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Telling the Truth in IT March 17, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes.
Tags: , ,

I’ve been doing presentations for many years, mostly on Oracle Technology, occasionally on management topics. However, my favorite presentation to give is one about when things go wrong.

The title is usually something like “Surviving Survivable Disasters” or “5 ways to Seriously Screw up a Project” and, though the specific examples and flow may vary, the general content is the same. I talk about IT situations that have gone wrong or things that strike me as daft/silly/mindless in IT. My aim is to be entertaining and have a laugh at the situations but I also want to explore what causes disasters and how we might go about avoiding at least some of them.

When doing the presentation I have a couple of ground rules:

  • I must have witnessed the situation myself or know personally, and trust, the individual who is my source.
  • I do not name organisations or individuals unless I am specifically given permission {by individuals that is, organisations never get named. Except one}.
  • I try to resist the temptation to embellish. It’s not hard to resists, a good disaster usually stands on it’s own merits.

It’s a great talk for introducing some light relief into a series of very technical presentations or for opening up a day of talks, to get people relaxed. It’s also the only talk I get seriously nervous about doing – if you are aiming to be entertaining and you miss, you stand to die on stage. The first time I did the talk I was physically sweating. However, it went down a storm. I did it 4 or 5 more times over as many years and it always went down well.

However, about 4 years ago I did the presentation just as I was about to go back to being self employed. After the talk a very good friend came over and said something like “Really entertaining talk but…maybe you should tone it down? A lot. Potential employers are going to take a dim view of you doing this, they will worry they will appear in the next talk”. I protested that I never mention companies or people and, surely, all organisations are able to admit that things go wrong and it is to everyone’s benefit if we all learn from them? My friend was adamant that though companies want to benefit from other disasters, they never, ever want to in any way be the source of that benefit. He was sure it would be very damaging to my potential career. Hmmmm…. I could see his point.

I was already scheduled to do the talk again in a couple of months and I took heed of his advice for it. I toned down the material, I removed some of the best stories and I added several disclaimers. I also died on stage. It went from an amusing 45 minutes to a preachy and stodgy affair.

I have not done it since.

The question is, should I have pulled back from doing that talk? Is it really going to harm my potential employability? (After all, no work has ever come my way from presenting). Why can’t we be honest that issues occur and that learning from them is far more valuable than covering them up? After all, do we believe a person who claims never to have made mistakes?

What prompted this thread is that I have been asked to do the talk again – and I have agreed to do so. I’ll be doing it next week, with the title “5 ways to advance your career through IT Disasters” for the UK Oracle user group Back to Basics event. This is a day of introductory talks for people who are fairly new to Oracle, the brain-child of Lisa Dobson. Lisa realised a few years ago that there were not enough intro-type presentations, most technical talks are by experts for fellow experts {or, at least, people wanting to become experts}.

I’m very happy to support helping those who are new to Oracle and I think it is important that people who are new to IT are exposed to what can go wrong – and any advice that might help them avoid it. After all, it’s better they learn from our mistakes than just repeat them again. OK, they’ll just repeat them again anyway, but they might spot that they are doing so just in time πŸ™‚

Is this a good idea? What the hell, I want more free time to do things like this blog – and get on top of the garden.



1. Tony Sleight - March 17, 2011

I think you should go for it. You say yourself you’ve never had any work as a result of presenting. The potential work from your technical expertise and knowledge would far outweigh employment damage from a quirky and amusing 45 minute presentation where no names are mentioned. Would you be comfortable working in an environment where the thought that a company has only taken you on because you didn’t do a presentation on the wrong way of doing things?

mwidlake - March 17, 2011

Give me a job and I’ll tell you πŸ™‚

There is a whole chapter there of Friday Philosophies. I do understand why businesses have this attitude of denying responsibility or fault but I just can’t get over the opinion that it is all to do with a flawed concept of perception. But in the real business world you are forced to play by certain rules. Ack!

2. Bernard Polarski - March 17, 2011

“my favourite presentation to give is one about when things go wrong”

Sound like humankind history since stone age. By the way, if you ever come to meet a ‘Sapiens Sapiens’, shoot on sight : these are nasty beasts that roam Earth surface.

mwidlake - March 17, 2011

What’s the opposite of Sapiens? I’m that one πŸ™‚ We need JL for this, he knows all sorts of odd Latin stuff.

3. Graham - March 17, 2011

Nice post Martin, we’ve all been on the wrong end of some kind of avoidable disaster. If I could give one tip to an oracle (or anything else) newbie… if you make a mistake – do not try to cover it up!

mwidlake - March 17, 2011

Hi Graham,

Good advice!

You are not a real DBA until you have destroyed a system.
You are not a competent DBA until you have got it back again.

One of the things I caught onto a few years back is that it takes your average developer up to 24 hours to admit they blew away the data. You know, they go and drop half of that really important table. And they try and fix it. Eventually, they come over to the DBAs and ask if there is any way to get that data back.
“Sure! I’ll use flashback query. How long ago did you do it? An hour? Lunch time?”
“yesterday – I thought I could fix it”
“Ahhh Crap”. Yep, too much has changed since. Flashback can’t go back that far.

Set your flashback area/renention policy on any dev database (and live if it is like most lives, ie people have access to “investigate”) so you can flash back 36 hours. You will need it.

4. PdV - March 18, 2011

Oh Yes! Do it.

Most IT disasters are human made: gung-ho-sales-on-targetbonus, optimistic techies, ambitious management, outsourcing, funny written SLA’s, CYA-culture, FUD-vendors, service-managers, large-organisations, and humankind as a whole are a dangerous but interesting combination.

We, the techies, have to live up to all those promises made by the glamorous sales force.
And only by stateing simple truths and reigning in all the complex stuff, do I have any hope of keeping this operation going.
As a DBA and Oracle-techie, I end up between rocks and harder places.

Greetings from a far-away place,
(apologies for the moan, I’m helping to keep an operation going – pumpt out widgets to sell – despite all the corporate-HQ stuff that demands a reply).

mwidlake - March 18, 2011

Hi Piet,

I think many of us can really relate to your situation of providing what someone else sells, no matter how daft or challenging that thing is. The moan is fine by me!

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