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The Fall and Rise of the ACE Program August 26, 2022

Posted by mwidlake in ACED, Perceptions, User Groups.
Tags: , , , ,
5 comments

As the title of this post indicates, something bad happened to Oracle’s ACE program. Really quite bad.

But it is now being fixed – and the fact that Oracle admitted it had made a miss-step and is correcting it can only be applauded. In my experience Corporations tend to be quite poor at admitting they messed something up.

I’ve intended to write something about the whole sorry mess for a while but I held off as it felt like kicking a friend when they were down. But the ACE program is now coming back and I think there are some interesting things to learn, or at least think about, in respect of what happened (and is happening). And I wanted to record it as my own reminder of what happened.

First of all, if you do not know what Oracle’s ACE program is, there is a summary to the left. Fundamentally, it is Oracle’s program to recognise skilled people who communicate about Oracle.

The ACE program has had it’s ups and downs and it has evolved over the years, but basically it exists to recognise and, in some ways support, non-Oracle-employees who try to show the community how to get the best out of Oracle. It is a community outreach program with the inevitable taint of marketing that comes with any vendor-sponsored program.

So What Happened?

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020 it had a massive impact on everything, including the Oracle community. A key part of the community has always been User Groups, conferences & meet-ups – and Covid-19 meant we were not doing those anymore. (For example see this Post about UKOUG postponing the Irish conference in March 2020). The ACE program did what it could to help the community continue and basically pivot their events to being on-line & remote. Webinars via Zoom & Teams replaced in-person events.

Maybe it was this Covid-19 change that prompted something, I don’t know, but in the spring of 2021 it was announced by Oracle that the ACE program was being overhauled – and the Mother Hen of the program was no longer in charge. A lot of us long-term ACE members were not too happy about losing our Mother Hen, especially the way Oracle went about it (Oracle, like many US companies, really can be utterly awful when it comes to their staff. Do you know how much holiday US employees don’t get?). Someone I will refer to as Crazy-Beard man was taking over. I did not know this initially but Crazy-Beard man had the ear of someone powerful in Oracle and Crazy-Beard man had apparently made a bid for the ACE program. This was an aggressive takeover of the program.

Well, OK, the ACE program was moving and being put under the DevRel community and we ACEs could do nothing substantial about the shoddy treatment of one member of staff (though some of us made our feelings known). Maybe the ACE program would now get the staffing and financial levels it needed to boost its impact? (It had been clear to many of us for years that the ACE program never had the resources it really needed to manage several hundred members, especially given what hard work some of us presenter Prima Donna types can be). Maybe this change would be good for the program? Let’s wait and see.

It wasn’t.

Everything stopped. The news letters, the communication, the interaction. We just got the same webinar month after month… after month – “It’s all going to change! And it’s going to be really cool!! And it’s going to be exciting!!!!! Whoooop!!!!!!!” And the tone was as I just indicated, it was like watching a pop-culture Tik-Tok program for teenagers.

After a few months of nothing but “It’s going to be cool!” ACEs started asking what was actually going on. When would any of this new stuff happen? Or, even, any of the old stuff? When would outstanding ACE nominations be processed? When would we hear about new Oracle offerings? What was the rest of the community doing? But all we got were more occasional webinars where we were told again how “cool” it was going to be. And how exciting… And, well… whooop. Yeah, whooop. But nothing really concrete was offered. Except for the odd thing, like anyone was going to be able to be an ACE. Huh? What the hell is the point of a program to recognise significant contribution if everyone can be a member? What you are proposing is a chat channel, not a recognition program.

ACE members asked “when will you have something, anything, actually happening? Some real, tangible part of this cool, exciting, whoop you keep selling to us?”. The reply was just empty blather about working really, really hard to get things ready. I’m sorry, most ACEs recognise bullshit when we smell it. Working “really, really hard” generally means floundering about desperately looking for quick wins.

This new DevRel team had also totally misjudged the tone to use with the ACE program. Most ACEs have been IT professionals for a couple of decades – or more. We like fun, we like social interaction, most of us like a few beers at a conference bar. But jokey job titles and blatant efforts to fake “cool” that might be OK with the sub-30’s are not going to mesh with us. OK, we could maybe live with that naïve method of communication . But what was far worse was that the new people running the ACE program clearly had no clue what the ACE program was, who we are, what we do. Crazy-Beard man seemed to think we were all DBAs. Some of us are, most of us are not. C-B man did not even recognise the “Oracle Names”, the people who are famous in our little world for talking about Performance,APEX, Security, SQL.

So it seems the new people had done virtually nothing to get to know anything about us ACEs. If they had sat down with Mother Hen for a couple of days and talked with her about the program they would have improved the situation hugely, but they seemed to regard everything that had gone before as wrong and to be burnt to the ground. This was brought into sharp focus when an ACE and well known member of the European Oracle community (she chairs the European Oracle User Community for goodness sake) tried to contact C-B man and got no response, at all, from several attempts. Eventually a bunch of other people prodded him and asked him what the hell he was playing at.

In the Pit Of Nothing.

So there we were. All ACE program activity was on hold, the only communication was empty posturing, the tone was wrong, the new people in charge knew nothing about us. Nothing was happening.

Only something was happening… ACEs talk to each other. We gripe, we complain, many of us act like the old men in the box on The Muppets, but that is just the world-weary cynicism we use to hide that we really care about the Oracle community. And we hated what was happening. And most of us were detaching from the ACE world. I took ACE off all my social media and I even wrote an “I resign” letter. Most of us present and talk and blog and teach because we want to do those things. We became ACEs as almost an accident of that. We don’t need the ACE program. It was nice to be ACE, it was a badge of honour and some of the things the program had done were helpful. But fundamentally we were active in the community as we wanted to be. Being recognised as ACE was just a nice pat on the back really.

Another thing that was happening was that some of the more engaged Oracle Product Managers and community-centric people in Oracle, especially around the core database tech, had also become very uncomfortable about what was happening with the ACE program. These people within Oracle could see this palpable shift by the ACE community towards antagonism. I’m friends with several of these people (as are a lot of the people in my world of EU/US speakers & conference organisers) and these PMs were talking with us and echoing back into Oracle the growing alarm bells.

We ACEs were not happy and our friends in Oracle were not happy. But at least we knew things could not get much worse with the ACE program.

Oh boy, were we wrong.

The Meeting From Hell.

Oracle brought a new person into the DevRel team to look after the ACE program. I guess he had other duties too but the side we saw was he was to be the main person for our community. I’m going to call him “Tony Wheeler” as he came from the automotive industry and his whole attitude was that of a second hand car salesman – someone who thinks he’s nailed sounding sincere but actually he can’t fake it. What we call in the UK a “Wheeler Dealer”.

{Note, I had to correct this bit, I originally said the person who organised this meeting was from DevRel, my bad}

A senior lady from the database area realised this whole situation was now an utter mess (she also stepped in to make sure Mother Hen was done right by). She organised a meeting between the new ACE program owners in DevRel and the ACE community, so we could have a frank discussion. It was brave and I think it was totally the right thing to do. But I don’t think anyone predicted how badly the meeting would go…

The meeting started OK. We had some more of the blah blah about how things were “going to change and be cool and be great, and Whoop!” – but unlike all the prior one-way traffic of earlier webinars, this was a proper two-way discussion and the ACEs were allowed to speak. The ACES quickly made the point, calmly but with a tone of considerable frustration, that this “it’s going to be great” had been the case for ages now, but nothing was actually happening. And, frankly, what was so wrong with what the ACE program had been doing before it all stopped in early 2021? And this total lack of any activity by the ACE program was a real hinderance to our communities.

Tony Wheeler said this is what he wanted, he wanted to hear our passion and what it was we felt was wrong. So some of the ACEs (myself included) told him what was wrong. It boiled down to “It wasn’t broken, but you broke it anyway, and then promised cool/great stuff – none of which has materialised. Please just put back what worked and then plan the New World Order.

Tony did not like that.

When he said he wanted to know what we felt it turns out he did not like what we felt. Tony had lied.

Tony went on the offensive. He told us we were afraid of change and everything the ACE program had been was shit (he literally said “shit” or “crap”, I can’t remember which) and he was tearing down the shit and making it better.

He told a bunch of 200+ people who have made their careers on constantly learning the latest stuff in technology that we were afraid of change.

He told 200+ evangelists for Oracle, many of whom explain Oracle’s cloud offerings, that we were stuck in the past.

He told 200+ people that the program we’d known for years and were pretty happy with was trash and we had no clue how shit it was. His Oracle employee badge was barely dry but he was happy to burn the whole past down to the ground.

Wow. This guy was a badge-wearing psychopath.

Our social media groups flared. It was bad enough on the official meeting chat channel but in our twitter groups, DMs etc the scorn was heaped high. Yes, we were angered, but the main reaction was derision. This buffoon Tony Wheeler, with no idea who we were, had rocked up and tried to insult us for not being willing to accept what was new. Friend, most of us got onto this program exactly because we work on, fundamentally understand, and described what was new.

And he also told us the ACE Program we liked was shit and the people organising it in the past were shit. He was brand new to Oracle Corp but he “knew” what had been before was shit. He also thought we were all DBAs (*sigh*). When it was pointed out we wanted the “shit” back and he could take his promised new world order and shove it he basically lost the plot. And the argument. And any respect. I’ve never seen someone burn bridges so fast in my life as he pretty much insulted everyone on the call.

To make it worse Mother Hen was on that call. I can tell you, whilst Tony Wheeler was bad mouthing the old program there were dozens of us on Twitter, the meeting chat channel, DM’s to her, everything, expressing our outrage at this and our support for Mother Hen.

I can only assume this tactic of bad-mouthing the existing way of doing things had worked for Tony Wheeler in the past. Tell people who oppose him that they are scared “of change” and can’t move forward and attempt to burn everything in the past. It’s like a dictator running a scorched earth policy in a war. It never ends well.

I missed the very end of the meeting (I had a family commitment that took priority) but I’m told it was pretty much closed down by the senior database lady who called it, in shock.

I have only one last thing to add in respect of the Meeting From Hell.

Tony Wheeler asked me early on to feed back to him personally what they were doing wrong, what they should start doing again, how they could undo some of the damage. And I agreed to do so. People who know me well know I can fly off the handle and be very negative in-the-moment. But, if I have the opportunity to sit down and gather my thoughts, I’ll do my best to put together something honest but positive. I had said to him I would do this thing so, despite my real anger about him and the whole situation, I put down on paper (well, virtual paper) some thoughts on how things could be improved and sent it off.

I never even got an acknowledgement. The spineless bastard asked me to put my effort in to helping him save what he had messed up and he never even said “thanks”. He might think he knows people but, man , he does not.

So I forwarded a copy to a couple of other people at Oracle – people with a better attitude, just as a record.

The Positive Outcome

That bonfire of a meeting sent shock waves bouncing up and down the management structure in Oracle. It’s one of the very few events I am aware of when the community reaction had an impact on Oracle, though I also know that the internal backlash by Oracle PMs and others to the meeting was also fierce.

Tony Wheeler’s behaviour had been totally unacceptable. His lack of professionalism and his ability to alienate pretty much everyone else involved sealed his fate. He went. I know nothing of the details but it’s like he was sent “swimming with the fishes”. If I ever come across him again I will point-blank refuse to engage with him. He is on a very special list of only about 5 people in my whole career who I will simply not tolerate.

Crazy-Beard man is now out of the DevRel group, but still in Oracle. Maybe I missed it but I never saw anything from C-B man admitting he messed up, let alone apologising, which is a shame . I continued to follow him for a while on Twitter (keep your friends close, keep your not friends closer and all that) and whenever he appeared I wondered what he had taken away from this. I won’t say I’ll never respect him, but he’s going to have to do something pretty bloody high-end awesome for me to see him as a positive force now. Maybe saving baby kittens in Ukraine would do it for me.

Mother Hen, who had been snapped up by the core database group, has been given back the ACE program. It’s a work in progress, so much damage to fix and also there were already things she knew needed improving. I’ve had some nice chats with her, I really hope she gets the support she needs to get the ACE program back on track.

The head of DevRel admitted it had gone badly wrong and needed to be fixed, and committed to making that happen. That admission of fuck-up is, in my experience, almost unheard of in the business community, I hope Mother Hen got a bloody good pay rise out of this.

And in the last week or two the Oracle ACE program has re-launched. It is mostly as it was but with a few changes, and I think more changes will take place while also keeping things working.

Lessons To Learn

This post is already too long but I promised we could learn from this.

The first thing is Communication. It is *vital*! I think it is the absolute key thing to any community at all, be it tech, work, personal, anything. Empty or lying communication is poison, you will be found out and it will erode your community like acid.

The second is “do not make a bid for something you do not understand”. You will kill it. C-B man made a play for a group he did not appear to understand, he certainly did not know the key players and how the ACE program worked, and he (or people working for him) killed it. It remains to be seen if dedicated people who were badly treated can resurrect it.

Third is tailor your communication to your audience. Don’t try and be Tik-Tok & youth to a bunch of people who are mostly parents to those who might appreciate your naïve attempt, and would rather you all just acted your age. No one likes the Corporate Executive who tries to use teenager slang to appear cool, all the teenagers know it is fake – and they are using last year’s slang anyway.

Fourth is do not hire bullshitting arseholes. And if you do, never let them run free in a meeting with external people.

Fifth is, if as a corporation with an outreach program you mess up, your only real workable option is to apologise and step back. I’ve never really seen a corporation do that as they are invested in never admitting a mistake. In this case Oracle did admit the mistake with the ACE program and reset. I’m going to give them some kudos for that.

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