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Nice Social Media Profile Picture! Oh… Err… September 30, 2016

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

A few (months/weeks/days/hours)* ago I saw a friend request on Facebook. I looked at their profile which indicated that they were kind-of in my technical arena and the profile picture made me think “Wow – that’s an attractive person!” and I was about to click on the accept button.

And stopped.

I only friend people on Facebook who I know. By that I mean I have either met in real life and liked or have had a LOT of contact with through social media with and liked. People who I think, if they turned up delayed at Stansted airport at midnight and needed a place to sleep, I’d go pick them up and bring them home to stay in my spare room.

This person did not pass this criterion. I was going to add them to one of my social media cohorts based on a superficial, image-based reaction, based on a pretty weak “they mention Oracle and DBA in the profile” and a much stronger “that’s a nice looking lady”. Whether this is Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, whatever – it struck me that if I am adding people based on looks then that is the wrong reason and is “appearanceist”. When I link to someone on LinkedIn it is supposed to be all about “are they in my area of I.T.” not how hot they are. But I do notice that attractive people, especially ladies, seem to get a lot more followers. That made me think about the whole tricky subject of whether we are allowed anymore to comment on someone’s looks, what is sexism, how some people get ahead by being attractive or even get held back by it.

I could now write a long, meandering, and probably pretty much worthless analysis of that decision not accept the friend request and why. But I will keep my point brief. I’ll just state three thoughts and three brief paragraphs:

1) How often do we socially link to someone based on their physical image?
2) Is this wrong?
3) How often do we attempt to improve the physical appearance of our own online profile picture?

I am guilty of 3. I have Rosacea – a long-term reddening of the facial skin a bit like teenage acne. I don’t really like it so I use an older image of myself for my profile picture. I know that many people use a photo of themselves from when they were younger (sometimes a lot younger) or one taken by a professional photographer to show themselves in the best (and let us be frank, atypically flattering) light. i.e. a picture to make us look more handsome/attractive than we really are.

If we all accept that, especially on a professional level, we should all be judged on what we do & who we are as opposed to our physical appearance – why are we so careful of our own online physical appearance?

If we falsely manipulate our own online physical image have we have any moral basis for criticising anyone who uses their good looks to gain exposure, acceptance or advantage?

So my premise is, if you manage your own image you have to accept others doing so and, to some extent at least, lose the right to object to anyone making judgements based simply on physical appearance. Can I now feel justified in only hiring women who I personally find attractive ? (I don’t find many men attractive, sorry guys).

I’m sure many of you feel that combing your hair, putting on nice cloths and perhaps using a touch of make-up is absolutely nothing like using a salon hair stylist, most of Max Factor’s product line and slightly revealing clothing to get a job. But where on that spectrum is OK, where isn’t and how are you making that judgement call?

A final thought. I did not link to the person who sent me the Facebook request as they were, in my opinion, attractive and I would be doing so for the wrong reasons. Was that morally strong or morally weak? In this case I would like to feel the former as I use Facebook only for established friends. If this was in, say, LinkedIn which I use totally on a professional level, if I did not link to that person as I felt I was doing so partially influenced on their looks… That’s a very interesting take on positive/negative discrimination. Especially if their image turned out to be old…

(*) I get so few Facebook friend requests that if I stated when I saw this one, the person I think is attractive might realise who she is and then I would be very British Reserved uncomfortable around her🙂

Friday Philosophy: Be A Hero – OR Be The Best August 26, 2016

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

There is a crisis! The database is not responding, the apps can’t work and the business is suffering. Management are doing what management are there for – panicking and demanding “Someone Do Something!!!”.

Step forward a DBA who logs into the server, checks the alert logs, spots what is wrong and fixes it. The database starts processing requests, the applications are all working fine and the business is back on track. What a hero!

The Mantra of the DBA Hero

The Mantra of the DBA Hero

Such situations are not just the preserve of the database and the DBA of course. You get the hero System Administrators who step in and sort out the lack of storage space at 3am. Or the programmers who look at the code that has been running slow for weeks, that others have not been able to fix, and make it run in 5 minutes rather than 5 hours. All heroes who then bask in the gratitude of management and colleagues. Thank goodness for the Hero Developer/DBA/Sys Admin or whatever. You even get articles and advice on how to be The Hero in some quarters. I’ve even seen job ads like “Are YOU our next Developer Hero?!?”.

Only, 9 times out of 10, whatever was wrong should never have occurred. Yes, there are always going to be hard-to-predict failures or unavoidable catastrophes. But the majority of situations I have seen when the database goes seriously wrong, a critical program messes up badly, or a server goes offline, it is down to something that could and should have been spotted before hand – or never set up in the poor manner that it has been. These are things like Archive Redo log areas filling up, an “innocuous” network tweak taking out a major connection or a data processing program that goes wrong if it is run with no data to process. Just a little bit of thought or testing will avoid these sorts of issues.

As you get better at your role, and I mean really, truly better and not just older, you learn about better ways to do things. Either you make mistakes yourself and have to fix them (the best way to learn, even though it does not often feel like it), correcting something someone else did poorly or you read about how to set up systems to be more fault tolerant. You become more experienced with the tools and you grab hold of any new features that are going to make the systems run better. I’d hope we also all learn skills and working practices that help avoid disasters, such as proper testing methodologies (something that we seem to get less and less time & resource for) and proactive rather than reactive monitoring of our systems. If I am owning a database and it unexpectedly runs out of space for the data files or archive redo – I failed. The database did not, I did – as I know how to set up checks for those things.

The best technicians (in my opinion) that I have worked with are all like this. They don’t monitor for things that have gone wrong so much as monitoring for things that are going wrong. Every week or month they will change something that was OK – but it could be better, more resilient. The end result is a much quieter life and a substantially better service provided to the business.

But that’s where the rub is. That’s where things become unfair. When you are being the Best DBA or the Best Developer, things just work without a fuss. There are no disasters that impact the business and thus no need for The Hero. The systems run smooth & fast and management figure you are probably not doing that much. Heck, you seem to be spending all your time tinkering rather than fixing stuff! They often don’t get that the “tinkering” is what stops the disasters and the need for Heroes. That can lead to a lack of appreciation for what you are doing and it is extremely hard to see someone get praise for fixing an issue that they should never have let happen and even getting a pay rise and you get just a “yeah, thanks for, like, keeping the lights on I guess”.

I had this in spades in one role. I turned up and the critical databases would all be going down once or twice a week. People just accepted it. I worked on the problems, got my team together (and trained them!) and improved the service. For a couple of years I was a card-carrying member of the cape and spandex pants club. I was a Hero. We provided more services and incidents became very rare. And then they decided I was not doing enough. No problems were occurring so what did they need me for? After I calmed down from that (it took a few months) I decided I agreed with them and left. But I left behind a fantastic team and rock-solid systems. {It actually took me years to stop resenting the way they handled it, to be fair, but I never stopped being proud of what I did and that team}.

blowing you own trumpet can help - a little

blowing you own trumpet can help – a little

So what do you do when you are being the best you can and not the hero and, as a result, you are fading into the woodwork? Well, I advise people to do several things, some of which you can see from a slide (taken from my “disasters” presentation) shown to the left. Record the number of incidents and how they go down as you improve things. Document improved up-time and better performance (which might be the same response time under higher workloads). Generally blow your own trumpet. However, it never seems to be enough to counteract the prestige people get from being the hero. It’s not “Right” but it just seems to be the way it is. I know some people take the other approach, which is to actually let (or even create?) disasters in which they can be heroes. After all, this is your career.

One fix is to just move on. After all, in the situation I described above I had actually completed my job – I had been hired to put in place a professional service and I did. So it would have been best if we had all been grown up and decided it was job done and time for me to move on. As a contractor/consultant this is a lot easier to do. Turn up at a client, be a hero for a while and then do your real job of making the systems solid. And then move on.

But not everyone has that luxury to move on. There may be few opportunities where you live or you would lose other aspects to your job that are very important (good child care is one example I have seen). Or moving roles might be something that gives you a lot of stress. So if you are “stuck” in your role and you are doing the best that you can, it is massively demoralising to fade into the woodwork as a result. What is the reward for all your work – pride and less interrupted nights are good but not getting the credit you deserve is hard.

But in the end I think you have a choice. Be a Hero or be The Best You Can Be. I have to aim for the latter, I can’t knowingly allow disasters without trying to at least warn management it could happen. And if you decide to be the best you can be perhaps you have to accept that, unless your management is very unusual, it may well mean less respect than you deserve. But *you* will know. I suppose it is a pride thing.

Are you a Hero? Or are you Simply The Best!

Friday Philosophy – Tech Writing Is Like Religious Art July 8, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Blogging, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, writing.
Tags: , ,

I’m putting together an article for Oracle Scene at the moment – I’ve delayed it for a couple of issues as we wanted the space for other tech articles, but my time has come. And I’m finding it very hard going. Why?

I’m not an expert on religious art (or religion… or art) but one thing I know is that with religious artifacts, especially things like sculpture, furniture, and plaques, they often differ from non-religious art in that the back of them is as well done as the front. I.e. if there is an ornate plaque to be created and put on the wall of a secular building, all the effort goes into the front. The back is likely to be simple or even rough. With a religious plaque, the chances are that the back will be just as well crafted as the front.

The reason is that God can see the back of it. God will know if you skimped on your devotional art to him/her/them. The whole piece has to be of quality. If it’s a secular piece then no one generally sees or cares about the back and, if someone was to try to take your plaque off the wall, you’d smack their hands and tell them to leave it alone.

When I present, teach or (to a certain extent) blog I mostly care about what my audience will see. If I do a demonstration script I can put it up, show the results and move on. The chances of you actually running the script are low so it does not matter if I had to tickle things a little (fiddle with the SGA settings, alter my session, pre-warm my cache) to get it to work as intended. Similarly I can tell you the message I have and not worry too much about the messy details (but IO have to be ready to answer any awkward questions).

But with something written and published, which is going to be there for a while and people can refer to it and test it all out with ease – you can all potentially see “the back of it”. This raises my normal fear about making mistakes in public to the level of paralysing paranoia.

There you go, I think of you all as Gods. That’s a nice place to finish the week, don’t you think?

Friday Philosophy – Brexit & the Misplaced Blame Culture. July 1, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,

This is not going to be a rant about Brexit and how the selfish, stupid and simply fearful were led by a jingoistic & deceitful bunch of career politicians to show the worst side of the UK. Well, maybe a bit… It’s more about something that struck me about Brexit in respect of who is to “blame”. And there are aspects of this that are echoed in our own industry.

I feel that there is a strong element of “the chickens coming home to roost” with Bexit. By this, I mean things were done by our politicians and our media that unintentionally led to this fiasco – and a lot of those who are presently supposed to lead the UK, who are currently dismayed at the Brexit vote are, in fact, partially responsible.

For years UK politicians have blamed the EU for many of the woes and issues in the UK. We’ve constantly been hearing how “Brussels will do this” or “The EU will force us to do that” or “we can’t do what ‘we’ want as it is dictated by the EU”, painting the EU as a distant evil that reaches out it’s fingers to damage our nation. The media is even worse, the endless stupid and easily disproven stories of bent bananas being banned or bar maids not being able to show cleavage just being used as a way to sell papers or get ratings. Often, what the politicians have said about EU legislation is at best a misrepresentation of the situation and, at worst, an outright lie. But it shifts the blame to some distant group who is not going to fight back.

The end result is that for many people the message has stuck. If you look at the various graphs of which areas voted for brexit and indicators of education, there is a strong correlation with high Leave vote and low Education. It’s not scientific, but listening to the opinions of those shown by the media who wanted to leave or stay, you’d not expect a team of leavers to beat a team of remainers in a quiz. The easily swayed were swayed.

So when our politicians show utter dismay at the vote for Leave then they should be considering the number of time they attacked the EU, blamed it for stuff in an attempt to absolve themselves of blame and, most importantly, knowingly lied for political gain. The out-going Prime Minister spent years using the EU as a monster in the corner he was fighting for “Our” benefit and gaining concessions as the UK was so important. All to help improve his standing or shift the blame away from his government. It is part of what made his campaigning to stay in the EU such a hard pill for many to swallow. To cap it all, one of the main campaigners to leave, Boris Johnson, started back-peddling on the claims he had made and supported before the counting had even finished.

Why do I think there is something similar in our industry? Well, how often have you rung up a company to complain when things have gone wrong – and been told “it’s the computer”? I suspect that many of you, like myself, often suspect it was not “the computer” as it does not makes sense for whatever the problem is to be down to “the computer”. It might be someone messed up entering data into the computer and, sometimes, it really is that the computer system has gone wrong. But, just like with the EU, “the computer” is seen as a nameless, distant and out-of-our-control entity that blame can be easily shifted to, partly as people will now just accept that it is “the computer”.

Two instances stick in my mind about this “blame the computer” attitude. Once, a few years back, was when there was a brief spell where my wife was having outpatient visits to a hospital. We had a holiday booked and knew it would clash with the appointment next month – but the specialist said this was fine and to book 2 months ahead. The receptionist did not see it this way, a holiday was no excuse and she would book us in for the next month and we would have to cancel. (??? yes I know, not her decision to make). I challenged this and told her to just book it. She still refused and when I insisted she check with the specialist – she still refused, saying there was no point as the computer system would not allow it. I reached over, tapped a single key and the next month’s schedule was up on her screen. I’d taught people how to use that system. Her whole demeanor screamed that she knew she could skip a month and had been caught out. She had no trouble now booking the appointment and pressing the correct key to get back.

The other was when I actually caught one of my own team taking a call from an irate user and they, a computer programmer, said “the computer’s down so I can’t do that”. The system was not down, it’s just he did not know what the problem was and so cited the “evil box” explanation. I was really pissed off with him, one of the few times I actually lost my temper and went a bit postal on one of my people. “If you, of all people, wrongly blame the computer then how much is that damaging trust in our systems?”.

I’m not sure quite how the “blame the computer” is going to harm us in the same way as “blame the EU” has, but I can’t help but feel that whenever we try to shift the blame from what we control to a remote and blameless entity, we are at risk of “the chickens coming home to roost”.

One last thing. I know very few young people in the UK will read this but, for any who do: A lot of us older people also voted remain, just not enough. I’m sorry that, as a group, we older people voted for a future that you, as a group, you younger people did not want. Remember, don’t trust rich, old people. Or anyone who says “I’m not a racist but…”

Friday Philosophy – The Singular Stupidity of the Sole Solution April 22, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, Exadata, Friday Philosophy, Hardware.
Tags: , , ,

I don’t like the ‘C’ word, it’s offensive to some people and gets used way too much. I mean “cloud” of course. Across all of I.T. it’s the current big trend that every PR department seems to feel the need to trump about and it’s what all Marketing people are trying to sell us. I’m not just talking Oracle here either, read any computing, technical or scientific magazine and there are the usual adds by big I.T. companies like IBM and they are all pushing clouds (and the best way to push a cloud is with hot air). And we’ve been here before so many times. It’s not so much the current technical trend that is the problem, it is the obsession with the one architecture as the solution to fit all requirements that is damaging.

No clouds here yet

No clouds here yet

When a company tries to insist that X is the answer to all technical and business issues and promotes it almost to the exclusion of anything else, it leads to a lot of customers being disappointed when it turns out that the new golden bullet is no such thing for their needs. Especially when the promotion of the solution translates to a huge push in sales of it, irrespective of fit. Technicians get a load of grief from the angry clients and have to work very hard to make the poor solution actually do what is needed or quietly change the solution for one that is suitable. The sales people are long gone of course, with their bonuses in the bank.

But often the customer confidence in the provider of the solution is also long gone.

Probably all of us technicians have seen it, some of us time after time and a few of us rant about it (occasionally quite a lot). But I must be missing something, as how can an organisation like Oracle or IBM not realise they are damaging their reputation? But they do it in a cyclical pattern every few years, so whatever they gain by mis-selling these solutions is somehow worth the abuse of the customer – as that is what it is. I suppose the answer could be that all large tech companies are so guilty of this that the customer end up feeling it’s a choice between a list of equally dodgy second hand car salesemen.

Looking at the Oracle sphere, when Exadata came along it was touted by Oracle Sales and PR as the best solution – for almost everything. Wrongly. Utterly and stupidly wrongly. Those of us who got involved in Exadata with the early versions, especially I think V2 and V3, saw it being implemented for OLTP-type systems where it was a very, very expensive way of buying a small amount of SSD. The great shame was that the technical solution of Exadata was fantastic for a sub-set of technical issues. All the clever stuff in the storage cell software and maximizing hardware usage for a small number of queries (small sometimes being as small as 1) was fantastic for some DW work with huge full-segment-scan queries – and of no use at all for the small, single-account-type queries that OLTP systems run. But Oracle just pushed and pushed and pushed Exadata. Sales staff got huge bonuses for selling them and the marketing teams seemed incapable of referring to the core RDBMS without at least a few mentions of Exadata
Like many Oracle performance types, I ran into this mess a couple of times. I remember one client in particular who had been told Exadata V2 would fix all their problems. I suspect based solely on the fact it was going to be a multi-TB data store. But they had an OLTP workload on the data set and any volume of work was slaying the hardware. At one point I suggested that moving a portion of the workload onto a dirt cheap server with a lot of spindles (where we could turn off archive redo – it was a somewhat unusual system) would sort them out. But my telling them a hardware solution 1/20th the cost would fix things was politically unacceptable.

Another example of the wonder solution is Agile. Agile is fantastic: rapid, focused development, that gets a solution to a constrained user requirement in timescales that can be months, weeks, even days. It is also one of the most abused terms in I.T. Implementing Agile is hard work, you need to have excellent designers, programmers that can adapt rapidly and a lot, and I mean a LOT, of control of the development and testing flow. It is also a methodology that blows up very quickly when you try to include fix-on-fail or production support workloads. It also goes horribly wrong when you have poor management, which makes the irony that it is often implemented when management is already failing even more tragic. I’ve seen 5 agile disasters for each success, and on every project there are the shiny-eyed Agile zealots who seem to think just implementing the methodology, no matter what the aims of the project or the culture they are in, is guaranteed success. It is not. For many IT departments, Agile is a bad idea. For some it is the best answer.

Coming back to “cloud”, I think I have something of a reputation for not liking it – which is not a true representation of my thoughts on it, but is partly my fault as I quickly tired of the over-sell and hype. I think some aspect of cloud solutions are great. The idea that service providers can use virtualisation and container technology to spin up a virtual server, a database, an application, an application sitting in a database on a server, all in an automated manner in minutes, is great. The fact that the service provider can do this using a restricted number of parts that they have tested integrate well means they have a way more limited support matrix and thus better reliability. With the Oracle cloud, they are using their engineered systems (which is just a fancy term really for a set of servers, switches, network & storage configured in a specific way with their software configure in a standard manner) so they can test thoroughly and not have the confusion of a type of network switch being used that is unusual or a flavor of linux that is not very common. I think these two items are what really make cloud systems interesting – fast, automated provisioning and a small support matrix. Being available over the internet is not such a great benefit in my book as that introduces reasons why it is not necessarily a great solution.

But right now Oracle (amongst others) is insisting that cloud is the golden solution to everything. If you want to talk at Oracle Open World 2016 I strongly suspect that not including the magic word in the title will seriously reduce your chances. I’ve got some friends who are now so sick of the term that they will deride cloud, just because it is cloud. I’ve done it myself. It’s a potentially great solution for some systems, ie running a known application that is not performance critical that is accessed in a web-type manner already. It is probably not a good solution for systems that are resource heavy, have regulations on where the data is stored (some clinical and financial data cannot go outside the source country no matter what), alter rapidly or are business critical.

I hope that everyone who uses cloud also insists that the recovery of their system from backups is proven beyond doubt on a regular basis. Your system is running on someone else’s hardware, probably managed by staff you have no say over and quite possibly with no actual visibility of what the DR is. No amount of promises or automated mails saying backs occurred is guarantee of recovery reliability. I’m willing to bet that within the next 12 months there is going to be some huge fiasco where a cloud services company loses data or system access in a way that seriously compromises a “top 500” company. After all, how often are we told by companies that security is their top priority? About as often as they mess it up and try to embark on a face-saving PR exercise. So that would be a couple a month.

I just wish Tech companies would learn to be a little less single solution focused. In my book, it makes them look like a bunch of excitable children. Give a child a hammer and everything needs a pounding.

Wednesday Philosophy – A Significant Day (but only to me) April 20, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, history, off-topic, Private Life, working.
Tags: ,

Today is a significant day. Well, to me it is – to the rest of you it’s just a Wednesday in the latter half of April, in the mid 20-10’s. Because we count in 10s (probably due to the number of flexible pointy bits on our front limbs, but that is a much debated argument) we have “magic” numbers of 10, 100, 1000 and multiples thereof. As geeks we also have 2,4,8,16,32 etc. And as nerds (but nerds who appreciate certain literature) we have 42. But today is not significant to me for any of those magic numbers.

Today I have been classed as an adult for twice as long as I was classed a child. 2/3rds of my life ago I hit 16 (which means I hit 48 today) and I was legally responsible for my own crimes, allowed to have sex as I saw fit & get married (which suggests those 2 options were open to me at that point – but if you were a lady and met me back then, neither was likely!) And I was allowed to smoke cigarettes – though the age limit for that has since changed to 18 in the UK. And drink in a pub – so long as someone else bought the booze and I was having a meal.

I could also leave home, get a job, draw benefits or join a group that was legally allowed to shoot at people, or in turn be shot at (armed forces – and yes, I know they do a lot more than that). But, best of all, I could have ridden a moped, a lawn tractor (oh yes, yes, yes!) or flown a glider.

In reality, many of the above still needed parental consent and you truly become an adult in the UK at 18 (so I could write almost the same stuff as this in 6 years’ time too), but back then it felt like you were stepping out of shorts and into long trousers. Except for girls. They tended to step out of skirts and into shorter skirts, if memory serves. (If anyone thinks I’m being sexist, when I was 16 the girls were half a decade more mature than most of us boys and they *did* all start raising their hem lines). And I still wear short trousers when I can get away with it.

At age 16 I also chose what subjects to study for my “A” levels, the exams we do in the UK which help decide what college courses we can go for. I chose all sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) and threw in maths (not “math” mind you – though I’ve never been able to decide which contraction is more silly; we don’t do “Econ” or “Econs” ,”chem” or “Chemy”). I did the physics just so I did not have to do this waste-of-time subject called “general studies”, that no one could tell me was of any use for anything but seemed almost mandatory. No, I never did find out if “gens” ever helped anyone get a job, career, college course or anything. Anyway, it turns out it was a wise move as I was found to be useless at maths at “A” level but pretty good at physics. Who knew? All I knew was I was going to be a surgeon or a scientist. Or maybe a coroner, I quite fancied being a coroner. Well, that worked out as planned, eh? I’ve never put my hands on a living brain, never extracted a dead brain and never tried to work out how a brain works. I’ve just created a few small brain-replacement tools to allow people to use their brains for more interesting stuff.

A key thing about 16 for me was that most of the people who were not academic or decided they would rather try and earn an income rather than sit in school rooms anymore left school at that age, and that included a large swathe of the floor-knuckle-scraping thugs who had made the last couple of years at school such a deep, deep joy for me. A few of the goons stuck around as there was very little work around back then (thank you Margaret) but the worst of them went off to… oh, I don’t know what they did, but as I did not see them generally around I think a lot of them ended up in prison or in factories where they were kept out of society’s way for 8 or 10 hours a day or something happened to them to stop them being arseholes. For me, 16 was when I started to actually enjoy life more.

I’ve changed a lot since I was 16 and of course the world around me has too. The career I’ve ended up having is nothing like I expected I would back then – and has in fact been, to a large extent, using stuff that did not even exist back then. Computers were around, but they were not common. Relational databases were more theoretical than practical and as for the internet & smart phones, you had to look at Sci Fi to see anything like that. Maybe it is a good thing I never planned a career given how much things have changed. I wonder if we should be teaching today’s 16 year olds to not even think about a career but more think of how they can make the most of whatever comes along. ‘cos it’s all gong to change.

I wonder what the next 1/3rd will bring for me and what I’ll be up to when it has become 1/4th.

Friday Philosophy – You Lot are Weird April 8, 2016

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

I mean this in the nicest way, but some of you lot are weird. I’m not aiming this at individuals (though there of plenty of “personalities” amongst you) but at whole damned countries.

One thing about social media is that when you tweet, blog, facebook or whatever – you are potentially communicating beyond your own culture. This is especially true when you are doing so to a community that is spread across the globe in the way I.T. is. Maybe most of you think this is blindingly obvious {perhaps as it is} but although I think of myself as intelligent and aware – for the first 2 or 3 years of blogging I hardly considered that some of my audience would not be from the UK and thus not understand any cultural references I made about television, books, sport, the importance of a cup of tea and a biscuit. After all, why would people in the US or Australia or India care what some guy in the UK had to say?

I think I avoid that particular error more these days but I still have to occasionally remind myself that the majority of my audience “ain’t from these parts”. The largest portion of my audience is in the US – which makes sense as there are quite a few people over the other side of the Atlantic pond and a heck of a lot of IT companies. India and my home crowd come second (swapping places from month to month), and after that come several European countries, Australia, Russia and, for reasons I am not sure of, Brazil.

We have some variations across our little nation and of course individuals often do not match their cultural stereotypes but, all the same, people in Britain tend to be pretty British. When I started presenting abroad, I was conscious that I was going Over There and so I tried to use less colloquial language and make allowances for the audience not using English as their first language. But I think I remained oddly culturally unaware for a while – and it still catches me out.

What I mean about this is, sometimes, on occasion – you lot get on my nerves. You annoy me. A whole nation’s worth of you. Because you are jolly well not being British! A recent blog post by Dan Kim about not being an XXXX Ninja reminded me of this. I really have no time for people saying they are “Road Warriors” (thankfully almost a dead phrase now) or “SQL Ninjas”, “Java Master”, “Database Gods” or similar “Huh! Look AT ME, I damned well ROCK!!!” self-labelled self-grandioseing twaddle. Americans are terrible for this, the uncouth lot that they are {though Dan is from the US and does not seem very fond of it – as I said earlier, individuals always vary}.

Of course, the issue is not so much with our American cousins as it is with me. British culture, at least the bits I hang about in, is currently still rather against blatant self promotion or even making a fuss (well, not a loud fuss – we are brilliant as a nation at passive-aggressive fuss). Whereas many people in the US hold the view that you should be proud of what you can do, the things you have achieved and you should stand straight and tell the world. It’s simply a different way of being. They probably think a lot of UK people are stuffy, repressed and have sticks up their backsides. Which is pretty accurate for some of us🙂

Apparently, in Japan (I have to say apparently as I have never been there), when you are listening to someone you show respect by remaining quiet – and this extends to concerts & gigs, which can cause bands not used to it to have some issues. A crowd that does not go nuts at the end of a song (let alone during it) is just… wrong. But they go nuts at the end of the concert. {If I’ve fallen into quoting a national stereotype that does not exist, please let me know}.

Something I have encountered personally is people in Northern Europe being very direct, ie people will simply say “you are wrong about that”. To me that used to come across as rude. You are supposed to tell me I am wrong in words that don’t actually say I am wrong! “I think you might not quite understand” or “well, that is another way of looking at it”. That to them seems bizarre and, when you think about it, it is bizarre. You should just be able to state your opinion, no offence taken.

Personally I find it is not the cultural differences in language or references to shard experiences that are hardest to acclimatise to, it is these cultural changes in behavior. I have to constantly remind myself that if someone is being rude or impolite or over reacting I should first consider if that is only true when compared to my culture, and not theirs. Of course, I can only do that if I have a clue about what is normal for their culture, which is why travelling Over There to do presentations or bits of work is so helpful.

Sometimes they are being rude. Culture is not the issue.

Of course, the single, largest area of cultural difference that bothers me is beer. Lager is fine cold, cider is jolly nice cold. Real ale should be a few degrees below room temperature and not cold.

Or, as my US friends would see it – “Barman, 3 pints of beer please, and a slightly larger glass of warm piss for our UK friend”.

Friday Philosophy – Being the Best Manager February 19, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management.
Tags: , ,

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

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

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

programmer quote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Philosophy – Database Dinosaurs January 22, 2016

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

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

beware the network admin

Beware the network admin – creative commons, Elvinds

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

Don't annoy the DBA

Don’t annoy the DBA

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

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

Or the Sys Admin

Or the Sys Admin

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

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

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

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

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