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Running Courses In Covid Times April 23, 2021

Posted by mwidlake in Uncategorized.
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I’ve been running courses in I.T. on and off for my whole career – which is getting to be quite a long time now. It’s probably 30 years since I ran my first course, teaching hospital staff how to use the patient administration software I helped to develop.  Of all the things I do, running training courses is probably the part I have enjoyed the most. But it is also the task I find most demanding & draining. Doing so remotely, as is the only option in Covid times, is something I find even more of a challenge. For two whole months this year I ran a course a week, all remote. Below, I’ll explain why I find remote tutoring harder and a few things you can try to make it work a little better.

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It’s much harder than a conference presentation

I think anyone who was ever taught classes (let alone been a real teacher!) would agree that, until you do it, it’s hard to appreciate the emotional & mental energy it takes – even if you are teaching a topic you know inside out, upside down & back to front. If you’ve presented at a conference or similar, you know how much that can take out of you. Doing a course for a day is like doing a dozen such presentations. Yes, a day’s teaching is probably only 5 or 6 times as much presenting time as a 45-60 minute talk, but it’s the lack of recovery that makes it so much harder. Pretty much anyone can walk  4 or 5 miles. Running it takes some dedication but it’s not too hard to build up the fitness and stamina. Doing a Marathon? Totally different proposition. I really, really respect people who can teach all day, every day for 5 days, then do it the next week, and just keep doing it week after week, year after year.

 

It’s that lack of Interaction

OK, so I’m saying teaching is hard and you may or may not agree, but why do I say it is so much harder remotely? Because being remote and communicating through a screen removes 90% of the interaction between myself as the presenter and the delegates.

When I am stood in front of 12 varied human beings talking to them about how indexes work, if I am doing it the way I like to do it, there is a constant two way flow. I don’t mean they are talking back to me (although that is great and it does happen more face-to-face) it’s more I can get a feel for if the delegates are understanding the topic, if most of them already know this, is anyone lost.. have I just said something that does not make sense? That’s a good example actually, the power of detecting you just lost some of the audience. Often when I have taught people there will be someone (or someones) who’s first language is not English or they did not grow up in the UK, so if I use a colloquialism or make a reference to popular or historical culture, they may not get it. We all do this all the time, we assume that if we make a humorous reference back to a kids’ program then everyone will get it. Which they do if they grew up in your country, even usually if it was 2 decades later! I’ve tried to coach myself to not do this, but then sometimes these cultural references back to something outside the course material that most of us share helps us all relax and get on. So making the references are generally good – but you have to catch when it fails and “mop up”. Real, physical interaction makes this easier.

With a physical course I can judge if someone is not understanding and I do not need to ask “Phil, do you need me to explain that again?”. I simply would not do it that directly in a physical course, it is putting Phil on the spot. I’ll see Phil is perplexed and I’ll explain to the whole class again and watch Phil to see his reaction. With remote training, that feedback and how you handle it is greatly reduced.

The other part of physical courses is that when you have a coffee break or stop for lunch, you are usually all spending time around the terrible coffee & nasty sandwiches provided and you chat – like normal human beings! It’s a lot easier to communicate with people if you have some rapport with them and those breaks are vital to that rapport. Again, it all goes when you teach remotely. As soon as you break for a 15 minute loo-and-refreshment opportunity all screens & microphones that were on are off. I’ve tried staying at my desk, seeing if anyone else stays to chat, but it almost never happens. Besides, eventually I need to nip off for a pee, make a cup of tea and stroke the cat and if I’m talking to someone 1:1 they can take umbrage at this! When you are stood in a group in a physical room chatting, no one minds when I run off for for 4 mins.

I learnt early that anecdotes, especially if they make me look like an idiot, really help oil the wheels of social interaction – and will prompt at least some of the delegates to reply with their own. And I also scatter in some anecdotes that could be classed as bragging, but I am “the trainer” and it helps if they feel I am someone who knows their stuff via actual experience and I have done things for real and not just learnt training material or read stuff.

But hopefully you get the point. Physical presence allows the trainer and delegates to communicate and the trainer to control the flow of information. 

What are the delegates actually doing?

The other downside of remote training is loss of control. With remote training the delegates can do what they want – and most of them think I won’t notice. Of course I bloody well notice!

Of course, it is up to me to make the course as engaging and informative as I can and I do try, but sometimes it’s hard to make some of the necessary material “zing”. I’m sorry, understanding Oracle object statistics is just fundamentally dull, but you cannot understands how to do SQL performance tuning without that knowledge. It’s natural for people to drift off a little during dull-but-necessary bits.

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When I have bodies in a room, I can tell very, very quickly if someone is reading email or surfing the web. In such a situation I’ll try to use subtle communication to stop this – looking at them, making a non-specific comment about “you get the most out of training…” or even asking them a direct question, as if I picked someone at random.  If I have the control, I’ll make it harder for people to goof off during the course – I do recognise it can start as something people do “just for a minute” or to check something they are responsible for, but it’s opening the door to distraction.

Fundamentally, If you are in my course, someone has paid for you to be on the course. And you either asked to be on the course or it was deemed appropriate for you to be on the course – deemed by your management/employer who is paying for *me* to be giving the course and for *you* to suffer it! Frankly, I don’t care if you do not turn up at all – but if you turn up, blank sessions & then ask questions that you would know the answer to if you had been engaged, you are now not just wasting your time (and the money paid by your employer) but also damaging the worth of the course to those who want to learn. I’ll have to take time out I could spend on the other delegates to drag you back up to speed.  People like that f**k me off. Sorry

I have kicked people off my courses if I feel they are detrimental to everyone else, but I’ll maybe talk about that at another time. The key things is, in a remote situation I loose a lot of my ability to spot people drifting off or address it.

So what can you do to improve remote training?

1 – you need interaction

The first thing is to encourage (and then if necessary insist) people have webcams on. You do not need *everyone* to have their webcam on – but I sure as hell now know that if no one has a webcam on it makes you feel like you are presenting to a brick wall. It kills the flow. Many people just don’t want their camera on (some people working from home barely wash or dress, some do intend to goof off and so do not want to be seen doing so, and one or two have become really self-conscious as 8 months in reach of endless biscuits and no hairdresser has had an impact). A mistake I made at the start was not encouraging more cameras on.

Ask questions of them. It can feel a little trite and sometimes no one wants to answer questions like “what do you think will happen if…” but you have to do so and then wait them out, until someone answers! Even better, get a few discussions going. It does not really have to be about the course material, but of course it helps if there is some relation to it.

As I said, no one seems to hang around during breaks or lunch. And some bugger is always late. So alternate between having a little chat for the first five minutes of the next session (about  *anything* – “My cat has just thrown up”) to get that interaction going, and starting the material dead on time when the next session is starting, to discourage tardiness. If someone is repeatedly late I stop answering if they ask a question on what they missed.

2 – pretend your web cam is a friend

Most people (including myself) can start to talk in a fast, dull monotone when there is no feedback. And you talk at what you are presenting, the screen with your slides or demo on. It’s not an engaging way to present. One thing I don’t think works (counter-intuitively)  is to put the presentation on the screen your web cam is built into or attached to.  It’s not like a TV camera, the web cam is right up to you. You might think you look like you are looking into the web cam but you are not, you look like you are staring at the chest of your delegates (if they are in front of their screens). You are presenting in a dull, boring monotone, staring at their chest.

So talk TO the web cam. Look at it, train yourself to present to that black dot. And imagine you are explaining this to a mate in the pub. I did wonder about putting a picture of someone I find attractive above the camera to remind me to look at it, but no one wants to see the presenter drool. When you are describing what is on the screen, it’s OK to look at *your* screen, not at all at the web cam, because the delegates are looking at their screen. But when the focus is not what is on the screen, turn to the webcam, to your mate in the pub.

After 2 or 3 hours of this with no real feedback, your own energy levels will probably drop, no matter how hard you try. Fluctuation in tone, willingness to make little jokes & asides, it all dies off – and your presentation style becomes dull, flat, and (frankly) shit. After 3 or 4 days? Awful. This is another part of why you need feedback. I in effect ended up presenting to those who kept their web cams on or were asking questions. On each course I managed to get at least one person to turn on a camera and I gave THEM the course. The others? Well, yeah, they were there I suppose, but I gave the course to Michael or Cali.

And visual feedback is way better than aural. I would rather have people on mute but visible than people I can hear and not see. Apologies to the blind community, but I sure as hell get more out of visual feedback to sound. With sound there are times when all anyone can hear is someone breathing hard into the mic, someone having a coughing fit, someone eating a packet of crisps. A discussion with a partner about the bins, another about why in hell do we have no milk it was your turn to buy milk…. And, sometimes, sound I think I never need to know the source of, but it should have been muted, OK?

3 – Short days, lots of breaks.

An 8 hour day of training in the flesh is hard work – and that is when you have little breaks when you all go over to the refreshments, or queue for the loo, and chat. 8 hours on Zoom or whatever, as many of us have learned this last year, is a destroyer of souls and any will to keep breathing. When I agreed to do these course I said right up front that it would be done in half-day chunks, I’d learnt the hard way that more than one day of solid remote learning is unpleasant for everyone.

One of the courses was a 3-day course, so we had to do 4 half days and a final full day. But we did not, I made sure we edged a little further into the material each day than I had planned and, except for one week, I was able to make that last, full day shorter. The odd thing was, even though I did end the material early on Friday, most people stayed around after to discuss a few things or would listen to a slightly off-topic, undemanding, final session. 

A BIG mistake I made on the first course was thinking we could trim the coffee/tea breaks as there were not going to be issues with the loos (well, not ones I could do anything about!) and everyone had their own source of drinks and snacks. It was a “three-day” course and I was trying to get a little ahead so we could shorten the Friday. So we had 5, 10 minute breaks –  bad move. It’s mentally more demanding to take in information via remote training I think, people needed the breaks. If anything, I ended up in later courses giving the delegates longer breaks than we would have a training room. 

4 – Don’t give them Anything!

If I was on a remote training course and I had been sent the materials, I know what I would be tempted to do… Especially if, like is nearly always the case, you have more work to do than you can get done.

I made it very, very clear that they would get all the slides and that there were lots of words to explain the diagrams I tried to mostly talked around. But not until after the course. So they had to listen or goof off. If I’d given them the slides, most of them would have just goofed off!

I mostly sent the course notes at the end of the week but a couple of times I sent them at the end of the day. This was usually as someone was forced to skip a session and they asked for the notes to catch up. I generally take a very dim view of people skipping sessions on a course, I design the course with a flow of information that grows and builds over the days, but we live in weird times. Some people were juggling childcare, relatives, stuff simply going wrong.

On the topic of course materials… Don’t you hate it when bullet points appear on the screen one-by-one? It usually makes for a relatively poor presentation. But when remote training and you want to slow down the rate of information you are delivering or make points clearly, they can come back into their own – IF you don’t over-do it. People are concentrating on the screen way more than in a normal presentation, when you the presenter are a main feature, so the point-by-pointy method is more suitable. (A friend did point me at some software that would overlay my image over my slides so I could “present” as normal, but I would have had to re-jig a lot of slides for that and it was an added complexity I wanted to avoid. Maybe next time).

If you can, concentrate on images and diagrams, especially if you can animate them. Even something simple and cartoon-like gives a bit more, well, animation! More visual stimulus and something you can talk around is better than text. You still have the wordy slides, but they are more for the delegates to refer back to or to quickly remind me of things I need to cover.

5 – Odds & Sods

I kind of touched on this earlier, but up the human, interactive side as much as you can. Banter. I do this in physical course too, but it really helped with the remote sessions when I got it to happen. Someone is usually OK for a bit of mild mickey-taking. If you say something self-derogatory people will often join in and you go from there. I also try and tell a few more anecdotes and they sometimes prompt one of the delegates to reciprocate. The more conversational flow you can generate the more people are willing to both listen and speak up.

Do keep track of the anecdotes, especially if you are running a course multiple times. I do have specific points in the course where an anecdote highlights a point, others are more “on a whim”. I remember being a delegate on a course about 28 years ago and the instructor, a very entertaining chap, told quite a few little stories. I noticed that after doing one he would often make a note or something on his paper pad. I asked him about this at a break and he explained that, as he ran training courses pretty much every week, he lost track of which stories he had told. So he made a little note of each one.

Get the delegates to ask as many questions as you can, almost beg them to – and always been keen to answer them immediately, even if you know you’ll cover the point later in the course. It’s good interaction, encourages more questions to be asked, and there is a reason they asked that question then. If it is something that is not covered later in the course, the next version of the course may well have a new slide on it!

My only exception is if someone asks a question about a part of the course I knew they goofed off from or they were late for the start of. I’ll probably answer the first one or two and make the point we covered this, and then I’ll say we don’t have time. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll answer the same stupid question 3 or 4 times if the person is just not getting it, but I don’t condone people skipping parts of the course by re-iterating what they chose to miss. I give the course to people who want to learn.

Numbers. Have fewer delegates on the course than you would in the flesh. With a web cast, a single presentation at an audience, the more people listening the better. The communication is one way. But a training course is actually nothing like that, not if it is a good course. You need to be able to interact in all the ways I have described, and it is harder to do that remotely, and the whole process is just so much more draining via screens & microphones. I had to really kick back on this one initially and I am glad I did. I had delegates numbers from 4 to 12. When there was more than 8 of them, I had to give up on keeping tabs on all of them and those weeks left me shattered. I can handle 12 in a room no problem, but I think 6-8 is the ideal for a remote, interactive course.

 

 

 

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Should You Go To Oracle OpenWorld Europe? Yes!… But… February 3, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Knowledge, UKOUG, User Groups.
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Oracle Open World (Europe) is taking place in London in February. On Wednesday 12th & Thursday 13th Oracle will be giving lots of talks on Cloud, AI, Business Intelligence, Cloud Application Development, and anything else they see as modern and trendy. Oracle Partners will be there, demo booths by Oracle where you can talk to area experts, Safra Catz will be giving a keynote and, for entertainment, there are a couple of well known guest presenter. Go see who.

Stolen outrageously from Oracle web site

I’ll certainly be going along to see what they have to say. And if Oracle is part of your IT ecosystem (or might become part of it) & you are in the UK then I really think you, or someone in your organisation, should be there. Especially if you are making decisions on business applications, where you keep your IT services, or what tech you use. I’d say it’s worth a trip over from Europe for it, especially if you are “close”. Oracle will be telling you an awful lot about what is new and the event is free! Yes, Oracle giving something away for free. The only cost to you is your time. And travel to East London. Maybe a hotel for a night.

Free.

And that is the “But…”. Like any event by any large vendor, what you will hear about will be deeply coloured. Red in this case (though Oracle seem to be going a lot more pastel with their branding these days and I much prefer it). What do I mean by deeply coloured?

  • Everything you hear will be at least rose-tinted and potentially unrealistically optimistic.
  • The vendor will be pushing what it wants to see growing in it’s order books, not what you currently have.
  • You are the “product”, especially if an event is free. “Free” and “Big Vendor” do not really go together, vendors doing this sort of thing are trying to expand market share, or at least preserve it.
  • You will hear nothing about any competing services or tech, except how it is not as good as the Vendor’s. Even if the other solution is by far the best option for your business.

This is of course self-evident. A business depends on sales and Oracle is no different. But in amongst all the gloss, free food, carefully crafted messages, and entertainment, somehow the reality gets diluted and people seem to think the vendor has become somehow charitable and are doing this out of the goodness of their corporate hearts.

Would you prefer an event where all the above are not true, or are at least diluted?

Well, In I.T. there is an alternative -or, I should say, a complement – to the corporate marketing pitch.

User Groups.

A good user group is independent of the vendor, just as the UK Oracle User Group is. UKOUG is not funded by Oracle, Oracle has no say in what we do, and we do not simply repeat the current Oracle Marketing Pitch of the year. We say what is bad. We say what is good. Because we will say what is bad, you can better trust us when we say what is good. What is more, Vendors want to know what they are doing bad (and good) – so they listen to us.

Most countries across Europe (and around the wider world) have national or local Oracle user groups that are similar to UKOUG. They are independent of Oracle, they are run by a mixture of volunteers and occasionally small companies and they exist solely to help the user group community get the most out of Oracle and related services & technology. If you use Oracle, you really should be a member of an Oracle User Group.

Why? I’ll use UKOUG as the example (I am biased, I am president of UKOUG – but I present at and have in other ways helped many user groups across Europe and beyond, I’ve had the advantage of being a member of UKOUG for over 15 years).

At UKOUG events we don’t Market Oracle, we have content on:

  • Current and older products & tech, the stuff you are using NOW. Stuff that is mostly ignored at marketing events, especially free ones.
  • Real world stories which include the real-world “this did not work” or “we had a sod of a time sorting out X”
  • Details of how to get something to function rather than a “it’s so simple, it just works”
  • Discussions on how to get technology or applications from one vendor to mesh with another, and even how to get your data out. Database Vendors tend to tell you only how to get data in!

And on top of all this we also have the latest-greatest from Oracle. Oracle know that members of the user group are engaged and looking for solutions. Of course they want to present to this group. But we at UKOUG also work with many Oracle product managers, many of whom are keen to talk about stuff over and above current marketing angles. Product managers know that 90% of businesses using their products are way more interested in what they can do with their current solutions (and sometimes they are pretty old current solutions) rather than going latest-greatest

UKOUG – My community.

We have hundreds of engaged members and partners who can help you with the problems you are facing, right now, with the version of whatever you are using in your business.

The way I see it, being a member of an independent user group is a cheap insurance policy for an organisation. You pay a lot of money for large vendor solutions and on-going maintenance, often hundreds of thousands of £/€ or even millions for large companies. Being a member of the UKOUG is small change compared to that (from £45 to £1,628 depending on how much goodness you want from us). Going to user group conferences across Europe is probably cheaper all-in-all than a trip to London, and you get a much more realistic take on the technology you are using. The canapes & coffee won’t be as good, mind, our budgets are very limited.

I absolutely, 100% encourage people to go to Oracle and other big vendor events, especially free ones like OOW Europe. If you want to know what is coming with Oracle, if you want to investigate what options to buy or upgrade are available, or you are simply curious about the state of the art, then get yourself a pass to OOW Europe. Do it now, the event is almost fully subscribed.

If you want to have another source of the truth, one less coloured by Marketing and more coloured by reality, join your local user group and go to their events.

I’m biased of course, but a UKOUG membership is a very, very wise investment for anyone who has already invested an eye-watering sum with the vendor. If you are based somewhere else in Europe, check out your national user group and what they can offer. You can of course still join UKOUG but look local first.

UKOUG will have a stand at OOW Europe. Come over and see us, whether you are a member, want to be a member, or just want a friendly chat. Being a user group, we are pretty friendly!

OGB Appreciation Day: It’s All About ME! October 10, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in ACED, Knowledge, Perceptions, Presenting, UKOUG, User Groups.
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The Oracle Groundbreakers program, and it’s previous incarnations going back to OTN and beyond, are all about me. Yes – Me!

What a great bunch of people

Well, having hopefully got you hooked in with the ego-laden title and first line, let me explain.

As OracleBase (Dr Tim Hall) describes in this post on Oracle Groundbreakers Appreciation day, today we are celebrating what OTN/ODC/Groundbreakers means to many of us. For me it is quite simple, Groundbreakers, as part of the larger Oracle community, gave me the career and roles I currently have. The knowledge, support, and community they promote made me into the President of the UK Oracle user group. Why do I say this?

Let’s go back in time a little, to the last millennium. When I was first navigating my Oracle career the user community sort-of existed back then. You had big, flappy, paper things called “books” that you could buy and put on your desk. They held loads of information and stuff you did not know. And those of us who were keen to learn would swap white papers and articles by email, which you would also print out and put on your desk, in an ever-growing couple of towers. Why all the paper? We had 14-16 inch screens with terrible resolution, you had no screen space back then, so you programmed on that and had your help on the desk. As for googling things – didn’t exist. At this time I was utterly on the receiving end of community. I was being taught. I did teach back then, but only face-to-face for whichever company was employing me at the time.

Step into the new millennium and I landed a job with the Sanger Institute and the Human Genome Project. The Sanger have a culture of sharing – data, techniques, information, discoveries. As a result I was not just allowed but encouraged to go and talk at conferences. So I did. My first presentations were at Oracle Open World, the Oracle Life Sciences User Group (OLSUG), and the UKOUG conference. Very soon I was helping run the OLSUG events and volunteering at UKOUG events. I just got sucked in. I was still of course on the receiving side of the community, learning from all those great people who present, write, chat etc. But now I was giving to the community too. And there was something about being part of the “giving” community that I had not expected. You learn even more. And you have more fun! I got to meet a lot of fellow presenters, event organisers, and product managers – especially when I was made an Oracle ACE and joined what is by far the largest part of the Oracle community.

The ACE/Groundbreaker program recognises not necessarily the smartest and best people in any given field. It recognises those who put time and effort into sharing, in helping others (which was lucky for me!). You have to know your stuff to teach others (so be technically or business good), but you also need to be willing to, well, teach! To interact with people. So the vast majority of people who are in the program are also friendly & supportive people. Being dropped into that group really helped me.

Not only did I meet all these people from around the globe, I’ve been able to go around several parts of the globe to conferences and meetings. Groundbreakers does a lot to support people going around the world to present and share knowledge. The great thing about travelling is you see other perspectives and cultures. I don’t think we realise how parochial our viewpoint can be until we meet people with different perspectives and experiences.

As a result of my being part of the community and being an ACE/ACED, I’ve continued to learn technically, I’ve got a lot better at interacting with people, my communication skills have developed, and I now know a lot of skilled people in the community. All of these things have of course helped my working career. But where it all comes together is in my role as UKOUG president. I would never have considered putting myself forward for this role if I had not had all this experience with the Oracle community. And I don’t think I’d be very good in the role if I had not learnt all the “soft skills” that I have, and made the contacts that I have.

So Groundbreakers, you made me President of the UKOUG.

I *think* I thank you 🙂

APEX Connect – A Slightly Different Conference May 13, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, development, Meeting notes.
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I wanted to do a write-up for the APEX Connect conference that happened in Bonn, Germany, a few days ago, as it was a slightly different conference than I normally go to and a slightly different experience for me.

I really don’t like DBMS_OUTPUT!

APEX Connect is a German event (put on by DOAG) that is focused on APEX, SQL & PL/SQL, and JavaScript. So more of a developers’ conference. It was an unusual conference for me for a few reasons:

  1. I don’t generally go to developer-focused events, my current roles tend to be performance & architecture based and, despite having been a developer or development DBA for most of the last 30 years, I (wrongly) mentally class myself as a “DBA type”.
  2. I was doing a keynote! I’m not used to that, but I was honoured to be asked.
  3. I was doing only the opening keynote, so once that was out the way I had pretty much 3 days of being a normal delegate. That made a really nice change.

The conference was well attended and well run. A couple of things that they did right was to have good catering and coffee was always available – good coffee! It really makes a difference and it is something some conferences (including the ones I help organise) struggle with. You have no idea how much venues in the UK want to charge to make coffee available all day, let alone *good* coffee!

Something else that struck me was that the audience was a little younger than many Oracle-focused conferences. This was helped by DOAG’s #NextGen programme which encourages students and recent graduates to come to conferences and meet professionals working in the industry. I met a few of these students/recent students as they had been tasked with asking all the keynote speakers a question, which I thought was a nice way for them to meet these “stars” and realise we are just normal people, doing a job.

Some of the usual suspects! Conferences should be, I believe, half educational and half social.

Another thing was the male:female ratio. Looking at the sessions I was in, it was about 75%:25%, which in our industry is a little unusual – and very encouraging to see. I had a good discussion with Niels de Bruijn on the subject of sex (balance), who is the main organiser, and it is a topic I have discussed a few times with Sabine Heimsath, who organised the SQL & PL/SQL stream and who asked me to present. Niels was pleased with the balance at the conference, and I shared my experiences of trying to increase the balance in the UK (I’d love 25%!). It is not a simple issue and I think (note, these are my words and not theirs) that it is almost a lost cause for my generation. I think things went wrong in the home computer industry in the 80’s and continued through the 90’s, with IT being portrayed by the general media as typically male and the IT-focused industry keeping to a very male-focused stance. I won’t stop trying to address the balance but I wonder if where we can really make the difference is in events where the audience is younger…

Anyway, APEX Connect had a nicely balanced and lively feel.

As I said earlier, I had been asked to do the opening keynote. My job was to say something that would be relevant to the whole audience, which was not too technically deep, and set the scene for APEX Connect. An added bonus would be for the audience to leave the talk energised for the rest of the conference. My normal talks are about tech… but I do branch out into talks on presenting, disasters and, err, beer. Talks to entertain basically. So that is what I aimed for, to entertain and to energise.

Server Side Development…

I’m one of those annoying presenters who does not usually get particularly nervous before a talk, I simply step up to (OK, behind) the lectern and go. But for the second time in 6 months (the other being the opening words for UKOUG 2018) I was really nervous for this. I think it is because when you talk on a technical subject, you are describing how something works and, so long as the audience understand, the rest of the talk (little stories, extra facts) are window dressing – enjoying the talk is a good thing to achieve but is secondary. With a keynote the Window Dressing is actually the main thing, and if the audience does not enjoy the talk you have not done the job. I’m glad to say I got a lot of positive feedback and I was very much relieved. I think I hit “peak enjoyment” for this talk when I described my early career (Builder, Oracle 7 PL/SQL developer, server-side developer, Development DBA) and used the graphical slide here.

Server. (on it’s) Side. Developer.

I have to say, with that talk out the way I was able to really enjoy being simply “at a conference”, seeing some great talks (Toon Koppelaars, Connor McDonald, Kamil Stawiarski, Eric van Roon – I missed Luiza Nowak & Heli Helskyaho but I had seen those talks before), chatting to lots of people, and enjoying the socialising.

I want to say a big Thank You to the organisers – Simone Fischer, Niels de Bruijn, Tobias Arnhold, Kai Donato and all the others behind the scenes. I know what it’s like doing this! And a special Thank You to Sabine Heimsath for asking me to present and for helping me get places and answering odd questions on German culture!

I’ll finish with what I think conferences and the community are all about. This does not just apply to developers of course, but to all of us in the industry:

Free Conference (*) in May! May 4, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Knowledge, UKOUG.
Tags: , , ,
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How do you fancy going to a full-day, five stream conference, for free? With a great agenda including Pete Finnigan talking on the hot topic of GDPR; Chris Saxon, Nigel Bayliss and Grant Ronald giving us the latest low-down on optimizer, 18C database features for developers and AI powered apps? Stalwarts of the Oracle community like Robin Moffat, Zahid Anwar and Andrew Clarke giving their real-world view?

Well, if you are a member of the UKOUG you can – and even if you are not a member, there is a way! All levels of UKOUG membership, even bronze, allow you to attend at least one SIG (Special Interest Group) meeting – and the Northern Technology Summit is classed as a SIG, even though it is as large as some smaller conferences. The 5 streams cover Database, RAC, Systems, APEX, and Development (I know, APEX is part of development – but it gets a whole stream to fit in the large range of speakers, who are mostly end users with real stories to tell). You can see the full agenda here.

Park Plaza. Leeds.

The summit is being held in Leeds, at the Park Plazza hotel, on the 16th of May. The Park Plaza is so close to Leeds train station that you could probably hit it with a catapult from the entrance. It is also about 2 minutes from where the M621 (a spur off the M1) ends in the city centre. You can sign up to the event by clicking here.

Is Leeds far away? No. Trains from Kings Cross take only 2 hours and you can get there and back for £50 or less. Check out Trainline.com and similar websites. Of course, coming in from Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle etc is even quicker and cheaper (except maybe Brum, for reasons I cannot fathom) Even Edinburgh is less than 3 hours away.

SO you are not a UKOUG member – You can still come, and still come for free as I said – well, sort of. The cost of a SIG for a non-member is £170 plus VAT, which is pretty cheap for a whole-day event full of technical content and an absolute steal for a 5-stream mini-conference. But if you become a Bronze member of the UKOUG for five pounds less, i.e. £165, you get a SIG place – so you can come to the Northern Technology summit. The UKOUG have waived the usual joining fee of £50 to ensure it is cheaper to become a bronze member than simply pay for this event. And, if you become a higher level member, (silver, gold, platinum) the UKOUG will still waive the joining fee. You can see full details of the offer here

As well as the excellent agenda we will be having some fun. We are having a meet-up the night before in Leeds, at Foley’s Tap House where we have reserved an area. This is one of my favourite pubs in Leeds, I seem to end up in it for a pint or two whenever I visit the city. There are already over half a dozen of us going and I’ll buy a round. The park plaza hotel is just next to the latest shopping centre in Leeds. If you have never visited the city before, or did so a long time ago, it’s become a very vibrant city centre over the last 10 years or so. I suspect after the event some of us will end up in the Scarborough hotel opposite the train station before we wander home.

So, sign up and get yourself over to a whole-day, 5-stream conference full of both the official information from Oracle on 10 topics and end-user/partner opinions on 25 more.

Free Webinar – How Oracle Works! September 15, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, internals, Knowledge, Presenting.
Tags: , , ,
3 comments

Next Tuesday (19th September) I am doing a free webinar for ProHuddle. It lasts under an hour and is an introduction to how some of the core parts of the Oracle RDBMS work, I call it “The Heart of Oracle: How the Core RDBMS Works”. Yes, I try and explain all of the core Oracle RDBMS in under an hour! I’m told I just about manage it. You can see details of the event and register for it here. I’ve done this talk a few times at conferences now and I really like doing it, partly as it seems to go down so well and people give me good feedback about it (and occasionally bad feedback, but I’ll get on to that).

The idea behind the presentation is not to do the usual “Intro” and list what the main Oracle operating systems processes – SMON, PMON, RECO etc – are or what the various components of the shared memory do. I always found those talks a little boring and they do not really help you understand why Oracle works the way it does when you use it. I aim to explain what redo is, why it is so important, what actually happens when you commit, how data is written to and read from storage to the cache – and what is actually put in the buffer cache. I explain the concept of point-in-time view, how Oracle does it and why it is so fantastic. And a few other bits and pieces.

I’m not trying to explain to people the absolute correct details of what goes on with all these activities that the database does for you. I’m attempting to give people an understanding of the principles so that more advanced topics make more sense and fit together. The talk is, of course, aimed at people who are relatively new to Oracle – students, new DBAS or developers who have never had explained to them why Oracle works the way it does. But I have found that even some very experienced DBA-types have learnt the odd little nugget of information from the talk.

Of course, in an hour there is only so much detail I can go into when covering what is a pretty broad set of topics. And I lie about things. I say things that are not strictly true, that do not apply if more advanced features of Oracle are used, or that ignore a whole bucket full of exceptions. But it’s like teaching astrophysics at school. You first learn about how the Sun is at the centre of the solar system, all the planets & moons revolve around each other due to gravity and the sun is hot due to nuclear fusion. No one mentions how the earth’s orbit varies over thousands and millions of years until you have the basics. Or that GPS satellites have to take into account the theory of relativity to be as accurate as they are. Those finer details are great to learn but they do not change the fundamental principles of planets going around suns and rocks falling out of the sky – and you need to know the simpler overall “story” to slot in the more complex information.

I talk about this picture.

I start off the talk explaining this simplification and I do try to indicate where people will need to dig deeper if they, for example, have Exadata – but with a webinar I am sure people will join late, drop in and out and might miss that. I must remember to keep reminding people I’m ignoring details. And amongst the audience will be people who know enough to spot some of these “simplifications” and I think the occasional person might get upset. Remember I mentioned the bad feedback? I got accosted at a conference once after I had done this talk by a couple of experts, who were really angry with me that I had said something that was not accurate. But they had missed the start of the talk and my warnings of simplification and did not seem to be able to understand that I would have needed half an hour to explain the details of that on thing that they knew – but I had only 50 minutes in total for everything!

As I said, this is the first Webinar I will have done. I am sure it will be strange for me to present with “no audience” and I’m sure I’ll trip up with the pointer and the slides at some point. I usually have some humour in my presentations but that might not work with no crowd feedback and a worldwide audience. We will see. But I am excited about doing it and, if it works, I may well offer to do more.

As a taster, I explain the above diagram. A lot. I mostly just talk about pictures, there will be very few “wordy” slides.

I invite you all to register for the talk – as I said, it is free – and please do spread the word.

click here to register for the Webinar

Friday Philosophy – When Tech Fails to Deliver, is it Always a Problem? December 9, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, development, ethics, Friday Philosophy.
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11 comments

I nipped out to the local supermarket this lunch time to get stuff. I use one of those self-use barcode scanners to log all the goods I put in my basket (apart from the bottle of whisky I was stealing). I then go to the payment machine, scan the “finish shopping” barcode and try to pay. I can’t pay.

quickcheck-647x346-3col

I can’t pay as I bought some paracetamol (note to US readers, you know it as acetaminophen). It turns out you need to be 12 to buy paracetamol. Fair enough, but why did I have to stand there and waste 30 seconds of my life before the assistant for the area noticed and came over? She had to uses her special device to access the permissions screen, check I was 12 (the greying beard helps) and authorise it.

I asked why I had to wait. “So I can ensure you are old enough – the machine does not know.” But it does! Or at least it should. I’m using their self-scan service for which I have to be registered. They know my name, address, age, hair colour and inside leg measurement. The system knows I am old enough. Plus I have to pay with a credit/debit card (no cash option with this system). You can’t have a credit card until you are 18 in the UK so by using one of them it knows I am old enough to buy the pills – and even the bottle of whisky I was stealing. And when you use any card, it checks your details. So if I was using a debit card it could check my age at that point and stop me when it makes the check. It’s possible and should be done!

The assistant had wandered off long before I finished making this logical case. I was just an annoying customer and she’d done what I needed her to do. But it really annoyed me – it is possible for the system to check me using technology and the data at hand, and not make me wait. The problem is, they were too lazy to build this limited smarts into the system!

aberlour

There is a lesson here. And that lesson is this – I should stop being such a self-centred, argumentative and miserable old sod. Firstly, I had to wait 30 seconds (and I am probably exaggerating that). Big deal, I had hardly been inconvenienced and it was a lot quicker than going to a normal till. Secondly, the assistant can’t do anything about the software behind the system. I mean, many of us spend our lives working on computer systems and often we can’t make any changes. Thirdly, I am aware that some parents give their children their credit card & number (the idiots!) so even though it is illegal to do this, the result is there a lot of people under the age of credit who have the means to pay for dangerous things (booze, cigarettes, paracetamol, knives, DIY expanding foam, ‘Viz’ magazine…).

Just because something is possible with the data to hand, sometimes it is not really worth much effort to make it happen.

And sometimes, although it seems logical & sensible given all the parameters (they have my info, no one but me should be using that card) in the real world those rules and data associations are not reliable. There is no enforced RI on our lives, at best there is a set of intended/encouraged limits. A person checking my age is way more reliable than some algorithm in this case.

So next time I whine about waiting 30 seconds in the queue, I hope the assistant just gives me a withering look and tells me to grow up.

I also hope they do not check my basket for un-scanned booze.

(* Just for the record, everything about the whisky was untrue. It was gin).

((And being serious, such system prevent fraud by 2 methods.
The first is that 1 in X times you get re-scanned. The assistant has no idea if they scan anything you had not and this is on purpose – so there is no scene in the shop. But the comparison is made and recorded, for further action.
The second is that apparently they can spot likely cheats just by the data you give them when you sign up and your spending habits. Now that is ‘Big Data Analysis’.
))

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

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

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

There is a prize for spotting Kerry without a baseball cap

There is a prize for spotting Kerry without a baseball cap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Different Type of Keynote & Jonathan Lewis Panel Session at UKOUG Tech15 November 27, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Presenting, UKOUG, User Groups.
Tags: , , ,
2 comments

Technical people tend not to enjoy Keynotes at conferences. We are allergic to content-light “there has never been a better time to invest in our products” fluffy, frou-frou, big picture talks. We want how-it-works meat on the bones of what is served up to us.

OK, it's a very poor photo but the best I have of Dom presenting. Sorry Dom.

OK, it’s a very poor photo but the best I have of Dom presenting. Sorry Dom.

Well, at the UKOUG Tech15 conference this year (Birmingham ICC 7th-9th December) we have a treat for you – The Database stream keynote is technical AND you get to ask whatever questions you want – questions about Oracle RDBMS technology that is.

Dominic Giles, Maria Colgan and Penny Avril have agreed to be up on stage and, after the first half telling us about some of the things introduced at Oracle OpenWorld 2015, they will take questions. Questions they do not know are coming. Real questions. From people at the conference. Your questions. These are not questions that have been placed by them or checked with them before hand.

Dom does this at smaller user groups; he stands up and asks for any questions from the audience and he just tells it the way he sees it. His incredible knowledge of the product is matched only by his humour (so no huge expectation for you to live up to there, Dom!). Maria and Penny are similarly endowed with knowledge and great presentation skills and are willing to give this a go for us. Brave people.

{I think in the photo Dominic has just been asked about why something in Oracle does not work – and he’s trying to decide whether or not to kill the person who asked…}

You will be able to ask questions on the day, at the session, but you will also be able to post questions at the UKOUG information desk on Monday and I am happy for you to send me any questions you have (mwidlake@btinternet.com or leave a comment on this blog – I don’t think Maria, Dom or Penny drop by here very often so they won’t see them…:-) ). Of course, there is no point asking a question if you do not intend to be at the conference and at that session!

Having run similar sessions to this at smaller events, I know that you need some questions to get the ball rolling and then, with a little luck, the audience warms up and asks questions. The key thing is, no matter the source, the panel do not know the questions before-hand. I’ve seen sessions like that, with placed questions, and it just comes over as fake.

Why did I mention Jonathan Lewis? Well, on Monday at 11:20 he is doing another panel session taking questions, with Nigel Bayliss, Christian Antognini and Maria Colgan (again – we work them hard). This session is focused on the Cost Based Optimizer. We already have enough initial questions but if you are curious about the optimizer and performance, maybe ask your own question from the floor, it’s a must-see session. Jonathan talks about this session in this blog post.

So at UKOUG Tech15 you have two panel sessions in the database stream where you can ask questions. We also have several “Roundtable” sessions across the whole agenda which are perfect for asking questions too. If you have never been to one, a Roundtable session is more a discussion in a smaller group, with one or two experts “officially” there as well as usually some unofficial experts in the crowd. Panel session are “pose your question, get expert answers”, roundtables are more interactive, more like a conversation in the bar. They can get quite lively (but fights are rare) :-).

All in all, we are aiming for a good dose of interaction between presenters and delegates. And never forget, most of us presenters are more than happy to chat and answer questions throughout the conference. Just don’t ask hard questions if you meet us in the evenings, when we are half-drunk…