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Will I Be The Next President Of The UK Oracle User Group? February 16, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in Oracle Scene, UKOUG, User Groups.
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I’ve decided to put myself forward to be President Elect of the UK Oracle User Group (UKOUG). The position of President Elect is, in effect, President-in-waiting. You shadow the current president before taking over the role when their term comes to an end. In this case, that will be in a year.

I think this is a very sensible manner in which to introduce a new person into the role of President. The UKOUG is one of the largest Oracle user groups in the world. It is in effect a small company with permanent staff and a large number of interested parties, the members. About 1000 companies have at least one membership with the UKOUG, some hold several (as each membership comes with conference passes). The position of President comes with 3 main duties:

  • Representing all members of the users group – end users, partners, sponsors. There are two other positions on the board of Member Advocate, so the president is one of three (out of a total of 6) representing the membership.
  • Being the ambassador for the UKOUG. This is partly being the “friendly public face” of the organisation but, as President, you represent the UKOUG to other user groups, Oracle Corporation and the press.
  • To ensure that the UKOUG meets it’s requirements as a company and has the correct governance in place. For the UKOUG a lot of the governance is about ensuring the board is selected or appointed correctly, legal requirements are met, and that the user group is run in an open and fair manner.

Why would I want to take this on? It is not a paid position, it is voluntary.

(I should maybe be a little clearer here on pay – voted positions on the board, i.e. member advocate and president, are not salaried. But expenses are paid and there is provision for some payment for specific project work, or if the demands of a role exceeds a number of hours in a given month. But you would be unable to live on it, no matter how frugal you are!)

Well, as many of you know, I’ve been an active volunteer for the UKOUG for a long time, it’s actually over 10 years. I present at nearly every annual conference, at a couple of the Special Interest Groups (SIGs) each year and I’ve chaired or deputy chaired SIGs since 2009. I don’t just do the “standing up and being noticed” stuff, I help out with the organisational work. I was in charge of the Database content at Tech14 & Tech15 and all the content of Tech16. I’ve sat on strategy committees, reviewed submissions, analysed speaker scores… I’m currently editor of the UKOUG magazine, Oracle Scene. I know some people think of me as “that guy from the UKOUG”. Maybe being President would be less work!

When the UKOUG announced that the position of President Elect was open, it seemed natural to try and take that final step up the Volunteer ladder to become a member of the board.

When it comes down to it, I love being in the Oracle community. I’ve made so many friends across the globe through not just the UKOUG but by going to the conferences & meetings of other national Oracle User Groups. I have learnt so much from user groups, not just from lectures but directly from the people I meet. The majority of people who get involved in user groups are not only intelligent and wanting to learn, they are also willing to share and teach.

Another part of my wanting to be the President (eventually) is that I don’t think the UKOUG is perfect. The organisation does evolve and change as the technology and market shifts. But I’d like to try and shake things up a bit and slightly alter where it’s focus currently is. I won’t say any more on that for now.

There are also big changes for some Oracle customer, namely Cloud, Chatbots, AI and the fact that hardware is shifting. Solid State storage and Oracle’s own in-memory tech is making some things possible that were impossible with the old physical storage and row-based processing. But soon we will have storage that is an order of magnitude faster than current SSD, almost as fast as main memory.

Oddly enough, one problem I see a lot is that there is too much focus on some of those new areas. Many people are still running systems where cloud and SSD are not part of their world. Yes, they would probably all like to move forward but if the systems they have can’t move on, they still need to get the most out of them now. User groups are not just for those chasing the latest-greatest, they are just as much for those who need help keeping the wheels on. I think the user group needs to reach slightly back before we can help them forward.

Many of you won’t be able to vote for me as only members of the UKOUG can vote. But if you can, I’d appreciate your vote. And I will need those votes.

There is one slight oddity. I am the only person standing for the position of President Elect (the position of Member Advocate is also open and being voted for at the moment, for which there are three candidates). However, there is still a vote, I will not take the position uncontested. The vote is a yes/no/abstain one, so you can either support my bid to be the President Elect or voice your opposition. There are issues with yes/no votes but over all the UKOUG board felt that as the user group is run on democratic principles, the members should be able to have their say over if they feel I am suitable to eventually become their President or not. If the number of votes are low, it edges things in the favour of “no” so I still need to campaign.

(If you can vote, you can do so Here)

As for the contest for the position of Member Advocate, I’ve voted for Neil Chandler. I know Neil well and he is just as passionate about the UKOUG as I am and I know he will work hard to keep it moving forward and improving.

Let’s see what happens come the conclusion of voting in March.

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Friday Philosophy – Condoning Bad Behaviour February 2, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management, Perceptions.
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I used to work with a man called Nick(*). Nick was friendly enough, he was good at programming and he had very few annoying personal habits. Nick was easy to work with.

I WON’T take my share of the Christmas Cover!

When he finally turned up.

You see, Nick would sometimes turn up around 9am like everyone else. But more often he would get in just before 10am. And then it started to go past 10am and more like 10:15, 10:30… soon it was closer to 11am. He used to stay quite late to make up the time and he got done the programming work he was allocated. But it was a pain in the backside for everyone else. People who worked with him would be waiting for him to turn up and he would sometimes amble into a meeting after it had started.

Then I found myself managing Nick and about the first thing I did was have a little chat about his timekeeping. Nice, friendly Nick did not like this, he could not see the problem, he stayed late to do his work, the company was getting it’s “pound of flesh” as he put it. Why did it matter? So I explained the impact on the rest of the team and that core hours were clearly stated: 10:00-12:00 & 14:00-16:00. During those hours we all knew everyone was around and we could collaborate, it’s called team work.

Nick was having none of this – “If this was a problem, how come Sarah never raised it as an issue?”. And there was the reason that this was not just a small problem but a big problem. Yes, Sarah was his prior boss and she had not said anything to him about it. “You are just trying to show who is boss!”. Yes, yes I am, and being your boss is partly to tell you when you are doing things wrong, so stop it.

Nick’s prior boss had made the decision to condone bad behaviour, to let Nick come in later and later without intervening. Sometimes condoning bad behaviour is an active thing, like laughing at sexist/racist jokes, but usually it is a passive thing. If someone is doing something wrong and, as their manager, you do not challenge it then you are accepting it, you are condoning it. And once you have let it slip a few times, challenging it is harder. In Nick’s case it had resulted in the occasional late arrival becoming common, an accepted situation and a much more significant issue. It was also now a harder behaviour to challenge.

This situation is of course not limited to the manager/subordinate relationship, sometimes our friends or relatives behave badly and you have the choice to accept it or challenge it. I think that helps us immediately understand why we condone bad behaviour, as to challenge it causes confrontation. And very few of us like confrontation.

In another situation I had, there was a guy who would suddenly just go off the deep end for no good reason. Something would annoy him and he would start shouting and getting angry, way beyond what was reasonable. Now, to challenge that kind of bad behaviour you know it is going to be hard work. Thankfully, my boss at the time did, and explained to me at length and very forcefully that I needed to be more mature and less of a dick.

I think we can all agree that we should not condone bad behaviour but we can be reticent to do so due to the conflict.

Of course, a particularly difficult situation is when it is your boss (or parent!) who is behaving badly!

You will respect my authority!

Also, at what point do you challenge the behaviour? Probably not at the first incident, especially if it is minor like turning up to work late. After all, it might be a one-off, they may have reasons for the behaviour (one person I managed was turning up late as they were having a hell of a time at home, they needed some slack). Something more serious such as socially unacceptable behaviour, you need to question it right away. You also can’t challenge every small thing you perceive as wrong, you will just annoy everyone and become regarded as a control freak/moral bore.

You also need to consider the impact of challenging them. If it is over something that would embarrass or offend them, it could sour your relationship with them and the rest of the team. Catching someone out lying can be tricky to deal with (I once had someone ask me for holiday on short notice as a relative was ill. But his new girlfriend also reported to me and she was honest about the “urgent need” for the holiday…). I think the most common decision made when the bad behaviour is one that the other person will be embarrassed or in denial over is to let it lie or challenge it “if it happens again”. Only, just like with Nick and his late arrivals, each time you delay addressing the bad behaviour it will get harder to do so.

I can’t claim that I always handled the condoning of bad behaviour as well as I should, I was by no means a perfect boss or friend (or relative). I think it is one of the hardest parts of being a manager, especially if you are averse to confrontation. But over all, I’ve suffered more in the long run by not challenging bad behaviour than I have by trying to handle it.

As to how you handle it, that’s a whole different topic…

(* Nick was not his real name, I changed it to protect the innocent… It was Dave)

Friday Philosophy – Improving Your Working Life July 14, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions.
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If I got you all to write down the top 5 things that make working bearable, and then got you to make a list of the top 5 things that make working enjoyable, I have a suspicion there will be one thing high on the “Enjoyable” list that may not even be on the “Bearable” list:

Being in a good team.

This one thing can make a real difference to your working life. I know this is true for me and it’s something I’ve heard other people say a lot. The team you are in can make up for a lot of negative things about any given job. I’ve found myself in roles where I am unsuitable for the task, or under a ridiculously high workload, even being paid much less than I know I am worth. But if I have been in a good team, working with people I like (well, at least some of them!) it makes it all a lot better. A lot, lot better. Think about the jobs or roles you have most enjoyed in your life. In any of them did you not like the team you were in?

Unfortunately in most teams there are people like Miserable Kevin, who does nothing but complain and slag everyone off. Or Oddly Quiet Katrina who is about as much fun to be with as eating a jar of pickled frogs.

You might expect me to now suggest you leave any team you do not like being in – but that is impractical advice for most people and impossible for many. And in fact I think there is a much, much better option:

Don’t change which team you are in – Change the team you are in.

You may think that it’s the responsibility of the team leader or maybe “management” to create a good team, perhaps by punishing or getting rid of Kevin and Katrina. And to a certain extent you are right. But most team leaders got the job for reasons other than their soft skills (the ones that allow them to understand and work with people – Heck, most of us in I.T. are there at least partially as we do not like other bloody people!). But actually, anyone in the team can change the team into somewhere more pleasant to be. I’m willing to bet that if you have worked in teams that are fun and satisfying to be in, the person or people who made it that way were not the team leader. Or at least not limited to the team leader.

Be warned, I am not claiming it is easy to change a team and it can take a while. But I think anyone can improve their team, if they put in a little effort. And you can do it in small, easy steps.

It helps if you know or learn a little about how different people think, a little bit of pop-psychology can go a long way (all those management training courses I once went on helped me a lot in this) but in essence you just need to help people to talk, relax, interact and get to know each other a little better. Try to see things from their side, consider why they are being objectionable or difficult. And be nice to people. Not in a creepy way, but just try to not lose your temper at someone who is being annoying, do not join in with the weekly team moan about Kevin behind his back. I’m not saying you should not disapprove if someone is being an arse, but you can make it clear you are not happy with them without being antagonistic or retaliating. Just one person doing this can make a big difference. I know, I’ve done it.

Another thing to do is try to include people more. If you and another team member are discussing an issue, maybe ask Oddly Quiet Katrina what they think. If you can find a common interest with someone you don’t know well in the team, try to talk to them about it. I don’t mean do what one bloke I know did – come in the office, ask how your weekend went and then look stunned with boredom when you told him – He had no real interest, he was playing a role, and doing it badly. If you are going to try and draw someone out a little, it really helps to be interested in what they say.

Once thing I have found helps significantly in creating a better team is suggesting the occasional coffee, go to lunch together (especially if it means going out the office to get something, even if only a sandwich) or have an after work pint. {I’ve previously mentioned this as Team Ice-Cream}. It really helps if you know at least 1 other person who will join in; and you are not trying to get everyone there. You just let people know, go and have the coffee or drink and let whoever wishes to join in. Sometimes there will be someone who will refuse to join in but, heck, the last thing you want to do is try and make it “enforced team fun” – as that never works well. I’ve done this in 3 or 4 roles now and after a few weeks (and it can take weeks and months) most of the team was coming along most of the time. And the intra-team bitching had plummeted. I even saw people help each other without being told to!

One thing to mention – don’t be too enthusiastic and gung-ho about it. Don’t come in first thing and cry “Hi team! How’s it all going! Hi-Fives! Who’s for a pint after work!?”. This will make you into Psychotic Barry. No one trusts Psychotic Barry.

The key principle is to be a bit more friendly and inclusive without people really noticing you are doing it. Keep it all low key.

Why should *you* be the person to put in the effort? Well, think of it selfishly. It will be nicer for you if being at work is less bloody awful. Also, it’s a skill you can use everywhere! Each time you change team, you can see if you can improve the new team a bit and see if you can do it more effectively. You can use it in social situations too. Maybe even the wider family, but if you try that and it all goes horribly wrong, don’t sue me.

Another reason to do it? Many people who know me in the flesh may be surprised to know that I’m not naturally very good in a crowd. I got a lot better at it, and more comfortable with people in general, by trying to improve the team.

So go change your team. It’s actually easier than you think and, heck, what have you to lose but some wasted effort and a couple of quiet evenings in a pub on your own (or maybe worst case scenario, just you and Psychotic Barry)? At least you will know that you gave it a go, it is now definitely the team leader’s problem.

One final word of warning. That bloke over there who is a militant vegan, self-appointed know-er of all and despises all contractors on philosophical principles? Don’t expect to get anywhere with him and don’t try too hard. Some people need professional help!

Friday Philosophy – Being the Best Manager February 19, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management.
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4 comments

I’d like you to spend a minute thinking back on your career and decide who your best manager has been.

Surely your best manager ever deserves a good cup of tea

Surely your best manager ever deserves a good cup of tea

I don’t mean the manager who you personally got on best with or was most popular with the team – though being one (or even both!) of those does not rule them out as being the best manager you had.

It does not have to be in IT – or even work, actually, cast the net wide to include people who have managed teams and groups outside of work that you have been in.

What was it about them that made them such a good manager?

I know what I think made my best manager the best manager I’ve had: She was utterly focused on making her team a success.

The two or three managers I’ve had who are close seconds to the top spot also had that as a high priority. But managers I’ve had who put delivery of whatever their boss wanted above getting the best out of the team just fell short – and, in my opinion, actually delivered less than they could. Because, if delivery of the current objectives comes before the team, you start working on the next objectives with a team less capable than they could have been.

Making your team a success does not actually mean being nice to the team, at least not all the time and not to all of them. Sometimes you have to reprimand a team member for doing something wrong, like doing a shoddy job of a task you know they can do better – not doing so is condoning bad behaviour and they will do a shoddy job again, only now it’s harder to call them out for it. You also will have to at times get them do something they don’t want to do, like be on call at a particular time as no one else can or it is their turn. But if you can’t explain why they need to do this thing they don’t want to do, that is not going to help you get the best out of them.

I’m sure some of you will disagree with me about what makes the best manager you ever had so good, but in some ways it does not matter. Because what I feel is most interesting about that question is, if you manage, or ever have managed, a team (be it in work, in sport or whatever) – do you try and emulate whatever it was that made that best manager so good?

If not, why?

.

.

(By the way, if your response to the question about your best manager made you think “the least worst” or “I’ve never had a good manager” then either you have been monumentally unlucky – or else maybe the problem lies not with those managers… )

Friday Philosophy – Sex in The Office December 4, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
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Sex in the office. It’s a bad idea – you can get hurt falling off the swivel chair or desk and there is the ever present danger of the stapler…

Though accurate, the title is of course misleading to make you look at this blog. I’ve actually been thinking about the ratio of women to men in the office, the impact it has and the efforts put in to address it. If you have somehow missed it there is something called “WIT” – Women in Technology – and it is part of an ongoing drive to get more women into the traditionally male-dominated careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics {STEM} and to help them stay there once they are in the industry. I can’t say I’ve been aware of this next aspect until the last couple of years but apparently a women is more likely to move out of IT as they get older than a man is.

There is a morning meeting on WIT at the UKOUG Tech15 conference on Tuesday at 8pm (details here) and it is open to men as well as women. I hope to be there as it is a topic I am interested in and support. However, I have to say I have some ambivalence towards it too. Why? Because at some of these meetings you get a bit of “men-bashing” and also things get suggested which are positive discrimination – and I am not a fan of discrimination, even when you put the word “positive” in front of it.

I work in the UK and I’ve worked in IT now for 25 years. The ratio of women to men in technical roles does not seem to have changed much in most of that time and has stayed at around 10% to 20%, depending on the business area. My first job was in the national health service and the percentage of women was about 20%. I’ve also been in teams where there is not a single woman. I much prefer there to be a higher percentage of women where I work than 10% – and this is not for any creepie “they are more pretty” or similar reasons, it is because when it is all or mostly men, the atmosphere is like a never-ending boy’s locker room. Juvenile humour, constant swearing and biological jokes are good fun for a while, but not day in, day out. Rightly or wrongly, when the sex ratio is more balanced, so is the humour and behaviour. I’m told women are just as bad when they are in a male-free environment – but I would not really know, would I?

I think over the last 5-10 years there has been some movement though, I think we are finally moving towards a more balanced ratio. Actually, no , it would be more accurate to say we are progressing to a less unbalanced ratio.

There is no question about the technical ability of women and I am confident in my own attitude towards having women in technical roles – I’ve hired, promoted, supported and reprimanded enough women over the years to demonstrate I don’t have any issues there. But I don’t think we will ever have equal numbers of men and women across the technical roles in IT.

Why do I think this? Because it is about numbers, percentages and factors. I have to quickly point out that I am not talking about individuals here and there are individual exceptions to everything I say, but I do run the risk of upsetting people…

One factor is the Autistic spectrum. Or maybe I should be saying Aspergers, as that term was supposed to indicate people with reduced empathy but not reduced cognition (intelligence or learning speed). I was talking to a friend about this a few days ago, the fact that when you look at people working in IT there is a tendency towards us being poor at understanding people, uncomfortable dealing with other humans and being happier working with things. ie somewhere in the mild end of the  Autistic spectrum. Obviously this is not true of everyone in IT and probably is only relevant to, ohhh, 83% of us {Joke! It is probably less than 50%}. It is certainly true of me and a few of my best friends, ironically. Technology particularly appeals to those of us who are on that spectrum, especially when we are younger, as it is easier for us to deal with something other than people. It is also true that you are less likely to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum if you are a woman than a man. Add those two together and over a large enough sample, like the working population, you will see a significant effect. Men as a population are more autistic, IT appeals to the autistic, you will get a bias towards men in IT. It does not mean all men in IT are autistic.

Another factor is of course that when children come along it is nearly always the woman who takes the lead in childcare. It does not have to be that way, it certainly should not be expected let alone forced. I’ve known couples where the father stops work and takes the main parental role (and they always run up against a lot of sexism about that, so it’s a two-way street ladies!) but it is still relatively rare. And taking time off work has an impact on career development and skills because you are not doing the job during that time. I know that when I have not done something for a year or two my skills degrade (I did not do much PL/SQL development work for a couple of years and I was rusty as heck when I went back to it properly). What is wrong is the tendency for that pause in development to be continued when people come back to work or work part time. We can help address that by making more effort to support people (women and men) coming back to work to continue onwards from where they left off, not be expected to stay still. But, over the whole industry, taking a break to concentrate on family is going to have an impact on not only the raw numbers of women in IT at any time but also career progression relative to age. Again, I stress this is not about individuals, it is about ratios and percentages.

Another aspect is that if you have a break from what you do as a career, it is an opportunity to ask yourself if you still want to do it. If you don’t have a break you are less likely to question your job and more likely to just keep turning up and doing it. Some women drop out of IT due to sexism – but some drop out as they just decide to try other things. On average men are less likely to have such a break and just trudge on, week-after-week, year-after-year.

There are other factors beyond those three but the point I am making is that I don’t think the ratio between women and men in technical roles will ever be 50:50. I would prefer it to be 50:50 but I don’t think it will be. I am also not arguing in any way about being complacent about sexism at work, not promoting women or anything like that. The fact that I don’t think we will ever have parity of numbers does not condone sexism in any way. Everyone should have the same chances and support. I’d like there to be no need for positive discrimination as we don’t have any discrimination – it is all about the individual and ability. As my friend Pete Scott put it on twitter when this post first went up – Humans In Technology is where we want to be – HIT

Friday Philosophy – Make a Team by Letting Them Burn May 29, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management.
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The title of today’s Friday Philosophy sounds extreme, but it’s true.

Sir John Harvey-JOnes

Sir John Harvey-Jones

Recently, I was watching a TV program about “experts” helping companies turn around. A couple of decades ago the BBC had a program called “The Troubleshooter” where a gentleman called Sir John Harvey-Jones gave companies in trouble advice {the similar idea but without the cheap and tacky elements we have today with making the targets of the program cry and over-emote for good TV}. John just gave solid advice. But one thing that was true in the program back then and is true in the tacky 21st century take on the program is that eventually you have to let the new team make mistakes.

This resonated with me as when I was managing teams it was something I knew I should do – and struggled to allow. A new team and, especially, a new team leader, has to be given space to make mistakes.

I have always found this very hard to watch. When you become a team leader yourself, or a subject matter expert, or the “lead” on anything, you make mistakes. You just do: it’s new to you, you have not done it before and you lack the experience and knowledge to know what works and what does not. If you are lucky you might have a mentor you can talk to or think back on, maybe a team leader you enjoyed working for or an expert you admire. But often it is just you and the new role and a whole green field of requirements into which you can drop your own cow-pats. It is challenging, exciting, frightening, worrying… Looking back, those are the times that have been most demanding in my career and have also been the times I learnt the most.

I would say they were also the best times in my working life (and that would fulfill the usual mythology and story-telling shtick at this point) but that would be a lie. 50% of the time they were, the other 50% of the time I hated it. Am I not supposed to say that? Well, it’s true. Half the time, breaking new ground is not the Star Trek/Friends/Movie-of-the-month feel-good ride to betterment that society sells us it is. Sometimes it is hard work, bruising and sucks. Am I wrong?

So, I know it is not always a nice ride. And, irrespective, I’ve learnt some lessons over the years – and I do not see why people under my tutelage cannot just inherit the lessons I learned painfully without the pain, by me guiding them. I want what is in my head and my experience to be available to you.

What is wrong with that? Well, three things at least.

My way is not your way. I am me, you are you. Ignoring for the minute that I could get things wrong {As if!!! {British ironic humour) }, just because how I handle a situation or my team or a tricky customer interaction works for me, that way may not work for you – as you have a different personality and different strengths. I’m pretty good at dealing with companies that try to rip me off. I face them down and I bloody well let them have it. My wife does not do that, she keeps calm, is passive (in my eyes) and does not point out their stupidity. But she nails them with reasonable logic and calm {but she will go for the throat if reason fails}. We both usually win. She maybe wins more often (please don’t tell her that). We all have to find what works for us as individuals and that varies.

Secondly, though I would like to save you from pain, if you do not make your own decisions and live with them then it was not your work. If you do what I told you to do then it was partly my work. You will know that. What will you do when I am not there? I’m not arguing against seeking advice, that is always (in my book) correct. But if you are in charge of something, you need to BE IN CHARGE so that you learn to know you can (or cannot, let’s be honest) do it. You have to decide if you take any advice, it would be questionable of me dictate you take my advice (though there are times and situations when that would be correct of me). If you succeed because I told you what to do, you have learned a way to handle that situation. If you resolved the problem yourself, you also learned that you can do it. If you mess up, then you learnt a way not to do things and you now have to learn another vital management skill:

To be a good leader you need to accept your mistakes – and sort them out.

That is what I mean about letting the team burn.

The third point, the one I do not like looking at, is that. Well. My way may not be best. Your way might not just be different and better suited to you and your abilities, it might simply be better. If I over-ride a minion when they are not doing it My Way then I am preventing them from learning, I am preventing them from doing it their way, and I am potentially preventing them doing it a better way.

My job as a manager is getting the best out of those I manage. That may include them doing a better job than me. If that is a problem, it is my problem.

This is also true of teaching and mentoring and explaining. If I teach you SQL programming and you become a better SQL programmer than me, I’ll be hurt – How dare you be better than me? I Bloody taught you! I would like to feel that as I get older I can live more comfortably with achieving that aim of someone I teach becoming better than me.

So getting back to the title. If I manage a team leader, I have to let that team leader… lead. I advise, I help, I highlight what I think they missed… And then, if I can over-ride my damned ego, I shut up. I have to risk letting them burn.

If they burn, I try to put out the fire with them.

If they do not burn, they have learnt and will be better.

If they shine, then they have exceeded me and we might be swapping roles one day.

I would like to think that is how I operated at the end of my time managing teams.

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

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

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 🙂

Friday Philosophy – The Problem of Positive Discrimination? February 27, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,
19 comments

Have you ever (or are you currently) working in an organisation with any Positive Discrimination policies? Where, for example, there is a stated aim to have 25% of the board as female or 30% of the workforce from ethnic groups that are not of the majority ethnic group in your geographic location? How do you feel about that? Is positive discrimination a good thing or a bad thing? I can’t decide.

{Big Caveat! Before anyone wants to give me the same sort of hassle as a tiny few did recently over a related post, note that I am just wondering aloud and whilst I encourage comments and feedback, I reserve the right to block or delete any comments that I feel are abusive or discriminatory or simply from the unhinged. Just saying. Also I am mostly going to reference women as the aim for positive discrimination, as the blog got really untidy when I swapped between different types of discrimination. I apologise if anyone is offended by that – it is not intended.}

I don’t think I’ve ever been comfortable with the concept of positive discrimination and if I wind back the clock to my early 20’s, back then I was quite angrily dead set against it – on the grounds that it is still discrimination. It seemed to me then that it was a simple yin/yang concept. If discrimination is wrong, it’s wrong and “positive” discrimination is in fact just discrimination against the majority. Wrong is wrong. Stealing is wrong, be it from the poor or the rich or from organisations. All those post-it notes I’ve stolen over the years? Bad Martin.

So what has changed about my opinion? Well, I think that as we all get older we tend to be able to better consider the wider picture and less black/white about most of our philosophies {my personal opinion is that those who don’t modify their opinions in light of more experience and greater thought are, well, not maturing}. I can’t but accept that the business/IT work place as a whole is male-dominated and is riddled with sexism. This does not mean *at all* that all or even most men in business/IT are sexist, but the statistics, studies and countless personal experiences make it clear that the pay, success and respect of women are impacted.
A way to counteract that is to encourage more women to work in IT (or science or whichever area they are under-represented in) and show that they are just as effective in senior positions by tipping the balance in their favor. Positive discrimination is one way of doing that. Is the small evil of this type of discrimination acceptable if it first counteracts and then helps overturn and melt the large evil of the massive inequalities we currently have? Once equality is there (or you are at least approaching it) you drop the little evil of positive discrimination? But how else do you balance the books until the issue has been addressed? My own perception is that sexism and racism at least are reduced from what they were when I first started working, maybe positive discrimination is a significant factor in that? Maybe it is more that society has shifted?

Part of me likes the Women In Technology {try search on hashtag #WIT but you get loads of things that are labelled as “witty” as well} events and discussions such as supported in the Oracle sphere by Kellyn PotVin-Gorman and Debra Lilley amongst others. I much prefer to have a balanced workforce. But when I’ve been to a talk about it or seen online discussions, there often seems to be an element of “we hate men” or “all men are out to put us down” that, frankly, insults me. In fairness I’ve also seen that element questioned or stopped by the female moderators so I know they are aware of the problem of Men Bashing. After all, for reasons I have gone into in a prior post, as a small man I empathise with some of their issues – so to be told all men are the problem is both personally an affront and also… Yes, it’s discrimination. I should not have to feel I need to justify my own non-sexism but I do – My work, hiring and promoting history demonstrates I treat both sexes as equal. If I think you are rubbish at your job, it has nothing to do with how many X chromosomes you have.

I mentioned above “the little evil of positive discrimination” and that is certainly how I see it. I think of it as wrong not just because of the yin/yang simplistic take on right and wrong but because positive discrimination can have negative effects. Forcing a percentage of the workforce or management to be from a specified group means you are potentially not hiring the best candidates or putting the less capable into those positions. If your workforce is 10% female, not at all unusual in IT, then it is unlikely the best candidates for management are 25% female. They might be, it might be that 40% of them are female as they have managed to demonstrate their capabilities and stick with the industry despite any extra challenges faced. But to have a false percentage strikes me as problematic. Another issue is that of perceived unfair advantage or protection. How would any of us feel if we did not get a job or position as someone else got it on the basis of their sex, colour or disability to fulfill a quota? People are often bad tempered enough when they fail to get what they want. Over all, I think positive discrimination leads to a level of unease or resentment in the larger group not being aided. NOTE – I mean on average. I do not mean that everyone (or even most) feels resentment. And those who do vary in how much each individual feels upset by it.

I know a few people, including myself, who have hit big problems when disciplining or even sacking someone who is not a white male. I’ve had HR say to me “we are going to have to be very careful with this as they are {not-white-male}”. I asked the direct question of would this be easier if the person was a white male? – And they said, frankly, yes. It’s hard not to let that get your back up. I’ve seen this make someone I felt was pretty liberal and balanced become quite bigoted. That is positive discrimination being a little evil and having exactly the opposite effect as intended. That HR department was, in my opinion, getting it wrong – but I’ve heard so many similar stories that I feel it is the same in most HR departments across the UK, US and maybe Europe too. I can’t speak about other places.

I know a few women who are also very uncomfortable with positive discrimination as it makes them feel that either they got something not on the basis of their own abilities or others see it that way from looking in.

I’ve occasionally seen the disparity in numbers seen as a positive – I knew a lady at college who loved the fact she was only one of 3 women out of just over a hundred people in her year doing a degree in Computer Science. I was chatting to her {at a Sci-fi society evening, where she was also markedly out-numbered by the opposite sex} about how it must be daunting. She laughed at me in scorn – It was great! She said she stuck out and so got better responses when she asked questions in lectures, she had no trouble getting help off the over-worked tutors as they were keen to be seen to not be discriminatory and, as you mostly “met people” via your course or your societies, she pretty much had her pick of a hundred+ men. That told me.

So all in all, I still do not know if I am for or against positive discrimination. I guess I just wish it was not necessary. If there really was no discrimination, we would not question how many female, black, asian, disabled, short, fat, ginger, protestant people there were doing whatever we do.

{sorry for the lack of humour this week, I just struggled to squeeze it into such a delicate topic}

Friday Philosophy – Is Dave Productive? November 7, 2014

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Management.
Tags: , , , ,
4 comments

How do I know if Dave is doing his job properly? If I am his (or her*) manager, what techniques can I use to ensure I am getting my pound of flesh out of this worker drone in return for the exorbitant salary my company puts into said drone’s bank account each month?

Well, as a start there is my last Friday Philosophy all about deduction of work profile via auditory analysis of input devices (ie how fast is Dave typing) 🙂 I have to say, the response to that topic has been very good, I’ve had a few chats with people about it and got some interesting comments on the blog article itself. My blog hits went Ping 🙂

However, I have a confession to make. I have a “history” in respect of keyboards and management of staff. Maybe one of my old colleagues will comment to confirm this, but I used to regularly walk into an office full of “my people” and bark “Type faster you B*****ds! I don’t care what it is you are doing, I just want to see those fingers flying over the keyboard!”. They all knew to ignore me, this was just one example of my pathetic sense of humour. In some ways, I was never a very good manager as I was just a bit too juvenile, irreverent and non-managerial.

I was being ironic and they knew it. I had no time for many of the Management Easy Options you so often come across in organisations that are used to apparently help ensure the staff are working hard. What do I mean by Management Easy Options? I’ll cover a few.

 

You have to be at your desk for at least 8 hours.

At Your Desk. Because if you are at your desk you are working of course. And if you are not at your desk, you are not working. Hours at the desk apparently equate to productivity. So a Management Easy Option is to insist all your staff are seen to be in the office and at their desk for as long as, and preferably longer, than the average time across all staff. And that is partly why in dysfunctional companies staff are in the office so long. As if lots of managers want to demonstrate that they are “good managers” by having their staff “productive” at their desks, their staff will be there longer than average…which pushes up the average…so they keep the staff there longer… *sigh*

I could spend a few pages on the academic and psychological studies that disprove the above nonsense about 8 hours of productive work – but we all know it is nonsense anyway. We talk about it at lunch or in the pub. If you are stuck at your desk longer than you can concentrate, you do other stuff that is hard to distinguish from work. Or you do poor work. WE ALL KNOW THIS so why does this myth about hours-at-desk continue? What happens to some manager’s brains such that they start managing and soon stop knowing this?!?

As a self employed worker in the London IT market, I often get given a contract to sign that specifies I must do a professional working day:- that “consists of 8 hours minimum each day”. For the last 5 or 6 years I have always crossed out that clause or altered it to say “8 hours maximum” or replaced it with what I feel should be the real clause, which is:

A professional working day, which is to, on average across a week,  match or exceed the requirements of my manager for a day’s productivity.

If I am being asked to work a Professional Working Day then to me that means I have to achieve a day’s worth of benefit to the company for each day paid to me. If that takes me 8 hours or 6 or 9 or whatever is immaterial. As a Professional I will on average, each day, keep my manager happy that I am worth employing. If that involves 6 hours of extra work one day between 8pm and 2am, fine. But do not expect 8 hours the next day. If my manager is not happy, then you ask me to go and I will go. It really is as simple as that.

{honesty forces me to admit that at present, for the first time in years, I have that 40 hour clause in place. Because I am doing a role for a friend, and I did not want to cause a fuss by objecting to the clause. But if management ever refer to the clause, my friend knows I will simply thank management for their time to date – and I’ll be going now}.

I drifted into my own world there, but the point I really wanted to make is that hours spent at the desk in no way indicate if the job is being done. We all know that, all the managers know that (well, they will if they are any good). Some people can be at their desk 10 hours a day and, frankly, it would help the company if they were not! Other people are at their desk but spend a huge slice of the time on the web or Instant Messaging or *cough* writing blogs.

 

You have to be in the office.

If you are at home, you will be goofing off.
So what does the above say about the manager if that is their opinion? If you are at home, you would goof off, so therefore your staff will? Of course working from home has other considerations, such as it is only possible if your role allows you to spend some days not physically doing things in the office (pressing reset buttons on boxes? Making tea for the team?) and you are in the office enough to maintain and make proper bridges with your colleagues. I also think working from home is a privilege to earn and not a right, as some people really are incapable of working from home. I had a role a while back where when one chap was “working from home” he was actually doing all sorts of things – but his smartphone was set up to fake an online presence. He was incapable of working from home.

But in IT there really is not a need for many of us to spend all that time and unpleasantness commuting and some tasks really are done more efficiently if people can’t keep coming up to your desk and demanding their personal priorities really are your priorities too (which usually equates to they are in it up to their necks and you can dig them out).

 

Enforce a Clean Desk policy.

Now, there are things that should not ever be left on your desk. Financial information, personal information (like people’s CVs or annual reviews), management information (salary reviews, plans to axe 22% of the workforce, stuff like that) but I have no time at all for the argument that a clean desk looks more professional. It does not look more professional, that is just weaselly, lying balls. It looks more like someone has implemented a draconian clean desk policy and any sign of the desk occupants being human is of no consideration.

If you walk into an office with 300 utterly clean desks, it looks like a soul-less, bitter and degrading place to work slave.

You walk into an office and you see pictures of offspring & partners, little toys (not my thing but some people like to have the gonk their boy/girlfriend gave them) and that’s just fine.

Yeah, if Malcolm has a pile of 237 Diet Coke cans in a pyramid on his desk that is not so hot, but as a manager it is your job to go tell Malcolm to recycle those damn cans. And for those of us who work in Clean Desk environments, we all know we spend a few minutes each morning pulling stuff out of our pedestals and a few minutes each evening chucking it all back in there. Great use of time, oh management clean desk police. So the Management Easy Option is to make everyone remove all signs of humanity and *also* waste time moving all useful things off your desk each evening and drag them out each morning, rather than occasionally check what people leave on their desk and, when Cherry has left details of the latest dodgy plan to hide details from the FDA on her desk, give her a seriously hard talking to.

In one job I did not have desk pedestal, I had a locker – “Over There” at the other side of the office where my first allotted desk was. It took two or three trips each morning and end of the day to sort out my stuff and keep my desk “clean”. At least I docked it off the 8 hour day…

 

So having moaned about a few of these Easy Management Options that, in my opinion, are detrimental – how do you ensure Dave is Productive? Now, this is a complex and challenging idea and I am not sure some managers will understand it. But, the way you can tell if Dave is productive is that…

He Does His Job.

He completes the tasks assigned to him in the time frame that is reasonable or informs you of the reasons why the tasks are taking longer. If Dave’s role includes scooping up issues and solving them autonomously, you know Dave is doing his job as the end users are not screaming at you. In fact, if as a manger you are barely aware of Dave existing, either he is doing his job exceedingly well or you employed him to do a non-existent job (so more fool you). The bottom line is that, as Dave’s manager, your job is to to aid Dave do his job, overcome obstacle and track that his tasks are done.. ie be a proper manager, not rule by Easy Management Options.

Bottom line, to get back to my first paragraph or two, it matters not one jot how fast Dave types. If (s)he is in the office for the meetings and any core hours needed, fine. So long as a member of staff is not doing things that negatively impact their ability to do their job or those around them to do theirs, there are few blanket rules that help. All those Easy Management Options simply exist to cover the backsides of poor managers and satisfy the desire for control that comes from HR and upper management. Neither of which *Ever* abide by the rules they lay down on others.

Break free! Type slowly! Put a picture of Debbie Harry on your desk. Work from home and Go Crazy spending an hour in the afternoon combing the dog. Just make sure you do your job. In my book, that makes you worth your pay. Is it really so hard to manage people in that way?!?

(*) I have yet to meet a lady called Dave, but Dave is simply my generic name for someone working in IT. No real Dave is implied. But both sexes are.

Friday Philosophy – Why is my Manager a Moron? June 20, 2014

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour.
Tags: , ,
4 comments

We’ve all been there. We are trying to do our job, get the work done, fix people’s problems and make the systems we work on better. But our manager is a Moron. How can we do what needs to be done with that idiot in charge? How did they get to be the manager?

Why is my manager a Moron?

The simple answer is that he/she probably is not a moron at all. But you have to blame someone for things not being the way you want them:

  • You could lay some of the blame with your co-workers (especially Richard, Richard’s are almost always pretty useless 🙂 ) but you are all in this together, right?
  • The clients/customers are idiots of course, we all know that, but those problems are usually more to do with identifying what needs doing (and the clients should be handled better by that idiot in charge).
  • You could blame the people below you but you might not be in a position to do that (see later).
  • You certainly can’t blame yourself can you?
  • So that leaves the moron manager.

There are of course managers who are poor managers, and even some who really are not that smart and should never have been put in charge. They get there due to a number of reasons, such as being in an organisation where you get promoted just for having been around for a certain length of time. Or because they play golf with the right people. Or have had carnal relationships with their superiors…. But many people become managers because they were simply the best out of a limited choice or they simply did not run away quickly enough.

And of course, there are good managers.

One thing I have become aware of over the years is that the loudest and most persistent critics of managers tend to be those who have never managed anyone or anything themselves. I came across one chaps a few years back who was constantly complaining about his manager, his manager’s manager, his previous manager. They were all stupid, they all had no idea about the job, all of them were lazy. I asked him how many managers he’d had “Dozens! And they were ALL Idiots! All of them!”.

All of them? That seems very unlikely. Guess what. He had never been a manager of anyone or anything. And was unlikely to ever be a manager as all the current managers (a) disliked the complaining little sod and (b) knew he would be a nightmare manager, let alone a moron one.

Now that I’m old and bitter, I tend to be a lot less critical of managers, especially if they are at a level or below where I’ve managed at any point (I’ve managed teams, projects, managers of teams and, for a little while, a chain of 3 levels down – so senior middle manager I guess). The reason for my leniency is I have some understanding of what being a middle manager does to you.

  • You get told stuff that is not to be passed on and decisions are made for reasons not to be divulged. Which only makes you wonder what stuff and reasons are being kept from you by the management layers above you…
  • You are told to lie to your staff about things. Which only makes you wonder which of the things *you* are being told are lies.
  • You have to make decisions about limited resources and opportunities – I can only give one person a promotion so do I promote the best person or the one who will complain the loudest if passed over? I wonder if I should shout louder to my manager about my salary?
  • About the only time your minions come and see you it is to complain, tell you stuff is wrong, let you know that they want time off at short notice for {spurious reason – that is actually they have a new girlfriend and a terribly strong need to spend a week with them in a tent in the Lake District}.
  • You can see ways you could improve things but it is blocked by your manager, who is a Moron.

The bottom line is your manager is probably acting like a Moron – as they are too stressed out by being a middle manager to function properly any more and are constantly being sniped at by you, telling everyone (s)he is a Moron.

Yep, it really is your fault.

So stop complaining, do your job, give them some slack, stop slagging them off and take your manager to the pub for a pint, they need it. And if they are still a moron in the pub then, sorry, you’ve got one of the real Morons.