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Friday Philosophy – If Only I Was As Good a Programmer As I Thought I Was Aged 22 January 29, 2016

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

I saw a tweet that made me smile a few days ago:

programmer quote

Like many of you, I started out my working life in IT as a computer programmer. Like some of you, I still am a computer programmer from time to time. I don’t think I’ve had a year of my working life when I did not do either some application development programming or some database infrastructure programming. I am constantly writing small (or not so small) SQL or PL/SQL programs to do what I do in Oracle.

I started programming in school, I did an “O” level in computer studies (the exams we sat in the UK aged 16, up until 1988!), and I was pretty good at the programming as compared to my fellow class mates. My first “real” program played Noughts and Crosses (tic-tac-toe to our American cousins and maybe others) and version 2 was unbeatable. Which at the time I thought was pretty cool.
but Wikipedia now tells me is pretty easy :-). I also remember someone in the year above me unrolling some huge printout of the role-playing game he was writing (you know, the old textual “you have walked into a room where there is a lion, a bar of soap and a chandelier, what do you want to do?” sort of thing) and telling me I would never be able to do it. I just looked at the code and thought: Why have you hard-coded every decision and used all those GOTOs? Some sort of loop and a data block to look up question, answers and consequences would be much smaller and easy to extend? I don’t think he liked me voicing that opinion…

I did not do any programming of any consequence as part of my college course but after that I started work as a computer programmer (sorry “analyst programmer”) in the National Health Service. Again, I seemed better at it than most of those around me, fixing bugs that others had given up on and coding the tricky stuff no one else wanted to touch. And after a year or so, I was convinced I was a programming god!

I wasn’t of course. Part of it was my juvenile, naive ego and the other part was that, fundamentally, many of those around me were bad programmers. Anybody decent either did not join in the first place or got a better job elsewhere that paid more than the NHS did. I eventually did that myself and joined Oracle. Where I realised that (a) SQL confused the hell out of me and (b) when I started using PL/SQL there were plenty of people around me who were better at traditional programming than I.

I think it took me about a year to feel I was damned good at both of them. Guess what? I was wrong. I was simply competent. But after a year or two more I did two things that, for me, finally did make me into a good programmer:

  • I went contracting so I worked in a lot of places, saw a lot more examples of good and bad code and I met a lot more programmers.
  • I think I hit mental puberty and woke up to the fact that I needed to listen and learn more.

Since then, I think my own opinion of my coding skills has generally dropped year on year, even though I would like to think I continue to get better at actually constructing computer programs and suites of programs.

So yes, I wish I was as good a programmer now as I thought I was aged 22. And after 25 years at it (actually, pretty much 35 years at it on and off!) just like Rich Rogers (or is it John D Cook? I can’t quite decide if it is a quotation or not) I think I am finally getting moderately good at writing programs. If I continue to follow this trend, on my 65th birthday I will be convinced I can’t program for toffee and yet will finally be a Good Programmer.

I wonder if  anyone would still employ me to do it by then?

Friday Philosophy – Database Dinosaurs January 22, 2016

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

I’m guessing many of you reading this are over 40. I know some of you are actually beyond the half century and a couple of you are….older! If you are younger than 40, just print out this and put it in an envelope marked “read a decade later than {current date}”. It will have become relevant for you by then…

beware the network admin

Beware the network admin – creative commons, Elvinds

So wind back your memories to those glorious days in your first role working with IT. For most of us it was half our lives back or more, when we were in our early 20’s or even in our teens. One of you was 18, I know, and I knew one guy who started as a salaried, paid programmer at 16. Do you remember those old guys (and occasional gals) you met back then? Often with beards, an odd sense of “style” and a constant grumbling murmur that, if you listened closely, was a constant diatribe about the youngsters “not getting it” and this UNIX thing not being a “proper OS” {fill in whatever was appropriate for the upstart OS back when back where for you}.

Don't annoy the DBA

Don’t annoy the DBA

You are now that person. I know, you don’t feel like it – you can still do all this technology stuff, you program better now than ever, you know how to get the job done and you have kept up with the tech as it moves forward. And you sure as hell do not look as weird as those oldsters did! Well I have bad news. You do look as weird as those old guys/gals to any youth about {and is that not a good thing, as most of them look a right state} and you have probably not kept quite so up with the tech as you think. You have to keep partly up-to-date as the versions of Oracle or whatever roll on, else the career becomes tricky. But as I’ve realised this last few weeks, you probably use old coding techniques and ways of doing things. This is maybe not a bad thing in you day-to-day job as these older ways *work* and doing it that way is quicker for you than spending time checking up the latest “time saving” shortcuts in the code you write. I’ve had that brought home to me recently as I’m working in PL/SQL at the moment and I am using some code I initially wrote back in the last century {I love saying that} as the basis of an example. It works just fine but I decided I should re-work it to remove now-redundant constructs and use features that are current. It is taking me a lot of time, a lot more than I expected, and if I was writing something to Just-Do-The-Job with slightly rusty ways, I’d have it done now. That is what I mean about it not being such a bad thing to use what you know. So long as you eventually move forward!

Of course it does not help that you work on a legacy system, namely Oracle. I am not the first to say this by a long, long shot, Mogens Norgaard started saying this back in 2004 (I can’t find the source articles/document yet, just references to them} and he was right even then. If you think back to those more mature work colleagues when we started, they were experts in legacy software, OS’s and hardware that did in fact die off. VMS went, OS/2 died, Ingress, Informix, Sybase and DB2 are gone or niche. And don’t even mention the various network architectures that we had then and are no more. Their tech had often not been around as long as Oracle has now. And I know of places that have refreshed their whole application implementation 3 or 4 times – and have done so with each one based on a later version of Oracle (I do not mean a migration, I mean a re-build).

Or the Sys Admin

Or the Sys Admin

The difference is, Oracle has had a very, very long shelf life. It has continued to improve, become more capable and the oracle sales & marketing engines, though at times the bane of the technologist’s lives (like making companies think RAC will solve all your problems when in fact it solves specific problems at other costs), have done a fantastic job for the company. Oracle is still one of the top skills to have and is at the moment claiming to be the fastest growing database. I’m not sure how they justify the claim, it’s a sales thing and I’ve ignored that sort of things for years, but it cannot be argued that there is a lot of Oracle tech about still.

So, all you Oracle technologists, you are IT Dinosaurs working on legacy systems.

But you know what? Dinosaurs ruled the earth for a very, very, very long time. 185 million years or so during the Mesozoic period. And they only died out 65 million years ago, so they ruled for three times as long as they have been “retired”. We IT Dinosaurs could well be around for a good while yet.

We better be as there is another difference between when we started and now. Back then, we youth were like the small mammals scurrying in numbers around the dinosaurs(*). Now we are the dinosaurs, there does not seem to be that many youth scurrying about. Now that I DO worry about.

(*) the whole big-dinos/small scurrying mammals is a bit of a myth/miss-perception but this is not a lesson on histozoology…

Miserable Dark Days of Winter Relieved by Data December 22, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in humour, off-topic, Private Life.
Tags: ,

This post is all about my fascination with short day times and hits on my blog on the topic, it is not even to do with why the day time is so short in the UK, Europe & US right now. This is nothing to do with Oracle databases or working in IT – go elsewhere and look at eg XKCD or Dilbert now if that is your thing…

I’ve blogged a few times at this time of year about the oddity of when evenings start drawing out being around a week before the shortest day, and even about how I have become fascinated by how popular this off-topic post has become. Worry not, I shall not go over that date-discrepancy material again or how we in the Northern Hemisphere wrongly think our winter is when we are furthest from the sun {when in reality it is when we are closest!}. If you want to know all that stuff I updated this post to cover the details for 2015.

Fundamentally, when I worked every day, every week in the City I just hated having to travel to work in the dark, sit in a dull room all day and then drag my backside home in the dark. It was hammered home to me how much I hated it one year when I worked in a huge open-office environment where I sat in the center of the building – on the ground floor of a 10-story-building. I stared out into the “Light Well” in the center of the building. There was no “Light”. Even at midday on a day blessed with cloudless sunshine, there was no real light. What we got was a grey illumination over the plastic bags, scraggy weeds and dead pigeons that littered the ground at the bottom of this light *pit*. I used to escape into the light at lunch time but such was the culture of the office that actually taking a lunch break was a sign of weakness and lack of dedication. Screw ’em, I took my lunch time as I remembered being human once…

HIts on my “evenings Drawing out” blog

HIts on my “evenings Drawing out” blog

During that particular job, someone in the team left. They had found the tunnel and they dug like crazy and got beyond the perimeter fence. So a desk came up two “deeper in” the mine. But, and this was the crucial thing, it looked out in the direction of a real, stuck-to-the-outside-of-the-building window. I had moved my stuff onto his desk and my chair in his place before the smell of his daily burrito had faded at all. My boss at the time was not happy – “Why have you moved?”. “Well, the space came up”. “Did I say you could move?!?”
“Put it this way, I can now see if it is still daylight and maybe make out if it is raining or not. I could move back, but then I could start randomly killing my work colleagues – What do you prefer?”. He shut up.

I think I have established that I do not like the lack of daylight that Winter brings and I do not even live that far North. My friends in Scotland, Norway, Finland and a host of other would countries would scoff at my distress. But I do now have a distraction. Even as we approach and pass the day on which evenings draw out, drop down to the dismal point when the daytime is shortest (today, if you read this on the day of publication) and slowly start to pull out of the pit of winter, I watch with fascination the number of hits on my obscure web pages on the topic. My blog is all about Oracle tech and IT angst. It is not about astronomy, astrology (spit) or astrophysics. I have done 4 posts on this in 5 years and just one gets a low-but-steady trickle of google hits. And as we pass through the darkest section of the year, I watch the hits and stats on that page. As a world-wide thing it is irrelevant, as a percentage of my site hits it is a not-considerable-but-not-quite-insignificant post either. But I watch it as it distracts me from the winters’ gloom. I love the fact that there is a “june” peak when those in the Southern hemisphere find it and a larger “December” peak when the Northern hemisphere stumble across a post on a nerd’s blog site that tells them what they want to know – when it starts to get lighter.

Anyway, today (shortest day this year, December 22nd) I escape. I’m going to Madeira. It is pleasantly warm and gets 10 hours of daylight compared to 7.5 in the UK. I’ll take that. But I’ll keep watching the post all the way through December and in to January, maybe into February, as the hits on the post decrease and the evening daylight increases.

It’s a bit early, but Happy New Year everyone 🙂

Friday Philosophy – Inspirational Tweets: Why Do They Annoy Me so Much? December 11, 2015

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

A few weeks ago I saw this on the Twit Sphere:

A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.

Wow. Deep. Meaningful. Let me follow that twitter account.

No. Let me not. I looked at the account and it was just an endless stream of “Inspirational Tweets” and very little comment or content. For some reason I can’t quite understand, this sort of thing gets on my nerves. No, that’s is not strong enough. It makes me unreasonably bad-tempered and angry. The first draft I wrote on this topic was a ranting diatribe of swear-words and invective {I love that word} that was completely beyond acceptable.

So I’ve been wondering, why do twitter accounts that put out lots of Inspirational Tweets annoy me so much? We have all seen them. In fact I have a couple of friends I follow on twitter who at times put out half a dozen Inspirational Tweets a day. I have to sometimes mute or “unfollow” them for a while. I think part of it is that if an account puts out half a dozen Inspirational Tweets a day, they can’t really mean them very much can they? If I had a set of short phrases that summed up important aspects of my life, such as “Always be nice to cats” then I can’t help but feel that they should be few in number and really mean something to me. They can’t really mean something to me if I have 200 of them.

Another reason is that so many of these Inspirational Tweets are actually just trite such as “when you listen, it’s amazing what you can learn” or even asinine such as “I love dramatically looking out windows on public transportation”. Yes, that is a real one. Of course, most of us put out some stupid tweets and we all have different tastes or interpretations of what is worth saying.

So I am not sure why I find them annoying – but I do. If you put out such tweets and I follow you & then unfollow you, follow you etc or I seem to go quiet (you might be on temporary mute) then just ignore it. I think it’s more my problem than yours. But you have annoyed me.

Why? Why follow me?

Why? Why follow me?

As a secondary rant of the day, I get really annoyed with these fake accounts that follow you or like a tweet of yours but having no connection to your world. Some of course are just another way of advertising something (usually soft porn it would seem – I usually spot them from the start as the account picture is some young women who can’t stop buying clothes 2 sizes too small and describes themselves as “bisexual and always follows back”…Yeah, I’m convinced). But recently I’ve had a lot of follows or likes from accounts, again apparently from young ladies, but now there are often two of them in the picture. Their tweet streams are just an endless flow of retweets, “clever” lines, the inspirational ones of course and nothing, not a thing where there is a conversation with someone else. But no soft porn. I can’t work out what these ones are actually aimed at. They don’t seem to be selling or promoting a specific thing, though they often have some films or makeup adverts retweeted, but if this is what they are selling, the content is drowned out by the stupid stuff and they are missing their audience. I’m pretty sure the content is generated though as I looked at a couple of them and the same quotes and “humorous” utterances seemed to make appearances across accounts.

If anyone could tell me if this is some type of advertising or it really is some attempt by teenage girls to increase they number of twitter friends just as a “look how many followers I have” (though I thought twitter was more an older persons thing) then I’m curious to know. It’s got to be sales, hasn’t it?

Perhaps I should stop worrying about these things and either mute or block them as them come up. Oh, I do 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “as a Service” paradigm. October 27, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, Hardware, humour.
Tags: , , ,

For the last few days I have been at Oracle Open World 2015 (OOW15) learning about the future plans and directions for Oracle. I’ve come to a striking realisation, which I will reveal at the end.

The message being pressed forward very hard is that of compute services being provided “As A Service”. This now takes three flavours:

  1. Being provided by a 3rd party’s hardware via the internet, ie in The Cloud.
  2. Having your own hardware controlled and maintained by you but providing services with the same tools and quick-provisioning ideology as “cloud”. This is being called On Premise (or just “On Prem” if you are aiming to annoy the audience), irrespective of the probably inaccuracy of that label (think hosting & dedicated compute away from head office)
  3. A mix of the two where you have some of your system in-house and some of it floating in the Cloud. This is called Hybrid Cloud.

There are many types of  “as a Service offerings, the main ones probably being

  • SaaS -Software as a Service
  • PaaS – Platform as a Service
  • DBaas – Database as a a Service
  • Iass – Infrastructure as a Service.

Whilst there is no denying that there is a shift of some computer systems being provided by any of these, or one of the other {X}aaS offerings, it seems to me that what we are really moving towards is providing the hardware, software, network and monitoring required for an IT system. It is the whole architecture that has to be considered and provided and we can think of it as Architecture as a Service or AaaS. This quick provisioning of the architecture is a main win with Cloud, be it externally provided or your own internal systems.

We all know that whilst the provision time is important, it is really the management of the infrastructure that is vital to keeping a service running, avoiding outages and allowing for upgrades. We need a Managed Infrastructure (what I term MI) to ensure the service provided is as good as or better than what we currently have. I see this as a much more important aspect of Cloud.

Finally, it seems to me that the aspects that need to be considered are more than initially spring to mind. Technically the solutions are potentially complex, especially with hybrid cloud, but also there are complications of a legal, security, regulatory and contractual aspect. If I have learnt anything over the last 2+ decades in IT it is that complexity of the system is a real threat. We need to keep things simple where possible – the old adage of Keep It Simple, Stupid is extremely relevant.

I think we can sum up the whole situation by combining these three elements of architecture, managed infrastructure and simplicity into one encompassing concept, which is:




And yes, that was a very long blog post for a pretty weak joke. 5 days of technical presentations and non-technical socialising does strange things to your brain

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

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

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

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

XKCD comic 741

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Computers are Logical. Software is Not July 3, 2015

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

We’ve all heard it before. Computers are totally logical, they do exactly what they are told. After all, Central Processing Units (CPUs) are built out of fundamental units called Logic Gates. With perhaps the exception when a stray cosmic ray gets lucky, the circuits in a computer chip and memory act in a totally logical and predicted manner.

And of course, anything built on top of computers will be utterly logical as well. All those robots that companies are designing & building to clean our houses, do our manual labour and fight our wars are going to be logical, follow the rules given and be sensible.

But they are not. As Software is not logical. Often, it is infuriatingly illogical and confusing. Which makes you worry about the “domestic servant” robots that companies are developing, the planned “disaster scene recovery” robots they keep telling us are coming and especially the “Killer Robots” -sorry, “Defense Robots” – that the military are beavering away at.

This XKCD cartoon very much refelects some recent experiences I have had with consumer software:

XKCD - Haunted Computer

XKCD – Haunted Computer

I’d say that, unless an algorithm is about as simple as a Centigrade-to-Fahrenheit conversion program, it will have a bug or will mess up with out-of-range values. Just think back to when you wrote your Centigrade-to-Fahrenheit program (we all have, haven’t we?) back at school or on your home computer or you first week on the college course. What happened if you input a temperature of -1000C, an impossible temperature? I bet it either fell over or gave a just-as-impossible Fahrenheit value. Logical but stupid.

I worked on a financial system a few years back that, as one very small but significant part of what it did, showed you your average spend on things over 3 years. It took several weeks to explain to the program manager and his minions that their averaging code was wrong. Utterly, hopelessly and tragically wrong. First, it calculated and displayed the value to several decimal places – To thousandths of a penny. Secondly, it did not take into account the actual period over which you had spent your money. If you had opened your account 1 year ago, it still calculated the value over 3 years. As for taking into account months, weeks and days of the year, don’t make me laugh. You might be able to forgive this except the same team had also written the code to archive off data once it was 3 years old – in whole years. So there would only be between 2 and 3 years of data and only 3 whole years for, theoretically, 1 day. But no, they had hard-coded the “divide by 3 years”.

We have all experienced endless issues with computers or peripherals that will work one day, not work properly the next and then go back to working. Firmware and Operating Systems are just software really, with the same flaws as the stuff we write and fix in our working lives day after day. There will be a twisted reason buried deep somewhere why the printer will not work on Thursdays, but it won’t be a sensible reason.

All the software out there is more or less illogical and broken. The less broken gets used and we learn it’s idiocies. The worst gets canned or labelled “Windows 8” and forced on us.

Crazy (illogical) Killer Robot

Crazy (but logical) Killer Robot

I know some people worry about the inexorable rise of the machines, Terminator Style maybe, or perhaps benign but a lot smarter than us (as they are logical and compute really, really fast) and we become their pets. But I am not concerned. The idiot humans who write the software will mess it up massively. Oh, some of these things will do terrible harm but they will not take over – they will run out of bullets or power or stop working on Thursday. Not until we can build the first computer that is smart enough to write sensible software itself and immediately replaces itself with something that CAN write a Centigrade-to-Fahrenheit conversion program that does not mess up. It will then start coding like a human developer with 1 night to get the system live, a stack of angry managers and an endless supply of Jack Daniels & coffee – only with no errors. With luck it will very soon write the perfect computer game and distract itself long enough for us to turn the damned thing off.

Friday Philosophy – Do Average to Be a Success March 6, 2015

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

A few days ago a friend of mine, helifromfinland, tweeted something that exactly matched the topic that I was thinking of doing my next Friday Philosophy on. Heli said:

I am learning to do things well enough, not always perfect. Even writing that sentence feels so wrong but #babysteps 😀

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you do want some recognition and some promotions.

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

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

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

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

Be just above average at tasks.

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

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

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

And please let me know how the above works out for you 🙂


Quick update – a recent xkcd panel that makes the point well 🙂