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The Fall and Rise of the ACE Program August 26, 2022

Posted by mwidlake in ACED, Perceptions, User Groups.
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As the title of this post indicates, something bad happened to Oracle’s ACE program. Really quite bad.

But it is now being fixed – and the fact that Oracle admitted it had made a miss-step and is correcting it can only be applauded. In my experience Corporations tend to be quite poor at admitting they messed something up.

I’ve intended to write something about the whole sorry mess for a while but I held off as it felt like kicking a friend when they were down. But the ACE program is now coming back and I think there are some interesting things to learn, or at least think about, in respect of what happened (and is happening). And I wanted to record it as my own reminder of what happened.

First of all, if you do not know what Oracle’s ACE program is, there is a summary to the left. Fundamentally, it is Oracle’s program to recognise skilled people who communicate about Oracle.

The ACE program has had it’s ups and downs and it has evolved over the years, but basically it exists to recognise and, in some ways support, non-Oracle-employees who try to show the community how to get the best out of Oracle. It is a community outreach program with the inevitable taint of marketing that comes with any vendor-sponsored program.

So What Happened?

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020 it had a massive impact on everything, including the Oracle community. A key part of the community has always been User Groups, conferences & meet-ups – and Covid-19 meant we were not doing those anymore. (For example see this Post about UKOUG postponing the Irish conference in March 2020). The ACE program did what it could to help the community continue and basically pivot their events to being on-line & remote. Webinars via Zoom & Teams replaced in-person events.

Maybe it was this Covid-19 change that prompted something, I don’t know, but in the spring of 2021 it was announced by Oracle that the ACE program was being overhauled – and the Mother Hen of the program was no longer in charge. A lot of us long-term ACE members were not too happy about losing our Mother Hen, especially the way Oracle went about it (Oracle, like many US companies, really can be utterly awful when it comes to their staff. Do you know how much holiday US employees don’t get?). Someone I will refer to as Crazy-Beard man was taking over. I did not know this initially but Crazy-Beard man had the ear of someone powerful in Oracle and Crazy-Beard man had apparently made a bid for the ACE program. This was an aggressive takeover of the program.

Well, OK, the ACE program was moving and being put under the DevRel community and we ACEs could do nothing substantial about the shoddy treatment of one member of staff (though some of us made our feelings known). Maybe the ACE program would now get the staffing and financial levels it needed to boost its impact? (It had been clear to many of us for years that the ACE program never had the resources it really needed to manage several hundred members, especially given what hard work some of us presenter Prima Donna types can be). Maybe this change would be good for the program? Let’s wait and see.

It wasn’t.

Everything stopped. The news letters, the communication, the interaction. We just got the same webinar month after month… after month – “It’s all going to change! And it’s going to be really cool!! And it’s going to be exciting!!!!! Whoooop!!!!!!!” And the tone was as I just indicated, it was like watching a pop-culture Tik-Tok program for teenagers.

After a few months of nothing but “It’s going to be cool!” ACEs started asking what was actually going on. When would any of this new stuff happen? Or, even, any of the old stuff? When would outstanding ACE nominations be processed? When would we hear about new Oracle offerings? What was the rest of the community doing? But all we got were more occasional webinars where we were told again how “cool” it was going to be. And how exciting… And, well… whooop. Yeah, whooop. But nothing really concrete was offered. Except for the odd thing, like anyone was going to be able to be an ACE. Huh? What the hell is the point of a program to recognise significant contribution if everyone can be a member? What you are proposing is a chat channel, not a recognition program.

ACE members asked “when will you have something, anything, actually happening? Some real, tangible part of this cool, exciting, whoop you keep selling to us?”. The reply was just empty blather about working really, really hard to get things ready. I’m sorry, most ACEs recognise bullshit when we smell it. Working “really, really hard” generally means floundering about desperately looking for quick wins.

This new DevRel team had also totally misjudged the tone to use with the ACE program. Most ACEs have been IT professionals for a couple of decades – or more. We like fun, we like social interaction, most of us like a few beers at a conference bar. But jokey job titles and blatant efforts to fake “cool” that might be OK with the sub-30’s are not going to mesh with us. OK, we could maybe live with that naïve method of communication . But what was far worse was that the new people running the ACE program clearly had no clue what the ACE program was, who we are, what we do. Crazy-Beard man seemed to think we were all DBAs. Some of us are, most of us are not. C-B man did not even recognise the “Oracle Names”, the people who are famous in our little world for talking about Performance,APEX, Security, SQL.

So it seems the new people had done virtually nothing to get to know anything about us ACEs. If they had sat down with Mother Hen for a couple of days and talked with her about the program they would have improved the situation hugely, but they seemed to regard everything that had gone before as wrong and to be burnt to the ground. This was brought into sharp focus when an ACE and well known member of the European Oracle community (she chairs the European Oracle User Community for goodness sake) tried to contact C-B man and got no response, at all, from several attempts. Eventually a bunch of other people prodded him and asked him what the hell he was playing at.

In the Pit Of Nothing.

So there we were. All ACE program activity was on hold, the only communication was empty posturing, the tone was wrong, the new people in charge knew nothing about us. Nothing was happening.

Only something was happening… ACEs talk to each other. We gripe, we complain, many of us act like the old men in the box on The Muppets, but that is just the world-weary cynicism we use to hide that we really care about the Oracle community. And we hated what was happening. And most of us were detaching from the ACE world. I took ACE off all my social media and I even wrote an “I resign” letter. Most of us present and talk and blog and teach because we want to do those things. We became ACEs as almost an accident of that. We don’t need the ACE program. It was nice to be ACE, it was a badge of honour and some of the things the program had done were helpful. But fundamentally we were active in the community as we wanted to be. Being recognised as ACE was just a nice pat on the back really.

Another thing that was happening was that some of the more engaged Oracle Product Managers and community-centric people in Oracle, especially around the core database tech, had also become very uncomfortable about what was happening with the ACE program. These people within Oracle could see this palpable shift by the ACE community towards antagonism. I’m friends with several of these people (as are a lot of the people in my world of EU/US speakers & conference organisers) and these PMs were talking with us and echoing back into Oracle the growing alarm bells.

We ACEs were not happy and our friends in Oracle were not happy. But at least we knew things could not get much worse with the ACE program.

Oh boy, were we wrong.

The Meeting From Hell.

Oracle brought a new person into the DevRel team to look after the ACE program. I guess he had other duties too but the side we saw was he was to be the main person for our community. I’m going to call him “Tony Wheeler” as he came from the automotive industry and his whole attitude was that of a second hand car salesman – someone who thinks he’s nailed sounding sincere but actually he can’t fake it. What we call in the UK a “Wheeler Dealer”.

{Note, I had to correct this bit, I originally said the person who organised this meeting was from DevRel, my bad}

A senior lady from the database area realised this whole situation was now an utter mess (she also stepped in to make sure Mother Hen was done right by). She organised a meeting between the new ACE program owners in DevRel and the ACE community, so we could have a frank discussion. It was brave and I think it was totally the right thing to do. But I don’t think anyone predicted how badly the meeting would go…

The meeting started OK. We had some more of the blah blah about how things were “going to change and be cool and be great, and Whoop!” – but unlike all the prior one-way traffic of earlier webinars, this was a proper two-way discussion and the ACEs were allowed to speak. The ACES quickly made the point, calmly but with a tone of considerable frustration, that this “it’s going to be great” had been the case for ages now, but nothing was actually happening. And, frankly, what was so wrong with what the ACE program had been doing before it all stopped in early 2021? And this total lack of any activity by the ACE program was a real hinderance to our communities.

Tony Wheeler said this is what he wanted, he wanted to hear our passion and what it was we felt was wrong. So some of the ACEs (myself included) told him what was wrong. It boiled down to “It wasn’t broken, but you broke it anyway, and then promised cool/great stuff – none of which has materialised. Please just put back what worked and then plan the New World Order.

Tony did not like that.

When he said he wanted to know what we felt it turns out he did not like what we felt. Tony had lied.

Tony went on the offensive. He told us we were afraid of change and everything the ACE program had been was shit (he literally said “shit” or “crap”, I can’t remember which) and he was tearing down the shit and making it better.

He told a bunch of 200+ people who have made their careers on constantly learning the latest stuff in technology that we were afraid of change.

He told 200+ evangelists for Oracle, many of whom explain Oracle’s cloud offerings, that we were stuck in the past.

He told 200+ people that the program we’d known for years and were pretty happy with was trash and we had no clue how shit it was. His Oracle employee badge was barely dry but he was happy to burn the whole past down to the ground.

Wow. This guy was a badge-wearing psychopath.

Our social media groups flared. It was bad enough on the official meeting chat channel but in our twitter groups, DMs etc the scorn was heaped high. Yes, we were angered, but the main reaction was derision. This buffoon Tony Wheeler, with no idea who we were, had rocked up and tried to insult us for not being willing to accept what was new. Friend, most of us got onto this program exactly because we work on, fundamentally understand, and described what was new.

And he also told us the ACE Program we liked was shit and the people organising it in the past were shit. He was brand new to Oracle Corp but he “knew” what had been before was shit. He also thought we were all DBAs (*sigh*). When it was pointed out we wanted the “shit” back and he could take his promised new world order and shove it he basically lost the plot. And the argument. And any respect. I’ve never seen someone burn bridges so fast in my life as he pretty much insulted everyone on the call.

To make it worse Mother Hen was on that call. I can tell you, whilst Tony Wheeler was bad mouthing the old program there were dozens of us on Twitter, the meeting chat channel, DM’s to her, everything, expressing our outrage at this and our support for Mother Hen.

I can only assume this tactic of bad-mouthing the existing way of doing things had worked for Tony Wheeler in the past. Tell people who oppose him that they are scared “of change” and can’t move forward and attempt to burn everything in the past. It’s like a dictator running a scorched earth policy in a war. It never ends well.

I missed the very end of the meeting (I had a family commitment that took priority) but I’m told it was pretty much closed down by the senior database lady who called it, in shock.

I have only one last thing to add in respect of the Meeting From Hell.

Tony Wheeler asked me early on to feed back to him personally what they were doing wrong, what they should start doing again, how they could undo some of the damage. And I agreed to do so. People who know me well know I can fly off the handle and be very negative in-the-moment. But, if I have the opportunity to sit down and gather my thoughts, I’ll do my best to put together something honest but positive. I had said to him I would do this thing so, despite my real anger about him and the whole situation, I put down on paper (well, virtual paper) some thoughts on how things could be improved and sent it off.

I never even got an acknowledgement. The spineless bastard asked me to put my effort in to helping him save what he had messed up and he never even said “thanks”. He might think he knows people but, man , he does not.

So I forwarded a copy to a couple of other people at Oracle – people with a better attitude, just as a record.

The Positive Outcome

That bonfire of a meeting sent shock waves bouncing up and down the management structure in Oracle. It’s one of the very few events I am aware of when the community reaction had an impact on Oracle, though I also know that the internal backlash by Oracle PMs and others to the meeting was also fierce.

Tony Wheeler’s behaviour had been totally unacceptable. His lack of professionalism and his ability to alienate pretty much everyone else involved sealed his fate. He went. I know nothing of the details but it’s like he was sent “swimming with the fishes”. If I ever come across him again I will point-blank refuse to engage with him. He is on a very special list of only about 5 people in my whole career who I will simply not tolerate.

Crazy-Beard man is now out of the DevRel group, but still in Oracle. Maybe I missed it but I never saw anything from C-B man admitting he messed up, let alone apologising, which is a shame . I continued to follow him for a while on Twitter (keep your friends close, keep your not friends closer and all that) and whenever he appeared I wondered what he had taken away from this. I won’t say I’ll never respect him, but he’s going to have to do something pretty bloody high-end awesome for me to see him as a positive force now. Maybe saving baby kittens in Ukraine would do it for me.

Mother Hen, who had been snapped up by the core database group, has been given back the ACE program. It’s a work in progress, so much damage to fix and also there were already things she knew needed improving. I’ve had some nice chats with her, I really hope she gets the support she needs to get the ACE program back on track.

The head of DevRel admitted it had gone badly wrong and needed to be fixed, and committed to making that happen. That admission of fuck-up is, in my experience, almost unheard of in the business community, I hope Mother Hen got a bloody good pay rise out of this.

And in the last week or two the Oracle ACE program has re-launched. It is mostly as it was but with a few changes, and I think more changes will take place while also keeping things working.

Lessons To Learn

This post is already too long but I promised we could learn from this.

The first thing is Communication. It is *vital*! I think it is the absolute key thing to any community at all, be it tech, work, personal, anything. Empty or lying communication is poison, you will be found out and it will erode your community like acid.

The second is “do not make a bid for something you do not understand”. You will kill it. C-B man made a play for a group he did not appear to understand, he certainly did not know the key players and how the ACE program worked, and he (or people working for him) killed it. It remains to be seen if dedicated people who were badly treated can resurrect it.

Third is tailor your communication to your audience. Don’t try and be Tik-Tok & youth to a bunch of people who are mostly parents to those who might appreciate your naïve attempt, and would rather you all just acted your age. No one likes the Corporate Executive who tries to use teenager slang to appear cool, all the teenagers know it is fake – and they are using last year’s slang anyway.

Fourth is do not hire bullshitting arseholes. And if you do, never let them run free in a meeting with external people.

Fifth is, if as a corporation with an outreach program you mess up, your only real workable option is to apologise and step back. I’ve never really seen a corporation do that as they are invested in never admitting a mistake. In this case Oracle did admit the mistake with the ACE program and reset. I’m going to give them some kudos for that.

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Postponing Ireland Conference – & Maybe Myself? March 5, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting, Private Life, science, UKOUG, User Groups.
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As I tweeted a couple of days ago, I never thought I would write something announcing cancelling an event due to a worldwide pandemic. And yet that was what I was asked to do earlier this week (first week of March 2020). It will be interesting to look back at this in the future and judge if it was a wise decision or an over-reaction. At present, I am 100% for Wise Decision.

This week UKOUG decided that, in light of the impacts & concerns around the COVID-19 coronavirus, to postpone this year’s annual Irish conference we hold in Dublin. I thought it would be interesting to some of you to know a little of how we came to that decision.

Firstly, this was a joint decision made by the event committee, the UKOUG board, and the UKOUG senior management. Discussions around the topic of COVID-19 and  had taken place between some of us over the prior 24 hours and the event committee had decided that, in their opinion, there was a strong case to not hold the event at this time. They discussed this with the UKOUG senior management and our CEO decided this deserved an emergency board call. This board call would not just consider the event in Ireland but also our future events, our staff, and our members. (In this post I’m only talking about the Irish event, but enough to say that we are taking steps to protect our staff and consider future events and how they might impact our members & the public, plus how we may replace physical events with remote ones).

Secondly, as you can see above, this was a considered decision and not a knee-jerk reaction.  We had people who live in Ireland involved, we considered feedback we had received from partners/sponsors and also delegates. We talked with the venue. We looked at factual information about COVID-19, it’s communicability & mortality rate (how easily you can be infected and how likely you are to die respectively). In the end the decision was easy as we were all in agreement, we needed to postpone the event.

Thirdly, there were several factors behind the decision to postpone OUG Ireland.

Public Concern

We had several presenters pull out from the event. For most their employing company had banned non-essential (or even all) travel, and some had decided that they personally did not want to risk exposure. A couple of sponsors were in the same situation of being told they could not attend. Further, we had concerned delegates contacting us asking if the event was still on or what steps we were taking. Some cancelled coming, again a mixture of diktat from employer or a personal decision not to attend.

Interestingly, we were getting as many new delegates signing up for the event as dropping out, so obviously some people felt COVID-19 was not an issue.

We knew we had enough speakers in reserve that we could call on to fill agenda holes but we also could see that more and more events were being cancelled across Europe and more companies were announcing travel limitations, so the cancellations were likely to escalate on the run-up to the event. What happens months ahead, no one knows, but for now the public concern is very, very high.

I considered titling this section as FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt. But FUD is usually a derogatory term indicating a baseless over-reaction. I think there is a lot of FUD going on in the general public, but people in IT tend to be smarter than average and more balanced. I think it is very reasonable to be concerned to some degree and, as you will see at the end of this piece, the concern will vary depending on your personal circumstances. For some people (e.g those with Asthma or similar decreased lung capacity) there is a significant increased personal risk from this specific illness, it is not always a case of a simple “I’m worried about a pandemic”.

Financial Considerations

With the best will in the world, user groups needs money to put on events. There is a commercial aspect to this. Putting on an event that fails and loses money is a danger. We at UKOUG do insure our major events against Force Majeure, basically events beyond our control, but we are like all user groups in that we walk a tightrope of finance.

Cancelling an event does not always save any money as it has already been paid out. But if a sponsor gets a poor experience in return for their sponsorship £/€/$ they are not happy (and neither are we as the organisers). If delegates come and the event feels like an empty room or the agenda is not what they want, they may not come again. As you can see, it is complex

I have to say that for Ireland we benefit from an excellent relationship with our venue, we have held the event at the Gresham in Dublin for several years and our committee & office know them well. They reduced the potential financial impact on us by offering us flexibility in re-arranging this event.

I make this point as some user groups (and of course, other companies) putting on public events in the near future may find that they have no such flexibility. For them cancelling a conference could actually kill the user group financially or result in individuals losing a lot of money. Did you know that sometimes it is individuals or a very small company that is bank-rolling your usergroup events?

For some user groups the financial consideration will be far more acute than it is for UKOUG.

Public Health

This is not the same as public concern. Public concern is about the actions people take in response to a danger or threat. Public Health is about the actual, real threat.

At present you (yes, you reading this) are almost certainly in more danger of being murdered, killed in a road accident, or dying of normal ‘flu than of dying from COVID-19. And have been all year. And yet none of you stopped living your normal life because of those threats. Most people who will think they have COVID-19 over the next month will actually have either a standard cold or normal influenza. And in fact 90% or so of those who catch COVID-19 will not be that ill. Medical testing is the only sure way of knowing which disease you have had.

But COVID-19 spreads relatively easily via fluid contact – droplets in the air through coughs & sneezes but, more commonly, similar dampness on hard surfaces by people touching their mucous membranes (think eyes, nose, and mouth) and then door handles, surfaces, smart devices. You then touch these surfaces and then your face and you have transmitted the disease to yourself.  Prevention methods are all about constant washing of hands and avoiding touching things. Face masks do diddly squit except if you are in the situation where people might cough in your direction (so medical staff) or to help prevent you coughing the virus out and infecting others. I find it somewhat ironic that in some places so many people have rushed to wear face masks to protect themselves from others but actually it will be doing more to protect others from them.

COVID-19 also has a higher degree or mortality than ‘flu. It stands at about 3.4% at present, compared to 0.1% for standard influenza. I’ve seen arguments that “the real rate is lower as it kills mostly old people or those with underlying conditions”. Well, of COURSE it kills those groups more, that is true for all other diseases. Influenza mostly kills the old, the very young, and the at-risk. That 0.1% is measuring a similar spread of deadliness as the 3.4%. If you get COVID-19 you are something like 30-40 times more likely to die of it than if you get typical influenza. An oddity of COVID-19 is that it does not seem to affect babies and toddlers as much as influenza does. So this new disease is overall more dangerous to adults, especially older adults, than flu than the basic figures indicate…

The mortality rate has increased from around 2% to 3.4% over the last month. Why? Mostly as people are now aware of COVID-19 and deaths will be correctly attributed to it rather than wrongly to other, similar things (like ‘flu). It’s almost certainly not getting more potent. In fact, we might expect the mortality rate to drop as people with a mild version of the disease were probably not being recorded or were being wrongly diagnosed, so the total number of cases would be a lot higher. I expect this figure to drop below 2% for countries with a good health service and no unusually high elderly population.

So what are the chances of holding a user group event and someone infected with the disease coming to the event? Very, very low. The number of known cases outside China are, as a percentage of the population, sod all. But if someone infectious does come to the event? Catching COVID-19 (and in fact a lot of people catching it and it becoming a new source or widespread infection) is quite high.

For those of use who look at project risks it is a very low likelihood/very high impact risk. Something like a hard disk overheating and setting fire to the server. I’ve had that, by the way.

So far the steps taken to keep this disease from spreading are proving effective at slowing it down. But it is spreading. I personally think it is going to get worse before it gets better. Maybe a lot worse, and I am pretty cynical about most “we are doomed” news stories.

Large Oracle user group events are more of a risk than say a big party. Why? A lot of speakers and exhibitors come from geographically distant places, so you are bringing people together from a large area. These people travel a lot and meet a lot of people. It increases the risk. At a party everyone is probably local and if there is no one local with the disease, you are safe. Safer.

This is partly why I was very much in favour of postponing the Irish conference, it had an enhanced risk associated with it as we had an international contingent coming.

What makes me feel qualified to think this? I am not a medic and I am certainly not an epidemiologist (someone who studies disease spread), but I have the advantage of a degree in genetics & zoology and many years of working with the National Health Service and biological academia (some of it on disease and immunology). I am not an expert, but by accident of my history I am better informed than most.

These factors made Ireland too much of a risk, even if the likelihood of something bad happening was actually very low.

Smaller events are less risky and, at present, will go ahead. But all will be reviewed.

 

People want the event

The final factor is that people want the event. Either they do not think the risk is real or they feel that they will be OK anyway as they are young(ish) and healthy or “fate” or whatever. So they will come to the event anyway and cancelling it is “giving in”. Lots of large sporting events are now being cancelled (such as come 5 nations rugby matches) and I am sure a lot of fans are not happy about this. But these are exactly the mass gatherings of disparate people that will really help to spread COVID-19 and create a true epidemic.

In some ways, cancelling a large event could be seen as protecting the ignorant 🙂

 

Maybe Myself?

In the title I mentioned I might need to postpone myself. Why?

At the moment I am an At Risk person. 3 months ago I was in intensive care attached to the most powerful ventilator the NHS uses which does not need the patient to be knocked unconscious and a tube put down into the lungs. In fact, shortly after I was admitted and I was deteriorating, it was expected that I would probably be put into a medical coma and mechanically ventilated. I’m generally fine now – but my lungs are still damaged and recovering. I had influenza & pneumonia. I’ve been asked by a couple of people if I could have actually been a very early COVID-19 case? No. It was not known outside China at the time and lab tests identified the exact strain of influenza I had. If I had been diagnosed with an unknown strain I’d expect the sample would have been re-tested, but this is not the case.

I’m no more likely to catch COVID-19 than any of you, but if I do catch it I am more likely to be at the 3.4% end of things due to the slowly healing lung damage. This is another reason I have paid extra attention to the science behind COVID-19.

I probably should have cancelled my trip to Ireland before the event was postponed, but I was in that last area of consideration. I was not thinking it would effect me and I wanted to go to the event. In the last few days I’ve been advised by people who are clinically qualified that airports & public transport are not a good idea for me. My wife has expressed a desire for me to not give the whole intensive-care-kept-going-by-machines thing a second go as it stressed her. And the cat.

Smaller events I will probably still go to as the risk is lower. And events where everyone is local and there is no signs of the disease there. I really want to go to a meeting in Poland where this will be the case. But to get there I have to go through airports. Full of people from all over the globe. Hmmm.

Personally I am expecting more events, both user groups and generally, to be cancelled. Part of me thinks they should be, the very small risk of a very bad impact is not worth learning a bit more about some software – and you all know how passionate I am about learning.

I think I should be more mindful of the risks myself, but then am I over-reacting?

And I think COVID-19 is going to spread more and kill more people before prevention steps and, eventually, treatment is developed to keep it in check. But I really hope I am wrong on that.

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!

Controlling The Presentation Monster (Preparing to Present) November 18, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in humour, Perceptions, Presenting.
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As I covered before, nerves before a presentation are not a bad thing. In fact, many excellent presenters/performers recognise that those butterflies of anxiety are necessary to make your presentation really sing. But you need to control the Presentation Monster. You need ways to reduce its malevolence to a level you can handle so that you are going from lion taming to annoyed-but-fundamentally-not-evil-cat training.

Presentation Monster Gonna Get You

Embrace the Emotion

As the linked-to post above describes, nerves before a performance (and presenting is a kind of performance) are normal. So the first thing to do is accept that you not only will be nervous/anxious/really wanting the toilet very badly but that, if you didn’t, your talk is probably going to be poor.

Just accepting that and knowing that the people you see presenting, apparently in an island of calm, are mostly faking it helps. If they can fake it, so can you. Some of the below will help you turn down the anxiety dial or, if there is a need, even turn it up a little to get you buzzing.

Practice, Practice…. Practice.

I know it sounds obvious, but this is so true. You need to run through your presentation several times and in the right way. And people often don’t do it well.

When I prepare a new presentation, once it is written, I want to run through it from start to finish, in real time, 3 times. This is where most people go wrong and they make one of the following mistakes:

  • They will spot a problem on a slide, for example some text is garbled or an image is too small. And they stop to fix it, and then continue the practice session. Well, you just stopped the flow of it all and any timings you do will broken. Don’t do this – if you are still correcting big mistakes then your talk is not ready for the practising step, small mistakes you can go back to once you finish.
  • As each slide flicks up they go “yeah, OK, I know what I am going to say” – and move on. Don’t. Say it. Imagine the audience, talk to them, include any anecdotes or side points you plan (or suddenly think of), and speak slowly. It is way better to be faster for the real thing than slower as most presentations lead up to a Big Point or the Most Interesting Bits at the end, and if you run out of time…
  • They never time it. How do you know this takes 45 minutes unless you have done it in 45 minutes?

Practice any anecdotes or jokes. Ideally you want them to sound spontaneous but, like sincerity, you can fake spontaneity 😄. You will know if you are the sort of person who will wander off topic or throw in something you suddenly think of. If you do, the speaking slowly during the practice is vital. And make the talk 5 minutes shorter. You know you can fill it. You can’t so easily drop content without it being obvious and dropping content usually goes down poorly.

Once you have done a presentation for real a couple of times then it gets a lot easier to repeat, but you really do still need to do a full run though before each time you present it. It is very common that presentations gain a little content each time you do them as people ask questions that you now want to cover or you think of things you feel you were missing the first couple of times you gave the talk.

The aim is to ensure that you know your material, you know it will fit, and you will not be surprised by a slide coming up when you don’t expect it.

Just One!

A Little Glass…

If you partake of alcohol, consider having a drink, ONE drink, about 1/2 an hour before you present. A glass of wine or a beer.

Why? Well, alcohol is a depressant, in that it turns down the nervous system a little (as opposed to making you sad and morose, which it can in larger quantities). It enhances the activity of a neurotransmitter called GABA in your brain. The end result is it relaxes you a little and it also slightly suppresses the social filters we have in our heads to stop us saying things we worry we should not say. It actually helps when presenting if you are a little more… open and verbose.

By having the drink half an hour before you present, it will be having it’s full effect as you get going. By only having one you are still in control. If you are having 3 beers or half a bottle of wine before presenting, you are probably doing this very wrong and should stop!

An alternative is to have a coffee before you present. The caffeine gives you a mild lift, makes you a tad more buzzy.  However, if nerves are a real problem for you, this might not be the best option. But if you want a little more energy, it can help.

Stop Messing With The Content Dave!

A few years ago I was at a conference, and the evening before it started I was having a drink and a chat with friends. Dave (not his real name, it was Rob) said he was going to tweak his demonstration for tomorrow. An early session tomorrow. I told him to leave it alone, the last thing you need is to stop it working. He agreed.

The next morning I went a little early to Dave’s session as I wanted somewhere quiet to drink my coffee. I was a little …tired from the bar the night before. Dave was already there. He was hunched over his laptop, typing like a crazed chimpanzee with a sugar rush, swearing.

“Dave – did you mess with the demo?!?”

“It won’t work anymore, I can’t make it work anymore!!!”. And then the audience arrived.

What followed was 45 minutes of high stress for Dave and a somewhat below par session for us.

My advice is change nothing just before you present. People who know me in the presenting sphere know this is advice I don’t always heed myself, I’ve been known to be in a talk before mine, quickly polishing my slides. And it is not a good idea.

The “demo that fails to work” is the worst case, but often you will see people present and suddenly say “oh, I thought there was a different slide now”. Or refer to something they had intend to say, but they dropped out the talk. Or re-ordered a slide and broke the flow or even logic of what they are explaining. And now they are flustered.

Do yourself a favour: by all means review your slides just before you present, I recommend that. But change nothing of substance. You will be a lot calmer. When you change stuff, a chunk of your brain is now tied up going “you changed the slide on mutating monsters, remember you changed the slide on mutating monsters”

Chat To The Audience/Friends Just Before You Start

I find this works for me, maybe it will for you. Hopefully, even if you are a new presenter, some friends will be in the audience. I find there are usually a couple of “dead minutes” before you present, especially at larger conferences. Time is left for people to change rooms and swap over laptops. You are either by the stage waiting or up on it staring at people as they come in, sit down, look at the agenda, leave again.

I use that time to chat with them (from the stage, I don’t mean go sit next to them and ask about the kids). A bit of light banter or just telling them to shut up and sit down. I might take a couple of pictures of the audience or comment on how early it is/close to lunch it is/too late in the day for this lark it is/did anyone see X talk/isn’t the coffee dreadful.

I’m not sure why this seems to help me, maybe it is acting to lower the communication barrier or, like if you are going for a run and jogging for the first minute to wake up the system, it eases you into it.

Post Performance Routine

How does what you do after you present help with your presentation? Well, because it is part of the whole experience. Your enjoyment of presenting is to a large degree down to what you got out of it the last few times. I have some friends who present that will be at the side of the stage before they start, adamant they are never doing this stupid thing again. But they do so as they know that, despite the fact that the Presentation Monster is currently feasting on their liver, over all they get something out of presenting.

I know some people who really want a quiet beer after presenting. I tend not to go to another session directly after I have finished one of mine as I’ve realised I struggle to listen as I am too keyed up. I like to chill & chat to people or check social media, usually with a coffee and also some water.

I recently asked around and it seems to be pretty common for people to have a post-presenting routine and it is usually around calming down and letting the adrenaline that comes with a performance ebb away. One person I know has to go pee a couple of times. Maybe it’s the beer before presenting.

Turning Up The Dial

Sometimes you might have the opposite problem. There are no real nerves or you are feeling flat before you present. That is not good as the adrenaline, the nervousness, that helps make you dynamic when you present. In this case I might turn the dial up a little.

I might talk myself into a little bit of anxiety – “What if they ask me about that bit I never looked into properly? Is the relevant product manager going to be in the audience?”.

I will probably have a coffee but I find the stuff does not do that much to me, but it might for you.

What I often do is add in a bit of new jeopardy. I’ll swap my intro slides to something new (or at least different) or slot in a new slide which is sort-of relevant. Or decide to try a joke early on that might not work. The most extreme thing I ever did was change my clothes (everything but the smallest items) on stage – using a huge banner to hide behind. I made the decision to do that only about 10 minutes before so I had to rush off and get the change of clothing too. That was the only time that I morphed the Presentation Monster from a kitten to a sabre toothed tiger, and it nearly got me.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is you want the Presentation Monster in the room, you want it a little hungry, but not ravenous and determined to have your liver for lunch.  You don’t want it to be any larger than you can handle with a good stick and a bit of determination.

UKOUG TechFest19 Survival Guide November 13, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Meeting notes, UKOUG, User Groups.
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Brighton, December 1st-4th 2019, Grand Hotel, Techfest2019. This is the big Technology event for the UKOUG this year, one of the largest Oracle Tech events in Europe.

All This And More

The UKOUG conference is traditionally the one to finish the European year of conferencing and it is always incredibly popular with both delegates and presenters. There are two things that are not traditional about this year’s UKOUG December conference:

  • It is Technology Focused. We asked our members when they wanted their annual conference and there was a strong split between Business Applications and Technology members, with many Business Apps members finding December a bad time to be out of the office and most of them preferring May/June, so we split the conference and the big Business Apps conference will be in June 2020. However, our Tech members wanted to stick to December.
  • The conference is in the South of England. Birmingham was our conference home for many years and we have been to Manchester & Liverpool, so time to try the South.

I’m really please we are in Brighton as it is a lively, fascinating place. Also, being that little bit further south, it might be less cold. Slightly!

Why Come?

Because there will be fantastic talks, round tables, Q&A sessions, experts to quiz, people with the the same technical challenges as you, Partners able to offer services and, last but not least, it will be fun!

Technical Content

The UKOUG conferences are very popular with presenters. On average we get 5 submissions per presenting slot, more for some streams. We could fill the conference with talks from Oracle ACEs, Oracle Certified Masters, and the best Oracle Corp offer. What we actually do is have stream-specific teams that select not just known speakers but also topics we know are hot, new presenters, avoid repeating content. It’s damned hard work but we aim to give you:

  • Independent experts who will tell you exactly how it is, like Richard Foote on indexes (all the way from Auz, so a rare chance to see him), Frank Pachot from CERN, Security guru Pete Finnigan, Abigail Giles-Haigh, Craig Shallahamer, Jonathan Lewis, Zahid Anwar, Loneke Dikmans…
  • Oracle giving you the latest information “from the horses mouth” and, just as important, the chance to meet product managers and other experts. People like Maria Colgan, Mike Deitrich, Jeff Smith, Nigel Bayliss, Susan Duncan
  • 9 or more concurrent streams across Development, Analytics & Data Science, Database, Systems & Infrastrructure, and APEX. No matter what your interest in the Oracle Tech world we hope your problem will not be “is there a session of interest” but “which session of interest do I go to now?”
  • Roundtable discussions, panels, keynotes, presentations – and the chance to meet the experts around the conference and at the socials

The arrows should not be taken as indicative of any specific type of fun…

Fun

Learning stuff at conference is the name of the game, but so is having some fun. The more enjoyable the conference and the social times after are, the more you you will get out of the content. I know from personal experience that if a conference is just information and being serious, after a few hours my brain shuts off.

Also, it’s when you are more relaxed that the magic thing about attending an event in person happens – you meet people and get to know them better. This opens doors to industry experts, you find people dealing with the same PIA technical issues as you, you exchange war stories. You make friends. I get just as much (if not more) from the people I meet at conference than the official presentations.

Monday evening there will be networking drinks, Tuesday will be the big party (and I’ve been promised No Loud Music!!!). If you are a UKOUG volunteer or speaker, there is a drinks reception Sunday night. (I know of a couple of other events being put on by other companies too, such as Rittman Mead).

We will be having the retro games consoles scattered around the venue again.

And, we are in Brighton! Of course as the UKOUG President I would never encourage you to leave the conference hotel… But as a human being I would say go and look around Brighton, have a bit of fun! You might want to do what I am doing and be in Brighton a day or two before the event (or after) and really enjoy what the town has to offer.  Mrs Widlake is coming with me on Saturday so we can have a mini break.

One other fun thing – Mark Rittman is organising a gentle cycle ride Sunday morning. Details can be found {here},it will be a couple of hours via a cafe, prior to Super Sunday starting. I plan to take part.

Now, the practical stuff:

Getting There

Train

Basically, if you can get to London OK, you can get to Brighton just fine. Trains go from Victoria in under an hour, from St Pancras (very convenient if you come to London on Eurostar), London Bridge (both about 90 mins) and, if you live near Cambridge, you can get a direct train through London to Brighton. There is a direct service from Gatwick Airport taking about half an hour.

I’d strongly advise booking *now*. If you come down on Saturday or Sunday, it can cost as little as £15-20 from London, £40 from Birmingham, Bristol or Leeds.

If you don’t often travel by train just be aware that “open” tickets and booking only a few days ahead can be eye-wateringly expensive. Plan ahead, decide when you are travelling, and book ASAP.

Plane

The best international airport to fly to for Brighton is Gatwick, as there is a fast (1/2 hour) train service direct to Brighton for as little as £10. A taxi will take 40-50 minutes and cost that many pounds.

Heathrow is also sort-of on the same side of London as Brighton but you will either have to go into London to Victoria by the slow Tube line and then out on the normal train services to Brighton, or take the Heathrow Express (15 mins, about £15 each way) to London Paddington and take the tube Central Line around to Victoria.

If you come in to Stansted, basically get into London (Stansted Express) and work it out from there!

For Luton (and Stansted, sort of) Niall Litchfield says

If you are flying into Luton, don’t go into London and change. Take the shuttle bus to Luton Airport Parkway station (10 minutes) and take the direct train to Brighton. If you are going to Stanstead then you should consider your life choices!

 

Automobile

UPDATE – see comments by Niall Litchfield (again, helpful chap), a local who says to not drive in to Brighton as parking is so bad. He is 20 mins away and will take the local train. Best bet if you must is Park and Ride

It’s relatively simple to drive to Brighton. You go around the M25 to the M23 and down that, and keep going when it turns into the A23. I’m not so sure about coming along the more coastal road (A27) – I have bad memories of it taking ages to get anywhere.

But parking can be expensive. If you are not being provided parking by a hotel you are using or you plan to come in and go home each day then you might like to look at https://www.visitbrighton.com/plan-your-visit/travel-information/parking or similar. I’m no expert on parking in Brighton (I last did it 30 years ago) but I’ll ask someone local and update this accordingly. My one hint would be avoid NCP car parks – they are usually very expensive and, as a company, they are terrible. Ask anyone who commutes by train into London or any other major city and they probably hate NCP with a passion.

Walking/Cycling

Don’t be daft, unless you are local, in which case you know more than I do!

 

Under a month to go & lots of hotels available

Where to Stay

I’m afraid you missed the special deal to stay at the Grand (the location of the conference) but you might still be able to book there. However, at the time of writing (see image), there are many, many hotels available around Brighton and you might want to look at Air B&B for something cheaper.

I personally use Trivago to find accommodation but other websites are available. They should all allow you to what I do which is choose the lowest “comfort” level you want and the price range. I then use the map view as it makes things a lot easier than a list of hotels with no idea where they actually are!

I’m actually staying at the conference venue – as President I have a lot of duties so it makes sense for me to be on-site. I also know that there are a lot of presenters etc staying at the hotel so it should add to the vibe, but sometimes I specifically choose to stay a 5, 10 minute walk from a Conference, so I can get away from it all if I should wish. I find a 10 minutes stroll before a conference wakes me up and doing so after gives my brain a chance to turn off a little.

Coffee, Refreshments etc.

It’s been a problem for years at UKOUG conferences. Getting coffee (or tea or whatever) has been a real challenge as the venues always wanted a fortune to provide catering all day. Catering! Just hot drinks and maybe some biscuits! This year, tea & coffee will be available throughout the conference! I’m not guaranteeing it will be good tea and coffee, I’m not daft, but Brighton has a big coffee culture so I have hopes.

Water should always be available.

If your are a coffee snob (looking at one person in particular here) then, look, we are IN BRIGHTON! Go out the hotel and walk 2 minutes, you will soon find a hipster cafe and can get your double espresso skinny latte with raw cane sugar there. And in fact, yeah, do it! Pop out the venue for 10 mins and go to a local cafe. Or get an ice cream. Or, if you are inclined, a glass of wine and a cake. Cafe culture is all around you.

If you don’t like the provided coffee at the conference, don’t tell me. Tell me about other things that are right or wrong but, honestly, the quality of the coffee is not something I want to hear anything more about. This is the UK and it is an I.T. conference, the coffee is supposed to bad!

You will have been asked when you registered for the event if you have dietary requirements and this should be catered for. Vegetarian options should be provided at all meals as a matter of course. Any issues, as the UKOUG staff and they will sort it out for you.

At the social events there will be soft drinks as well as alcoholic ones. Some people like alcohol, some do not, it really is not that important if you drink or not. BUT if you find there are no soft options then let the UKOUG staff know immediately – we had a problem one year where the caterers only provided beer & wine and no one mentioned it for ages. They just got angry and slagged us off after the event.

There will be no secret whisky tasting this year. There never has been. It’s just a rumour. If whisky is not your thing then feel free to not bring a different thing to share at the non-existing tasting.

Chocolate. I’ve also not heard rumours about a chocolate tasting happening…

Other Hints

Go to at least one talk you know nothing about, that is not your core work area. You will probably learn something unexpectedly useful! You might even get a peak at a shift in your career.

Speak to the famous people. They are human, they are *just like you* (only, of course, much much smarter…). Honestly, just say “hi” or “isn’t it a shame about the Rugby world cup final” or “what bread do you like to bake?” (this is surprisingly likely to get an interested response from a growing number of speakers). Have a little chat. But also, please do not stalk. If you find yourself hanging about after a session to chat to the same person you chatted to three time already, you have become a scary stalker and need to stop.

If you don’t know many people at the conference, go to a panel session or a round table. If you can build up the courage, when you see a circle of half a dozen people chatting and you recognise some of them as “in your area”, go and join in. (And, if you are one of those people in a circle of mates, chatting, keep an eye out for people hanging about nearby looking nervous. I wish we did not stand in these circles, backs to each other, but I can’t think of a good way to break the circle.)

Take breaks. If you do 7 sessions in succession I am willing to bet nothing is going into the brain anymore. If you happen to find yourself talking with people just before a session starts and you are enjoying the conversation, maybe keep it going and have a coffee/water. I really do believe that those contacts you make/develop at conferences and the ad-hoc things you learn as just as valuable as listening to Connor McDonald bang on about SQL in his boring monotone again. He does rubbish slides.

 

 

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 🙂

I Wish All New Presenters Knew This (and it will help you): October 7, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Presenting.
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All people new to presenting need to know this:

Me presenting to a large number of people. Yes, I am nervous!

It’s OK to be nervous.

Nearly all those excellent presenters you see at conferences still get nervous. Being nervous actually makes you a better presenter. Embrace nervous. Nervous is your presenting best buddy!

The topic of performance nerves came up on a recent twitter chat I was involved in. Several well known presenters (in the Oracle sphere) all made similar comments, on how they have been doing this for years and that, though you get better at handling the butterflies in the stomach, they still bat madly in your insides before the show starts.

I won’t name names, but over half of the best speakers at UKOUG conferences (as measured by feedback scores) have confirmed to me that they still get nervous. And nearly all of them say the nerves help. Yes, help.

The degree to which you get nervous obviously varies from person to person and if, rather than nerves, it is fear so bad that you want to throw up, then presenting is probably not for you. I say probably – I know of a couple of people personally who seriously wonder if they can do it without losing their last meal, each and every time, and yet they still present. But for most of us presenters the nerves are there. Even those who seem totally at peace, smile warmly as they start, and have not a trace of quiver in the voice – they are nervous.

The first time you present is of course special. You don’t know how you are going to do, you worry.  Will you forget something, will someone have a pop at you, will you freeze, are you an idiot impostor who does not know your stuff? Well, actually those thoughts do remain with many of us, even after years of presenting. But actually, they are baseless fears. Let’s just cover them off:

  • No one knows what you are going to say, so if you forget something then 95% of the time no one in the audience will notice. And if they do notice and ask, well say “Wow! Yeah! Thanks for that, I must say something about…” and off you go.
  • You may well hit a point when you freeze. The next slide comes up, you look at it and realise you have no idea what it is about. In fact, you might suspect it is not even your slide… and for an age you stand there like an idiot, people knowing you forgot… Only, what seems an age to you is about 3 seconds – and the audience think you are just pausing to let them catch up. There really is a massive difference between the pause you experience and the pause the audience does. In fact, one thing I have learned over the years is that I *should* pause occasionally. It makes a better presentation.
  • You know your stuff, you picked the topic. If you really do not know your stuff you should not present. But you do not need to know every last detail and gotcha. If you can tell a work colleague about the topic or, better still, describe it to your mum (other relatives will do) you are fine. And part of why many of us continue to present is, we learn things through presenting. If someone raises a point you did not know, acknowledge it, make sure you understand it – and carry on.
  • No one has a pop at you. When did you last see a talk when someone belittled the presenter? And if you have seen this rare event, you know it is the person having a go who you did not like.

Oddly enough, I’m not trying to stop you being nervous here. I want you to be nervous – but at a level of nervous that is not crippling. You see, those nerves are crucial to you. They are energy and you use that energy to give your presentation an edge. If you do not have some emotion, some drive, then your talk will probably be flat. People I know who perform (play in bands or act ) all say the same – without the nerves, their performance loses something.

Those nerves, that mild (OK, maybe not that mild!) anxiety has a measurable, biological, scientifically understood impact on you. Several hormones are released into your body, including adrenaline and oxytocin, and these hormones “turn up the dial”. Your heart pumps faster and harder, your physical strength increases, you become more aware of your surroundings. Your reaction speed improves and, in some ways, you get smarter. You become the best you for dealing with things – like an audience.

Humour is the most challenging aspect of presenting for me. So I use it.

The degree of nerves also varies from talk to talk. I think I suffer from “The SCARY presentation monster” (as my friend Neil Chandler put it) less than many. If it is a technical talk I have done several times I can pretty much jump up on the stage and do it with barely a flutter of insect wings inside. But if I am doing a new talk or, ever so much worse, it is intended to be a humorous talk, then it is bordering on fear for the few moments before I start.

Over the years I have noticed something about my talks. If I am not nervous at all, I tend to do an OK job. It’s fine. I explain the topic, get the information across and everyone is, well, they’re OK with the talk. Sounds bland? That is because it was bland.

If I do a talk and the nerves are there, then I do either a great talk or a poor one. 90% of the time (I like to think!) it is a great talk. The best talks I have done have all been when I am screaming inside “Why in hell am I doing this!”. I did something more like a performance than a talk in Poland 2 years ago. It is probably the closest I have ever been to doing stand-up comedy – and before I started I could have just walked out the venue, it was the worst case of nerves I’ve had in 13 years. I think it was the peak of my presenting career and people said really nice things about it after. I now actually seek out a certain level of anxiety when I present. If there are no nerves before I get up, I will make myself think about what could go wrong, just to turn up that dial a little and make me better prepared to perform.

Nerves before presenting are natural and normal. Handle them, control them, but embrace them. As I said, Nervousness is your presenting best buddy.

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:

OUG Scotland – Why to Come & Survival Guide June 12, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes, UKOUG, Uncategorized, User Groups.
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The UKOUG’s Scottish conference is on the 21st June in the centre of Edinburgh, at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, not far from Edinburgh Castle in the centre of the city.

Picture from viator.com, who do tours etc

 

The Event

There is a six-stream agenda covering Database, Apex & Development, Platform & Services, Coud Apps, EBS Apps tech, and Business Analytics/systems & EPM, so pretty much the whole breadth of Oracle Tech, Apps and BI. We have a keynote by Oracle’s Caroline Apsey on the Bloodhound Project, the UK-based group trying to smash the world land-speed record with a 1,000mph rocket car – and solve lots of engineering challenges on the way. And uses the Oracle Cloud. I’ll be sure to see that one.

With 6 all-day streams there are a lot of presentations to choose from, but as a taste of what is on offer I’ll mention Jonathan Lewis talking about stats, Heli Helskyaho explaining the basics of machine learning, and from Oracle we have Grant Ronald on AI-driven chatbots, Hilary Farrell on the new features of APEX 18.1, and Keith Laker on JSON & SQL. The talks are a nice mixture of end-user experiences, recognised experts and Oracle themselves. UKOUG is independent of Oracle so although we are very happy to have Oracle support us, we have talks that are not just what Oracle are currently pushing. This is what I love about user group meetings, you get the whole story.

As a member of the UKOUG this event is free, counting as one of your SIG places. If you have run out of SIG places, you can buy an extra one at £85 – or upgrade your membership of course 🙂

If you are not a member you can pay £170 to attend the event, which is pretty cheap for a day of Oracle conference when compare to many other events of the same size around Europe. However, if you become a bronze member of the UKOUG – which comes with a SIG place, so you can come to the event – that will only cost you £165! Contact the UKOUG office for any help.

(note, all prices do not include VAT, which is 20%. A UK company can usually claim this back).

 

Social

I’m sure there will be a good few people travelling up the day before the event so there is a social being organised. This will be in the Shakespeare Pub from 19:00, which is not far at all from the Sheraton hotel. I’m afraid that you will have to buy your own drinks etc, but I’ll be buying a round at some point.

I have to run away back home before the event itself ends, but there is a social event in the hotel after the presentations, in the exhibition area, starting at 17:25.

 

Edinburgh

Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities in the UK – and actually in the world. I’ll be turning up Wednesday afternoon so I can have a wander about the city before joining the meetup the evening before the conference and, if I had the time, I’d be going up sooner or coming back later. If you have time, a wander up Royal Mile to the Esplanade gives fine views over the city. Having looked at the nest of roads and alleys of the old town in front of the castle, it is only a few minutes to the New Town with it’s contrasting, rectangularly laid out, Victorian grandeur. In the old town I love the camera obscura just off the Esplanade, the  Dynamic Earth museum at the bottom of the Royal Mile/Holyrood road and, if I have a couple of hours, I’ll wander up Arthur’s seat – a small “mountain” (the remains of an ancient volcano),180+meters of ascent in the centre of Edinburgh. Views are spectacular. Unless it rains.

Getting There

Train

The venue is about a mile from Waverley train station in the centre of Edinburgh, half a mile or so from Haymarket. Intercity services go to Waverley.

It is not as expensive or as far away to get to Edinburgh from London as you might think. At the time of writing trains from London Kings Cross are 4-5 hours from about £42 each way. And the route is gorgeous, running up the East coast with views out to sea. Sit on the right side of the train on the way up! To get travel at that cost you do need to pick your exact train and book ASAP. You will end up at Waverley station right in the centre of Edinburgh.

Travel from other cities in the UK will be similar, but cheaper. Apart from Birmingham maybe. I don’t know why but there seems to be a “tax” on leaving Birmingham!

Getting to the Sheraton from Waverley is still easy, there are buses and trams. If you have time, you come out of Waverley, cross North Bridge, go up the Royal Mile and down Johnston Terrace. It’s a one mile walk and you can take in the view from the Castle Esplanade on the way.

Tram

If you are heading to the Sheraton hotel by tram, you should get off at West End stop, take Canning Street then bear left onto Rutland Square. Walk past the horse statue and across the footbridge to turn left on Exchange Square. The hotel entrance is on the right.

Car

Even though I live in the South of England, if I had a day to do it I’d drive up to Edinburgh and stop off at places along the way. If you are local-ish to Edinburgh and the trains do not work for you, I’m told it may be best to head for the multi-storey carparks at Castle Terrace or Semple Street. But driving into Edinburgh can be a bit of a pain.

Plane.

I’ll be coming in by plane as I live very close to Stansted Airport. It is costing me £21 each way with Ryanair (Ack!) and there are several flights a day to chose from. You can also fly from Luton (£48), Gatwick (£60) or Birmingham (£70).

The Edinburgh tram system now runs out to the airport so getting in by tram is quick and easy, in shiny, modern trams. If my memory of the roads is still accurate, a taxi will take a lot longer, as well as being more expensive.

 

 

I hope some of you can join me at this great event in this lovely city.

Riga & Romania, Zagreb & Zurich: It Sounds Rockstar but Really it’s Not May 10, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Meeting notes, Presenting, Private Life, User Groups.
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I’ve spent a lot of time over the last month or two trying to plan how to navigate a set of visits to the Eastern side of Europe. This might sound a little “My Glamorous Lifestyle” but, as my friend Tim Hall (he who is “Oracle-Base”) has documented in his posts under “my glamorous lifestyle”, doing the Oracle talk circuit often entails lots of hours in airports & stations, travelling with cheap, basic airlines, and sometimes a lot of stress. It is not the “Airport lounge and first class service” some people think it is. Anyway…

I’m visiting cities in the orange zone

All three venues are at pretty much the same longitude, about 25 degrees (that is to say, the same distance “East” of the UK). The first trip is to Riga in Latvia, where I am presenting at Riga Dev Days 2018. This is my first time at Riga Dev Days and in fact my first time in Latvia. Sue has never visited Latvia before so is joining me for a long weekend prior to the conference – they have a millinery (hat) museum in Riga! (If you do not know, my wife makes some very nice hats)

The last trip is to Romania, to present at a the Romanian Oracle User Group meeting. I was asked if I would consider this by Mirela Ardelean at the UKOUG conference last December and my response was “Hell yes! I’ve never been to Romania before and I love being asked! Besides, I don’t think Sue has been to Romania yet…” So, another weekend as a tourist with my wife before a speaking engagement. Bucharest is pretty much directly South of Riga.

I’ve had these two in my calendar for a while and, though the trip to Romania was a little fluid for a while, I knew I could do it easily – there are cheap, direct flights to both from London Stansted airport, which is just a few miles over the fields from my home.

Riga hat museum 🙂

And then things changed. I became UKOUG President elect (and, a lot sooner than I expected, full president) and there is a meeting of European Oracle user groups in Zagreb, Croatia, in a date between the two user group events I was doing. I felt I needed to be there – I think all the European user groups have stuff to learn from each other and the UKOUG board supported this position.

I now had a three-week period with large chunks “over there”. I looked at flights, times, costs, hotels… It was not working. Getting home to the UK in that period with at least 24 hours at home was going to be very, very hard. I looked to see if train transport or even a hire car would help. No. But carrying enough personal stuff to last three weeks was also hard work. Even if I did weird things like popped into other countries by train or travelled at antisocial hours, the cost was making my eyes water. Each trip itself was OK if based on a simple “UK and out/return” basis. But together, it did not work. Moving between each country was not a smooth process and going home to the UK was even worse…

Then Sue made a suggestion. Don’t go “home” – go to see your wife – via Zurich!

That worked!

In the middle of all these trips I can pop back to Zurich and by train to Basel, and see Mrs Widlake. And wash my dirty clothes. It seems crazy, but adding another leg to what was already a frenetic travel plan made it all doable. So now I am going Stansted-Riga-Zurich-Basel-Zurich-Zagreb-Belgrade-Bucharest-Stansted.

Bucharest

Why do I do all of this? Because I love what I do as a vocation (UKOUG, presenting, the Oracle Community) and I love what I do as a Husband (she currently works abroad, I go visit, she visits back, and we meet up in random countries across Europe). For both I travel cheap as I am either spending the salary of my wife or the funds of a User Group. Both are limited and I try to keep costs down. Especially on the latter.

I really wanted to fit in a trip to Bulgaria as well, to go to the BOUG spring conference, but I really just could not make that work as well. That will have to be next year, if they will still accept me.

I already know I will be knackered by the end of this tour, but that’s OK – I will have time to recover. That would be 48 hours before I go to Valencia for a holiday “with the boys”. Followed 48 hours later by a trip to Scotland to be UKOUG President at the Scottish UKOUG conference.

I might take July off to sleep….