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Friday Philosophy – Struggling To Learn Something? You Still Rock April 1, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Knowledge, Perceptions, Private Life, working.
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When did you last learn something new about the tech you work with? This week? This month? This year? 2003?

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt.

{This blog is a bit of a personal story about my own recent career; how I fell off the log and managed to climb back on it – just so you know}.

For me it was (as I type) this week. In fact, it was today! It was in an area of “my tech”, stuff that I know back to front and left to right. I’m an expert in it, I’ve been using this area of Oracle’s tech for two decades and I simply “Rock at this stuff!” I mean, I know quite a bit about it (sorry, went all “USA” on you there for a minute). But still, despite all my experience in it and even teaching others about it, I learnt something new today – And thank the heavens I did.

Why am I so happy about learning something that, really, I perhaps should know already?

About 3 years ago I stepped back from the whole Oracle arena. I’d been struggling with the tech for a while and I was really not enjoying most of the roles I took on. Which is odd, as I was able to choose between roles by this point to some extent, and had no problem saying “no” to a job I did not like the look of. I know, it’s a privileged position to be in – but I pretty much feel it was a position I put myself into by working hard, developing my skills and (which may seem counter-intuitive to some) sharing them.

So, I had finished a job I was enjoying (which had become a rarity) and I had taken on a new role… and I was hating it. And I was especially hating learning stuff. And I had no desire to, once more, pour 10% of my learnt skills down the sink (as they had been superseded) and learn 20% of new stuff. Why do I say once more? Because, as the Oracle tech has rolled on, that is what I and all of you in a band around my age has had to do every few years.

Back in the early 90’s I knew how to get Forms and Reports to work in ways many did not. I would edit the source files for these tools, I could use tricks with the triggers to do stuff and I also knew PL/SQL in a way few people at the time did. But my position as a leading expert went out the window as things progressed and everyone (everyone? OK no, but a good fraction of people) caught up – and then exceeded – my skills in those areas. And some tech was retired. But I had moved onto database skills by then and I knew stuff about segment creation and space management that few others worried about. Which Oracle then made redundant and I had to move on again…

I’m not alone in this, most of you reading this (be you 60, 50, 40 or 30) can relate to this and have your own stories of managing skills and moving on as the skill set you knew evolved.

But as I said, around 3 years ago, for me it ended. I hit a wall. I was simply too tired, cynical and… yeah, pissed off, to keep letting go of some skills and learning new ones. I’d had enough and I stopped learning. Within 12 months I was not pissed off- I was screaming inside to get out of the industry. And I did. If you have followed my blog you might be able to see the pattern if you look back over the posts. I certainly can, looking back over them.

In this industry, if you stop learning you “die”. It might take a while, especially if you are just ticking over in a role where nothing changes and no new features are used. But the nearer you are to the bleeding edge of the tech, the faster you fall off that edge. For 24 years I had either tested the next version of Oracle before it was released or been the person telling (whatever company I was at) how to use (or avoid!) the new features of the latest Oracle release. But now I had stopped learning.

I started having chats with some friends about it and most were sympathetic and understanding and, well, nice. But I still had that wall. My career was based on being near, on or beyond the leading edge. I learnt stuff. I moved with the times. And now I did not as I was… tired. Drained.

But then I had a weekend in America skiing and relaxing after a conference in Colorado and I spent a lot of time with a good friend Frits Hoogland and I told him about where I was. He was also sympathetic – but he also said (and this is not a quotation but a general indication of his intent, as I remember it):

“I can’t tell you how to care about it, it’s up to you. But if you are not driven to learn the tech you won’t learn it. I can’t give you that drive – you have to find it for yourself”.

No one else had said that. Frits had summed up the situation and given it to me straight. You don’t learn by passive osmosis, you need to want to learn. And I’d fallen off the learning log and I didn’t know how to get back on it.

I thought on that for about 12 months. I also hid a little from the Oracle sphere and being “an expert”. And you know what? He was totally right. I needed a reason to learn the latest stuff and keep developing and it had to be something I wanted – be it a career, kudos, being the best I could be, putting kids though college (just checked, I never had kids), anything! But it had to be a drive. Because learning all this stuff is hard work.

It took me 12 months to work it out, but eventually I realised what I did and did not like about my working life. I hated commuting, office politics, dealing with people who were in charge but did not know (and had no desire to know) about tech, seeing the same mistakes repeated – All that stuff we all hate. But for me I was no longer able to balance that with the nice bits. Solving problems, making things work faster, creating programs and tools to help people achieve things and… teaching people.

So I took the decision to spend a year or two doing less work (and not earning much) and being more involved in the UKOUG, technical blogging (I’ve not really done so well on that front), writing articles, doing conferences and smaller user groups.. Basically, doing more in the user community. And I have, even to the extent of being involved in a book.

It took a while but I know it worked. How? I started learning again. I don’t mind if it is stuff that maybe I should already know – if I’m learning I’m not just improving but I am being engaged by my job (whatever my “job” is).

If you are in I.T. and you are still learning stuff, I would suggest that over all, everything is fine. Even if the learning part hurts a little – it does seem to get a bit harder each year to put new stuff into that cerebral cortex- you are not stagnating.

If you are in I.T. and not learning stuff, I’d suggest you might want to think about why – and if you should be changing what you do or where you do it. We spend most of our adult lives working, if there is any way you can make that part of your life more satisfying, I really think you should try and do it. Even if, as in my case, it pays a hell of a lot less!


1. cstephens16 - April 1, 2016

Great post! I couldn’t agree more.

2. vijaysehgal - April 1, 2016

Great post. Keeping onself motivated and learing, exploring stuff can be exhausting but as Connor McDonald’s site has “Learning is not a spectator sport” we have to get up and get going, thanks for sharing!!!!

3. richard harrison - April 1, 2016

Hi Martin,
Great post (as always). This really struck a chord with me, I’ve experienced pretty much exactly what you describe and some times motivation is very hard to find. I’ve found sometimes now taking a step back and just guiding other people some of the time is actually very satisfying and that’s made he job more enjoyable seeing other people develop skills and moving forward. Blogging has also been very satisfying for some reason (which seems bizarre when i hate documentation so much).

The constant keeping up to date is very draining but it does help if you have interested colleagues as you do inspire each other to investigate more- you do of course have to have the right kind of team mates to make this work.It sounds like maybe you’ve just had a run of bad job roles and finding the right one will reinspire you further?

We’re currently looking at Azure and my first thought was – here we go again something else to learn – but actually the tech is pretty good and I’ve almost been enjoying myself ( i said almost).

Keep the posts coming.Hopefully see you at oraclemidlands later in the year.


P.S. after saying a few weeks ago i never buy books any more – i just bought two on Azure…. So don’t throw your 500 page masterwork in the bin just yet 🙂

mwidlake - April 1, 2016

Thanks Richard

It’s amazing what a difference the people you work with makes. I once ended up in a role I was utterly unsuited (and unskilled) for and it could have been hell, especially as one of the other people in the team was the worst person I ever worked with. But the third person was the best I ever worked with – because of his drive and enthusiasm.

I’ll be at the next Oracle Midlands – I better be, I’m talking! I’ve really missed getting to the meetings (if I can I come, speaking or not) but for a year or so it has been on dates I could not manage.

As for my role – at the moment it is “presenting tart”. It might sound trite but what I like doing it teaching/sharing knowledge. If only I could find a paying job to do it but not many companies/people will stump up for courses. It’s another way the internet has changed how we do things.

4. Hemant K Chitale - April 2, 2016

So, it seems, I wasn’t the only unhappy person. Thank you for the post. Keeping up with technology is a frustrating challenge. Add to that some of the idiocy and politics and unwillingness to improve that you see around you and you begin to dislike the job. Teaching and learning on your own are ways to help keep your sanity and some degree of confidence in your own abilities.

5. Noons - April 2, 2016

Great post! Good to see I was not the only person to join this club. I tend to branch out into hobby areas when the job arena gets stale. Got into golfing, wood working, wood carving, fishing, photography and of late astronomy as a result.
And it’s worked: still in IT, still gainfully employed despite all the statements to the contrary by folks who never worked with me or met me, and still having as much fun as before. Now with Azure, AWS and Google, but also with the latest flavours of 12c. For me the important thing is keeping the thirst for knowledge going, in whatever form. It all adds up and helps.

mwidlake - April 3, 2016

Thanks Noons

I sometimes wonder about people for whom computing and I.T. is everything – a computing-based job and then at home most of their free time is spent on home programming projects, hacking, being on forums, seeing what they can do with micro boards. I’m not criticising any of this, as times I think about doing more of it – but if my whole life had been I.T. when I hit the wall, what would I have done with no other interests? Or I stopped being able to do IT due to RSI or something?

For me, having other interests is vital. At times I have to go and do a physical tasks where, although some brain is needed (like working out how to take down the tree without it dropping in the pond) it is of a practical bent and most of the effort is muscular. Which given my physique makes it more of a challenge 🙂

Noons - April 4, 2016

Indeed. One of the reasons why I loved golf, fishing, wood working and wood carving: exclusively hand-based. Nothing electrical or mechanic. It forces me to do physical exercise (with my weight increase, badly needed! 😉 ).
They need primarily hand-eye coordination and that is excellent for the focusing bit we all need in IT.
I know other folks who tried painting, playing music and other such hobbies with success. In fact, it was a similar example from a friend that got me into the hobby thing.
I reckon it’s a great way to keep the mind going and the curiosity sparked and that surely helps in the end.
But as you well say, it’s horse for courses: other folks find the mental stimulation in different ways.

6. Iudith Mentzel - April 9, 2016

Dear Martin,
I am so happy to read this post, which made me feel like your twin brother, really.

When you say
“I hated commuting, office politics, dealing with people who were in charge but did not know (and had no desire to know) about tech, seeing the same mistakes repeated” … I fell like you are the one who works at my place …
I guess that we are probably the same age, and had a very similar professional development way, at least in what concerns Oracle technologies.
Just like you, I am also one that edited Forms source files and used Forms in ways like probably very few did,
so I know exactly what are you talking about :):)

I would not say about myself that I “hit the wall” in what concerns my desire to learn, I always liked to deepen my knowledge
in those fields which I was effectively using, just for being “one head in front of the others around me”,
but, as you said so very well, with those “office politics” and totally ignorant management staff (and I mean the professional staff, not the administrative one), I hit the point at which all my efforts became in vain …
You should have always at least the feeling that your higher level knowledge is being appreciated and used by those
around you … and this is what does not happen.
At my job, they were also always failing in planning ahead of time the more specific technology areas in which people were supposed to acquire deeper knowledge, the general custom was to just decide over-night “to throw into the arena”
a new 3-letter buzzword, and without any training or learning of any kind, just put it into Production and expect it to work
flawlessly …
I live in a very isolated place in what concerns other opportunities … here you can only either continue as is,
or quit at all … no chance to find another place where your knowledge can still be useful and for which to make sense
to continue enriching it. Also, there are practically no Oracle jobs available, big giants like SAP have put a strong
ownership, or I would say almost a “dictatorship” on the area and they are dictating the rules.
So, unfortunately, quitting remains the only way, and continuing to learn just for personal pleasure.
I wish I could have been more involved with the “web opportunities” of continuing to live …
and would have been delighted to meet people like you and many other great ones, instead of the grey ones with whom
I spent my (too many) working years.
I will always happily read your blogs and will be happy to hear that you are back on the learning track 🙂

mwidlake - April 9, 2016

Thank you for such a long and considered comment Iudith

I think the issues of management not understanding the technology and trying to swap to the latest craze (data lakes and Everything As A Service) are sadly very common. Management has always been unsure about IT – when I started, a lot of it was still due to it being relatively new, unknown and thus not trusted. Now it is expected to Just Work, no matter what crazy bits you try to join together.

I suppose I have been lucky that I have been able to chose between employers for the last few years, as I live near London. When I lived in the middle of the country, there were less companies using Oracle and only a few had “large” systems where my skill set seemed to fit, but there was some choice. To have very few other options must be very hard.

7. Sen - April 19, 2016

Hi Martin,

For developing any skill (in our case: Oracle Database Administrator / Developer) – Everyone has a philosophical way of saying it: Read Oracle documentation and practice on a test machine. But I feel, most of the times, documents are aligned in a format which is suitable for reading – To practice, either you should read the document completely and start practicing or follow Oracle university course (practice at the end of each chapter). What’s your advice or method you adapted over the years?

mwidlake - April 19, 2016

Hi Techsenko

Thanks for the feedback.

You say “What’s your advice or method you adapted over the years?”

I say:

Really learning something takes some effort. The official documentation is good for checking if syntax is correct and what options are available but it is very poor at teaching you how to use an aspect of Oracle, let alone *why* you would. Oracle courses are excellent (especially if it is a real, live, hands-on, tutor lead course, but so few companies will pay for that it’s a dying option).

But the best way to learn is to have solve a real business need using that technology. e.g. using Virtual Private Database/Row Level Security to mask information your company needs to hide from certain users. The second best way is to have to solve problems with that technical solution. Actually learning something with no “need” for what that tech can do is actually quite hard. I sometimes dream up a scenario that I could solve and then do so with the new tech – but as it is not a real need and, when time is short, you drop that task.

Web information that gives actual examples is the next best way to learn, I feel. Any web site that says “this feature works like this” but does not provide any proof or tests script, it is only an *opinion* and is probably wrong. There are sadly a lot of sites like that. A site that says “it works like this and here is a demonstration” is an order of magnitude better. “Ask Tom” and “OracleBase” are two excellent examples but there are others. If test scripts are provided, don’t just read them but try them out. “book knowledge” is better than nothing but doing it for real is so much better – and if the scripts don’t work, contact the author. Most of us will appreciate the feedback and try and sort out the issue.

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