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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…

Extra session at OUG Ireland – Oracle Lego. March 12, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in database design, development, Presenting.
Tags: , , ,
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I’m now doing a second session at OUG Ireland 2015. {This is because one of the accepted speakers had to drop out – it sometimes happens that, despite your best intentions, you can’t make the conference and it is better to let them know as soon as you can, as they did}. This will be a talk called “Oracle Lego” and it is one I put together a couple of years ago when I decided to try and do more introductory talks – talks aimed at those who are not {yet} experts and who I think tend to get ignored by most conference and user group agenda. So it is aimed at those new to oracle or experts in other areas who have never really touched on the subject.

“Oracle Lego” is about the basics of database design. I have a personal soap box I occasionally get on that very little real database design seems to occur these days. There are exceptions, but often the database design seems to be a quick brain-dump of what the developers or business analysts know they need to store information about and the first-cut set of tables gets created – and then endlessly modified as the development rolls on.

Guess what, we don’t build houses, cars, ships, bridges or garden sheds like that – and there is a reason. If you build things piecemeal as you go along and with bits you either have to hand or have to quickly get, you end up with a pretty poor shed. In fact you don’t end up with a shed, you end up with a shack. With a leaking roof and a door that hits the potting table when you open it. I don’t want a shack and I never, ever want to go over a bridge or sail in a ship built “on the hoof” like that!

Further, just as with a proper architectural or engineering design, a database design does not fix the solution in stone, there is still scope for modification. A bespoke house plan gets tweaked and modified as you do the build and you realise what can be improved when you see it – but you do not suddenly decide to dig out a basement and change from wood walls to stone when you have already constructed the ground floor! I’ve seen database “designs” like this.

There is also more to doing a database design than coming up with tables that hold the records we want to store: We might want to consider if storing similar things in the same table could be better than a table for each “type” of something; How we index those tables and relate them together can have a huge impact on how easy it is to get the data out and store it in the first place; The expected volume and life cycle of the data may require us to consider eg archiving; The very-much-ignored aspect of physical placement of data and clustering of data.

You can spend weeks dedicated to learning about database design – but you can also learn a lot in 60 minutes, ie the basics. And it really is like Lego – once you know the basics you can build up a really complex design. And you learn stuff doing it (and turning it into a real system), just like you do the first time you build a Lego robot (or dog or house or car or bridge or spaceship or whatever). So the second time you build your Lego robot you use the same design basics and layer on top what you learnt last time.

So that is the aim of this talk, the basics of database design.

The strange thing is, last time I did this talk I asked the audience how much database design they did. Every single one of them was already an experienced and capable database designer! So why had they come to this intro talk? They had three reasons:

  1. It was the only talk on database design at the conference, and one more than they were used to getting.
  2. They had picked up their database design skills on-the-job and thought a “reminder” of the basics would be good.
  3. It was cold outside and all the other talks appealed less.

So, this time I am hoping some of the audience is new to database design and I get to teach them great stuff they did not know. If it is all experts again, I think I’ll have to retire this particular intro talk, at least for conferences.

As you can see from the agenda grid here, I’ll be talking at 10:15. You can’t link to an abstract of the talk yet, that just needs to be twiddled into place.

Update – Peter Scott stopped by this blog and it prompted a thought. He felt it was too much at a tangent to add as a comment but I felt it was a very valid and valuable point – so check it out over here on his blog.

BTW Pete has started blogging more, on his thoughts and opinions on Data Warehousing. Personally I think it is worth catching them.

{Oh, and in case any lawyers stop by, “Lego” is of course the copyright name of a popular plastic construction toy, made by the Danish company The Lego Group, that children love playing with and adults hate walking on in bare feet. Did anyone not know that?!?! I have no link to The Lego Group and no plastic bricks will form part of my talk.}

Useful list of Oracle Conferences and Call For Papers March 9, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Tech15.
Tags: ,
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Do you want to know what Oracle conferences are run, where they are and when? Do you present (or are thinking of presenting) and want to know when the call for papers is open?

Then go and look at Jan Karremans’ excellent page on oracle conferences.

It lists most (all?) of the European and US conferences and is a really useful reference – I’ve not come across a similar, maintained list. The below is a static screen shot of part of the list, current of today – but visit the page to see the full, maintained list.

Jan's conference list

If you spot that a conference you know about (or are helping organise!) is missing, then Jan is happy to be contacted via the page and he will add the details.

Friday Philosophy – Do Average to Be a Success March 6, 2015

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

A few days ago a friend of mine, helifromfinland, tweeted something that exactly matched the topic that I was thinking of doing my next Friday Philosophy on. Heli said:

I am learning to do things well enough, not always perfect. Even writing that sentence feels so wrong but #babysteps :-D

That made me smile – I know the feeling myself and I know some people for whom it is all-consuming. It is something that I suspect many people who are active in the oracle community struggle with. We all try and do the best we can at all we do.

In our jobs in I.T what is needed most often is not the perfect solution – or even the best solution we can come up with. It is:

The best solution that achieves the requirement within the timeframe allowed.

I think I was lucky in that the principle of “good enough” was explained to me fairly early on – and in an environment where “good enough” is not usually the prescribed wisdom.

I was at college doing my degree. In academia or school you are usually encouraged to strive for perfection, in the aim of doing the best you can. It seems to me that they don’t teach you what the real world wants. I can’t remember the exact details (it’s almost 3 decades ago!) but I was trying to finish a written assignment in genetics and it was deadline day. I hunted down the professor who had assigned the task and asked if I could have a few more days as I wanted to check up some of the latest papers on it in the library {I know, what a terrible swot {definition – see item two here!} I was}. He did not say no, he did not say yes. Instead he took me into his office and asked me a few questions about the topic and what I had written so far. I think he was checking I had done something rather than was just covering up being lazy. He then asked me what the purpose of the assignment was.

???

I started explaining the topic again but he cut me short. It took him a few attempts I think to get to where he was directing me, which was that it was a task to be completed in a time frame, to show I understood the topic. I was not doing original research, I was not trying to prove anything. It was Just A Task. The Prof then explained to me that his wife was not an academic but worked in industry. She had tasks to do in set time frames and others relied on her doing those tasks on time. She had more work to do than she could easily cope with. The Prof asked me “Should she keep asking for more time do them? Should she only do a few tasks to the best of her ability or most of her tasks to a level that everyone was happy with?” I got his point, but surely in academia the aim is always “as good as you can?”. He felt not and I think he was vexed {meaning, “really pissed off”} that many academics see it that way. There are times you need to do the very best you can; to spend the time to prove your theory; to cover off all the alternatives or caveats to your point; to get the lab result that clearly corroborates your point. But most of the time, you are doing tasks. Stop dithering and do them. It’s more pointed in the commercial world but the academic world is fundamentally the same.

I think he left it to me to decide if I was going to hand the assignment in late or not but I can’t remember what I did (I’ve got my notes from back then, I can probably find out! But I’ve decided this post does not need that level of perfection… :-) ).

I think we can all agree that, especially in a work environment where others are dependent on us doing our bit in a timely manner, it is better to do an acceptable job on time than constantly overrun. It is also better to get most {aiming unrealistically for “all”} of your work done rather than failing to do tasks that then impact on others. Of course, what is acceptable is all relative and there is a time/achievement cost-benefit-analysis in moving up the poor-acceptable-good-excellent-perfect spectrum.

Maybe what defines your skill in a role is how far up the poor-acceptable-good-excellent-perfect spectrum you hit on a regular basis.

The problem is that, for some of us, we are like Heli and we absolutely, totally and utterly want to do a very good job on everything we do. This is an idea that our parents, teachers and society do press upon us in our formative years, after all.

Of course, your employer will want you to do six impossible things this morning but most are happy with 4 good things this morning and would prefer that over 2 excellent things by the end of the day and 4 undone.

I can’t say I’ve always stuck to the principal of limiting a task to the effort or time it deserves – I have a natural tendency to try and do too good{no, complete is a better way to put it} a job or else I go the opposite and don’t do the task justice {or even at all!}, so I really empathise with Heli’s tweet. When I first became a contractor I struggled with doing enough average work to keep the client happy, I was just spending too much time on doing the best I could at one or two tasks. In reality, they just wanted lots of stuff done competently. So my Prof had failed to instill the right attitude in me!

One of the nuances of “good enough”, and my point about getting {nearly} all your work done, is that it is almost an impossible thing to achieve. If you get all your tasks done, what happens? Yes, more work comes your way. Especially as our working society has gone in exactly the opposite direction to both what many predicted in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s and also against what we, the workers, would want. The plan was we would all be working, but working fewer hours and days for similar pay. But as most of us can testify, we seem to be asked to do more and more. It’s a topic for a different day but, basically, we are all screwed by the desire by our employers to get more out of each one of us to maximise profit – more work done by the same number or less people is reducing staff pay in relation to output. The reward for getting all your work done on time is more work will be allocated to you.

Another nuance is one I know I have gone on about before. If you do a job, especially an unpleasant or hard job, very well – what is your reward? You get to do the job for ever. Or you get the next horrible, hard job to do. The reward for exceeding expectations is to set the bar that people will want you to hit ever higher and higher and higher

But you do want some recognition and some promotions.

So, for goodness sake, do just an acceptable-good job of a slightly-more-than-is-reasonable number of tasks and don’t do the next horrible job you are handed beyond expectation. And if you forget yourself and go and do the horrible task well, remember to make an utter mess of the next one – you must stop that expectation bar rising!

The final nuance is perhaps the hardest one, and the one I still struggle with despite someone explaining it to me almost 30 years ago. Some tasks really do need to be at the brilliant end of the spectrum and some are fine at being at the average or even poor end. If your role is as a DBA, your backup/recovery protocols need to be towards the brilliant. You may hope to never need to do disaster recovery but one day you will and if it goes wrong, expect to be fired. However, tuning a batch report to run in under an hour? Usually, you are asked for an ideal run time that the business does not need. Under 2 hours is enough and you have a SHED load of other tasks. No one needs the report in under a minute. You should do an average job, even if your soul dies a little in doing so.

As I mentioned above, as a contractor I initially struggled at times to do lots-of-average-work. As a consultant the requirements and expectations are a little different. You are expected to do excellent, come up with something the regular team has not. It’s nice if it is achieved quickly but heck, hard takes time :-). Average (ie what the regular team would come up with) is NOT acceptable (*NB Not always true). I personally find that the consultant paradigm suits me more, my character and working method is more suited to a slower, more considered approach. I really need to get to be a proper consultant…

So the take home message on how to get on in the working world is:

Be just above average at tasks.

Do 80% of your work but back pedal if you hit 90%.

If you accidentally do a magnificent job, mess up the next one.

Occasionally, only occasionally, let rip and blow them all away with your brilliance.

And please let me know how the above works out for you :-)

***

Quick update – a recent xkcd panel that makes the point well :-)

Creating UKOUG Tech15 – The View from the Inside March 3, 2015

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

….Who plans the content of Tech15>
……Tips on submitting and abstract>

At the end of last week I was contacted by the UKOUG who asked me if I would agree to be on the planning committee for the annual technical conference this year – Tech15. Not only that but I was privileged to be asked to repeat my role from Tech14 and be the Lead for the Database area. I am of course happy to do so.

UKOUG_Tech15 Banner
Why do I mention this? Well, this year I intend to share what is involved in helping to organise the content for an event like this, to give a view from the inside. This will mostly be by postings to my blog but also on twitter (@mdwidlake – see the little “twittering” section on the right margin of this page).

Most of the logistical work required to run the conference is done by the team at UKOUG. The UK Oracle user group is large enough that it has a small, dedicated team of paid staff – it needs to, pure voluntary efforts by people with day jobs simply could not run something that is the size of a small company. The office team, helped by the board-level volunteers like Debra Lilley and Fiona Martin, decide on and book the venue (I’m pleased to say that 2015 we are returning to the ICC in Birmingham after 2 years “holiday” in Manchester and Liverpool, and will be on the 7th-9th December – see the Tech15 announcement here) and deal with the hundreds of issues there, including catering. They of course run the registration system, the negotiations with sponsors and vendors wishing to participate, promotion of the event and all the other tasks that go with running any conference, be it I.T., politics, businesses or science fiction. We volunteers do not get involved with any of that, the office staff are highly proficient at such things. Also, that side of it is probably not of much interest to you lot so I won’t say much about it. I’ve helped with the logistical side for smaller events (Tech & Life Science conferences and, yes, a science fiction convention) and most of it is dull and very job-like.

We volunteers do the part that the office staff would struggle with, which is decide on the content. I’ll describe the process in a later blog or blogs but as we volunteers work with the technology we know the subject matter, what is current and coming and, between us what the audience is likely to be interested in. We also have input into decisions about how content is delivered and the things that surround it – the social events, the timing of the talks, any pre-event activities. Basically, aspects that will impact the attendee enjoyment are generally passed by us.

That is the part I’ll mostly try and share with you as we go through the process. For now, I’ll just mention that my friend Anthony Macey did this nice piece about being a volunteer for Tech 2014

Usually when I blog it is very obviously my opinion and no one else’s. I don’t feel the need to have that usual weaselly disclaimer to absolve others of any association with what I say. However, for postings about preparing UKOUG Tech15 I will be in some ways talking about the efforts and actions of others and could be seen as representing the UKOUG. I am not – all opinions and errors should be heaped on my shoulders alone. I did take the step of asking the UKOUG if they were happy for me to run this series of blogs and if they wanted oversight of the postings – they were good enough to say that they were happy for me to do it and that they would not require oversight. So I have their blessing but am a free agent.

If anyone has any questions about the conference and how it is organised, please feel free to get in touch. I can’t answer questions on everything, but if there is some aspect of how it is organised that your are curious about then please ask (so long as it is notwhy did my talk on blargh get turned down“).

Friday Philosophy – The Problem of Positive Discrimination? February 27, 2015

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

Have you ever (or are you currently) working in an organisation with any Positive Discrimination policies? Where, for example, there is a stated aim to have 25% of the board as female or 30% of the workforce from ethnic groups that are not of the majority ethnic group in your geographic location? How do you feel about that? Is positive discrimination a good thing or a bad thing? I can’t decide.

{Big Caveat! Before anyone wants to give me the same sort of hassle as a tiny few did recently over a related post, note that I am just wondering aloud and whilst I encourage comments and feedback, I reserve the right to block or delete any comments that I feel are abusive or discriminatory or simply from the unhinged. Just saying. Also I am mostly going to reference women as the aim for positive discrimination, as the blog got really untidy when I swapped between different types of discrimination. I apologise if anyone is offended by that – it is not intended.}

I don’t think I’ve ever been comfortable with the concept of positive discrimination and if I wind back the clock to my early 20’s, back then I was quite angrily dead set against it – on the grounds that it is still discrimination. It seemed to me then that it was a simple yin/yang concept. If discrimination is wrong, it’s wrong and “positive” discrimination is in fact just discrimination against the majority. Wrong is wrong. Stealing is wrong, be it from the poor or the rich or from organisations. All those post-it notes I’ve stolen over the years? Bad Martin.

So what has changed about my opinion? Well, I think that as we all get older we tend to be able to better consider the wider picture and less black/white about most of our philosophies {my personal opinion is that those who don’t modify their opinions in light of more experience and greater thought are, well, not maturing}. I can’t but accept that the business/IT work place as a whole is male-dominated and is riddled with sexism. This does not mean *at all* that all or even most men in business/IT are sexist, but the statistics, studies and countless personal experiences make it clear that the pay, success and respect of women are impacted.
A way to counteract that is to encourage more women to work in IT (or science or whichever area they are under-represented in) and show that they are just as effective in senior positions by tipping the balance in their favor. Positive discrimination is one way of doing that. Is the small evil of this type of discrimination acceptable if it first counteracts and then helps overturn and melt the large evil of the massive inequalities we currently have? Once equality is there (or you are at least approaching it) you drop the little evil of positive discrimination? But how else do you balance the books until the issue has been addressed? My own perception is that sexism and racism at least are reduced from what they were when I first started working, maybe positive discrimination is a significant factor in that? Maybe it is more that society has shifted?

Part of me likes the Women In Technology {try search on hashtag #WIT but you get loads of things that are labelled as “witty” as well} events and discussions such as supported in the Oracle sphere by Kellyn PotVin-Gorman and Debra Lilley amongst others. I much prefer to have a balanced workforce. But when I’ve been to a talk about it or seen online discussions, there often seems to be an element of “we hate men” or “all men are out to put us down” that, frankly, insults me. In fairness I’ve also seen that element questioned or stopped by the female moderators so I know they are aware of the problem of Men Bashing. After all, for reasons I have gone into in a prior post, as a small man I empathise with some of their issues – so to be told all men are the problem is both personally an affront and also… Yes, it’s discrimination. I should not have to feel I need to justify my own non-sexism but I do – My work, hiring and promoting history demonstrates I treat both sexes as equal. If I think you are rubbish at your job, it has nothing to do with how many X chromosomes you have.

I mentioned above “the little evil of positive discrimination” and that is certainly how I see it. I think of it as wrong not just because of the yin/yang simplistic take on right and wrong but because positive discrimination can have negative effects. Forcing a percentage of the workforce or management to be from a specified group means you are potentially not hiring the best candidates or putting the less capable into those positions. If your workforce is 10% female, not at all unusual in IT, then it is unlikely the best candidates for management are 25% female. They might be, it might be that 40% of them are female as they have managed to demonstrate their capabilities and stick with the industry despite any extra challenges faced. But to have a false percentage strikes me as problematic. Another issue is that of perceived unfair advantage or protection. How would any of us feel if we did not get a job or position as someone else got it on the basis of their sex, colour or disability to fulfill a quota? People are often bad tempered enough when they fail to get what they want. Over all, I think positive discrimination leads to a level of unease or resentment in the larger group not being aided. NOTE – I mean on average. I do not mean that everyone (or even most) feels resentment. And those who do vary in how much each individual feels upset by it.

I know a few people, including myself, who have hit big problems when disciplining or even sacking someone who is not a white male. I’ve had HR say to me “we are going to have to be very careful with this as they are {not-white-male}”. I asked the direct question of would this be easier if the person was a white male? – And they said, frankly, yes. It’s hard not to let that get your back up. I’ve seen this make someone I felt was pretty liberal and balanced become quite bigoted. That is positive discrimination being a little evil and having exactly the opposite effect as intended. That HR department was, in my opinion, getting it wrong – but I’ve heard so many similar stories that I feel it is the same in most HR departments across the UK, US and maybe Europe too. I can’t speak about other places.

I know a few women who are also very uncomfortable with positive discrimination as it makes them feel that either they got something not on the basis of their own abilities or others see it that way from looking in.

I’ve occasionally seen the disparity in numbers seen as a positive – I knew a lady at college who loved the fact she was only one of 3 women out of just over a hundred people in her year doing a degree in Computer Science. I was chatting to her {at a Sci-fi society evening, where she was also markedly out-numbered by the opposite sex} about how it must be daunting. She laughed at me in scorn – It was great! She said she stuck out and so got better responses when she asked questions in lectures, she had no trouble getting help off the over-worked tutors as they were keen to be seen to not be discriminatory and, as you mostly “met people” via your course or your societies, she pretty much had her pick of a hundred+ men. That told me.

So all in all, I still do not know if I am for or against positive discrimination. I guess I just wish it was not necessary. If there really was no discrimination, we would not question how many female, black, asian, disabled, short, fat, ginger, protestant people there were doing whatever we do.

{sorry for the lack of humour this week, I just struggled to squeeze it into such a delicate topic}

Return of the Disasters – OUG Ireland 2015 February 23, 2015

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

In just under a month I’ll be off to Dublin for the 2015 OUG Ireland conference. It takes place on Thursday the 19th of March. I’m doing my favorite presentation to present, on I.T. disasters I have witnessed and what you can learn from them (so now the title of this blog makes sense and maybe is not as exciting as it suggested). It is also the talk I get most nervous about doing. I tend to put a bit of humour into any presentation I do but if it is predominantly a technical talk, it’s fine if the humour falls flat. When I am intending to be entertaining, as I do with this one, there is more at stake!

not_the_best_thing_to_drop

Back in the mid-2000’s I used to do this talk once or twice a year but these days it tends not to get accepted for conferences. I suspect it is partly as I had done it a good few times and partly as it is hard to place it under the categories Oracle Technical conferences have. Is it technical? Is it project management? Is it entertainment? It is actually a bit of all of them. They are all true stories and each one highlights how we should not do things, be it some of the pitfalls of project management or where disaster tolerant hardware turned out not to be.

I’ve mentioned this presentation a couple of times in my blog. Once early on in 2009 when no one came by here very often, where I go into why I toned down the talk {concern over impact on my career/perceived professionalism} for a while and the impact of that decision {a bland and rather poor talk}. It crops up again in a post in 2013, which I think is the last time I gave this talk. I am not sure I did a very good job of it then either, as I was not well during that trip (not helped by rough seas but I was ill for other reasons). Thus I am looking forward to giving it another airing and, as I no longer worry too much about the career, I might just let rip a little more. I have a few more disasters under my belt since I originally wrote the talk, so I might include one or two of them…

The OUG Ireland conference itself is a fair-sized event, running from 09:00 to 17:30 or so, with 7 concurrent tracks covering Applications, Cloud, BI, Database and Development. I’m astounded by the number of Oracle Aces, Oaktable members and other top knowledge sharers who will be presenting {Update – Brendan Tierney has put together a list of all ACEs presenting}. I’ll have several hard decisions about which talk I go to at any given time. I’ll certainly be at Maria Colgan’s Tech keynote at the end of the day though, I’m hoping for another offer of a date* ;-).

To my shame, I have never been to Ireland before and it’s only just over there {points West}, about 90 minutes by plane. So I am turning up Wednesday lunch time and staying to late Friday afternoon so that I can look around and spend some time with fellow presenting friends (and anyone else who I bump into).

All in all, it is a trip I am greatly looking forward to for various reasons. If you can get along I encourage you to do so. And, if you are there and see me around, come and say “hi”.

{* Note to lawyers, this is an in-joke}.

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