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Postponing Ireland Conference – & Maybe Myself? March 5, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting, Private Life, science, UKOUG, User Groups.
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As I tweeted a couple of days ago, I never thought I would write something announcing cancelling an event due to a worldwide pandemic. And yet that was what I was asked to do earlier this week (first week of March 2020). It will be interesting to look back at this in the future and judge if it was a wise decision or an over-reaction. At present, I am 100% for Wise Decision.

This week UKOUG decided that, in light of the impacts & concerns around the COVID-19 coronavirus, to postpone this year’s annual Irish conference we hold in Dublin. I thought it would be interesting to some of you to know a little of how we came to that decision.

Firstly, this was a joint decision made by the event committee, the UKOUG board, and the UKOUG senior management. Discussions around the topic of COVID-19 and  had taken place between some of us over the prior 24 hours and the event committee had decided that, in their opinion, there was a strong case to not hold the event at this time. They discussed this with the UKOUG senior management and our CEO decided this deserved an emergency board call. This board call would not just consider the event in Ireland but also our future events, our staff, and our members. (In this post I’m only talking about the Irish event, but enough to say that we are taking steps to protect our staff and consider future events and how they might impact our members & the public, plus how we may replace physical events with remote ones).

Secondly, as you can see above, this was a considered decision and not a knee-jerk reaction.  We had people who live in Ireland involved, we considered feedback we had received from partners/sponsors and also delegates. We talked with the venue. We looked at factual information about COVID-19, it’s communicability & mortality rate (how easily you can be infected and how likely you are to die respectively). In the end the decision was easy as we were all in agreement, we needed to postpone the event.

Thirdly, there were several factors behind the decision to postpone OUG Ireland.

Public Concern

We had several presenters pull out from the event. For most their employing company had banned non-essential (or even all) travel, and some had decided that they personally did not want to risk exposure. A couple of sponsors were in the same situation of being told they could not attend. Further, we had concerned delegates contacting us asking if the event was still on or what steps we were taking. Some cancelled coming, again a mixture of diktat from employer or a personal decision not to attend.

Interestingly, we were getting as many new delegates signing up for the event as dropping out, so obviously some people felt COVID-19 was not an issue.

We knew we had enough speakers in reserve that we could call on to fill agenda holes but we also could see that more and more events were being cancelled across Europe and more companies were announcing travel limitations, so the cancellations were likely to escalate on the run-up to the event. What happens months ahead, no one knows, but for now the public concern is very, very high.

I considered titling this section as FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt. But FUD is usually a derogatory term indicating a baseless over-reaction. I think there is a lot of FUD going on in the general public, but people in IT tend to be smarter than average and more balanced. I think it is very reasonable to be concerned to some degree and, as you will see at the end of this piece, the concern will vary depending on your personal circumstances. For some people (e.g those with Asthma or similar decreased lung capacity) there is a significant increased personal risk from this specific illness, it is not always a case of a simple “I’m worried about a pandemic”.

Financial Considerations

With the best will in the world, user groups needs money to put on events. There is a commercial aspect to this. Putting on an event that fails and loses money is a danger. We at UKOUG do insure our major events against Force Majeure, basically events beyond our control, but we are like all user groups in that we walk a tightrope of finance.

Cancelling an event does not always save any money as it has already been paid out. But if a sponsor gets a poor experience in return for their sponsorship £/€/$ they are not happy (and neither are we as the organisers). If delegates come and the event feels like an empty room or the agenda is not what they want, they may not come again. As you can see, it is complex

I have to say that for Ireland we benefit from an excellent relationship with our venue, we have held the event at the Gresham in Dublin for several years and our committee & office know them well. They reduced the potential financial impact on us by offering us flexibility in re-arranging this event.

I make this point as some user groups (and of course, other companies) putting on public events in the near future may find that they have no such flexibility. For them cancelling a conference could actually kill the user group financially or result in individuals losing a lot of money. Did you know that sometimes it is individuals or a very small company that is bank-rolling your usergroup events?

For some user groups the financial consideration will be far more acute than it is for UKOUG.

Public Health

This is not the same as public concern. Public concern is about the actions people take in response to a danger or threat. Public Health is about the actual, real threat.

At present you (yes, you reading this) are almost certainly in more danger of being murdered, killed in a road accident, or dying of normal ‘flu than of dying from COVID-19. And have been all year. And yet none of you stopped living your normal life because of those threats. Most people who will think they have COVID-19 over the next month will actually have either a standard cold or normal influenza. And in fact 90% or so of those who catch COVID-19 will not be that ill. Medical testing is the only sure way of knowing which disease you have had.

But COVID-19 spreads relatively easily via fluid contact – droplets in the air through coughs & sneezes but, more commonly, similar dampness on hard surfaces by people touching their mucous membranes (think eyes, nose, and mouth) and then door handles, surfaces, smart devices. You then touch these surfaces and then your face and you have transmitted the disease to yourself.  Prevention methods are all about constant washing of hands and avoiding touching things. Face masks do diddly squit except if you are in the situation where people might cough in your direction (so medical staff) or to help prevent you coughing the virus out and infecting others. I find it somewhat ironic that in some places so many people have rushed to wear face masks to protect themselves from others but actually it will be doing more to protect others from them.

COVID-19 also has a higher degree or mortality than ‘flu. It stands at about 3.4% at present, compared to 0.1% for standard influenza. I’ve seen arguments that “the real rate is lower as it kills mostly old people or those with underlying conditions”. Well, of COURSE it kills those groups more, that is true for all other diseases. Influenza mostly kills the old, the very young, and the at-risk. That 0.1% is measuring a similar spread of deadliness as the 3.4%. If you get COVID-19 you are something like 30-40 times more likely to die of it than if you get typical influenza. An oddity of COVID-19 is that it does not seem to affect babies and toddlers as much as influenza does. So this new disease is overall more dangerous to adults, especially older adults, than flu than the basic figures indicate…

The mortality rate has increased from around 2% to 3.4% over the last month. Why? Mostly as people are now aware of COVID-19 and deaths will be correctly attributed to it rather than wrongly to other, similar things (like ‘flu). It’s almost certainly not getting more potent. In fact, we might expect the mortality rate to drop as people with a mild version of the disease were probably not being recorded or were being wrongly diagnosed, so the total number of cases would be a lot higher. I expect this figure to drop below 2% for countries with a good health service and no unusually high elderly population.

So what are the chances of holding a user group event and someone infected with the disease coming to the event? Very, very low. The number of known cases outside China are, as a percentage of the population, sod all. But if someone infectious does come to the event? Catching COVID-19 (and in fact a lot of people catching it and it becoming a new source or widespread infection) is quite high.

For those of use who look at project risks it is a very low likelihood/very high impact risk. Something like a hard disk overheating and setting fire to the server. I’ve had that, by the way.

So far the steps taken to keep this disease from spreading are proving effective at slowing it down. But it is spreading. I personally think it is going to get worse before it gets better. Maybe a lot worse, and I am pretty cynical about most “we are doomed” news stories.

Large Oracle user group events are more of a risk than say a big party. Why? A lot of speakers and exhibitors come from geographically distant places, so you are bringing people together from a large area. These people travel a lot and meet a lot of people. It increases the risk. At a party everyone is probably local and if there is no one local with the disease, you are safe. Safer.

This is partly why I was very much in favour of postponing the Irish conference, it had an enhanced risk associated with it as we had an international contingent coming.

What makes me feel qualified to think this? I am not a medic and I am certainly not an epidemiologist (someone who studies disease spread), but I have the advantage of a degree in genetics & zoology and many years of working with the National Health Service and biological academia (some of it on disease and immunology). I am not an expert, but by accident of my history I am better informed than most.

These factors made Ireland too much of a risk, even if the likelihood of something bad happening was actually very low.

Smaller events are less risky and, at present, will go ahead. But all will be reviewed.

 

People want the event

The final factor is that people want the event. Either they do not think the risk is real or they feel that they will be OK anyway as they are young(ish) and healthy or “fate” or whatever. So they will come to the event anyway and cancelling it is “giving in”. Lots of large sporting events are now being cancelled (such as come 5 nations rugby matches) and I am sure a lot of fans are not happy about this. But these are exactly the mass gatherings of disparate people that will really help to spread COVID-19 and create a true epidemic.

In some ways, cancelling a large event could be seen as protecting the ignorant 🙂

 

Maybe Myself?

In the title I mentioned I might need to postpone myself. Why?

At the moment I am an At Risk person. 3 months ago I was in intensive care attached to the most powerful ventilator the NHS uses which does not need the patient to be knocked unconscious and a tube put down into the lungs. In fact, shortly after I was admitted and I was deteriorating, it was expected that I would probably be put into a medical coma and mechanically ventilated. I’m generally fine now – but my lungs are still damaged and recovering. I had influenza & pneumonia. I’ve been asked by a couple of people if I could have actually been a very early COVID-19 case? No. It was not known outside China at the time and lab tests identified the exact strain of influenza I had. If I had been diagnosed with an unknown strain I’d expect the sample would have been re-tested, but this is not the case.

I’m no more likely to catch COVID-19 than any of you, but if I do catch it I am more likely to be at the 3.4% end of things due to the slowly healing lung damage. This is another reason I have paid extra attention to the science behind COVID-19.

I probably should have cancelled my trip to Ireland before the event was postponed, but I was in that last area of consideration. I was not thinking it would effect me and I wanted to go to the event. In the last few days I’ve been advised by people who are clinically qualified that airports & public transport are not a good idea for me. My wife has expressed a desire for me to not give the whole intensive-care-kept-going-by-machines thing a second go as it stressed her. And the cat.

Smaller events I will probably still go to as the risk is lower. And events where everyone is local and there is no signs of the disease there. I really want to go to a meeting in Poland where this will be the case. But to get there I have to go through airports. Full of people from all over the globe. Hmmm.

Personally I am expecting more events, both user groups and generally, to be cancelled. Part of me thinks they should be, the very small risk of a very bad impact is not worth learning a bit more about some software – and you all know how passionate I am about learning.

I think I should be more mindful of the risks myself, but then am I over-reacting?

And I think COVID-19 is going to spread more and kill more people before prevention steps and, eventually, treatment is developed to keep it in check. But I really hope I am wrong on that.

Should You Go To Oracle OpenWorld Europe? Yes!… But… February 3, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Knowledge, UKOUG, User Groups.
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Oracle Open World (Europe) is taking place in London in February. On Wednesday 12th & Thursday 13th Oracle will be giving lots of talks on Cloud, AI, Business Intelligence, Cloud Application Development, and anything else they see as modern and trendy. Oracle Partners will be there, demo booths by Oracle where you can talk to area experts, Safra Catz will be giving a keynote and, for entertainment, there are a couple of well known guest presenter. Go see who.

Stolen outrageously from Oracle web site

I’ll certainly be going along to see what they have to say. And if Oracle is part of your IT ecosystem (or might become part of it) & you are in the UK then I really think you, or someone in your organisation, should be there. Especially if you are making decisions on business applications, where you keep your IT services, or what tech you use. I’d say it’s worth a trip over from Europe for it, especially if you are “close”. Oracle will be telling you an awful lot about what is new and the event is free! Yes, Oracle giving something away for free. The only cost to you is your time. And travel to East London. Maybe a hotel for a night.

Free.

And that is the “But…”. Like any event by any large vendor, what you will hear about will be deeply coloured. Red in this case (though Oracle seem to be going a lot more pastel with their branding these days and I much prefer it). What do I mean by deeply coloured?

  • Everything you hear will be at least rose-tinted and potentially unrealistically optimistic.
  • The vendor will be pushing what it wants to see growing in it’s order books, not what you currently have.
  • You are the “product”, especially if an event is free. “Free” and “Big Vendor” do not really go together, vendors doing this sort of thing are trying to expand market share, or at least preserve it.
  • You will hear nothing about any competing services or tech, except how it is not as good as the Vendor’s. Even if the other solution is by far the best option for your business.

This is of course self-evident. A business depends on sales and Oracle is no different. But in amongst all the gloss, free food, carefully crafted messages, and entertainment, somehow the reality gets diluted and people seem to think the vendor has become somehow charitable and are doing this out of the goodness of their corporate hearts.

Would you prefer an event where all the above are not true, or are at least diluted?

Well, In I.T. there is an alternative -or, I should say, a complement – to the corporate marketing pitch.

User Groups.

A good user group is independent of the vendor, just as the UK Oracle User Group is. UKOUG is not funded by Oracle, Oracle has no say in what we do, and we do not simply repeat the current Oracle Marketing Pitch of the year. We say what is bad. We say what is good. Because we will say what is bad, you can better trust us when we say what is good. What is more, Vendors want to know what they are doing bad (and good) – so they listen to us.

Most countries across Europe (and around the wider world) have national or local Oracle user groups that are similar to UKOUG. They are independent of Oracle, they are run by a mixture of volunteers and occasionally small companies and they exist solely to help the user group community get the most out of Oracle and related services & technology. If you use Oracle, you really should be a member of an Oracle User Group.

Why? I’ll use UKOUG as the example (I am biased, I am president of UKOUG – but I present at and have in other ways helped many user groups across Europe and beyond, I’ve had the advantage of being a member of UKOUG for over 15 years).

At UKOUG events we don’t Market Oracle, we have content on:

  • Current and older products & tech, the stuff you are using NOW. Stuff that is mostly ignored at marketing events, especially free ones.
  • Real world stories which include the real-world “this did not work” or “we had a sod of a time sorting out X”
  • Details of how to get something to function rather than a “it’s so simple, it just works”
  • Discussions on how to get technology or applications from one vendor to mesh with another, and even how to get your data out. Database Vendors tend to tell you only how to get data in!

And on top of all this we also have the latest-greatest from Oracle. Oracle know that members of the user group are engaged and looking for solutions. Of course they want to present to this group. But we at UKOUG also work with many Oracle product managers, many of whom are keen to talk about stuff over and above current marketing angles. Product managers know that 90% of businesses using their products are way more interested in what they can do with their current solutions (and sometimes they are pretty old current solutions) rather than going latest-greatest

UKOUG – My community.

We have hundreds of engaged members and partners who can help you with the problems you are facing, right now, with the version of whatever you are using in your business.

The way I see it, being a member of an independent user group is a cheap insurance policy for an organisation. You pay a lot of money for large vendor solutions and on-going maintenance, often hundreds of thousands of £/€ or even millions for large companies. Being a member of the UKOUG is small change compared to that (from £45 to £1,628 depending on how much goodness you want from us). Going to user group conferences across Europe is probably cheaper all-in-all than a trip to London, and you get a much more realistic take on the technology you are using. The canapes & coffee won’t be as good, mind, our budgets are very limited.

I absolutely, 100% encourage people to go to Oracle and other big vendor events, especially free ones like OOW Europe. If you want to know what is coming with Oracle, if you want to investigate what options to buy or upgrade are available, or you are simply curious about the state of the art, then get yourself a pass to OOW Europe. Do it now, the event is almost fully subscribed.

If you want to have another source of the truth, one less coloured by Marketing and more coloured by reality, join your local user group and go to their events.

I’m biased of course, but a UKOUG membership is a very, very wise investment for anyone who has already invested an eye-watering sum with the vendor. If you are based somewhere else in Europe, check out your national user group and what they can offer. You can of course still join UKOUG but look local first.

UKOUG will have a stand at OOW Europe. Come over and see us, whether you are a member, want to be a member, or just want a friendly chat. Being a user group, we are pretty friendly!

Friday Philosophy – Community Means So Much December 27, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Private Life, User Groups.
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There have been a few things in the last month that have really brought home to me how much I personally receive from the Community. In my case, my Community is primarily the Oracle User Community – The end users who come together to share knowledge, the Oracle employees who support this, and the companies that support the end users. For most of you reading this, you are part of the Oracle User Community, but most of you will be (I hope) in other communities too through your other interests, be they religious, music, hobbies, sports, charities etc.

My community. I even like some of them 😃

At the start of this month (December 2019) I was at UKOUG’s Techfest2019, our annual December conference which is now focused just on Tech. As “El Presidente” of UKOUG (an unofficial modification of the official title of President, dropped on me by friends with a similar sense of humour as myself). I represent the whole of our membership, be they tech, business applications, or data analytics. But my background is Oracle Technology and so I naturally know more people in that sphere. And I’ve known some of them for over 15 years. There was close to 500 people at the conference on a couple of days and I recognised probably 2/3 of these people, and knew half enough to swap pleasantries. More importantly, a couple of dozen of those people have become good friends.

Conferences, to me, epitomise the community. We exchange knowledge, we learn, but we also have fun and we socialise in a way that I feel you simply can’t via social media. I like nothing more than meeting someone in the flesh that I have only known on-line, having a chat or a coffee or a beer or even a meal. It can really help make that connection that moves acquaintance to friendship (we’ll skip over those rarer occasions when you meet in the flesh and realise they are simply not your cup of tea!).

UKOUG conferences have become a little weird for me over the last few years, due I think to my roles in helping organise parts of the event and now being UKOUG president. I get a lot of positive feedback and personal moral support from people. I’d goes as far as to say I receive genuine affection from some people. I’m told how much they enjoy the event, how much better the coffee is, and sometimes what is not so good about the event (which I need to know), but always in a constructive manner. And people take the piss out of me. Oddly enough, especially with men, you know you are liked when you get good-natured abuse. I get a lot of abuse. In my head it is 95% good-natured 😃.

You had to be there for it to make *any* sense

The downside is I just can’t spend time with all the people I want to spend some time with. I’m getting better at moving about and trying to chat with as many people as I can, but I can only sit down and have a coffee or beer and socially catch up with so many people in the time I have. And not all my time is my own, I have to be President and do things. On that note, I apologise for any mental health issues caused by me taking my clothes off on stage this year…

The care of the community was really brought home to me after Techfest19, when I came down with ‘flu which then ganged up with secondary lung infections and put me in hospital for over a week. I only posted to Facebook (briefly) during this period (I did not want to shout it out over Twitter, which is like talking to the world). For me Facebook is friends & family. Even so, I got so many notes of concern and good wishes. And when I did put up a blog post when I was getting better, I got another burst of support and concern – and that was really nice. If I was not involved in a community, I would not have got that.

But there was another aspect of that show of affection by community that surprised me. My wife Sue is in her own community, that of millinery & hat making. There is not a lot of crossover between that world and the Oracle world! Sue had had the same ‘flu as me but without the extra “fun” I had, and she was having to try and help me in hospital as she struggled to recover herself. And her millinery community gave her so much support and care, which spilled out to include me.  And as Sue has a bit of a foot in the Oracle community also (she has presented at a UKOUG event in her own technical right and has joined me at conferences and met some of my Oracle friends), some of my community reached out to her to check how I was – and how she was coping. That was lovely.

Another aspect of community is the sharing of technical help. I’m a member of the OakTable network and as well as sharing our knowledge with the wider community (we are pretty much all presenters, bloggers, explainers), we help each other. None of us knows the whole Oracle stack or the related tech. During December there were several threads from people you would know as experts going “guys & gals, I’m confused by this” or “I’m seeing X and I suspect Y but I’m just not able to prove it”. And each time people stepped in and helped. Even the big Oracle names need help from the community. So you see, it does not matter if you are brand new to a technical area or lauded as the God of Tuning, everyone at all levels learns from the community.

The Oracle ACEs at Techfest19, core to supporting the Oracle user community

I’m not happy with a lot of things going on in the world at the moment. The UK is becoming more nationalistic, more jingoistic, fundamentally more tribal and distrusting of “them” – foreigners. I hate it. Our right-wing, Conservative government is milking this, encouraging this attitude. You also see it in the US & Trump with his MAGA and his talk of beating other countries with trade embargoes or military might. I know other European countries are seeing a rise in the worst aspects of nationalism and tribal distrust or even hate of “not our tribe”. It really upsets me and makes me worried about where our nations are going.

I think none-tribal communities like the Oracle one, the Millinery one, like most hobby ones, can help dispel this. It’s harder to dislike people from other parts of the world when you engage with them and know, on a personal level, they are the same as “us”, whatever “us” is.

And on my own personal level? I get out of my community five times what I put in.  This month I have received in plenty.

I’d encourage you all to get more involved in your communities and consider joining new ones.  And if you get the chance to physically meet members of your community you only know through screen & smart phone, put the effort in to do so. It can convert acquaintances into real friends and I think most of us would benefit from more friends.

I’m not sure I’ll post again this year, so Happy New Year everyone. And thank you.

 

Presenting Well – Tell Your Story November 28, 2019

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<<<<<< How to (Not) Present – The Evil Threes

I don’t think the key to a really good presentation is the content, the structure, the delivery method, or even the main message. It’s The Story.

Coming to a Conference Near You Soon!

Actually, I’d go as far as to say that there is no one, single key to presenting well – but The Story seems to be at the heart of many of the best presentations I have seen and I think that some of the best presenters I know use The Story.

More and more I strive to present by Telling A Story. It works for me and since I started doing this, I think my presentations have got a lot better.

When you read (or watch) a story, it is about something – a person, an event, how change occurred, overcoming an obstacle. It might be hard to totally define what a story is, but when you read a book and it does not really go anywhere, it’s usually not satisfying and you know it has not really told the story. Some presentations are like that: They have some great content and there is knowledge being passed on but, just as when characters are poorly developed or the plot is disjointed, the presentation feels like it’s made of bits and you come away feeling you can’t join all the dots. With a book lacking a good story you may feel you did not get the whole thing; with a technical presentation you might feel you don’t really understand how you do something – or why.

When people design a talk they usually focus on “what facts do I need to tell, what details must I include”. The aim is to put information in other people’s heads. But facts and code and details are hard to absorb. For many a story helps it all go in more smoothly. You absolutely need the facts and details, but if you start gently, setting the pace – but maybe hinting of things to come or an early nugget of detail maybe  (as you do with story) – then expand the scope and go into the details you stand a better chance of carrying the crowd with you.

If you are now thinking “It’s hard enough to come up with a presentation topic, design the talk and then deliver it, and now you want me to do all that and in the form of a story?!? – that’s going to be so much harder!” well, let me explain why I think it is actually easier.

This man is telling a story of Violence, Despair and… APEX

It’s already a story

First of all, what you want to talk about could be, by it’s very nature, already a story.

If the presentation is about using a software technique or product to solve a business problem – that’s a story about how you did it (or, even better, how you tried to do it and it failed – most people present on successes but presentations on failures are often fantastic!).

If it is about learning about a feature of a language or of the database, your story is something like:

“how do I get going with this, what do I need to learn, the things that went wrong, my overcoming adversity {my ignorance}, and finally reaching the sunny uphills of expertise”.

Flow

A story has a flow. It’s a lot easier to learn a story than a set of facts. Some talks are just facts. In fact {see what I did there} many techniques for remembering lists of things are to make them into a story.

Rather than making it harder to remember, having a story makes it easier to remember your talk and move through it. Each part of the presentation leads to (and reminds you of, up on that scary stage where your brain might burp) the next part. The Story helps remove the fear of forgetting parts of your material, and thus helps Control the Presentation Monster.

For the audience it gives them a progression, a narrative. I find that if a talk does not so much leap from points but more segues into them, it is easier to listen and focus. As I design my talks and add more facts and details, I keep in mind how can I preserve the flow. If I am going to talk about some of the things that can go wrong, putting them all in 4 slides together is easy for me and I have a chunk of “things to avoid” – but it may well break the flow, so I try to mention the things to avoid as I came across them or as I expand my theme. I fit them into the flow of the story.

Added colour

I’m not at all suggesting you invent characters or plot devices for your talk. That really would be hard! I also suspect that, unless you were a brilliant story teller, it would be pretty awful! But you can add in little aspects of this.

If I mention someone in my presentation, I usually give a couple of bits of information about them. Not a biography, just something like “Dave was the systems admin – wonderful collection of Rick & Morty t-shirts and no sense of smell”. There is no need for me to do this, it does not help understand the technical content, but now people have a mental (and possibly even nasal) image of Dave.

Side plots – if in learning about some aspect of say Virtual Private Database I discovered something about PL/SQL functions, I’ll divert from My Core Story and give 3 or 4 minutes on that (as a mini story). The great thing about side stories is that, depending on your time management, you can drop or include them as your talk progresses. If I get asked questions during my talk and it has slowed me down (which is NOT a problem – I love the interaction) I can drop a side plot.

Interaction

All engaged, no phones being looked at…

Finally, when you tell a story you talk to your audience. You are not talking AT an audience. You are explaining to them the background, taking them through the narrative of the topic and leading them, possibly via some side stories, to the conclusion. It is far more like communicating with your audience than dictating to them. And, if you are brave enough to do so, you can look at your audience and engage with them, try to judge if they are following the story and have any feedback or response to it. Mostly any feedback is quite passive (no one shouts out to hear more about PL/SQL functions) but you will catch people’s eye, get a smile, get some indication that they are listening.

For me, discovering that last bit about The Story was when I finally felt I had a way of presenting that worked for me. If I am talking with my audience and I feel there is an engagement, a rapport, that is when I do my best job of it. That’s when I come off the stage buzzing and happy.

Danger Will Robinson!

There is a danger to Telling a Story and that is time. Most good stories build to a satisfying end. Most technical presentations also generally have a main point. But if you are progressing through a Story you might run out of time, in which case you do not get to your Big Expose or you have to suddenly blurt out the ending. It’s like those TV programs where they obviously run out of steam and some kludge is used to end it  – “And then the side character from an hour ago appears, distracts the dragon and you nick the golden egg! Hurr…ah?”.

You can modify the run time with side plots as I say above, but if you are going to Tell a Story, you need to practice the run time more than normal.

You can finish early, it’s better than not finishing at all. But being on time is best.

 

How to (Not) Present – The Evil Threes November 22, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Perceptions, Presenting, User Groups.
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<< I Wish All New Presenters Knew This (and it will help you)
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I’m going to let you into a secret. One of the most commonly taught “sure-fire-wins” to presenting is, in my opinion, a way to almost guarantee that your presentation is boring and dull. Whenever I am in a presentation and I realise they are going to do the “Rule of Three”, a little piece of me dies – and I check to see if I can get to an exit without too much notice. If I can do so I’m probably going to leave. Otherwise, I’ll be considerate and sit quietly. But I’m already thinking I might just watch cat videos on my phone.

The Evil Three!

The Rule of Three is a presenting structure that is useful if you hate presenting and you feel you are poor at it, but an inescapable part of your role is to present information to groups of people, be they internally to your team or to small groups. The principle is this:

  • People will only remember 3 things from your presentation.
  • There are three parts to your presentation – the start, the body, the end.
  • Use lists of three. I have examples below but basically do something like “be more engaging, more dynamic, more able to get the message over”. 3 parts.
  • 3 squared – use the above to create a killer presentation!
    • Tell the audience in the intro the three things you are going to tell them (briefly)
    • In the body explain each one of the three points in turn, in detail (using lists of three)
    • at the end, sum up the three points briefly.
    • Finish. To indifferent applause.

The problem with the Rule of three is it is a formula, a structure, to help the presenter to cope. Which if presenting is not your thing is OK. But it is not a method for engaging the audience or for making a talk interesting. It is in fact a straight jacket on a talk. As soon as it starts you know that you are going to be told three things. You will be told them again – but actually you won’t, as the presenter nearly always has 2,4, 5, or 12 things to tell you and they will “make it fit”. And at the end, you will have to listen to a summary of what you heard twice already – but again, it will be squeezed into the 3-point-rule.

I guess part of the reason I dislike this technique so much is that back when I started presenting, it was ubiquitous. I’d say half the talks I saw were Rule of Three style and they were the bulk of the poor ones. Back then we did not have Smart Phones. Many of us did not even have Dumb Phones (you know, ones that pretty much only made calls and sent texts, but worked for a week between charges). I played a lot of “snake” during those bad talks. Another thing we had back then was more in the way of training courses. And maybe that was the source of the popularity of this style…

After a year or two of my “presenting career” I went on an “advanced presentation skills” course. I checked before hand that it was not a course for those who had never presented or had to present but it made them want to die,  but that the course was aimed at taking you from being competent to being a skilled presenter. They said yes, it was, it was for people who already presented but wanted to be more engaging, more dynamic, more able to get the message over. My next question was “so no Rule of Three then?” They said no, no Rule of Three.

This presentation Sucks

The course was all around the Rule of Three.

Now don’t get me wrong, if your aim is to describe something fairly simple and all you want to do is get that information from your brain into the brains of the people listening, with the minimum of pain to you, then the Rule of Three will work. It is fairly simple and it is efficient. But you better have a topic that has 3 parts to it and you are using this method as you are only presenting as you are being forced to and this is a way to cope.

If you want to Present, then the Rule of Three sucks. It really sucks. It sucks the enjoyment out of the talk, it sucks the energy out the room, and it sucks the oxygen out of the atmosphere.

They heard I was doing a Rule of Three presentation

The one part of the Rule of Three that I do have a lot of time for is having three parts or examples to a phrase or description. “Be strong, be bold, be brave!” Listing three options such as “If you want to wake up a little the try some light exercise. Go for a walk, get on the bike for 15 minutes, or even a jog a mile or two”. This is a pattern the ancient Greeks used a lot, as you will find out (ad nauseam – which is Latin not Greek) if you google “The rule of three”.Two does not seem enough and 4 or 5 seem a little over the top. But don’t use it all the time as otherwise it can make what you say (or write) too formulaic, too structured, too obvious… a bit crap.

Anyway, having got to the course and discovered that it was all on the Rule Of Three, to say I was annoyed would be a serious understatement. The course was not at all on how you make your presentations more engaging or how to identify things to avoid. (And I will do a post or two on those topics next).

However I did manage to have some fun. On all such presentation skills courses you do at least one, if not several, practice presentations to the other delegates.

I did one that went down very well. It was on why I so, so, so dislike presenting by the Rule of Three.

UKOUG TechFest19 Survival Guide November 13, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Meeting notes, UKOUG, User Groups.
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Brighton, December 1st-4th 2019, Grand Hotel, Techfest2019. This is the big Technology event for the UKOUG this year, one of the largest Oracle Tech events in Europe.

All This And More

The UKOUG conference is traditionally the one to finish the European year of conferencing and it is always incredibly popular with both delegates and presenters. There are two things that are not traditional about this year’s UKOUG December conference:

  • It is Technology Focused. We asked our members when they wanted their annual conference and there was a strong split between Business Applications and Technology members, with many Business Apps members finding December a bad time to be out of the office and most of them preferring May/June, so we split the conference and the big Business Apps conference will be in June 2020. However, our Tech members wanted to stick to December.
  • The conference is in the South of England. Birmingham was our conference home for many years and we have been to Manchester & Liverpool, so time to try the South.

I’m really please we are in Brighton as it is a lively, fascinating place. Also, being that little bit further south, it might be less cold. Slightly!

Why Come?

Because there will be fantastic talks, round tables, Q&A sessions, experts to quiz, people with the the same technical challenges as you, Partners able to offer services and, last but not least, it will be fun!

Technical Content

The UKOUG conferences are very popular with presenters. On average we get 5 submissions per presenting slot, more for some streams. We could fill the conference with talks from Oracle ACEs, Oracle Certified Masters, and the best Oracle Corp offer. What we actually do is have stream-specific teams that select not just known speakers but also topics we know are hot, new presenters, avoid repeating content. It’s damned hard work but we aim to give you:

  • Independent experts who will tell you exactly how it is, like Richard Foote on indexes (all the way from Auz, so a rare chance to see him), Frank Pachot from CERN, Security guru Pete Finnigan, Abigail Giles-Haigh, Craig Shallahamer, Jonathan Lewis, Zahid Anwar, Loneke Dikmans…
  • Oracle giving you the latest information “from the horses mouth” and, just as important, the chance to meet product managers and other experts. People like Maria Colgan, Mike Deitrich, Jeff Smith, Nigel Bayliss, Susan Duncan
  • 9 or more concurrent streams across Development, Analytics & Data Science, Database, Systems & Infrastrructure, and APEX. No matter what your interest in the Oracle Tech world we hope your problem will not be “is there a session of interest” but “which session of interest do I go to now?”
  • Roundtable discussions, panels, keynotes, presentations – and the chance to meet the experts around the conference and at the socials

The arrows should not be taken as indicative of any specific type of fun…

Fun

Learning stuff at conference is the name of the game, but so is having some fun. The more enjoyable the conference and the social times after are, the more you you will get out of the content. I know from personal experience that if a conference is just information and being serious, after a few hours my brain shuts off.

Also, it’s when you are more relaxed that the magic thing about attending an event in person happens – you meet people and get to know them better. This opens doors to industry experts, you find people dealing with the same PIA technical issues as you, you exchange war stories. You make friends. I get just as much (if not more) from the people I meet at conference than the official presentations.

Monday evening there will be networking drinks, Tuesday will be the big party (and I’ve been promised No Loud Music!!!). If you are a UKOUG volunteer or speaker, there is a drinks reception Sunday night. (I know of a couple of other events being put on by other companies too, such as Rittman Mead).

We will be having the retro games consoles scattered around the venue again.

And, we are in Brighton! Of course as the UKOUG President I would never encourage you to leave the conference hotel… But as a human being I would say go and look around Brighton, have a bit of fun! You might want to do what I am doing and be in Brighton a day or two before the event (or after) and really enjoy what the town has to offer.  Mrs Widlake is coming with me on Saturday so we can have a mini break.

One other fun thing – Mark Rittman is organising a gentle cycle ride Sunday morning. Details can be found {here},it will be a couple of hours via a cafe, prior to Super Sunday starting. I plan to take part.

Now, the practical stuff:

Getting There

Train

Basically, if you can get to London OK, you can get to Brighton just fine. Trains go from Victoria in under an hour, from St Pancras (very convenient if you come to London on Eurostar), London Bridge (both about 90 mins) and, if you live near Cambridge, you can get a direct train through London to Brighton. There is a direct service from Gatwick Airport taking about half an hour.

I’d strongly advise booking *now*. If you come down on Saturday or Sunday, it can cost as little as £15-20 from London, £40 from Birmingham, Bristol or Leeds.

If you don’t often travel by train just be aware that “open” tickets and booking only a few days ahead can be eye-wateringly expensive. Plan ahead, decide when you are travelling, and book ASAP.

Plane

The best international airport to fly to for Brighton is Gatwick, as there is a fast (1/2 hour) train service direct to Brighton for as little as £10. A taxi will take 40-50 minutes and cost that many pounds.

Heathrow is also sort-of on the same side of London as Brighton but you will either have to go into London to Victoria by the slow Tube line and then out on the normal train services to Brighton, or take the Heathrow Express (15 mins, about £15 each way) to London Paddington and take the tube Central Line around to Victoria.

If you come in to Stansted, basically get into London (Stansted Express) and work it out from there!

For Luton (and Stansted, sort of) Niall Litchfield says

If you are flying into Luton, don’t go into London and change. Take the shuttle bus to Luton Airport Parkway station (10 minutes) and take the direct train to Brighton. If you are going to Stanstead then you should consider your life choices!

 

Automobile

UPDATE – see comments by Niall Litchfield (again, helpful chap), a local who says to not drive in to Brighton as parking is so bad. He is 20 mins away and will take the local train. Best bet if you must is Park and Ride

It’s relatively simple to drive to Brighton. You go around the M25 to the M23 and down that, and keep going when it turns into the A23. I’m not so sure about coming along the more coastal road (A27) – I have bad memories of it taking ages to get anywhere.

But parking can be expensive. If you are not being provided parking by a hotel you are using or you plan to come in and go home each day then you might like to look at https://www.visitbrighton.com/plan-your-visit/travel-information/parking or similar. I’m no expert on parking in Brighton (I last did it 30 years ago) but I’ll ask someone local and update this accordingly. My one hint would be avoid NCP car parks – they are usually very expensive and, as a company, they are terrible. Ask anyone who commutes by train into London or any other major city and they probably hate NCP with a passion.

Walking/Cycling

Don’t be daft, unless you are local, in which case you know more than I do!

 

Under a month to go & lots of hotels available

Where to Stay

I’m afraid you missed the special deal to stay at the Grand (the location of the conference) but you might still be able to book there. However, at the time of writing (see image), there are many, many hotels available around Brighton and you might want to look at Air B&B for something cheaper.

I personally use Trivago to find accommodation but other websites are available. They should all allow you to what I do which is choose the lowest “comfort” level you want and the price range. I then use the map view as it makes things a lot easier than a list of hotels with no idea where they actually are!

I’m actually staying at the conference venue – as President I have a lot of duties so it makes sense for me to be on-site. I also know that there are a lot of presenters etc staying at the hotel so it should add to the vibe, but sometimes I specifically choose to stay a 5, 10 minute walk from a Conference, so I can get away from it all if I should wish. I find a 10 minutes stroll before a conference wakes me up and doing so after gives my brain a chance to turn off a little.

Coffee, Refreshments etc.

It’s been a problem for years at UKOUG conferences. Getting coffee (or tea or whatever) has been a real challenge as the venues always wanted a fortune to provide catering all day. Catering! Just hot drinks and maybe some biscuits! This year, tea & coffee will be available throughout the conference! I’m not guaranteeing it will be good tea and coffee, I’m not daft, but Brighton has a big coffee culture so I have hopes.

Water should always be available.

If your are a coffee snob (looking at one person in particular here) then, look, we are IN BRIGHTON! Go out the hotel and walk 2 minutes, you will soon find a hipster cafe and can get your double espresso skinny latte with raw cane sugar there. And in fact, yeah, do it! Pop out the venue for 10 mins and go to a local cafe. Or get an ice cream. Or, if you are inclined, a glass of wine and a cake. Cafe culture is all around you.

If you don’t like the provided coffee at the conference, don’t tell me. Tell me about other things that are right or wrong but, honestly, the quality of the coffee is not something I want to hear anything more about. This is the UK and it is an I.T. conference, the coffee is supposed to bad!

You will have been asked when you registered for the event if you have dietary requirements and this should be catered for. Vegetarian options should be provided at all meals as a matter of course. Any issues, as the UKOUG staff and they will sort it out for you.

At the social events there will be soft drinks as well as alcoholic ones. Some people like alcohol, some do not, it really is not that important if you drink or not. BUT if you find there are no soft options then let the UKOUG staff know immediately – we had a problem one year where the caterers only provided beer & wine and no one mentioned it for ages. They just got angry and slagged us off after the event.

There will be no secret whisky tasting this year. There never has been. It’s just a rumour. If whisky is not your thing then feel free to not bring a different thing to share at the non-existing tasting.

Chocolate. I’ve also not heard rumours about a chocolate tasting happening…

Other Hints

Go to at least one talk you know nothing about, that is not your core work area. You will probably learn something unexpectedly useful! You might even get a peak at a shift in your career.

Speak to the famous people. They are human, they are *just like you* (only, of course, much much smarter…). Honestly, just say “hi” or “isn’t it a shame about the Rugby world cup final” or “what bread do you like to bake?” (this is surprisingly likely to get an interested response from a growing number of speakers). Have a little chat. But also, please do not stalk. If you find yourself hanging about after a session to chat to the same person you chatted to three time already, you have become a scary stalker and need to stop.

If you don’t know many people at the conference, go to a panel session or a round table. If you can build up the courage, when you see a circle of half a dozen people chatting and you recognise some of them as “in your area”, go and join in. (And, if you are one of those people in a circle of mates, chatting, keep an eye out for people hanging about nearby looking nervous. I wish we did not stand in these circles, backs to each other, but I can’t think of a good way to break the circle.)

Take breaks. If you do 7 sessions in succession I am willing to bet nothing is going into the brain anymore. If you happen to find yourself talking with people just before a session starts and you are enjoying the conversation, maybe keep it going and have a coffee/water. I really do believe that those contacts you make/develop at conferences and the ad-hoc things you learn as just as valuable as listening to Connor McDonald bang on about SQL in his boring monotone again. He does rubbish slides.

 

 

APEX Connect – A Slightly Different Conference May 13, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, development, Meeting notes.
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I wanted to do a write-up for the APEX Connect conference that happened in Bonn, Germany, a few days ago, as it was a slightly different conference than I normally go to and a slightly different experience for me.

I really don’t like DBMS_OUTPUT!

APEX Connect is a German event (put on by DOAG) that is focused on APEX, SQL & PL/SQL, and JavaScript. So more of a developers’ conference. It was an unusual conference for me for a few reasons:

  1. I don’t generally go to developer-focused events, my current roles tend to be performance & architecture based and, despite having been a developer or development DBA for most of the last 30 years, I (wrongly) mentally class myself as a “DBA type”.
  2. I was doing a keynote! I’m not used to that, but I was honoured to be asked.
  3. I was doing only the opening keynote, so once that was out the way I had pretty much 3 days of being a normal delegate. That made a really nice change.

The conference was well attended and well run. A couple of things that they did right was to have good catering and coffee was always available – good coffee! It really makes a difference and it is something some conferences (including the ones I help organise) struggle with. You have no idea how much venues in the UK want to charge to make coffee available all day, let alone *good* coffee!

Something else that struck me was that the audience was a little younger than many Oracle-focused conferences. This was helped by DOAG’s #NextGen programme which encourages students and recent graduates to come to conferences and meet professionals working in the industry. I met a few of these students/recent students as they had been tasked with asking all the keynote speakers a question, which I thought was a nice way for them to meet these “stars” and realise we are just normal people, doing a job.

Some of the usual suspects! Conferences should be, I believe, half educational and half social.

Another thing was the male:female ratio. Looking at the sessions I was in, it was about 75%:25%, which in our industry is a little unusual – and very encouraging to see. I had a good discussion with Niels de Bruijn on the subject of sex (balance), who is the main organiser, and it is a topic I have discussed a few times with Sabine Heimsath, who organised the SQL & PL/SQL stream and who asked me to present. Niels was pleased with the balance at the conference, and I shared my experiences of trying to increase the balance in the UK (I’d love 25%!). It is not a simple issue and I think (note, these are my words and not theirs) that it is almost a lost cause for my generation. I think things went wrong in the home computer industry in the 80’s and continued through the 90’s, with IT being portrayed by the general media as typically male and the IT-focused industry keeping to a very male-focused stance. I won’t stop trying to address the balance but I wonder if where we can really make the difference is in events where the audience is younger…

Anyway, APEX Connect had a nicely balanced and lively feel.

As I said earlier, I had been asked to do the opening keynote. My job was to say something that would be relevant to the whole audience, which was not too technically deep, and set the scene for APEX Connect. An added bonus would be for the audience to leave the talk energised for the rest of the conference. My normal talks are about tech… but I do branch out into talks on presenting, disasters and, err, beer. Talks to entertain basically. So that is what I aimed for, to entertain and to energise.

Server Side Development…

I’m one of those annoying presenters who does not usually get particularly nervous before a talk, I simply step up to (OK, behind) the lectern and go. But for the second time in 6 months (the other being the opening words for UKOUG 2018) I was really nervous for this. I think it is because when you talk on a technical subject, you are describing how something works and, so long as the audience understand, the rest of the talk (little stories, extra facts) are window dressing – enjoying the talk is a good thing to achieve but is secondary. With a keynote the Window Dressing is actually the main thing, and if the audience does not enjoy the talk you have not done the job. I’m glad to say I got a lot of positive feedback and I was very much relieved. I think I hit “peak enjoyment” for this talk when I described my early career (Builder, Oracle 7 PL/SQL developer, server-side developer, Development DBA) and used the graphical slide here.

Server. (on it’s) Side. Developer.

I have to say, with that talk out the way I was able to really enjoy being simply “at a conference”, seeing some great talks (Toon Koppelaars, Connor McDonald, Kamil Stawiarski, Eric van Roon – I missed Luiza Nowak & Heli Helskyaho but I had seen those talks before), chatting to lots of people, and enjoying the socialising.

I want to say a big Thank You to the organisers – Simone Fischer, Niels de Bruijn, Tobias Arnhold, Kai Donato and all the others behind the scenes. I know what it’s like doing this! And a special Thank You to Sabine Heimsath for asking me to present and for helping me get places and answering odd questions on German culture!

I’ll finish with what I think conferences and the community are all about. This does not just apply to developers of course, but to all of us in the industry:

Riga & Romania, Zagreb & Zurich: It Sounds Rockstar but Really it’s Not May 10, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Meeting notes, Presenting, Private Life, User Groups.
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I’ve spent a lot of time over the last month or two trying to plan how to navigate a set of visits to the Eastern side of Europe. This might sound a little “My Glamorous Lifestyle” but, as my friend Tim Hall (he who is “Oracle-Base”) has documented in his posts under “my glamorous lifestyle”, doing the Oracle talk circuit often entails lots of hours in airports & stations, travelling with cheap, basic airlines, and sometimes a lot of stress. It is not the “Airport lounge and first class service” some people think it is. Anyway…

I’m visiting cities in the orange zone

All three venues are at pretty much the same longitude, about 25 degrees (that is to say, the same distance “East” of the UK). The first trip is to Riga in Latvia, where I am presenting at Riga Dev Days 2018. This is my first time at Riga Dev Days and in fact my first time in Latvia. Sue has never visited Latvia before so is joining me for a long weekend prior to the conference – they have a millinery (hat) museum in Riga! (If you do not know, my wife makes some very nice hats)

The last trip is to Romania, to present at a the Romanian Oracle User Group meeting. I was asked if I would consider this by Mirela Ardelean at the UKOUG conference last December and my response was “Hell yes! I’ve never been to Romania before and I love being asked! Besides, I don’t think Sue has been to Romania yet…” So, another weekend as a tourist with my wife before a speaking engagement. Bucharest is pretty much directly South of Riga.

I’ve had these two in my calendar for a while and, though the trip to Romania was a little fluid for a while, I knew I could do it easily – there are cheap, direct flights to both from London Stansted airport, which is just a few miles over the fields from my home.

Riga hat museum 🙂

And then things changed. I became UKOUG President elect (and, a lot sooner than I expected, full president) and there is a meeting of European Oracle user groups in Zagreb, Croatia, in a date between the two user group events I was doing. I felt I needed to be there – I think all the European user groups have stuff to learn from each other and the UKOUG board supported this position.

I now had a three-week period with large chunks “over there”. I looked at flights, times, costs, hotels… It was not working. Getting home to the UK in that period with at least 24 hours at home was going to be very, very hard. I looked to see if train transport or even a hire car would help. No. But carrying enough personal stuff to last three weeks was also hard work. Even if I did weird things like popped into other countries by train or travelled at antisocial hours, the cost was making my eyes water. Each trip itself was OK if based on a simple “UK and out/return” basis. But together, it did not work. Moving between each country was not a smooth process and going home to the UK was even worse…

Then Sue made a suggestion. Don’t go “home” – go to see your wife – via Zurich!

That worked!

In the middle of all these trips I can pop back to Zurich and by train to Basel, and see Mrs Widlake. And wash my dirty clothes. It seems crazy, but adding another leg to what was already a frenetic travel plan made it all doable. So now I am going Stansted-Riga-Zurich-Basel-Zurich-Zagreb-Belgrade-Bucharest-Stansted.

Bucharest

Why do I do all of this? Because I love what I do as a vocation (UKOUG, presenting, the Oracle Community) and I love what I do as a Husband (she currently works abroad, I go visit, she visits back, and we meet up in random countries across Europe). For both I travel cheap as I am either spending the salary of my wife or the funds of a User Group. Both are limited and I try to keep costs down. Especially on the latter.

I really wanted to fit in a trip to Bulgaria as well, to go to the BOUG spring conference, but I really just could not make that work as well. That will have to be next year, if they will still accept me.

I already know I will be knackered by the end of this tour, but that’s OK – I will have time to recover. That would be 48 hours before I go to Valencia for a holiday “with the boys”. Followed 48 hours later by a trip to Scotland to be UKOUG President at the Scottish UKOUG conference.

I might take July off to sleep….

Free Conference (*) in May! May 4, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Knowledge, UKOUG.
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How do you fancy going to a full-day, five stream conference, for free? With a great agenda including Pete Finnigan talking on the hot topic of GDPR; Chris Saxon, Nigel Bayliss and Grant Ronald giving us the latest low-down on optimizer, 18C database features for developers and AI powered apps? Stalwarts of the Oracle community like Robin Moffat, Zahid Anwar and Andrew Clarke giving their real-world view?

Well, if you are a member of the UKOUG you can – and even if you are not a member, there is a way! All levels of UKOUG membership, even bronze, allow you to attend at least one SIG (Special Interest Group) meeting – and the Northern Technology Summit is classed as a SIG, even though it is as large as some smaller conferences. The 5 streams cover Database, RAC, Systems, APEX, and Development (I know, APEX is part of development – but it gets a whole stream to fit in the large range of speakers, who are mostly end users with real stories to tell). You can see the full agenda here.

Park Plaza. Leeds.

The summit is being held in Leeds, at the Park Plazza hotel, on the 16th of May. The Park Plaza is so close to Leeds train station that you could probably hit it with a catapult from the entrance. It is also about 2 minutes from where the M621 (a spur off the M1) ends in the city centre. You can sign up to the event by clicking here.

Is Leeds far away? No. Trains from Kings Cross take only 2 hours and you can get there and back for £50 or less. Check out Trainline.com and similar websites. Of course, coming in from Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle etc is even quicker and cheaper (except maybe Brum, for reasons I cannot fathom) Even Edinburgh is less than 3 hours away.

SO you are not a UKOUG member – You can still come, and still come for free as I said – well, sort of. The cost of a SIG for a non-member is £170 plus VAT, which is pretty cheap for a whole-day event full of technical content and an absolute steal for a 5-stream mini-conference. But if you become a Bronze member of the UKOUG for five pounds less, i.e. £165, you get a SIG place – so you can come to the Northern Technology summit. The UKOUG have waived the usual joining fee of £50 to ensure it is cheaper to become a bronze member than simply pay for this event. And, if you become a higher level member, (silver, gold, platinum) the UKOUG will still waive the joining fee. You can see full details of the offer here

As well as the excellent agenda we will be having some fun. We are having a meet-up the night before in Leeds, at Foley’s Tap House where we have reserved an area. This is one of my favourite pubs in Leeds, I seem to end up in it for a pint or two whenever I visit the city. There are already over half a dozen of us going and I’ll buy a round. The park plaza hotel is just next to the latest shopping centre in Leeds. If you have never visited the city before, or did so a long time ago, it’s become a very vibrant city centre over the last 10 years or so. I suspect after the event some of us will end up in the Scarborough hotel opposite the train station before we wander home.

So, sign up and get yourself over to a whole-day, 5-stream conference full of both the official information from Oracle on 10 topics and end-user/partner opinions on 25 more.

UKOUG Conference Survival Guide November 29, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in conference, humour, UKOUG.
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I’ve been going to the UKOUG conference for about… Well, most of this century. I think this year (2017) will be my 14th visit. Not only that but I’ve helped organise the tech side of the conference for several years. I was the Database Stream or whole Tech Stream lead for the last 3 years (though, this year, blame others as I passed over the duties to Neil Chandler as Tech17 lead and Chris Dunscombe as Database lead). I also grew up 30km North of Birmingham, in a little city called Lichfield – but to be honest that does not help as my family was from Nottingham and we went there to shop.

So with my many years of experience, here is my Survival Guide to UKOUG Conference in Birmingham.

Oh, and just to be clear. I sometimes say “we” when talking about organising the conference. It is habit. I was not involved this year.

Getting There

Train

A lot of people arrive by train, coming into the main train station, Birmingham New Street. This used to be a dark, horrible, Stygian nightmare of a train station but now it is bright, clean and has a nice shopping centre above it. It is just a 10 minute walk up the road called New Street, through the German Market and then bearing left-ish (probably past the Birmingham Town Hall) towards Broad Street where the conference centre (the Birmingham ICC) and most hotels people stay in are clustered. There are underpasses or bridges to take you over the horribly busy road that is in the way.

There are a few other train stations in Birmingham city centre (Moor Street, Snow Hill and Five Ways ) but I have never used them, sorry. Apparently you can walk to the ICC from them. Or get a taxi, but as it is Christmas and Broad Street is very close to the shopping areas, expect a slow taxi journey.

It is probably too late for this advice, but buy UK train tickets as soon in advance as possible. Train fares in the UK are stupidly high (for a crap service) and the sooner you book, the less eye-wateringly expensive it is. The UK is about the only European country where the trains are run privately for profit rather than by the government, which is why they are so “efficient and good value” here. Not.

Plane

Again, a bit late for advice on your actual plane route but if you come into Birmingham international get the train in. The service is regular and quick. Taxies, especially at this festive period, are likely to be slow and expensive. I have never tried Uber in Birmingham but UK Uber is in a lot of trouble at the moment as they have been accused of not vetting their drives much.
If you are coming into London, again get the train. From London Euston to Birmingham NEW STREET (not Birmingham International, that is the airport). It takes about 90 minutes.

Automobile

If you are driving into Birmingham then in some ways it is good, in some ways it is terrible. For example, the A38M gets you deep into Birmingham pretty quickly and smoothly but, like a lot of cities, at times the route is a bit confused and, as it is Christmas, the centre of Birmingham itself will be hell to drive around. Once you get near the centre the traffic will just stop.
I advise you allow for at least half an hour or more extra for driving into or out of Birmingham than you expect. If you arrive on Saturday or on Sunday afternoon add an hour.
If you are leaving by car on Wednesday afternoon, I suggest you consider having a final coffee or light meal in Birmingham before you go. Trying to drive out of the Broad Street area between 4pm and 6pm is something I do not want to have to do again in my life. One year (when it snowed a bit) it took me 2 hours just to get onto the M42 that circles the East and South of Birmingham.

If your hotel has reserved parking, great. If not then good luck. Check the UKOUG web site for suggested car parks, plan which car park you go for and remember, Saturday and Sunday all public car parks will be very, very busy. I had such a nightmare last year when I arrived on Saturday that I am parking 20 miles away and coming in by train!

Once There…

Once you are at the ICC you won’t need public transport – unless you booked a hotel a distance from the conference, in which case you are on your own. Or you are local and coming in and out each day. In which case you know the place and you are on your own.

You can walk to enough bars and restaurants as you could want, taxies in the evening for a couple of miles are not too bad. Access for wheelchairs is pretty good in the UK, there is step-free access to the ICC. I have a nasty feeling you cannot go across the canal to the main bars & restaurants from the back entrance of the ICC by wheelchair, but you can go via Broad Street.

 

Food & Drink

The UKOUG conference is great for breadth and depth of content. It is not so good on the catering front…

Coffee & Tea

It seems like a small thing, but getting a cup of tea or a coffee at the UKOUG conference can be a bit of a trial. Unlike other conferences, such drinks are not always available. I know, it’s mad. I’ve tried to argue about this when I’ve been involved in organising the conference but the ICC charge silly amounts for constant provisions of these conference basics and the UKOUG want to use the provision of drink and food to drive footfall through the exhibition. When it is the allotted time for Tea/Coffee, the queues are of course bad. And the ICC staff take some sort of evil delight by directing you to a different queue. Which turns out to be just as large or, occasionally, not even open yet. (They do this at lunch time too).

To make things worse, providing drinks as an exhibitor seems to be a real challenge too. I looked into having my own stand a couple of years back, with decent coffee. To provide anything more than the odd jug of real coffee would have cost me a fortune, if even possible.

I would advise you just hang about a bit. Maybe get a biscuit before someone who is trying to get a week’s calories from just the conference food hoovers them all up. Then get a coffee/tea once the rush dies down.

There are water coolers around, so you can get water. If it does not run out. Don’t drink water from the bathrooms, it is not “potable” unless otherwise stated – it will be going through a tank  which may or may not have a dead pigeon in it.

However, on the floor below the main conference reception area (so technically outside the conference) there is a coffee company that will sell you something approaching coffee or tea. And if you go out of the “back” of the ICC  and over the canal, there are some coffee places out there.

I suggest you get a bottle of water and keep it filled and with you. The conference rooms can be warm and if you “enjoyed yourself” the night before you could be dehydrated from that too. I used to get tired and suffer headaches until I realised I was constantly dehydrated.

Conference Food

The lunch will be OK. Probably. It varies from year to year. Last year we had a buffet as opposed to a “real” meal and, I have to say, it was a hell of a lot better than the slime provided the year before. If you are vegetarian or have allergies I hope you said so when you registered. In any respect, let your needs be known to the catering staff or the UKOUG staff. If the member of catering staff you are asking does not understand you, go ask someone else. It’s just not worth the risk.

The food provided on Tuesday evening is OK and, if you are determined, you could eat enough to count as a meal. But most people will go outside the ICC for evening meals and drinks. I would recommend you do so.

Drinking and Eating in Birmingham

The conference is in central Birmingham. There are lots of options. If you go out the “back” of the ICC (the opposite side to the main entrance, where there will be some sort of winter fair) you will go over the canal and find many plastic bars and restaurants. You know, All Bar One, Wagamama, Pizza Express, Slug and Lettuce. If that is your thing, you will be happy.

The conference centre is on Broad Street. If you come out the main entrance where the fair is, go right and then once at the road, go “back” along the side of the conference centre. If you come out the back entrance, head left (by the canal or once you have reached the bars). If you are not on Broad Street within 1 minute, you went the wrong left. Here there are more bars, restaurants, even an executive gentlemans dancing club. I have no idea how entertaining  executive gentlemen getting groovy is, I never popped in. There is a lot of choice of types of food up and down Broad Street, though the national cuisine of curry is most in evident. Please do not ask me to recommend anywhere, I loose track of where has been good. Use an App.

I would suggest you do NOT go out in a gang of 20 and expect to get seated. Go out in a gang of 4 or 6, maybe 8 and you will fair better. If you want a bigger group, use your search app of choice and book somewhere.

I would also suggest you be willing to walk more than 5 minutes, it really increases your choice and places are less busy. There are some nice Chinese and Thai places a little further out and lots of other food choices. For drinking I like the “Wellington” pub and there are a couple of other real-ale places scattered about but near by.  There is also the *speaker’s pub* but I won’t tell you where that is as you will all go there and I won’t be able to get in. I’ll happily take you there though. Let’s just say it is much improved since it was renovated and stopped smelling or urine.

Most people end up in the bars and restaurants near the ICC but if you walk back towards New Street (not all the way to New Street!) you will find the German Market where you can get Gluhwein and other bars with more character.

As the years have gone on, I’ve been more likely to pop out from the conference to get lunch or have a quiet coffee. It helps me keep fresh for the rest of the talks I go to.

Alcohol

Alcohol is of course utterly optional. But it seems a lot of British people and international conference presenters opt for it. There should be non-alcoholic options at all UKOUG organised social events. If there is not, feel free to complain like hell as it has been an issue once or twice and should not be.

Given you do wish to partake of the odd alcoholic beverage I feel I would like to offer some advice. That last pint in the hotel bar before you go to bed? Why is it always that one that is bad? I try and keep things in moderation until the last night at least Trying to concentrate on index internals whilst the Hangover Pixies bang hammers on the inside of your skull is not easy.

As a general rule, alcohol is not available in the conference during sessions.

As a general rule, after all sessions are finished, alcohol seems to be appreciated by many.

If you are not English (and in particular if you are from the US) you should be aware that our pints are a bit bigger than a US pint or a half litre. Also, though I know that the US have finally got their heads around “craft beer”, English beer (especially Real Ale) tends to be a bit more flavoursome and stronger than what many people thing of as beer, namely lager. You can get lager from most of the bars around the ICC and nasty, bland pap it is too. I’ll be holding out for beer that is brown, above 5 degrees C and is not mildly fizzy. Preferably delivered from the keg via hand pump, not just pressure-squirted out of a tap.

 

The Conference

Firstly, I’ll admit my prejudice. Other conferences have their own selling points, I actually personally prefer a few of the smaller national conferences, but for breadth of content and the technical validity of what is on offer, I don’t think you can beat the UKOUG conference. DOAG is on a par and is a little larger, but I think is less relaxed than the UK experience. Oracle Open World is a massive, ball-achingly on-message sales and marketing event that frankly I can live without. The UKOUG conference is independent of Oracle and, though we love having their presence and speakers, you will get talks that are not all “Oracle is the best”. You even sometimes get Oracle corporation speakers letting slip the occasional negative word or admission that something could be better. We put things in the water to make them more honest. Yeast, barley and hops, mostly.

Sessions

The UKOUG conference is big. Tech17 has something like 12 concurrent streams, 3 or 4 of which are database, a similar number across development and middleware. And you can move between Tech17, Apps17 and JDE17 as you wish now.

There will be times you want to see more than 1 session on at the same time. Sorry, this is impossible to avoid for the organisers. I’ve spent days in darkened rooms working on the agenda in the past. We try to make sure that talks in the same technical area (e.g. Database) are not on similar topics, we try not to put popular talks/presenters in small rooms or against each other. We try to look across the agenda so that a database-based talk on PL/SQL is not clashing on a PL/SQL talk about database management. But it is impossible. We organisers make mistakes or we simply do not see what is obvious in retrospect. Add to that short-notice changes in speaker availability and other run-time issues, the planning is not ideal.

But the main reasons we get such clashes is that:
(a) We have no control over what you lot are interested in. You might be passionate about APEX and database performance, or in-memory and Java. There are too many variables to plan to suit everyone
(b) There are so many good talks submitted by known speakers we could pack the event with only known, established speakers that you all want to see. And we don’t as we want to encourage new speakers and new topic areas.

So, when there is a clash, please try to be mellow and just accept that the UKOUG put on SO MUCH good content you are going to have to miss something.

And for when there is nothing at all you want to see? Sorry, it will probably happen too, it’s called random variation. Read below for suggestions.

Try to plan your day and what sessions you are going to. I have a piece of paper or the full agenda and I put big circles around the talks I intend to go to, so that I don’t have to keep thinking about this stuff as my head fills with new information.

Go to one or two sessions outside “your” area. It’s good to expand your viewpoint. Some of the best, most useful talks are ones I had to go to as I was chairing them. So now I throw a couple of oddities in each year. This is of course an ideal thing to do if you hit a point where there is no talk you really want to see. Rather than go see a talk you have seen before or a speaker who is well known, go see a talk on something you know nothing about.

HAVE A BREAK. If you feel your head is full or you cannot concentrate anymore, skip a session and chill. Have a coffee. Chat to people. When I first started coming to UKOUG conference I would go to 7 or 8 talks in a row. I did not really remember the last couple from day 1 or 2, or most of them from day 3. Because I was too tired to process new information anymore. Now I take the odd session out and, over all, I learn more. Pace yourself.

GIVE FEEDBACK! You buggers are getting worse and worse each year for filling in the feedback forms. I know, you all think you will do it online later. You won’t. You never do. I know, I’ve been reviewing the feedback for years. Fill in that paper form. And be honest. Don’t give everyone 5 or 6 for everything, apart from Derrick who was crap and you give 1 or 2 for everything. Of course, any talk I do (I’m not doing one this year) is 6’s across the board. But use the whole breadth of the scoring. (update, see the comment section).

Those feedback scores not only help the presenters personally, we use them when planning who gets to talk in future years. We really wish you would just tell us what you did and did not like. Please.

Speakers

Speakers are there as they want to be there. Well, most of them. So feel free to go talk to them when you see them around and about. Obviously don’t rudely butt in when they are deep in conversation with someone else, but of course you can chat to them in a queue for bad coffee or when you bump into them in the exhibitors hall. Oh, if you are between them and the nearest loo and they have a slightly determined look in their eye – leave them alone. And don’t follow them in! Yes, I had that once. I did not want to talk to that gentleman about Index Organised Tables right at that moment.

In my opinion, the worst time to try to talk to a speaker is… just after they have spoken! They need to get out of the way of the next speaker, you might be one of 4 or 5 people vying for attention and (true for me at least) often just after presenting you hit a bit of a lull in cognitive ability. I actually don’t tend to go to a session after I have presented as I know I won’t concentrate. So do ask your question, but ask it a little later when you see them about.

Oh, and you know those Oracle Hero Names? I’ll let you in on a big secret. They are just people, like you are. Obviously smarter and more handsome/pretty than you, but just people. Do you object if someone chats to you? No. So chat to them. And you don’t need to have a question you can, like, just talk to them like they are normal people. Apart from Tim Hall, he is strange. (Joke!)

Social

Conference is anything but just sessions. You are surrounded by people who all have an interest in Oracle, many of whom have a shared interest with you. Sessions are great but often the best stuff comes from conversations with people. It can be hard to talk to people you don’t know, but then those people you don’t know often feel the same. Come and talk to me, I hardly ever tell people to go away.

There are social events Monday and Tuesday nights. Come to them. Relax. Drink Whisky (Monday tech Community Networking). Or water. And chat.

If you get into a good discussion with someone and a new session is about to start, well maybe change your plan and go to the same session as them. Or. Don’t go to a session. If you have found someone who has had the same slow-death-by-frustration as you with feature X or implementing Payroll version 666 then spending half an hour with them might be the best thing you both get out of the conference. It’s what the Oracle Community is all about.

Odd Stuff

Toilets

I have not noticed queues outside the ladies loos. This is because IT is still a distressingly  male-dominated sphere, most conferences even more so. Though UKOUG try to encourage a better balance, one benefit for the ladies is no queuing for the loo. Men however, may need to queue! The problem is, several talks will finish  at the same time and those in need head off to the loos. The same ones as everyone else, right next to the hall you were in. Take a tip from me, if your bladder can hold on for 95 seconds, go and find a loo away from the hall. The ones down by halls 10 and 11 are quieter, it is worth seeing if there are loos by a hall that is not in use. I have my “favourite” loo, where it is always quiet. I’m not telling you where it is.

Wandering Around the Area – Safety

You will be safe in the vicinity of the ICC, Broad Street, down towards the centre of Birmingham. Of course, be sensible! Don’t wander down some dark alley on your own and don’t tell a bunch of Youth they look stupid with their trousers around their assholes (still a fashion thing for some here in the UK, I don’t get it). But you and your mate(s) will be safe wandering around where there are bars & restaurants. If you suddenly realise you are surrounded by only dark, lightless buildings – you are probably STILL safe. But maybe go back towards the bars. If I was a lady on my own, I would like to think I would not feel threatened on the main roads and thoroughfares. But I’ve never been a lady on my own. Several of those ladies I know who frequent the conference are at ease walking back to their hotel on their own. Though as a gentleman I find it tricky to let them do it, but that’s my latent sexism coming out.

Weather

Birmingham in Winter is world renowned for it’s warm climate and sunshine. Or more specifically, for how it is NOT warm and is only rarely sunny. As I type this I am looking at the long-term weather forecast and see no snow is predicted. But last time I told people there would be no snow – it snowed. (We do not get snow like say Canada or Norway gets snow. We get an inch or two that confuses everyone driving a car.)

It will be cold, I can be absolutely sure of that. A few degrees centigrade above freezing in the evenings, with a breeze. You will need a coat, gloves and a hat will help. If you are from America, it will be about 40f.  You will still need a coat, hat and gloves. Maybe throw in a scarf.

It will almost certainly rain at some point.

German Market and Shopping

I should not be encouraging you to leave the conference for a period of time, but in the evening the German Market and lots of shops are open. I personally don’t bother with the German Market anymore as I’ve been there soooo often (and, as I said on social media recently, you only need so many wooden toys and sausage in your life). But it is well worth a visit if you have not been before, or at least not for a while.

I know some people who include a mooch around the shops as part of their conference experience.

Coats and Luggage

It is warm in the ICC and blinking cold outside in Birmingham in December (see weather). So you will probably want to drop off your coat and maybe your luggage. There is a cloakroom in the ground floor of the ICC where you can do so. They will charge you a British pound or two. People complain about this charge. A lot.

You work in I.T, you are paid well, you do not want for money to pay for food and water. Just pay the damned pound will you? Take it off whatever charities you contribute to if it bothers you that much. Just don’t keep complaining at me about it.

If you stayed in a local hotel, they should be willing to hold on to your luggage for you on the last day. Depending on which hotel you are in this might not be convenient of course. If you do, how many of you will tip them more than a pound for doing so?