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Friday Philosophy – PowerPoint Picture Pain

The title does not refer to the agony of sitting through a presentation with loads of pointless graphics and zip-all content. Rather, it encompasses the agony of trying to produce some decent graphical content for PowerPoint. Or Word or any other software-based method of presenting information. I think we generally had better presentations when we had overhead projectors or flip charts and I go “powerpoint naked” to present sometimes.

However, I do present quite often using the ubiquitous PowerPoint. I spend hours on my slides, both trying to put good textual content into them for both the actual presentation and also for anyone who downloads them later. I also spend ages trying to put together graphics as we humans are visual creatures and a good {let’s pause for a second and stress the word good} picture or diagram can help enormously. I did a little animated graphic a few years back to show how DNA is unzipped and duplicated, allowing the near perfect transmission of our DNA as cells divide. Modesty prevents me saying it was good but {drat, I just said it} but several people told me it really helped them understand something that text descriptions struggle to put across.

{Hmm, OK, I’ll see if I can get this to work. Try this how-dna-duplicates powerpoint show. It shows how the two strands of DNA are “matched”. A, C, T and G are the 4 letters of the DNA and each one is associated with its “pair” in the second strand. A to T, T to A, C to G and G to C. Split the pair into two strands and you can make each a perfect copy of the original by adding back the pairs. Understand? Oh, and there are very, very, very rare copy mistakes, in this case a C is matched to a T rather than an A. Go on, fire up the slide.}

The reality is though that most of my presentations have very average slides. When you present for the UK Oracle User group they are good enough to solicit feedback from the audience and feed it back to the presenter. You get scored on topic, content, style, slides, charisma, sex appeal… The lowest part of my score is always, Always, ALWAYS the slides. This started getting on my nerves so one year I tried really hard on the slides. It was still my weakest point.

The thing is, I have never had a graphics team (let alone a whole marketing department) to help me out. Either I have worked for a company with no such thing or I have been a lone consultant doing what I can in my spare time. It is especially frustrating as large companies that do have access to teams of graphic artists seem to present with a large number of very pretty, very well drawn slides with zip-all content and the graphics add almost nothing to understanding (and we are back to the first line of this posting). In fact, I often find that slides with lots of pretty icons representing part of the technology stack with chunky arrows sweeping across them showing flow to be {cough} pointless to my understanding. One thing I have picked up from all those pretty pictures though is that a feeling of depth and texture is very effective in altering how a slide looks.

So, I decided for my posts on Index Organised Tables I would spend some time messing around with such things in PowerPoint. My Graphic of the Thread is:

I’m quite pleased with it, especially as in doing so I found out quite a bit about how to use the gradient fills, shadowing, 3D formating and rotating of simple shapes. It is certainly better than my previous stock graphic for an index:

I think most people would agree, it is an improvement. But is it two days worth of effort improvement. Yes, that is how long I spent messing around with the image options in PowerPoint to replace a flat, uninspiring green blob with 3 lines on it to represent an index into a nicely shaped, pseudo-3D image with a tad more information. *sigh*.

I guess I can now convert other flat pictures made up of boxes, triangles and lines into something that look a bit more like a professional diagram than something knocked up by a database geezer late one evening the day before the presentation. But if it does not help me produce a diagram that aids understanding rather than just presentation fluff, like those marketing slides I’ve just wasted a lot of time.

I tell you what though, having spent so long on that diagram, I’m going to use it to death :-)


Proof

There are those who understand the importance of evidence, and those who rely on other kinds of proof.

(You might want to turn your speakers down, or off, before following the link.)

Testing

Friday Philosophy – The Secret to Being a Good IT Manager

If you go into a book shop there will probably be a section on business and, if there is, there will almost certainly be a load of books on how to be a manager. Shelves and shelves of them. There is also a large and vibrant market in selling courses on management and aspects of management. I’ve been on a couple of such course and, if you can manage to be open minded whilst keeping a cynical edge, I think they can be useful.

However, I think I most of them are missing the key points and that if you can but hold on to the following extensive list of guiding principles you will be a good IT manager. Maybe even an excellent one :-) :

  1. Your top priority, at all times, is to see to the best interests of your people.
  2. Whatever you develop, be it code, databases, network, a team of support staff – User Acceptance is paramount.
  3. You must find ways to deal with other teams and your own management hierarchy in such a way as to be allowed to do (1) and (2).
  4. That’s it.
  5. OK, if pushed, I’d say Never Lie. Maybe that’s just personal though, it’s because I don’t have the memory, audacity or swiftness of mind to pull it off. By not lying I don’t have to try and construct what I said to who and why.

I’m sure people could cite some other hard rules like “you must be within budget” or “you need to get buy-in to your vision” but I don’t agree. Budgets can be negotiated and the difference between those deemed visionaries and those deemed fantasists seems to be to me down to success and luck. Luck is luck and for success I refer you to points 1 through 5.

OK, maybe a final rule is:

  • Never ask for or aim for something that is not realistic.

So, I am now able to develop my team and my application and not expect to be able to spend half the company profit on the fastest box out there, as it is not realistic.

There are a shed load of other things that I think are important to helping you be a good manager, you know, techniques and methods for improving things, but nothing else that is key.

And it’s such a simple, small list even I can aim for it.

The shame of it is that I don’t think it’s enough to be developed into a book or a course so I can’t sell the idea. That and I’ve gone and given it away in this blog. Also, though I feel I can give points 1,2 and 5 a good shot, point 3 is way beyond me…possibly because of point 5… So I am not a great manager.

I’m going to hide behind this stout wall now, with my hard hat on, and wait to be told how naive I am…

Update – A couple of weeks later, Kellyn on her DBA Kevlar blog put similar sentiments to looking after your guys, more from the employee’s perspective and far better covered

Why given so many of us feel this way and want things to be this way…are they not?

Telling the Truth in IT

I’ve been doing presentations for many years, mostly on Oracle Technology, occasionally on management topics. However, my favorite presentation to give is one about when things go wrong.

The title is usually something like “Surviving Survivable Disasters” or “5 ways to Seriously Screw up a Project” and, though the specific examples and flow may vary, the general content is the same. I talk about IT situations that have gone wrong or things that strike me as daft/silly/mindless in IT. My aim is to be entertaining and have a laugh at the situations but I also want to explore what causes disasters and how we might go about avoiding at least some of them.

When doing the presentation I have a couple of ground rules:

  • I must have witnessed the situation myself or know personally, and trust, the individual who is my source.
  • I do not name organisations or individuals unless I am specifically given permission {by individuals that is, organisations never get named. Except one}.
  • I try to resist the temptation to embellish. It’s not hard to resists, a good disaster usually stands on it’s own merits.

It’s a great talk for introducing some light relief into a series of very technical presentations or for opening up a day of talks, to get people relaxed. It’s also the only talk I get seriously nervous about doing – if you are aiming to be entertaining and you miss, you stand to die on stage. The first time I did the talk I was physically sweating. However, it went down a storm. I did it 4 or 5 more times over as many years and it always went down well.

However, about 4 years ago I did the presentation just as I was about to go back to being self employed. After the talk a very good friend came over and said something like “Really entertaining talk but…maybe you should tone it down? A lot. Potential employers are going to take a dim view of you doing this, they will worry they will appear in the next talk”. I protested that I never mention companies or people and, surely, all organisations are able to admit that things go wrong and it is to everyone’s benefit if we all learn from them? My friend was adamant that though companies want to benefit from other disasters, they never, ever want to in any way be the source of that benefit. He was sure it would be very damaging to my potential career. Hmmmm…. I could see his point.

I was already scheduled to do the talk again in a couple of months and I took heed of his advice for it. I toned down the material, I removed some of the best stories and I added several disclaimers. I also died on stage. It went from an amusing 45 minutes to a preachy and stodgy affair.

I have not done it since.

The question is, should I have pulled back from doing that talk? Is it really going to harm my potential employability? (After all, no work has ever come my way from presenting). Why can’t we be honest that issues occur and that learning from them is far more valuable than covering them up? After all, do we believe a person who claims never to have made mistakes?

What prompted this thread is that I have been asked to do the talk again – and I have agreed to do so. I’ll be doing it next week, with the title “5 ways to advance your career through IT Disasters” for the UK Oracle user group Back to Basics event. This is a day of introductory talks for people who are fairly new to Oracle, the brain-child of Lisa Dobson. Lisa realised a few years ago that there were not enough intro-type presentations, most technical talks are by experts for fellow experts {or, at least, people wanting to become experts}.

I’m very happy to support helping those who are new to Oracle and I think it is important that people who are new to IT are exposed to what can go wrong – and any advice that might help them avoid it. After all, it’s better they learn from our mistakes than just repeat them again. OK, they’ll just repeat them again anyway, but they might spot that they are doing so just in time :-)

Is this a good idea? What the hell, I want more free time to do things like this blog – and get on top of the garden.

Annie Hall

From time to time I am reminded by postings on the OTN database forum of a sequence  from the move Annie Hall which shows Diane Keaton and Woody Allen being interviewed (separately) by their therapists:


    DK’s Therapist: “Do you have sex often? “
    Diane Keaton:  ”Constantly, I’d say three times a week”

    WA’s Therapist: “How often do you sleep together?”
    Woody Allen:   “Hardly ever, maybe three times a week”

This dislocation appears in a similar fashion with Oracle – though the dialogue goes something like this:


    User: “This query takes forever to run.”
    DBA: “Can you give me a rough idea of how long ?”
    User: “Nearly 10 seconds”.

Advice to DBAs – remember to ask for facts, not opinions.

Burleson buys BMC ?

There have been rumours running through the Oracle community over the last couple of days following publication of a note containing a clue that Burleson Consulting may have acquired the rights to BMC’s performance monitoring tool “Patrol” – and may even have bought out BMC itself. These rumours started shortly after the disappearance of a blog item by Charles Hooper discussing an SQL statement executed by the product formerly (perhaps still) known as BMC Patrol.

When questioned about the disappearance of the blog item Mr. Hooper explained that it had been taken down by his service provider in accordance with a DMCA takedown notice issued by Burleson Consulting and signed by Don Burleson who had quoted the SQL statement in question and stated that: “Under penalty of perjury, I swear that … I am the copyright owner of this material”.

Disclaimer:

The purchase of BMC Patrol by Burleson Consulting has not yet been officially announced by either party but the copyright claim contained in the DMCA notice would appear to indicate that Burleson Consulting has acquired exclusive copyright by purchasing (at a minimum) the rights to the product.

In other news

Latest gossip suggests that database giant Oracle Corporation has not completely discounted their option to sue Burleson Consulting regarding the latter’s frequent publication of the SQL statement: "select sysdate from dual;" despite having  prior publication dates for  the phrase as a whole and  the words “sysdate” and “dual” independently.

Any such gossip is, as yet, completely unsubstantiated but attorneys representing the descendants of Rene Descartes are said to be keeping their fingers crossed that Oracle Corporation will make something of this issue.

It is possible, however, that these rumours were never intended as serious comment and are the result of the inevitable mockery that ought to follow any ridiculous abuse of the DMCA mechanism.

Update 28th Feb:

The original article is back – with a footnote about the false DMCA claim.

I can’t help noticing that the article was unavailable for 17 days in total, though – which is longer than the eleven days it took for my articles to reaappear. There is an important performance guideline here – when Mr. Burleson is behaving badly, publish the fact and drop a note to his wife.

Scientific Method

Dynamic Views

People forget from time to time that when you query the dynamic performance views (v$ views) you shouldn’t expect to get a read-consistent result set – and this can lead to some very strange results, especially when you start writing joins between views (for example you may be able to find a session is both “not waiting” and “waiting” if you still join v$session and v$session_wait).

Here’s a visual analogy to help you remember what’s going on: “Australian Propellors ?”

And a graphic to help explain the phenomenon: “Rolling Shutter Effect.”

And here, for stunning effect only, is another clip that appeared in the “related topics”.

Best Practice

This came up in one of today’s presentations at the UKOUG annual conference: http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2008-09-03/

It’s like the line from the movie The Incredibles: “when everyone’s super, no-one’s super.”