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Presenting Well – Tell Your Story November 28, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting, User Groups.
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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)
<<<<Controlling The Presentation Monster (Preparing to Present)
. . . . . . . . . Presenting Well – Tell Your Story >>

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?

Friday Philosophy – Doing DOAG (& a Little, Light, Hem-Touching) November 24, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Presenting.
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This week I’ve been at the annual DOAG conference. DOAG is the German (Deutsch) Oracle User Group annual conference. This was my second time there and I very much enjoyed it, meeting lots of people & seeing some great talks. I also got a request to do more Friday Philosophies, so…

DOAG is now the biggest Oracle User Group conference in Europe, it overtook the UKOUG conference a few years back. Do I see this as “competition”? Well, a little bit of me does because for several years I was involved in organising the UKOUG tech conference – and a part of me would like “my” conference to be the biggest. But that is just misplaced, juvenile pride – really there is no competition between us. DOAG caters to the German Oracle User community (and nearby countries), UKOUG to the British Isles and, to a certain extent, Ireland and the closer parts of mainland Europe. If there is any competition then it is for presenters. I know that sometimes presenters have had to pick between the UKOUG and DOAG as they can only manage so much time doing these things. But I also know many presenters who do both. Also, both conferences are lucky enough to receive many more, very good presentation abstracts than they have presentation slots for. There will always be a great selection of presentations at both conferences.

There are some aspects of DOAG that I really do wish we could replicate for UKOUG. The first is the venue. Not only is the space they have at the Nuremberg conference centre so much larger and and better suited than the ICC in Birmingham, but it costs them “a lot less”. It might be outside of town (and Nuremberg is a nice town) whereas the UKOUG conference is almost in the middle of Birmingham, but at DOAG you get free transport as part of the conference pass. The second is the catering. The food at DOAG is very, very good; coffee is available at all times; you can get real, decent coffee at the venue (in the UK you need to go find a place that will sell you decent coffee); DOAG end the conference with beers and light snacks – the UKOUG conference tends to fizzle out.

But for me, though it is a close-run thing, I do ever so slightly prefer Birmingham and the UKOUG conference. I find it a little more relaxed (certainly there are less suits in evidence) and, on a personal level, I know so many more people there. I like knowing where the pubs & restaurants are and which ones are terrible! And somewhat ironically, our German Christmas Market is not only in full swing during the conference, but it is bigger than Nuremberg’s. But how many wooden toys, Gluhwein and sausage do you need in your life?

I did have a somewhat bizarre time with my presentations at DOAG though. First, I had to cancel a presentation. I was preparing a new one on the philosophy & process of performance tuning but due to some back pain issues (or rather the impact this had on my sleep and the pain medication had on my brain) I was utterly failing to get it done. So with only a week to go I had to ask if they could replace me. I hated doing it so late, I know what it is like organising these conferences and losing talks when you have printed the agenda is a real pain. Plus you now need to find a replacement. But I also know they would not appreciate a poor talk, so I let them choose. They chose to drop the talk.

But I honoured my other two presenting slots. The first was at 11am the first day and I experienced that thing that most presenters secretly like – it was so popular there was only standing room! As a result, the DOAG organisers asked if I would repeat it the next day or last day. Of course! However, as it worked out, they asked me to repeat it later that afternoon as one speaker was lost in transit. There was of course no time to really advertise the change. So I repeated the talk 4 hours later in the largest auditorium I have ever presented in – to 27 people. They of course were scattered around the room like lost souls. I guess it was using a room that would otherwise have been empty, and the session was recorded I think. But it did feel odd.

In between these two talks, I saw a couple of other people present. And in one talk, my phone kept buzzing. That was unusual, especially as it was a German number. I eventually exited (from the front row) and took the call. It was DOAG! They wanted to know why I was not at the interview I had agreed to do. “Because that is on Tuesday!”. Pause. The confused lady on the phone said “Yes. It IS Tuesday…” *sigh* – did I mention the pain meds and my brain? That was embarrassing. I had to go back into the room, to the front, get my stuff and wave an apology to Chris Saxon & Heli Helskyaho before scuttling off to this interview. Which I did very badly.

My final talk was interesting for other reasons. The talk was on calling PL/SQL from SQL and the impact it can have on performance and the point-in-time reliability of the results (if your called PL/SQL function itself runs SQL). I’ve discussed this topic with Bryn Llewellyn, the product manager (distinguished no less) of PL/SQL & EBR, in the past and I was able to catch up with him just before the talk. Then he came to my talk. I’m presenting in front of the Oracle employee who owns the tech I am talking about. No pressure. Then I look around the crowd and it is liberally scattered with other senior Oracle technical people, OakTable members, Oracle ACEs…

This is an unappreciated, small problem with becoming friends with these people. The bas…. good fellows and ladies come to your talk – and heckle.

Well, it keeps me honest and the heckling that did inevitably happen was all good-natured, and corrected a couple of slightly weak bits of my talk. So the crowd got a better talk than they otherwise would have.

And the Hem Touching? Well, go back a few years and we did not have the breadth and diversity of information the web now provides for us. In fact, we are talking back in the 1990’s when there was nothing like google and blogs and Oracle Base. What information was out there for Oracle was much more paper-based (you know, actual books & magazines!) or the odd word document that was emailed between people. One name I saw on such things quite often and who taught me an awful lot back then was Craig Shallahammer. Well, Craig was at DOAG, I’d seen him in the crowds once or twice. And after this talk he came up for a quick chat. I might have been presenting now for a good few years and met many of the best known people in our world of Oracle and I’m generally immune from the desire or need to go “Oh! You’re xxx! I’ve read all your papers!!!!”. But I did a little with Craig, as he was from my “Oracle childhood”. And he was very nice about it.

So all in all, an excellent few days. I’ll try and come again next year. Maybe if I finish that talk on the philosophy of performance tuning, they’ll let me do it?

Friday Philosophy – What Makes a Community? November 10, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Presenting, UKOUG, User Groups.
Tags: , , ,
1 comment so far

Earlier this week Daniel Westermann asked a question on twitter: “What is community?”

What is a community?

Daniel was not specific about if this was a work/user group community or a wider consideration of society, but my first thoughts were about the Oracle community (or communities) that I have been involved in. By community I mean anything from a national or regional user group; a regular, geographically agnostic conference; a special interest group; even just a bunch of people who meet socially who share a common interest (such as London Oracle Beers which I help run). You could actually think of it as the world-wide collective of all such smaller Oracle communities.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years and you can see my answer in the right. Quite obviously an Oracle community needs a shared interest in Oracle, in some aspect of it or a broader view. All tech communities focus on a brand of tech, I don’t think you get a “computers” community as it is just too broad. But the parts that make up the community are, I think, alwyas the same.

1) A large group of people willing to take part
+
2) A medium group of people willing to share
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3) A small group of people willing to drive the community

Taking a regular conference as an example, the first group are the delegates. If not enough people are willing to pay for it and turn up then your conference will fail. The second group are the speakers and people who will help with organising. The third group are the ones who get the second group involved, manage the effort and sell the idea of the conference.

Community at UKOUG

That third, small group is the key. If you lack that, you have no community. Sometimes, especially for smaller groups, that third group could be very small, even just one person. Delegates and speakers can come and go but it’s not so easy with the drivers of a community.

For several years we had a small but active Oracle user group in the centre of the UK, in Birmingham. It was run by one person, Mike Mckay-dirden. He almost single handedly started it up, organised the venue and corralled some of us speakers into coming over to talk. It ran successfully for several years but then Mike decided he could not keep doing it. He stopped, no one took it over – and the community died.

With larger communities such as UKOUG or DOAG there will be several people driving it all forward and usually, if one drops out you can keep going until another driven person turns up to help. But it is always a very small group of people doing a hell of a lot of work.

Over the years I’ve watched some communities get stronger or weaker and even die off as those key, driving people change. You can tell who they are, they are the ones who look knackered all the time :-). The LOB is in danger of dying as a couple of the driving people are no longer around and I can’t get to London very often now.

The chances are that as you are reading this blog you are part of an Oracle community. If so, I’d encourage you to support the drivers in those communities. If you lose them, it could really badly impact your community. Would I encourage you to become one of those drivers? Well, I would. But you have to want to do it yourself – it’s a lot of hard work and sometimes it feels like none of the first and second group really appreciate what you are doing, which can be very demoralising. And it eats up a lot of time.

I went from being one of the large group willing to take part to a member of the medium group willing to share pretty quickly. After a few years I stepped up to being in the smaller group, for a couple of groups actually. I took those steps up because I wanted to, not with any real expectation of gain (I could see it was going to be me working “for free”!). But I am absolutely sure that I would not be where I am now if I had not. I would not be an OakTable member, I would not be an Oracle ACE Director, and I would not be a known international speaker if I had not at least joined the middle group. Joining the band of drivers introduced me to a lot of really nice, really helpful people too.

This blog has been all about Oracle communities but I think the three-group-theory might apply to all communities. I’ll have to think on that a little longer before I voice an opinion. One thing I do know – It’s really nice being part of communities.

Friday Philosophy – New Conference, Same Sad Old Faces Up Front June 2, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Presenting.
Tags: , ,
5 comments

I’ve been on the Oracle conference presenting circuit for well over a decade now and I must confess I enjoy it. Part of this is that I see lots of friends at nearly every conference – even in countries I have never been to before. This is because many of those friends are fellow presenters, who have been presenting for well over a decade now…

There he goes again, banging on and on and on…

This is not totally true of course, there are some relatively new presenters, even a couple I can think of that have been presenting for only a year or two (Pieter, Frank…). I’m proud to say that there are some less-experienced presenters I actually helped get going at this lark and even a couple who are better at this than I am.

But the truth of it is, if you were to go to 5 conferences in one year across Europe (or maybe even 5 across the USA, let me know) you will keep seeing the same bunch of mostly older faces up there, sometimes even doing the same talk (or talks) – That is maybe not such a bad thing as the real audience, the local Oracle community members, are mostly from that region, won’t have been to the other conferences and get to see current talks that have been trialled and tested and tweaked elsewhere.

However, if you go to the same conference 5 years in a row – you will STILL see the same bunch of mostly older faces up there (all getting slowly older, greyer, wrinklier – except for those who hit Mid-Life-Crisis and suddenly develop gym-bodies and oddly darker hair…. 🙂 ). Again, maybe not a bad thing as these are the people who like presenting, get selected again based on the fact the audience liked what they said, they did not lie too much and did not get too many things wrong. And most of us try to not do the same presentation 2 years in a row, so the material moves on {I do repeat presentations after a year or two’s break, usually updated and aimed at the newbie audience, but that’s just me}.

So is this “same old faces” a problem? Most of us conference organisers agree that it is as people drop off the presenting circuit or seem to run out of material. So you need a new influx. And you need younger presenters to keep the older ones on their toes (or just help them on and off the platform). And younger or just new people to give another perspective or add their considerable experience to the mix. One of the newer presenters I can think of is actually retirement age and a great addition to the circuit.

But the problem is, how do you encourage new presenters? You lot reading this who do not present are a damned hard bunch to motivate to give it a go! Now, I know that presenting is not for everyone and that some of you would rather stick your arm in a wasps’ nest than present, but some of you can bang on for ages in a social situation and actually know your stuff. So how do we get you to present?

The same ideas come up. One is to say you only need to present for 5 or 10 minutes. Sometimes we will even organise a full session made up of such short session to let people give it a go. It does not seem to work to me, you get one or maybe two new people and then fill the other mini-sessions with experienced people – who then complain about how hard it is to do a decent talk in such short time!

Another is to specifically ask at SIGs and smaller meetings if anyone fancies trying out presenting, in the small and friendly arena that they have just experienced. You know, the one where after presenting the presenter cannot really hide in the crowd and everyone there knows if you did a good or bad job… We do get the occasional new presenter but not really. And I suspect most of them would have submitted papers eventually (and I’m ignoring the issue of new presenters getting papers selected, I’d need a whole post on that).

Another route it to co-present and this is the one I have used a small number of times. You get someone you know, who understands the material, to share a presentation with you. If they stumble or forget what they were saying, you can just nudge things along, and hopefully cope with any tricky questions that might worry the new person. It worked once (and you now see his sad, old face ALL the time), partially worked the second (though I’ve not seen her present for a while) and utterly failed the third.

The UKOUG is trying this at the next UKOUG Tech conference, but in a more formal way. They are getting some of us more experienced presenters to offer ourselves to co-present with new people. I’m not sure how well this will work if we experienced presenters are not finding the inexperienced presenters ourselves. Can you imagine someone who has never presented before wanting to step up to the podium with one of the Oracle Names, unless they also know them? If you said something wrong, would they correct you in front of everyone (no, probably not, we are generally nice people). Anyway, it’s something to try and I am happy to help. The UKOUG have started promoting this a little, but I don’t think everyone is going to find it appealing. In fact, my friend Dawn saw this and thought it sounded…:

Creepy! That made me laugh.

Nevertheless, if you are a potential new presenter or just inexperienced and you want to present on something I also know about, I’d be happy to consider co-presenting with you. Just let me know. And generally speaking, if co-presenting appeals to you but not with me {I would not blame you}, get in touch with the UKOUG.

About the only way I know of really getting new presenters is… to get people drunk and make them agree to it. Then remind them about it endlessly until they feel obliged to do it. It does work, but it ends up being a self-selecting set of new presenters, i.e. people I drink with, which rather annoyingly tends to be sad, old men. I’ve tried drinking with young, vivacious women but I usually get asked to leave the club, as I am coming over as creepy.

So, if you are someone who has considered presenting or would consider it – what would help you give it a go? Tell me, I’ll see if I can arrange it.