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Friday Philosophy – Sex in The Office December 4, 2015

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

Sex in the office. It’s a bad idea – you can get hurt falling off the swivel chair or desk and there is the ever present danger of the stapler…

Though accurate, the title is of course misleading to make you look at this blog. I’ve actually been thinking about the ratio of women to men in the office, the impact it has and the efforts put in to address it. If you have somehow missed it there is something called “WIT” – Women in Technology – and it is part of an ongoing drive to get more women into the traditionally male-dominated careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics {STEM} and to help them stay there once they are in the industry. I can’t say I’ve been aware of this next aspect until the last couple of years but apparently a women is more likely to move out of IT as they get older than a man is.

There is a morning meeting on WIT at the UKOUG Tech15 conference on Tuesday at 8pm (details here) and it is open to men as well as women. I hope to be there as it is a topic I am interested in and support. However, I have to say I have some ambivalence towards it too. Why? Because at some of these meetings you get a bit of “men-bashing” and also things get suggested which are positive discrimination – and I am not a fan of discrimination, even when you put the word “positive” in front of it.

I work in the UK and I’ve worked in IT now for 25 years. The ratio of women to men in technical roles does not seem to have changed much in most of that time and has stayed at around 10% to 20%, depending on the business area. My first job was in the national health service and the percentage of women was about 20%. I’ve also been in teams where there is not a single woman. I much prefer there to be a higher percentage of women where I work than 10% – and this is not for any creepie “they are more pretty” or similar reasons, it is because when it is all or mostly men, the atmosphere is like a never-ending boy’s locker room. Juvenile humour, constant swearing and biological jokes are good fun for a while, but not day in, day out. Rightly or wrongly, when the sex ratio is more balanced, so is the humour and behaviour. I’m told women are just as bad when they are in a male-free environment – but I would not really know, would I?

I think over the last 5-10 years there has been some movement though, I think we are finally moving towards a more balanced ratio. Actually, no , it would be more accurate to say we are progressing to a less unbalanced ratio.

There is no question about the technical ability of women and I am confident in my own attitude towards having women in technical roles – I’ve hired, promoted, supported and reprimanded enough women over the years to demonstrate I don’t have any issues there. But I don’t think we will ever have equal numbers of men and women across the technical roles in IT.

Why do I think this? Because it is about numbers, percentages and factors. I have to quickly point out that I am not talking about individuals here and there are individual exceptions to everything I say, but I do run the risk of upsetting people…

One factor is the Autistic spectrum. Or maybe I should be saying Aspergers, as that term was supposed to indicate people with reduced empathy but not reduced cognition (intelligence or learning speed). I was talking to a friend about this a few days ago, the fact that when you look at people working in IT there is a tendency towards us being poor at understanding people, uncomfortable dealing with other humans and being happier working with things. ie somewhere in the mild end of the  Autistic spectrum. Obviously this is not true of everyone in IT and probably is only relevant to, ohhh, 83% of us {Joke! It is probably less than 50%}. It is certainly true of me and a few of my best friends, ironically. Technology particularly appeals to those of us who are on that spectrum, especially when we are younger, as it is easier for us to deal with something other than people. It is also true that you are less likely to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum if you are a woman than a man. Add those two together and over a large enough sample, like the working population, you will see a significant effect. Men as a population are more autistic, IT appeals to the autistic, you will get a bias towards men in IT. It does not mean all men in IT are autistic.

Another factor is of course that when children come along it is nearly always the woman who takes the lead in childcare. It does not have to be that way, it certainly should not be expected let alone forced. I’ve known couples where the father stops work and takes the main parental role (and they always run up against a lot of sexism about that, so it’s a two-way street ladies!) but it is still relatively rare. And taking time off work has an impact on career development and skills because you are not doing the job during that time. I know that when I have not done something for a year or two my skills degrade (I did not do much PL/SQL development work for a couple of years and I was rusty as heck when I went back to it properly). What is wrong is the tendency for that pause in development to be continued when people come back to work or work part time. We can help address that by making more effort to support people (women and men) coming back to work to continue onwards from where they left off, not be expected to stay still. But, over the whole industry, taking a break to concentrate on family is going to have an impact on not only the raw numbers of women in IT at any time but also career progression relative to age. Again, I stress this is not about individuals, it is about ratios and percentages.

Another aspect is that if you have a break from what you do as a career, it is an opportunity to ask yourself if you still want to do it. If you don’t have a break you are less likely to question your job and more likely to just keep turning up and doing it. Some women drop out of IT due to sexism – but some drop out as they just decide to try other things. On average men are less likely to have such a break and just trudge on, week-after-week, year-after-year.

There are other factors beyond those three but the point I am making is that I don’t think the ratio between women and men in technical roles will ever be 50:50. I would prefer it to be 50:50 but I don’t think it will be. I am also not arguing in any way about being complacent about sexism at work, not promoting women or anything like that. The fact that I don’t think we will ever have parity of numbers does not condone sexism in any way. Everyone should have the same chances and support. I’d like there to be no need for positive discrimination as we don’t have any discrimination – it is all about the individual and ability. As my friend Pete Scott put it on twitter when this post first went up – Humans In Technology is where we want to be – HIT

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?

OOW Report – No List of Talks, No Cloud, Just Thoughts on Community October 30, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Perceptions, User Groups.
Tags: , ,

As I type I am in my hotel, sipping a final beer (it was a gift that has been to a few talks with me in my backpack) and looking back at Oracle Open World 2015. I must confess I am a little drunk so we will see if this post lasts…
{Update – it passed the next-morning-sobriety test. I was only a little drunk}

OOW15 beers

I am on record as saying I don’t like Open World. I came to previous events in 2003 and 2004 I think (yes, over a decade back), both times at short notice on the behest of the Mother Corporation. And at those times I only knew people at the event from Corporation Oracle – not people in the Oracle User Community. It is miserable being 1 of xx thousand people who you *should* share interests with but simply don’t know. Oracle employees are generally excluded from the event so that removed nearly all of my contacts. It is such a large event that if you meet someone on Sunday and chatted to them – you may well never see them again! After all, it is 1 in x thousand people even for your specific area of interest. I’m not good at chatting to people “cold” and the whole “entering the US” is such a bloody awful experience (Immigration just shout at you and growl and are, frankly, as welcoming as a Rottweiler at a kitten party) that the total experience from beginning to end was just, well, less pleasant than a bad week in the office.

This time was very, very different (though not the growling Rottweiler bit, sadly). Because I am now an active member of a couple of oracle “clubs” (Oracle ACE and OakTable) I knew more people. Because I blog and tweet I knew a lot of USA {and other} people, if only via social media. As a result of going to a good few different user groups (and often presenting) I have become friends with people from several communities. And I have also got better at “Cold chatting”. So for several days I have been meeting people like Danny Bryant (still my hero as he got my conference pass back to me after I dropped it on a bus!), Bobby Curtis, That Jeff Smith, Sarah CraynonZumbrum, Zahid Anwar… and about 37 other people I had never met or only met once. I have re-connected with a couple of dozen old friends too and hung around with closer friends from the UK & Europe. And it has been great. This is one of the great aspects of being an active member of the Oracle Community, there is a pool of people I can now talk to and relax with.

I’ve loved my OOW15 experience and that is fundamentally because I felt I was inside rather than outside. At this point I was planning to say that not everyone you meet in the flesh will turn out to be people you actually get on with – but I can honestly say that everyone I have met this week has been at least polite to me, most have been welcoming. I’m not saying all will be life-long friends and I am at long last wise enough to recognise that someone being polite to me does not mean they did not find me annoying. But one of the great things about a user group community is that almost everyone in it is actually on the “friendly” side of normal. If you are not, user groups are not going to be your thing!

It makes a huge difference. Being able to find someone (and modern social media makes that so much easier than a decade back when I hated this experience) to have a coffee with and a nice conversation can make a potentially lonely gap between presentations into an enjoyable afternoon. I missed half a dozen presentations this week as the conversations went on much longer and were more illuminating than you planned. I could just position myself at a central location and pretty soon a friend would wander by. Or, at least, someone who would not run away🙂

Being mindful of the above, if anyone came up to me to talk, I talked to them. There is a phrase that seems current in the US of “paying it forward” which means if you have had a nice experience, try to make someone else’s experience nice. Or is it “paying it backward”? I don’t know for sure but I like both. If you have been helped, help someone. If you think people should help each other, start it by being helpful first. I was able to do this a little bit myself by making sure I was around if a friend called Stew needed some company, as he is not as tied into the user community as others as he is new to this. However, I don’t think this will last as he is making such a name for himself that next year he’ll be introducing me to people! In turn, another friend, Brendan, made time to make sure I had company as he knew I’d not liked my prior experiences.

So all in all I now don’t dislike OOW. I like OOW. And the reason is the user community is there for me. It’s there for everyone who wishes to be a part of it. You won’t like everyone, everyone won’t like you – but that is fine, we all have our different characters – but you will gel with a good few people.

Note I have not mentioned presentation slots. Some were good, some were bad, a small number were great and a similar number were awful. But I did learn a lot and I appreciate the fact. I will say no more as, frankly, if you were not at the conference then a discussion of the presentations is pretty pointless!

I just want to end on a final consideration. I know I am now a member of a couple of “clubs” and that helps me in knowing people. But a lot of people I now know are not members of either of those clubs and I know them due to my simply being social-media active, a user group attender and I make myself cold-chat more. It almost hurts me to say it, but social media can be a good thing. Nothing beats face-to-face socialising, but knowing people virtually first is a great help in getting started with meeting them for real.

I really love the user group community. Or is that just the beer talking (which I finished over an hour back!)

{update – OK, it was the beer, I don’t love any of you. But I like you a lot…}

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 – Flippin’ Technology June 5, 2015

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

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: , , ,

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: , ,

{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: , , ,

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😀

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: , ,

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: , , ,

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.