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The Fall and Rise of the ACE Program August 26, 2022

Posted by mwidlake in ACED, Perceptions, User Groups.
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4 comments

As the title of this post indicates, something bad happened to Oracle’s ACE program. Really quite bad.

But it is now being fixed – and the fact that Oracle admitted it had made a miss-step and is correcting it can only be applauded. In my experience Corporations tend to be quite poor at admitting they messed something up.

I’ve intended to write something about the whole sorry mess for a while but I held off as it felt like kicking a friend when they were down. But the ACE program is now coming back and I think there are some interesting things to learn, or at least think about, in respect of what happened (and is happening). And I wanted to record it as my own reminder of what happened.

First of all, if you do not know what Oracle’s ACE program is, there is a summary to the left. Fundamentally, it is Oracle’s program to recognise skilled people who communicate about Oracle.

The ACE program has had it’s ups and downs and it has evolved over the years, but basically it exists to recognise and, in some ways support, non-Oracle-employees who try to show the community how to get the best out of Oracle. It is a community outreach program with the inevitable taint of marketing that comes with any vendor-sponsored program.

So What Happened?

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020 it had a massive impact on everything, including the Oracle community. A key part of the community has always been User Groups, conferences & meet-ups – and Covid-19 meant we were not doing those anymore. (For example see this Post about UKOUG postponing the Irish conference in March 2020). The ACE program did what it could to help the community continue and basically pivot their events to being on-line & remote. Webinars via Zoom & Teams replaced in-person events.

Maybe it was this Covid-19 change that prompted something, I don’t know, but in the spring of 2021 it was announced by Oracle that the ACE program was being overhauled – and the Mother Hen of the program was no longer in charge. A lot of us long-term ACE members were not too happy about losing our Mother Hen, especially the way Oracle went about it (Oracle, like many US companies, really can be utterly awful when it comes to their staff. Do you know how much holiday US employees don’t get?). Someone I will refer to as Crazy-Beard man was taking over. I did not know this initially but Crazy-Beard man had the ear of someone powerful in Oracle and Crazy-Beard man had apparently made a bid for the ACE program. This was an aggressive takeover of the program.

Well, OK, the ACE program was moving and being put under the DevRel community and we ACEs could do nothing substantial about the shoddy treatment of one member of staff (though some of us made our feelings known). Maybe the ACE program would now get the staffing and financial levels it needed to boost its impact? (It had been clear to many of us for years that the ACE program never had the resources it really needed to manage several hundred members, especially given what hard work some of us presenter Prima Donna types can be). Maybe this change would be good for the program? Let’s wait and see.

It wasn’t.

Everything stopped. The news letters, the communication, the interaction. We just got the same webinar month after month… after month – “It’s all going to change! And it’s going to be really cool!! And it’s going to be exciting!!!!! Whoooop!!!!!!!” And the tone was as I just indicated, it was like watching a pop-culture Tik-Tok program for teenagers.

After a few months of nothing but “It’s going to be cool!” ACEs started asking what was actually going on. When would any of this new stuff happen? Or, even, any of the old stuff? When would outstanding ACE nominations be processed? When would we hear about new Oracle offerings? What was the rest of the community doing? But all we got were more occasional webinars where we were told again how “cool” it was going to be. And how exciting… And, well… whooop. Yeah, whooop. But nothing really concrete was offered. Except for the odd thing, like anyone was going to be able to be an ACE. Huh? What the hell is the point of a program to recognise significant contribution if everyone can be a member? What you are proposing is a chat channel, not a recognition program.

ACE members asked “when will you have something, anything, actually happening? Some real, tangible part of this cool, exciting, whoop you keep selling to us?”. The reply was just empty blather about working really, really hard to get things ready. I’m sorry, most ACEs recognise bullshit when we smell it. Working “really, really hard” generally means floundering about desperately looking for quick wins.

This new DevRel team had also totally misjudged the tone to use with the ACE program. Most ACEs have been IT professionals for a couple of decades – or more. We like fun, we like social interaction, most of us like a few beers at a conference bar. But jokey job titles and blatant efforts to fake “cool” that might be OK with the sub-30’s are not going to mesh with us. OK, we could maybe live with that naïve method of communication . But what was far worse was that the new people running the ACE program clearly had no clue what the ACE program was, who we are, what we do. Crazy-Beard man seemed to think we were all DBAs. Some of us are, most of us are not. C-B man did not even recognise the “Oracle Names”, the people who are famous in our little world for talking about Performance,APEX, Security, SQL.

So it seems the new people had done virtually nothing to get to know anything about us ACEs. If they had sat down with Mother Hen for a couple of days and talked with her about the program they would have improved the situation hugely, but they seemed to regard everything that had gone before as wrong and to be burnt to the ground. This was brought into sharp focus when an ACE and well known member of the European Oracle community (she chairs the European Oracle User Community for goodness sake) tried to contact C-B man and got no response, at all, from several attempts. Eventually a bunch of other people prodded him and asked him what the hell he was playing at.

In the Pit Of Nothing.

So there we were. All ACE program activity was on hold, the only communication was empty posturing, the tone was wrong, the new people in charge knew nothing about us. Nothing was happening.

Only something was happening… ACEs talk to each other. We gripe, we complain, many of us act like the old men in the box on The Muppets, but that is just the world-weary cynicism we use to hide that we really care about the Oracle community. And we hated what was happening. And most of us were detaching from the ACE world. I took ACE off all my social media and I even wrote an “I resign” letter. Most of us present and talk and blog and teach because we want to do those things. We became ACEs as almost an accident of that. We don’t need the ACE program. It was nice to be ACE, it was a badge of honour and some of the things the program had done were helpful. But fundamentally we were active in the community as we wanted to be. Being recognised as ACE was just a nice pat on the back really.

Another thing that was happening was that some of the more engaged Oracle Product Managers and community-centric people in Oracle, especially around the core database tech, had also become very uncomfortable about what was happening with the ACE program. These people within Oracle could see this palpable shift by the ACE community towards antagonism. I’m friends with several of these people (as are a lot of the people in my world of EU/US speakers & conference organisers) and these PMs were talking with us and echoing back into Oracle the growing alarm bells.

We ACEs were not happy and our friends in Oracle were not happy. But at least we knew things could not get much worse with the ACE program.

Oh boy, were we wrong.

The Meeting From Hell.

Oracle brought a new person into the DevRel team to look after the ACE program. I guess he had other duties too but the side we saw was he was to be the main person for our community. I’m going to call him “Tony Wheeler” as he came from the automotive industry and his whole attitude was that of a second hand car salesman – someone who thinks he’s nailed sounding sincere but actually he can’t fake it. What we call in the UK a “Wheeler Dealer”.

{Note, I had to correct this bit, I originally said the person who organised this meeting was from DevRel, my bad}

A senior lady from the database area realised this whole situation was now an utter mess (she also stepped in to make sure Mother Hen was done right by). She organised a meeting between the new ACE program owners in DevRel and the ACE community, so we could have a frank discussion. It was brave and I think it was totally the right thing to do. But I don’t think anyone predicted how badly the meeting would go…

The meeting started OK. We had some more of the blah blah about how things were “going to change and be cool and be great, and Whoop!” – but unlike all the prior one-way traffic of earlier webinars, this was a proper two-way discussion and the ACEs were allowed to speak. The ACES quickly made the point, calmly but with a tone of considerable frustration, that this “it’s going to be great” had been the case for ages now, but nothing was actually happening. And, frankly, what was so wrong with what the ACE program had been doing before it all stopped in early 2021? And this total lack of any activity by the ACE program was a real hinderance to our communities.

Tony Wheeler said this is what he wanted, he wanted to hear our passion and what it was we felt was wrong. So some of the ACEs (myself included) told him what was wrong. It boiled down to “It wasn’t broken, but you broke it anyway, and then promised cool/great stuff – none of which has materialised. Please just put back what worked and then plan the New World Order.

Tony did not like that.

When he said he wanted to know what we felt it turns out he did not like what we felt. Tony had lied.

Tony went on the offensive. He told us we were afraid of change and everything the ACE program had been was shit (he literally said “shit” or “crap”, I can’t remember which) and he was tearing down the shit and making it better.

He told a bunch of 200+ people who have made their careers on constantly learning the latest stuff in technology that we were afraid of change.

He told 200+ evangelists for Oracle, many of whom explain Oracle’s cloud offerings, that we were stuck in the past.

He told 200+ people that the program we’d known for years and were pretty happy with was trash and we had no clue how shit it was. His Oracle employee badge was barely dry but he was happy to burn the whole past down to the ground.

Wow. This guy was a badge-wearing psychopath.

Our social media groups flared. It was bad enough on the official meeting chat channel but in our twitter groups, DMs etc the scorn was heaped high. Yes, we were angered, but the main reaction was derision. This buffoon Tony Wheeler, with no idea who we were, had rocked up and tried to insult us for not being willing to accept what was new. Friend, most of us got onto this program exactly because we work on, fundamentally understand, and described what was new.

And he also told us the ACE Program we liked was shit and the people organising it in the past were shit. He was brand new to Oracle Corp but he “knew” what had been before was shit. He also thought we were all DBAs (*sigh*). When it was pointed out we wanted the “shit” back and he could take his promised new world order and shove it he basically lost the plot. And the argument. And any respect. I’ve never seen someone burn bridges so fast in my life as he pretty much insulted everyone on the call.

To make it worse Mother Hen was on that call. I can tell you, whilst Tony Wheeler was bad mouthing the old program there were dozens of us on Twitter, the meeting chat channel, DM’s to her, everything, expressing our outrage at this and our support for Mother Hen.

I can only assume this tactic of bad-mouthing the existing way of doing things had worked for Tony Wheeler in the past. Tell people who oppose him that they are scared “of change” and can’t move forward and attempt to burn everything in the past. It’s like a dictator running a scorched earth policy in a war. It never ends well.

I missed the very end of the meeting (I had a family commitment that took priority) but I’m told it was pretty much closed down by the senior database lady who called it, in shock.

I have only one last thing to add in respect of the Meeting From Hell.

Tony Wheeler asked me early on to feed back to him personally what they were doing wrong, what they should start doing again, how they could undo some of the damage. And I agreed to do so. People who know me well know I can fly off the handle and be very negative in-the-moment. But, if I have the opportunity to sit down and gather my thoughts, I’ll do my best to put together something honest but positive. I had said to him I would do this thing so, despite my real anger about him and the whole situation, I put down on paper (well, virtual paper) some thoughts on how things could be improved and sent it off.

I never even got an acknowledgement. The spineless bastard asked me to put my effort in to helping him save what he had messed up and he never even said “thanks”. He might think he knows people but, man , he does not.

So I forwarded a copy to a couple of other people at Oracle – people with a better attitude, just as a record.

The Positive Outcome

That bonfire of a meeting sent shock waves bouncing up and down the management structure in Oracle. It’s one of the very few events I am aware of when the community reaction had an impact on Oracle, though I also know that the internal backlash by Oracle PMs and others to the meeting was also fierce.

Tony Wheeler’s behaviour had been totally unacceptable. His lack of professionalism and his ability to alienate pretty much everyone else involved sealed his fate. He went. I know nothing of the details but it’s like he was sent “swimming with the fishes”. If I ever come across him again I will point-blank refuse to engage with him. He is on a very special list of only about 5 people in my whole career who I will simply not tolerate.

Crazy-Beard man is now out of the DevRel group, but still in Oracle. Maybe I missed it but I never saw anything from C-B man admitting he messed up, let alone apologising, which is a shame . I continued to follow him for a while on Twitter (keep your friends close, keep your not friends closer and all that) and whenever he appeared I wondered what he had taken away from this. I won’t say I’ll never respect him, but he’s going to have to do something pretty bloody high-end awesome for me to see him as a positive force now. Maybe saving baby kittens in Ukraine would do it for me.

Mother Hen, who had been snapped up by the core database group, has been given back the ACE program. It’s a work in progress, so much damage to fix and also there were already things she knew needed improving. I’ve had some nice chats with her, I really hope she gets the support she needs to get the ACE program back on track.

The head of DevRel admitted it had gone badly wrong and needed to be fixed, and committed to making that happen. That admission of fuck-up is, in my experience, almost unheard of in the business community, I hope Mother Hen got a bloody good pay rise out of this.

And in the last week or two the Oracle ACE program has re-launched. It is mostly as it was but with a few changes, and I think more changes will take place while also keeping things working.

Lessons To Learn

This post is already too long but I promised we could learn from this.

The first thing is Communication. It is *vital*! I think it is the absolute key thing to any community at all, be it tech, work, personal, anything. Empty or lying communication is poison, you will be found out and it will erode your community like acid.

The second is “do not make a bid for something you do not understand”. You will kill it. C-B man made a play for a group he did not appear to understand, he certainly did not know the key players and how the ACE program worked, and he (or people working for him) killed it. It remains to be seen if dedicated people who were badly treated can resurrect it.

Third is tailor your communication to your audience. Don’t try and be Tik-Tok & youth to a bunch of people who are mostly parents to those who might appreciate your naïve attempt, and would rather you all just acted your age. No one likes the Corporate Executive who tries to use teenager slang to appear cool, all the teenagers know it is fake – and they are using last year’s slang anyway.

Fourth is do not hire bullshitting arseholes. And if you do, never let them run free in a meeting with external people.

Fifth is, if as a corporation with an outreach program you mess up, your only real workable option is to apologise and step back. I’ve never really seen a corporation do that as they are invested in never admitting a mistake. In this case Oracle did admit the mistake with the ACE program and reset. I’m going to give them some kudos for that.

Community is Communication – #JoelKallmanDay October 11, 2021

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, UKOUG, User Groups.
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My life is not just Oracle and the Oracle community. I’m part of a couple of other communities as, I hope are we all – be they your hobby, an interest or pastime, the church, your friends. And the key to community is, I feel, communication.

2 days old

I was thinking of this a few weeks ago in another, important (to me) part of my life, which is fostering cats for a local pet charity. I’ve had cats for most of the last 40 years of my life and I’ve missed them since our last one died about 6 years ago. For a mixture of reasons we decide that rather then get another “forever” cat we would temporarily look after cats that needed care before being rehomed permanently.

We’ve had several cats now and it’s something we enjoy doing. What has not been so good, at times, has been interacting with the staff at the charity. There have been several situations where we have tried to contact them and either the reply is slow to come or does not happen at all. We do understand that they are often dealing with a fast moving or unclear situation and, especially with Covid-19 at times effectively removing most of their volunteer staff, more things to do than they have hours to do it in. But when you are asked if you can take on a new cat in an emergency and you drop your plans to do so – and then hear nothing for 3 days before being told “Oh! No, we organised to support the current owner in keeping it”, it’s… vexing. Especially the third time in a row it happens.

It nearly made us give up on them, the communication was just so lacking and poor.

2 weeks old

But to balance that, there is an online facebook-type group for all the fosterers and they are much better. We put up pictures of our fosterlings, swap tips, and generally support each other. It’s good communication. I say this despite a lot of the communication having a tone that just is not me (“Ohhh, isn’t paddy pooky so *cuuuuute*! It makes my hearty warty ache!”). However, that’s more my problem than theirs and in fact I modify how I say things a little to suit the general tone (Mrs W looks at some of the things I put on there and says “YOU wrote that?!?!” – yeah, it’s the style they like).

Similarly communication is vital in our Oracle communities. From organising an event to letting people know what your user group is doing, communication is at the heart of it all. Part of it is simply having some communication. If you never hear from a group you are involved with it is, just like with a friend who never gets in touch, hard to maintain the interest. Lack of communication can kill a community really quickly.

On the other side of the coin, over-communication is not good. When I was president of UKOUG one thing I pushed for was for us to communicate with the membership a little less. We used to send out monthly updates and also lots of emails about events and other things. It was too much, I knew people who simply ignored any email from UKOUG as it was endless. I don’t think we got it quite right when I was there, but we altered things so that fewer emails went out and they were more varied. Instead of a monthly update there was an update from the CEO one month and one from me as the president on the other month, with a different flavour and a modified focus.

3 weeks old

The final killer is empty communication. Saying stuff people are not interested in or saying “great things are coming” but nothing substantial about what that great stuff is. Teasers are OK but only if the tease gives a hint of what the new, cool thing is (and it actually is new and cool – so many commercial things are decidedly not cool, let alone interesting, and telling us you are excited about it makes me question how vacuous your life is…). Repeatedly saying “great things are coming” but not what they are sends a clear message of “we have no idea what we are going to do but don’t want to admit that”. There have been a lot of issues with that until recently with one particular Oracle Community area. It’s improving but they have a lot of work to do to make people reconnect with them again.

I love the communities I am in. I am passionate about the Oracle communities I am part of. If I want to help keep those communities vital and active, I need to help with the communication. I can’t think of a single community I am in that I am enjoying where communication is not at the core of it.

This post is part of the #JoelKallmanDay and, if you knew (or even just knew of) Joel , you will know why I chose this topic. Joel was a passionate, effective communicator and a rock within the APEX community.

Friday Philosophy – Is The Problem The Small Things? August 7, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, off-topic, rant, User Groups.
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Something has been bothering me for a while. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s been depressing me. It’s you. Well, many of you.

Well, it’s not MY problem!

What do I mean? Well I’ll give you an example. A week or so ago I went out in the car to get some shopping. A few minutes into the journey, as I go around a gentle bend, I see there is a car coming towards me – on my side of the road. I had to brake to give it space to get back over and I see it has swerved to avoid a branch in the road. As you can see in the picture, it’s not a huge branch, it covers less than one lane. I’m past it now so I go on to the shops and get my stuff.

30 minutes later I’m coming back. And I’m thinking to myself “I bet that branch is still there.” And it is. I can see it from maybe 300 meters back. The two cars in front of me barely slow down and they swerve past it. An oncoming vehicle that *I* can see coming, let alone the two cars in front of me, has to slow down for the swervers like I did. That slight bend means you get a much better warning of the obstacle from the side of the road it is on and as it is on your side, it’s really your responsibility so slow or even briefly stop, but the people in front of me just went for it. They did not care.

I did not swerve. I slowed down. And I put on my hazard lights, and stopped about 20 meters back from the branch. I double checked that no car has appeared behind me and I got out the car. In 20 seconds (including taking the snap), I’ve moved the branch off the road with no danger at all and I’m back to my car.

I know, you would have done the same.

Only no. No, you would not have.

Some of you would like to think you would have stopped and moved the obstacle.

I suspect most of you would claim, if asked, that you would have stopped and moved the branch.

And of course all of you would have slowed to avoid inconveniencing others.

But reality shows that nearly all of you would not.

As I left the scene, I was wondering how many people would have passed that branch in that 30 minutes I knew for sure this small branch had been an obstacle on the road. I’m going to let people going the other way off, as they would have to do a u-turn to come back to it, so how many people would have had to swerve past it?I know that road well, it would have been hmm, 4 or 5 cars a minute going past in one direction – certainly more than 3 cars, less than 10. So well over a hundred drivers would have seen that branch from a distance, most would have been able to safely slow and stop – and yet not one of them had. I have no idea how long the branch had been there, it was not too beaten up so maybe not long, but it could have been a couple of hours. It was easy to avoid – especially if you swerved with little concern for any on-coming traffic…

It turns out I’m the one in a hundred.

Are you thinking “well, it’s not my job to move branches of a road!”

So who’s job is it? And if you could label it as someone’s job (let’s go for someone in the “highways agency”) how do they get to know it needs doing? I don’t know about you but I see dozens of highways agency maintenance people on every journey I do, just cruising around looking for things that need doing. {sarcasm}.

When was the last time you saw something that needed doing in a public place and took the time to think about who should be told, try to contact them, get told to contact someone else, find out it’s not their job but are asked to ring Dave, who you do ring and he says thanks (before making a note to think about it, whilst probably muttering “this is not my job, I’ve got major roadworks to look after”). Hell, it’s easier to stop and move the branch.

Generally in life, in so many situations, I am constantly wondering why someone has not done X (or has done Y). Why don’t you reach for the jar in the shop the old lady can’t quite reach? Why don’t you hold the door? Why did you drop that litter when the bin is JUST THERE! That person  in front of you buying a parking ticket can’t find 10p in their purse to make the correct change? You have loads of 10p pieces… some in your hand already.

This is what is depressing me. Even though nearly everyone likes to think they are the nice person who will do a little for the common good, the reality is that most people won’t when it comes to it – but most people think we all should, and you tell yourselves you do the little things. You are telling yourself now, aren’t you? You are trying to think of the little things you have done for the common good. If you can think of a half dozen in the last month then you really are one of the good guys/gals. If you can only come up with a few…and actually most of them were ages ago… well, sorry but you are the problem.

The strange thing is that, having just insulted you all, as a group you lot are much more likely to be in the 1% than normal. Even though out of the general public not even 1 in 100 people would put in a little effort to move that branch, out of the people reading this, I’d say 10% would. Because I spend a lot of time in the Oracle user community, packed with people who give up their time, knowledge, even their holidays, to speak at conferences, help organise meetings, answer on forums, write blogs, answer questions on twitter, and all that stuff. Many of you reading this are active members of the User Community doing not just small things but often large things for the community. That’s why the community works.

To the rest of you, instead of liking to think you would move the branch or claiming you would (as everyone wants to be thought of as the nice guy/gal) just occasionally move the branch. Or pick that piece of litter up. Or do something small that cost you so little but it just would be nice if someone did it.

No one will thank you.

But you will know you did it. And you are becoming no longer part of the problem but part of the solution. I’m not asking you to give 10% of your salary to charity or give up an important part of your life, just do a bit of the small stuff.

If more of us do it, we will have a better world. If someone had moved that branch soon after it fell, I would not have had to  avoid some swerving dickhead, and the person I saw later would have not had to avoid people who could not even be bothered to slow down or stop briefly. And, in the worst case, that needless accident need not have happened. It really is as simple as spending 1 minute moving a branch.

Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution. It’s really, really, really easy.

 

Friday Philosophy: The Intersecting Worlds Around Oracle April 24, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, humour, User Groups.
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Some of you may have noticed something about the Oracle Community: How certain other aspects of human nature, factors, and outside activities are unusually common.  An abiding love of the works of Douglas Adams (If you have never read “The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy” you should question if you are right for this community – and if you have read it/seen the series/watched the film and disliked it, I’m afraid you have to leave now); Lego was probably an important part of your childhood (and quite possibly your adulthood, though some “project” this fixation on to their kids). A lot of the most talented people, especially presenters, are called “Martin” or similar :-}.

Three Different Worlds Meet

There are two other groups of people that are large within the Oracle community and that I fit into.

  1. Oracle people who have a thing about cats. A positive thing, not those weird people who don’t like cats. It seems to me a lot of people in the Oracle community are happy to serve our feline overlords. This can polarise the community though, so introduce the topic of cats carefully. If the other person mentions how evil or unfriendly cats are, put them on The List Of The Damned and move on to something else.
  2. Making bread, especially of the sourdough variety. This is a growing passion I’ve noticed (quite literally, given the careful tendering of starter mixtures and also expanding waistlines). It seems to be especially common with technical Oracle people. More often than not, when I get together with a flange of Oracle Professionals (or is it a whoop or a herd?) the topic of baking bread will come up. Unlike technical topics, such as what is the fastest way to get a count of all the rows in a table, baking topics are rarely contentious and lead to fights. If you want to put spelt wheat in you mix, that’s just fine.

Mrs Widlake and I were talking about this last night (one of the problems with all this social isolation business is that Mrs Widlake is being forced to spend a lot of time with me – after 27 years of marriage idle conversation was already a challenge for us and now with over a month together all the time, we are getting desperate for topics). She asked how many of my Oracle friends liked both cats AND baking bread?

It struck me that it seemed to be very, very few. Unusually few. I think this is something that needs to be investigated.  This pattern would suggest that bread makers are cat haters. But in my non-Oracle world, this is not the case. The best people are, of course,  Ailurophiles and many of my feline-fixated friends are also bakers of bread. Just not in the Oracle world.

What makes Oracle people so weird?

Does anyone have any ideas? And have you noticed any other common areas of interest (excluding computers of course, that’s just obvious)?

A few that spring to mind are:

  • Terry Pratchett and the Discworld
  • Running
  • Weird science
  • XKCD
  • The Far Side
  • Star bloody Wars.

Let me know. Or don’t.

And for all of you who don’t like cats…

Meow

Postponing Ireland Conference – & Maybe Myself? March 5, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting, Private Life, science, UKOUG, User Groups.
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As I tweeted a couple of days ago, I never thought I would write something announcing cancelling an event due to a worldwide pandemic. And yet that was what I was asked to do earlier this week (first week of March 2020). It will be interesting to look back at this in the future and judge if it was a wise decision or an over-reaction. At present, I am 100% for Wise Decision.

This week UKOUG decided that, in light of the impacts & concerns around the COVID-19 coronavirus, to postpone this year’s annual Irish conference we hold in Dublin. I thought it would be interesting to some of you to know a little of how we came to that decision.

Firstly, this was a joint decision made by the event committee, the UKOUG board, and the UKOUG senior management. Discussions around the topic of COVID-19 and  had taken place between some of us over the prior 24 hours and the event committee had decided that, in their opinion, there was a strong case to not hold the event at this time. They discussed this with the UKOUG senior management and our CEO decided this deserved an emergency board call. This board call would not just consider the event in Ireland but also our future events, our staff, and our members. (In this post I’m only talking about the Irish event, but enough to say that we are taking steps to protect our staff and consider future events and how they might impact our members & the public, plus how we may replace physical events with remote ones).

Secondly, as you can see above, this was a considered decision and not a knee-jerk reaction.  We had people who live in Ireland involved, we considered feedback we had received from partners/sponsors and also delegates. We talked with the venue. We looked at factual information about COVID-19, it’s communicability & mortality rate (how easily you can be infected and how likely you are to die respectively). In the end the decision was easy as we were all in agreement, we needed to postpone the event.

Thirdly, there were several factors behind the decision to postpone OUG Ireland.

Public Concern

We had several presenters pull out from the event. For most their employing company had banned non-essential (or even all) travel, and some had decided that they personally did not want to risk exposure. A couple of sponsors were in the same situation of being told they could not attend. Further, we had concerned delegates contacting us asking if the event was still on or what steps we were taking. Some cancelled coming, again a mixture of diktat from employer or a personal decision not to attend.

Interestingly, we were getting as many new delegates signing up for the event as dropping out, so obviously some people felt COVID-19 was not an issue.

We knew we had enough speakers in reserve that we could call on to fill agenda holes but we also could see that more and more events were being cancelled across Europe and more companies were announcing travel limitations, so the cancellations were likely to escalate on the run-up to the event. What happens months ahead, no one knows, but for now the public concern is very, very high.

I considered titling this section as FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt. But FUD is usually a derogatory term indicating a baseless over-reaction. I think there is a lot of FUD going on in the general public, but people in IT tend to be smarter than average and more balanced. I think it is very reasonable to be concerned to some degree and, as you will see at the end of this piece, the concern will vary depending on your personal circumstances. For some people (e.g those with Asthma or similar decreased lung capacity) there is a significant increased personal risk from this specific illness, it is not always a case of a simple “I’m worried about a pandemic”.

Financial Considerations

With the best will in the world, user groups needs money to put on events. There is a commercial aspect to this. Putting on an event that fails and loses money is a danger. We at UKOUG do insure our major events against Force Majeure, basically events beyond our control, but we are like all user groups in that we walk a tightrope of finance.

Cancelling an event does not always save any money as it has already been paid out. But if a sponsor gets a poor experience in return for their sponsorship £/€/$ they are not happy (and neither are we as the organisers). If delegates come and the event feels like an empty room or the agenda is not what they want, they may not come again. As you can see, it is complex

I have to say that for Ireland we benefit from an excellent relationship with our venue, we have held the event at the Gresham in Dublin for several years and our committee & office know them well. They reduced the potential financial impact on us by offering us flexibility in re-arranging this event.

I make this point as some user groups (and of course, other companies) putting on public events in the near future may find that they have no such flexibility. For them cancelling a conference could actually kill the user group financially or result in individuals losing a lot of money. Did you know that sometimes it is individuals or a very small company that is bank-rolling your usergroup events?

For some user groups the financial consideration will be far more acute than it is for UKOUG.

Public Health

This is not the same as public concern. Public concern is about the actions people take in response to a danger or threat. Public Health is about the actual, real threat.

At present you (yes, you reading this) are almost certainly in more danger of being murdered, killed in a road accident, or dying of normal ‘flu than of dying from COVID-19. And have been all year. And yet none of you stopped living your normal life because of those threats. Most people who will think they have COVID-19 over the next month will actually have either a standard cold or normal influenza. And in fact 90% or so of those who catch COVID-19 will not be that ill. Medical testing is the only sure way of knowing which disease you have had.

But COVID-19 spreads relatively easily via fluid contact – droplets in the air through coughs & sneezes but, more commonly, similar dampness on hard surfaces by people touching their mucous membranes (think eyes, nose, and mouth) and then door handles, surfaces, smart devices. You then touch these surfaces and then your face and you have transmitted the disease to yourself.  Prevention methods are all about constant washing of hands and avoiding touching things. Face masks do diddly squit except if you are in the situation where people might cough in your direction (so medical staff) or to help prevent you coughing the virus out and infecting others. I find it somewhat ironic that in some places so many people have rushed to wear face masks to protect themselves from others but actually it will be doing more to protect others from them.

COVID-19 also has a higher degree or mortality than ‘flu. It stands at about 3.4% at present, compared to 0.1% for standard influenza. I’ve seen arguments that “the real rate is lower as it kills mostly old people or those with underlying conditions”. Well, of COURSE it kills those groups more, that is true for all other diseases. Influenza mostly kills the old, the very young, and the at-risk. That 0.1% is measuring a similar spread of deadliness as the 3.4%. If you get COVID-19 you are something like 30-40 times more likely to die of it than if you get typical influenza. An oddity of COVID-19 is that it does not seem to affect babies and toddlers as much as influenza does. So this new disease is overall more dangerous to adults, especially older adults, than flu than the basic figures indicate…

The mortality rate has increased from around 2% to 3.4% over the last month. Why? Mostly as people are now aware of COVID-19 and deaths will be correctly attributed to it rather than wrongly to other, similar things (like ‘flu). It’s almost certainly not getting more potent. In fact, we might expect the mortality rate to drop as people with a mild version of the disease were probably not being recorded or were being wrongly diagnosed, so the total number of cases would be a lot higher. I expect this figure to drop below 2% for countries with a good health service and no unusually high elderly population.

So what are the chances of holding a user group event and someone infected with the disease coming to the event? Very, very low. The number of known cases outside China are, as a percentage of the population, sod all. But if someone infectious does come to the event? Catching COVID-19 (and in fact a lot of people catching it and it becoming a new source or widespread infection) is quite high.

For those of use who look at project risks it is a very low likelihood/very high impact risk. Something like a hard disk overheating and setting fire to the server. I’ve had that, by the way.

So far the steps taken to keep this disease from spreading are proving effective at slowing it down. But it is spreading. I personally think it is going to get worse before it gets better. Maybe a lot worse, and I am pretty cynical about most “we are doomed” news stories.

Large Oracle user group events are more of a risk than say a big party. Why? A lot of speakers and exhibitors come from geographically distant places, so you are bringing people together from a large area. These people travel a lot and meet a lot of people. It increases the risk. At a party everyone is probably local and if there is no one local with the disease, you are safe. Safer.

This is partly why I was very much in favour of postponing the Irish conference, it had an enhanced risk associated with it as we had an international contingent coming.

What makes me feel qualified to think this? I am not a medic and I am certainly not an epidemiologist (someone who studies disease spread), but I have the advantage of a degree in genetics & zoology and many years of working with the National Health Service and biological academia (some of it on disease and immunology). I am not an expert, but by accident of my history I am better informed than most.

These factors made Ireland too much of a risk, even if the likelihood of something bad happening was actually very low.

Smaller events are less risky and, at present, will go ahead. But all will be reviewed.

 

People want the event

The final factor is that people want the event. Either they do not think the risk is real or they feel that they will be OK anyway as they are young(ish) and healthy or “fate” or whatever. So they will come to the event anyway and cancelling it is “giving in”. Lots of large sporting events are now being cancelled (such as come 5 nations rugby matches) and I am sure a lot of fans are not happy about this. But these are exactly the mass gatherings of disparate people that will really help to spread COVID-19 and create a true epidemic.

In some ways, cancelling a large event could be seen as protecting the ignorant 🙂

 

Maybe Myself?

In the title I mentioned I might need to postpone myself. Why?

At the moment I am an At Risk person. 3 months ago I was in intensive care attached to the most powerful ventilator the NHS uses which does not need the patient to be knocked unconscious and a tube put down into the lungs. In fact, shortly after I was admitted and I was deteriorating, it was expected that I would probably be put into a medical coma and mechanically ventilated. I’m generally fine now – but my lungs are still damaged and recovering. I had influenza & pneumonia. I’ve been asked by a couple of people if I could have actually been a very early COVID-19 case? No. It was not known outside China at the time and lab tests identified the exact strain of influenza I had. If I had been diagnosed with an unknown strain I’d expect the sample would have been re-tested, but this is not the case.

I’m no more likely to catch COVID-19 than any of you, but if I do catch it I am more likely to be at the 3.4% end of things due to the slowly healing lung damage. This is another reason I have paid extra attention to the science behind COVID-19.

I probably should have cancelled my trip to Ireland before the event was postponed, but I was in that last area of consideration. I was not thinking it would effect me and I wanted to go to the event. In the last few days I’ve been advised by people who are clinically qualified that airports & public transport are not a good idea for me. My wife has expressed a desire for me to not give the whole intensive-care-kept-going-by-machines thing a second go as it stressed her. And the cat.

Smaller events I will probably still go to as the risk is lower. And events where everyone is local and there is no signs of the disease there. I really want to go to a meeting in Poland where this will be the case. But to get there I have to go through airports. Full of people from all over the globe. Hmmm.

Personally I am expecting more events, both user groups and generally, to be cancelled. Part of me thinks they should be, the very small risk of a very bad impact is not worth learning a bit more about some software – and you all know how passionate I am about learning.

I think I should be more mindful of the risks myself, but then am I over-reacting?

And I think COVID-19 is going to spread more and kill more people before prevention steps and, eventually, treatment is developed to keep it in check. But I really hope I am wrong on that.

Should You Go To Oracle OpenWorld Europe? Yes!… But… February 3, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Knowledge, UKOUG, User Groups.
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Oracle Open World (Europe) is taking place in London in February. On Wednesday 12th & Thursday 13th Oracle will be giving lots of talks on Cloud, AI, Business Intelligence, Cloud Application Development, and anything else they see as modern and trendy. Oracle Partners will be there, demo booths by Oracle where you can talk to area experts, Safra Catz will be giving a keynote and, for entertainment, there are a couple of well known guest presenter. Go see who.

Stolen outrageously from Oracle web site

I’ll certainly be going along to see what they have to say. And if Oracle is part of your IT ecosystem (or might become part of it) & you are in the UK then I really think you, or someone in your organisation, should be there. Especially if you are making decisions on business applications, where you keep your IT services, or what tech you use. I’d say it’s worth a trip over from Europe for it, especially if you are “close”. Oracle will be telling you an awful lot about what is new and the event is free! Yes, Oracle giving something away for free. The only cost to you is your time. And travel to East London. Maybe a hotel for a night.

Free.

And that is the “But…”. Like any event by any large vendor, what you will hear about will be deeply coloured. Red in this case (though Oracle seem to be going a lot more pastel with their branding these days and I much prefer it). What do I mean by deeply coloured?

  • Everything you hear will be at least rose-tinted and potentially unrealistically optimistic.
  • The vendor will be pushing what it wants to see growing in it’s order books, not what you currently have.
  • You are the “product”, especially if an event is free. “Free” and “Big Vendor” do not really go together, vendors doing this sort of thing are trying to expand market share, or at least preserve it.
  • You will hear nothing about any competing services or tech, except how it is not as good as the Vendor’s. Even if the other solution is by far the best option for your business.

This is of course self-evident. A business depends on sales and Oracle is no different. But in amongst all the gloss, free food, carefully crafted messages, and entertainment, somehow the reality gets diluted and people seem to think the vendor has become somehow charitable and are doing this out of the goodness of their corporate hearts.

Would you prefer an event where all the above are not true, or are at least diluted?

Well, In I.T. there is an alternative -or, I should say, a complement – to the corporate marketing pitch.

User Groups.

A good user group is independent of the vendor, just as the UK Oracle User Group is. UKOUG is not funded by Oracle, Oracle has no say in what we do, and we do not simply repeat the current Oracle Marketing Pitch of the year. We say what is bad. We say what is good. Because we will say what is bad, you can better trust us when we say what is good. What is more, Vendors want to know what they are doing bad (and good) – so they listen to us.

Most countries across Europe (and around the wider world) have national or local Oracle user groups that are similar to UKOUG. They are independent of Oracle, they are run by a mixture of volunteers and occasionally small companies and they exist solely to help the user group community get the most out of Oracle and related services & technology. If you use Oracle, you really should be a member of an Oracle User Group.

Why? I’ll use UKOUG as the example (I am biased, I am president of UKOUG – but I present at and have in other ways helped many user groups across Europe and beyond, I’ve had the advantage of being a member of UKOUG for over 15 years).

At UKOUG events we don’t Market Oracle, we have content on:

  • Current and older products & tech, the stuff you are using NOW. Stuff that is mostly ignored at marketing events, especially free ones.
  • Real world stories which include the real-world “this did not work” or “we had a sod of a time sorting out X”
  • Details of how to get something to function rather than a “it’s so simple, it just works”
  • Discussions on how to get technology or applications from one vendor to mesh with another, and even how to get your data out. Database Vendors tend to tell you only how to get data in!

And on top of all this we also have the latest-greatest from Oracle. Oracle know that members of the user group are engaged and looking for solutions. Of course they want to present to this group. But we at UKOUG also work with many Oracle product managers, many of whom are keen to talk about stuff over and above current marketing angles. Product managers know that 90% of businesses using their products are way more interested in what they can do with their current solutions (and sometimes they are pretty old current solutions) rather than going latest-greatest

UKOUG – My community.

We have hundreds of engaged members and partners who can help you with the problems you are facing, right now, with the version of whatever you are using in your business.

The way I see it, being a member of an independent user group is a cheap insurance policy for an organisation. You pay a lot of money for large vendor solutions and on-going maintenance, often hundreds of thousands of £/€ or even millions for large companies. Being a member of the UKOUG is small change compared to that (from £45 to £1,628 depending on how much goodness you want from us). Going to user group conferences across Europe is probably cheaper all-in-all than a trip to London, and you get a much more realistic take on the technology you are using. The canapes & coffee won’t be as good, mind, our budgets are very limited.

I absolutely, 100% encourage people to go to Oracle and other big vendor events, especially free ones like OOW Europe. If you want to know what is coming with Oracle, if you want to investigate what options to buy or upgrade are available, or you are simply curious about the state of the art, then get yourself a pass to OOW Europe. Do it now, the event is almost fully subscribed.

If you want to have another source of the truth, one less coloured by Marketing and more coloured by reality, join your local user group and go to their events.

I’m biased of course, but a UKOUG membership is a very, very wise investment for anyone who has already invested an eye-watering sum with the vendor. If you are based somewhere else in Europe, check out your national user group and what they can offer. You can of course still join UKOUG but look local first.

UKOUG will have a stand at OOW Europe. Come over and see us, whether you are a member, want to be a member, or just want a friendly chat. Being a user group, we are pretty friendly!

Friday Philosophy – Community Means So Much December 27, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Private Life, User Groups.
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There have been a few things in the last month that have really brought home to me how much I personally receive from the Community. In my case, my Community is primarily the Oracle User Community – The end users who come together to share knowledge, the Oracle employees who support this, and the companies that support the end users. For most of you reading this, you are part of the Oracle User Community, but most of you will be (I hope) in other communities too through your other interests, be they religious, music, hobbies, sports, charities etc.

My community. I even like some of them 😃

At the start of this month (December 2019) I was at UKOUG’s Techfest2019, our annual December conference which is now focused just on Tech. As “El Presidente” of UKOUG (an unofficial modification of the official title of President, dropped on me by friends with a similar sense of humour as myself). I represent the whole of our membership, be they tech, business applications, or data analytics. But my background is Oracle Technology and so I naturally know more people in that sphere. And I’ve known some of them for over 15 years. There was close to 500 people at the conference on a couple of days and I recognised probably 2/3 of these people, and knew half enough to swap pleasantries. More importantly, a couple of dozen of those people have become good friends.

Conferences, to me, epitomise the community. We exchange knowledge, we learn, but we also have fun and we socialise in a way that I feel you simply can’t via social media. I like nothing more than meeting someone in the flesh that I have only known on-line, having a chat or a coffee or a beer or even a meal. It can really help make that connection that moves acquaintance to friendship (we’ll skip over those rarer occasions when you meet in the flesh and realise they are simply not your cup of tea!).

UKOUG conferences have become a little weird for me over the last few years, due I think to my roles in helping organise parts of the event and now being UKOUG president. I get a lot of positive feedback and personal moral support from people. I’d goes as far as to say I receive genuine affection from some people. I’m told how much they enjoy the event, how much better the coffee is, and sometimes what is not so good about the event (which I need to know), but always in a constructive manner. And people take the piss out of me. Oddly enough, especially with men, you know you are liked when you get good-natured abuse. I get a lot of abuse. In my head it is 95% good-natured 😃.

You had to be there for it to make *any* sense

The downside is I just can’t spend time with all the people I want to spend some time with. I’m getting better at moving about and trying to chat with as many people as I can, but I can only sit down and have a coffee or beer and socially catch up with so many people in the time I have. And not all my time is my own, I have to be President and do things. On that note, I apologise for any mental health issues caused by me taking my clothes off on stage this year…

The care of the community was really brought home to me after Techfest19, when I came down with ‘flu which then ganged up with secondary lung infections and put me in hospital for over a week. I only posted to Facebook (briefly) during this period (I did not want to shout it out over Twitter, which is like talking to the world). For me Facebook is friends & family. Even so, I got so many notes of concern and good wishes. And when I did put up a blog post when I was getting better, I got another burst of support and concern – and that was really nice. If I was not involved in a community, I would not have got that.

But there was another aspect of that show of affection by community that surprised me. My wife Sue is in her own community, that of millinery & hat making. There is not a lot of crossover between that world and the Oracle world! Sue had had the same ‘flu as me but without the extra “fun” I had, and she was having to try and help me in hospital as she struggled to recover herself. And her millinery community gave her so much support and care, which spilled out to include me.  And as Sue has a bit of a foot in the Oracle community also (she has presented at a UKOUG event in her own technical right and has joined me at conferences and met some of my Oracle friends), some of my community reached out to her to check how I was – and how she was coping. That was lovely.

Another aspect of community is the sharing of technical help. I’m a member of the OakTable network and as well as sharing our knowledge with the wider community (we are pretty much all presenters, bloggers, explainers), we help each other. None of us knows the whole Oracle stack or the related tech. During December there were several threads from people you would know as experts going “guys & gals, I’m confused by this” or “I’m seeing X and I suspect Y but I’m just not able to prove it”. And each time people stepped in and helped. Even the big Oracle names need help from the community. So you see, it does not matter if you are brand new to a technical area or lauded as the God of Tuning, everyone at all levels learns from the community.

The Oracle ACEs at Techfest19, core to supporting the Oracle user community

I’m not happy with a lot of things going on in the world at the moment. The UK is becoming more nationalistic, more jingoistic, fundamentally more tribal and distrusting of “them” – foreigners. I hate it. Our right-wing, Conservative government is milking this, encouraging this attitude. You also see it in the US & Trump with his MAGA and his talk of beating other countries with trade embargoes or military might. I know other European countries are seeing a rise in the worst aspects of nationalism and tribal distrust or even hate of “not our tribe”. It really upsets me and makes me worried about where our nations are going.

I think none-tribal communities like the Oracle one, the Millinery one, like most hobby ones, can help dispel this. It’s harder to dislike people from other parts of the world when you engage with them and know, on a personal level, they are the same as “us”, whatever “us” is.

And on my own personal level? I get out of my community five times what I put in.  This month I have received in plenty.

I’d encourage you all to get more involved in your communities and consider joining new ones.  And if you get the chance to physically meet members of your community you only know through screen & smart phone, put the effort in to do so. It can convert acquaintances into real friends and I think most of us would benefit from more friends.

I’m not sure I’ll post again this year, so Happy New Year everyone. And thank you.

 

Presenting Well – Tell Your Story November 28, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting, User Groups.
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<<<<<< How to (Not) Present – The Evil Threes

I don’t think the key to a really good presentation or (technical post) is the content, the structure, the delivery method, or even the main message. It’s The Story.

Coming to a Conference Near You Soon!

Actually, I’d go as far as to say that there is no one, single key to presenting well – but The Story seems to be at the heart of many of the best presentations I have seen and I think that some of the best presenters I know use The Story.

More and more I strive to present by Telling A Story. It works for me and since I started doing this, I think my presentations have got a lot better.

When you read (or watch) a story, it is about something – a person, an event, how change occurred, overcoming an obstacle. It might be hard to totally define what a story is, but when you read a book and it does not really go anywhere, it’s usually not satisfying and you know it has not really told the story. Some presentations are like that: They have some great content and there is knowledge being passed on but, just as when characters are poorly developed or the plot is disjointed, the presentation feels like it’s made of bits and you come away feeling you can’t join all the dots. With a book lacking a good story you may feel you did not get what the author was trying for; with a technical presentation you might feel you don’t really understand how you achieve something – or why.

When people design a talk they usually focus on “what facts do I need to tell, what details must I include”. The aim is to put information in other people’s heads. But facts and code and details are hard to absorb. For many a story helps it all go in more smoothly. You absolutely need the facts and details, but if you start gently, setting the pace – but maybe hinting of things to come or an early nugget of detail maybe  (as you do with story) – then expand the scope and go into the details you stand a better chance of carrying the crowd with you.

If you are now thinking “It’s hard enough to come up with a presentation topic, design the talk and then deliver it, and now you want me to do all that and in the form of a story?!? – that’s going to be so much harder!” well, let me explain why I think it is actually easier.

This man is telling a story of Violence, Despair and… APEX

It’s already a story

First of all, what you want to talk about could be, by it’s very nature, already a story.

If the presentation is about using a software technique or product to solve a business problem – that’s a story about how you did it (or, even better, how you tried to do it and it failed – most people present on successes but presentations on failures are often fantastic!).

If it is about learning about a feature of a language or of the database, your story is something like:

“how do I get going with this, what do I need to learn, the things that went wrong, my overcoming adversity {my ignorance}, and finally reaching the sunny up-hills of expertise”.

Flow

A story has a flow. It’s a lot easier to learn a story than a set of facts. Some talks are just facts. In fact {see what I did there} many techniques for remembering lists of things are to make them into a story. Some talks are “here are the 12 things you need to know about Oracle 19c” and though each point is maybe something useful, by the time I get to the end of the talk I feel like my brain has been having a wrestle with the information. I’m not sure how you would convert such a talk to a story but maybe just a flow of “technique A informs B and makes you think about C…. and that finally leads to L”.

Rather than making it harder to remember, having a story makes it easier to remember your talk and move through it. Each part of the presentation leads to (and reminds you of, up on that scary stage where your brain might burp) the next part. The Story helps remove the fear of forgetting parts of your material, and thus helps Control the Presentation Monster.

For the audience it gives them a progression, a narrative. I find that if a talk does not so much leap from points but more segues into them, it is easier to listen and focus. As I design my talks and add more facts and details, I keep in mind how can I preserve the flow. If I am going to talk about some of the things that can go wrong, putting them all in 4 slides together is easy for me and I have a chunk of “things to avoid” – but it may well break the flow, so I try to mention the things to avoid as I came across them or as I expand my theme. I fit them into the flow of the story.

Added colour

I’m not at all suggesting you invent characters or plot devices for your talk. That really would be hard! I also suspect that, unless you were a brilliant story teller, it would be pretty awful! But you can add in little aspects of this.

If I mention someone in my presentation, I usually give a couple of bits of information about them. Not a biography, just something like “Dave was the systems admin – wonderful collection of Rick & Morty t-shirts and no sense of smell”. There is no need for me to do this, it does not help understand the technical content, but now people have a mental (and possibly even nasal) image of Dave.

Side plots – if in learning about some aspect of say Virtual Private Database I discovered something about PL/SQL functions, I’ll divert from My Core Story and give 3 or 4 minutes on that (as a mini story). The great thing about side stories is that, depending on your time management, you can drop or include them as your talk progresses. If I get asked questions during my talk and it has slowed me down (which is NOT a problem – I love the interaction) I can drop a side plot.

Interaction

All engaged, no phones being looked at…

Finally, when you tell a story you talk to your audience. You are not talking AT an audience. You are explaining to them the background, taking them through the narrative of the topic and leading them, possibly via some side stories, to the conclusion. It is far more like communicating with your audience than dictating to them. And, if you are brave enough to do so, you can look at your audience and engage with them, try to judge if they are following the story and have any feedback or response to it. Mostly any feedback is quite passive (no one shouts out to hear more about PL/SQL functions) but you will catch people’s eye, get a smile, get some indication that they are listening.

For me, discovering that last bit about The Story was when I finally felt I had a way of presenting that worked for me. If I am talking with my audience and I feel there is an engagement, a rapport, that is when I do my best job of it. That’s when I come off the stage buzzing and happy.

Danger Will Robinson!

There is a danger to Telling a Story and that is time. Most good stories build to a satisfying end. Most technical presentations also generally have a main point. But if you are progressing through a Story you might run out of time, in which case you do not get to your Big Expose or you have to suddenly blurt out the ending. It’s like those TV programs where they obviously run out of steam and some kludge is used to end it  – “And then the side character from an hour ago appears, distracts the dragon and you nick the golden egg! Hurr…  ah?”.

You can modify the run time with side plots as I say above, but if you are going to Tell a Story, you need to practice the run time more than normal.

You can finish early, it’s better than not finishing at all. But being on time is best.

How to (Not) Present – The Evil Threes November 22, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Perceptions, Presenting, User Groups.
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<< I Wish All New Presenters Knew This (and it will help you)
<<<<Controlling The Presentation Monster (Preparing to Present)
. . . . . . . . . Presenting Well – Tell Your Story >>

I’m going to let you into a secret. One of the most commonly taught “sure-fire-wins” to presenting is, in my opinion, a way to almost guarantee that your presentation is boring and dull.

Whenever I am in a presentation and I realise they are going to do the “Rule of Three”, a little piece of me dies – and I check to see if I can get to an exit without too much notice. If I can do so I’m probably going to leave. Otherwise, I’ll be considerate and sit quietly. But I’m already thinking I might just watch cat videos on my phone.

The Evil Three!

The Rule of Three is a presenting structure that is useful if you hate presenting and you feel you are poor at it, but an inescapable part of your role is to present information to groups of people – be they internally to your team or to small groups. The principle is this:

  • People will only remember 3 things from your presentation.
  • There are three parts to your presentation – the start, the body, the end.
  • Use lists of three. I have examples below but basically say something like “be more engaging, more dynamic, more able to get the message over”. 3 parts.
  • 3 squared – use the above to create a killer presentation!
    • Tell the audience in the intro the three things you are going to tell them (briefly)
    • In the body explain each one of the three points in turn, in detail (using lists of three)
    • at the end, sum up the three points briefly.
    • Finish. To indifferent applause.

The problem with the Rule of three is it is a formula, a structure, to help the presenter to cope. Which if presenting is not your thing is OK. But it is not a method for engaging the audience or for making a talk interesting. It is in fact a straight jacket on a talk. As soon as it starts you know that you are going to be told three things. You will be told them again – but actually you won’t, as the presenter nearly always has 2, 4, 5, or even12 things to tell you and they will “make it fit” the structure of three. (Hey, maybe let’s have three sub-points to each three points but I only have 7 points to make so I’ll repeat a couple…). And at the end, you will have to listen to a summary of what you heard twice already – but again, it will be squeezed into the 3-point-rule.

I guess part of the reason I dislike this technique so much is that back when I started presenting, it was ubiquitous. I’d say half the talks I saw were Rule of Three style and they were the bulk of the poor ones. Back then we did not have Smart Phones. Many of us did not even have Dumb Phones (you know, ones that pretty much only made calls and sent texts, but worked for a week between charges). I played a lot of “snake” during those bad talks. Another thing we had back then was more in the way of training courses. And maybe that was the source of the popularity of this style…

After a year or two of my “presenting career” I went on an Advanced Presentation Skills course. I checked before hand that it was not a course for those who had never presented or had to present but it made them want to die,  but that the course was aimed at taking you from being competent to being a skilled presenter. They said yes, it was. It was for people who already presented but wanted to be more engaging, more dynamic, more able to get the message over. My next question was “so no Rule of Three then?” They said no, no Rule of Three.

Erik says “This presentation Sucks”

The course was all around the Rule of Three.

Now don’t get me wrong, if your aim is to describe something fairly simple and all you want to do is get that information from your brain into the brains of the people listening, with the minimum of pain to you, then the Rule of Three will work. It is fairly simple and it is efficient. But you better have a topic that has 3 parts to it and you are using this method as you are only presenting as you are being forced to and this is a way to cope.

If you want to Present, then the Rule of Three sucks. It really sucks. It sucks the enjoyment out of the talk, it sucks the energy out the room, and it sucks the oxygen out of the atmosphere.

They heard I was doing a presentation by The Rule of Three…

The one part of the Rule of Three that I do have a lot of time for is having three parts or examples to a phrase or description. “Be strong, be bold, be brave!” Listing three options such as “If you want to wake up a little then try some light exercise. Go for a walk, get on the bike for 15 minutes, or even a jog a mile or two”. This is a pattern the ancient Greeks used a lot, as you will find out (ad nauseam – which is Latin not Greek) if you google “The rule of three”. Two does not seem enough and 4 or 5 seem a little over the top. But don’t use it all the time as otherwise it can make what you say (or write) too formulaic, too structured, too obvious… a bit crap.

Anyway, having got to the course and discovered that it was all on the Rule Of Three, to say I was annoyed would be a serious understatement. The course was not at all on how you make your presentations more engaging or how to identify things to avoid. (And I will do a post or two on those topics next).

However I did manage to have some fun. On all such presentation skills courses you do at least one, if not several, practice presentations to the other delegates.

I did one presentation that went down very well. It was on why I so, so, so dislike presenting by the Rule of Three.

UKOUG TechFest19 Survival Guide November 13, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Meeting notes, UKOUG, User Groups.
Tags: , , ,
7 comments

Brighton, December 1st-4th 2019, Grand Hotel, Techfest2019. This is the big Technology event for the UKOUG this year, one of the largest Oracle Tech events in Europe.

All This And More

The UKOUG conference is traditionally the one to finish the European year of conferencing and it is always incredibly popular with both delegates and presenters. There are two things that are not traditional about this year’s UKOUG December conference:

  • It is Technology Focused. We asked our members when they wanted their annual conference and there was a strong split between Business Applications and Technology members, with many Business Apps members finding December a bad time to be out of the office and most of them preferring May/June, so we split the conference and the big Business Apps conference will be in June 2020. However, our Tech members wanted to stick to December.
  • The conference is in the South of England. Birmingham was our conference home for many years and we have been to Manchester & Liverpool, so time to try the South.

I’m really please we are in Brighton as it is a lively, fascinating place. Also, being that little bit further south, it might be less cold. Slightly!

Why Come?

Because there will be fantastic talks, round tables, Q&A sessions, experts to quiz, people with the the same technical challenges as you, Partners able to offer services and, last but not least, it will be fun!

Technical Content

The UKOUG conferences are very popular with presenters. On average we get 5 submissions per presenting slot, more for some streams. We could fill the conference with talks from Oracle ACEs, Oracle Certified Masters, and the best Oracle Corp offer. What we actually do is have stream-specific teams that select not just known speakers but also topics we know are hot, new presenters, avoid repeating content. It’s damned hard work but we aim to give you:

  • Independent experts who will tell you exactly how it is, like Richard Foote on indexes (all the way from Auz, so a rare chance to see him), Frank Pachot from CERN, Security guru Pete Finnigan, Abigail Giles-Haigh, Craig Shallahamer, Jonathan Lewis, Zahid Anwar, Loneke Dikmans…
  • Oracle giving you the latest information “from the horses mouth” and, just as important, the chance to meet product managers and other experts. People like Maria Colgan, Mike Deitrich, Jeff Smith, Nigel Bayliss, Susan Duncan
  • 9 or more concurrent streams across Development, Analytics & Data Science, Database, Systems & Infrastrructure, and APEX. No matter what your interest in the Oracle Tech world we hope your problem will not be “is there a session of interest” but “which session of interest do I go to now?”
  • Roundtable discussions, panels, keynotes, presentations – and the chance to meet the experts around the conference and at the socials

The arrows should not be taken as indicative of any specific type of fun…

Fun

Learning stuff at conference is the name of the game, but so is having some fun. The more enjoyable the conference and the social times after are, the more you you will get out of the content. I know from personal experience that if a conference is just information and being serious, after a few hours my brain shuts off.

Also, it’s when you are more relaxed that the magic thing about attending an event in person happens – you meet people and get to know them better. This opens doors to industry experts, you find people dealing with the same PIA technical issues as you, you exchange war stories. You make friends. I get just as much (if not more) from the people I meet at conference than the official presentations.

Monday evening there will be networking drinks, Tuesday will be the big party (and I’ve been promised No Loud Music!!!). If you are a UKOUG volunteer or speaker, there is a drinks reception Sunday night. (I know of a couple of other events being put on by other companies too, such as Rittman Mead).

We will be having the retro games consoles scattered around the venue again.

And, we are in Brighton! Of course as the UKOUG President I would never encourage you to leave the conference hotel… But as a human being I would say go and look around Brighton, have a bit of fun! You might want to do what I am doing and be in Brighton a day or two before the event (or after) and really enjoy what the town has to offer.  Mrs Widlake is coming with me on Saturday so we can have a mini break.

One other fun thing – Mark Rittman is organising a gentle cycle ride Sunday morning. Details can be found {here},it will be a couple of hours via a cafe, prior to Super Sunday starting. I plan to take part.

Now, the practical stuff:

Getting There

Train

Basically, if you can get to London OK, you can get to Brighton just fine. Trains go from Victoria in under an hour, from St Pancras (very convenient if you come to London on Eurostar), London Bridge (both about 90 mins) and, if you live near Cambridge, you can get a direct train through London to Brighton. There is a direct service from Gatwick Airport taking about half an hour.

I’d strongly advise booking *now*. If you come down on Saturday or Sunday, it can cost as little as £15-20 from London, £40 from Birmingham, Bristol or Leeds.

If you don’t often travel by train just be aware that “open” tickets and booking only a few days ahead can be eye-wateringly expensive. Plan ahead, decide when you are travelling, and book ASAP.

Plane

The best international airport to fly to for Brighton is Gatwick, as there is a fast (1/2 hour) train service direct to Brighton for as little as £10. A taxi will take 40-50 minutes and cost that many pounds.

Heathrow is also sort-of on the same side of London as Brighton but you will either have to go into London to Victoria by the slow Tube line and then out on the normal train services to Brighton, or take the Heathrow Express (15 mins, about £15 each way) to London Paddington and take the tube Central Line around to Victoria.

If you come in to Stansted, basically get into London (Stansted Express) and work it out from there!

For Luton (and Stansted, sort of) Niall Litchfield says

If you are flying into Luton, don’t go into London and change. Take the shuttle bus to Luton Airport Parkway station (10 minutes) and take the direct train to Brighton. If you are going to Stanstead then you should consider your life choices!

 

Automobile

UPDATE – see comments by Niall Litchfield (again, helpful chap), a local who says to not drive in to Brighton as parking is so bad. He is 20 mins away and will take the local train. Best bet if you must is Park and Ride

It’s relatively simple to drive to Brighton. You go around the M25 to the M23 and down that, and keep going when it turns into the A23. I’m not so sure about coming along the more coastal road (A27) – I have bad memories of it taking ages to get anywhere.

But parking can be expensive. If you are not being provided parking by a hotel you are using or you plan to come in and go home each day then you might like to look at https://www.visitbrighton.com/plan-your-visit/travel-information/parking or similar. I’m no expert on parking in Brighton (I last did it 30 years ago) but I’ll ask someone local and update this accordingly. My one hint would be avoid NCP car parks – they are usually very expensive and, as a company, they are terrible. Ask anyone who commutes by train into London or any other major city and they probably hate NCP with a passion.

Walking/Cycling

Don’t be daft, unless you are local, in which case you know more than I do!

 

Under a month to go & lots of hotels available

Where to Stay

I’m afraid you missed the special deal to stay at the Grand (the location of the conference) but you might still be able to book there. However, at the time of writing (see image), there are many, many hotels available around Brighton and you might want to look at Air B&B for something cheaper.

I personally use Trivago to find accommodation but other websites are available. They should all allow you to what I do which is choose the lowest “comfort” level you want and the price range. I then use the map view as it makes things a lot easier than a list of hotels with no idea where they actually are!

I’m actually staying at the conference venue – as President I have a lot of duties so it makes sense for me to be on-site. I also know that there are a lot of presenters etc staying at the hotel so it should add to the vibe, but sometimes I specifically choose to stay a 5, 10 minute walk from a Conference, so I can get away from it all if I should wish. I find a 10 minutes stroll before a conference wakes me up and doing so after gives my brain a chance to turn off a little.

Coffee, Refreshments etc.

It’s been a problem for years at UKOUG conferences. Getting coffee (or tea or whatever) has been a real challenge as the venues always wanted a fortune to provide catering all day. Catering! Just hot drinks and maybe some biscuits! This year, tea & coffee will be available throughout the conference! I’m not guaranteeing it will be good tea and coffee, I’m not daft, but Brighton has a big coffee culture so I have hopes.

Water should always be available.

If your are a coffee snob (looking at one person in particular here) then, look, we are IN BRIGHTON! Go out the hotel and walk 2 minutes, you will soon find a hipster cafe and can get your double espresso skinny latte with raw cane sugar there. And in fact, yeah, do it! Pop out the venue for 10 mins and go to a local cafe. Or get an ice cream. Or, if you are inclined, a glass of wine and a cake. Cafe culture is all around you.

If you don’t like the provided coffee at the conference, don’t tell me. Tell me about other things that are right or wrong but, honestly, the quality of the coffee is not something I want to hear anything more about. This is the UK and it is an I.T. conference, the coffee is supposed to bad!

You will have been asked when you registered for the event if you have dietary requirements and this should be catered for. Vegetarian options should be provided at all meals as a matter of course. Any issues, as the UKOUG staff and they will sort it out for you.

At the social events there will be soft drinks as well as alcoholic ones. Some people like alcohol, some do not, it really is not that important if you drink or not. BUT if you find there are no soft options then let the UKOUG staff know immediately – we had a problem one year where the caterers only provided beer & wine and no one mentioned it for ages. They just got angry and slagged us off after the event.

There will be no secret whisky tasting this year. There never has been. It’s just a rumour. If whisky is not your thing then feel free to not bring a different thing to share at the non-existing tasting.

Chocolate. I’ve also not heard rumours about a chocolate tasting happening…

Other Hints

Go to at least one talk you know nothing about, that is not your core work area. You will probably learn something unexpectedly useful! You might even get a peak at a shift in your career.

Speak to the famous people. They are human, they are *just like you* (only, of course, much much smarter…). Honestly, just say “hi” or “isn’t it a shame about the Rugby world cup final” or “what bread do you like to bake?” (this is surprisingly likely to get an interested response from a growing number of speakers). Have a little chat. But also, please do not stalk. If you find yourself hanging about after a session to chat to the same person you chatted to three time already, you have become a scary stalker and need to stop.

If you don’t know many people at the conference, go to a panel session or a round table. If you can build up the courage, when you see a circle of half a dozen people chatting and you recognise some of them as “in your area”, go and join in. (And, if you are one of those people in a circle of mates, chatting, keep an eye out for people hanging about nearby looking nervous. I wish we did not stand in these circles, backs to each other, but I can’t think of a good way to break the circle.)

Take breaks. If you do 7 sessions in succession I am willing to bet nothing is going into the brain anymore. If you happen to find yourself talking with people just before a session starts and you are enjoying the conversation, maybe keep it going and have a coffee/water. I really do believe that those contacts you make/develop at conferences and the ad-hoc things you learn as just as valuable as listening to Connor McDonald bang on about SQL in his boring monotone again. He does rubbish slides.