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Friday Philosophy – The Worst IT Person I Have Met October 15, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy.
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A couple of weeks ago I extolled the virtues of someone I felt was a great person to work with. This week I’m going to do the opposite (and it will be interesting to see which posting gets more hits).

The worst person I have worked with in IT is Mick. I’ve only known a couple of Micks {and if you are one of them, but you don’t know Barry, you are not the Mick}. In an ironic twist of fate I met Mick at the same time I met the best person I have worked with, Barry. We were all in the same team you see, a UNIX sys admin team I got parachuted into. Maybe the vast difference between the two help make them so distinct in my mind.

Mick was very knowledgable and technically very capable. No, that is not fair, he was extremely good. He actually knew all this system admin stuff and several variations of shell programming, perl, C and a few other two-steps-from-assembler type languages. And he was an absolute and utter pain in the behind.

Barry and I did not know much (or in some cases, any) of this sys admin stuff. If we needed to do something and did not know how, Mick was supposed to show us. It worked something like this:

“Mick, I need to copy all the files that were changed last week from this directory on box X to box Y, keeping the directory structure – Can you help?”. Mick would not hear. He suffered from “intermittent deafness” – though he never missed any announcements about free food. You had to go and stand by Mick and wait for him to deem to notice you. If you actually interrupted him he would swear at you and utterly refuse to help, you had to wait quietly. If it was a good day he would deem this acceptable after a minute or two, but he would do his utmost to convey the impression he despised your lack of knowledge and your concerns were beneath his talents… but he would stoop to help.

You would repeat the task you were trying to do and, pausing only briefly to pour scorn on such a trivial thing, he would turn his back and start typing. He’d write a script to do it. “no, no, don’t write it, just tell me the basic commands and I’ll work it out!” No, he insisted on writing the script.

The script would be a thing to behold. Mick would write it in as few lines as possible and the least number of letters. For ages. Oh, he would have a working version in about the time it took Barry or I to explain the task, but he would not give you that version, oh no. He would ignore you until he had made all variables 1 character, took out all whitespace, replaced anything obvious with something obtuse, replaced a small chain of simple commands with one or two arcane commands. Every script was an attempt to win an “obfuscated code” competition. If we waited for the end result, it was impossible for Barry or I to decipher. The only benefit to the process was you would see the commands he was using and you could wander off and start with the unix Manuals yourself and get the job done.

He had other methods with which to demonstrate his greater worth.
Mick would agree to help (under duress of the boss telling him to do so) with an urgent task, but keep asking you to wait all day – then go home without doing his bit.
He seemed to love to intercept anyone coming to you for help, tell them he would sort out the problem for them – only to not. And then tell the user the next day that it was Barry or My problem to sort out. Correct, Mick would not have mentioned this to us.

Mick was fair though, he would treat everyone the same. With scorn. Any expertise in a field he did not know was unimportant and anyone with skills in his field was just competition to be shown who was best. Sadly, he usually was best, if best means biggest smartass.

Over time, as Barry and I learnt stuff (almost never from him), Mick became redundant. Not because we caught him up, not by a long way, but because no one else in the department would ask him anything. They would come to Barry and I. We might be slow and we sometimes screwed it up but we did not sneer and we fixed the problem in a way they could understand.

The reason Mick is the worst person I ever worked with is, unlike people who simply break stuff or lie about their skills or are stupid, he was actually very talented and capable – and yet took a perverse pleasure in not doing so. Mick would put effort into the art of maximizing his unhelpfulness. It was the difference between his potential to help and his drive to not do so that made it so hard for me to deal with him. I’d rather work with a talentless, idiot liar because at least you don’t need or expect much from them.


Team Work & The Science of Slacking July 23, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,
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We all know that working in a team is more efficient than working on your own (and I did say a week or two back how I was enjoying the rare privilege of working in a team of performance guys). Many of us also know about team dynamics and creating a balanced team of ideas people, completer-finishers, implementers, strategists and so forth. Those of use who have been exposed to training courses or books on team management know all these good things about teams and how we are supposed to get the most out of them.

How many of us, though, have been introduced to the work of the French Agronomist Max Ringelmann and the aspect of teams named after him, the Ringelmann Effect? In summary the Ringelmann Effect proposses that people in teams try less hard than they do when working alone. Especially if they think no one is watching them.

Back at the start of the 20th century Ringelmann tested out his ideas using a tug-of-war experiment. He would get people to pull on a rope as hard as they could and record their efforts using a strain gauge. Then he would get them to pull on the rope as part of a team, from 2 to 8 people. As soon as people were part of a team, they pulled less hard. With two people in the team, each pulled 93% as hard as on their own, with three people this dropped down to 85% and with 4 it was just 77%. By the time there were 8 people in the team, effort was down to 50%.

This idea of shirking work more and more as the team increased in size became established in modern psychology and was given Mr Ringelmann’s name. Psychologists explain that when someone is part of a group effort then the outcome is not solely down to the individual and, as such, is not totally in their control. This acts as a demotivating factor and the person tries that little bit less hard. The larger the team, the greater the demotivation and the more significant the drop in effort. Ringelmann found that effort was down to 50% in a team of 8 so how bad can the impact of the team be? I think most of us have at least witnessed, and quite possibly been in, the position of feeling like just a cog in a massive corporate team machine. Thoroughly demotivating (though, of course, we all of us still tried as hard as we could, didn’t we?).

The effect is also know under the far more entertaining title of Social Loafing.

Monsieur Ringelmann was far kinder at the time and pointed out that these chaps pulling on the rope could well have been suffering from a lack of synergy. They had not been trained together to pull as a team so that could account for the drop in effort, they were not synchronising their effort.

However, in the 1970’s Alan Ingham in Washington University revisited Ringelmanns work and he was far sneekier. Sorry, he was a more rigorous scientist. He used stooges in his team of rope-pullers, blindfolds and putting the one poor person pulling for real at the front of the team pulling the rope. Thus he could record the effort of the individual. Ingham found that there was indeed a drop in efficiency due to the team not pulling as one. But sadly, this was not the main factor. It remained that the drop in effort was mostly down to the perceived size of the rest of the team. The bottom line was proven to be the human capacity to try less hard when part of a team and that the drop in effort was directly proportional to the size of the team.

We are of course not immune to this effect in the IT world and someone has even gone to the effort of checking that out, James Suleiman and Richard T Watson.

It seems the ways to reduce this problem are:-

  • Don’t give people boring jobs.
  • Don’t give the same job to several people and let them know they all have the same job.
  • Ask people how they are getting on and give them mini-goals along the way.
  • Atually reward them for success. Like saying “thank you” and NOT giving them yet another boring, hard job to do as they did the last one so well.

I think it is also a good argument for keeping teams small {I personally think 5 or 6 people is ideal} and split up large projects such that a single team can cope. Then give tasks to individuals or pairs of people.

If you like this sort of thing you might want to check out one of my first blog post (though it is more an angry rant than a true discussion ofthe topic) which was on the Dunning-Kruger effect, where some people are unaware of their own limitations – though I did not know it was called the Dunning-Kruger effect until others told me, which only goes to show that maybe I am not aware of my own limits… Read the comments or click through to the links from there to get a better description of some people’s inability to guage their own inabilities.

My laptop has a Bug July 20, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in biology.
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My laptop is suffering from bugs, and I’m not talking software.

It is warm and sunny here in the Southeast of England, which is not always the case during the British Summer, and I am suffering an invasion of little insects. Specifically Thrips or Thunderbugs. They are called Thunderbugs as they are supposed to appear in numbers when a thunderstorm is brewing. Like most Old Wives Tales it is utter rubbish. But kind of true too…

If you do not know, a thrip is usually a small insect about 0.15 mm wide and maybe 0.4mm long. So small, but visible. About the size of this:


Yep, a coma on an average LCD panel. And that is where the problem is. One has got into my laptop and under my screen and it is sure to die. It is currently scurrying around at the far left of the screen and I’m considering a mercy killing before it wanders further across the screen into prime acreage. I had this before on my old laptop. In that case it died in the middle of the screen and for ever more has looked suspiciously like a coma, or single ‘quote’, causing me confusion when it falls on top of emails, word documents and…. code. It really was a pain when it came to code. Even now, if I use that old machine it sometimes catches me out. It can merge with a letter in new and exciting ways, to subtly change a word or command.

I’m obviously not alone, a quick web search threw up some other people complaining of the same issue.

And of course it is a common knowledge that “bugs” in computing really did start out as insects getting fried in the electronics and valves of the very first machines in the mid-20th century. I wonder if that is really true or just another old myth? James Higgins seems to think it is real and who am I to doubt him. He has a photo of the evidence after all.

Enrichment of the Code Monkey Environment April 15, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy.
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In animal welfare there is a concept called “Environment Enrichment”. This is where you do things to make the life of the animal in captivity more enjoyable. Often it is centred on how you feed the animal – either hiding their food so they need to forage or presenting it in a way that better matches their natural behaviour . So, for example, you might take your gerbils out of their cage and then hide seeds and bits of fruit around the place {or get Ben Fogle dragging chunks of meat behind a Land Rover through the lion enclosure at Longleat Safari Park so the lions can chase after it}. Or you might buy some of that expensive, transparent, coloured plastic tubing that plugs together in little mazes – as Gerbils of course run around pink, blue and orange transparent tubes in the wild…

Where I am working at the moment, Environment Enrichment for the captives is achieved by relocating the coffee cups in the kitchen overnight. We all turn up in the morning and go up in little groups to play the “open the cupboards in random” game in order to track down the mugs. Never the same cupboard two days in a row – except occasionally just to keep us on our toes.

We also have several fruit bowls and someone occasionally fills them with a selection of fresh fruit. Of course, as we are Code Monkeys, the bananas are most popular. What most of my fellow inhabitants have not yet worked out is the occasional bonus cache in the pot that looks like a flower vase. It’s usually apples.

The best bit of the environment enrichment is at the end of the week though. 5pm Friday, with the gentle tick of cooling laptops and the gentle lowering drone of hard disks winding down, and the glow of the LCD sceens dimming, the oasis is opened. A bottle of beer or can of coke can be obtained and you all stand around and discuss anything but computers. Well, OK, maybe computers a bit, but they have to be non-work computers.

Relax with Good Security :-) April 14, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture.
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It’s nice to know that your computer system is very secure. It allows you to relax.

Is this because you feel confident that your data is protected and that your systems cannot be compromised by malicious actions?

Well maybe, but in my case, today (*), this is not why I can relax. Security is allowing me to relax as I’ve been locked out of my account at my client’s site and it is hard to tune SQL/review design documents if you can’t log on. It is a little bizarre that my account expired today as I know the date my account is set to self destruct – I filled in the relevant forms myself and simply had my boss sign them before I popped them over to the security team. Unfortunately, I can’t pop back over to them to jolly things along as I am now in a remote location (really, very, very remote!).

I just have to wait patiently for HR, Security and Management to complete the complex little Morris Dance they have to do to confirm I am a real person, need the access and have not recently been asked to leave {I hope I am not going to be asked to leave!}.

I’m not really complaining. Having worked for the NHS back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I have shocking tales to tell, such as of taking home confidential patient clinical reports in order to play with “SQL*report writer” on my personal desktop, and similar stories about modern organisations in the private sector {well what do you know, person X owes HOW MUCH?}. So I am glad security is an order of magnitude better now. {No, honestly, it really is! No matter how bad you think things are where you are now, you should see the stuff I saw back then. These days, you at least have the ability to lock things down, if not the real-world reality.}

But, like all process-oriented things, it has to be designed to work well to be, well, effective. I got locked out of the same systems in a similar way just before Christmas. How many people are being paid a day’s wage to ring up the helpdesk and drink endless tea?

(*) I wrote this blog a while back. It might even have been before I had a blog. But a similar incident reminded me. Oh, and what was my reward for an enforced day being paid to drink tea and read a copy of “Oracle Scene”? Three days of working like a madman to catch up on that lost day. *sigh*. I did not get paid overtime.

Friday Philosophy – Are short Posts Better Than Long Ones? February 12, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy.
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Just a pointer to an update January 27, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Testing.

This post is really just to highlight that I finished salvaging Yesterdays Post. If you found it of any interest before, go have a look at the end. If not, heck go look at dilbert. As funny as ever but BOY is that web site suffering from advertising hell and slow performance…

Update – I removed the link to the dilbert site because I went over to the site the other day and got one of those “Your PC is INFECTED” cons popping up in my browser. You know, the ones that tell you you cannotget rid of the infection without their software, but the only infection is their software. I could not get rid of it without shutting down my browser session (and yes, I have PC security software that is updated every day).

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

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions.
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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 – Statistically Significant November 27, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in performance, VLDB.
Tags: ,

There are very few generalist Oracle DBAs around, and very very very few expert generalist Oracle DBAs. Tom Kyte might count, but I’m sure if you pressed him he would admit to knowing nothing about {some key aspect of being a general DBA}. That is because to be an expert on something you have to spend a lot of time on it. Oh, and learn. {I’ve spent a lot of time around my wife but she still confuses me, I just don’t seem to be able to learn}. Oracle is simply too wide a topic to be able to spend a lot of time on all of it, even if by “Oracle” you mean just the core RDBMS technology, which I do. You have to pick an area.

Pete Finnigan specialises in security, Julian Dyke on RAC and Internals, Doug Burns on the relationship between the database and cuddly toys. Oh and ASH/AWR.

So I ask myself, what is my specialty?

Well, if I go on the last 5 working years of my life, it would probably be Oracle Database Statistics. Which is quite ironic given my woeful attempts with Statistics when I tried that maths ‘A’ level all those years back {for non-UK people, an ‘A’ level is what you do at age 17- 18. It’s that point in maths when most of us are convinced logic is replaced by magic}. I’ll go further and say I specialise in Oracle Database Statistics on VLDBS. Maybe even more specific, Gathering and Maintaining Oracle Database Statistics on VLDBs.

Not a very sexy-sounding specialty is it, even in the context of IT technical specialties. I am sure that if I was to tell a lady I wish to impress that I was “a specialist in gathering and maintaining Oracle database statistics on VLDBs” then I would soon be standing alone as she looked for an accountant to talk to {I refer back to my comment on my wife, I repeatedly try to impress her with this line and she never fails to walk away}. Heck, I could spend all my time at the UKOUG Conference next week and struggle to find someone who would respond positively to such a claim to greatness.

But the situation is that I have had to deal with the failures and idiosyncrasies of this area of Oracle for 4 major clients on a dozen or so systems and have discussed it with half a dozen other people who have had challenging times with it. And even now it trips me up all the time. Because, frankly, some if it is not very well implemented (choking automated stats gathering job anyone?), different parts work in different ways (if you state a statid, statown and stattab when you SET_TABLE_STATS the values go into the stats table, if you state them for GATHER_TABLE_STATS, the gathered values go into the data dictionary and the OLD ones go into the stats table – yeah, I know, if you did not know that you are now going ?huh?), some of it is wrapped up in a blanket of confusion and secrecy (what exactly DOES the automated stats job do and when you say “GATHER AUTO” what exactly will Oracle do automatically?).

Thankfully the secrecy side is reducing as Oracle (and others) say more about how some of these things are controlled or decided “automatically” , but then the world shifts under your feet with new versions of Oracle. Stats gathering under 11g is far more open to control than 10, but as my current client is not on 11g then I can’t spend too long looking at that.

So currently I am a expert in 10g Gathering and Maintaining Oracle Statistics on VLDBs. Now if that is not pretty damned specialist then I don’t know what is.

I should blog technical details on all of this {sadly I know the answers to the things I mention above}, but I suspect people would go “Hmmm, interesting…..” in that kind of “who in heck needs to know that! I’m off to do block dumps of temporary segments” way. But if you think otherwise, let me know.

Besides, I am being very, very poor at getting on with the Partition stuff I want to do, even though I have half-written about 4 more posts on it. I need to stick to that for my technical blogs for now.

That and I kind of shy away from being an expert in such an unexciting area, I might get offered {oh dear lord not more} work in it.

Thankfully I also specialise in beta testing new features of Oracle for clients in the travel and media industries, where on-site work in exotic locations is, at times, required… If anyone has any opening in that field, drop me a line :-)

Keeping the server and storage utilisation high October 9, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in performance.
Tags: ,

A friend of mine sent me this today, from an old site of mine:

From: John Smith
Sent: 07 October 2009 10:08
To: Sarah Sims
Cc: DBA team
Subject: RE: Performance issues on your Test servers

Hi Sarah,

Please could somebody tell us why this query is running repeatedly on your database:

SELECT composite_key , exact_time , object_type , table_name , user_id , xml_data FROM usr1234.acramendlogshd ORDER BY 2;

It’s very prominent in both of the 1-hour time slices I’ve analyzed so far, and is fetching the entire 12GB 20M-row table.  This is so absurd that it looks almost like a programming error!

The same table in the production environment is almost the same size, 18M-rows.


From: Sarah Sims
Sent: 07 October 2009 11:18
To: John Smith
Cc: DBA team
Subject: RE: Performance issues on your Test servers


This would be the ACRALS service which has a bug in it currently which means that it runs continuously but never achieves anything.


So, not only inefficient and pointless but known to be inefficient and pointless. And still on.

And as some of you may suspect, yep this is a third party application where changing the code is forbidden. Seems like testing before release might also be forbidden….


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