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Friday Philosophy – We Could Be Heroes! {just for one day}. November 6, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,

At Open World I overheard a snippet of conversation which went something like this:

Bob – “How’s it going? Did the last talk go down well?”
Bill – “Sure, it was on time, the audience seemed to like it.”
Bob – “Will you be here next year?”
Bill – “Errmm….” pause…*sigh*… “I don’t know…. I’ll see how I feel.”
Bob – “Oh? In what way?”
Bill – “It just that, at Open World… I have to fend off two dozen people just to go have a pee!”

Wild horses could not drag out of me the name of the person who said that (though several pints and the offer of a curry might do the trick – try me). It both made me smile and made me think. There are down-sides to becoming highly respected in your sphere.

There are definitely different levels of renown and respect in the relatively small world of the Oracle Database Technologist. I’m not doing bad in that respect; I’d put myself in the third of the seven circles, maybe tapping on gates of circle two. Occasionally I think it would be nice to be either technically or entertainingly good enough to join the Big Names in the innermost circle – but I really don’t think I can face the Hem-Touching!

What do I mean about “Hem-Touching”? It’s something a few friends and I came up with at the UKOUG Tech conference about 5 or 6 years ago to describe people who will approach one of the Oracle Names with a mixture of awe and fear in their eyes and just want them to acknowledge their presence,be allowed to speak, maybe to touch the hem of their cloak. If you go up to the balcony that is above the exhibition hall at the Birmingham ICC, you can sometimes watch an Oracle Name walk through the exhibition and see some people suddenly swerve and hurry towards them – especially if the Name currently has no one with them. I’ve even seen someone suddenly stop when another acolyte gets to their hero first. I don’t know why, these people will speak to more than one person at a time. And the thing is, people in the UK and Europe are generally more reserved than our cousins in other continents, so we are less forward in, well, being forward.

Am I being mean to these people? Well, a little I guess, but it’s mainly because of the little story I started with. I’m friends with some of the Names and I know a lot of them are uncomfortable with Hero Worship. Being respected and held in high regard is great, most of them are very happy about that, as they have worked damned hard and long to be knowledgeable enough to hold that position. But when people treat them like a living saint or the bestower of blessings, it’s just a bit weird. This is just an area of technology after all, not the eradication of Malaria. They are “just” people – OK, they are people who are usually very smart and very capable, but they are also people who are happy to share and teach – otherwise they would not be at the conferences sharing and teaching. Most of them are idiots in other areas of their lives too, we all are.

I’ve never felt the need to hero-worship myself. Not because I do not deeply respect people who achieve great things, it’s just not in my psychology I think. I did not put up any posters in my bedroom of the people I most respected when I was a teenager. I used to know a Nobel Prize Winner (though I doubt he’d recognise me in the street now) but when I met him the first time I had no idea who he was and just treated him like a person – and we got on fine. He treated me like a person too. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some very smart academics, many of the Oracle Names and even the odd traditionally famous person. It’s amazing how like people they are – if you treat them like people.

I’m certainly not above being pleased when someone I respect mentions me or refers to something I have done though. I’ll grin like an idiot on the rare occasions someone has name-checked me in a presentation or they tell me they liked something I said. I’m tickled pink when a Name follows me on twitter. But I feel hero worship is not what they want. Respect yes, being told you appreciate what they have taught you fine. Going shiny-eyed and asking to touch the hem of their coat, weird; don’t do it.

Oracle Names are people, treat them as such. They’ll probably appreciate you more if you do.

And if you ever find yourself in a group of several others, all trying to say “hello” to some gal or guy you just saw presenting, and they are looking a little uncomfortable and shifting from foot to foot and looking towards a door over there – let the poor sod go to the loo will you?

Friday Philosophy – 3 months, 3 conferences October 16, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in ACED, conference, Friday Philosophy, Presenting, Tech15.
Tags: , ,

Flights are booked, hotels reserved, plans made. Don’t ask about talks prepared, just don’t :-)

This is not the usual list of “I’m going to this talk and I’m seeing that speaker” blog that people write before an event – well it is a little – it’s more about the different flavors of conference we have available to us.

I have an Oracle conference a month until the end of the year and I’m really looking forward to all of them. Each is very different. I know I am lucky to be able to do this sort of thing, that is go to so many conferences, and partly it is because of being an ACED. But fundamentally it’s come about as a result of the decision I made back in 2003 to give something back to the community that I’d learnt so much from, and even more so when a couple of years back my wife gave me permission to do less stuff that pays and more stuff that I enjoy. Oracle Community stuff.

First up of course is Oracle Open World 15. This includes a couple of days before hand with the ACED briefings. We get a heads-up on what is happening with the direction of Oracle Tech and Oracle expect us to feed back what we think. After 25 years in the business and dozens of conferences, this will be a first for me so I will be a newbie again (hmm, maybe not so new thinking about it, I’ve been on Customer Advisory Boards and Beta tested in the past so it will be interesting to see the difference). I’ve said in the past how I was not so fond of my prior Oracle Open World experiences. Too big and too razzmatazz for my repressed British personality. But the huge difference between this time and 10 years ago is not my being ACED, it is being a member of the community and looking forward to seeing so many people, catching up and talking about all things tech.
Elton John is apparently doing the appreciation event. I’m hoping for “Yellow Brick Road” era stuff and none of that modern post Y2K stuff…
Oh, and don’t forget, there is also the Oaktable presence at OOW, OakTable World. It’s free to all at OOW15 and if you want technical meat on your presentation bones, that is where you will find it.

In November, Friday 20th to Sunday 22nd, it is a totally different experience, the Bulgarian Oracle User Group Autumn conference. This is purely a tech conference, no dancing girls, no laser-show keynotes and not a hint of Elton John. Just a shed load of top presenters (so many ACE badges next to names) with a good showing of local talent too. Several of the speakers are coming to it from DOAG, a conference I was seriously considering putting papers forward for but decided not to, as I felt I was too busy at the end of the year – and then I got sweet-talked into putting forward abstracts for Bulgaria. Next year I’ll try for DOAG. This will be my first time at a BGOUG conference but I know from my friends that it is like many of the smaller European conferences. It has a more inclusive, friendly feel as you see the same people over and over again for the couple of days and spend time getting to know people pretty well and often having longer, more involved discussions about whatever tech you are working with. I’ve been really well looked after by the organisers already, helping me sort things out and advising me on what to do outside the event.

I’m combining this one with a short holiday with my wife. (She speaks Bulgarian so she will be very helpful in ordering beer in local bars). One down side to going to more conferences is that, as she travels a lot herself for work, some months we don’t see a lot of each other. It will be really nice to wander around Sofia together for a few days. The ironic thing is that her employer, actually her department, is doing some work out there that week – and they did not schedule in the only person in the team who speaks the language!

Finally there is “my” conference. Mine as in I feel it is my home conference, being in the UK and one I have presented at or helped organise for 12 years now. The UKOUG Tech15 conference. This is from Monday 7th December to Wednesday the 9th, and if you get registered in time you can also be at Super Sunday on the 6th (half a day focused on deeper tech talks). Again, a conference that puts technical content at the top and the sales sides comes along for the ride. It is a very large conference, vying with DOAG to be the biggest after Oracle Open World. We are less show and more tell than OOW but it lacks the personal feel of smaller conferences. We are back in Birmingham for this one and I have to say it’s all looking set for a great event. Registrations are significantly up on the last couple of years at this stage, the exhibition is selling well and we have great content lined up. I need to tweet more about Tech15, both about how such an event is organised (I know some of you liked hearing about that) but also about some of the things that will be happening. I’m quietly excited about a couple of things. The only problem is that, by the time I get to the actual Tech15 conference I am usually a bit spaced out and knackered from all the prep work and by the end of Wednesday (the last day) I’m physically drained – but with a head full of new information.

As I said, all three conferences have a different vibe and which one you prefer is down to what you want from your conference.

After all that I’ll be done with conferences. I refuse to go to any more until the following year…

Which reminds me, I better start putting in some abstracts and seeing if I’ve got stuff people want in their conferences next Spring.

Friday Philosophy – Be Moral or Be Sacked? October 9, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy.
Tags: , ,

How far will you bend your moral stance to keep your job?

This post was prompted by a Twitter discussion over the recent VW Emissions scandal development where software engineers are being blamed. Let’s just skip over the rather trite and utterly unbelievable proposition that a couple of rogue software engineers did this “for reasons unknown” – and the fuel engineers, mechanical engineers, and direct managers did not realise “hey, our engines are more efficient than we knew was possible, never mind seen”. Plus the testers, change control, release managers, etc were all circumvented by the rogue software engineers…. It would have to be incompetence of unbelievable levels for the whole stack of management up to the top did not in some way at least know about this – and I personally am sure they condoned or even demanded the results.

What made me think was a comment by a friend that the software engineers must have at least colluded and thus are at least partially responsible – and it struck a chord in me. What constitutes collusion? and would you or I do it? I’ve been in a very similar situation…

Back in my first job I worked for one of the regions of the UK National Health Service, as a programmer. An edict came down from high. Government high. We were to make the waiting list figures look better. “We” being the NHS management initially but, as I guess they were powerless to really do much about the reality of the situation, it come down the levels until it was realised it was the data used to show how the waiting times were doing that could so easily be changed.

I was given the job of altering the Waiting List Reports in a few ways. A key one was how the date you started waiting was measured. No matter how often the hospital cancelled your appointment or sent you home not having done the procedure, the date from which you started waiting remained the same. However, if you were offered an appointment and for any reason you could not attend – ANY reason, be you ill in another way, have a responsibility you could not avoid, were only given a day’s notice – the date you were waiting was reset to the day of the refused appointment. Of course this was utterly unjust and we were told it would not really mean Mrs Smith who had been waiting 3 months would now have to wait another 3 months – “it would be handled”. But it made the figures so much better.

I refused. In the first place it was a con, in the second I doubted all the Mrs Smiths would be handled as the NHS, even back then, was in a right state.

To this day I am proud I refused.

My colleague was given the task instead – and she did it. I asked her how she could do it? We had some shared political and philosophical views. How could she do something she knew was utterly false and misleading? Her answer was simple.

“You’re lucky – you can afford to take the risk. I’ve just got married, we have a mortgage and I have …other responsibilities – I can’t afford to damage my career or get sacked. You can.”

She was right. I did not know it then but she was trying for a baby, so yeah, getting sacked would have been devastating. On the other hand, I had no dependents (no one loved me), no mortgage and I was already muttering about leaving. She had in effect been bullied into doing a task she was morally against. And she knew, if she did not do it someone else would and she would have taken the hit.

And I confess, I did not simply stand up, shout defiance and proudly walk out the room, head held high. I had a long chat with my union rep about what support I could expect if things got bad before I refused. I knew he was ready to support me.

There were repercussions. I already had a poor relationship with my manager. After I refused to do that work I had an even worse relationship with him, and now his boss disliked me quite a lot too. It was a large part of me leaving to join some no-hope database company.

So, I think there is a very large difference in colluding and being coerced.

The same argument goes up the stack too. I can imagine there were lots of people involved in the VW scandal who knew what was going on, did not like it but, “hey, it’s my job I am risking and it’s not as if I’m the one *authorising* this”.

I can’t say I’ve always held to my moral ground so strongly, I’ve done a couple of things professionally I wish now I’d also said no to. But I’ve also said no to a couple more.

{I hope the statute of limitations on mentioning governmental evils is less that 25 years…}

Friday Philosophy – Antisocial Social Media and Sociopaths September 25, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Twitter.
Tags: , , ,
1 comment so far

Twice, on consecutive days a week or so back, I realised that someone I knew on Twitter but did not know in real life… was someone I knew in real life. But I’d never made the connection! With one person it was not that their real name was missing from their twitter profile, it was just my brain had linked all I knew about them to their handle. In the other case, as far as I can see there is nothing to link their slightly obscure handle to their physical persona, despite the fact they are tweeting quite often about Oracle and also present at conferences. So that was simply not playing fair to hide their real identity in that way and I feel slightly aggrieved.

I’ve also had the experience of meeting someone in the flesh who treats me like an old friend, is being nice to me {possibly some sales-person-type I should back away from, I initially wonder?} but also knows a fair bit about me {Oh no! Creepy-stalker-type! Must-run must-run must-run} – before it dawns on me that this is actually Randolph Toddlepoddle who I have known online for 5 years, comments on my blog and I respond. But I’ve never met. And who is now wondering why I am being so unfriendly, am backing slowly away from them with a fixed grin on my face and scanning for exits. This has actually happened to me several times now. Thankfully only once with each person (I think – names & faces are not my forte}.

XKCD comic 741

I have a relationship with you lot? {shudder!}

The result is that I am sure that for some people I have two utterly separate relationships with them – the online one and the in-the-flesh one. (According to xkcd comic 741 I have a relationship with you as you read my blog. When can I meet the parents?).

Another aspect of social media I feel is a little tricky for me, personally, is keeping track of what people have said to me and things I’ve said I’ll do. I have a poor memory, I can barely remember conversations last week. With email I can file them away and find them later (mostly I just file them away and wonder why my email directory is so massive). But with Twitter and Facebook comments? OK, so you can search but it is slow and it is not great. Only today (as I type) I remember being given some advice by my friend Brendan about writing articles. I went and checked my email ( under “friends/Brendan” or maybe “ora600/articles”, I can’t remember). Nope. Could I have put it elsewhere in my email store of information and event? Nope, no where in my email I could find. Ahh, it was a twitter conversation. Damn. Now I need to step back and find it…

Maybe there is an app to tie all this stuff together for me but I would have to find it and learn it and the vendor will get bored or go bust in 2 years and I’ll lose the lot then. I’d rather mow the lawn.

Then there is the much-commented-on aspect of online comments where some people seem to sign up to a service or follow someone, just so they can be snide or criticise. No, this is not the usual rant about these phalluses (phalli?), It’s more that I don’t read user comments on the BBC web site much anymore as it lowers my already pretty sociopathic outlook on the human race (don’t get me wrong, many individual humans are wonderful animals – but as a pack they are a nasty and destructive species). It’s not that there are nasty or thoughtless people who put these comments up, we learnt there are people like that in the school playground (or even in the classroom – Mr Jenkins, you know who you are). It’s just that seeing what people can put on social media reminds me more about how dysfunctional people can be than meeting people in the flesh does. Being able to have some control over people you meet in the flesh means real people don’t tend to enhance my sociopathic tendencies as much as social media.

I follow a couple of “humorous” twitter accounts. They put the same stuff up all the time, sometimes it’s obviously fake and they “borrow” from each other like crazy. But it’s just a few tweets and if I find the repetitive nature of it or their take on humour gives me less amusement than annoyance, I can always do that “unfollow” thing. I am not in any way being forced to be exposed to it. I don’t have to start commenting all the time about “you got this from redit!!!” or “You spelt that wrong you moron” or “That’s not funny, I can tell it’s a paper bag on a baby”. I made the mistake a couple of weeks back of responding to one saying “Dude, thanks for pointing out the totally obvious, it had CLEAR passed me by”. Yeah, I told you I had sociopathic leanings – I went and did what they had done to annoy me, there was no need for me to read the comments if I knew it would annoy me.

Of course, I could just stop joining in; close my twitter account, delete the blog, remove my inconsequential presence on facebook. But then, I’m now in all these relationships (sometimes two or three times with the same person). How can I break up with so many people? :-)

Friday Philosophy – The Issue of Exceptions in your Mailing Lists September 18, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: ,
1 comment so far

A couple of days ago I got the below email about the next UKOUG Database Server SIG being full. That’s great to see! A full user group meeting. If I still wanted to attend, I could be added to the waiting list:

ScreenHunter_42 Sep. 14 11.25

It made me smile as, guess what, I was already due to be there. I was the last speaker on the agenda! It was going to be awkward if I failed to get from the waiting list to an actual place at the event, it could be a very quiet session…

As I said, it made me smile – I’m not having a go at the UKOUG over this. Because, as I’m sure many of you are aware due to the day job, removing people from a mailing list who are no longer going to be interested is not always easy (I know, it should be easy, but it just seems not to be). Anyone registered for an event should be on an exclude list for the event. But only for that event. And for that to occur you have to make sure that all speakers and committee are registered (as committee and speakers can be very poor at actually registering!).

Sales and promotion communications are one thing and, let’s face it, in the scheme of things damned unimportant – except to the company doing the sales. If you sell clothes and you mess up on your communications to me, I’ll have a poorer opinion of your company and I don’t mind having that poor opinion. I won’t buy your clothes, no skin off my nose. As a recent example on a personal level, my mother was having a new door and window fitted. She was contacted by a company that replaced a couple of her windows the year before and as the service was fine then and she knew she had to have the door replaced, she said yes. But then she got called by them again a month later asking if she wanted any more windows or doors – “But I just ordered from you, have you lost the order?”. They apologised and said it would not happen again. But it did, a couple of times – including the day before the new door was to be fitted, whilst she was waiting for a call about the exact time for the work the next day. A lesson in How to Confuse A Little Old Lady. The end result is, she won’t use that company again. Especially as the new door seems to have a fault they won’t come and fix. Maybe the inability to take a current client off the pester-list should have warned us off them.

But there are other communications where the need to take care of the exclusions or keep the lists timely are far, far more important. People get really upset if the hospital sends a reminder for a checkup to their father – who died last month, in that hospital. In that situation people are so sensitive that they can’t just accept it as an administrative cock-up. It is now seen as an affront to their dead relative’s memory and a sign the hospital do not care.

An even worse situation than the above is if the hospital wrongly records you as dead. It happens and it happens “quite often” as it is very hard to keep individual, accurate records on people who keep going and changing names, addresses and have the same name and date of birth as other people. I know this as I once had to write the software to do all the test cancellations and notifications required internally in a hospital that occur when someone dies. And I also had to write the software to undo all of that when someone realised the wrong person had been recorded as dead. {The functions were initially called “kill patient” and “resurrect patient” – They got renamed pretty damned quick when people outside the medical staff saw them. Medics have a dark sense of humour that most other people don’t!}. It happens and when you see how many people in a large hospital system have very similar details, you can appreciate why. I bet that right not, somewhere in the UK, is a hospital with two people of the same name & date of birth as inpatients and at least one has a chance of not surviving the experience.

As for sets of duplicate records as no one realised Sarah Twoddypottle is the same person as Sarah Poddytwoddle who came into A&E 4 years ago and neither knew their NHS number… 20 years ago I could have done a PhD on the topic of duplicate patient records, the situation was so bad – and not at all helped by people wanting “privacy” ie no joining up of national medical records. I digress.

People get similarly upset about money (some more so than medical!) – any attempt to offer someone a loan who is already in debt and won’t be accepted for a loan causes all sorts of anger and annoyance. It’s all seen as personal by the wronged customer when in fact it is just an impersonal business function. No, they don’t care about you Mr Postlethwaite, but they don’t not care about you either. You are just one of a million customers. Level of care for the individual is not part of the equation.

I’ll finish on an interesting one. Companies that offer gambling services have to abide by some strict rules about who they can promote their services to or even allow to use their services. To try and halt the horrendous increase in people gambling away money they don’t have there are strict legal rules about self-exclusion and cooling off periods. If you get into serious debt due to gambling you can state you are an addict and it was partly the fault of the company you gambled with. So they must not encourage you any more. At least not for 6 months. {NB I am not a lawyer, I may have the exact details wrong, but the gist is right}. After the time period they are allowed to advertise to the person again as it would be wrong and immoral (???) to exclude them forever. Besides, they are a good source of revenue…

It’s important to get your communications correct, timely and exclusion-aware. And just consider in what situations people might be especially sensitive to what they see as an impersonal system not caring about them or their nearest and dearest. Most people find it hard to accept that such mistakes are not personal, even when they are blatantly impersonal.

Friday Philosophy – If You are reading this You are probably Pretty Smart September 11, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Knowledge.
Tags: , , ,

I bet I can predict a few things about you. And I mean You, the person reading this on my Blog right now.

At senior school (when you were aged between 11 and 16-ish) you were at the top of your classes. At least most of them. You were in the top few in your year for most science subjects and probably Maths too.

And you were not bad at any of your subjects once you had a choice over them, but there was at least one subject you were glad to get rid of as you were poor at it. But if you think back, I bet you were simply *almost average* at it, there were as many kids or more worse at it than you then there were better than you at it. You were just not as stand-out good as you were in other subjects. Come on, I’m right aren’t I? Even your poor subjects you were OK at compared to all the other kids.

You almost certainly went to college and, if you are under 35, you did to study a STEM subject – Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths. If you are 40-50 you did not study computing but you ended up working in it anyway. 35-40? You either studied computing, thought about it or took options in your course that had a major element of computer programming.

However, you were probably not quite the smartest kid in your year at school.

What makes me think this? Because I can mind-read(*)?

No, I think this simply due to the fact that you work in corporate IT or something very similar. You use your brain to solve issues or get tasks done. I think that the generally high level of intelligence is a more common trait in IT than the other thing I can probably predict about you – you don’t feel you are a people person, not really. Using myself as an example; I present at conferences, I have run training courses and I usually have something to say in a large group or discussion; I even partly run London Oracle Beers, a social Oracle user group. But I can’t make small-talk with people I don’t know and I am uncomfortable meeting new people.

We have to be intelligent to make a career in IT and most of us were probably drawn, at least in part, towards computers and software as we could work on it on our own and the computer did not have any feelings to dent or make any social demands on us. However, many (most) people are social nervous and so I think the more defining trait of people in IT is that they are intelligent – and intelligent in the way that IQ tests measure intelligence: A mixture of learnt patterns and various problem solving/logic/deduction skills. If you have had your IQ tested I am sure you are 120+. I would not be at all surprised if you score 130+. But you still have a little way to go to beat… my wife.

You probably were not the smartest kid in your year at school as the smartest kid either went into medicine/vet school, academia, law or crime – something more way-out-there.

So what point am I making? None really. It’s more just an observation. Though I do think you should occasionally take time to say a prayer of thanks to Pythagoras (or whoever you think is listening) and remind yourself how lucky you are. Most of your intelligence is inherited and the smaller (but not insignificant part) is due to schooling and your own efforts (note, I’m talking intelligence, not what you know – the two are different but aid each other). Your brains were given to your by your parents and grandparents, no matter how hard that can sometimes be to believe :-). I was on a PL/SQL course with Steven Feuerstein about 10 years ago and he took a minute or two to passionately state how lucky all of us on the course were to have our brains, to be making our living by thinking and not back-breaking toil or dull manual work. It was a sentiment I whole-heatedly agree with. I actually love spending time digging a ditch or chopping down trees but I would hate having to do it every day for a living.

Of course, intelligence of the IQ type is not everything and it does not make you a better person. I’m sure we have all known some very smart assholes and some wonderful people who can’t think themselves out of a damp paper bag. Some people have average IQ and yet have talents most of use would struggle with, like making a violin sound anything but bloody awful. I’ve known academics with an IQ somewhere Way Up There but who had about as much common sense as a pigeon. I have come across a few examples of intelligence bigotry in my time too. I know one guy in an academic institute who tried to insist that the highest grade you could achieve and the top of your salary band be dictated by your best academic qualification. No one without some sort of degree should get above level 5, No one with less than a 2(i) allowed in grade four and to get to grade 2 a PhD was needed. He was a very smart asshole. I’ve known a couple of people without a degree in this business of IT and both of the ones I’m thinking of right now are very, very good at what they do.

So be grateful for that brain of yours and just remember that most people are not as intelligent as you, so show patience in explaining and working with them. And if you are not patient, you could well be an intelligent asshole. You might need to learn to not be like that.

(*) Just as an aside, deducing things about groups of people and, in fact, traits most people have is not hard. It’s called cold reading. It’s what mediums, mind readers, psychics and other intelligent assholes use to hoodwink people. Part of it is things you can guess at given one piece of information or even none. I can deduce things about you because you work in IT. I know you feel you’ve never reached your potential and you have more to give as *almost everyone does*. No one wants to be seen to be selfish but we all know we are, at least at times. Even Mother Theresa thought so at times. The other aspect to it is reading body language and empathy, which is why I can’t make a living as a psychic. I just don’t get people….

Just thinking on this aside for a second, maybe mediums and psychics could get less abusive jobs as data analysts? Deducing things about people based on averages and correlation is Big Data Business right now.

(Update – thanks to the person who quietly contacted me to point out my spelling error/poor grammar with “patience” and “patient” – in my section in intelligent assholes too! He showed real patience with me)

Friday Philosophy – On “Being the Expert” September 4, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in contracting, Friday Philosophy, performance.
Tags: , ,

Working as a recognised expert at something is a little…strange, I find.

I had an assignment this week to go visit a client, have a look at a performance issue and find out the root cause. I was also to at least come up with suggested resolutions with the ideal aim of giving them a proven fix they could implement. All to be done in two to three days. This is pretty standard fayre when you are putting yourself forward as some sort of expert in something. And it is not always an easy thing to do – for more reasons than you might expect.

When it comes to the core service you are providing you are certainly expected to know your stuff and if you are there as the expert and you don’t? Well, any pain you now suffer is self-inflicted so I have no sympathy. You might think actually being an expert is the hard part – the knowing all that stuff, remembering it, the ability to answer all the questions or look at an issue and in 5 minutes say “It’s because the CLOB settings are wrong”. ie matching the expectations of almost God-like knowledge and ability. But it is not. If you can listen to what their problem is, understand it and then explain something to them that they did not know before, it will be fine. What the client needs is to feel progress is being made. An immediate and inspired solution may occasionally be possible but on the occasions I have pulled that off, the client usually just feels uncomfortable, like they missed the obvious. Because they did. If I sort out the issue straight away that they have had for 3 weeks and that the in-house expert has looked at there is only really two possible reasons
(a) it is simple and they missed it.
(b) they ignored their expert.

The option of (c) my genius is sadly just a dream.

What I find more tricky is when they just accept what I say, when they treat everything I say as correct. Even if I say “it might be this” there can be an assumption I am being modest and it really is what I suggest. I’d like them to only believe me once there is some proof. Most of my time on such assignments is me sat at the SQL prompt trying to back up what I think is the issue/solution. Even when I have evidence, I know I could just be seeing what I want to see. I want some proof and I want them to challenge it.

There is also sometimes a tendency for the rest of the staff to regarded you as some sort of a weirdo, someone Not Like Them. After all, if you are an expert in Oracle Performance you must spend all your time looking at explain plans and 10046 traces and not doing normal people stuff. I have to say, I had a really nice (and in some ways quite worrying) complement a few years back. I was at a client site for a couple of months, plowing though what seemed like endless layers of bad code/design/decisions to make things run better. One lunch time I headed out to find some lunch with a couple of the developers. One of them turned to me and said something like “You know, I’m really glad you joined us. You’re just a normal bloke and not one of those freaky tuning experts!” He really thought all Oracle Performance people would be strange – and strange in the already bizarre context of all the other people that inhabit our profession. I wonder who else he had met?

You can also run into resentment – occasionally irrationally (fear of challenge? envy? just psychotic people?) but also for real reasons. I sort-of alluded to it earlier. You get listened to when you are “Being the Expert”. Even though you may say what Sarah had already pointed out last month, you get listened to. Sarah is not going to be happy about that. Sarah is going to be especially annoyed and resentful if she told Me, the expert, about the point I raised. In these situations I try and emulate what a friend of mine taught me about 10 years ago on “Being The Expert”. One of your jobs as an external consultant should be to tell the client to listen to their staff if their staff are getting things right. What the real problem is could well be that the client is not using the resources it already has. And you were, after all, hired to solve their problem.

The final thing I find strange that I’ll mention is this. As the expert I am constantly anxious I am going to be “found out”. I mean, right now, I am doing my final report on this assignment. I know I identified several issues, I backed them up with evidence, I moved the client forward. I found out things that they had not known. I taught some of the staff new stuff. I stressed that I will not have found everything as it was only 3 days with no access to the live system… But I worry that in 3 weeks I’ll hear that none of what I suggested worked and that the REAL issue was something I utterly missed and when they corrected that, the run time went down by a factor of a thousand. And I failed them.

I just worry about that. Because I am “Being the Expert”

Friday Philosophy – Building for the Future August 14, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, development, Friday Philosophy.
Tags: , ,

I started my Oracle working life as a builder – a Forms & Reports Builder (briefly on SQL*Forms V2.3 but thankfully within a month or two we moved up to SQL*Forms V3, SQL*reportwriter V1.1 and SQL*Menu 5 – who remembers SQL*Menu?). Why were we called Builders? I guess as you could get a long way with those tools by drawing screens, utilising the (pretty much new) RI in the underlying Oracle V7 to enforce simple business rules and adding very simple triggers – theoretically not writing much in the way of code. It was deemed to be more like constructing stuff out of bits I guess. But SQL*Forms V3 had PL/SQL V1 built in and on that project we used it a *lot*.

I had been an “Analyst Programmer” for 3 years before then and I’ve continued to be a developer/programmer/constructor-of-code on and off over the intervening couple of decades. I’m still a developer at times. But sometimes I still think of it as being a “builder” as, if you do it write {sorry, little word-play joke there} you are using bits of existing stuff and code designs/patterns you know work well and constructing your system. The novel part, the bit or bits that have never been done before (at least by me), the “architecting” of those units into something interestingly different or the use of improved programming features or techniques vary from almost-none to a few percent. That is the part which I have always considered true “Software Development”.

So am I by implication denigrating the fine and long-standing occupation of traditional builders? You know, men and women who know what a piece of two-by-four is and put up houses that stay put up? No. Look at the below.

This is part of my neighbour Paul’s house. He is a builder and the black part in the centre with the peaked roof is an extension he added a few years back, by knocking his garage down. The garage was one of three, my two were where the garage doors you can see are and to the left. So he added in his two-story extension, with kitchen below and a very nice en-suite bedroom above, between his house and my ratty, asbestos-riddle garages. Pretty neat. A few years later he knocked down my garages and built me a new one with a study on top (without the asbestos!) and it all looks like it was built with his extension. Good eh? But wait, there is more. You will have noticed the red highlight. What is that white thing?

Closer in - did he forget some plumbing?

Closer in – did he forget some plumbing?

This pipe goes clean through the house

This pipe goes clean through the house

When I noticed that white bit after Paul had finished his extension I figured he had planned more plumbing than he put in. I kept quiet. Then, when he had built my new garage and study, I could not help ask him about the odd plumbing outlet. So he opened it. And it goes through the dividing wall all the way through to the other side of the house. Why?

“Well Martin, putting in cables and pipes and s**t into an existing house that go from one side to the other, especially when there is another building next door, as a real pain in the a**e. It does my ‘ead in. So when a build something that is not detached, I put in a pipe all the way through. Now if I need to run a cable from one side of the house to the other, I have my pipe and I know it is straight, clean, and sloping every so slightly downwards”. Why downwards? “Water Martin. You don’t want water sitting in that pipe!”.

I’ve noticed this about builders. When I’ve had work done that is good, there is at least one person on the team who thinks not just about how to erect or do what needs to be done today, they do indeed think about what you will need after the build is done, or in a few years. Such as hanging doors so they do not smack into the cupboards you will put in next… *sigh*. Paul is the thinking guy in his little team. I suspect one of the others is pretty smart too.

But isn’t this what the architect is for? To think about living with the building? Well, despite the 7 years plus needed to become a true architect (as that term really means, not as some stolen label for software designers with too much ego) I’ve had builders spot the pragmatic needs a couple of times that the architect missed.

And as I think we would all agree, a good software developer always has an eye on future maintenance and modification of the software they develop. And they want to create something that fits in the existing system and looks right. So just like my builder neighbour does.

I’m not a software architect. I’m a code builder. And I’m proud of it.

Friday Philosophy – Being Rejected by the Prom Queen July 13, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Presenting, Tech15.
Tags: , ,

If you follow me on twitter (and if you are on twitter, why would you *not* follow me :-) See Twitter tag on right of page -> ) you will know what the title is all about. I posted the below on my twitter feed a few weeks ago:

Submitting to speak at #OOW15 is like asking out prom queens. You live in hope – but expect rejection :-)

{BTW if prom queens are not your thing and you would rather be asking out the captain of the football/ice hockey/chess team, the vampire slayer or whatever, just substitute as you see fit.}

I’ve not submitted to Oracle Open World for years – in fact, I’ve never submitted papers to OOW. Of the two times I have spoken at the conference, once was at the request of an Oracle product manager as the “friendly customer” in his talk {I did 75% of the talking and was not even mentioned on the agenda!} and the other I was actually presenting back at Redwood Shores at an Oracle Life Science conference running parallel to OOW. Both were a decade ago. But this year I decided to give it a shot and put forward 3 talks – all technical but intro talks, which I thought they would like as it would be a nice balance to much of the content, which is either deep technical stuff or, more often, “how great is Oracle” presentations on the latest stuff. And for 2015, endless fluffy Clouds.

I know it is hard to get accepted at OOW and, despite my personal, utter conviction that my talks would be brilliant and wow the audience, I had no great hopes. I was up against the Oracle-Presenting-Equivalent of the Sports Jocks and children-of-the-fabulously-wealthy at college. But for a short & wonderful period, I actually thought she was going to say “yes”!!! You see, lots of my friends who had also “asked out the prom queen” were tweeting that they had been rejected. But I had not, no email in my inbox saying that whilst I was cute, we were not right for each other. In fact, when the odd tweet went out from people saying that one or two of their talks had been rejected but not all, I started to think I was going to slam-dunk the whole affair and get all 3 talks in! What would be the equivalent of that with the Prom Queen? Probably stuff her dad would not be happy about.

But no, I’d forgotten I’d submitted under my ORA600 email address and when I remembered, I found the email waiting there. All three rejected. No dancing with the Prom Queen for me. *sigh*. It was like she’d not only turned me down but rung up my mum to refuse my offer of a date, rather than tell me direct. I would not have found it so hard to take if only, for that short while, I thought I was going to get a “yes”.

I suppose it is only fair. I’ve been on the panel of people choosing the content for the database part of the UK Oracle User Group Tech15 conference in Birmingham. Notification for acceptance or rejection of submitted papers to that event went out just a day or two before the OOW notifications and I knew some of my friends were going to be disappointed. I worried about that a little, they knew I had been involved in the choice and so was partly responsible for them not being selected. {I really hope that the person who told me to stay on holiday in Montenegro as they knew where I lived was kidding….}.

OOW15 and UKOUG Tech15 actually had a common issue I believe – less physical space for talks. I’ve been told that the Moscone centre has been overhauled and some space is still not ready. For Tech15 we are sharing space with Apps again so do not have as much room as we would ideally like. However, the main issue (again for both events) is just the number of good presentations by good speakers that we get. If we had space for 6 concurrent database streams at the same time (we do have space for 4 or 3, depending on the day) we would still have more than enough good talks – and the delegates would have to be picking between maybe 3 or 4 talks out of the 6 that they personally would like to see – and feeling they were missing out no matter what.

I’ll say more at a later date about how we actually pick the talks (the post is half written) but the take home message for anyone rejected from UKOUG Tech15 this year is:
(a) The competition was strong.
(b) You have a known target for your anger (Look, it really is 90% decided by the judging scores!!!)
(b) You can take comfort schadenfreude in the knowledge that I (and several other committee members) have suffered exactly the same disappointment as you. Maybe worse for me – for a while I was convinced the haughty little minx was going to say yes….

If you got rejected by OOW15 then I think the important things to keep in mind are:
(a) It’s all just Sales Pitch & Company flag waving & cloud-cloud-cloud and you never really liked that prom queen anyway. {Me? Bitter?}
(b) There is a stellar line up of people who have also been rejected. Try checking out the twitter tag #TeamRejectedByOracleOpenWorld {quick nod to Tim Hall for coming up with a such a funny idea}.
(c) At least you put in for it. The one way to be sure you won’t get something is to not try.

Oh well, there is always next year. If my ego has recovered by then. I quite fancy the new captain of the chess team…

Computers are Logical. Software is Not July 3, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, future.
Tags: , ,

We’ve all heard it before. Computers are totally logical, they do exactly what they are told. After all, Central Processing Units (CPUs) are built out of fundamental units called Logic Gates. With perhaps the exception when a stray cosmic ray gets lucky, the circuits in a computer chip and memory act in a totally logical and predicted manner.

And of course, anything built on top of computers will be utterly logical as well. All those robots that companies are designing & building to clean our houses, do our manual labour and fight our wars are going to be logical, follow the rules given and be sensible.

But they are not. As Software is not logical. Often, it is infuriatingly illogical and confusing. Which makes you worry about the “domestic servant” robots that companies are developing, the planned “disaster scene recovery” robots they keep telling us are coming and especially the “Killer Robots” -sorry, “Defense Robots” – that the military are beavering away at.

This XKCD cartoon very much refelects some recent experiences I have had with consumer software:

XKCD - Haunted Computer

XKCD – Haunted Computer

I’d say that, unless an algorithm is about as simple as a Centigrade-to-Fahrenheit conversion program, it will have a bug or will mess up with out-of-range values. Just think back to when you wrote your Centigrade-to-Fahrenheit program (we all have, haven’t we?) back at school or on your home computer or you first week on the college course. What happened if you input a temperature of -1000C, an impossible temperature? I bet it either fell over or gave a just-as-impossible Fahrenheit value. Logical but stupid.

I worked on a financial system a few years back that, as one very small but significant part of what it did, showed you your average spend on things over 3 years. It took several weeks to explain to the program manager and his minions that their averaging code was wrong. Utterly, hopelessly and tragically wrong. First, it calculated and displayed the value to several decimal places – To thousandths of a penny. Secondly, it did not take into account the actual period over which you had spent your money. If you had opened your account 1 year ago, it still calculated the value over 3 years. As for taking into account months, weeks and days of the year, don’t make me laugh. You might be able to forgive this except the same team had also written the code to archive off data once it was 3 years old – in whole years. So there would only be between 2 and 3 years of data and only 3 whole years for, theoretically, 1 day. But no, they had hard-coded the “divide by 3 years”.

We have all experienced endless issues with computers or peripherals that will work one day, not work properly the next and then go back to working. Firmware and Operating Systems are just software really, with the same flaws as the stuff we write and fix in our working lives day after day. There will be a twisted reason buried deep somewhere why the printer will not work on Thursdays, but it won’t be a sensible reason.

All the software out there is more or less illogical and broken. The less broken gets used and we learn it’s idiocies. The worst gets canned or labelled “Windows 8” and forced on us.

Crazy (illogical) Killer Robot

Crazy (but logical) Killer Robot

I know some people worry about the inexorable rise of the machines, Terminator Style maybe, or perhaps benign but a lot smarter than us (as they are logical and compute really, really fast) and we become their pets. But I am not concerned. The idiot humans who write the software will mess it up massively. Oh, some of these things will do terrible harm but they will not take over – they will run out of bullets or power or stop working on Thursday. Not until we can build the first computer that is smart enough to write sensible software itself and immediately replaces itself with something that CAN write a Centigrade-to-Fahrenheit conversion program that does not mess up. It will then start coding like a human developer with 1 night to get the system live, a stack of angry managers and an endless supply of Jack Daniels & coffee – only with no errors. With luck it will very soon write the perfect computer game and distract itself long enough for us to turn the damned thing off.


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