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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To this day I am proud I refused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Philosophy – The Passing of Nelson Mandela December 6, 2013

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
1 comment so far

As this is a blog on the technical aspects of the Oracle RDBMS and management in IT, it is not really the correct place to pass comment on the passing of a political figure, let alone touch on the politics of race and discrimination.

But I don’t care, it’s my blog and I can do what I want.

I’m partly saddened by the death of Nelson Mandela even though I never met him as I think he was one of those rare things – a politician who was actually a good person who was trying to right wrongs. Thus I think humanity has lost a very good human. But he had been suffering from very poor health for a long time and maybe he would have been happy for it to come to an end. I do not know of course.

I do know that tonight’s next glass of wine will be lifted to him, even though I never met him and know less about him than really I probably should. Personally I think I agree with his politics but only in that fairly nebulous “we should all get on and act as a community” left wing type of stuff.

What I am finding interesting is watching the media output on the death of Nelson Mandela, the rounds of significant people queuing up to praise him and the footage I am seeing of people in South Africa who seem to be more celebrating his life than suffering in mourning. I’m a bit cynical about the world leaders and politicians but rather affirmed by the SA nationals saying “Let us celebrate this person”. That agrees with my philosophy on life.

Any time I check the web to see if I am being mentioned (something I do every few months, mostly just due to narcissism but also to see if anyone has mentioned me and I should say thanks) I will come across Brian Widlake, who is a journalist who got to be about the last person to interview Nelson Mandela {and one of if not the first to do so for television} before his incarceration and when Mandela made a comment that maybe peaceful methods of protest were not going to be enough. So I am constantly reminded of Nelson Mandela.

I’m actually named after a similar person, Martin Luther King. It must have been my Father’s doing as my mother, as she creeps up on senility, is showing a level of casual racism that bugs the hell out of me.

Anyway, I started by saying this is not the place to pass comment on politics and I am not really going to as I have no position of authority or knowledge to do so. But I do have a fair knowledge of genetics and biology, what with it being the subject I was trained in at University.

Racism is rather knocked into a cocked hat (from a biological perspective) when you understand genetics. We are all one species with really very, very minor differences between us all and, if you go back just a few thousand grandparents, well we all had the same “grand” mother – and at a similar point maybe one grandfather too but that is harder to track. However, as humans are all so very, very similar genetically/biologically, how come some people are so fundamentally good and some people are fundamentally not and most of us bob around in the middle somewhere? It’s a complex question and though I think I understand some of the factors, I *really* am not going there. I’ll just have another glass of wine and ponder them.

Maybe in my “retirement” I will stop being a moderately successful geek and become a really very poor philosopher.

Friday Philosophy – I Am An Exadata Expert August 10, 2012

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

(Can I feel the angry fuming and dagger looks coming from certain quarters now?)

I am an Exadata Expert.

I must be! – I have logged onto an Exadata quarter rack and selected sysdate from Dual.

The pity is that, from some of the email threads and conversations I have had with people over the last 12 months, this is more real-world experience than some people I have heard of who are offering consultancy services. It’s also more experience than some people I have actually met, who have extolled their knowledge of Exadata – which is based solely on the presentations by Oracle sales people looking at the data sheets from 10,000 feet up and claiming it will solve world hunger.

Heck, hang the modesty – I am actually an Exadata Guru!

This must be true as I have presented on Exadata and it was a damned fine, technical presentation based on real-world experience and I have even debated, in public, the pros and cons of point releases of exadata. Touching base with reality once more, I did an intro talk “the first 5 things you need to know about Exadata” and the “debate” was asking Julian Dyke if he had considered the impact of serial direct IO on a performane issue he had seen and he had not only done so but looked into the issue far more than I – so he was able to correct me.

But joking aside –  I really am a true consulting demi-god when it comes to Exadata

I have years of experience across a wide range of Exadata platforms. That would be 0.5 years and I’ve worked intensively on just one system and am in a team now with some people who are proper experts. So a range of two. Yes, tongue is still firmly in cheek.

This situation always happens with the latest-greatest from Oracle (and obviously all other popular computing technologies). People feel the need to claim knowledge they do not have. Sometimes it is to try and get consultancy sales or employment, sometimes it is because they don’t want to be seen to be behind the times and sometimes it is because they are just deluded. The deluded have seen some presentations, a few blog posts and maybe even got the book and read the first few chapters and are honeslty convinced in their own minds that they now know enough to make effective use of the technology, teach {or, more usually, preach} others and so proclaim on it. {See Dunning Kruger effect, the certainty of idiots}. I’m certainly not arguing against going to presentations, reading blogs and books and learning, just don’t make the mistake of thinking theoretical, second-hand knowledge equates to expert.

With Exadata this situation is made worse as the kit is expensive and much of what makes it unusual cannot be replicated on a laptop, so you cannot as an individual set up a test system and play with it. Real world experince is required. This is growing but is still limited. So the bullshit to real skills quotient remains very, very high.

If you are looking for help or expertise with Exadata, how do you spot the people with real knowledge from the vocal but uninformed? Who do you turn to? {NB don’t call me – I’m busy for 6 months and I really am not an expert – as yet}. If your knowledge to date is based on sales presentations and tidbits from the net which may or may not be based on a depth of experience, it is going to be hard to spot. When I was still without real world experience I had an unfair advantage in that I saw email threads between my fellow OakTable members and of course some of those guys and gals really are experts. But I think I was still hoodwinked by the odd individual on the web or presenting and, I can tell you, though this background knowledge really helped – when I DID work on my first exadata system, I soon realised I did not understand a lot about the subtulties and not-so-subtulties of using a system where massively improved IO was available under key conditions. I had to put a lot of time and effort and testing to move from informed idoit to informed, partially experienced semi-idiot.

I know this issue of the non-expert proclaiming their skills really frustrates some people who do know their stuff for real and it is of course very annoying if you take someone’s advice (or even hire them) only to find their advice to be poor. Let’s face it, is is simple lying at best and potentially criminal mis-selling.

I guess the only way is for peopel needing help to seek the help of someone who has already proven themselves to be honest about their skills or can demonstrate a real-world level experience and success. I would suggest the real experts should do that most difficult task of pointing out the mistakes of the false prophets, but it is very tricky to do without looking like a smartarse or coming over as a big head or jealous.

I’ll finish on one thing. Last year I said how I thought maybe I should do more blog posts about things I did not know much about, and be honest about it and explore the process of learning. I did actualy draft out about 3 posts on such a topic but never pushed them out as I was way too busy to complete them… That and, being candid, I really did not want to look like an idiot. After all, this Oracle lark is what puts beer in my hand, hat fabric on my wife’s millinary worktop and food in my cat’s bowl. The topic was….? Correct, Exadata. Maybe I should dust them off and put them out for you all to laugh at.

You Will Be Our Slave – Err, no, I Won’t May 27, 2012

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

For the sake of current clients, this posting has been time-shifted.

I’m looking at the paperwork for a possible new job in front of me. Document seven out of 13 is the Working Time Directive Waiver. It’s the one where you sign on then dotted line saying your proposed new client can demand more than 48 hours of work a week out of you. {This may be UK or European Union specific but, frankly, I don’t care}.

I’m not signing it. For one thing, I doubt the legality of the document under EU law – especially in light of the issues the UK government had with this and junior doctors {who often, and still do, end up making life-deciding decisions on patients when they are too tired to play Noughts and Crosses, having worked 80 hours that week}. For another, well, I don’t give a damn. I ain’t signing it.

Now, I’ve just completed about 60 hours this week for my client. Not a problem at all, something needed doing, I could do it and so I have. I have done, am doing and will continue to do long weeks for clients when there is a business need and it fits in with the rest of my life and it is not a chronic situation {chronic is a medical term that means “long lasting and on-going”}.

If I am doing 60 hours plus every week, that means I am trying to do 2 people’s job at the same time and doing both of them badly. I don’t care how great I am at doing what I do, if it is 60 hours each and every week, I’m doing it badly because I am too stressed and tired to be doing it well. Also, where is the rest of my life? I have no “rest of my life”.

If my client is asking me to do 60 hours this week and I say “no” and they sack me under the Working Time Directive waiver – that means it is not a request, it is an enforcible demand. I am their slave. Nope. Not happening. It is best all round if it is acknowledged up front before I arrive on site that the client may ask and I may well say yes – but I can say no.

I know, some of you will be reading this and saying “but I need my job and if that is what it takes, I do it”. Well, I’ve worked for 20+ years and I’ve realised that (a) there are organisations that don’t abuse you and (b) you actually get little real payback for those ridiculous hours. But it can ruin your non-work life, even your family life. I don’t need any individual job and I am bloody well not playing those games any more. Employment in a modern, democratic society is supposed to be a mutual agreement and, if is it not, I ain’t playing. That is my small win for all those years of grind and I’m insisting on it.

I know, some of you will say “look, it never comes to anything, just sign it and ignore it like the rest of us”. No. If you are right, it is a corporate lie and is not required. And, to my detriment, I know you are wrong and sometimes there is an attempt to enforce it. If you cannot get me to do the 60 hours by asking and explaining, either you do not have a valid reason {and history proves I am an utter push-over to a half-reasonable request} or there is a reason very important to me why I can’t comply. If you try and insist, you really are treating me like a slave. That empty space? That’s me having gone for a looong walk.

I am not signing a document saying “you can demand I work over 48 hours any and all weeks you like”. Your are not signing a form saying “I can demand any time off I like week in and week out”. All contracts have a clause saying “this is not working between us, we will curtail the agreement”. We will use that if need be, not a bullying document that says I am your slave.

I am not signing.

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 – Picture Theft!!! July 28, 2011

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

Last week’s Friday Philosophy was a bit of a moan about how hard I find it to make nice graphics, how long it takes and no one seems to care that much about the results.

Well, after those two days effort on the pictures and the afore mentioned moan, irony of irony, someone has stolen one of my graphics!. So someone likes my efforts ;-). It is the one that represents how you scan down the levels of an index and then link across to the table via the rowid.

Before I go any further I better make it clear that I am not really upset about it at all :-). In fact, since the scoundrel included a link back to my web page and they are considerably better known than I, my little blog has had a big up-swing in traffic as a result, which is nice. Mind you, as the person who borrowed my diagram is SQL Server expert Steve Jones, of SQLSeverCentral/Redgate fame, most of my new audience are probably pretty focused on the SQL Server RDBMS and not Oracle, so unlikely to make many return visits unless they are work across the RDBMS boundaries.

What also gives me a little smile is that I have stumbled over the fact that I myself, back in November 2009, was looking for such a diagram {of the way Oracle steps down the index to the leaf blocks, gets the rowid and then straight to the table row} to ‘borrow’ for a post of my own on BLevel and heights of indexes. I even confessed at the time to looking for and failing to find one to use…

Humour aside, it set me to thinking though. Borrowing content is a perennial and thorny issue.

Occasionally someone will start putting content out on their blog or web site and it turns out that much of that content is directly obtained from other peoples’ blogs and websites – copy&pasted straight in or with little changes. That is generally seen by the original author as unacceptable and once they find out they object. In such cases it sometimes seems the culprit is unaware of this being a transgression and, once it is explained that they have effectively stolen many hours or days of someone’s efforts, they remove the material. Others seem aware this is theft but do not care until caught. Occasionally the culprit sees no error in their ways at all, even when challenged, as the material had been put “out there” so they now consider it free to all. I certainly do not agree. Perhaps the worst thing you see though is people including parts of published books, or even putting the whole book out there for download. Such people should of course have their hands stapled to their backsides in punishment, that is simple theft. Writing blogs takes a long time and effort, writing technical books takes forever and monumental effort. I know from friends that the financial return for such efforts is pitiful enough as it is.

On the other side of the coin, many of us put our stuff out there on the web to be read and used and are very happy for it to spread, to be borrowed from and disseminated. Like nearly all DBAs and developers, over the years I have written lots of little SQL scripts to pull information out of the data dictionary or do little database management tasks. I happily give away copies of these to anyone who wants them (and you can get them off my web site if you like, but just pretend it is not my website, as it is truly awful). All I ever ask is that whoever takes them leaves my name in them.

I think that is core to the issue. I suspect many of us bloggers are happy for small parts of our output to be borrowed so long as credit is given. I certainly am {but please note, this is my personal opinion – other bloggers may object very strongly and any repercussions on you in respect of taking material from other blogs and web sites is your concern}. However, Volume is also part of it. The larger the chunk you borrow, the more acknowledgement I would need to be happy about it. Borrowing a single diagram or a paragraph out of a page of text is OK, given I am cited for it. Taking most of a post would probably not, unless you asked first, were really nice about it and about me. Nicking a set of course notes I wrote is certainly unacceptable, no matter how much you put “originally written by that wonderful Martin Widlake” on it.

So, I think you need to cite the source as “payment” for using it. Perhaps the best way to do it is by simply linking to the material rather than putting it on your blog/website, but that does not work if you need the content within yours to make sense. In which case, I think Steve Jones’ approach of putting the content in his and including a link is reasonable. It might have been nice if there was a comment saying where the image came from but I can live without it. Despite my joking about it giving me more hits to my blog, it does not matter that his is a popular web site and gives me more hits. Even if a site gets no traffic, if someone has borrowed a small part of my output but cited me as the source, I’m cool with that.

The problem though is judging what is a “small” part to borrow and what is acceptable to the original author. We all perceive such things differently. So the safest thing is to ask the original author. If I want to use an idea that came from someone else in one of my blogs or a solution they came up with, I always ask and I ask if they want to be cited. This includes discussions in email or in the pub. I ask. If when preparing my blogs I learn a lot from someone else’s blog, I stick in a link and a comment, even though I will have written my own text. I hope that so far I have not upset anyone when I borrow a little.

Photos are a different issue though. I am not going to even attempt to cover that one!

Snowdon viewed from Yr Aran

Friday Philosophy – Run Over by a Bus December 3, 2010

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

I chaired a session at the UKOUG this week by Daniel Fink, titled “Stop Chasing your tail: Using a Disciplined Approach to Problem Diagnosis”. It was a very good talk, about having a process, an approach to solving your IT problems and that it should be a process that suits you and your system. All good stuff and I utterly agree with what he said.

But it was a passing comment Daniel made that really set me thinking. It was something like:

You should be considering how people will look after the system after you have gone, the classic ‘what will we do if you are hit by a bus’….. No, I don’t like thinking like that, that phrase… I prefer ‘after you win the lottery and retire to a great life’.

It just struck a chord with me. Mr Fink’s {and I do go all formal when I intend respect} take on this is a far more positive way of looking at the situation of leaving the system in a state that others can look after once you are no longer able to help. The “Bus” phrase is very, very common, at least in the UK and I suspect in the US, and it is a very negative connotation. “Make sure it all works as something nasty is going to happen to you, something sudden, like being smeared across the tarmac by 25 tons of Greyhound doing 50mph, something basically fatal so you can’t prepare and you can’t help any more”. So, not just moved on, but dead.

Daniel made me realise that we should be looking at this from totally the other perspective and that doing so is much, much, much better. “Make it work so that they love you, even when you have gone away to a happier situation – one involving no road-based unpleasantness at all”.

Everyone leaves their job eventually and I like to think it is often for more positive reasons. Like retiring, or a better job {better for you, but a real shame for your old company as they like you so much}, moving to a new area, attempting a dream. Yes, sometimes (depressingly often at present) it is because you get made redundant or things go bad with your managers, or HR take over the organisation. But even so, better to leave knowing you did so with your professional duty intact I think. It’s one way of winning in a losing situation.

If turning the “bus” metaphor into a “lottery” metaphor results in the response in your brain of “well, when I do leave rich and happy, I still want to leave a painful mess behind me” – then it may indicate that you better leave where you are working as soon as possible in any case? As it is not a good situation and you are deeply very unhappy about it.

Up until now I have sometimes used a far more gruesome but less fatal phrase for the concept of making sure things continue after you leave and can no longer help, which is “involved in a freak lawnmower accident”. As in, can’t type but not dead. I’m going to stop using it, I’ve decided that even with my macabre sense of humour, it really is not a good way to think about doing your job properly. Daniel, your attitude is better. Thank you.

Oh, if you went along to the conference you can get the latest version of Daniel’s talk slides from the UKOUG web site (try this link), otherwise, he has a copy here – pick “papers and presentations”. It has lots of notes on it explaining what the slides mean (ie, what he actually says), which I think is a very nice thing for him to have spent the time doing.

The Immoral Unfairness of Contracts October 11, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: ,

You can tell from the title that this is going to be a rant…

Do you remember the last time you signed a contract for a job? Did you read all the terms, conditions and clauses? How angry did it make you? If you did not read it, dig it out and do so. It will ruin your whole day.

I do a mixture of contracting and consulting to provide bread on the table and catfood in the cat bowl and I get to sign a lot of contracts. And they send me mad as so many of them have such outrageously immoral, unfair and, I strongly suspect, illegal clauses in them. But if you don’t sign, you don’t get a job.

If the contract says they can get rid of me on a week’s notice, but I have to give them a month, I insist they pick one or the other and it applies to both parties. If there is a clause saying everything I think of belongs to them then I say no – if it is based on their intelectual property or code specific to their application, then it is theirs and I will comply utterly, but if it is the sort of generic data dictionary query that all these client rely on me to use to do my job, it is mine and I want the right to use it {and give it to other people, like I gave it to you, Mr Client}. Another clause that seems to be becoming rampant in the UK contracting arena is the 40-hour working week and signing away any right to complain. I absolutley object to that as it has been proven scientifically that continuous long hours are detrimental to health. If I choose to do 40, 50 hours in a week (and I often do) it is my choice but they damned well are not going to insist on it. I also know if I do the 50 hours for too long, my productivity and quality drops – and I think we all know this is the real case.

There is often a discussion with the actual people you work with, how the contract is just “admin” and they would never treat you in the way it says they can and “just sign it and forget it as we know you will do the job and we will never use clause 17.3.2 on you”. And they probably won’t, but it makes the contract a big, fat lie at best and a potential stick to beat you with at worst.

A few years ago I decided that I had had enough of this and I now challenge the worst of these clauses and I have had some succes. I also challenge them because, just once or twice, I have had someone try and take advantage of me due to these clauses. Usually recruitment agencies, I have to say.

With small organisations I usually can agree fair and equitable terms. With larger organisations it is a fight but I can usually get some sense into the agreement. But with international corporations, it is a blank refusal. They do not need me, they can buy in someone else and they damn well ain’t going to negotiate or treat you as an equal.

I’m facing this one right now. I’m looking at the contract and the blank refusal by the faceless (and probably deeply annoyed {and overworked}) minion in Admin to even consider a single letter change to a contract. And I am thinking “well sod you and your job and your immoral and bullying contract then”. This morning I really considered walking off site and sacrificing any chance of payment to “punish” such unbending unfairness.

But I probably won’t, I’ll probably roll over and sign the abusive, vile document because I have already been on-site for a week and I like the people I work with, I like the job and I want their project to succeed. And the potential unfair aspects of the contract will probably never be a real issue. So why can’t they just be fairer and why does it make me so absolutely incandescant with rage?


What were you doing 10 years ago? December 24, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions.
Tags: , ,

It is coming towards the end of December 2009. What were you doing 10 years ago today? If you were at school or college I don’t want to know, it just depresses me. You might have been doing last-minute Christmas things, you could have been traveling to see friends , loved ones or maybe {and often less pleasurably} relatives. If, however, you were working in IT I probably know what you were doing:

You were somehow involved in preparing for “The Y2K bug!!!” (Cue dramatic drum roll, ominous music, thunder-and-lightening video and the quiet shrill laughter of consultancy firms running all the way to the bank).

Remember that? I’m a little surprised not to have seen anything much in the media yet celebrating it, {I’ve not seen it in the UK anyway}, which is odd as it was such a very big deal back then. You remember? All the nuclear power plants were going to blow up, air control systems go haywire, bank systems crash and generally the whole of modern civilisation was going to crumble.

It did not of course. It’s biggest impacts seemed to be firstly to give old Cobol and Fortran programmers a bit of a financial boost to help them bolster the pension fund and secondly so much time, effort and planning was spent on Y2K preparation that 75% of other IT programs were shut down to cope. There certainly seemed a little less work to be had in the immediate aftermath.

I never decided who was more to blame for the hype and the fear. The Media, who can never pass a chance to boost revenue by outrageous scare tactics, or business/it consultancies who can never pass a chance to boost revenue by… I better stop there, in case I ever decide to go back to working for a consultancy.

I personally learnt a couple of things.

One was to prepare. In my particular case, I had planned a big Y2K party with a bunch of friends, hired a big house to hold a dozen of us plus kids and found somewhere to buy big fireworks from. All in 1998. And for 18 months before the event told anyone I went to work for that I would not be available for that particular week. I put it into my contract. Of the two or three companies I picked up contracts with during that period, none of them batted an eyelid when I mentioned this. Of course, this meant nothing. With 3 months to go before Y2K, the missive came rolling out from top management that no one, absolutely no one in IT was being allowed to take New years eve off.
I said to my boss “except me”. No, no exceptions. “It’s in my contract, I stated when I joined I was not available that week”. No exceptions. “Bye then”. Huh? “Well, I said at the time and I am sorry to upset you, but you see, this is a job, we had an agreement and what I have organised is my life and well, you lose”. I was a little more diplomatic about it, but I insisted. After all, we had fully Y2K tested the app I was responsible for and I had an agreement.
I had the week off (with a mobile phone by my side, admittedly, but I was not in a fit state to do much by the time midnight came around). I learnt that if you have an agreement and you calmly refuse to capitulate, and you negotiate a little, you can avoid “no exceptions”. {My friend Nasty Mike took the more direct approach of swearing loud defiance. He won also, but maybe with more bad feeling…}

The other thing I learnt was that companies will not pay less than they expect for a job. The five of us had written this app and it used four digit year dates all the way through the system. It was on Oracle 8. It worked. But no, Top Management wanted the system Y2K proving. So they asked a company to test it. This company wanted something like £50,000 to test it and it was to come out of our development budget. Ouch. That was pretty much half the budget.
So one of the team put forward a proposal to Y2K test the system via their company, for about £5,000.This was refused; it was too cheap to be believed.
So we put exactly the same proposal forward through another of our companies for £15,000 plus expenses and an exorbitantly hourly rate if extra work was needed.
This proposal was accepted.
So we did the work, we ran all the tests we specified, rolled the system past Y2K, repeated the tests, then…did a full refresh of the O/S, oracle and the app and recovered a full backup from before the initial tests. We were delayed by 24 hours as central IT screwed up the full oracle restore, so we got to charge the exorbitant hourly rate.
We handed the test results pack to the central IT team and their one question was “Why had we refreshed the O/S and re-installed Oracle? Well, we said, how do you know that going past Y2K had not set some internal variables within the O/S or the database that just setting back the system clock would not fix? The O/S is a complex thing.
The head of central IT looked ever so worried. No one had mentioned that before. And they had spent a lot on external Y2K testing consultancy…

Isn’t business odd at times?

Friday Philosophy – Disasters September 4, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions.
Tags: , ,

Some of you may be aware that I occasionally do presentations called something like:-

“5 Ways to Progress your Career Through Systems Disasters”

The intention of the presentations are to comment on things I have “been in the vicinity of” going wrong in I.T. and ways to avoid them, in a light-hearted manner. Having a bit of a laugh whilst trying to make some serious points about project management, infrastructure, teams, people and the powers of chaos.

I’ll see about putting one up on my Web Site so that you can take a look {check back this weekend if you like}

The talks usually go down well but there are two potential issues in giving the talks:

  • The disasters or problems, if in some way my fault, could make me look like an idiot or incompetent.
  • If it is known who I was working for when I “witnessed a disaster”, it could make that company look bad.

I never used to worry too much about this when I worked permanently for a company that was pretty relaxed about “stuff happens, it is good to share”. After all, if I looked like an idiot then that is fair enough and if I said anything that could be linked back to a prior (or current) employer {which, I hasten to point out, I did aim to avoid} then, well, sorry. But I only said things that were true.

However, when I returned to being self-employed, a good friend of mine took me to one side and suggested such talks could harm my career. I argued that it was not malicious and was helpful to people. My friend argued back that potential employing companies would not look so favourably on this, especially if they suspected that they may one day feature.

Hmmmm…. This was true.

So I toned down the talk…

The next time I did the presentation, the sanitised one, it was not such a hit. In fact, it was a bit rubbish.

The question is, should I have toned it down? Hands up anyone who has not personally done something unbelievably stupid at least once in their working life? Can everyone who has worked for an organisation that has not messed up at least one I.T. project please also raise their hand?

I can’t see any raised hands from here :-)

We all make mistakes.
All companies get things wrong at times.

Something you find when you start presenting or organising events is that the talks people most appreciate and learn the most from are about things going wrong.

So why can’t we all be grown-ups about admitting them, talking about them and learning? Personally, when I have interviewed people for jobs, I am always impressed by someone who will admit to the odd failure, especially if they can show what they learnt from it.

Oh, if anyone is reading this before offering me a position, I never made a mistake in my life, honest. I never deleted every patient record from a hospital information system, I was not even on-site when the incident didn’t happen. And if anyone suggest otherwise, it was a long time ago when it didn’t happen. ..

{I got all the data back, anyway. Never start work without a backup…}


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