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Rant – Unique means UNIQUE! Argh! April 22, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in rant.
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21 comments

I’m not a die-hard “Queen’s English”, “thou shalt not split infinitives” type but I am sick of people miss-using the word Unique.

The word unique means being one of a kind, the only example, the singular occurrence, the absolute only one. One. Singular. Get it? Still don’t get it? Well it means….unique! As a word that has only one unequivocal meaning, “unique” pretty much bloody well is it, by it’s absolute definition. It’s a yes/no situation. If you are unique in some respect, it means you are the only one example.

Now we lot in the database world should be bang on certain about this, what with Unique Keys and the like, and you would expect that other group of pedantic types – scientist – would be sticklers for the word as well. But no, last week I had someone who I thought was a good, solid IT person ask me “how unique” a situation was, I’ve just seen a scientist on TV describe a rock formation as “quite unique”. You can’t BE “quite unique”. You can be unusual, you can be quite rare, you can be uncommon. They all mean one of a few or a bit more blagh than usual. Unique means…The One. I can’t even think of another word that means “unique” in the way that word means. “One” and “Only” and “Singular” are close, but they all indicate something is unique. You cannot have a situation that is “quite ‘the only one'”. It is the only one or it is not the only one. Tick or cross. If you claimed a situation was unique only for someone to point out that it had happened before they would say “aha! So, it is not unique”.

It would be less of a linguistic stupidity to ask “how dead is the parrot – a bit dead or a lot dead or quite dead”. The parrot is in a binary state, dead or not. {As a biologist you can actually argue about this, but most of us accept the yes/no state of dead}. It is NOT “quite dead”.

Is Usain Bolt’s 100 meters fastest time Unique? Yes. He’s the fastest, not one of the fastest, not “fairly world record holding”.

Would it make sense to say “I have the fairly only stamp of it’s kind in my possession”? No. If someone said “this set of events have approximately never happened before” you would think “huh?” and ask for clarification – maybe ask “do you mean it’s a unique set of circumstances?” and would expect a yes or no answer. Only no, I would half expect “fairly unique”. Arrrgghh!!!

Friday Philosophy – The Abuse of Favours March 30, 2012

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

You probably all recognise this situation:

Dave needs something doing that he can’t do himself – let’s say it is creating an API for the file management package. It isn’t your job to do but it is something you can do. Dave is blocked until the API is created.

So, being a nice person, you tell Dave you will see what you can do for him over the next couple of days.

So why is it that what Dave hears is “Dave, I love you more than life itself, I am dedicated to this task and I WILL complete it before the end of tomorrow. My other tasks, emergency production issues and the untimely demise of my cat are all secondary to this endeavour.”.

You see, 24 hours later, Dave is at your desk “When will this be done?! I’m blocked until I get this!!!”. If he’s the guy I had recently his next step is to slap his fist into his palm as he utters, almost shouts “I NEED this!”.

No. No you don’t need it. What you need is for that slap to be in your face, followed by “wake up! You don’t go shouting at the guy digging you out the hole!”.

I find this particularly unacceptable when the favour is to be fixing some mess that Dave created, or doing something Dave told his boss he had finished last week. Of course, those are the exactly situations where Dave is most likely to get upset, as he is in real trouble and most likely to commit that ultimate Favour sin:-

Dave to Boss “I Didn’t get my task done as Martin promised to create the API and he hasn’t. I’d be there now if I only did it myself”.

If you are thinking “Hmmm, I think I might have been ‘Dave’ recently” then Shame On You and go beg forgiveness. Of course, if you were ‘Dave’ you may well be the sort of sod who will twist the situation around in your head so it was not your fault anyway. Grrr, bad Dave.

For a while I gave up doing work favours as I got sick of the situation above playing out. Then I started doing favours again but being a bore about saying repeatedly, up front, that this was a favour, it was only if I had time, not to rely on me and, if it is that important, go ask someone else. Yeah, sounds really grumpy doesn’t it? That gave me a reputation for not being a Team Player (which is code for “mug”).

Now I have a rule system. As soon as someone starts getting demanding about the favour, I immediately challenge it. If they get shouty they lose their favour rights. No more favours for you until the requisite number of beers have been bought. It’s three.

Of course, you see this scene played out on help forums all the time. Initial message is nearly always in upper case text speak “PLS HLP ME, IS URGNT! CN U TELL ME HOW 2 DO MY JOB – THNX!!!” and soon degrades into helfull person asking for details of the exact person and Mr Shouty demanding more and more help. I don’t help. After all, this guy is never going to buy me a beer.

Friday Philosophy – The Inappropriate Use of Smart Phones February 24, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life, rant.
Tags: , , ,
16 comments

I’m kind of expecting to get a bit of a comment-kicking over this one…

I never much liked mobile phones – Yes they are incredibly useful, yes they allow countries that lack a ground-based telephony network to create a nationwide system, yes they allow communication all the time from almost anywhere. That last point is partly why I dislike them. {Actually, I don’t like normal phones much, or how some people {like my wife} will interrupt a conversation to dash across the room to answer it. It’s just a person on the phone, it will take a message if someone wants to say something significant. If someone calls your name out in a crowd, do you abandon the people you are talking to, dash across the room and listen to them exclusively? No, so what act that way over a phone?}.

However, I hold a special level of cynical dislike for “smart” phones. Why? Because people seem to be slaves to them and they seem to use them in a very antisocial way in social and even business situations. It is no longer just speaking or texting that people do, it’s checking and sending email, it’s twittering and blogging, it’s surfing the net and looking things up. I have no problem with any of this, I do all of these things on my desktop, laptop, netbook. But I don’t do them to the detriment of people who are there in the flesh – whilst supposedly in a conversation with mates at the pub or carrying out a transaction in a shop or using the coffee machine at work or, basically, standing in the bloody way staring at a little screen or rudely ignoring people who I am supposed to be interacting with.

The below is my phone. It makes calls, it sends texts, it might even be able to work as an alarm clock (I am not sure). It does not do anything else much and it was ten quid {actually the below might be the version up from the really cheap thing I have}:

I was pondering this rude (ab)use of Smart Phones in a meeting this week. It was a meeting to discuss a program of work, what needed doing and by whom. It was a meeting where everyone in the room was involved, each person’s opinion was important and we all had a vested interest in the outcome of the meeting. So why did over half of the people not only have their Smart Phone out but were tapping away, scrolling through stuff, looking at some asinine rubbish on Facebook {yes, I saw you}? One or two people in the room might have been able to argue that they needed to keep an eye out for important emails or calls – but really? Are things so incredibly important and only you can deal with them that you can’t just play your full part in a meeting for an hour? I was so annoyed by this that I missed half the meeting internally moaning about it…

I just see it as rude. It’s saying “while you people are talking, I can’t be bothered listening and I certainly don’t need to give you my full attention. And I don’t even care that I’m making it so obvious”. Or “I am buying this item from you and we need to deal with the transaction but you are so inconsequential I don’t even have to pause this conversation about which cafe to meet in next week. You do not deserve more than 15% of my attention”.

I supposed that is what really gets my blood slowly heating up, it’s that it has become accepted to be so rude. Just walk down the street, head down and eyes fixed on your glowing little screen, making no attempt to navigate with your fellow city dwellers. I made a decision 2 {correction, 3} years ago that, if you are walking along staring at your phone and you are going to collide with me, you ARE going to collide with me if you do not become aware of me and make allowances – and I am lower down than you, I braced my shoulder and I am going to win this one. If they are so fixated on that bl00dy screen that they do not heed any attention to others, people ping off me like they’ve been thumped by a tree stump. It now happens a lot and I always “win”. I’m surprised no one has punched me yet.

If I was a manager again I would introduce a simply rule. No Smart Phone in your hand unless you have a stated reason for doing so. There are many valid reasons, which will all be related to the meeting. Otherwise you are just being disrespectful. If you feel the meeting does not apply to you or this section is not relevant, fine. Sit still and listen anyway. You might actually find it useful to know what everyone else is doing. Stop playing bl00dy mental chickens or whatever or updating your status to “bored”.

I will hold strongly to these opinions. Right up until the minute I finally buy that iphone I’ve been considering getting. I really want to be able to check my twitter account during meetings, you see.

Friday Philosophy – Tosh Talked About Technology February 17, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, future, Hardware, rant.
Tags: , ,
9 comments

Sometimes I can become slightly annoyed by the silly way the media puts out total tosh and twaddle(*) that over-states the impact or drawbacks about technology (and science ( and especially medicine (and pretty much anything the media decides to talk about)))). Occasionally I get very vexed indeed.

My attention was drawn to some such thing about SSDs (solid State Discs) via a tweet by Gwen Shapira yesterday {I make no statement about her opinion in this in any way, I’m just thanking her for the tweet}. According to Computerworld

SSDs have a ‘bleak’ future, researchers say

So are SSDs somehow going to stop working or no longer be useful? No, absolutely not. Are SSDs not actually going to be more and more significant in computing over the next decade or so? No, they are and will continue to have a massive impact. What this is, is a case of a stupidly exaggerated title over not a lot. {I’m ignoring the fact that SSDs can’t have any sort of emotional future as they are not sentient and cannot perceive – the title should be something like “the future usefulness of SSDs looks bleak”}.

What the article is talking about is a reasonable little paper about how if NAND-based SSDS continue to use smaller die sizes, errors could increase and access times increase. That is, if the same technology is used in the same way and manufacturers continue to shrink die sizes. It’s something the memory technologists need to know about and perhaps find fixes for. Nothing more, nothing less.

The key argument is that by 2024 we will be using something like 6.4nm dies and at that size, the physics of it all means everything becomes a little more flaky. After all, Silicon atoms are around 0.28nm wide (most atoms of things solid at room temperature are between 0.2nm and 0.5nm wide), at that size we are building structures with things only an order of magnitude or so smaller. We have all heard of quantum effects and tunneling, which means that at such scales and below odd things can happen. So error correction becomes more significant.

But taking a reality check, is this really an issue:

  • I look at my now 4-year-old 8GB micro-USB stick (90nm die?) and it is 2*12*30mm, including packaging. The 1 TB disc on my desk next to it is 24*98*145mm. I can get 470 of those chips in the same space as the disc, so that’s 3.8TB based on now-old technology.
  • Even if the NAND materials stay the same and the SSD layout stays the same and the packaging design stays the same, we can expect about 10-50 times the current density before we hit any problems
  • The alternative of spinning platers of metal oxides is pretty much a stagnant technology now, the seek time and per-spindle data transfer rate is hardly changing. We’ve even exceeded the interface bottleneck that was kind-of hiding the non-progress of spinning disk technology

The future of SSD technology is not bleak. There are some interesting challenges ahead, but things are certainly going to continue to improve in SSD technology between now and when I hang up my keyboard. I’m particularly interested to see how the technologists can improve write times and overall throughput to something closer to SDRAM speeds.

I’m willing to lay bets that a major change is going to be in form factor, for both processing chips and memory-based storage. We don’t need smaller dies, we need lower power consumption and a way to stack the silicon slices and package them (for processing chips we also need a way to make thousands of connections between the silicon slices too). What might also work is simply wider chips, though that scales less well. What we see as chips on a circuit board is mostly the plastic wrapper. If part of that plastic wrapper was either a porous honeycomb air could move through or a heat-conducting strip, the current technology used for SSD storage could be stacked on top of each other into blocks of storage, rather then the in-effect 2D sheets we have at present.

What could really be a cause of technical issues? The bl00dy journalists and marketing. Look at digital cameras. Do you really need 12, 16 mega-pixels in your compact point-and-shoot camera? No, you don’t, you really don’t, as the optics on the thing are probably not up to the level of clarity those megapixels can theoretically give you, the lens is almost certainly not clean any more and, most significantly, the chip is using smaller and smaller areas to collect photons (the sensor is not getting bigger with more mega-pixels you know – though the sensor size is larger in proper digital SLRs which is a large part of why they are better). This less-photons-per-pixel means less sensitivity and more artefacts. What we really need is maybe staying with 8MP and more light sensitivity. But the mega-pixel count is what is used to market the camera at you and I. As a result, most people go for the higher figures and buy something technically worse, so we are all sold something worse. No one really makes domestic-market cameras where the mega-pixel count stays enough and the rest of the camera improves.

And don’t forget. IT procurement managers are just like us idiots buying compact cameras.

(*) For any readers where UK English is not a first language, “twaddle” and “tosh” both mean statements or arguments that are silly, wrong, pointless or just asinine. oh, Asinine means talk like an ass :-) {and I mean the four-legged animal, not one’s bottom, Mr Brooks}

Friday Philosophy – Christmas Cheer and Business Bah-Humbug December 23, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
7 comments

For many, today is the last working day before Christmas and the festive season – So I sincerely wish upon everyone a Merry Christmas.. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, well the intent of my wishes still holds – I hope everyone; whether working or not; religious leanings for, against or indifferent; has an enjoyable few days during whatever end-of-year festives you have.

I’m going to be miserably now. You might want to stop reading here and maybe go to the shops for that last spell of retail hell or some other Christmas tradition. It’s probably best if you do…

You see, despite the best wishes above, generally speaking I am not a big fan of Christmas and have not been for as long as I can remember. It is not the principle of Christmas I am not keen on {I rather like both the religious and secular aspects of the whole thing, especially the seeing-people part like Di and Bri and ringing up old friends}, it is what Business does to it. Like many people, I really object to the bombarding we endure of advertising, selling and down-right commercialist bullying for what seems to be 3 months on the run-up to Christmas. I know, I know, many people make this very same point ad nauseum around this time. What ticks me off the most is that I don’t think it would be an easy thing to change, for the fundamental reason that the businesses that are so set on telling us that Christmas will not be as good as it could be if we don’t buy their food to make us fat/get expensive presents for the kids to break/buy this bottle of smelly stuff so we get more sex/buy this booze cheap, probably for the same reason as the smelly stuff {or to help ignore the lack of sex}/take out a loan to make this Christmas REALLY “special” and you can pay it off for the whole of the rest of the year and be miserable as a result, {pause to catch breath…} as I was saying, any business that sells more stuff as a result of their advertising, no matter how much it annoys other people or adds to the degrading of the whole Christmas experience, will do better than a company that does not. And so will out-compete less tacky, crass and manipulative businesses.

That’s the huge problem with Christmas and other celebratory times. We live in a commercial society and commercial selection pressure means those companies that can squeeze the most out of a situation to sell tat will win. They give not a hoot about if we enjoy ourselves really {we are back to the smelly stuff and booze again, aren’t we?}, it’s profit. Oh, if enjoying ourselves in some way aids them in getting more profit then they won’t object, but it is not in the company mission statement of 99% of companies – and any that it is in are doing it for cynical, commercialist reasons.

So, all successful businesses are Evil and are ruining Christmas for us all {OK, so that’s a bit of a big leap, stay with me….} So, have your revenge!!!

Next year:

  • Don’t buy stuff people probably don’t want. No adult wants 95% of what they get so….get nothing.
  • Tell everyone “I have all the stuff I need, buy yourself something instead – treat yourself on me”. You can buy the stuff you really want from the savings from point 1.
  • Having established the principle of reciprocal meanness above, that’s all that shopping hassle ditched.
  • Get normal food you like {and that does not play merry hell with your digestive system}. Preferably stuff you can freeze or keep a while, so you don’t need to go into the supermarket after Dec 20th.
  • Turn off the TV in December {or at least record everything and skip the adverts}. There is no decent TV in December anyway, it is all being saved up for the end of the month and, heck, even that is pretty awful.
  • Don’t read the paper. Or if you do, if you must, first four pages and last four pages only and scribble over adverts with a felt-tip pen. You’ll get the gist of world events and if your team is winning or losing.
  • That company you work for, that thinks paying you a wage means it owns your soul? It’s Evil, you owe them nothing they are not getting out of you already, so have a nice break at Christmas. {Unless you work at the same place as me, then they will need you to fill in for me as I will be on holiday}.

You will now be more relaxed, less stressed, have more time and generally be a nicer person. Take people to the pub, spend more time with people who like you being around (and this will be easier due to the people who no longer like you as you did not buy them any socks or a rubbish “humorous” golf book). Do things you actually enjoy. This year it is just going to be me, my gorgeous wife and the cat over Christmas and Boxing Day. The cat is really happy about this as we both like scratching the cat’s ears.

I might invite some neighbours over. They won’t come as they have to fulfil their awful Christmas Obligations – but they will like the fact they were invited. Heck, if they do turn up I’ll be in such a fine, happy mood I will even be nice to them.

Go and walk the hills of Mid Wales with your brother and relax.

Friday Philosophy – The Worst Thing About Contracting December 2, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in contracting, Friday Philosophy, humour, rant.
Tags: , , ,
20 comments

A while back I was asked by a friend to blog about being a contractor. In the pub last week my friend reminded me of this and that I had not obliged him. I will – think of this as instalment one Jason…

I’ve been a contractor on and off for 18 years. For anyone not familiar with the concept, it is where you are self-employed and you simply hire yourself out to a company for a period of time or to do a specific job. You generally have less job security than an employee and less rights and benefits – No holiday pay, no paid sick leave, no annual pay increase {OK, so that one is rare for employees too these days}, no training and generally the first out the door when the money gets tight. In return you get more money when working and a lot, lot less to do with office politics, HR, annual reviews and the like.

It is not for everyone but I like being a contractor. It gives me a broader degree of experience.

I like it apart from one main thing.

Recruitment Consultants. For every good one there are 3 bad ones. And for each bad one there are 5 absolutely terrible ones.

There are good recruitment consultants out there, some absolutely fantastic ones who do things like actually read CV’s, understand the business they are hiring into and can be bothered responding to emails and telephone calls. You might even find one who has a mental list of their clients and their requirements and will actively look to place a good candidate in front of those clients. Claire Green at GT-Consulting is one. There are others of course.

However, most do little more than scan the database of candidate CVs for keywords and send the first three found off to the client for them to do the actual work of seeing if they actually have the skills and experience required. It would seem most have no ability or interest in trying to work out who would be a good or bad candidate themselves, like it being the service they are supposed to supply. If you try and get in touch directly to discuss a role, to maybe ask some questions to save both you and the consultant’s client a wasted interview, many will not take your call {“Can I ask who’s calling?” Brief pause whilst they realise you are a candidate not a client company “Ahh, sorry they are out of the office today, they’ll call you back. Who were you again?”}. Only the good ones call you back. You will hardly ever be called back.

If you do speak to them, some will be your best mate – but can’t quite fake sincerity… Sadly, it is often obvious that they have no idea about the business. I had a chap a week or two back telling me I needed PL or SQL to do the role and when I queried if they meant PL/SQL they got tetchy with me. Another a while back was insisting I was not suitable as I did not have 10 years of Oracle 10. As I beta tested Oracle 10 for over a year and thus, with around 8 years’ experience at that time, was well ahead of the pack I suggested that maybe they needed to alter that requirement – or find someone who helped develop it at Oracle Corp…Again, some kindly advice was poorly received. OK, I was not kindly, I was tetchy too. He had stared off being my insincere best mate.

I could just be having a self-centred moan of course, in that the recruitment consultants don’t realise how great I am ( :-) ) and find me lucrative jobs – but I’ve also been the client and had to wade through dozens of utterly unsuitable CVs sent in from them. The last time was particularly awful as we were not able to offer a great wage (but we were happy to take people with experience of prior versions and train them up to the latest-greatest). Most CVs sent in had the words Oracle, database and administration on them but not together. Several lacked any Oracle at all. Every recruitment consultant I dealt with that time gave me the same spiel about having the best candidates on their books, how they vetted everyone and sent only the ones with the best match of skills. They must have been telling a miss-truth about at least one of those claims as there was little match with our requirements for an Oracle DBA.

So, I really like contracting but not the dealing-with-agents bit. Oddly enough, any discussion with other contractors or managers who hire nearly always shows that my feelings are widely shared…

I’ve been thinking about doing this post ever since I started blogging but I didn’t – because many jobs are only available via recruitment consultants. Insulting them is not going to help me get put forward for jobs. However, last time I was mouthing off about Satan’s little Imps in the pub and how I had never done a Friday Philosophy on the topic, due to the fear of the consequences, one of the guys pointed out I was an idiot. Most recruitment consultants can’t even be bothered reading your CV so they are not going to go check out someone’s technical blog! {and Neil has just beaten me to posting about it and how they always ask for mostly irrelevant industry experience}. Any who do are going to be firmly in that rare Good category. I’d go as far as to say that any recruitment consultant who is reading this is in the top 5% of their field. Nice to talk to you again, Claire…

Friday Philosophy – The Dying Art of Database Design? September 9, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, development, Friday Philosophy, rant.
Tags: , , ,
35 comments

How many people under the age of {Martin checks his age and takes a decade or so off} ohh, mid 30’s does any database design these days? You know, asks the business community what they want the system to do, how the information flows through their business, what information they need to report on. And then construct a logical model of that information? Judging by some of the comments I’ve had on my blog in the last couple of years and also the meandering diatribes of bitter, vitriolic complaints uttered by fellow old(er) hacks in the pub in the evening, it seems to be coming a very uncommon practice – and thus a rare and possibly dying skill.

{update – this topic has obviously been eating at my soul for many years. Andrew Clark and I had a discussion about it in 2008 and he posted a really good article on it and many, many good comments followed}

Everything seems to have turned into “Ready, Fire, Aim”. Ie, you get the guys doing the work in a room, develop some rough idea of what you want to develop (like, look at the system you are replacing), start knocking together the application and then {on more enlightened projects} ask the users what they think. The key points are the that development kicks off before you really know what you need to produce, there is no clear idea of how the stored data will be structured and you steer the ongoing development towards the final, undefined, target. I keep coming across applications where the screen layouts for the end users seem to almost be the design document and then someone comes up with the database – as the database is just this bucket to chuck the data into and scrape it out of again.

The functionality is the important thing, “we can get ‘someone’ to make the database run faster if and when we have a problem”.

Maybe I should not complain as sometimes I am that ‘someone’ making the database run faster. But I am complaining – I’m mad as hell and I ain’t gonna take it anymore! Oh, OK, in reality I’m mildly peeved and I’m going to let off steam about it. But it’s just wrong, it’s wasting people’s time and it results in poorer systems.

Now, if you have to develop a simple system with a couple of screens and a handful of reports, it might be a waste of time doing formal design. You and Dave can whack it together in a week or two, Chi will make the screens nice, it will be used by a handful of happy people and the job is done. It’s like building a wall around a flower bed. Go to the local builders merchants, get a pallet of bricks, some cement and sand (Ready), dig a bit of a trench where you want to start(Aim) and put the wall up, extending it as you see fit (Fire). This approach won’t work when you decide to build an office block and only a fool from the school of stupid would attempt it that way.

You see, as far as I am concerned, most IT systems are all about managing data. Think about it. You want to get your initial information (like the products you sell), present it to the users (those customers), get the new (orders) data, pass it to the next business process (warehouse team) and then mine the data for extra knowledge (sales patterns). It’s a hospital system? You want information about the patients, the staff, the beds and departments, tests that need doing, results, diagnoses, 15,000 reports for the regulators… It’s all moving data. Yes, a well design front end is important (sometimes very important) but the data is everything. If the database can’t represent the data you need, you are going to have to patch an alteration in. If you can’t get the data in quick enough or out quick enough, your screens and reports are not going to be any use. If you can’t link the data together as needed you may well not be able to DO your reports and screens. If the data is wrong (loses integrity) you will make mistakes. Faster CPUS are not going to help either, data at some point has to flow onto and off disks. Those slow spinning chunks of rust. CPUS have got faster and faster, rust-busting has not. So data flow is even more important than it was.

Also, once you have built your application on top of an inadequate database design, you not only have to redesign it, you have to:

  • do some quick, hacky  fixes to get by for now
  • migrate the existing data
  • transform some of it (do some data duplication or splitting maybe)
  • alter the application to cope
  • schedule all of the above to be done together
  • tie it in with the ongoing development of the system as hey, if you are not going to take time to design you are not going to take time to assess things before promising phase 2.

I’m utterly convinced, and experience backs this up, that when you take X weeks up front doing the database design, you save 5*X weeks later on in trying to rework the system, applying emergency hacks and having meetings about what went wrong. I know this is an idea out of the 80’s guys, but database design worked.

*sigh* I’m off to the pub for a pint and to reminisce about the good-old-days.

Friday Philosophy – Tainted by the Team August 26, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, humour, Management, rant.
Tags: , , , ,
3 comments

A while ago whilst working on one project, a colleague came back to his desk next to mine and exclaimed “I hate working with that team! – they are so bad that it makes everyone who works with them look incompetent!”

Now there is often an argument to be made that working with people who are not good at their job can be great for you, as you always looks good in comparison {it’s like the old adage about hanging around with someone less attractive than you – but I’ve never found anyone I can do that with…}. It is to an extent true of course, and though it can seem a negative attitude, it is also an opportunity to teach these people and help them improve, so everyone potentially is a winner. I actually enjoy working with people who are clueless, so long as they will accept the clues. You leave them in a better state than when you joined them.

However, my friend was in the situation where the team he was dealing with was so lacking in the skills required that if you provided them with code that worked as specified, which passed back the values stated in the correct format derived from the database with the right logic… their application code would still fall over with exceptions – because it was written to a very, very “strict” interpretation of the spec.

In one example, the specification for a module included a “screen shot” showing 3 detail items being displayed for the parent object. So the application team had written code to accept only up to 3 detail items. Any more and it would crash. Not error, crash. The other part of the application, which the same people in the application team had also written, would let you create as many detail items for the parent as you liked. The data model stated there could be many more than 3 detail items. I suppose you could argue that the specification for the module failed to state “allow more than three items” – but there was a gap in the screen to allow more data, there was the data model and there was the wider concept of the application. In a second example, the same PL/SQL package was used to populate a screen in several modes. Depending on the mode, certain fields were populated or not. The application however would fail if the variables for these unused fields were null. Or it would fail if they were populated. The decision for each one depended on the day that bit of the module had been written, it would seem. *sigh*

The situation was made worse by the team manager being a skilled political animal, who would always try to shift any blame to any and all other teams as his first reaction. In the above examples he tried to immediately lay the blame with my colleague and then with the specification, but my colleague had managed to interpret the spec fine (he did the outrageous thing of asking questions if he was not sure or checked the data model). Further, this manager did not seem to like his people asking us questions, as he felt it would make it look like they did not know what they were doing. Oddly enough they did NOT know what they were doing. Anyway, as a consequence of the manager’s hostile attitude, the opportunity to actually teach the poor staff was strictly limited.

That was really the root of the problem, the manager. It was not the fault of the team members that they could not do the job – they had not had proper training, were unpracticed with the skills, siloed into their team, not encouraged to think beyond the single task in front of them and there was no one available to show them any better. The issue was that they were being made to do work they were not able to do. The problem, to my mind, was with the manager and with the culture of that part of the organisation that did not deal with that manager. He obviously did not believe that rule one of a good manager is to look after the best interests of your team. It was to protect his own backside.

But the bottom line was that this team was so bad that anything they were involved in was a disaster and no one wants to be part of a disaster. If you worked with them, you were part of the disaster. So we took the pragmatic approach. When they had the spec wrong, if we would alter our code to cope, we would alter our code. And document that. It gave us a lot of work and we ended up having a lot of “bugs” allocated to our team. But it got the app out almost on time. On-going maintencance could be a bit of an issue but we did what we could on our side to spell out the odditites.

I still know my friend from above and he still can’t talk about it in the pub without getting really quite agitated :-)

Friday Philosophy – The Worst IT Person I Have Met October 15, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy.
Tags: , , ,
9 comments

A couple of weeks ago I extolled the virtues of someone I felt was a great person to work with. This week I’m going to do the opposite (and it will be interesting to see which posting gets more hits).

The worst person I have worked with in IT is Mick. I’ve only known a couple of Micks {and if you are one of them, but you don’t know Barry, you are not the Mick}. In an ironic twist of fate I met Mick at the same time I met the best person I have worked with, Barry. We were all in the same team you see, a UNIX sys admin team I got parachuted into. Maybe the vast difference between the two help make them so distinct in my mind.

Mick was very knowledgable and technically very capable. No, that is not fair, he was extremely good. He actually knew all this system admin stuff and several variations of shell programming, perl, C and a few other two-steps-from-assembler type languages. And he was an absolute and utter pain in the behind.

Barry and I did not know much (or in some cases, any) of this sys admin stuff. If we needed to do something and did not know how, Mick was supposed to show us. It worked something like this:

“Mick, I need to copy all the files that were changed last week from this directory on box X to box Y, keeping the directory structure – Can you help?”. Mick would not hear. He suffered from “intermittent deafness” – though he never missed any announcements about free food. You had to go and stand by Mick and wait for him to deem to notice you. If you actually interrupted him he would swear at you and utterly refuse to help, you had to wait quietly. If it was a good day he would deem this acceptable after a minute or two, but he would do his utmost to convey the impression he despised your lack of knowledge and your concerns were beneath his talents… but he would stoop to help.

You would repeat the task you were trying to do and, pausing only briefly to pour scorn on such a trivial thing, he would turn his back and start typing. He’d write a script to do it. “no, no, don’t write it, just tell me the basic commands and I’ll work it out!” No, he insisted on writing the script.

The script would be a thing to behold. Mick would write it in as few lines as possible and the least number of letters. For ages. Oh, he would have a working version in about the time it took Barry or I to explain the task, but he would not give you that version, oh no. He would ignore you until he had made all variables 1 character, took out all whitespace, replaced anything obvious with something obtuse, replaced a small chain of simple commands with one or two arcane commands. Every script was an attempt to win an “obfuscated code” competition. If we waited for the end result, it was impossible for Barry or I to decipher. The only benefit to the process was you would see the commands he was using and you could wander off and start with the unix Manuals yourself and get the job done.

He had other methods with which to demonstrate his greater worth.
Mick would agree to help (under duress of the boss telling him to do so) with an urgent task, but keep asking you to wait all day – then go home without doing his bit.
He seemed to love to intercept anyone coming to you for help, tell them he would sort out the problem for them – only to not. And then tell the user the next day that it was Barry or My problem to sort out. Correct, Mick would not have mentioned this to us.

Mick was fair though, he would treat everyone the same. With scorn. Any expertise in a field he did not know was unimportant and anyone with skills in his field was just competition to be shown who was best. Sadly, he usually was best, if best means biggest smartass.

Over time, as Barry and I learnt stuff (almost never from him), Mick became redundant. Not because we caught him up, not by a long way, but because no one else in the department would ask him anything. They would come to Barry and I. We might be slow and we sometimes screwed it up but we did not sneer and we fixed the problem in a way they could understand.

The reason Mick is the worst person I ever worked with is, unlike people who simply break stuff or lie about their skills or are stupid, he was actually very talented and capable – and yet took a perverse pleasure in not doing so. Mick would put effort into the art of maximizing his unhelpfulness. It was the difference between his potential to help and his drive to not do so that made it so hard for me to deal with him. I’d rather work with a talentless, idiot liar because at least you don’t need or expect much from them.

*sigh*

The Immoral Unfairness of Contracts October 11, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: ,
10 comments

You can tell from the title that this is going to be a rant…

Do you remember the last time you signed a contract for a job? Did you read all the terms, conditions and clauses? How angry did it make you? If you did not read it, dig it out and do so. It will ruin your whole day.

I do a mixture of contracting and consulting to provide bread on the table and catfood in the cat bowl and I get to sign a lot of contracts. And they send me mad as so many of them have such outrageously immoral, unfair and, I strongly suspect, illegal clauses in them. But if you don’t sign, you don’t get a job.

If the contract says they can get rid of me on a week’s notice, but I have to give them a month, I insist they pick one or the other and it applies to both parties. If there is a clause saying everything I think of belongs to them then I say no – if it is based on their intelectual property or code specific to their application, then it is theirs and I will comply utterly, but if it is the sort of generic data dictionary query that all these client rely on me to use to do my job, it is mine and I want the right to use it {and give it to other people, like I gave it to you, Mr Client}. Another clause that seems to be becoming rampant in the UK contracting arena is the 40-hour working week and signing away any right to complain. I absolutley object to that as it has been proven scientifically that continuous long hours are detrimental to health. If I choose to do 40, 50 hours in a week (and I often do) it is my choice but they damned well are not going to insist on it. I also know if I do the 50 hours for too long, my productivity and quality drops – and I think we all know this is the real case.

There is often a discussion with the actual people you work with, how the contract is just “admin” and they would never treat you in the way it says they can and “just sign it and forget it as we know you will do the job and we will never use clause 17.3.2 on you”. And they probably won’t, but it makes the contract a big, fat lie at best and a potential stick to beat you with at worst.

A few years ago I decided that I had had enough of this and I now challenge the worst of these clauses and I have had some succes. I also challenge them because, just once or twice, I have had someone try and take advantage of me due to these clauses. Usually recruitment agencies, I have to say.

With small organisations I usually can agree fair and equitable terms. With larger organisations it is a fight but I can usually get some sense into the agreement. But with international corporations, it is a blank refusal. They do not need me, they can buy in someone else and they damn well ain’t going to negotiate or treat you as an equal.

I’m facing this one right now. I’m looking at the contract and the blank refusal by the faceless (and probably deeply annoyed {and overworked}) minion in Admin to even consider a single letter change to a contract. And I am thinking “well sod you and your job and your immoral and bullying contract then”. This morning I really considered walking off site and sacrificing any chance of payment to “punish” such unbending unfairness.

But I probably won’t, I’ll probably roll over and sign the abusive, vile document because I have already been on-site for a week and I like the people I work with, I like the job and I want their project to succeed. And the potential unfair aspects of the contract will probably never be a real issue. So why can’t they just be fairer and why does it make me so absolutely incandescant with rage?

*sigh*

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