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Friday Philosophy – Your Experience can Keep You Ignorant November 18, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Knowledge, Perceptions, performance, SQL.
Tags: , , , ,

This week I was in an excellent presentation by Kerry Osborne about Outlines, SQL profiles, SQL patches and SQL Baselines. I’ve used three of those features in anger but when I looked at SQL Patches I just could not understand why you would use them – they looked to me like a very limited version of SQL Profiles.

There is a prize for spotting Kerry without a baseball cap

There is a prize for spotting Kerry without a baseball cap

So I asked Kerry about it during his presentation (he had been encouraging us to ask questions and I was curious). The answer? They are almost identical in how they are used and the impact they have but, yes, they are more limited. You can only enter one line of hints (I think it can be more than one hint but I have not checked {update, see comment by Jonathan Lewis – it is 500 characters of hints you can add, so you can comprehensively hint most statements}) with a SQL Patch. But, and this is the crucial bit, they can be used without the tuning pack and can be used on Standard Edition. Which makes them very useful if you are limited to using a version of SE or have not paid for the extra cost tuning pack option on Enterprise Edition. Kerry told me the first part about no cost and Kamil Stawiarski the part about being available on SE.

That’s a really useful thing to know. Why did I not know it? Because nearly all my experience of performance work has been for clients who have Oracle Enterprise Edition and the tuning pack. Most companies who are willing to hire someone to do Oracle Performance work have paid for Oracle Enterprise Edition and usually for many of the options. A company who is saving money by having SE is far less likely to have the money to hire external consultants (more the pity, as I would really like to spend time working for smaller companies where you can usually get more done!)

My experience, or rather lack of it, had blinded me to the possible uses of an Oracle performance feature. I wonder how much other stuff I don’t know or appreciate about an area I claim to be knowledgeable and skilled in – because my experience is mostly for clients with a very full Oracle tool set? How true is this in all sorts of areas of my technical and personal life? Quite a lot I suspect. That can be a little dis-spiriting.

But mulling this over later that evening (with beer of course) four things occurred to me:

  • If someone claims skills in an area but does not know things you do, it could well be simply down to their personal experience to date. It does not mean you know more, it means you know different stuff.
  • How much does someone have to not know before you decide they are not the expert they claim?
  • Do we partial experts keep ourselves slightly ignorant by not asking questions – as we fear that second point?
  • I felt I did the right thing in asking a question about something I felt I should know – but did not. As now I know the answer (and two people at least got to show they know more than me).

I know I have said this before, as many others have. The more you know, the more you realise what you do not know. You just have to keep asking and remember that, we are all ignorant about something until someone tells us about it.


Pint with Oracle User Group – First International POUG (Polish) Conference October 14, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in ACED, conference, Friday Philosophy, Meeting notes, Presenting, User Groups.
Tags: , , ,
Kamil kicks it all off: Apparently water has bacteria in it - so drink beer! (stolen from Pieter v.Puymbrooeck)

Kamil kicks it all off: Apparently water has bacteria in it – so drink beer
(stolen from Pieter v.Puymbrooeck)

Last week I enjoyed being at the first international conference that the resurrected Polish Oracle user group has put on. I say enjoyed – I actually mean really enjoyed! Why did I like the conference so much? Three major components came together.

(Before anyone rushes to mention the Polish custom of entertaining you with alcohol, that was not one of the three parts. It was the fourth instalment of the trilogy…)

Let’s start with a little history. I first came across Kamil Stawiarski just a year or so back. I had blogged about Pragma UDF and how it improves the performance of PL/SQL functions called from SQL – and then came across his blog post on it. About the same time he came across mine and we got in touch. He’s an “Oracle DBA type” and his company is called ORA600! {if you had not noticed, so is mine}. The similarities do not stop there. He loves beer+presenting (for some reason I have this reputation…) and using an axe. I am a little more technical – as I use a chainsaw as well as an axe. In respect of Oracle Technical, I’ll give Kamil the prize in that. The biggest difference is I am old enough to be his dad. I might adopt him. Anyway, Kamil came to the UKOUG Tech15 conference, we met up and he asked me (as well as several others) if we as international speakers would support him running a conference in Poland? Of course! I had so much in common with Kamil, he and his travelling companion Adam were so friendly, positive and knowledgeable that it was an easy decision.

A date was chosen, Kamil let us all know and those of us who could went along. The conference took place in Warsaw on Friday 7th to Saturday 8th October, with a speaker’s meal on the Thursday. There were two streams during the conference, one mostly on database topics and the other mostly on development & BI. We had a lot of well-respected and talented speakers including Jim Czuprnski (who has Polish roots), Joze Senegacnik, Piet de Visser, Heli Helskyaho,Phillipe Fierens, Neil Chandler, Sabine Heimsath… Apologies to the others I have not mentioned. Why did we all turn up? Because we were asked to. Most of us presenters just enjoy presenting (as we crave attention and being asked to present appeals to our egos 🙂 ). Being serious, if you want to organise an Oracle conference or user group meeting, don’t be afraid to ask people to consider coming along. The worst we will do is say “no” (and please be cool if we do; we all have other calls on our time).

What a set of Mug Shots :-)

What a set of Mug Shots 🙂

With this cunning trick of simply asking people he thought could speak well to come speak at his conference, Kamil had got himself a bunch of good speakers, one of the three things you need for a good conference.

Speaker gifts

The speaker gifts were just so apt!

The next part that is key is the organising of the conference. So Kamil set too organising it. Well, I say Kamil orgainised it, he actually got Luiza Koziel to organise most of it, which he says was one his best moves! So he, Luiza and probably half a dozen people I should thank but have not (I really should get a list of the volunteers), spent a lot of time and effort planning the event. Update – Kamil let me know the names. In his words:

Rafal Rebecki- he found all sponsors.
Pawel Chyliński, Adam Jagielski and Radosław Kut – always ready to help with every issue we had challenging us
Kamil Kozieł – directly responsible for all marketing stuff like website and social media
Adam Boliński- help with organising speakers and preparing agenda he was also one of the sponsor
Of course Luiza Kozieł – she was responsible for everything 🙂 finding venue, organising hotel and gadgets. she did most of the work

I’ve helped out with many conferences & meetings, from the huge behemoth that is the UKOUG Tech conference to small SIGs and special interest groups. It takes a lot of work – much, much, much more work than you can appreciate until you do it yourself. They sorted out a suitable venue, they compiled the abstracts for the talks and speaker profiles (often not an easy task, some of us are such prima donnas), put together the web pages for it and advertised the event well. During the event they smoothed out the issues that invariably crop up and they looked after all the delegates and speakers. The food at the venue was excellent, both the speaker’s meal and the conference party were fantastic, signage at the venue was good, crowds were managed and encouraged back into sessions at the appropriate time. There are a dozen other things that go to making the mechanics of an event work and, from what I could see, it was all done well or quickly resolved such that I did not notice.

Heli Helskyaho's crowd is a nice example of how busy the sessions were

Heli Helskyaho’s crowd is a nice example of how busy the sessions were

The organisation was great, the speakers were fantastic, what is the third thing you need?

The final thing is sort-of beyond the control of the organisers. For a conference or meeting to work you need an engaged audience. The audience does not have to be huge (though full rooms really help) but they have to be there mentally as well as physically. POUG got an excellent, large crowd of delegates. As a presenter I like it when I feel looked after. A speaker’s meal is great, havng registration and any admin done for you by the “office” is a help. There are lots of “nice” things you can do for the speakers but, for me at least, there is only one absolute. What makes a conference great for a speaker is actually having delegates who want to be there and want to hear presenters speak – and who then are chatting between themselves, challenging the speaker “experts”, asking questions in sessions, continuing discussions outside the presentations and generally making that “buzz”. Lots of things can be done by both the organisers and, to some extent, the speakers to help this. But in the end it comes down to having an involved audience. And in Poland we had that in spades. It was very, very “buzzy”.

Don't water the speakers after midnight!

Don’t water the speakers after midnight!

Obviously the organisers can prime the pump by getting the speakers and organisation right and I think it helped that the people leading the conference were relaxed and yet determined that everyone had a good time. But in the end, I think the delegates take some of the credit for making the conference so good.

All in all it all came together wonderfully in Poland last week. It’s in my top three conference experiences. (I won’t confirm where or which the other three are – It changes depending on what aspects I am thinking about).

The end of the conference summed it up. Just as in Ireland earlier this year, the last session was an open, “panel” affair with some speakers at the front and an intention to get the audience involved. At POUG we had a discussion about why DBAs are so arrogant and Developers so useless. Of course, neither statement is true all the time and it led to a lively, good-natured and often very funny discussion. The organisers had ensured that this could roll on if there was the desire to do so and the audience demonstrated that there was. I am sure we went on for twice the allotted time! Finally POUG stepped in and closed the conference (in a very nice way).

The DBA-Dev "love" - thanks to Kiran Tailor

The DBA-Dev “love” – thanks to Kiran Tailor

I’ve got lots of stories to tell about the POUG conference but that can be in another post – or simply when chatting at other conferences or in a a bar. Some of them involve the use of alcohol as an enabler in IT.

I hope there is another POUG next year. I hope it is even half as good. I especially hope they let me come back!

Nice Social Media Profile Picture! Oh… Err… September 30, 2016

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

A few (months/weeks/days/hours)* ago I saw a friend request on Facebook. I looked at their profile which indicated that they were kind-of in my technical arena and the profile picture made me think “Wow – that’s an attractive person!” and I was about to click on the accept button.

And stopped.

I only friend people on Facebook who I know. By that I mean I have either met in real life and liked or have had a LOT of contact with through social media and liked. People who, if they were delayed at Stansted airport at midnight and needed a place to sleep, I’d be happy to go pick them up and bring them home to stay in my spare room.

This person did not pass this criterion. I was going to add them to one of my social media cohorts based on a superficial, image-based reaction, based on a pretty weak “they mention Oracle and DBA in the profile” and a much stronger “that’s a nice looking lady”. Whether this is Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, whatever – it struck me that if I am adding people based on looks then that is the wrong reason and is “appearanceist”. When I link to someone on LinkedIn it is supposed to be all about “are they in my area of I.T.” not how hot they are. But I do notice that attractive people, especially ladies, seem to get a lot more followers. That made me think about the whole tricky subject of whether we are allowed anymore to comment on someone’s looks, what is sexism, how some people get ahead by being attractive or even get held back by it.

I could now write a long, meandering, and probably pretty much worthless analysis of sexism in IT and how social interaction should be different to professional interaction. But I will keep my point brief. I’ll just state three thoughts and three brief paragraphs:

1) How often do we socially link to someone based on their physical image?
2) Is this wrong?
3) How often do we attempt to improve the physical appearance of our own online profile picture?

I am guilty of 3. I have Rosacea – a long-term reddening of the facial skin a bit like teenage acne. I don’t really like it so I use an older image of myself for my profile picture. I know that many people use a photo of themselves from when they were younger (sometimes a lot younger) or one taken by a professional photographer to show themselves in the best (and let us be frank, atypically flattering) light. i.e. a picture to make us look more handsome/attractive than we really are.

If we all accept that, especially on a professional level, we should all be judged on what we do & who we are as opposed to our physical appearance – why are we so careful of our own online physical appearance?

If we falsely manipulate our own online physical image have we any moral basis for criticising anyone who uses their good looks to gain exposure, acceptance or advantage? No matter how subtle or blatant it is.

So my premise is, if you manage your own image you have to accept others doing so and, to some extent at least, lose the right to object to anyone making judgements based simply on physical appearance. Can I now feel justified in only hiring women who I personally find attractive ? (I don’t find many men attractive, sorry guys).

I’m sure many of you feel that combing your hair, putting on nice cloths and perhaps using a touch of make-up is absolutely nothing like using a salon hair stylist, most of Max Factor’s product line and slightly revealing clothing to get a job. But where on that spectrum is OK, where isn’t and how are you making that judgement call?

A final thought. I did not link to the person who sent me the Facebook request as they were, in my opinion, attractive and I would be doing so for the wrong reasons. Was that morally strong or morally weak? In this case I would like to feel the former as I use Facebook only for established friends. If this was in, say, LinkedIn which I use totally on a professional level, if I did not link to that person as I felt I was doing so partially influenced on their looks… That’s a very interesting take on positive/negative discrimination. Especially if their image turned out to be old…

(*) I get so few Facebook friend requests that if I stated when I saw this one, the person I think is attractive might realise who she is and then I would be very British Reserved uncomfortable around her 🙂

Friday Philosophy: Be A Hero – OR Be The Best August 26, 2016

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

There is a crisis! The database is not responding, the apps can’t work and the business is suffering. Management are doing what management are there for – panicking and demanding “Someone Do Something!!!”.

Step forward a DBA who logs into the server, checks the alert logs, spots what is wrong and fixes it. The database starts processing requests, the applications are all working fine and the business is back on track. What a hero!

The Mantra of the DBA Hero

The Mantra of the DBA Hero

Such situations are not just the preserve of the database and the DBA of course. You get the hero System Administrators who step in and sort out the lack of storage space at 3am. Or the programmers who look at the code that has been running slow for weeks, that others have not been able to fix, and make it run in 5 minutes rather than 5 hours. All heroes who then bask in the gratitude of management and colleagues. Thank goodness for the Hero Developer/DBA/Sys Admin or whatever. You even get articles and advice on how to be The Hero in some quarters. I’ve even seen job ads like “Are YOU our next Developer Hero?!?”.

Only, 9 times out of 10, whatever was wrong should never have occurred. Yes, there are always going to be hard-to-predict failures or unavoidable catastrophes. But the majority of situations I have seen when the database goes seriously wrong, a critical program messes up badly, or a server goes offline, it is down to something that could and should have been spotted before hand – or never set up in the poor manner that it has been. These are things like Archive Redo log areas filling up, an “innocuous” network tweak taking out a major connection or a data processing program that goes wrong if it is run with no data to process. Just a little bit of thought or testing will avoid these sorts of issues.

As you get better at your role, and I mean really, truly better and not just older, you learn about better ways to do things. Either you make mistakes yourself and have to fix them (the best way to learn, even though it does not often feel like it), correcting something someone else did poorly or you read about how to set up systems to be more fault tolerant. You become more experienced with the tools and you grab hold of any new features that are going to make the systems run better. I’d hope we also all learn skills and working practices that help avoid disasters, such as proper testing methodologies (something that we seem to get less and less time & resource for) and proactive rather than reactive monitoring of our systems. If I am owning a database and it unexpectedly runs out of space for the data files or archive redo – I failed. The database did not, I did – as I know how to set up checks for those things.

The best technicians (in my opinion) that I have worked with are all like this. They don’t monitor for things that have gone wrong so much as monitoring for things that are going wrong. Every week or month they will change something that was OK – but it could be better, more resilient. The end result is a much quieter life and a substantially better service provided to the business.

But that’s where the rub is. That’s where things become unfair. When you are being the Best DBA or the Best Developer, things just work without a fuss. There are no disasters that impact the business and thus no need for The Hero. The systems run smooth & fast and management figure you are probably not doing that much. Heck, you seem to be spending all your time tinkering rather than fixing stuff! They often don’t get that the “tinkering” is what stops the disasters and the need for Heroes. That can lead to a lack of appreciation for what you are doing and it is extremely hard to see someone get praise for fixing an issue that they should never have let happen and even getting a pay rise and you get just a “yeah, thanks for, like, keeping the lights on I guess”.

I had this in spades in one role. I turned up and the critical databases would all be going down once or twice a week. People just accepted it. I worked on the problems, got my team together (and trained them!) and improved the service. For a couple of years I was a card-carrying member of the cape and spandex pants club. I was a Hero. We provided more services and incidents became very rare. And then they decided I was not doing enough. No problems were occurring so what did they need me for? After I calmed down from that (it took a few months) I decided I agreed with them and left. But I left behind a fantastic team and rock-solid systems. {It actually took me years to stop resenting the way they handled it, to be fair, but I never stopped being proud of what I did and that team}.

blowing you own trumpet can help - a little

blowing you own trumpet can help – a little

So what do you do when you are being the best you can and not the hero and, as a result, you are fading into the woodwork? Well, I advise people to do several things, some of which you can see from a slide (taken from my “disasters” presentation) shown to the left. Record the number of incidents and how they go down as you improve things. Document improved up-time and better performance (which might be the same response time under higher workloads). Generally blow your own trumpet. However, it never seems to be enough to counteract the prestige people get from being the hero. It’s not “Right” but it just seems to be the way it is. I know some people take the other approach, which is to actually let (or even create?) disasters in which they can be heroes. After all, this is your career.

One fix is to just move on. After all, in the situation I described above I had actually completed my job – I had been hired to put in place a professional service and I did. So it would have been best if we had all been grown up and decided it was job done and time for me to move on. As a contractor/consultant this is a lot easier to do. Turn up at a client, be a hero for a while and then do your real job of making the systems solid. And then move on.

But not everyone has that luxury to move on. There may be few opportunities where you live or you would lose other aspects to your job that are very important (good child care is one example I have seen). Or moving roles might be something that gives you a lot of stress. So if you are “stuck” in your role and you are doing the best that you can, it is massively demoralising to fade into the woodwork as a result. What is the reward for all your work – pride and less interrupted nights are good but not getting the credit you deserve is hard.

But in the end I think you have a choice. Be a Hero or be The Best You Can Be. I have to aim for the latter, I can’t knowingly allow disasters without trying to at least warn management it could happen. And if you decide to be the best you can be perhaps you have to accept that, unless your management is very unusual, it may well mean less respect than you deserve. But *you* will know. I suppose it is a pride thing.

Are you a Hero? Or are you Simply The Best!

Friday Philosophy – Tech Writing Is Like Religious Art July 8, 2016

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

I’m putting together an article for Oracle Scene at the moment – I’ve delayed it for a couple of issues as we wanted the space for other tech articles, but my time has come. And I’m finding it very hard going. Why?

I’m not an expert on religious art (or religion… or art) but one thing I know is that with religious artifacts, especially things like sculpture, furniture, and plaques, they often differ from non-religious art in that the back of them is as well done as the front. I.e. if there is an ornate plaque to be created and put on the wall of a secular building, all the effort goes into the front. The back is likely to be simple or even rough. With a religious plaque, the chances are that the back will be just as well crafted as the front.

The reason is that God can see the back of it. God will know if you skimped on your devotional art to him/her/them. The whole piece has to be of quality. If it’s a secular piece then no one generally sees or cares about the back and, if someone was to try to take your plaque off the wall, you’d smack their hands and tell them to leave it alone.

When I present, teach or (to a certain extent) blog I mostly care about what my audience will see. If I do a demonstration script I can put it up, show the results and move on. The chances of you actually running the script are low so it does not matter if I had to tickle things a little (fiddle with the SGA settings, alter my session, pre-warm my cache) to get it to work as intended. Similarly I can tell you the message I have and not worry too much about the messy details (but IO have to be ready to answer any awkward questions).

But with something written and published, which is going to be there for a while and people can refer to it and test it all out with ease – you can all potentially see “the back of it”. This raises my normal fear about making mistakes in public to the level of paralysing paranoia.

There you go, I think of you all as Gods. That’s a nice place to finish the week, don’t you think?

Friday Philosophy – Brexit & the Misplaced Blame Culture. July 1, 2016

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

This is not going to be a rant about Brexit and how the selfish, stupid and simply fearful were led by a jingoistic & deceitful bunch of career politicians to show the worst side of the UK. Well, maybe a bit… It’s more about something that struck me about Brexit in respect of who is to “blame”. And there are aspects of this that are echoed in our own industry.

I feel that there is a strong element of “the chickens coming home to roost” with Bexit. By this, I mean things were done by our politicians and our media that unintentionally led to this fiasco – and a lot of those who are presently supposed to lead the UK, who are currently dismayed at the Brexit vote are, in fact, partially responsible.

For years UK politicians have blamed the EU for many of the woes and issues in the UK. We’ve constantly been hearing how “Brussels will do this” or “The EU will force us to do that” or “we can’t do what ‘we’ want as it is dictated by the EU”, painting the EU as a distant evil that reaches out it’s fingers to damage our nation. The media is even worse, the endless stupid and easily disproven stories of bent bananas being banned or bar maids not being able to show cleavage just being used as a way to sell papers or get ratings. Often, what the politicians have said about EU legislation is at best a misrepresentation of the situation and, at worst, an outright lie. But it shifts the blame to some distant group who is not going to fight back.

The end result is that for many people the message has stuck. If you look at the various graphs of which areas voted for brexit and indicators of education, there is a strong correlation with high Leave vote and low Education. It’s not scientific, but listening to the opinions of those shown by the media who wanted to leave or stay, you’d not expect a team of leavers to beat a team of remainers in a quiz. The easily swayed were swayed.

So when our politicians show utter dismay at the vote for Leave then they should be considering the number of time they attacked the EU, blamed it for stuff in an attempt to absolve themselves of blame and, most importantly, knowingly lied for political gain. The out-going Prime Minister spent years using the EU as a monster in the corner he was fighting for “Our” benefit and gaining concessions as the UK was so important. All to help improve his standing or shift the blame away from his government. It is part of what made his campaigning to stay in the EU such a hard pill for many to swallow. To cap it all, one of the main campaigners to leave, Boris Johnson, started back-peddling on the claims he had made and supported before the counting had even finished.

Why do I think there is something similar in our industry? Well, how often have you rung up a company to complain when things have gone wrong – and been told “it’s the computer”? I suspect that many of you, like myself, often suspect it was not “the computer” as it does not makes sense for whatever the problem is to be down to “the computer”. It might be someone messed up entering data into the computer and, sometimes, it really is that the computer system has gone wrong. But, just like with the EU, “the computer” is seen as a nameless, distant and out-of-our-control entity that blame can be easily shifted to, partly as people will now just accept that it is “the computer”.

Two instances stick in my mind about this “blame the computer” attitude. Once, a few years back, was when there was a brief spell where my wife was having outpatient visits to a hospital. We had a holiday booked and knew it would clash with the appointment next month – but the specialist said this was fine and to book 2 months ahead. The receptionist did not see it this way, a holiday was no excuse and she would book us in for the next month and we would have to cancel. (??? yes I know, not her decision to make). I challenged this and told her to just book it. She still refused and when I insisted she check with the specialist – she still refused, saying there was no point as the computer system would not allow it. I reached over, tapped a single key and the next month’s schedule was up on her screen. I’d taught people how to use that system. Her whole demeanor screamed that she knew she could skip a month and had been caught out. She had no trouble now booking the appointment and pressing the correct key to get back.

The other was when I actually caught one of my own team taking a call from an irate user and they, a computer programmer, said “the computer’s down so I can’t do that”. The system was not down, it’s just he did not know what the problem was and so cited the “evil box” explanation. I was really pissed off with him, one of the few times I actually lost my temper and went a bit postal on one of my people. “If you, of all people, wrongly blame the computer then how much is that damaging trust in our systems?”.

I’m not sure quite how the “blame the computer” is going to harm us in the same way as “blame the EU” has, but I can’t help but feel that whenever we try to shift the blame from what we control to a remote and blameless entity, we are at risk of “the chickens coming home to roost”.

One last thing. I know very few young people in the UK will read this but, for any who do: A lot of us older people also voted remain, just not enough. I’m sorry that, as a group, we older people voted for a future that you, as a group, you younger people did not want. Remember, don’t trust rich, old people. Or anyone who says “I’m not a racist but…”

Friday Philosophy – You Lot are Weird April 8, 2016

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

I mean this in the nicest way, but some of you lot are weird. I’m not aiming this at individuals (though there of plenty of “personalities” amongst you) but at whole damned countries.

One thing about social media is that when you tweet, blog, facebook or whatever – you are potentially communicating beyond your own culture. This is especially true when you are doing so to a community that is spread across the globe in the way I.T. is. Maybe most of you think this is blindingly obvious {perhaps as it is} but although I think of myself as intelligent and aware – for the first 2 or 3 years of blogging I hardly considered that some of my audience would not be from the UK and thus not understand any cultural references I made about television, books, sport, the importance of a cup of tea and a biscuit. After all, why would people in the US or Australia or India care what some guy in the UK had to say?

I think I avoid that particular error more these days but I still have to occasionally remind myself that the majority of my audience “ain’t from these parts”. The largest portion of my audience is in the US – which makes sense as there are quite a few people over the other side of the Atlantic pond and a heck of a lot of IT companies. India and my home crowd come second (swapping places from month to month), and after that come several European countries, Australia, Russia and, for reasons I am not sure of, Brazil.

We have some variations across our little nation and of course individuals often do not match their cultural stereotypes but, all the same, people in Britain tend to be pretty British. When I started presenting abroad, I was conscious that I was going Over There and so I tried to use less colloquial language and make allowances for the audience not using English as their first language. But I think I remained oddly culturally unaware for a while – and it still catches me out.

What I mean about this is, sometimes, on occasion – you lot get on my nerves. You annoy me. A whole nation’s worth of you. Because you are jolly well not being British! A recent blog post by Dan Kim about not being an XXXX Ninja reminded me of this. I really have no time for people saying they are “Road Warriors” (thankfully almost a dead phrase now) or “SQL Ninjas”, “Java Master”, “Database Gods” or similar “Huh! Look AT ME, I damned well ROCK!!!” self-labelled self-grandioseing twaddle. Americans are terrible for this, the uncouth lot that they are {though Dan is from the US and does not seem very fond of it – as I said earlier, individuals always vary}.

Of course, the issue is not so much with our American cousins as it is with me. British culture, at least the bits I hang about in, is currently still rather against blatant self promotion or even making a fuss (well, not a loud fuss – we are brilliant as a nation at passive-aggressive fuss). Whereas many people in the US hold the view that you should be proud of what you can do, the things you have achieved and you should stand straight and tell the world. It’s simply a different way of being. They probably think a lot of UK people are stuffy, repressed and have sticks up their backsides. Which is pretty accurate for some of us 🙂

Apparently, in Japan (I have to say apparently as I have never been there), when you are listening to someone you show respect by remaining quiet – and this extends to concerts & gigs, which can cause bands not used to it to have some issues. A crowd that does not go nuts at the end of a song (let alone during it) is just… wrong. But they go nuts at the end of the concert. {If I’ve fallen into quoting a national stereotype that does not exist, please let me know}.

Something I have encountered personally is people in Northern Europe being very direct, ie people will simply say “you are wrong about that”. To me that used to come across as rude. You are supposed to tell me I am wrong in words that don’t actually say I am wrong! “I think you might not quite understand” or “well, that is another way of looking at it”. That to them seems bizarre and, when you think about it, it is bizarre. You should just be able to state your opinion, no offence taken.

Personally I find it is not the cultural differences in language or references to shard experiences that are hardest to acclimatise to, it is these cultural changes in behavior. I have to constantly remind myself that if someone is being rude or impolite or over reacting I should first consider if that is only true when compared to my culture, and not theirs. Of course, I can only do that if I have a clue about what is normal for their culture, which is why travelling Over There to do presentations or bits of work is so helpful.

Sometimes they are being rude. Culture is not the issue.

Of course, the single, largest area of cultural difference that bothers me is beer. Lager is fine cold, cider is jolly nice cold. Real ale should be a few degrees below room temperature and not cold.

Or, as my US friends would see it – “Barman, 3 pints of beer please, and a slightly larger glass of warm piss for our UK friend”.

Friday Philosophy – Struggling To Learn Something? You Still Rock April 1, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Knowledge, Perceptions, Private Life, working.
Tags: , , ,

When did you last learn something new about the tech you work with? This week? This month? This year? 2003?

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt.

{This blog is a bit of a personal story about my own recent career; how I fell off the log and managed to climb back on it – just so you know}.

For me it was (as I type) this week. In fact, it was today! It was in an area of “my tech”, stuff that I know back to front and left to right. I’m an expert in it, I’ve been using this area of Oracle’s tech for two decades and I simply “Rock at this stuff!” I mean, I know quite a bit about it (sorry, went all “USA” on you there for a minute). But still, despite all my experience in it and even teaching others about it, I learnt something new today – And thank the heavens I did.

Why am I so happy about learning something that, really, I perhaps should know already?

About 3 years ago I stepped back from the whole Oracle arena. I’d been struggling with the tech for a while and I was really not enjoying most of the roles I took on. Which is odd, as I was able to choose between roles by this point to some extent, and had no problem saying “no” to a job I did not like the look of. I know, it’s a privileged position to be in – but I pretty much feel it was a position I put myself into by working hard, developing my skills and (which may seem counter-intuitive to some) sharing them.

So, I had finished a job I was enjoying (which had become a rarity) and I had taken on a new role… and I was hating it. And I was especially hating learning stuff. And I had no desire to, once more, pour 10% of my learnt skills down the sink (as they had been superseded) and learn 20% of new stuff. Why do I say once more? Because, as the Oracle tech has rolled on, that is what I and all of you in a band around my age has had to do every few years.

Back in the early 90’s I knew how to get Forms and Reports to work in ways many did not. I would edit the source files for these tools, I could use tricks with the triggers to do stuff and I also knew PL/SQL in a way few people at the time did. But my position as a leading expert went out the window as things progressed and everyone (everyone? OK no, but a good fraction of people) caught up – and then exceeded – my skills in those areas. And some tech was retired. But I had moved onto database skills by then and I knew stuff about segment creation and space management that few others worried about. Which Oracle then made redundant and I had to move on again…

I’m not alone in this, most of you reading this (be you 60, 50, 40 or 30) can relate to this and have your own stories of managing skills and moving on as the skill set you knew evolved.

But as I said, around 3 years ago, for me it ended. I hit a wall. I was simply too tired, cynical and… yeah, pissed off, to keep letting go of some skills and learning new ones. I’d had enough and I stopped learning. Within 12 months I was not pissed off- I was screaming inside to get out of the industry. And I did. If you have followed my blog you might be able to see the pattern if you look back over the posts. I certainly can, looking back over them.

In this industry, if you stop learning you “die”. It might take a while, especially if you are just ticking over in a role where nothing changes and no new features are used. But the nearer you are to the bleeding edge of the tech, the faster you fall off that edge. For 24 years I had either tested the next version of Oracle before it was released or been the person telling (whatever company I was at) how to use (or avoid!) the new features of the latest Oracle release. But now I had stopped learning.

I started having chats with some friends about it and most were sympathetic and understanding and, well, nice. But I still had that wall. My career was based on being near, on or beyond the leading edge. I learnt stuff. I moved with the times. And now I did not as I was… tired. Drained.

But then I had a weekend in America skiing and relaxing after a conference in Colorado and I spent a lot of time with a good friend Frits Hoogland and I told him about where I was. He was also sympathetic – but he also said (and this is not a quotation but a general indication of his intent, as I remember it):

“I can’t tell you how to care about it, it’s up to you. But if you are not driven to learn the tech you won’t learn it. I can’t give you that drive – you have to find it for yourself”.

No one else had said that. Frits had summed up the situation and given it to me straight. You don’t learn by passive osmosis, you need to want to learn. And I’d fallen off the learning log and I didn’t know how to get back on it.

I thought on that for about 12 months. I also hid a little from the Oracle sphere and being “an expert”. And you know what? He was totally right. I needed a reason to learn the latest stuff and keep developing and it had to be something I wanted – be it a career, kudos, being the best I could be, putting kids though college (just checked, I never had kids), anything! But it had to be a drive. Because learning all this stuff is hard work.

It took me 12 months to work it out, but eventually I realised what I did and did not like about my working life. I hated commuting, office politics, dealing with people who were in charge but did not know (and had no desire to know) about tech, seeing the same mistakes repeated – All that stuff we all hate. But for me I was no longer able to balance that with the nice bits. Solving problems, making things work faster, creating programs and tools to help people achieve things and… teaching people.

So I took the decision to spend a year or two doing less work (and not earning much) and being more involved in the UKOUG, technical blogging (I’ve not really done so well on that front), writing articles, doing conferences and smaller user groups.. Basically, doing more in the user community. And I have, even to the extent of being involved in a book.

It took a while but I know it worked. How? I started learning again. I don’t mind if it is stuff that maybe I should already know – if I’m learning I’m not just improving but I am being engaged by my job (whatever my “job” is).

If you are in I.T. and you are still learning stuff, I would suggest that over all, everything is fine. Even if the learning part hurts a little – it does seem to get a bit harder each year to put new stuff into that cerebral cortex- you are not stagnating.

If you are in I.T. and not learning stuff, I’d suggest you might want to think about why – and if you should be changing what you do or where you do it. We spend most of our adult lives working, if there is any way you can make that part of your life more satisfying, I really think you should try and do it. Even if, as in my case, it pays a hell of a lot less!

Friday Philosophy – Being the Best Manager February 19, 2016

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

I’d like you to spend a minute thinking back on your career and decide who your best manager has been.

Surely your best manager ever deserves a good cup of tea

Surely your best manager ever deserves a good cup of tea

I don’t mean the manager who you personally got on best with or was most popular with the team – though being one (or even both!) of those does not rule them out as being the best manager you had.

It does not have to be in IT – or even work, actually, cast the net wide to include people who have managed teams and groups outside of work that you have been in.

What was it about them that made them such a good manager?

I know what I think made my best manager the best manager I’ve had: She was utterly focused on making her team a success.

The two or three managers I’ve had who are close seconds to the top spot also had that as a high priority. But managers I’ve had who put delivery of whatever their boss wanted above getting the best out of the team just fell short – and, in my opinion, actually delivered less than they could. Because, if delivery of the current objectives comes before the team, you start working on the next objectives with a team less capable than they could have been.

Making your team a success does not actually mean being nice to the team, at least not all the time and not to all of them. Sometimes you have to reprimand a team member for doing something wrong, like doing a shoddy job of a task you know they can do better – not doing so is condoning bad behaviour and they will do a shoddy job again, only now it’s harder to call them out for it. You also will have to at times get them do something they don’t want to do, like be on call at a particular time as no one else can or it is their turn. But if you can’t explain why they need to do this thing they don’t want to do, that is not going to help you get the best out of them.

I’m sure some of you will disagree with me about what makes the best manager you ever had so good, but in some ways it does not matter. Because what I feel is most interesting about that question is, if you manage, or ever have managed, a team (be it in work, in sport or whatever) – do you try and emulate whatever it was that made that best manager so good?

If not, why?



(By the way, if your response to the question about your best manager made you think “the least worst” or “I’ve never had a good manager” then either you have been monumentally unlucky – or else maybe the problem lies not with those managers… )

Friday Philosophy – Content, Copying, Copyright &Theft February 12, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Blogging, Friday Philosophy, writing.
Tags: , ,

There have been a couple of things this week that have made me think about the stuff that some of us write and what other people do with it.

I’m writing a book with 4 other people at the moment (the 4 being Arup Nanda, Brendan Tierney, Alex Nuijten and Heli Helskyaho, all experienced book publishers already – I’m the new kid) which is on SQL & PLSQL. It has been a very interesting experience. I knew writing a technical book was hard work, took a lot of time and that, frankly, the direct financial return on the effort is very, very poor. I know a few authors of Oracle books and I’d talked to them about it all, so I was aware. However, it turns out I did not really know how hard it was, I still did not understand how demanding of time and effort it was! But I had written technical blogs and a couple of articles before I started the book and I had developed the strong opinion that you do not take other people’s work, and you certainly do not take it without citing the original author – because you are actually stealing a lot of someone else’s time and effort.

Probable  front image of "the book"

Probable front image of “the book”

As a result, at the very start of writing my chapters I was determined that my content was going to be My Content. Me, my experience, the official documentation , my test databases – and a word document to receive the end product from those ingredients. I was not going to read what others had written recently on or around the topics I was covering as I did not want to be even subconsciously borrowing from other’s efforts {I say recently as I cannot unread what I had already read!}. I certainly did not want to be accused of doing so. If I was going to object to people stealing my content, I’d be hypocritical to actually commit the crime.

How very noble of me. How very silly of me.

A couple of months in I was talking to someone about the first chapter I was doing and how I was struggling to decide how to structure what I wanted to say. I knew the facts and features I wanted to cover but was unsure of how to make it flow so that it would make sense to the reader and build up their knowledge in steps. They asked me how other people had handled it and I gave them the little opinion piece I’ve just given you. And they laughed at me.
Was I including new stuff? Yes. Was I using my own experience? Yes. Was I going to cut lines, paragraphs, even pages out of other sources and put it in mine? No! Of course not! Well then why was I purposefully making life hard for myself?
Then they asked me the killer bit – Did I know every last thing about the topic? Hmm, no, probably not, but then no one knows every last thing and certainly has not used every little aspect of an oracle feature for real. So I was only going to put into my chapters parts of the topic? Well, I guess so. And that is what someone trying to learn about the feature wants? An expert opinion full of holes? That bit stumped me.

I was kind of writing my chapters to show how much I know. I was certainly limiting it to what I knew well. But the reader does not give a fig about how much I personally know, they are not hiring me to do a job. They are reading about a technical topic so that they can do their job. So I should be making sure I know as much as I can about the topic in order to describe it and I should describe all of it that I think could be useful to others, even if so far it has not been of use to me and the specifics of the problems I was solving. And how do I learn about technical stuff? I read the documentation… and blogs… and books… and play with it.

It also got me thinking about what I will feel like if people use my chapters in a couple of years to help them write about a topic (be it in a book, a blog or an article). If they simply copy my stuff, steal my words, I’ll be angry. If they copy it but just change a few bits to hide the fact I’ll be furious. But if they are writing this as they initially learned from me and then added their own experience and knowledge, I’ll be chuffed to bits – because I taught them. And now they would be teaching others.

So I started reading my modern books on the topics around what I was writing and looking at blog posts and articles more. I know I am doing a better job for the audience since I started doing that. However, the list of people I will need to thank in my bit of the acknowledgements is going up & up and I suspect that for years I’ll be meeting people at conferences & meetings and going “here’s a pint for the help you gave me! And, no, you did not know you had!”. {One thing that did worry the pants off me is that when I read around, it turns out that in my first chapter I uses an example very extensively that turns out to be the exact same example at least two other people have used – it’s convergent evolution, honest! But I’m sure someone at some point is going to point a finger… Oh well, the deadlines are too tight for me to change it now. I don’t even have time to write this blog really…}

There was a specific incident this week that made me think again about copying. I noticed (as I was checking out a relatively unused aspect of a PL/SQL tool and what I did not know about it – but others might benefit from knowing) that the same information was in two places. Exactly the same, word for word. Someone had stolen content from Tim Hall’s excellent Oraclebase site. And it was not just one article, it was dozens, with no citation of the original author anywhere and a copyright sign on the pages of stolen content. You can read about Tim’s ire in this blog post he wrote. He got more annoyed than I think he normally does as this guy had stolen stuff before and Tim was suffering from a cold. He got about as annoyed as I would get in that situation, in fact.

I also noticed as I investigated my currently-obscure aspect of PL/SQL that most of the content on the topic elsewhere was mostly chunks just taken from the oracle official documentation with a few lines wrapped around each chunk. Was that stealing content? I’m still not sure about that, but I think that if there is more borrowed content than original content, it’s at best Poor Effort and probably is Theft. If they do not even write their own demo code for the feature but take Oracle’s – it’s theft. Bad people.

I did nearly comment on Twitter that I never got my stuff stolen, as my stuff is mostly just opinion pieces like this and of no technical worth! But the very next day – Yep, you guessed it, someone stole one of my blog posts. There was a single link back to my original post at the very end but it was not a citation, it just said “reference Link Martin Widlake’s”. In fact, initially I think it just said “Reference Link”. He also has a copyright sign on his web pages. I currently don’t, maybe I should add one so that I can simply say “copyright, take it off else i’ll issue a Take Down request to your service provider”.

I’ve emailed him to say I’m not happy to have a word-for-word copy stolen and presented as his and I am certainly not happy that the pieces is appearing on the front of his web site advertising his services! It seems he is just one guy trying to make a living in rural Northern Pakistan. Should I be concerned about the theft of my article and ask him to remove it? If it is helping him make a living thousands of miles away and he has at least added a small citation at the end? Yes, because it is still theft. And if I do not highlight to him how much this annoys people, he will probably steal other stuff. If you don’t challenge bad behaviour you condone it.

And besides, if he does steal more stuff this will certainly include Tim’s material as his site is often on the first search-engine page on any Oracle Topic. And when he pinches Tim’s stuff, Tim’s gonna be angry…