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Friday Philosophy – We Could Be Heroes! {just for one day}. November 6, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions.
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At Open World I overheard a snippet of conversation which went something like this:

Bob – “How’s it going? Did the last talk go down well?”
Bill – “Sure, it was on time, the audience seemed to like it.”
Bob – “Will you be here next year?”
Bill – “Errmm….” pause…*sigh*… “I don’t know…. I’ll see how I feel.”
Bob – “Oh? In what way?”
Bill – “It just that, at Open World… I have to fend off two dozen people just to go have a pee!”

Wild horses could not drag out of me the name of the person who said that (though several pints and the offer of a curry might do the trick – try me). It both made me smile and made me think. There are down-sides to becoming highly respected in your sphere.

There are definitely different levels of renown and respect in the relatively small world of the Oracle Database Technologist. I’m not doing bad in that respect; I’d put myself in the third of the seven circles, maybe tapping on gates of circle two. Occasionally I think it would be nice to be either technically or entertainingly good enough to join the Big Names in the innermost circle – but I really don’t think I can face the Hem-Touching!

What do I mean about “Hem-Touching”? It’s something a few friends and I came up with at the UKOUG Tech conference about 5 or 6 years ago to describe people who will approach one of the Oracle Names with a mixture of awe and fear in their eyes and just want them to acknowledge their presence,be allowed to speak, maybe to touch the hem of their cloak. If you go up to the balcony that is above the exhibition hall at the Birmingham ICC, you can sometimes watch an Oracle Name walk through the exhibition and see some people suddenly swerve and hurry towards them – especially if the Name currently has no one with them. I’ve even seen someone suddenly stop when another acolyte gets to their hero first. I don’t know why, these people will speak to more than one person at a time. And the thing is, people in the UK and Europe are generally more reserved than our cousins in other continents, so we are less forward in, well, being forward.

Am I being mean to these people? Well, a little I guess, but it’s mainly because of the little story I started with. I’m friends with some of the Names and I know a lot of them are uncomfortable with Hero Worship. Being respected and held in high regard is great, most of them are very happy about that, as they have worked damned hard and long to be knowledgeable enough to hold that position. But when people treat them like a living saint or the bestower of blessings, it’s just a bit weird. This is just an area of technology after all, not the eradication of Malaria. They are “just” people – OK, they are people who are usually very smart and very capable, but they are also people who are happy to share and teach – otherwise they would not be at the conferences sharing and teaching. Most of them are idiots in other areas of their lives too, we all are.

I’ve never felt the need to hero-worship myself. Not because I do not deeply respect people who achieve great things, it’s just not in my psychology I think. I did not put up any posters in my bedroom of the people I most respected when I was a teenager. I used to know a Nobel Prize Winner (though I doubt he’d recognise me in the street now) but when I met him the first time I had no idea who he was and just treated him like a person – and we got on fine. He treated me like a person too. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some very smart academics, many of the Oracle Names and even the odd traditionally famous person. It’s amazing how like people they are – if you treat them like people.

I’m certainly not above being pleased when someone I respect mentions me or refers to something I have done though. I’ll grin like an idiot on the rare occasions someone has name-checked me in a presentation or they tell me they liked something I said. I’m tickled pink when a Name follows me on twitter. But I feel hero worship is not what they want. Respect yes, being told you appreciate what they have taught you fine. Going shiny-eyed and asking to touch the hem of their coat, weird; don’t do it.

Oracle Names are people, treat them as such. They’ll probably appreciate you more if you do.

And if you ever find yourself in a group of several others, all trying to say “hello” to some gal or guy you just saw presenting, and they are looking a little uncomfortable and shifting from foot to foot and looking towards a door over there – let the poor sod go to the loo will you?

Friday Philosophy – 3 months, 3 conferences October 16, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in ACED, conference, Friday Philosophy, Presenting, Tech15.
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Flights are booked, hotels reserved, plans made. Don’t ask about talks prepared, just don’t :-)

This is not the usual list of “I’m going to this talk and I’m seeing that speaker” blog that people write before an event – well it is a little – it’s more about the different flavors of conference we have available to us.

I have an Oracle conference a month until the end of the year and I’m really looking forward to all of them. Each is very different. I know I am lucky to be able to do this sort of thing, that is go to so many conferences, and partly it is because of being an ACED. But fundamentally it’s come about as a result of the decision I made back in 2003 to give something back to the community that I’d learnt so much from, and even more so when a couple of years back my wife gave me permission to do less stuff that pays and more stuff that I enjoy. Oracle Community stuff.

First up of course is Oracle Open World 15. This includes a couple of days before hand with the ACED briefings. We get a heads-up on what is happening with the direction of Oracle Tech and Oracle expect us to feed back what we think. After 25 years in the business and dozens of conferences, this will be a first for me so I will be a newbie again (hmm, maybe not so new thinking about it, I’ve been on Customer Advisory Boards and Beta tested in the past so it will be interesting to see the difference). I’ve said in the past how I was not so fond of my prior Oracle Open World experiences. Too big and too razzmatazz for my repressed British personality. But the huge difference between this time and 10 years ago is not my being ACED, it is being a member of the community and looking forward to seeing so many people, catching up and talking about all things tech.
Elton John is apparently doing the appreciation event. I’m hoping for “Yellow Brick Road” era stuff and none of that modern post Y2K stuff…
Oh, and don’t forget, there is also the Oaktable presence at OOW, OakTable World. It’s free to all at OOW15 and if you want technical meat on your presentation bones, that is where you will find it.

In November, Friday 20th to Sunday 22nd, it is a totally different experience, the Bulgarian Oracle User Group Autumn conference. This is purely a tech conference, no dancing girls, no laser-show keynotes and not a hint of Elton John. Just a shed load of top presenters (so many ACE badges next to names) with a good showing of local talent too. Several of the speakers are coming to it from DOAG, a conference I was seriously considering putting papers forward for but decided not to, as I felt I was too busy at the end of the year – and then I got sweet-talked into putting forward abstracts for Bulgaria. Next year I’ll try for DOAG. This will be my first time at a BGOUG conference but I know from my friends that it is like many of the smaller European conferences. It has a more inclusive, friendly feel as you see the same people over and over again for the couple of days and spend time getting to know people pretty well and often having longer, more involved discussions about whatever tech you are working with. I’ve been really well looked after by the organisers already, helping me sort things out and advising me on what to do outside the event.

I’m combining this one with a short holiday with my wife. (She speaks Bulgarian so she will be very helpful in ordering beer in local bars). One down side to going to more conferences is that, as she travels a lot herself for work, some months we don’t see a lot of each other. It will be really nice to wander around Sofia together for a few days. The ironic thing is that her employer, actually her department, is doing some work out there that week – and they did not schedule in the only person in the team who speaks the language!

Finally there is “my” conference. Mine as in I feel it is my home conference, being in the UK and one I have presented at or helped organise for 12 years now. The UKOUG Tech15 conference. This is from Monday 7th December to Wednesday the 9th, and if you get registered in time you can also be at Super Sunday on the 6th (half a day focused on deeper tech talks). Again, a conference that puts technical content at the top and the sales sides comes along for the ride. It is a very large conference, vying with DOAG to be the biggest after Oracle Open World. We are less show and more tell than OOW but it lacks the personal feel of smaller conferences. We are back in Birmingham for this one and I have to say it’s all looking set for a great event. Registrations are significantly up on the last couple of years at this stage, the exhibition is selling well and we have great content lined up. I need to tweet more about Tech15, both about how such an event is organised (I know some of you liked hearing about that) but also about some of the things that will be happening. I’m quietly excited about a couple of things. The only problem is that, by the time I get to the actual Tech15 conference I am usually a bit spaced out and knackered from all the prep work and by the end of Wednesday (the last day) I’m physically drained – but with a head full of new information.

As I said, all three conferences have a different vibe and which one you prefer is down to what you want from your conference.

After all that I’ll be done with conferences. I refuse to go to any more until the following year…

Which reminds me, I better start putting in some abstracts and seeing if I’ve got stuff people want in their conferences next Spring.

What To Do at OOW15 (Social & Serious)? September 30, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes, Presenting, User Groups.
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I’m going to OOW15 this year, my first Oracle Open World in 11 years I think. And despite the Prom Queen rejecting all my offerings, I will actually be sneaking in a presentation – which I am very happy about.

The European Oracle User Group (EOUG) get a few slots and two are being used on Sunday 25th, 13:30 – 15:15 for “More Than Another 12 on Oracle Database 12c” – 12 European experts all doing six minutes each on a couple of tid-bits on 12C, including Christian Antognini, Bjoern Rost, Brendan Tierney, Julain Dontcheff, Jonathan Lewis… plus Tim Hall and Maria Colgan if we can squeeze them in (thus “more then 12…”). It was a great success last year, so if you are going to OOW15 sign up to the session at this link to avoid disappointment. You can see more details by our organiser, Debra Lilley (thanks Debra), in her blog post about it.

So I know what I am doing for 6 minutes. What do I do for the rest of the time?

A main aim I’ll have is to try and meet up with loads of people I either only know via antisocial media or have not seen in years.

I am sure things have changed in over a decade and, I have to confess, I did not make the most of my last OOW experience. It was all rushed, I was pulled out there very last-minute (as part of being named Oracle Beta Tester of the Year by Oracle Magazine – get me :-) ) and they wanted me to be able to do some press stuff (it sounds grand – but there was not a lot of interest in me as I was utterly unknown, but I spent what seems like hours being available in case someone wanted to talk to me). To make it worse, I did not know many people out there who were not actually Oracle employees, and oracle employees found it hard to get into things as priority was given to attendees. I felt pretty alone amongst 45,000 people interested in the same Tech as me. I did not even realise I had to sign up for the top talks and by the time I knew, they were all full. I did stumble into some very good Other Talks by accident though.

So, what should I be doing? What great talks should I be signing up for and which fantastic social events should I be trying to get invited to/slotted into my agenda? I don’t even know if many events are by-invite-only…

After over a decade of doing other conferences (and helping organise a few!), I feel a bit like a conference newbie again…

All help for a lonely out-of-towner gratefully received!

A couple of up-coming user group meetings August 18, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes, Presenting, User Groups.
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There are a couple of user group meetings in the UK that I’ll be attending (and talking at) in September.

On the 15th September I’ll be presenting at the UKOUG Database Server SIG in the Oracle London City office, talking about PL/SQL & SQL performance. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll be covering yet, I have a few areas I’d like to talk about so I’ll have to pick one to do it justice. The meeting starts at 09:30 and is of course free to anyone with UKOUG membership (excepting the Bronze membership which only a few people have) – anyone can pay a small fee to come along. Contact the UKOUG or ask me if you want details. I’m pretty sure there will be some of us in a nearby public house after the event too.

The next meeting is the Yorkshire Database meeting on Tuesday 22nd September, from 18:30. This is the third YoDB event and I know they have been very good. I’ll be doing my talk on the fundamentals of Oracle’s architecture. I’m really quite excited about this meeting {and I know it is often a false “sell” thing to say about any IT event} because (a) it is a small, local grass-roots user group that I’ve helped promote and yet will be the first I’ll manage to get to and(b) I was at college in Leeds and so have a soft spot for the place. I still have some friends up there. This event is free to all but you DO have to register using the link above.

As ever, it’s great to meet people so please come over and say “hi” if you are at either event.

I’m hoping the postponed cluboracle meeting will happen in September too but either a new date has not been announced or it went by me.

If you want to see what events I’ll be at in the later quarter of the year, you can check out the “appearances and meetings” tab. It’s mostly smaller things like OOW and UKOUG Tech15 :-)

I’ve Been Made an Oracle Ace Director July 16, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Presenting, User Groups, ACED.
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Well, I guess the title of this post says it all. As I tweeted yesterday:

I’m grateful, proud, honoured and overall just Jolly Chuffed to have been made an Oracle Ace Director! #ACED

I can now put this label on my belongings

I can now put this label on my belongings

I’ve been an Oracle ACE since 2011 and I’m really happy to be making the step up to being an Ace Director. What does being an ACE Director mean? Well, it certainly does not mean that I am technically brilliant. As my community role is as a technical person then I do have to be competent and experienced to be an ACE (or Associate or Director) – but there are many, many people out there who are technically superior to me and are not {and may well not want to be} ACEs of any kind.

To be an ACE of any flavour you have to be committed to supporting the Oracle User Community. The whole ACE program is, I believe, more about recognising and supporting that user community than anything else. Actually, the ACE program web site states this (ACE Program FAQ). To become an ACE Director you have to demonstrate that you have been actively supporting the community for a while (please do not ask me to quantify “a while”) and that you are committed to continuing that activity for at least 12 months. There are some specific activities and commitments that come with the badge but that is balanced by a commitment by the Ace Program to give you some support in doing so (this does not include being paid, it is still voluntary). As I understand it, all ACEs and ACE Directors are reviewed every 12 months and can be re-designated if your community activity has changed.

As I said above, there are a lot of technically strong people who are not and never will be ACEs. This is often because user community activity is not their thing – they have little interest in blogging, presenting, writing or volunteering for user groups. I also know some people who do all those things but they would rather do that with no specific acknowledgement by Oracle Corporation. I guess I am saying that though I am proud to now be an Oracle ACE Director, the main thing it tells you about me is that I am passionate about the user community and I am happy {heck, Jolly Chuffed} to be recognised by Oracle for that. And I am happy for that dialogue to be two-way also. One of the conditions of being an ACE Director is you play a part in representing the user community to Oracle.

Does this mean I have “drunk the Oracle Kool-Aid” as I think some of my American friends would call it? No. Before I became an Oracle ACE I chatted to several friends already on the program and no one I know has been told to not say anything or sanctioned by the ACE Program for criticising some aspect of Oracle Tech. We are still free to be Bitter Old Men & Women (apart from the Bitter Young ones of course). Anyone who has followed my blog for a while, seen me present a few times or spent a couple of evenings in the pub with me will known that I can, at times, be quite critical of aspects of the corporation or it’s software. There is no gagging of us ACEs that I am aware of.

Will being an Oracle ACE Director alter my user community activity? Well, it might. I was doing a lot for the community before now, I made a decision 2 or 3 years ago to become more active in the User Community {for the simple and selfish reason that I like doing it a lot more than I like commuting in and out of London every day}. You don’t do all of this for the ACE recognition, you do it for others reasons and maybe get the ACE badges on the way. But the program helps the Directors a little more, opens a few more doors. So I think I’ll be able to step it up a little more. I’m really looking forward to that.

I’ll stop there. If you are interested in another Oracle ACE Director’s take on the role, check out this video by my friend Tim Hall.

Analysing UKOUG Presenter’s – I Know How You Performed. June 16, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in UKOUG, Presenting, conference, User Groups.
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This last few days I’ve been analysing how well received previous presentations (since 2006!) have been at the UKOUG tech conferences. It’s interesting to look at the information. I’ve learnt some interesting things about all those well-known-names :-)

Like many conferences and user group meetings, during the conference and shortly afterwards the UKOUG ask attendees to feed back on the presentations, keynotes and round tables that people go to. If you chair a session, one of your tasks is to request people do the feedback forms. Talks are judged for several aspect (concept, quality of slides, presentation skills, overall value and a couple more) from 1 (very poor) to 6 (excellent). You can also add a free-text comment. The reason for an even number of possible scores it to prevent a non-committal middle score. Why not 1-8 or 1-10? I don’t really know, but I did see a blog post recently about using a wider range and it seemed to not really add to the overall benefit of the feedback as the very top and very bottom scores were never used. This information is compiled and fed back to the individual speakers, along with the average scores across the event. Speakers are very keen to know how they did compared to everyone else {no egos involved here :-) } and also any specific comments on their efforts. It is important to us speakers, we need to know if you liked or disliked what we did so we can improve. Or sulk.

This is an example of the feedback we get (one of mine, of course).
Speaker Scores

Something that has annoyed me for many years is that the speaker scores are not formally analysed and fed into the speaker selection process for future UKOUG conferences. I used to get really quite vexed by this {ie bad tempered and, well, annoying & complaining to the UKOUG office}. I suspected they were going to do to me what you should always consider doing to some loud-mouthed complainer and say “well, if you are so passionate about this – you damn well do it!”. So I offered to take the data and process it.

The information I received was not the raw feedback forms, but the average scores per talk – the information actually passed back to the presenters. Which is perfect for my purposes. I analysed data from 2006 to 2014 {though 2008 was missing), so a pretty comprehensive data set. SIG talk feedback is also missing, I’ll work with the UKOUG office to incorporate that for version 2 of the analysis.

Compiling all the data into a single rating per speaker is more demanding than first seems. Isn’t any data analysis project? Rather than consider all areas speakers are judged on I decided to score people on only two dimensions (areas to you and I) – presentation skills and overall value of the session. When we judge papers those are the two main things we want to know – can the person present well and do they usually give a talk people value.

Some of the challenges were:
– What to score speakers on – I’ve just said what I chose.
– People’s names. I need to group talks on this but it’s a free-text field of course so I had to clean that. I stripped off title, edited variations and then reviewed. For women, their Surname can alter with marital status {I find it rather archaic that this is still very common and almost exclusively impacts women. But then, I offered to my wife we use her maiden name as our married one and she was fine to take mine.} But you also get variations on first name, spelling mistakes and alterations of title. I had to solve that to group scores.
– The number of feedback forms received for a given presentation. If a presentation only gets one feedback form, how reliable are the scores? If it gets 5 feedback forms, how reliable is that? 35 forms? I came up with a weighting based on the number of feedback forms where if only 1 feedback score was given, it held less weight than 5, that held less weight than 15… etc.
– Oddities of eg co-presenters or the “speaker” actually being a facilitator, as is often the case with Round Table sessions.
– The data, as held in Excel, being “damaged”. ie it caused my analysis issues as things had been done to the data to support other purposes – what was important to the UKOUG organising the conference that year. Sorting those issues out took up most of my efforts.
– The fact that I was using Excel as the analysis tool. I’m a SQL guy!!!! But the thing is, with a relatively small volume of data and a need to constantly visually check alterations, some things are just much easier in a tool like Excel than SQL. And some things are way harder.

In the end, I got a set of scores that helped us on the Agenda Planning Day (well, it did in the database stream) and hopefully will develop over the years. It would be wrong of me to discuss how specific Oracle Names did, especially any who did poorly, but the scores informed our deliberations this year and should do so for years to come. If you want to contact me directly and ask me how you did – I won’t tell you (or anyone else). But I can talk about more generic things I discovered.

Over all presentations from 2006 to 2014
the average number of feedbacks for a session is around 10
The average for Presentation Skills is 4.6
The average for Overall Value is 4.5

So almost 4.5 out of 6 as the average scores, which is “Good” to “Very Good”.

NB I do not calculate my averages in the same way as the UKOUG office.

Because I weight my scores and remove zero values (and probably a couple of other differences, such as I already have averages not the raw scores) my average scores do not compare and are higher to the ones they issue for events. I think I am a harsher judge :-)

So what were some of the interesting things I discovered?

  • Well, for starters, scores for a given presentation rarely hit as low as 3. In fact, except for a small number of stand-out-bad talks, most scores of 3 were where only 1 feedback score was received, some with 2. We don’t seem to like giving low feedback scores. The same goes for 6. I only saw 6 if the number of feedback forms was 1 or 2. So reliable scores are between 3.01 and 5.99 really.
  • As I was stripping off people’s title by manual replacement runs, I know how many Mrs, Ms, Miss, Dr etc we get. Miss and Ms go up – and down – over the years. It varies a lot, but Ms is becoming more common. What is disappointing is the consistently low number of presentations by women. But I know that in the years I have been involved, the proportion of presentations by women is in proportion to the number of submissions, or even a tad higher. Come on ladies, represent your constituents! Some of the highest speaking scores are by women.
  • Another thing I get from the person title, we get no papers submitted by Professors, Colonels (or any military bigwigs), members of the clergy or peers of the realm. Or members of royal families. They are simply not trying are they?
  • On a personal note – I am Utterly Average. Over 8 years I fall number 296 and 298 out of 623 speakers for Presentation Skills and Overall Value respectively. Have you any idea how much that damaged my ego?!? I was gutted! Where I am a little more unusual is my average number of feedback scores, which is 21.6, in the top 15%. I’m massaging my ego with that (it’s all I’ve got!).
    {what is really vexing is I dug out my scores from earlier years and they were better than my running average – and my scores are pulled down by one talk in 2010 where I really bombed. Have you any idea how tempting it was for me to delete that one talk out of the data set?}
  • Some speakers, a small number, always-always-always get high votes, mostly as they are excellent but with an added slice I suspect of of, well, they are deeply respected. But interestingly, even well known people (what I think of as the ‘B’ list and even a couple of ‘A’ listers in my opinion) can bomb. Some regularly. I mean, if you saw the scores for….no, I won’t say :-).
    But the scores for individual speakers can and do vary. I saw one speaker, who in my opinion is a brilliant technician and a fantastic speaker, be up in the high 5.8’s for one talk and then down in the low 3’s for another. That made me dig in further and there are several people I know and hold a similar opinion on who have high and low talks. So that makes me feel that the user feedback scores are generally reliable and even respected speakers will get a poor score if the talk misses it’s mark. The best just simply never miss the mark, or not by much.
  • Not to be too harsh, but if you score 4 or below for either presentation skills or overall value and got 3 or more feedback forms – you bombed.

But bombing occasionally is OK. I’ve bombed (well, this close to bombed) and I’ve learned. Many excellent presenters have bombed. We all alter in our presenting skills over time. Most of you get better over time – I’ve got a tiny bit worse! But if you bomb all the time? Then maybe presenting is not your thing. It is not the only route to spreading the word, maybe try writing. But, again to be harsh, if you can’t present we owe it to the delegates of the conference not to select you to present.

Those of us organising the content know, as a group, who the best speakers are. We ensure that they get slots. And we have a good feel for who the better speakers are and they get looked on “favorably”. We do this as we want the best content and experience for the audience. Eric Postlethwaite may be a genius at VPD and know it inside out, but if they present like a cardboard cut-out with bad breath then the session will be a failure. Judging scores are the top filter but we on the planning committee keep in mind how good a speaker is. What worried me was that this was not scientific, it was word-of-mouth and gut-feel, which is why I spent many days in Excel World to take the raw feedback and convert it into scores. I want the audience feedback to influence the content.

If you speak (or have spoken) for the first time and your scores are below average, don’t worry too much. As you can see from the above, you are up against a pre-selected set of known, excellent speakers. Hitting average is actually something of an achievement (and I would say that as I am Mr Average!).

One thing jumped out at me. I looked at all the comments (and I do mean all) for a couple of years and I noticed that you get the odd person who tries to “make a point” by adding the same comment to all the speakers’ feedback forms they fill in. Don’t do that. The speakers do not deserve your ire at the conference. It’s childish of you. If you want to raise an issue with the conference as a whole, don’t spam it on the speaker feedback forms, you dilbert, be an adult and contact someone involved in the conference organisation direct. Oddly enough, we DO like to have people come and say what you felt did not work, but spamming it on all the speaker feedback forms is just non-directed trolling.

I said I would not name names, it is not fair. But I’m going to name one though, and this is based on MY opinion of what I have seen looking at the stats. This is not official UKOUG opinion. Connor McDonald? Your presentation skills are awesome. I wanted to edit your scores down through pure envy. You are a good presenter, sir.

Friday Philosophy – Why I Volunteer for User Groups May 22, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Private Life, Friday Philosophy, UKOUG, Presenting.
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I’ve just noticed a new page about me popping up on the UKOUG web site – It’s in the section about volunteer case studies, alongside people like Joel Goodman, Simon Haslam, Carl Dudley, Jason Arneil, Brendan Tierney and others who have been stupid good enough to give time and effort to the UKOUG.
{You can get to the page by going to the UKOUG home page (www.ukoug.org) and clicking the Membership or Member Activities tab and Case Studies & Testimonials under that and finally Volunteer Case Studies. Phew. Or follow the link I gave at the start and click on the other names.}

I’m not sure how long I’ve been up on there but only a couple of days I think.

Anyway, Why DO I volunteer for user groups?

The little bio covers most of it but I thought I would put some words here on my blog too. I volunteer because, fundamentally, I am a socialist (with a small ‘S’) – I feel that we are all better off if we all help each other. I’ve been helped by people in my career (presenting stuff I don’t know, giving advice), I guess I feel that I should return that favor. Many of the people who have (and continue) to help me stand nothing to gain personally by helping me. In fact, one or two have helped me when, strictly speaking, they are helping create a rival for work opportunities. I try to do the same to those around me. I know, it sounds a bit “Disney film teaching the kids to do right” goody-two-shoes, but that is the core of it. And there are some other aspects to it too…

Why do I volunteer for the UKOUG specifically? Because they are THE main user group in my geographic area and provide the most support to the Oracle user community here in the UK. Most of the people involved in the UKOUG are just nice people too. But I also support and volunteer for smaller user groups, mostly by either promoting their meetings, going to them or presenting. I started presenting at the main UKOUG conference back when Dido, Eminem and Christina Aguilera where in their hey-days. I also went to the RDBMS and similar SIGs and before long I was presenting at them and then got sucked into chairing one of them – the Management and Infrastructure SIG. I’ve been slowly sucked in more & more as the years role by.

That has led on to me presenting at other user groups in different countries. Actually, I used to do quite a bit of presenting abroad (mostly the US) around 10 years ago, but that was part of the role I had at the time and my employer paid the bills. No employer to pay the bills now, but then as it is my time I try to make presenting abroad also a chance to have a short holiday, I try to take a day or two one side or the other of the event to look around. And actually, it is nice spending time with other people who present at or attend user group meetings.

Another part of it is I just like presenting. This is not quite so Disney Nice Guy, there is an aspect that is more selfish, that standing up, being listened to and telling people stuff that maybe they don’t know makes me feel better about myself. Better about myself? OK, I’ll let that stand for now but it is more that it makes me feel I am achieving something and having an impact. That I am useful. Fundamentally it is still a desire to help and presenting does not scare me (I know it is scary for a lot of people, but then a lot of people are not scared of heights and I am – it all balances out). But with a slice of “look at me!!!” thrown in.

There are also rewards for the effort. I’ve got to know a lot more people as a result of presenting, blogging (and now tweeting) than I would have had I stayed just one of the audience. For me it has helped me make more friends. As I said above, part of what is now nice about user group meetings for me is meeting friends I’ve made who are also on the speaker circuit and there is inevitable a few drinks in the evening whenever there is a user group. It also gives you more exposure in the community and helps lead to job opportunities – or at least that is the theory. No one has yet offered me a job because they liked my blog post or presentation!

That leads me to the last aspect of volunteering. Some people volunteer primarily for selfish reasons. To get bragging rights, get it on their CV’s, to help them get sales contacts or better jobs. The odd thing is, people who do it for those reasons tend not to last – as volunteering for user groups is a lot of hard work to get those rewards. You can usually spot them as they are the ones who don’t actually do a lot or complain all the time about the coffee being bad (actually, usually the coffee IS bloody terrible) and other things. Don’t get me wrong, some of those rewards do come with the volunteering, but if someone is volunteering primarily to get them, it does not seem to work out for them. Or maybe that is my socialism coming out again :-). Fundamentally, I think volunteering only works if, at the core of it, you want to help other people. Maybe that is why other volunteers are such nice people to hang around with.

Why do you do it? (or not).

My First Published Article April 21, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in publications, UKOUG, Presenting.
Tags: , , ,

I’ve been blogging now for almost 6 years and presenting at conferences for… 12 years (really? Good grief!). I’ve even written and delivered several courses, ranging from 1 day to 3 days in length. However, up until now I’ve never been what I would term published – ie managed to persuade another organisation or person to publish something I have written.

That changed a few days ago when the latest UKOUG “Oracle Scene” magazine came out, which included the first of a small series of articles I am doing on how the Oracle RDMBS works – the processes and activities that underlie the core RDBMS engine. It’s based on my “how Oracle works in under an hour” presentation where I give the audience an overview of things like the redo mechanism, what a commit *is*, how data is moved into and out of memory and which parts of memory it resides in, how a point-in-time view is maintained… things like that. Many people don’t really know any of this stuff, even skilled and experienced developers and DBAs, as you can get by without knowing it. But understanding the core architecture makes a lot of how oracle works make more sense.

The below is a screen shot of the title and first paragraph, but you can use the link above to see the whole article.

Title and first paragraph of the article

Title and first paragraph of the article

I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to publish something other than via my blog and presentations. I know part of it is the fear of putting something out there that is wrong or misleading. If it is on my blog, heck it’s only a blog and I stick to things I give test cases for or my thoughts and opinions (which are intrinsically open to interpretation). My presentations are certainly put “out there” but again I of course try to ensure what I say I can back up. I think the key thing is that in both cases it is very obvious who you can blame if it turns out I have made a mistake. Me.

But when something is going to be published I feel that (a) it might be taken more seriously so I need to make extra sure it is correct and (b) if I get something wrong or, more concerning, mislead anyone then the people publishing the article could also be put in a poor light. I think that is what has made me wary.

The irony is that the first thing I get published, I know that there are some inaccuracies in there! The article (and also the presentation it is derived from) is an introduction to a lot of technology and I have to simplify things and ignore many exceptions to keep it small and easy to digest. It’s how it works 90% of the time and you need to know that so you will better understand the exceptions and finer detail I don’t have time to tell you about. For the physical presentation I spend a minute at the top of the talk saying I have simplified, occasionally lied, but the overall principles and feel is correct. I had to drop that bit out of the article as, well, it took a lot of words to explain that and the article was long enough already!

Another reason NOT to publish is it takes a lot of time and effort to prepare the material in a way that is polished enough to be printed and I know from friends that the actual financial payback for eg writing a book is very, very, very poor. No one I know makes enough from royalties on technical books to make the effort worth while {though there are other less tangible benefits}. But I have time at present so I can afford to do these things.  If you want to make money out of publishing, write about a load of elves, an often-wimpy trainee wizard or something with sex in. Or all three together.

I did nearly put a technical book together about 10, 12 years ago, called “The Little Book of Very Large Databases” as it was something I knew a lot about but the issues were rarely discussed publicly – most VLDBS were (and are) run by financial organisation or “defence” {why can’t they be honest and refer to themselves as “Killing & Spying”} and they don’t talk. O’Reilly was doing several small, A6 booklet-type-books at the time that it would have suited. I can’t do it now, I know nothing about Cloud and some of the 12C features that would help with VLDBS, so I missed the boat. I regret not giving it a go. However, there is a possibility I might be involved in a book sometime in the future.

I have to thank Brendan Tierney for hassling me into doing this series of articles. I’m not being derogatory when I say he hassled me, he did, but Brendan did so in a very nice way and also gave me the odd toe in the backside when I needed it.

I also have to thank Jonathan Lewis. If this article had been a book he would have got a huge mention for being my technical reviewer. He was good enough to look over the article and let me know a couple of things he felt I had over simplified, some things with the flow and also something I had simply got wrong. You know that bit in books about “thanks to Dave for assisting but all mistakes are mine”. Well, I always thought it was a bit overly… defensive? Well now I don’t.

All mistakes are mine. I want no blame falling on the people who helped me!

I still can't take my Bio too seriously

I still can’t take my Bio too seriously

Tips on Submitting an Abstract to Conference April 17, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in UKOUG, conference, Tech15.
Tags: , ,

<.. The tech15 committee and my role
<…. Who plans the Tech15 content

The call for Papers for UKOUG Tech15 has gone out. This is how most of the content for a large conference is sourced, by asking the community to submit abstracts for consideration. With smaller conferences and user group meetings the organisers can often get enough talks by hassling asking people they know.


Firstly, I would encourage anyone who has considered talking at conference but never has, to submit an abstract. We could easily fill the whole event with known speakers but we don’t. We have a policy of having some New Blood at every conference. {If you are in the UK and want to try out presenting then a great way to do so is by presenting at a smaller user group meeting, like for example the next RAC/Database UKOUG SIG meeting on July 1st :-) – It’s a friendly, relaxed way to get into presenting. Get in touch with me if it appeals to you}.

You can click on this link to go to the submission page, but before you do…

When you submit an abstract for a conference, you are not actually at that point communicating with your potential audience. You are communicating with the handful of people who are tasked with going through all the submissions and selecting the papers. With the UKOUG conference you are also communicating with the volunteers who will judge abstracts. And we, the agenda planning committee, take those judging scores very seriously. It is a large part of how we attempt to ensure we select the talks on topics that people want to hear about, as well as the people who you want to hear talk.

So when you get to the field where you describe your proposed presentation (the abstract) I would suggest you don’t want to be “teasing the audience” at this point. The people who are judging and selecting the papers are seasoned conference attenders. A catchy title might get you noticed but if the abstract does not clearly state what your talk is about, what you intend to cover and who you expect your audience to be, it makes it less likely that your abstract will get selected.
Also, if you have looked at the call-for-papers page and associated notes and have seen that we are particularly interested in some area (eg “what you need to know about ….” for the database stream) and your paper is addressing it, it is worth making that a little bit obvious. The agenda planning day is hectic, we get tired and tetchy and our brains start to leak out of our ears. If your abstract is clear about what you are talking about, you are increasing your chances of selection.

In years gone by we have given the people the option to give two versions of your abstract – the one for judging and the one for promoting your talk (that is the one that gets put in the conference notes and your potential audience will read and decided if your talk is worth their attention). However, many people felt this was asking for the same information twice so we have reverted back to a single abstract this your. However, you can change your abstract text after your talk has been accepted {but note, we are wise to people trying to change the actual content of the talk later on – we LOOK at the changes!}. So sell your talk to the committee and judges now and worry about the catchy reference to your favorite movie afterwards.

I used to make my submission abstract humorous (well, in my eyes) but I don’t anymore, or at least I tone it down. If anything, I make the abstract factual and simple. As an example:

How Oracle Works in 50 Minutes
This is a high level but technical talk about the key processes that underlie the Oracle database. I describe what an instance is and how the server process is the gateway to the instance. I cover how the redo mechanism works and why it is critical, how data is moved into and out of memory, delayed block cleanout, what a commit IS, the importance of the undo tablespace and how a read consistent image is maintained for the user. The intended audience is new DBAs or developers who have never been taught how the database works and at the end of the talk they will understand how these key processes work.

OK, the description is a bit boring but you know exactly what my talk is going to be about and if it will fit in your conference.

So what happens when you click on the above link to submit an abstract? You will see the below front screen:

Submission Screen

Submission Screen

I would suggest you not only read this screen but also check out the menu on the left of the screen. Look at the “Hints & Tips” and also the stream you are intending to submit to (eg “Systems” if you want to present on Exadata). If you are unsure which area your talk fits in, check them all out.

the big red Submit an Abstract will actually take you to the same place that the left menu “Speaker Application” takes you too. The first step of submitting an abstract is actually saying who you are and registering on the system. If you are willing to judge abstracts (ie you ticked that box) you will then get to indicate what topics in what streams you are willing to judge. THEN you will be put into the “Speaker Lounge” and you can enter your abstract by clicking the “Submit” button.

When you come back to the system, you can go straight to the Speaker Lounge, the system will show you your details again so you can correct anything. You will see what abstract(s) you have submitted and click on them to check or change anything, or click on “Submit” to add another abstract.

Think carefully before you submit 15 abstracts. As a general rule, more than 3 and you start to reduce your chances of having a paper selected. People judge your papers will score you down if you submit too many, it’s like you dilute your judging scores over all the abstracts.


My Oracle Life of Clubbing & Harmony March 31, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Presenting, conference.
Tags: , ,

Last year I promised myself I would do more conferences & presenting and that it would include more events further afield, such as in Europe. I can’t say I managed it in 2014 (Liverpool for the UKOUG Tech14 did not count as a foreign country for me, even if I found a couple of the locals hard to understand) but 2015 is proving more successful. I attended the OUG Ireland conference 2 weeks ago, for my first trip to that country, and I learnt recently that I have papers accepted for Harmony 2015. This conference is a joint event between the Oracle user group of Finland, the Oracle user group of Estonia and the Latvian Oracle user group.

The conference is on the 11th and 12th of June in Tallinn, Estonia. I know that a few of my friends I’ve met in the flesh will also be there but also some people I only know online and who I’m looking forward to meeting for real {and one who I am not sure if I have met in the flesh or not!!!}. That’s part of why I like going to conferences; It is nice to get to know people via electronic means but there is nothing like actually being in the same room and chatting, especially if it is relaxing over a coffee, beer or a meal.

However, I am particularly happy to be going to Tallinn as my wife has been there and loves it. We are trying to organise it so that she can come over as well, but she has her own travel commitments that vary from week to week. Sue knows how to say “can you punch my ticket” in Estonian – and she assures me this is not a euphemism for anything.

In case Sue cannot make it, she has given me the book she learnt from, so I can learn Estonian myself:

Learn Estonian - in Russian!

Learn Estonian – in Russian!

First I have to learn Russian though… Yes, it’s a Russian “How to learn Estonian” book.

Have you any idea how much pleasure she took in doing that to me?

So that is the Harmony. What about the Clubbing? That would be Club Oracle London, which is a user group I mention each time there is a meeting. It is in London in the evening and there are 3 talks, beer, pizza and lots of chat between the crowd & the presenters. I’m doing my Disasters talk at the next meeting on the 30th April. Click that link to register and secure your place, it’s free. The other presenters are Svetoslav Gyurov and Dominic Giles. Dom is being particularly brave and is offering to answer any questions people have about the database {“as honestly as I can”}. I’ve known Dom for years, he used to come over to the place I worked when we were doing a lot of beta testing of Oracle. He secured his place in my admiration by not only thoroughly knowing his stuff but also when he told me off for being pathetic and not pushing the new tech and that I was being a wimp. Utter honesty from the vendor works for me.

I’ve currently got nothing else organised for 2015 conference-wise (apart from the small issue of helping define the technical content for UKOUG Tech15! So I guess I will be there. Oh, and probably a couple of SIGs). I keep saying I’ll try to do Bulgaria but again I’d like to get that to work with going with Sue. And of course, I could put in for Oracle Open World 15, but it’s a loooong way to go and costs me a lot. And Larry does not seem to want to talk to me anymore.


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