jump to navigation

Friday Philosophy – Identifying and Nullifying Fake Urgency April 20, 2012

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

You know how it goes. You get a call/mail/text with something along the lines of “I need to know all the details of customer orders placed on Tuesday 7th by customers based in Botswana – and I need it ASAP, by end of play today at the latest”. So you skip lunch, drop that task you have been trying to get around to doing all week and work out how to resolve the issue that has just been dropped on you. It takes a lot of effort and you finally get it sorted out around an hour after you told your girlfriend/boyfriend/cat you would be leaving the office that day – and mail it off to the requestor. You might even call them to let them know it is done, but oddly they don’t answer.

Next day, you see the guy who wanted this urgent request and ask if it was what they wanted “Oh, I have not looked at it yet – but thanks for doing it.”

NO! “Thanks” does not work in this situation. I’d have more respect for this guy if he laughed at me and said “got you again, sucker”. Many of you know what I mean don’t you – if you are in a support-type-role, this can be a big part of your life.

I had a job years back that seemed to consist 90% of such tasks. I was the development DBA team leader responsible for testing, validating and promoting code to production. Everyone’s changes were Urgency Level 1, to be done as an emergency release and many could not be put in place until after 5pm. I’d be sat there at 18:30 in a massive but virtually empty office, applying changes along with one or two of my guys. Everyone else had gone home. This was not once or twice a month, it was 4 or 5 times a week. What are you to do?

Well, I came up with one tactic that seemed to work pretty well.

Anyone who asked for an emergency change had to be there, on site, available when the change was done.
There were of course cries of protest and people stated it was ridiculous that they had to be there, they were not needed, the change had been tested thoroughly {oh how I laughed at that – a thoroughly tested “emergency” change huh?}. No, I replied, you had to be there in case it went wrong as it’s your system, your data and, frankly, your emergency. If it is not urgent enough for you – the guy wanting it to be done – to be inconvenienced, well it sure as hell is not urgent enough to inconvenience me. “You can call if there are problems” – What, after you have escaped the locality? Maybe turned off your phone? And if I get you , I have to wait for you to come back in? No no no. Urgent emergency now equates to presence in office. After all, I’ll be there.

I stuck to my rule. If the requester could not be bothered to stay, I downgraded the request to “Planned” and put it through the CAB process. If the requester dumped on one of their team and made them stay, I mentally marked them half a point down and factored it in next emergency.

The change was remarkable. I was no longer in the office on my own every evening. I was not there with someone else either. I was simply not there as, when you made the emergency a little bit inconvenient to the requester, it magically stopped being an emergency.

There was another change. Less cock-ups. Seeing as these changes now went through the CAB process and slightly more testing {like, some testing} the duff changes were more likely to be detected before they caused damage. My bosses went from regarding me as “not a team player” to “Not a team player – but we kind of get your point now”.

So my advice is, if someone wants to try and make something your emergency, find some way of making sure it remains inconvenient to them. If they are willing to put up with the inconvenience, then it is a real emergency and you need to crack on with it.

Friday Philosophy – The Abuse of Favours March 30, 2012

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

You probably all recognise this situation:

Dave needs something doing that he can’t do himself – let’s say it is creating an API for the file management package. It isn’t your job to do but it is something you can do. Dave is blocked until the API is created.

So, being a nice person, you tell Dave you will see what you can do for him over the next couple of days.

So why is it that what Dave hears is “Dave, I love you more than life itself, I am dedicated to this task and I WILL complete it before the end of tomorrow. My other tasks, emergency production issues and the untimely demise of my cat are all secondary to this endeavour.”.

You see, 24 hours later, Dave is at your desk “When will this be done?! I’m blocked until I get this!!!”. If he’s the guy I had recently his next step is to slap his fist into his palm as he utters, almost shouts “I NEED this!”.

No. No you don’t need it. What you need is for that slap to be in your face, followed by “wake up! You don’t go shouting at the guy digging you out the hole!”.

I find this particularly unacceptable when the favour is to be fixing some mess that Dave created, or doing something Dave told his boss he had finished last week. Of course, those are the exactly situations where Dave is most likely to get upset, as he is in real trouble and most likely to commit that ultimate Favour sin:-

Dave to Boss “I Didn’t get my task done as Martin promised to create the API and he hasn’t. I’d be there now if I only did it myself”.

If you are thinking “Hmmm, I think I might have been ‘Dave’ recently” then Shame On You and go beg forgiveness. Of course, if you were ‘Dave’ you may well be the sort of sod who will twist the situation around in your head so it was not your fault anyway. Grrr, bad Dave.

For a while I gave up doing work favours as I got sick of the situation above playing out. Then I started doing favours again but being a bore about saying repeatedly, up front, that this was a favour, it was only if I had time, not to rely on me and, if it is that important, go ask someone else. Yeah, sounds really grumpy doesn’t it? That gave me a reputation for not being a Team Player (which is code for “mug”).

Now I have a rule system. As soon as someone starts getting demanding about the favour, I immediately challenge it. If they get shouty they lose their favour rights. No more favours for you until the requisite number of beers have been bought. It’s three.

Of course, you see this scene played out on help forums all the time. Initial message is nearly always in upper case text speak “PLS HLP ME, IS URGNT! CN U TELL ME HOW 2 DO MY JOB – THNX!!!” and soon degrades into helfull person asking for details of the exact person and Mr Shouty demanding more and more help. I don’t help. After all, this guy is never going to buy me a beer.

Friday Philosophy – The Inappropriate Use of Smart Phones February 24, 2012

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

I’m kind of expecting to get a bit of a comment-kicking over this one…

I never much liked mobile phones – Yes they are incredibly useful, yes they allow countries that lack a ground-based telephony network to create a nationwide system, yes they allow communication all the time from almost anywhere. That last point is partly why I dislike them. {Actually, I don’t like normal phones much, or how some people {like my wife} will interrupt a conversation to dash across the room to answer it. It’s just a person on the phone, it will take a message if someone wants to say something significant. If someone calls your name out in a crowd, do you abandon the people you are talking to, dash across the room and listen to them exclusively? No, so what act that way over a phone?}.

However, I hold a special level of cynical dislike for “smart” phones. Why? Because people seem to be slaves to them and they seem to use them in a very antisocial way in social and even business situations. It is no longer just speaking or texting that people do, it’s checking and sending email, it’s twittering and blogging, it’s surfing the net and looking things up. I have no problem with any of this, I do all of these things on my desktop, laptop, netbook. But I don’t do them to the detriment of people who are there in the flesh – whilst supposedly in a conversation with mates at the pub or carrying out a transaction in a shop or using the coffee machine at work or, basically, standing in the bloody way staring at a little screen or rudely ignoring people who I am supposed to be interacting with.

The below is my phone. It makes calls, it sends texts, it might even be able to work as an alarm clock (I am not sure). It does not do anything else much and it was ten quid {actually the below might be the version up from the really cheap thing I have}:

I was pondering this rude (ab)use of Smart Phones in a meeting this week. It was a meeting to discuss a program of work, what needed doing and by whom. It was a meeting where everyone in the room was involved, each person’s opinion was important and we all had a vested interest in the outcome of the meeting. So why did over half of the people not only have their Smart Phone out but were tapping away, scrolling through stuff, looking at some asinine rubbish on Facebook {yes, I saw you}? One or two people in the room might have been able to argue that they needed to keep an eye out for important emails or calls – but really? Are things so incredibly important and only you can deal with them that you can’t just play your full part in a meeting for an hour? I was so annoyed by this that I missed half the meeting internally moaning about it…

I just see it as rude. It’s saying “while you people are talking, I can’t be bothered listening and I certainly don’t need to give you my full attention. And I don’t even care that I’m making it so obvious”. Or “I am buying this item from you and we need to deal with the transaction but you are so inconsequential I don’t even have to pause this conversation about which cafe to meet in next week. You do not deserve more than 15% of my attention”.

I supposed that is what really gets my blood slowly heating up, it’s that it has become accepted to be so rude. Just walk down the street, head down and eyes fixed on your glowing little screen, making no attempt to navigate with your fellow city dwellers. I made a decision 2 {correction, 3} years ago that, if you are walking along staring at your phone and you are going to collide with me, you ARE going to collide with me if you do not become aware of me and make allowances – and I am lower down than you, I braced my shoulder and I am going to win this one. If they are so fixated on that bl00dy screen that they do not heed any attention to others, people ping off me like they’ve been thumped by a tree stump. It now happens a lot and I always “win”. I’m surprised no one has punched me yet.

If I was a manager again I would introduce a simply rule. No Smart Phone in your hand unless you have a stated reason for doing so. There are many valid reasons, which will all be related to the meeting. Otherwise you are just being disrespectful. If you feel the meeting does not apply to you or this section is not relevant, fine. Sit still and listen anyway. You might actually find it useful to know what everyone else is doing. Stop playing bl00dy mental chickens or whatever or updating your status to “bored”.

I will hold strongly to these opinions. Right up until the minute I finally buy that iphone I’ve been considering getting. I really want to be able to check my twitter account during meetings, you see.

Friday Philosophy – Lead or Lag (When to Upgrade)? January 20, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, Testing.
Tags: , , ,

I was involved in a discussion recently with Debra Lilley which version of Oracle to use. You can see her blog about it here (and she would love any further feedback from others). Oracle now has a policy that it will release the quarterly PSUs for a given point release for 12 months once that point release is superseded. ie once came out, Oracle will only guarantee to provide PSUs for for 12 months. See “My Oracle Support” note ID 742060.1. However, an older Terminal release such as is not superseded and is supported until 2015 – and will get the quarterly PSU updates. This left the customer with an issue. Should they start doing their development on the latest and theoretically greatest version of Oracle and be forced to do a point upgrade “soon” to keep getting the PSUs, or use an older version of Oracle and avoid the need to upgrade?

This is in many ways a special case of the perennial issue of should you use the latest version of Oracle (or in fact any complex software solution) or go with the version you know and trust? Plus, should you patch up to the latest version which in theory gives you protection against bugs and vulnerabilities (along with the CPUs). Yes, they are two separate issues but people tend to sit on the same side of both points, for the same reasons.

The arguments to stay using an older version are that it is working, it is stable, you do not need the new features and upgrading is a lot of work and effort. Plus the new version will have new bugs that come along with the new features you do not need and things might be turned on by default that you could do without (like stats collecting or not creating the actual segments when a new table or partition is created). If you remain on your favourite version long enough, you get another issue which is that the latest version of Oracle might not be compatible with your ancient version of the OS or another package or programming language critical to your system (I got caught in a terrible web with old perl, old O/S and old DB that resulted in a need to upgrade all three together – ouch!).

The arguments to moving forward are that you get access to the latest features, that over all older features will have more bugs fixed in newer version, performance will be better {again, overall, exceptions allowing}. Also, if you do hit bugs and problems there are no issues in having to first upgrade to a fully supported version. Plus, fixes are made for current versions first and then back-ported to older ones. Those pack-ported fixes can cause real problems when you DO decide to upgrade.

The big sticking points are the effort involved in upgrading and living with the bugs that you find that Oracle Testing didn’t.

I’ve got a few of other considerations to throw into the pot.

Firstly, if you are developing something new, it is not a lot more effort to use the latest version. This allows you to learn the new version and eases the transition of older systems to it.

Secondly, Oracle like you if you use the latest version, especially if it is the latest-latest version or even beta. Yeah, the helpdesk will not have a clue about some of your issues but in my experience you get access to those really smart guys and gals in Oracle who do the third-line support or even the development work.

Thirdly, if you are on the latest version, if you do decide to freeze on that version for a while, for stability and a quiet life, you have a lot longer before your version (at least at a major level) drops out of support.

Fourthly, dynamic, inquisitive, flexible staff like new things. In my experience, environments that freeze on an old version have a higher percentage of staff who either like it dull and repetitive, or hate it being dull and repetitive – and itch to get out. If I’m in charge, I know which type of staff I like to have more of {NB there are some very good arguments for having some staff who like it dull and repetitive}.

As you can guess, I am in the “be on the latest version” side of the argument. I was ambivalent about it until a few years ago when I noticed a trend:

Sites that like to move forward tend to (a) do it in a controlled manner and (b) have the infrastructure to do proper regression testing.
Site that like to stay still lack the ability to do regression testing and move forward only when forced – and in a pressured, unplanned and frankly chaotic manner.

That was it, that was the real key thing for me. The further you lag behind the more likely you are to eventually be forced to upgrade and it won’t be a nice time doing it. I know, there are exceptions, systems still running Oracle 6 absolutely fine on an old DOS6.1 box. In the same way you also get the odd 95-year-old life-long smokers – and thousands of 45-year-old smokers with emphysema.

When I have any sway over the situation I now always strive to be on modern versions of Oracle {OS, language, whatever} and to patch small and regular. To support all this, have very good regression testing. I’ve only a couple of times been able to get the regression testing sorted out as well as I would like, but when you do the pain of patching and upgrading, as well as developing and integrating, is so much reduced that not patching seems madness.

So to sum up:

  • If it is a new development, go for the very latest version, play with the latest features if potentially beneficial and see if you can get Oracle to be interested in your attempts. ie (B)lead.
  • If you have good regression testing, plan and carry out patch and version upgrades as they come available and stay current. ie Lead
  • If you have a complex solution in place and no/poor regression testing, do not move to a new major release, leave it a while for the worst new bugs to be found and fixed. Then move. ie Lag
  • If your system is old AND critical and all the guys and gals who implemented it are long gone, stay on that version for ever. ie stagnate.

Oh, and if that last one applies to many of your systems – dust off the CV and start reading technical manuals. One day you will need a new job in a hurry.

Friday Philosophy – The Worst Thing About Contracting December 2, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in contracting, Friday Philosophy, humour, rant.
Tags: , , ,

A while back I was asked by a friend to blog about being a contractor. In the pub last week my friend reminded me of this and that I had not obliged him. I will – think of this as instalment one Jason…

I’ve been a contractor on and off for 18 years. For anyone not familiar with the concept, it is where you are self-employed and you simply hire yourself out to a company for a period of time or to do a specific job. You generally have less job security than an employee and less rights and benefits – No holiday pay, no paid sick leave, no annual pay increase {OK, so that one is rare for employees too these days}, no training and generally the first out the door when the money gets tight. In return you get more money when working and a lot, lot less to do with office politics, HR, annual reviews and the like.

It is not for everyone but I like being a contractor. It gives me a broader degree of experience.

I like it apart from one main thing.

Recruitment Consultants. For every good one there are 3 bad ones. And for each bad one there are 5 absolutely terrible ones.

There are good recruitment consultants out there, some absolutely fantastic ones who do things like actually read CV’s, understand the business they are hiring into and can be bothered responding to emails and telephone calls. You might even find one who has a mental list of their clients and their requirements and will actively look to place a good candidate in front of those clients. Claire Green at GT-Consulting is one. There are others of course.

However, most do little more than scan the database of candidate CVs for keywords and send the first three found off to the client for them to do the actual work of seeing if they actually have the skills and experience required. It would seem most have no ability or interest in trying to work out who would be a good or bad candidate themselves, like it being the service they are supposed to supply. If you try and get in touch directly to discuss a role, to maybe ask some questions to save both you and the consultant’s client a wasted interview, many will not take your call {“Can I ask who’s calling?” Brief pause whilst they realise you are a candidate not a client company “Ahh, sorry they are out of the office today, they’ll call you back. Who were you again?”}. Only the good ones call you back. You will hardly ever be called back.

If you do speak to them, some will be your best mate – but can’t quite fake sincerity… Sadly, it is often obvious that they have no idea about the business. I had a chap a week or two back telling me I needed PL or SQL to do the role and when I queried if they meant PL/SQL they got tetchy with me. Another a while back was insisting I was not suitable as I did not have 10 years of Oracle 10. As I beta tested Oracle 10 for over a year and thus, with around 8 years’ experience at that time, was well ahead of the pack I suggested that maybe they needed to alter that requirement – or find someone who helped develop it at Oracle Corp…Again, some kindly advice was poorly received. OK, I was not kindly, I was tetchy too. He had stared off being my insincere best mate.

I could just be having a self-centred moan of course, in that the recruitment consultants don’t realise how great I am ( :-) ) and find me lucrative jobs – but I’ve also been the client and had to wade through dozens of utterly unsuitable CVs sent in from them. The last time was particularly awful as we were not able to offer a great wage (but we were happy to take people with experience of prior versions and train them up to the latest-greatest). Most CVs sent in had the words Oracle, database and administration on them but not together. Several lacked any Oracle at all. Every recruitment consultant I dealt with that time gave me the same spiel about having the best candidates on their books, how they vetted everyone and sent only the ones with the best match of skills. They must have been telling a miss-truth about at least one of those claims as there was little match with our requirements for an Oracle DBA.

So, I really like contracting but not the dealing-with-agents bit. Oddly enough, any discussion with other contractors or managers who hire nearly always shows that my feelings are widely shared…

I’ve been thinking about doing this post ever since I started blogging but I didn’t – because many jobs are only available via recruitment consultants. Insulting them is not going to help me get put forward for jobs. However, last time I was mouthing off about Satan’s little Imps in the pub and how I had never done a Friday Philosophy on the topic, due to the fear of the consequences, one of the guys pointed out I was an idiot. Most recruitment consultants can’t even be bothered reading your CV so they are not going to go check out someone’s technical blog! {and Neil has just beaten me to posting about it and how they always ask for mostly irrelevant industry experience}. Any who do are going to be firmly in that rare Good category. I’d go as far as to say that any recruitment consultant who is reading this is in the top 5% of their field. Nice to talk to you again, Claire…

Headlong rush to Conference – Preparing the Presentations November 29, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes, UKOUG.
Tags: , , , ,

With only a few days to go before the UKOUG conference this year I’m preparing my presentations. I know pretty much what I want to say and, for the IOT talk at least, it is not as if I do not have enough material already prepared – some of which has been on the blog posts and some of which has not. (though it did strike me that I could just fire up the blog and walk through the thread, taking questions).

My big problem is not what to say – it is what not to say.

I’ve always had this problem when I want to impart knowledge, I have this desire to grab the audience by the throat, take what I know about the subject and somehow just cram the information into the heads of the people in front of me. All of it. I want them to know everything about it that I know, the core knowledge, the oddities, the gotchas, how it meshes with other topics. It’s ridiculous of course, if I’ve spent many hours (days, weeks, 20 years) acquiring experience, reading articles and learning, I can’t expect to pass that all on in a one hour presentation – especially as I like to provide proof and examples for what I say. But I think the desire to do so is part of what makes me a good presenter and tutor. I bounce around in front of the audience, lobbing information at them and constantly trying to judge if I need to backup and give more time to anything or if I can plough on, skipping the basics. Hint, if you are in the audience and I’m going too fast or garbling my topic, then I am always happy to be asked questions or told to reverse up a little. I’ve never been asked to speed up though :-)

It gets even worse. If I am putting myself up there to talk about a topic then I don’t want to be found wanting. I want to be able to handle any question and have a slide or example up my sleeve to demonstrate it. It’s exhausting and, again, pointless. At somewhere like the UKOUG there is bound to be someone who knows something I don’t know about any topic.

For me the trick is to pare it down, to keep reminding myself that if the audience leaves with more knowledge than they came in with, that is a win. If they actually enjoyed the experience I’m even more happier. Maybe I should forget the topic and just take drinks and nibbles…

So, I’m currently doing what I always do, which is trying to force myself to remove stuff that is not directly relevant whilst still leaving a few little oddities and interesting items. Plus getting the 200 slides down to something more reasonable – like say 120 :-)

If I can get it down to one slide per minute (some of which I skip on the day as they are there for anyone downloading the talk) then I’m OK.

Of course, having done this, the day before the course I’ll do one last “final review” – and add a couple of dozen slides to just clarify a few points…

How deep to dig – Another Opinion and Another Good Blog November 22, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Blogging, UKOUG.
Tags: , ,
1 comment so far

I think I’ve posted before about how deep a good DBA should dig into solving issues, as opposed to fixing them as soon as possible and moving on to the next urgent task.

Well, a friend of mine, Neil Chandler, has just posted on this topic, giving his reasons why you don’t run a 10046 trace on production. Neil raises some good points about how difficult it can be to get permission to do something as intrusive as a 10046 trace on a production system as well as the fact that most problems can be solved way before you get down to the level of tracing. Especially if it is not your job to go around solving the problems that have stumped the in-house team, which is the lot of many people who are recognised as being very good with Oracle.

That leads me onto a slightly different topic. For every one of those technicians who’s names you know there are at least a dozen who are just as good but not as visible. Some of us choose to make more “noise” {blogging, presenting, writing articles} so we become visible. Others also support the user community but in a less noticeable way, some even positively choosing to keep a lower profile. Neil is one of those. He’s a very good Oracle and SQL*Server DBA and also very knowledgeable about Unix OS’s and SANs/storage {though he would maybe argue he is not – don’t believe him}. When he comes along to the pub his is an opinion worth listening to {once he’s finished demeaning me that is, and I’m sure he will give me a hard time about this article about him next time we meet} and when I’ve asked his opinion he has never failed to help. Neil also supports the UKOUG, he’s been deputy chair of one of the SIGs since it’s inception – but he refuses to be chair, has kept away from presenting and he keeps in the background.

So, I was very happy when Neil started blogging. It is a mixture of technical stuff and observations on the IT world, all written in a very comfortable style – Look back at his previous post on timestamps not being impacted by FIXED_DATE. A nice piece of information to tuck into your bag of “things to be aware of”.

So, a belated welcome to the world of blogging Neil. I think it is a blog worth watching.

Friday Philosophy – OK, so I am on Twitter Now November 18, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Private Life, Twitter.
Tags: , ,

Not a very exciting Friday Philosophy this week I’m afraid, just a self-publicising announcement that I am now on Twitter. I’ve put the wordpress widget on the blog for a while (days or weeks, I don’t know), my twitter name is MDWidlake. {I was a little surprised mwidlake had gone already but that says more about how rare I consider my surname to be than naivety, I hope}. It seems you can click on a part of the widget to follow me, which is a pretty safe thing to do as I am not very verbal as yet.

As I said, I’m not very active at the moment, I’m more following just a few friends and seeing what people use Twitter for. So far it mostly seems to be about:

  • Random stuff posted when bored
  • Complaining about work or, more specifically, tasks that are proving trickier than hoped
  • Drinking
  • Random stuff posted when bored
  • Articles that have caught someone’s eye
  • …or more often, about tweets about articles that have caught someone’s eye
  • Chatty stuff that only makes sense between social peers (and isn’t that one of the main points of something like Twitter?)
  • Random stuff posted when bored
  • Cuddly toys. I think that is a result of low sample size and that Doug Burns is away at a conference. I worry about his sanity sometimes.

Niall Litchfield, Neil Chandler and Doug Burns were right {thanks again for your advice, gents}, there is some nice stuff on there and I’ve already seen some articles and web pages I found interesting via it – but I have also failed to get on with proper work-like stuff I should have been doing as a result.

I also like the chatty extension to real social engagement that Twitter gives but I hold out on my final decision as to whether this makes up for the negative impact it seems to have on real, meeting-in-person socialising.

The interface to Twitter seems a bit, well, rubbish to me. I know, I’ve been on there for all of a week and I am probably missing the Bleedin’ Obvious  but it seems the stuff I see in Timeline, the default view, is just a subset of what people I follow say. I suspect that it’s got something to do with whether the person the tweet is replying to is on my follow list. To understand half the social stuff you have to go clicking around on people’s full tweet history and follow the thread back. Surely there is an easier way than this, maybe some connect-by tree-walk SQL could be invoked…

I’ve already dropped one person off my “following” list. I only followed one celebrity and I decided I could live without the random musings of Simon Pegg. I can imagine people get addicted to following several dozen b to z level celebs, maybe it’s like constantly living in some sort of poor quality reality tv show {Personally I tend to avoid all reality TV, I prefer reality. Except that I am forced to watch that dancing thing on BBC by my wife. And like most men who make that sort of defence, I can’t quite explain away why I still watch it if she is away…}.

So, don’t expect too much in the way of interesting, witty, insightful or even existing tweets from me as yet, but if you want to follow, heck you can always drop me like a sack of manure any time you like :-).

Friday Philosophy – When Things Feel Wrong October 28, 2011

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

I got pinged by someone else missing the Friday Philosophy today {BTW, Good news, the technical blogs start again on Monday}, so…

Take a look at the below. It is a rather pleasant spot of countryside on Sao Migel in the Azores, where the area in the foreground has been converted into a bit of a garden to take advantage of the natural beauty.

Nice, isn’t it? Sorry the sun is not shining, but there you go. This waterfall just across the road from a set of water mills and waterfalls at Achada, which is one of the tourist spots that features often in brochures for Sao Miguel. But look at the scene again. Does anything strike you as odd about that waterfall? I could not put my finger on what it was, I just knew it looked odd. (Graham, if you don’t spot this immediately you owe me a pint).

There was a path heading up the valley to one side of the waterfall, one of a network meandering through the gardens, and I went up it. After a short while there was a smaller path heading up the hill more directly. It looked maintained but too steep to be a “wandering around enjoying the scenary” path. So I went up that. At the top of this path was a structure, a concrete “block house” It hummed and it gurgled. There was another path heading back the way I came, towards the waterfall. I followed along it and I found the top of the waterfall…

Yes, the waterfall was a fake. It was coming out of this huge concrete trough fed by a large pipe which went back to the humming, gurgling concrete block house. Returning back down to the bottom of the waterfall I could put my finger on what was odd about that waterfall. There is a valley to the left. OK, that is not so odd, the water could be coming from high land to the right of the valley and draining into the valley at this point. Except there is another valley to the right of the waterfall as well. Both had small streams running through them. This waterfall could only be natural if there was a perfectly formed, shallow middle valley heading up to the hills between the other two valleys and the only point where the water could escape was at the confluence of the lower two valleys. There was also a lot more water coming down this waterfall than was coming down the two valleys.

What has this got to do with Oracle and databases? Well, have you ever been in the position where you look at the output from a system and it just does not “feel right”? I sometimes refer to something I call DBA Intuition. There is also Developer Intuition and there is certainly Tester Intuition. All are where you are not sure why but it just looks or feels wrong (or, you just get a feeling for what a problem is or what the solution might be, all I class as DBA intuition, but I digress).

As an example, you are tasked to look at one of those terrible BI-type reports that consist of two pages of SQL and they want to know why it takes so long to run. Before you dive into the code, you look at the result of the report and you just think “That seems like an awfully large number of people responding to that advertising campaign” or “I can’t believe 10 percent of our income comes from selling baby diapers”.

Usually when I have dug into the actual report or part of the system that feels wrong I find out one of two things. That I had no idea that part of that business really worked that way, or, that the report is utter garbage. Somewhere in that report there a missing table or a logic flaw {nested AND and OR statements are a good place to look}. This of course has the advantage that there is no need for me to tune the report until someone can tell me WHAT the report is supposed to be identifying.

DBA Intuition is, I think, basically a gut feeling you develop in response to experience. I suppose I have more “tuning intuition” these days, I look at how fast some SQL is coming back and the volume of data and I think “seems reasonable actually” or “something is very inefficient here”. I’ve noticed that good system testers have this intuitive knack of just asking the new system to do things in a way or order that does not match the original intention.

So, I encourage you to trust your intuition. If some part of the system feels wrong, go and root around in the system undergrowth; climb up to the top of the data waterfall {OK, I’ll stop with the bad IT metaphors) and see what you find.

Incidentally, after I found the pump house we walked the other way up the valley, following the pipe and the pleasant gardens. It took maybe 20 minutes but we found the "real source" of the fake waterfall, which was a very nice, natural waterfall sitting in the very bottom of a pleasant valley – just where a waterfall should be. It just took a little more effort to get to it. I'm sure there is some moral story in there but I'm damned if I can work it out :-)

Friday Philosophy – The One Absolute Requirement for System Success October 14, 2011

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

What must you always achieve for an IT system to be a success?

  • Bug free? Never happens.
  • Within budget/time frame? That would be nice.
  • Includes critical business functionality? Please define critical.
  • Secure? Well, it’s important for many systems but then it is often lacking (even when it is important).
  • That it is to specification? Well we all know that’s wrong.

There is only one thing that an IT system must always achieve to be a success.

User Acceptance.

For an individual system other considerations may well be very important, but the user acceptance is, I think, non-negotiable.

{Slight update – This blog was written in 2011 with corporate IT systems in mind, where the use of the system is almost if not explicitly mandated. With the explosion of Apps and web-based systems over the last 5 years, for a lot of IT systems the users, the customers, have to be attracted to the system. We now call User Acceptance User Experience and it is, if anything, even more vital. If the user does not find the system easy to use and of some benefit, they will click off somewhere else.}

The user must get enough out of using the system for it to be worth their while, otherwise at best they will resent using it and at worst… Well, at worst they will use it but will put in any old rubbish to fulfill the dictate that it be used. In this worst case you would be better off if they did not use the system at all. Here are a couple of examples from my working past.

In the first one, I was involved in extending a hospital management system so that it kept track of the expected arrival and departure times for ward patients, allowing a predication of when beds would become available and calculation of expected occupancy rates. Yes, this was a while ago (maybe 1990) and on an a system that was old then. The information was needed by someone with the title “bed sister” {or something similar – and would now be titled “head of occupancy management!…} so that they could better manage the flow of patients and keep a higher bed usage ratio. Was this to make the hospital more efficient? No, it was to satisfy a politically demanded report to the NHS executive. Oh, the overall intention was to increase efficiency – but the report soon became more important than any true efficiency. So, we added columns in tables and field on screens and prompts for the ward staff to fill in the required new information.

And they didn’t.

The nurses were busy, they were pretty demoralized {due to having recently been used by the government as a way to control public sector pay} and they had more nursing duties to do than they could manage. They were not going to waste a couple of minutes trying to check when Mrs Jenkins was going to be sent home when Mrs Leonard needed a bed pan. The nursing staff were given a hospital-wide telling off, this information had to be entered. So they put in the data – but guessed wildly, just to get management off their backs. Thus the design of the system enhancement was fine, the report was logically accurate, only the correct staff could run it, but we failed to achieve User Acceptance and thus the system was a failure.

So I added something else. It was a very crude screen (this was 1990) that showed a “diagram” of a ward – Down the left and right side of a VT220 screen you saw little oblong boxes labelled with a bed number and in it the patient name, the consultant’s initials, a medical specialty code and the arrival and departure date-time. This was based on some information we already had plus the new information we wanted and the screen was quite basic, limited and slow to draw. But it was useful to the ward staff. They could find any patient, they knew who to call if there was an emergency {not the actual consultant of course, but their secretary :-)}, they could check when they expected a patient to leave, they could even see when a new patient was expected. They used it. They put in the expected departure times {sobering thought, this might not be expected leaving alive}, patients would be booked into empty beds when they became available (often before they actually arrived) and the bed nurse could plan new arrivals and the oh-so-important report could be run. We had achieved User Acceptance and the system became a success.

The second example is also from healthcare but from a different system in a different hospital. We were putting together a system to schedule outpatient clinics. We knew what we were doing, it’s pretty simple. You have some medical staff holding the clinic (a consultant and probably a senior house officer), a period for the clinic (3 or 4 hours) and a set of people to be seen, say 40. We gave some flexibility in slot lengths (some people need 5 minutes, some 15), checked for and stopped double booking and verified against other data such as correct speciality for the outpatient’s clinical data. We did not go and ask the patient admin staff about the spec, we knocked up the design and the screens and asked them to test. After all, I was very experienced now, I’d been doing these systems for 3, 4 years…

They very quickly came back to us and said it was rubbish. Oh dear.

We went and saw them. “What’s the problem?” There were a few – but the main one was that you could not double book a slot. Why would you want to do that? Do two patients really want to be consulted at the same time with the same doctor? {NB this can happen in some special cases – such as fertility treatment, psychology and a couple of others, but not Urology or Orthopedics!}
“Err, maybe, it might happen, can we just be able to double book?” OK, we could maybe alter things to allow two patients to be seen at the same time… The patient admin staff are not looking happy. The hospital liaison is looking confused & concerned and interrupts – “You can’t do that! Patient confidentiality can’t be broken!” he says. It got worse. “We need to be able to book… several people in one slot”. How many? “We need to book all the patients into the first slot, with the consultant, so the letters go out to them saying come to see Mr Winders at 1pm”. The admin staff are now looking very shifty.

If any of you have worked in the health service you are probably way ahead of me. The admin staff needed to book all the patients in at this first slot so that the ill and suffering would all turn up at the start of the session. The consultant would then run through his notes and see the two or three he was interested in – and then go and play golf. The Senior House Officer (or whoever) would then work through the rest of the patients for the following three or four hours. If you have ever had to turn up at the start of a consultancy session and sat there for three hours, now you know why. You see, back then, the consultant was only a very small step away from deity level (and I leave it to you to decide if it was a step up or down). What they said went and if they wanted to go and play golf or store 200 medical records in the boot of their car or refuse to speak to “that stupid idiot in renal medicine” then you worked around it. {I’m assured that things are a lot better now, but I’d love to know how it really is}.

We had designed a sensible solution. The users of the system needed a non-sensible {to our mind} solution. Even the NHS liaison chap had never appreciated exactly how much the consultants abused the system, he thought they just booked the people s(he) wanted at the start of the session, but no. The consultant decided that day who was interesting and as a result every patient had to be there at the start.

I count myself lucky that I learnt from direct experience so soon in my working life that (a) you have to deliver what the user will accept and (b) the only way to know what they want is to show them the system and talk with them.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 185 other followers