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Friday Philosophy – Level of Presentations March 8, 2013

Posted by mwidlake in Exadata, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Presenting.
Tags: , ,

This FF is a bit of a follow-up to the one I posted last week on PL/SQL skills and a comment made by Noons on how much knowledge you need to be an OakTable member.

I have a question to answer and I would appreciate other people’s opinion. Should there be more intro talks at conferences? If so, should the experts be giving them?

I am an OakTable member (and really quite worryingly proud about that) and I guess that means I know a lot about some aspects of Oracle. But also, and this is a key part of being asked to be a member of the OakTable, I both try and base my “knowledge” on scientific testing of what I think I know (be it by myself or others willing to show their workings) and I try and pass that knowledge on. I don’t think there is a member of the OT that does not abide by those two concepts.

This is not false modesty on my part, but most other people on the OT know a shed load {UK colloquialism for “really quite a lot”} more than I do about the Oracle database and how it works. Some of them are so smart I can’t but secretly dislike them for it :-). But I have a reasonable stash of knowledge in my head and I am a stong proponent of those last two factors. In particular, I want to put what I have in my head about {ohh, let’s pick partition pruning} in other people’s heads. Which is why for the last 4 years most of my presentations have run over horribly. I must get every detail into the audiences’ heads, even if they don’t want to know it!

Of late I have started to feel that I present in the wrong way. I take a subject, I write down what I know about it and I try to present that knowledge. I’ve only picked topics I feel I know well and in which I can handle almost any question the audience asks. For me to be that confident I have to have used that aspect of Oracle technology a lot and had months, if not years of experience. You cannot pass that on in 1 hour. I’ve already said I am not that smart, but I learn over time. So I started to strip out the basics and present just the clever stuff, which shows how fabulous I am. {British self-deprecating sarcasm, please}. Just like so many other experts. Hell, if we are experts, we should be talking expert stuff!!!

To balance that I think there is a gap in what is talked about at conferences. I know this is felt by some conference organisers and attendees too, but there is just way too much “impressive smart stuff” and not enough “how X works in the real world, for people who have never done it”. Not 10,000 feet up sales pitch rubbish that gives no substance, but talks on a topic where you can go from level 1 for knowledge-free beginners to level 5 for the 25 people at the conference who know this stuff inside out – and the talk stops at level 2. I’ve made a decision to try and address that gap, which is why I now offer more talks on “an intro to Exadata” and “how to get going with performance tuning” than the smart stuff.

The problem is, how many people, probably mostly young people, go to conferences? Am I wasting my time trying to offer these talks if no one going to the conferences wants them? Do people going to conferences, generally speaking, want the technical nitty-gritty or do they want the intro stuff? Yes, I know there is a spread but where is the real need? I suppose I thought of this recently when I did a talk on Index Organized Tables and almost everyone in the room already used them. Then, a few hours later, I did an intro to database design. Almost everyone in the room was a seasoned database designer… I doubt I said much of real value to either audience.

That leaves my last point about should the experts do intro talks? A problem with experts doing intro talks is the expert knows it all. It can be hard to remember what you really needed to know at the start (and also, my own problem, knowing what to drop out the talk as, really, it is “being smart as an ego-trip” that the new people can do without). But if you are not an expert, can you handle the What If questions? I have played with this issue with my Intro to Exadata talk. I wrote the draft when I had very little real experience and I have only modified it as I gained more experience. I’m glad I did as when I revisited the presentation recently I started putting loads of stuff in that only makes sense when you are used to it’s peculiarities. Thankfully, I realised this and stripped most of it out again. So well, in fact, that one person who wrote about the talk said “it was nice to see someone talk about it who was an Oracle expert who obviously knew little about the topic”. Well, something like that 🙂

Enough. I would appreciate other people’s opinions and experiences on this.


1. mdinh - March 10, 2013

Experts should be able to present as long as the talk is at the level the audience can understand relate to.

2. Gary - March 10, 2013

At an AUSOUG a few years ago, Penny Cookson did an hour or two workshop on Apex for beginners. I thought it worked well. Because people may be a total beginner for one year and a seasoned professional for ten, I don’t think there’d be a big audience for the very basic stuff. But there probably would be for any add-ons, such as Apex, RAC or partitioning. You’d get the people who manage a current DB that doesn’t use those features but would consider it if they knew more.

3. Uwe Hesse - March 10, 2013

Hi Martin,
good topic that you bring up here!

Hard to judge whether intro/basic stuff should be talked about at conferences – probably yes, because nobody is an expert for everything.

I would definitely recommend that intro/basic stuff is presented by real experts, though. Because it is important to get it right from the start. And it is very difficult for the newbies to get rid of false ideas later on.

Problem is only that
a) Many experts feel it is beyond them to do that
b) Many experts no longer realize how difficult the ‘basic’ things have been to them when they started

Kind regards

4. bigdaveroberts - March 10, 2013

Always remember, in the environment where there are gasps about the 4 second SQL statement parse, the guy (Me) with the 60 second parse is likely to keep his mouth shut. (Luckily, the execution time was only 5 seconds.) Your audience might pretend to be slightly smarter than they really are!

Even when there is a conference that is prior to a major Oracle release, I still learn new stuff about the current release. Not big new ideas, but refinement to understanding of the basic stuff.

I don’t think that the level of technical knowledge is key here, it is the lack of understanding of the role. If you want to educate junior DBAs then use your experience to explain the key goals of the role. When you understand that when the data is gone, it is you they will be looking at not the sysadmin or the manager, then you should know what your primary goal is.

If the guy understands the goal, he should have the sense to acquire the skills required to do his job and negotiate with other groups to establish expectations for availability and the technology to achieve those goals. Or at the very least generate an audit trail that might cover his backside.

In the development DBA role I suppose you can afford to be philosophical, but I can remember when I started instrumenting my code, it seemed a natural approach to me. That habit got beaten out of me, I was identified as writing inefficient code. It was only after Tom Kite did a session on the topic, that I realised I was wrong when I had allowed myself to be ‘persuaded’ to de-instrument my code.

Even if you are only telling people what they already know, or at least validating their instincts, then that is sometimes enough.



5. mwidlake - March 11, 2013

Thank you everyone for the feedback so far. Some very wise words that, if you will excuse my interpretation of, I will boil down to two key points. “You have to scope the presentation to match the target audience” and “as an expert, part of your role is to base what you say on tested, proven and demonstrable reality”.

I think I’ll keep going with the “intro” talks and see how I do for a year.

6. jgarry - March 22, 2013

I’d go to beginners level talks from someone I know is a good presenter. Sometimes it is good to review, you can get into odd habits dealing with strange situations. And of course, we’re all beginners at something, +1 to Gary’s comment.

If I went to conferences. I used to be a big fan, even making it a precondition for taking jobs, but these days there really isn’t anything appropriate, and I just catch cold.

7. Re-forming the Martin Cluster in Norway | Martin Widlake's Yet Another Oracle Blog - April 5, 2013

[…] suppose I should mention what I am presenting on? Well, as I mentioned in my last Friday Philosophy, I am concentrating more on introductory presentations. You can see my official agenda here. I am […]

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