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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To this day I am proud I refused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XKCD comic 741

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Philosophy – At What Point Can You Claim a Skill? June 26, 2015

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

I’ve just installed Oracle 12C on my laptop {I know, why only now?}. I went for the option to have a Container database with a pluggable database within it. {It is easy and free to install Oracle on your own home machine – so long as it is for personal use only and you are singed up to OTN (which is also free) }.

12C with pluggable databases (PDBs) is a little different to the last few versions of Oracle as it introduces this whole concept of the Container database that holds portions of the data dictionary and, within that, what we used to think of as Oracle instances plugged in underneath it. It is not *quite* like that – but this post is not about the technical aspects of Oracle 12C multitentant databases. And you will see why.

Whenever something I know well has changed more than a bit, I tend to hit this wall of “Whoa! it’s all changed!”. It isn’t all changed, but sometimes some of the fundamentals, the basics are different. For the last 15 years, once I have my database up and running I will have created my test users and some objects within 10 minutes and be playing away. Not this time. How do you create a user in a multi-tenant DB? How do I tell Oracle to create my users in that PDB? Hang on, how do I even check what I called my PDB? My ignorance is huge.

I popped over to Tim Hall’s site, OracleBase and the section on creating users under multi-tenant Oracle, scanned Bryn Llewellyn’s White Paper on it. A few google searches as well and soon I was there. My standard test to make sure the DB is alive, “select sysdate from dual” – only I altered it to show the PDB:

select SYSDATE from Dual

select SYSDATE from Dual

So I am logged into my working PDB on 12C, I have selected sysdate from DUAL, created my new user. I have used Oracle 12C and multitentant.

Next step?

Update CV to claim 12C expert and experience of Multi-tenant Oracle Database

This is of course a joke on my part.

Sadly, some people would actually do this.

It is something that has always annoyed me and often seems rife in the I.T. industry – people claiming skills or even expertise in something they have barely touched, let alone understood. And often about a thousand miles away from any legitimate claim to Expert. I chortle whenever I see a CV from someone with only 2 or 3 years’ experience of Oracle but list 20 areas they are expert in. Before I throw the CV in the bin.

Maybe part of the issue is that I.T. moves so fast and people feel they need to be seen to be on top of the changes to be worth employing or being listened to. Well, it’s nice to be leading edge – for much of my career I’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to the latest version of Oracle either as soon as it is out or even before (beta programs). But much more important is to have some integrity. Claiming to be an expert when you are not is incredibly dangerous as anyone who really does know the subject is going to suss you out in no time at all. And you will be exposed as a fraud and a liar. Gaining any respect after that is going to be really hard work, and so it should be.

Sadly, you do get the situation where people get away with this sort of deceit, usually by managing to deceive non-technical management but annoying the real technicians around them. Many of us have suffered from this.

This issue of claiming a skill before you had was very common with Exadata when it came out. Lots of people, it seemed, read the white papers, looked at some blogs and maybe saw a couple of talks – and then started talking to people about Exadata as though they knew it inside out. I actually saw a “professional” presentation like this at a conference, on Exadata, where it was soon clear that the presenter had probably never got as far as “select sysdate from dual;” on an exadata box (not that there is any difference for that statement :-) ). I could not help but interrupt and query a statement that was utterly untrue and at that point the presenter checked his “facts” with a more senior member of his company in the crowd. To his shame, the senior member of staff repeated the error of claiming knowledge he also did not have to back the presenter up. Every time I come across that company now, I think of that.

So when can you claim a skill? If you look at my screen shot you will see that I failed to actually log into my PDB database with my new user – #fail. Of course I can’t claim these skills based on reading some information, seeing some talks and all of an hour’s practical experience.

I think you can only claim a skill once you can tell for sure if someone else also has that skill. Or more significantly, tell when they are claiming a skill they lack. Personally, I tend towards not claiming a skill if I doubt my abilities. Don’t worry, my huge ego balances that British self-doubt quite well :-)

I used to give introductory talks on Exadata as I got so tired of the poor information I saw being given on the subject. Also, all the best talks were soon about the details of smart scans, the storage cells and patching. Not much for newbies. Interestingly, even as an intro talk, most times I did the talk I learnt something new in discussions at or after the talk. But I’ve retired that talk now. Why? Well Exadata has moved forward 2 versions since I last used it and 3 since I used it in anger. I could no longer tell you if something someone claimed for V5 of Exadata was true or not. So I am no longer skilled in Exadata.

Only claim skills you have.
Distrust those who claim skills they lack.
Try to teach those who seek your skills – you will only get better for it.

Friday Philosophy – Make a Team by Letting Them Burn May 29, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management.
Tags: ,
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The title of today’s Friday Philosophy sounds extreme, but it’s true.

Sir John Harvey-JOnes

Sir John Harvey-Jones

Recently, I was watching a TV program about “experts” helping companies turn around. A couple of decades ago the BBC had a program called “The Troubleshooter” where a gentleman called Sir John Harvey-Jones gave companies in trouble advice {the similar idea but without the cheap and tacky elements we have today with making the targets of the program cry and over-emote for good TV}. John just gave solid advice. But one thing that was true in the program back then and is true in the tacky 21st century take on the program is that eventually you have to let the new team make mistakes.

This resonated with me as when I was managing teams it was something I knew I should do – and struggled to allow. A new team and, especially, a new team leader, has to be given space to make mistakes.

I have always found this very hard to watch. When you become a team leader yourself, or a subject matter expert, or the “lead” on anything, you make mistakes. You just do: it’s new to you, you have not done it before and you lack the experience and knowledge to know what works and what does not. If you are lucky you might have a mentor you can talk to or think back on, maybe a team leader you enjoyed working for or an expert you admire. But often it is just you and the new role and a whole green field of requirements into which you can drop your own cow-pats. It is challenging, exciting, frightening, worrying… Looking back, those are the times that have been most demanding in my career and have also been the times I learnt the most.

I would say they were also the best times in my working life (and that would fulfill the usual mythology and story-telling shtick at this point) but that would be a lie. 50% of the time they were, the other 50% of the time I hated it. Am I not supposed to say that? Well, it’s true. Half the time, breaking new ground is not the Star Trek/Friends/Movie-of-the-month feel-good ride to betterment that society sells us it is. Sometimes it is hard work, bruising and sucks. Am I wrong?

So, I know it is not always a nice ride. And, irrespective, I’ve learnt some lessons over the years – and I do not see why people under my tutelage cannot just inherit the lessons I learned painfully without the pain, by me guiding them. I want what is in my head and my experience to be available to you.

What is wrong with that? Well, three things at least.

My way is not your way. I am me, you are you. Ignoring for the minute that I could get things wrong {As if!!! {British ironic humour) }, just because how I handle a situation or my team or a tricky customer interaction works for me, that way may not work for you – as you have a different personality and different strengths. I’m pretty good at dealing with companies that try to rip me off. I face them down and I bloody well let them have it. My wife does not do that, she keeps calm, is passive (in my eyes) and does not point out their stupidity. But she nails them with reasonable logic and calm {but she will go for the throat if reason fails}. We both usually win. She maybe wins more often (please don’t tell her that). We all have to find what works for us as individuals and that varies.

Secondly, though I would like to save you from pain, if you do not make your own decisions and live with them then it was not your work. If you do what I told you to do then it was partly my work. You will know that. What will you do when I am not there? I’m not arguing against seeking advice, that is always (in my book) correct. But if you are in charge of something, you need to BE IN CHARGE so that you learn to know you can (or cannot, let’s be honest) do it. You have to decide if you take any advice, it would be questionable of me dictate you take my advice (though there are times and situations when that would be correct of me). If you succeed because I told you what to do, you have learned a way to handle that situation. If you resolved the problem yourself, you also learned that you can do it. If you mess up, then you learnt a way not to do things and you now have to learn another vital management skill:

To be a good leader you need to accept your mistakes – and sort them out.

That is what I mean about letting the team burn.

The third point, the one I do not like looking at, is that. Well. My way may not be best. Your way might not just be different and better suited to you and your abilities, it might simply be better. If I over-ride a minion when they are not doing it My Way then I am preventing them from learning, I am preventing them from doing it their way, and I am potentially preventing them doing it a better way.

My job as a manager is getting the best out of those I manage. That may include them doing a better job than me. If that is a problem, it is my problem.

This is also true of teaching and mentoring and explaining. If I teach you SQL programming and you become a better SQL programmer than me, I’ll be hurt – How dare you be better than me? I Bloody taught you! I would like to feel that as I get older I can live more comfortably with achieving that aim of someone I teach becoming better than me.

So getting back to the title. If I manage a team leader, I have to let that team leader… lead. I advise, I help, I highlight what I think they missed… And then, if I can over-ride my damned ego, I shut up. I have to risk letting them burn.

If they burn, I try to put out the fire with them.

If they do not burn, they have learnt and will be better.

If they shine, then they have exceeded me and we might be swapping roles one day.

I would like to think that is how I operated at the end of my time managing teams.

Friday Philosophy – Why I Volunteer for User Groups May 22, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Presenting, Private Life, UKOUG.
Tags: , , ,
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I’ve just noticed a new page about me popping up on the UKOUG web site – It’s in the section about volunteer case studies, alongside people like Joel Goodman, Simon Haslam, Carl Dudley, Jason Arneil, Brendan Tierney and others who have been stupid good enough to give time and effort to the UKOUG.
{You can get to the page by going to the UKOUG home page (www.ukoug.org) and clicking the Membership or Member Activities tab and Case Studies & Testimonials under that and finally Volunteer Case Studies. Phew. Or follow the link I gave at the start and click on the other names.}

I’m not sure how long I’ve been up on there but only a couple of days I think.

Anyway, Why DO I volunteer for user groups?

The little bio covers most of it but I thought I would put some words here on my blog too. I volunteer because, fundamentally, I am a socialist (with a small ‘S’) – I feel that we are all better off if we all help each other. I’ve been helped by people in my career (presenting stuff I don’t know, giving advice), I guess I feel that I should return that favor. Many of the people who have (and continue) to help me stand nothing to gain personally by helping me. In fact, one or two have helped me when, strictly speaking, they are helping create a rival for work opportunities. I try to do the same to those around me. I know, it sounds a bit “Disney film teaching the kids to do right” goody-two-shoes, but that is the core of it. And there are some other aspects to it too…

Why do I volunteer for the UKOUG specifically? Because they are THE main user group in my geographic area and provide the most support to the Oracle user community here in the UK. Most of the people involved in the UKOUG are just nice people too. But I also support and volunteer for smaller user groups, mostly by either promoting their meetings, going to them or presenting. I started presenting at the main UKOUG conference back when Dido, Eminem and Christina Aguilera where in their hey-days. I also went to the RDBMS and similar SIGs and before long I was presenting at them and then got sucked into chairing one of them – the Management and Infrastructure SIG. I’ve been slowly sucked in more & more as the years role by.

That has led on to me presenting at other user groups in different countries. Actually, I used to do quite a bit of presenting abroad (mostly the US) around 10 years ago, but that was part of the role I had at the time and my employer paid the bills. No employer to pay the bills now, but then as it is my time I try to make presenting abroad also a chance to have a short holiday, I try to take a day or two one side or the other of the event to look around. And actually, it is nice spending time with other people who present at or attend user group meetings.

Another part of it is I just like presenting. This is not quite so Disney Nice Guy, there is an aspect that is more selfish, that standing up, being listened to and telling people stuff that maybe they don’t know makes me feel better about myself. Better about myself? OK, I’ll let that stand for now but it is more that it makes me feel I am achieving something and having an impact. That I am useful. Fundamentally it is still a desire to help and presenting does not scare me (I know it is scary for a lot of people, but then a lot of people are not scared of heights and I am – it all balances out). But with a slice of “look at me!!!” thrown in.

There are also rewards for the effort. I’ve got to know a lot more people as a result of presenting, blogging (and now tweeting) than I would have had I stayed just one of the audience. For me it has helped me make more friends. As I said above, part of what is now nice about user group meetings for me is meeting friends I’ve made who are also on the speaker circuit and there is inevitable a few drinks in the evening whenever there is a user group. It also gives you more exposure in the community and helps lead to job opportunities – or at least that is the theory. No one has yet offered me a job because they liked my blog post or presentation!

That leads me to the last aspect of volunteering. Some people volunteer primarily for selfish reasons. To get bragging rights, get it on their CV’s, to help them get sales contacts or better jobs. The odd thing is, people who do it for those reasons tend not to last – as volunteering for user groups is a lot of hard work to get those rewards. You can usually spot them as they are the ones who don’t actually do a lot or complain all the time about the coffee being bad (actually, usually the coffee IS bloody terrible) and other things. Don’t get me wrong, some of those rewards do come with the volunteering, but if someone is volunteering primarily to get them, it does not seem to work out for them. Or maybe that is my socialism coming out again :-). Fundamentally, I think volunteering only works if, at the core of it, you want to help other people. Maybe that is why other volunteers are such nice people to hang around with.

Why do you do it? (or not).

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.

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 :-D

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you do want some recognition and some promotions.

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

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

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

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

Be just above average at tasks.

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

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

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

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


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


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