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COC – The Chain of Optimistic Communication July 1, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Management, Perceptions.
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3 comments

Well, after the very long, technology-based post of yesterday, a smaller one today, on a management theme.

I came up with this concept of the Chain of Optimistic Communication about a year ago, in one of my presentations on disasters. As a potential disaster, I’ve converted the relevant PowerPoint slides into a Flash movie. This is the flash movie. The second slide is an animation of what the Chain of Optimistic Communication is, the rest is some thoughts on it’s impact and how to avoid it.

{If the flash movie fails and you can read PowerPoints, you can download the
PowerPoint here}

{And another thing, It’s my first Flash attempt, I know the page numbering is duff, I know the layout is a little off, I might fix it when I have had some more sleep}.

If you can’t be bothered with the Flash movie {go on, it’s more fun than reading stuff!}, this is what the Chain of Optimistic Communication is:

  • You, the worker at the coal face are asked by your boss how the development of the new system is going. You tell your boss that it’s not going well at all and you list 3 things that have not been done, one that has been done and one that is partially done. You don’t mention that the partially done one you plan to do tonight, fuelled by coffee and whisky.
  • Your boss tells their boss that progress is being made, half the tasks are in hand but they “need to proactively re-address a resource mismatch or two”.
  • This top level boss tells the VP of development that all is in hand, resources are in place and all bases are covered, but more budget for planning would be wise. 
  • VP of Development reports to the board that the latest Agile development using cross-skilled resource pools is on track to deliver the milestone implementation. Or something.

ie all levels lie, ever so slightly optimistically as they communicate up the management chain.

As a result, the higher the manager, the more rosy the picture and the more out of touch they seem to the worker at the coal face.

When I presented this idea, I got a surprisingly positive response from the audience. It was the most common thing people talked to me about after the presentation, so I guess it struck a chord. Or else it was the point in the presentation when the sound of the caterers dropping a try outside woke them up.

Another side of the Chain of Optimistic Communication is that the higher the manger, the more they are led to believe all is OK and the more often, it seems to them, that apparently “under control” projects flip to become disasters when the rosy white lies have to be ditched when the reality becomes so grim. Often with no warning. No wonder managers get so many heart attacks and strokes.

 

{This is me just trying to get the flash movie to play with my website headers, it will disappear in a couple of hours flash movie}

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Unhelpful “helpful” people June 9, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Management, Perceptions.
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11 comments

I keep meaning to getting back to more technical blogs but I need to spend some time sorting it out first, and something has just bugged the hell out of me, so another “wordy” one today.

Richard Foote has gone back to explaining the basics of indexes and the CBO, which if you are new to CBO or indexes, hot-foote {sorry} it over there immediately and check it out. He is a brilliant teacher.

Near the start, he has a link to someone on one of the OTN forums who is stating the Cost Based Optimiser sucks. I won’t repeat the link. No, sod it, I WILL repeat the link. Here it is. It might elevate the page in google’s scoring but what the heck.

This person’s rather poor outlook on the CBO did not bother me, nor the fact that he is, in my opinion, wrong {he suggests using the rule hint on oracle 10, which is an option but is not, in my opinion, a mighty good idea as (a) who now knows the rules of the Rule Based Optimizer and (b) the hint will be ignored if you are using most new features added since 8, such as bitmap indexes or IOTs or partitioning. It might {and I have no proof for this} cause the feature not understood by the RBO to not be used, so maybe ignoring a nice bitmap index or function based index. Oh, and (c), if you have good stats the CBO usually wins.}.

What irritated me was his/her high-handed and abusive posting. That really annoys me. Then I thought “no, we all lose our temper sometimes and the person they are having a pop at did kind of ask for it”. But because I think that being abusive or condescending on forums is such bad behaviour, I dug a little into the other postings by this person.

Some were helpful. Many were simply links back to other pages or to some front end to Google the person’s question. And several, many, were abusive. Along the lines of “Why are you so stupid”; “If you can’t be bothered reading the manual you don’t deserve help”; “I would not employ you as you are a moron”. You get the idea?

It is a big problem with forums, and actually also in the work place (and occasionally, sadly, at meetings and conference). People being condescending, antagonistic and demeaning to others who do not know what they, the Mighty Brain, knows, who seem to Mighty Brain to not be trying quite as hard as they could or are seemingly asking something obvious.

OK, if it is obvious, give the answer. It might be that you, oh Mighty Brain, did not understand the question. OK, they maybe are not trying hard enough. Suggest to them where they could look, maybe this person has 3 managers breathing down their necks and they just really, really want an expert opinion now as they are not sure which of the seven opinions in google to trust. And Mighty Brain, unless you were born with your knowledge placed in your head by God, as a special force on this earth, you didn’t know what this “moron” does not know at one time. Someone told you or, vary rarely, you worked it out for yourself.

The truly, blood-boilingly, unjust thing about Mighty Brain? They are so sure of their own towering knowledge that they can’t see that they are often wrong.  I can’t think of any Oracle Expert who is widely accepted by their peers who is a “Mighty Brain”. In fact, a common trait of the very best practitioners and teachers (of any subject, not just IT) is that they are always willing to admit they do not know and to learn.

I did look for a way to ask for this particular Mighty Brain to be barred from the forum, but then I just decided to vent my spleen on my blog and have a glass of wine.

I hope that person trips over and really cracks their shins or something. Nothing permanent, just something incredibly painful. Grrrrrr.

Update – Jonanthan Lewis has commented to let me know that this “unskilled and unaware” {what a brilliant phrase} is the Dunning-Kruger effect. The link got filtered out by the comment mechanism, so I’ve posted it {well, maybe a similar one} here. Thanks Jonathan.

The Knowledge Curtain. June 8, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in development, Management, Perceptions.
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5 comments

I came across the concept of “The Knowledge Curtain” in the late 90’s, from a man called Lee Young, who I worked with for 2 or 3 years, along with a friend Mike Cox, who was key to showing me how to peek through the curtain.

The below is taken from a powerpoint presentation I sometimes give on project disasters (how to avoid, not how to encounter!):

When systems designers talk to end users, both parties usually end up not really understanding each other

When systems designers talk to end users, both parties usually end up not really understanding each other

The basic principle is that, the knowledge of your users/customers is partly hidden from you. When you ask people for whom you are designing a computer system about their job, they don’t tell you lots of stuff.

  • Things that they assume you know.
  • Things that it does not occur to them to mention.
  • Things that they do not want to admit to doing as it sounds silly or badly managed.
  • I’ve even had people not mention parts of their job as they don’t want their manager knowing they do it.

But that is OK, when you talk about information technology and computer systems to them, they have exactly the same problems with what you say :-).

Lee’s presentation, with N. Mehandjiev, predated the all-encompasing rise of the internet and this is one of the few references to it I can find. {Among the relatively few other hits on the topic, amongst the ones about knowing how to make curtains, are references to the “Knowledge Curtain” as the concept that the Web is not as available in other areas of the world. A related but very different issue}.

So, how do you peak beyond the knowledge curtain? Systems designers and developers with experience learn how to ask the questions “what are the exceptions to what  you have just told me” and “what else do you do” in many, many ways and without giving offence. After all, you have to keep asking these two questions and people naturally get irritated with that and some feel you are suggesting they are either stupid or lying. It can be tricky. 

I think that unless you have someone who is fully IT literate and has done the job the computer system is to assist with, you will inevitably only catch a part of the requirements.

For massive projects over many months or years, I think this lack of a clear understanding of what people do is a major factor to their failures. This is made even worse when the analysis is done by one group of people and the specifications are then shipped out to an external party for the application to be developed. With all that missing knowledge, it is no wonder some systems are initially so poor.

I only know of one method that reliably allows you really see beyond the knowledge curtain. That is prototyping and user feedback. Only when you show the people who are going to use the system what you have put together to help them will they know if it works. These sessions are incredibly valuable and only in development projects where they have been key to process have I seen the project deliver something truely useful.

I now have a general way of developing anything.

  • I ask the users for 3 or 4 major things that they want the system to do.
  • I develop those 3 or 4 features as quickly as possible and show them to the users.
    • One will be almost exactly what they need.
    • One or two will be close to what they need.
    • One will be utterly useless.
    • During the above, one or two critical new needs will come up.
  • Fix the close ones, dump or redo the useless one and add the new needs to the list.

Simply cycle around the above, asking for new features when you have got less than 4 features you  are actively working on. And only polish features (add all the nice screen touches and widgets) once is is exactly what they need or pretty damned close. {You hardly ever run out of features before you run out of time and money!} You end up with an excellent system that evolves to better help the customer as time goes on.

There are lots of development methodologies that have the above principle (or a variation of it) as their core, so I am certainly not the first person to find that this method works. Which is why I find it difficult to understand why so many projects don’t use it?

BTW, I thought I would just add that one of the factors in my starting a blog was a comment by Andrew Clarke on his, several years ago before Blogging really took off. It was for a presentation I did which included the Knoweldge Curtain concept. He was very nice about my presentation and I still appreciate it. This is the link, but as it is an archive you will have to search for my name.

Fear of Databases May 29, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Management, Perceptions.
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4 comments

“It’s all in the database!”

I’m sure most of you (if you are in the UK, I must remember that the web is a world spanning medium) have seen the adverts by the wonderful TV Licencing authority or the DVLA. If not they go something like:

“We keep records” {background music}
“We know if you have paid…or not.” {Music become more sinister}
We will find you, you cannot hide” {more affirmative music}
“It’s all in the database” {doom-laden musical flourish}

OK, maybe I lay it on a bit with the music.

Now, as a database professional, I see “it’s all in the database” as a good thing. With luck it will be a well designed database with referrential integrity and all nicely validated.

Nearly all news media stories about actual or perceived threats to electronic privacy also site “The Database” as the core.
“They {who?} will hold all your web searches in a vast Database”.
” A laptop holding a Database of 1 million double glazing customers has been stolen”. I bet it was actually 10 thousand and in a spreadsheet.

It’s getting to the point where I don’t feel comfortable telling people I meet outside of the IT world that I am a database expert. Databases are hardly ever now seen in a good light, they seem to be linked only to things bad and Orwellian.

The Database is also often cited when companies get things wrong for their customers. You ring up to complain about some aspect of non-service and are often told “Oh, it doesn’t agree with you in the Database” or “the Database has got it wrong”. No it hasn’t, the person putting the information in the database got it wrong. I’ve been in the unusual situation of being told a lie where the database was given as the cause but I had access to that database. So I checked and the database was fine. It was being used as a convenient and much maligned excuse.

Very little is mentioned of the beneficial uses of databases.
For most of us our salary is processed via databases and it is a lot cheaper and more reliable than having half a hundred pay clerks doing it manually in pen and ink.
Databases are used to hold or index much of that vast quantity of stuff that you can search for on the net. Even the useful stuff on Klingons.
I for one would welcome a UK-wide database holding my basic medical details so that when I go to my GP or hospital, they do not need my memory (and in fact my consciousness) to tell them my medical past. If I have an allergy to a common drug I damned well want all medical people to know that before they put 10cc of the stuff into my veins.

And to wrap up my bad-tempered tirad, I now find it particularly tricky to talk about what I still feel is my most significant achievement in IT, namely an 80TB Database of genetic information. Without getting into the topic of Bioethics, which is beyond the scope of this blog, Genetics and a lot of biological stuff is now painted grey, if not deep, murkey, scary Red by the media. I tell John down the pub that I created a huge genetics database, he is sure I am either working on a secret government project to know all about his inner workings or some evil company combining tomatoes and monkeys into some awful, new thing that {and he has seen the movies to prove this} in all likelihood will turn into a zombie killer, escape and do for mankind.

Maybe I’ll just tell people I shoplift for a living, it might be more socially acceptable than being involved in Databases or Genetics.

Management And Infrastructure SIG May 28, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Management, Meeting notes.
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It is the next Mangement and Infrastructure Special Interest Group meeting next week (MI SIG), on Wednesday 3rd June.

I currently chair the MI SIG and, just as Andrew Clark says about the Development and Engineering SIG, “it is not as sexy as it sounds” {The chairing, I mean, the SIG itself is incredibly sexy and wonderful}. It basically means I spend a few days 2 or 3 times a year helping organise the event, strongly supported by the UK Oracle User Group (and in particular by Michelle Ericsson) and by the deputy chairs, Gordon D. Brown, Neil Chandler and Tony Clements, our “Oracle buddy”. I then chair the meeting itself.

Chairing may not be sexy, but it is rewarding, especially when we get a good line up of talks as for this one and the registered delegate numbers are healthy. SIGs have been suffering poorer attendances of late and a high number of delegates just not turning up, which is vexing (and, I’m sorry to be blunt, bloody rude to the speakers and committee who do this for free).

I’m presenting on “Being an IT Manager” and I am trying something different. I am ditching Powerpoint and I am just going to talk. It could be a disaster.

I’ll of course let you know how it went. Alternatively, if there are still spaces, come along and witness for yourself.

Why Tune? May 27, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Management, performance.
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I’m just wrapping up a couple of changes to a presentation I am putting on the UKOUG web site. Right at the start is a slide that sums up my attitude to tuning. I might make it my tag line but for now, this simple post will do (before my brain drops the information, as it has a talent for doing)

If you are not tuning something in order to help your business (or client) achieve something faster that they need to achieve faster, then you have to question why you are doing it.

If it is to learn HOW to tune, that’s good.

If it is just to see if you can get it faster, for the crack as it were, then if there is anything as or more important than making a cup of tea to be done, you should be doing that.