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Friday Philosophy – Flippin’ Technology June 5, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Perceptions, rant.
Tags: , ,
5 comments

Sometimes I think I would have been a Luddite or a member of other groups who have trashed new technology in frustration. Some days, I can just scream at it. You would think having worked in Information Technology for so long would make me more of a fan, but it actually makes me worse – as I know there is no need for there to be so much wrong with the electronic dross we all have to deal with day-to-day. And if I, someone who has used (heck, even programmed) computers for 3 decades, have trouble with these damned things, how frustrating must “normal” people find it?

Tesco Challenge - original on RevK Rant's blog

Tesco Challenge – original on RevK Rant’s blog

Take this morning’s source-for-a-rant. Self checkouts in supermarkets. I had popped into Tesco to get the weekend’s rations of baked beans, wine and cat food and there were large queues for all manned (though, I should more correctly say, mostly womanned) tills. And almost no queue for the self-service ones. We all know why almost no queue for the self-service ones, most of us hate them. But I had to get back home for a UKOUG conference call and there was very little chance the three-people-deep queues would be negotiated in time, so I manned up and went to one of the vacant screens.

Have I mentioned I’ve been using computers since before Wayne Rooney, Keira Knightley or Michael Phelps were born? So I have some affinity and experience to navigating screens of information. But, like all of theses devices, using them is painful. Given they are designed to be used by everyone including idiots, why is the “UX” so low? Why does the important information appear at different spots in the screen at different times? Why does there seem to be no button to press for a simple, key-word triggered guide (“How to weigh Veg?” Oh, look up there, press the correct icon, look down there and press another and then finally click over here to say “yes I really did ask you to weigh some bananas” – that would be nice). Why does the Waitrose one make me swipe my card to pull up my scanned items but insist I shove the card up the slot to pay? Plus all the times you have to get some human to come over and confirm you are over 18 (I need to be 18 to buy expanding foam?!?) or don’t look suicidal. I’m not being funny but the age check is just not needed, if I am using a credit card it can know I am 18 or over (you cannot you have a UK credit card under 18, partly as you are not allowed to sign up for a credit agreement below that age and if I am using someone else’s credit card, me buying a bottle of wine is the least of the potential issues). To give them their due, at least our local Tesco (unlike many other stores I have used around here) have someone on hand to constantly swipe, press, tap and harass the machines into playing correctly.

I can’t believe how badly these self service checkouts work. I can’t believe the companies have not tested them extensively with real people (I know, they claim to, but then I’ve seen “user system testing” in big banks and it is shockingly poor). How can they think such terrible systems are good for business? That people still insist on queuing for checkouts with real people rather than use them must tell the companies something! Why can’t these systems be better designed. Why are they so painful to use? It can’t be me. Maybe it is me….

Next rant. My internet & email supplier. Hi BT. BT, you are crap at running your internet & email service. I’ll only mention in passing the regular episodes of slow internet, the times mail seems to struggle to keep moving, the harassing emails to buy more allowance as I am reaching my limit…for the prior month (“HI BT, I think I might pop back in time and download 15 films last March, can I have more allowance for than as I’d used over half my limit”) – but I am going to complain over the fact that for the last 5 weeks now, each weekend you stop accepting valid connection requests from my Laptop – but allow them from my iPhone. So my account/pwd is working fine. But no, from the PC you tell me I have to validate my account. So I log on to the web site and as soon as I put in my details you tell me I have to change my password as there has been too many failed attempts at access my account? Well, if they failed, I chose a decent password maybe? Trying to force me to change it is likely to make me change it to something simpler maybe? Especially as this is the fourth time this month… but then, usually the system fails to actually process my password change and just hangs. My iPhone still keeps working with the old details and, usually by the next day, the errors have gone and I can access my mail with my old details with a real machine again too. My conclusion has been that it’s their software screwing up. Each. And. Every. Weekend.

It’s got worse, it now fouls up some workdays too. And I made an interesting discovery. When I log in to the web site to validate myself, if I put in a password of “scr3wy0uBT” – it accepts it and puts me into the Change Your Password screen exactly the same as before. No, my password is not “scr3wy0uBT” {it rejected it when I tried…}. So top security there. Whatever is happening, it’s just…..pants {UK phrase, it means “utterly rubbish”. Pants are not trousers, they are undergarments, you strange Americans.}

What is BT doing wrong to have this problem keep happening? Is this a good “UX” experience for me and all the other people who seem to have similar issues? Is it so hard to sort this out?

What was the third rant? Oh yes. Windows 8. Too many people before me have vented spleen and given pieces of their mind on Windows 8 for me to be able to add any more to the pile, but what I cannot fathom is, as soon as they got the almighty ass-kicking that they did for ballsing up the Start Button/Menu, why did they not in the next version just put it straight back as it was?. Or put out and advertise a simple “patch” to put back what millions of people were screaming they wanted back? All I can think is someone’s ego was too large to wave their hands in the air and say “Oh boy, did we make a dog’s dinner of that – let us help improve your “UX” and our reputation by fixing that straight away”.

Final rant. Games. Computer Games. I like running around shooting things. It gets rids of some of the IT-In-Daily-Life anger. But I am not very good at it and my broadband connection is slow and a bit laggy, so I am not interested in running around shooting things with friends. The same broadband issues mean I also don’t want to spend 4 hours downloading a game, I want to buy it in a floppy disc…..I mean CD…. Errr, DVD… and play it. So I went to this place called a “shop” and I bought a game on media in a box and checked the packaging. No where did it state I have to have an internet connection. I get the DVD out (hmm, there are actually three), put it in the machine and 30 mins later the software is loaded. And now it FORCES me to register with some crapola online gaming site to register my copy (like, if I had a bootleg version that would not be the first bit they strip out) and that takes an hour to download it’s own shitty software. That done, it will let me fire up the game – that immediately bombs out to download the latest patch (which I think it the crapola online site’s version) and that takes two hours as it is obviously much, much more than a patch. I suspect it is the whole damned game again. This is not a “UX” I wanted and, you can bet, next time I buy a game, crapola online gaming company is one thing I will be looking to avoid. It does not help that said game won’t fire up without logging into said game site or making me watch a minute of adverts about who wrote the game on who’s graphics card using what game engine. Thankfully a few minutes on the net explained how I could avoid all of that. But why do I have to take steps to stop these companies annoying me and, this is the bit that confuses me, what makes these companies think I’ll be impressed by being repeatedly exposed to their adds that I don’t want to see? I’ll just despise them a little bit more each time.

I just don’t get it. The number one thing any IT system needs to achieve is User Acceptance (as I have said before, if you check the link). Why do so many large companies miss this and inflict on the world a seriously sub-standard experience of IT and technology? If someone like me who has driven a screen, a keyboard and a mouse for 3 decades, understands some of the limits to IT and must have at least some brains in his skull, if I get endlessly caught out, befuddled and simply screaming-out-loud-frustrated by crap IT, how is my poor old mum (and everyone’s poor old parents) supposed to cope?

I’m going to become a Lumberjack. Chainsaws do not have screens and keyboards.

No I.T. Hassles Here

No I.T. Hassles Here

Guaranteed Method of Boosting your Oracle Skills May 21, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Knowledge, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,
5 comments

I can tell you how to be a better Oracle DBA, Developer, Designer, Architect – whatever your flavour of role or aspect of profession, if Oracle tech is part of your working world I can hand you the key to improvement. And it is easy.

I am totally assured(*) I can do this. It will work for every single one of you reading this post (except for you two, you know who you are). And you must send me $100 before I tell you how…

Hell, no you don’t! This is not some bull-droppings selling piece, it is just advice. And some advice aimed directly at myself too.

When did you last read the Oracle Server/Database Concepts manual? You know, that fairly short book (in fact, from 11G it is really short, with links through to other chapters in other books) that explains how Oracle TM (Copyright), actually does stuff? What it can do? It does not go into too many details but rather gives you a brief introduction of each concept and the fundamental “how it works” information.

Thanks to Kevin Fries who pointed out it would be nice if I linked to the online concepts manuals (as he did in his comment):
Here is the online 12C Database Concepts manual.
Here is the online 11GR2 Database Concepts manual for those still with 11GR2.
Here is the online 10GR2 Database Concepts manual for those trapped in the past with 10GR2.

Read it. Read it this week. I am confident that if you read the latest Oracle Database Concepts manual you will be ahead of the game by a massive step.

Oracle 7 instance diagram

Oracle 7 instance diagram

Why am I so sure? Because we forget what Oracle has been able to do for years and we miss new abilities if our day-job has not touched on them since they came in. I think there is a growing move to learning only what you really need to know to get the job done (as we are all so busy) as we know we can search the web for the rest. My friend Neil Chandler came up with a name for it, JIT learning: “Just In Time” learning). Only, you can’t easily search for what you don’t know (or have forgotten) is possible with the tech you use. If you go through the concepts manual you will be reminded of stuff you forgot, things you missed or {and this is key to newbies} gain an outline understanding of what Oracle can do.

I became fascinated with how many people read the concepts manual about a decade ago and started asking a question when I presented on any Oracle topic. “Who has reads the concepts manual for the version of Oracle you mostly work with?”. In the last 10, 12 years the number of hands has decreased from well over 50%. In 2012, at a UK meeting, it hit the bottom of the barrel, no hands whatsoever. Oddly enough, a few weeks later I was in Slovenia (for none-European people, a lovely country bordering Italy and Austria – google it if you need more help) and the same question resulted in 40% of the audience raising a hand. When I was in the US 6 months later, no hands at all again. In the UK and Europe since, no hands or occasionally, one hand – and a few questions usually nailed down that it was a prior version of the manual they had read.

I took some time to ask this question again at a UK user group meeting about 4 months ago (no hands came up of course) and asked “why?”. The consensus was “we know most of what is in the concepts manual, we just need to know what has changed” – with an undercurrent of not having time to read the now-huge set of Oracle manuals. A few people suggested just reading the New Features. This was a crowd who did not know what a table cluster was (“Ha, look at ME! I know what a table cluster is! Hahahahaaaa – OK, no one uses them.”). (British ironic self-depreciation there).

Reading “New Features” is certainly better than nothing but I feel it is not enough as it does not remind us of the established stuff we have forgotten. I am on a bit of a personal Jihad to explain the basics of Oracle to any Newbie who cares to listen and I have to keep checking my facts with the concepts manual and some chosen expert friends (thank you VERY MUCH expert friends) and I keep stumbling over stuff I don’t know, misunderstood or forgot. And I have been an “expert” in Oracle since… Well, before the millennium bug or Android phones or iTunes had been invented. THAT LONG! I know my shit – and some of it is, well…. wrong.

Actually, I have a confession. I have not read the 11g or 12C concepts manual. I told you this advice was aimed at me too.

So, Go Read The Oracle 12C Concepts Manual. Go ON! Go and read it!!!! Oh. Still here? Well, I AM going to read it – as I last read the 10G concepts manual properly. And as part of my current push to present, talk and blog about the basics of Oracle, I will blog what jumps out at me. I know one thing – I will not be quiet any time until August if I follow my own advice, I will be posting blogs left, right and center about what I learn..

I’ll use the tag 12Cbasics.

Let the learning of basics begin.

Oracle 7 or Oracle 8, 1.5 " of pure info

Oracle 7 or Oracle 8, 1.5 ” of pure info

Thanks to Joel Garry for digging his old manuals out the basement and doing this shot for me :-)

(*) it won’t work if you already read the latest concepts manual. But most people have not! Heck, I did not charge for the advice, so sue me if you read it already.

Fixing my iPhone with my Backside May 18, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Hardware, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
10 comments

{Things got worse with this phone >>}

iPhone 5 battery getting weak? Damn thing is saying “out of charge” and won’t charge? Read on…

NB a link to the battery recall page is at the end of this post and the eventual “death” of my phone and my subsequent experience of the recall with my local apple store can be found by following the above link…

Working with Oracle often involves fixing things – not because of the Oracle software (well, occasionally it is) but because of how it is used or the tech around it. Sometimes the answer is obvious, sometime you can find help on the web and sometimes you just have to sit on the issue for a while. Very, very occasionally, quite literally.

Dreaded “out of battery” icon

Last week I was in the English Lake District, a wonderful place to walk the hills & valleys and relax your mind, even as you exhaust your body. I may have been on holiday but I did need to try and keep in touch though – and it was proving difficult. No phone reception at the cottage, the internet was a bit slow and pretty random, my brother’s laptop died – and then my iPhone gave up the ghost. Up on the hills, midday, it powers off and any attempt to use it just shows the “feed me” screen. Oh well, annoying but not fatal.

However, I get back to base, plug it in…and it won’t start. I still get the “battery out of charge” image. I leave it an hour, still the same image. Reset does not help, it is an ex-iPhone, it has ceased to be.

My iPhone is version 5 model, black as opposed to the white one shown (picture stolen from “digitaltrends.com” and trimmed), not that the colour matters! I’ve started having issues with the phone’s battery not lasting so well (as, I think, has everyone with the damned thing) and especially with it’s opinion of how much charge is left being inaccurate. As soon as it gets down to 50% it very rapidly drops to under 20%, starts giving me the warnings about low battery and then hits 1%. And sometimes stays at 1% for a good hour or two, even with me taking the odd picture. And then it will shut off. If it is already down at below 20% and I do something demanding like take a picture with flash or use the torch feature, it just switches off and will only give me the “out of charge” image. But before now, it has charge up fine and, oddly enough, when I put it on to charge it immediately shows say 40-50% charge and may run for a few hours again.

So it seemed the battery was dying and had finally expired. I’m annoyed, with the unreliable internet that phone was the only verbal way to keep in touch with my wife, and for that contact I had to leave the cottage and go up the road 200 meters (thankfully, in the direction of a nice pub).

But then I got thinking about my iPhone and it’s symptoms. It’s opinion of it’s charge would drop off quickly, sudden drain had a tendency to kill it and I had noticed it lasting less well if it was cold (one night a couple of months ago it went from 75% to dead in 10, 15 mins when I was in a freezing cold car with, ironically, a dead battery). I strongly suspect the phone detects it’s level of charge by monitoring the amperage drop, or possibly the voltage drop, as the charge is used. And older rechargeable batteries tend to drop in amperage. And so do cold batteries {oddly, fully charged batteries can have a slightly higher voltage as the internal resistance is less, I understand}.

Perhaps my battery is just not kicking out enough amperage for the phone to be able to either run on it or “believe” it can run on it. The damn thing has been charging for 2 or 3 hours now and still is dead. So, let’s warm it up. Nothing too extreme, no putting it in the oven or on top of a radiator. Body temperature should do – We used to do this on scout camps with torches that were almost exhausted. So I took it out of it’s case (I have a stupid, bulky case) so that it’s metal case is uncovered and I, yep, sat on it. And drank some wine and talked balls with my brother.

15 minutes later, it fires up and recons it is 70% charged. Huzzah, it is not dead!

Since then I have kept it out it’s case, well charged and, frankly, warm. If I am out it is in my trouser pocket against my thigh. I know I need to do something more long-term but right now it’s working.

I tend to solve a lot of my IT/Oracle issues like this. I think about the system before the critical issue, was there anything already going awry, what other symptoms were there and can I think of a logical or scientific cause for such a pattern. I can’t remember any other case where chemisty has been the answer to a technology issue I’m having (though a few where physics did, like the limits on IO speed or network latency that simply cannot be exceeded), but maybe others have?

Update: if you have a similar problem with your iPhone5, there is a recall on some iPhone5’s sold between December 2012 and January 2013 – https://www.apple.com/uk/support/iphone5-battery
{thanks for letting me know that, Neil}.

Friday Philosophy – Do Average to Be a Success March 6, 2015

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

A few days ago a friend of mine, helifromfinland, tweeted something that exactly matched the topic that I was thinking of doing my next Friday Philosophy on. Heli said:

I am learning to do things well enough, not always perfect. Even writing that sentence feels so wrong but #babysteps :-D

That made me smile – I know the feeling myself and I know some people for whom it is all-consuming. It is something that I suspect many people who are active in the oracle community struggle with. We all try and do the best we can at all we do.

In our jobs in I.T what is needed most often is not the perfect solution – or even the best solution we can come up with. It is:

The best solution that achieves the requirement within the timeframe allowed.

I think I was lucky in that the principle of “good enough” was explained to me fairly early on – and in an environment where “good enough” is not usually the prescribed wisdom.

I was at college doing my degree. In academia or school you are usually encouraged to strive for perfection, in the aim of doing the best you can. It seems to me that they don’t teach you what the real world wants. I can’t remember the exact details (it’s almost 3 decades ago!) but I was trying to finish a written assignment in genetics and it was deadline day. I hunted down the professor who had assigned the task and asked if I could have a few more days as I wanted to check up some of the latest papers on it in the library {I know, what a terrible swot {definition – see item two here!} I was}. He did not say no, he did not say yes. Instead he took me into his office and asked me a few questions about the topic and what I had written so far. I think he was checking I had done something rather than was just covering up being lazy. He then asked me what the purpose of the assignment was.

???

I started explaining the topic again but he cut me short. It took him a few attempts I think to get to where he was directing me, which was that it was a task to be completed in a time frame, to show I understood the topic. I was not doing original research, I was not trying to prove anything. It was Just A Task. The Prof then explained to me that his wife was not an academic but worked in industry. She had tasks to do in set time frames and others relied on her doing those tasks on time. She had more work to do than she could easily cope with. The Prof asked me “Should she keep asking for more time do them? Should she only do a few tasks to the best of her ability or most of her tasks to a level that everyone was happy with?” I got his point, but surely in academia the aim is always “as good as you can?”. He felt not and I think he was vexed {meaning, “really pissed off”} that many academics see it that way. There are times you need to do the very best you can; to spend the time to prove your theory; to cover off all the alternatives or caveats to your point; to get the lab result that clearly corroborates your point. But most of the time, you are doing tasks. Stop dithering and do them. It’s more pointed in the commercial world but the academic world is fundamentally the same.

I think he left it to me to decide if I was going to hand the assignment in late or not but I can’t remember what I did (I’ve got my notes from back then, I can probably find out! But I’ve decided this post does not need that level of perfection… :-) ).

I think we can all agree that, especially in a work environment where others are dependent on us doing our bit in a timely manner, it is better to do an acceptable job on time than constantly overrun. It is also better to get most {aiming unrealistically for “all”} of your work done rather than failing to do tasks that then impact on others. Of course, what is acceptable is all relative and there is a time/achievement cost-benefit-analysis in moving up the poor-acceptable-good-excellent-perfect spectrum.

Maybe what defines your skill in a role is how far up the poor-acceptable-good-excellent-perfect spectrum you hit on a regular basis.

The problem is that, for some of us, we are like Heli and we absolutely, totally and utterly want to do a very good job on everything we do. This is an idea that our parents, teachers and society do press upon us in our formative years, after all.

Of course, your employer will want you to do six impossible things this morning but most are happy with 4 good things this morning and would prefer that over 2 excellent things by the end of the day and 4 undone.

I can’t say I’ve always stuck to the principal of limiting a task to the effort or time it deserves – I have a natural tendency to try and do too good{no, complete is a better way to put it} a job or else I go the opposite and don’t do the task justice {or even at all!}, so I really empathise with Heli’s tweet. When I first became a contractor I struggled with doing enough average work to keep the client happy, I was just spending too much time on doing the best I could at one or two tasks. In reality, they just wanted lots of stuff done competently. So my Prof had failed to instill the right attitude in me!

One of the nuances of “good enough”, and my point about getting {nearly} all your work done, is that it is almost an impossible thing to achieve. If you get all your tasks done, what happens? Yes, more work comes your way. Especially as our working society has gone in exactly the opposite direction to both what many predicted in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s and also against what we, the workers, would want. The plan was we would all be working, but working fewer hours and days for similar pay. But as most of us can testify, we seem to be asked to do more and more. It’s a topic for a different day but, basically, we are all screwed by the desire by our employers to get more out of each one of us to maximise profit – more work done by the same number or less people is reducing staff pay in relation to output. The reward for getting all your work done on time is more work will be allocated to you.

Another nuance is one I know I have gone on about before. If you do a job, especially an unpleasant or hard job, very well – what is your reward? You get to do the job for ever. Or you get the next horrible, hard job to do. The reward for exceeding expectations is to set the bar that people will want you to hit ever higher and higher and higher

But you do want some recognition and some promotions.

So, for goodness sake, do just an acceptable-good job of a slightly-more-than-is-reasonable number of tasks and don’t do the next horrible job you are handed beyond expectation. And if you forget yourself and go and do the horrible task well, remember to make an utter mess of the next one – you must stop that expectation bar rising!

The final nuance is perhaps the hardest one, and the one I still struggle with despite someone explaining it to me almost 30 years ago. Some tasks really do need to be at the brilliant end of the spectrum and some are fine at being at the average or even poor end. If your role is as a DBA, your backup/recovery protocols need to be towards the brilliant. You may hope to never need to do disaster recovery but one day you will and if it goes wrong, expect to be fired. However, tuning a batch report to run in under an hour? Usually, you are asked for an ideal run time that the business does not need. Under 2 hours is enough and you have a SHED load of other tasks. No one needs the report in under a minute. You should do an average job, even if your soul dies a little in doing so.

As I mentioned above, as a contractor I initially struggled at times to do lots-of-average-work. As a consultant the requirements and expectations are a little different. You are expected to do excellent, come up with something the regular team has not. It’s nice if it is achieved quickly but heck, hard takes time :-). Average (ie what the regular team would come up with) is NOT acceptable (*NB Not always true). I personally find that the consultant paradigm suits me more, my character and working method is more suited to a slower, more considered approach. I really need to get to be a proper consultant…

So the take home message on how to get on in the working world is:

Be just above average at tasks.

Do 80% of your work but back pedal if you hit 90%.

If you accidentally do a magnificent job, mess up the next one.

Occasionally, only occasionally, let rip and blow them all away with your brilliance.

And please let me know how the above works out for you :-)

***

Quick update – a recent xkcd panel that makes the point well :-)

Friday Philosophy – The Problem of Positive Discrimination? February 27, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,
18 comments

Have you ever (or are you currently) working in an organisation with any Positive Discrimination policies? Where, for example, there is a stated aim to have 25% of the board as female or 30% of the workforce from ethnic groups that are not of the majority ethnic group in your geographic location? How do you feel about that? Is positive discrimination a good thing or a bad thing? I can’t decide.

{Big Caveat! Before anyone wants to give me the same sort of hassle as a tiny few did recently over a related post, note that I am just wondering aloud and whilst I encourage comments and feedback, I reserve the right to block or delete any comments that I feel are abusive or discriminatory or simply from the unhinged. Just saying. Also I am mostly going to reference women as the aim for positive discrimination, as the blog got really untidy when I swapped between different types of discrimination. I apologise if anyone is offended by that – it is not intended.}

I don’t think I’ve ever been comfortable with the concept of positive discrimination and if I wind back the clock to my early 20’s, back then I was quite angrily dead set against it – on the grounds that it is still discrimination. It seemed to me then that it was a simple yin/yang concept. If discrimination is wrong, it’s wrong and “positive” discrimination is in fact just discrimination against the majority. Wrong is wrong. Stealing is wrong, be it from the poor or the rich or from organisations. All those post-it notes I’ve stolen over the years? Bad Martin.

So what has changed about my opinion? Well, I think that as we all get older we tend to be able to better consider the wider picture and less black/white about most of our philosophies {my personal opinion is that those who don’t modify their opinions in light of more experience and greater thought are, well, not maturing}. I can’t but accept that the business/IT work place as a whole is male-dominated and is riddled with sexism. This does not mean *at all* that all or even most men in business/IT are sexist, but the statistics, studies and countless personal experiences make it clear that the pay, success and respect of women are impacted.
A way to counteract that is to encourage more women to work in IT (or science or whichever area they are under-represented in) and show that they are just as effective in senior positions by tipping the balance in their favor. Positive discrimination is one way of doing that. Is the small evil of this type of discrimination acceptable if it first counteracts and then helps overturn and melt the large evil of the massive inequalities we currently have? Once equality is there (or you are at least approaching it) you drop the little evil of positive discrimination? But how else do you balance the books until the issue has been addressed? My own perception is that sexism and racism at least are reduced from what they were when I first started working, maybe positive discrimination is a significant factor in that? Maybe it is more that society has shifted?

Part of me likes the Women In Technology {try search on hashtag #WIT but you get loads of things that are labelled as “witty” as well} events and discussions such as supported in the Oracle sphere by Kellyn PotVin-Gorman and Debra Lilley amongst others. I much prefer to have a balanced workforce. But when I’ve been to a talk about it or seen online discussions, there often seems to be an element of “we hate men” or “all men are out to put us down” that, frankly, insults me. In fairness I’ve also seen that element questioned or stopped by the female moderators so I know they are aware of the problem of Men Bashing. After all, for reasons I have gone into in a prior post, as a small man I empathise with some of their issues – so to be told all men are the problem is both personally an affront and also… Yes, it’s discrimination. I should not have to feel I need to justify my own non-sexism but I do – My work, hiring and promoting history demonstrates I treat both sexes as equal. If I think you are rubbish at your job, it has nothing to do with how many X chromosomes you have.

I mentioned above “the little evil of positive discrimination” and that is certainly how I see it. I think of it as wrong not just because of the yin/yang simplistic take on right and wrong but because positive discrimination can have negative effects. Forcing a percentage of the workforce or management to be from a specified group means you are potentially not hiring the best candidates or putting the less capable into those positions. If your workforce is 10% female, not at all unusual in IT, then it is unlikely the best candidates for management are 25% female. They might be, it might be that 40% of them are female as they have managed to demonstrate their capabilities and stick with the industry despite any extra challenges faced. But to have a false percentage strikes me as problematic. Another issue is that of perceived unfair advantage or protection. How would any of us feel if we did not get a job or position as someone else got it on the basis of their sex, colour or disability to fulfill a quota? People are often bad tempered enough when they fail to get what they want. Over all, I think positive discrimination leads to a level of unease or resentment in the larger group not being aided. NOTE – I mean on average. I do not mean that everyone (or even most) feels resentment. And those who do vary in how much each individual feels upset by it.

I know a few people, including myself, who have hit big problems when disciplining or even sacking someone who is not a white male. I’ve had HR say to me “we are going to have to be very careful with this as they are {not-white-male}”. I asked the direct question of would this be easier if the person was a white male? – And they said, frankly, yes. It’s hard not to let that get your back up. I’ve seen this make someone I felt was pretty liberal and balanced become quite bigoted. That is positive discrimination being a little evil and having exactly the opposite effect as intended. That HR department was, in my opinion, getting it wrong – but I’ve heard so many similar stories that I feel it is the same in most HR departments across the UK, US and maybe Europe too. I can’t speak about other places.

I know a few women who are also very uncomfortable with positive discrimination as it makes them feel that either they got something not on the basis of their own abilities or others see it that way from looking in.

I’ve occasionally seen the disparity in numbers seen as a positive – I knew a lady at college who loved the fact she was only one of 3 women out of just over a hundred people in her year doing a degree in Computer Science. I was chatting to her {at a Sci-fi society evening, where she was also markedly out-numbered by the opposite sex} about how it must be daunting. She laughed at me in scorn – It was great! She said she stuck out and so got better responses when she asked questions in lectures, she had no trouble getting help off the over-worked tutors as they were keen to be seen to not be discriminatory and, as you mostly “met people” via your course or your societies, she pretty much had her pick of a hundred+ men. That told me.

So all in all, I still do not know if I am for or against positive discrimination. I guess I just wish it was not necessary. If there really was no discrimination, we would not question how many female, black, asian, disabled, short, fat, ginger, protestant people there were doing whatever we do.

{sorry for the lack of humour this week, I just struggled to squeeze it into such a delicate topic}

Friday Philosophy – How Much does Social Media Impact your Career for Real? February 6, 2015

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

Does what you tweet impact your chances of getting that next interview?
Do people check out your Facebook pictures before making you a job offer?
Does my Blog actually have any impact on my career?

We’ve all heard horror stories about people losing their job as a result of a putting something “very unfortunate” on their facebook page, like how they were on holiday/at a sports event when their employer was under the illusion they were off sick, or the more obvious {and pretty stupid} act of denigrating their boss or employer. But how much does general, day-to-day social media impact your career? {“Your” as in you people who come by this blog, mostly professionals in IT. I know it will be different for people trying to get a job in media or….social media :-) }.

Two things recently have made me wonder about this:

  • The first is that I’ve been in or watched a few discussions recently (via social media!) where people are suggesting that their social media output is part of who they are seen as professionally and they make efforts to ensure they give the right impression, or have even sought professional help to improve their social media standing in respect of employment.
  • The second is that I recently was involved in some hiring and I never even thought to look at their social media. Maybe that is just because I’m over {picks an age} 30 and social media is not a massive thing to me. Most of my hiring experience was before the likes of Facebook and though I would check out a blog if it was mentioned on a CV, I would not have thought to check them out.

When I initially thought about that second point I assumed that most people hiring in the world of IT are similarly a bit ancient like myself and maybe not that attuned to social media. But perhaps I am wrong as it’s people similar to me out there on Twitter who have been worrying about such things. Maybe social media is considered by potential employees than I think? I’d like to know what anyone else thinks.

I should add that I don’t see all Social Media as the same when it comes to it’s impact on your career. I think their is Friends Social and Business Social. Something like LinkedIn is aimed fair and square at business and professional activity and is Business Social. You would really expect it to be looked at and, in fact, most people who use it would hope it is! {Mine isn’t, I get about 3 or 4 views a week and only once, 5 or 6 years ago, was I approached via it for a work opportunity}. If you blog about a work topic or tweet as an expert in your field (so your tweets are mostly about your day job, not just the odd reference) and especially if you are doing either under a company banner then, yes, I’d expect that to be taken into account when prospective employment comes up.

Social Media is most people’s twittering, personal Facebook, private blogs, Pinterest and all those dozens of things I know nothing about as I am too old and too antisocial. Do these really have much impact on your career?

I would suggest not, again for two reasons:

  • I don’t think most employers are going to look at your Friends Social Media until they have at least interviewed you, as when you are hiring you barely have enough time to check over the CV’s, let alone research each candidate’s personal history. Once you have interviewed them, then they have become a real person rather than a name and if you do check out their Friends Social Media then you will look at it in light of them being a human being, which is point 2:
  • Unless you are saying things that would make anyone think you are a bit odd or unpleasant, I can’t see that discussions of football, insulting your friends, making double entendra comments or (one of my favorites) pointless drivel about your cat is going to make anyone who you would want to work for worry about you. Some people might put up things that could be offensive to others – but then, if you really do think immigrants are ruining the UK, we are not going to get on so working together is a mistake for both of us. So maybe even stating your strongly held opinions is long-term beneficial as well. Some people take my strong dislike of children as a real reason to not like me very much. Best we don’t spend 8 hours a day, five days a week together. You’ll only bang on about your bloody kids.

What I think is a shame is that I suspect some people {many people?} self-censor themselves on all Social Media due to a concern to always be seen as professional. As good worker material. We all know that almost everyone we work with have unprofessional moments and, in fact, those few who are professional all the time tend to be… staggeringly dull.

So maybe being mindful of your professional standing is totally correct on Business Social Media but a bit of a shame if you let it impact your Friends Social Media.

But remember, on all social media there are limits. There are some things about you, Dave, that you should simply not share. Or at least, only at the pub when we are all too drunk to care.

Conferences and the Etiquette of Meeting New People November 25, 2014

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,
3 comments

One of the reasons I like user group conferences is meeting new people in my “area” – these people at the conference not only like technology and probably some of the same technology I do but, as they are at a conference, are probably inclined to learn stuff, meet people and maybe share ideas. I’m not actually very good face-to-face socially with people I do not know, so I like to tilt things in my favour if I can!

But sometimes you have odd experiences.

I was at a conference a couple of years back that was not in the UK. I was loving it as I was meeting some people I knew electronically but never met and others who I had only met when they visited UK conferences – but most people I had no real connection to, so I was a bit quiet (yes, loud-mouthed, always-comments-in-talks me was quiet), especially as it was the first day. I was late for the lunch event, I don’t remember why, but it was a little unusual for being a sit-down meal and there was to be some meet-the-expert tables and I wanted to be able to identify some people I knew by name and never met. The big signs on tables would be a bit of a help there.

As I came in I saw half the tables were full and most of my friends were already on a full table. I wandered over to a half-full table and as I sat down I said “Hello, I’m Martin Widlake, How you doing?” or whatever to the half-dozen guys there. They all looked at me. A couple nodded or said “hi” but one said “We’ve got other friends turning up soon”. Hmm, that was code for “sod off”, I think.

I turned on the full English Accent so they could tell I was not from around those parts. “That’s nice – always good to have friends when you are at a conference….especially one where you don’t know many people?”. Some smiled, they all understood my mild reprimand. Mr Friendly who had mentioned all his other friends did not smile though. After this opening “chat” no one else really said anything more to me.

The Starter turned up and the guys all spoke to each other – and ignored me. Some other lone gun wandered up and asked me if he could sit next to me – “Sure, feel free – I’m Martin Widlake, I’m from the UK”. He introduced himself and sat down. Mr Friendly piped up “There are more people joining us at this table, I’m not sure there is gonna be room”. Some of his already-present friends had the decency to look a bit apologetic and I simply said “Well, it’s pretty full on all the tables now – and he’s got his starter” as the waitress put down a plate. And I pointedly started talking to the new chap.

Main turns up and so do a couple of late members for Mr Friendly’s group, who sat down at the remaining spare seats. “I told you” he said “you might have to move”.

I’m losing my patience a bit now. “Well they can sit somewhere else I’m sure, seeing as they are late.”

Mr Friendly is getting angry “I warned you when you sat down – when the others turn up, you’ll move”.

“I won’t move, this is my seat. I’m staying here”.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” demands Mr Friendly. Oh, thank you, I think to myself. I’m so going to enjoy this….

“Well, I did introduce myself when I arrived and….” pointing to the large sign with ‘Martin Widlake’ on it above the table “there is a large reminder of my name just there”. I paused a couple of seconds before adding “So this is my seat and my table and I’m kind of obliged to stay here, whether you want to talk to me or not”.

Maybe I could have handled the situation better from the start and stressed that the reason why I was staying was I was supposed to sit at my table. But I was smarting a little from the fact that no one apparently wanted to come to my table and talk to me. Maybe not surprising, as I don’t think I had done a presentation at the conference at that point – but my massive ego was already bruised.

So what about the etiquette of meeting people at conferences? It was just a title for a story I felt like telling…

However, there are a couple of things I do want to mention about the etiquette of meeting people at conferences. If you do not know many people there – just talk to people. People you don’t know. Just make a few observational or open comments, nothing to direct – “This queue for the coffee is a bit long”, “Have you seen any good/bad presentations yet?”, “what do you think about ansii join syntax” (OK, last one is a bad suggestion). Most people will respond and those that do not are probably just very nervous – more nervous than you! – and almost no one will be like Mr Friendly above. And if they are like Mr Friendly, where there are a few hundred other people you can go and try the odd comment on to see if you get a response.

At the social events you can see dozens and dozens of people just at the side or wandering around, not speaking to anyone. If you are one of them, few people are likely to come up to you and start a conversation (I’ve tried approaching the odd lone person but I stopped when I got Seriously Stalked at one of the UKOUG conferences). But if you go talk to other people, most of us will respond. And if someone does respond – Don’t stalk them!!! – have a conversation and then, having found it is possible, go and try some other people. The next day, if you see the people who responded last night, go and have a small chat again. But Don’t stalk them!!!.

Finally, talk to the presenters. We are actually the easy targets and not the hard ones. Those of us who present tend to be attention seekers so we are happy for you to come up and chat. And if you pretend you liked our talks we will certainly warm to you, so it’s an easy opening. However, it’s not like we are pop-stars or TV celebrities, we are just average people and you can come and chat to us (actually, I feel the same about pop-stars and TV celebrities, I don’t get easily star-struck but I know a lot of people do, even over Oracle Names).

But Don’t stalk them!!!.

And if someone insists on joining you at a table that has a name above it – listen carefully when they introduce themselves…

Friday Philosophy – Is Dave Working? October 17, 2014

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

Is Dave across the desk from you working at the moment? Or is he goofing off? You can’t see his screen but I reckon you can make a fair stab at what he is up to, without recourse to any sort of IT monitoring systems at all. How?

How fast is Dave typing?

If Dave is typing fast, he is almost certainly not working. He’s goofing. There are very few things you can do when you work in IT where you type fast – and especially not type fast for more than a few seconds. If Dave is typing fast he is almost certainly emailing a mate or instant-messaging Sandra in the development team. If Dave is typing fast, pausing for a few seconds and then typing fast again, he is *certainly* conversing electronically with a friend. This will be 100% corroborated if he smiles, sniggers, smirks, laughs or just glances around furtively.

Longer periods of typing (say a minute or two) and then pausing for a similar time then Dave is probably working, say documenting something or writing a work-related email {or,perhaps a blog post – *cough*} . The clinchers here that indicate work is being done are (a) he will not be smiling or showing any signs of happiness and (b) there will be bursts of “tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch” where the delete key is being pounded to remove an offending line or block of text. {People in IT always seem to delete text by repeatedly hitting the delete key. Higher forms of life, like secretarial staff, are more likely to select the text and hit the delete key once. Or, even, the first character of what they are going to type next. Why do those of us in IT just pound the delete key?!?}.

I hope the people around me have not noticed I am less miserable than usual, else they will know I have stopped documenting and I am now blogging…

Fast key tapping but in an oddly “monotone” way (the same key or keys over and over again) and a fixed stare and maybe the odd bit of bobbing the head or ducking – Dave is playing a game. Naughty Dave. Huge amounts of mouse woggling will also be evidence of game playing. That or doing graphical database design – but who does any design work these days….?

Any periods of fast typing for more than seven seconds are a sure indicator that no coding is being done. The seven second ceiling is a scientific fact, derived from 25 years of coding and goofing off :-). I have only ever known one person who can write code fast without pauses and he was a very odd chap indeed. A very, very good programmer though.

So, if Dave is staring fixedly at the screen, typing for a few seconds (probably slowly), pausing for a minute and frowning/muttering/swearing, he’s coding. Probably. He could be Googling for a new blue-ray play or something – googling for stuff you want to buy and coding seem to have the same sort of typing pattern and even the same air of general annoyance and confusion, with the very occasional “whoop” of success.

I think you can make a pretty accurate guess about whether someone is working or goofing, and even what type of working or goofing they are doing, purely from the sound of the keys and the facial expression.

I love the “techie” bits in films where the designated nerd sits down at the keyboard and goes “tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap” at high speed and windows of data pop up and scroll up the screen at 30 lines a second or images flash by quicker than you can follow. They never delete anything they type, no typoes occur, they never have to check the correct flag or format for a command. And they never. Ever. Ever. Use the space key.Those thumbs never clatter the big bar, the fingers just bounce up and down on the main keys as though they were playing a rather odd piano.

You check next time the techie nerd bit on a film comes up. (S)he will not use the space key at all. Even if spaces appear on the text on the screen :-)

So, any fast typing and any sign of happiness and Dave is probably goofing. Both together and he certainly is. And if you never hear the space bar rattle, Dave is in a film.

A loss from the UK User Community – Graham Gilbert July 17, 2013

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions, Private Life, UKOUG.
Tags: , , ,
4 comments

Last week, as part of organising the AIM and Database Server joint UKOUG SIG tomorrow {which I should have blogged about but just never got around to}, I was made aware of the fact that a man called Graham Gilbert died back in April.

Anyone who has anything to do with the RDBMS parts of the UK Oracle User Group probably knows Graham as he ran the RDBMS SIG for years and years and years. For the rest of you, you missed out as Graham was a Jewel. I can’t say he was a close friend, after all I was not aware he had died, but I was saddened by it – and that is unusual as I am particularly sanguine (callous?) when if comes to death. {For example, on hearing about the death of my own father, who I did actually like and get on with, my immediate and on-going response was “damn, that’s inconvenient”}.

I was saddened as Graham was one of those rare beasts – a person who helped, encouraged and supported people. Everyone who met him seems to have liked him. {If you DID meet him and not like him – I don’t want to talk to you, OK?!} In fact, when I got the first hint of Graham having died, I got in touch with some mutual friends and asked if they had heard anything. The response was a consistent “No – but let me know as Graham … (various citations about how he had encouraged, helped or been kind to them)” followed.

You can see this if you look at {and I really hope this works} this section in the UKOUG 50th Anniversary edition. I could not put better what Patrick Hurley said about Graham gently encouraging people to be part of the community.

As I have said, I did not know Graham well, but I did share a few pints with him after RDBMS SIGs on a couple of occasions. On one such occasion we were discussing the fact that he had run the RDBMS SIG for so long – I was thinking of stepping down from the SIG I was running but no one was showing signs of stepping up if I did. Graham gave a gentle sigh and observed that “many people would like to help – but the day job or the effort or a lack of confidence gets in the way. You just have to encourage them.” So why had he been the RDBMS SIG chair for so long? “Well, I would rather not, but it just seems to fall to me. It needs doing and it is not really a burden, I just don’t want to be seen as making it my empire. I can ask people to present but not take on the whole thing!”. My quotes will be inaccurate but that was the gist of it. He encouraged people to advance themselves or take part but seemed reluctant to burden anyone. I wonder now if he ended up running it for so long as he was just so damned good at it and we wanted to keep him? I bought him a pint (I nearly had to argue with him on that one) as he was being so nice to me and encouraged me to keep doing my SIG so long as punters turned up.

Graham, for me, epitomises the User Group mentality. We help one another and we do it as we want to, well, help each other. I’ve met a fair few ….arseholes… who do user group stuff for the CV or to get recognition or some other personal gain. You can quickly spot them as they want the label but do very little for it, or do loads for 6 months and then drop out the picture when they realise it is not giving them that immediate reward they wanted. I don’t like those people, it’s like people who do stuff for charity and then thrust it down your throat. They did it for themselves, not the recipient. Thankfully I know many people who do the user group stuff because they “just want to help” and many of them never present (as presenting is not their thing) or blog or crow. They just help. I must try and be more appreciative of them.

Well, Graham did his bit quietly and consistently for years and years, because he wanted to help. He helped a lot of us. A round of drinks will be bought tomorrow after the SIG in his honour. It’s the least we can do – and I mean the least.

Friday Philosophy – Level of Presentations March 8, 2013

Posted by mwidlake in Exadata, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Presenting.
Tags: , ,
7 comments

This FF is a bit of a follow-up to the one I posted last week on PL/SQL skills and a comment made by Noons on how much knowledge you need to be an OakTable member.

I have a question to answer and I would appreciate other people’s opinion. Should there be more intro talks at conferences? If so, should the experts be giving them?

I am an OakTable member (and really quite worryingly proud about that) and I guess that means I know a lot about some aspects of Oracle. But also, and this is a key part of being asked to be a member of the OakTable, I both try and base my “knowledge” on scientific testing of what I think I know (be it by myself or others willing to show their workings) and I try and pass that knowledge on. I don’t think there is a member of the OT that does not abide by those two concepts.

This is not false modesty on my part, but most other people on the OT know a shed load {UK colloquialism for “really quite a lot”} more than I do about the Oracle database and how it works. Some of them are so smart I can’t but secretly dislike them for it :-). But I have a reasonable stash of knowledge in my head and I am a stong proponent of those last two factors. In particular, I want to put what I have in my head about {ohh, let’s pick partition pruning} in other people’s heads. Which is why for the last 4 years most of my presentations have run over horribly. I must get every detail into the audiences’ heads, even if they don’t want to know it!

Of late I have started to feel that I present in the wrong way. I take a subject, I write down what I know about it and I try to present that knowledge. I’ve only picked topics I feel I know well and in which I can handle almost any question the audience asks. For me to be that confident I have to have used that aspect of Oracle technology a lot and had months, if not years of experience. You cannot pass that on in 1 hour. I’ve already said I am not that smart, but I learn over time. So I started to strip out the basics and present just the clever stuff, which shows how fabulous I am. {British self-deprecating sarcasm, please}. Just like so many other experts. Hell, if we are experts, we should be talking expert stuff!!!

To balance that I think there is a gap in what is talked about at conferences. I know this is felt by some conference organisers and attendees too, but there is just way too much “impressive smart stuff” and not enough “how X works in the real world, for people who have never done it”. Not 10,000 feet up sales pitch rubbish that gives no substance, but talks on a topic where you can go from level 1 for knowledge-free beginners to level 5 for the 25 people at the conference who know this stuff inside out – and the talk stops at level 2. I’ve made a decision to try and address that gap, which is why I now offer more talks on “an intro to Exadata” and “how to get going with performance tuning” than the smart stuff.

The problem is, how many people, probably mostly young people, go to conferences? Am I wasting my time trying to offer these talks if no one going to the conferences wants them? Do people going to conferences, generally speaking, want the technical nitty-gritty or do they want the intro stuff? Yes, I know there is a spread but where is the real need? I suppose I thought of this recently when I did a talk on Index Organized Tables and almost everyone in the room already used them. Then, a few hours later, I did an intro to database design. Almost everyone in the room was a seasoned database designer… I doubt I said much of real value to either audience.

That leaves my last point about should the experts do intro talks? A problem with experts doing intro talks is the expert knows it all. It can be hard to remember what you really needed to know at the start (and also, my own problem, knowing what to drop out the talk as, really, it is “being smart as an ego-trip” that the new people can do without). But if you are not an expert, can you handle the What If questions? I have played with this issue with my Intro to Exadata talk. I wrote the draft when I had very little real experience and I have only modified it as I gained more experience. I’m glad I did as when I revisited the presentation recently I started putting loads of stuff in that only makes sense when you are used to it’s peculiarities. Thankfully, I realised this and stripped most of it out again. So well, in fact, that one person who wrote about the talk said “it was nice to see someone talk about it who was an Oracle expert who obviously knew little about the topic”. Well, something like that :-)

Enough. I would appreciate other people’s opinions and experiences on this.

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