the above link to submit an abstract? You will see the below front screen:

Submission Screen

Submission Screen

I would suggest you not only read this screen but also check out the menu on the left of the screen. Look at the “Hints & Tips” and also the stream you are intending to submit to (eg “Systems” if you want to present on Exadata). If you are unsure which area your talk fits in, check them all out.

the big red Submit an Abstract will actually take you to the same place that the left menu “Speaker Application” takes you too. The first step of submitting an abstract is actually saying who you are and registering on the system. If you are willing to judge abstracts (ie you ticked that box) you will then get to indicate what topics in what streams you are willing to judge. THEN you will be put into the “Speaker Lounge” and you can enter your abstract by clicking the “Submit” button.

When you come back to the system, you can go straight to the Speaker Lounge, the system will show you your details again so you can correct anything. You will see what abstract(s) you have submitted and click on them to check or change anything, or click on “Submit” to add another abstract.

Think carefully before you submit 15 abstracts. As a general rule, more than 3 and you start to reduce your chances of having a paper selected. People judge your papers will score you down if you submit too many, it’s like you dilute your judging scores over all the abstracts.

Enjoy.

My Oracle Life of Clubbing & Harmony March 31, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting.
Tags: , ,
5 comments

Last year I promised myself I would do more conferences & presenting and that it would include more events further afield, such as in Europe. I can’t say I managed it in 2014 (Liverpool for the UKOUG Tech14 did not count as a foreign country for me, even if I found a couple of the locals hard to understand) but 2015 is proving more successful. I attended the OUG Ireland conference 2 weeks ago, for my first trip to that country, and I learnt recently that I have papers accepted for Harmony 2015. This conference is a joint event between the Oracle user group of Finland, the Oracle user group of Estonia and the Latvian Oracle user group.

The conference is on the 11th and 12th of June in Tallinn, Estonia. I know that a few of my friends I’ve met in the flesh will also be there but also some people I only know online and who I’m looking forward to meeting for real {and one who I am not sure if I have met in the flesh or not!!!}. That’s part of why I like going to conferences; It is nice to get to know people via electronic means but there is nothing like actually being in the same room and chatting, especially if it is relaxing over a coffee, beer or a meal.

However, I am particularly happy to be going to Tallinn as my wife has been there and loves it. We are trying to organise it so that she can come over as well, but she has her own travel commitments that vary from week to week. Sue knows how to say “can you punch my ticket” in Estonian – and she assures me this is not a euphemism for anything.

In case Sue cannot make it, she has given me the book she learnt from, so I can learn Estonian myself:

Learn Estonian - in Russian!

Learn Estonian – in Russian!

First I have to learn Russian though… Yes, it’s a Russian “How to learn Estonian” book.

Have you any idea how much pleasure she took in doing that to me?

So that is the Harmony. What about the Clubbing? That would be Club Oracle London, which is a user group I mention each time there is a meeting. It is in London in the evening and there are 3 talks, beer, pizza and lots of chat between the crowd & the presenters. I’m doing my Disasters talk at the next meeting on the 30th April. Click that link to register and secure your place, it’s free. The other presenters are Svetoslav Gyurov and Dominic Giles. Dom is being particularly brave and is offering to answer any questions people have about the database {“as honestly as I can”}. I’ve known Dom for years, he used to come over to the place I worked when we were doing a lot of beta testing of Oracle. He secured his place in my admiration by not only thoroughly knowing his stuff but also when he told me off for being pathetic and not pushing the new tech and that I was being a wimp. Utter honesty from the vendor works for me.

I’ve currently got nothing else organised for 2015 conference-wise (apart from the small issue of helping define the technical content for UKOUG Tech15! So I guess I will be there. Oh, and probably a couple of SIGs). I keep saying I’ll try to do Bulgaria but again I’d like to get that to work with going with Sue. And of course, I could put in for Oracle Open World 15, but it’s a loooong way to go and costs me a lot. And Larry does not seem to want to talk to me anymore.

Who Plans The Content of UKOUG Tech15? March 26, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Tech15, UKOUG.
Tags: , ,
4 comments

<..Who are the Tech15 committee and my role
….submitting an abstract..>

When you go to a conference like UKOUG Tech15 there are hundreds of talks given over several days and a dozen or so streams. Who decides what is presented and how do they decide?

You do. Well, I’d say you have about 60-70% of the input, if you are a member of the UKOUG (and I know many reading this are not – but you are probably members {via your employer, if not personally} of other user groups. And, if you are not, you can probably benefit from joining one.) The point is, the members of the UK Oracle User Group have a fair say in what gets talked about at the UKOUG conferences. And, though not all are run in the same way, I know several of the large oracle conferences run on similar principles. You also provide the raw material, the proposed talks. That is open to each and every one of you, member or not. Anyone can offer a talk.

What about the other 30-40% of the input? Well, that would be me :-). {Note, British ironic humour}. As I mentioned in my first post about organising Tech15 I am the Lead for the database area this year, and some people did blame me last year for the content – but being the Lead does not put me in charge. There is a technical committee that decides what they feel should be the overall structure of the conference and have the final 30-40% say in what talks are given.

I’ll go into more details about aspect of the paper selection process in future posts, but the general structure is thus:

  • The steering committee meet for a kick-off meeting and decide on:
    • Who is in which committee (though this is pretty much sorted out before the meeting).
    • the general structure of the event – The major areas (Database, Middleware, Development, Business Analytics and Hardware/OS/Engineered), the number of streams each major area gets each day, the length of sessions and if anything is happening outside the main 3 days of the conference.
    • How we handle the labeling of topics in our streams (endless discussions there!).
    • Topics and considerations that we feel are important to our streams that should be mentioned in the call for papers.
    • How we will run the sub-committees and overall committee – again, this is generally known but we look at what we learnt the prior year and change accordingly.
  • The call for papers goes out (it will be the 13th April to 10th May this year). This is advertised by the UKOUG, being sent to previous paper submitters, the User Group members and is announced in the UKOUG mailings, tweeted and several other avenues. The committee will have suggested areas to submit for, but what is submitted is up to the presenting community – and this can alter our thoughts on content.
  • Judging – From 20th April to close to the Agenda Planning Day, volunteers and members of UKOUG are asked to judge the paper abstracts. These scores are important for the next step…
  • Agenda Planning Day – the steering committee members get together and spend pretty much a whole day reviewing the abstracts, the judging scores, the slots available, what we know of the speakers and presentations, the spread of topics, percentage of established and new speakers and half a dozen other things to come up with the rough agenda. It’s a bit of a bun fight, but we get there in the end. Every abstract is looked at along with it’s judging score.
  • Speakers are informed if their papers are accepted, rejected or we would like them as reserves – and the speakers confirm or decline acceptance or reserves (and occasionally question rejections). Sometimes a speaker will be asked if they would modify a submission.
  • The technical committees may well try and source some papers where we feel a topic is under-represented or to fit with some other aim (like a stream at a given level).
  • Reserves are slotted in to replace any speakers who decline and any clashes, alterations and agenda tweaks are dealt with as they arise.
  • The agenda is launched (ie we say what is on it) mid July.
  • From the agenda launch to the start of the conference, any paper changes are handled as they come up – usually a speaker pulling out or needing to change dates but occasionally other issues.

Why is it called “Paper Selection” when people are talking? Why do we talk about abstracts? Well, conferences pretty much started off as scientific conferences and you would submit you scientific paper – and then read it out to the conference. The abstract is a brief “why you should read my 35 page argument with long, impressive words for why I think hyaenas are more closely related to cats than dogs” {they are}. We inherit those terms.

So you can see that the steering committee has a fair input, so how do WE get chosen? Fundamentally, it is via a call for volunteers from the UKOUG community. The UKOUG ask people to volunteer in their regular emails to members/volunteers. (Volunteers have to be members of the UKOUG but the membership may well belong to a company. The UKOUG keeps track of the nominated contacts for an organisation, who are responsible for the membership management, but also the individuals who have helped out at any time under that membership. As an example, someone in purchasing or HR may be the nominated contact for the memberships a company has with UKOUG, but it is members of the technical IT staff who come to the events and may start helping out).
The office UKOUG staff/board members may well ask one or two of the experienced volunteers known to them to take a lead and help chose which volunteers to accept. Or, more commonly, to go and pester people they know to step up and volunteer! New volunteers are always part of the mix, we recognise that without new people and perspectives we will stagnate, and they challenge us when we say “we always do it this way”.

I have not mentioned Oracle Corporation involvement. Strictly speaking, people from Oracle are not volunteers and are certainly not members. They are Oracle Liaisons. The UKOUG gets good support from Oracle, we have talks from them, we have some SIG meetings in their offices. Oracle Corporation of course is happy to talk about the latest/greatest aspects of Oracle and if they can get us all fired up for an extra cost option, so much the better for them. But the relationship is generally balanced and varies over the years – and is influenced by individuals. Some people who work for Oracle will push to be allowed to help out the UKOUG, some product managers are more than happy to come and give talks about free, standard or old features as well as the shiny new stuff. Others I am sure see us as an annoyance. The input we get from the Oracle Liaisons is very helpful and appreciated – but don’t think it buys acceptance of whatever Oracle Corp want. I had to help deal with an Oracle product manager last year who was upset that their area had very few talks. It got as far as them almost demanding some slots. However, the number of talks submitted and the poor judging scores for those few that were told us on the committee that the user community were not currently interested in that topic. So no talks. Faye and I talked it over, I gave the logic and reason and she was good enough to then deal with Upset Product Manager.

I have helped with the agenda planning day a couple of time – I think I got pestered to help way back in 2007 or 8! – and I have been a SIG chair and deputy chair as well as a regular presenter, so I am a known soft-touch for helping the UKOUG. A key aspect to my being the Lead is simply that I have more free time than most other volunteers, so I can be got hold of and can spend a bit of time thinking about things and making decisions. This can be important on the run-up to the actual event as you sometimes need to make decisions quickly and a group discussion may not be the best way to do it. I might check with a couple of others (and I usually do) but the key thing is to make a decision in the timeframe allowed.

So that is who the Agenda Planning committee are and where we fit in. We are volunteers, filtered and guided by some old hands but with new blood each year. We aim to guide and give structure but the talks submitted are what anyone wants to submit. Judging scores by the community are key to paper selection and though Oracle Corp supports they don’t get to dictate.

And if all else fails, blame the committee Leads.

Friday Philosophy – My Introduction To Programming Way Back When March 13, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in history, off-topic, Private Life.
Tags: ,
8 comments

One fortunate thing about me is my age. Or rather, how old I was in the 1980’s. I was at school in the 80’s, I did my ‘O’ Levels (taken at age 16) in 1984. One of my ‘O’ levels was in Computer Studies. This was before Windows and Excel and Word and all that office software, before the internet was in existence (TCP/IP was only standardized in 1982!) and phones were all tethered to the wall with a cable. What were we taught in Computer Studies? Programming. That and a bit about hardware, but mostly it was programming.

This beast had  about 48k of memory and hi-res 320*192 pixels

This beast had about 48k of memory and hi-res 320*192 pixels

In the first year of my two-year course we had just two computers to use between us, both RM 380Z’s I think, so we wrote out our programs by hand and worked through them logically to try and get them as good as we could before our turn came to put them into the computer and run them. This was of course painful, but our programs initially really were of the terrible simple “take in the temperature in Centigrade and convert it to Fahrenheit” scale of things, before we went all crazy with power and wrote a program that would ask you which way you wanted to do the conversion. We all had a 5-1/4 inch floppy to store our programs on but were told to take great care of it as they would not be handing out more! Needless to say, it was not long before most of us were turning up at the “computer room” (the schoolroom with the two machines and the broken lock) at lunch times and after school in order to get more time on the machines. The only problem was that in our first year of ‘O’ level we had to contend with the older kids from the year above us and they did not like us oiks turning up to use “their” computers. At least we were introduced early to a key concept of a career in IT – working outside and beyond the standard office hours.

For some of my class mates, they had other options. The early 80’s were also when home computers burst onto the scene and some friends had ZX81s, Vic 20s, Acorn Atoms, Dragons or, gasp, commodore 64s. My older brother had a ZX Spectrum, with the 48K ram pack.

My brother's spectrum, access denied to little me

My brother’s spectrum, access denied to little me

However, the Spectrum was not available to me as my miserable bastard of a brother would not let me near it. You might think this was reasonable as he was the older brother and it was his computer. But it was plugged into my portable TV and my cassette tape recorder. This was what you had to do with these early home computers as almost none came with a “monitor” and most with no storage device. Certainly no internal hard disc! When you turned off the computer, whatever program you were running immediately evaporated out of memory and you had to load it up from tape next time you turned the computer on – given that you had saved it to tape first. Games came on cassette tapes so before you could play, you had to load it. For. 10. minutes. I think one person had access to a machine that could use our precious single 5-1/4″ floppy but he was not happy as that computer was rubbish for games.

{For anyone reading this who is less than 35 years old, before downloads we had CD’s, which you know about. Before CDs we had vinyl records, which you may or may not know about as they became cool for a while again. Before CDs we also had cassette tapes, which you may not know about, which were about the same size as a credit card but about 1.5* as thick as an iPhone. You could record between 30 (C30) minutes and 2 hours (C120) of music onto them, over and over again, and they would fit in your pocket. But then the tape would either eventually stretch (especially if it was a C120) leading to very waily, odd playback, or your cassette player would “eat” the tape and you would spend 30 minutes with scissors and tweezers pulling it out of the machine. Ahhhh, the memories.}

The joy of pre-recorded and blank cassette tapes

The joy of pre-recorded and blank cassette tapes

Where was I? Oh yes. My brother used my TV and my cassette player which, together, had cost more than his computer. He felt he could just use my stuff as he wanted but I could not use his computer. If I was watching my TV when he wanted to use his spectrum, he would get really obnoxious and aggressive until I “agreed” he could use it. But I was never allowed to use his spectrum (well, not when he was around to know, anyway). You might pick up that this could have led to a little bit of sibling angst and an ongoing feud that continued into adulthood? Too damned right!

RS 480z - we had SIXTEEN of them, and a shared disc

RS 480z – we had SIXTEEN of them, and a shared disc

Getting back to the main thread, unlike most of my class mates I was limited to using the two computers at school. However, when I came back to school after the summer break between my fist and second year of doing my ‘O’ levels I came back to find they had finished building the dedicated computer room. It had air conditioning, a working lock on the door, about 16 RS-480Z computers and a smell something like melted plastic, new carpet and nail varnish – which never went. There was also some sort of shared storage, I think it was another 480z with a hard disc in it that all the other machines could see. So we all had a machine to use during lessons, the ability to save and load the programs all the time and programming really did become the thing we did. Due to the afore mentioned brother issues I still ended up doing some programming at lunch times and after school, fighting off the oiks from the year below…

My first real program that I remember doing, which I felt was more than a glorified calculator or pathetic painting of a house in lines and boxes, was a program that played Naughts and Crosses, or Tic-Tac-Toe as our US friends would (in my opinion, crazily) say. I don’t recall how long it took but I do remember my teacher telling me I was maybe being a bit “optimistic” when I said I wanted the computer to play rather than just letting two humans play against each other. I got it to work. Go Me!

As I said, I can’t really remember much more about what programs I wrote, it is a long time ago and my memory is poor. But I do remember that most of the course was about understanding programming and hardware, such as it was back then. As the years went by into the 90’s and 2000’2 I’m told the programming side first reduced and then almost {if not totally} disappeared to be replaced with being taught how to use computers and packages. ie Windows, Excel, Word and the like. So I grew up and was at the “right” age when home computers came along and schools in the UK taught at least some of us to program.

I still have one of these somewhere...

I still have one of these somewhere…

I got a ‘B’ in the final exam, which was OK. So that set me on the road to programming and my career? Well, no. After my ‘O’ level, I did buy my own computer, an Amstrad CPC 464 (maybe not a great decision!) and I did do a bit of assembler and programming, but mostly to try and hack into the games I was playing. By now I was doing my science ‘A’ levels, there was no option of an ‘A’ level in computing and no computing element to my ‘A’ levels. Then I went on to college to study biology, where computers were not really used much outside of the computer science department. There was a terrible programming course I went on as part of the Zoology half of my degree but it taught us less than my ‘O’ level and computers were just not a part of the Genetics half of the degree I did – which looking back at it, stuns me. We used to work out the general size and layout of plasmid genomes (bits of bacteria) by hand on paper. I got sick of doing it and wrote a program on my CPC 464 to do it and, for a few weeks, academic life was easy. My tutor got really mad when he found out I had written a program to do it. I don’t know why and I don’t think he could tell me why, he just felt I was cheating. Oh well.

Of course, once I left college life took another turn and I landed back in the world of computers {back then they would take people with no programming skills but good logic/maths and train you from zero}. But I already knew how to program and that gave me a bit of help in my first job. I could spend more time than my colleagues could worrying about how to be an adult rather than how to start programming. I might be able to program, I’m still struggling with being an adult.

Update – as Niall points out in his comment, things are now improving at schools AND colleges. What originally prompted this was a discussion I had with a friend who had just finished his computing course at college. The course was about computer games. And had involved no programming elements at all, it was all about design, marketing, testing, running a business… I was stunned. I then made some comment about at least he would have learnt about programming at school, but no, he had not. I was stunned again. But he knew that it was coming back – as covered so well by Niall.

I suspect the Raspberry Pi has helped too, though most people I know who have bought one are, well, mid-40’s people who did programming at school…

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