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Coffee Grinders, Wisdom, and PASS


I’ve been at the SQL Pass Summit in Seattle this week, and I can honestly feel my head expanding from all the incredible information and knowledge being shoved in there by so many people who have worked so hard to put their presentations together, to share their experiences, their knowledge, and their mistakes.

And the other morning, as I was idly waiting for the hot water dripping through the coffee maker to become something useful, it got me thinking, about how often that has happened in my life, someone sharing hard earned wisdom that saved me from having to learn from my own mistakes.

I kept watching the coffee maker for a bit, then started to see the pieces come together.

See, not only is the PASS Summit in Seattle, I live in Seattle.  Coffee is more than just a ritual here, it is one of the basic food groups.  It is as necessary as, say, air, and that morning, I was about to clean out the coffee grinder when I heard my Oma (German for Grandma) stop me.

The thing is, she’s been gone from this earth, to live on in our memories, for over 30 years.  Why would she be stopping me? –

And then I remembered.

When I was little, she had a very similar coffee grinder (a Braun 220 volt one that you could wrap the cord around), and she ground the coffee the same way I do.  Fill the grinder about halfway with coffee beans, put the lid on, mash down on the button, wait until the rattle turns into a hiss, and you’re done.  Then – if it was her, she’d unplug the coffee grinder, then spoon out a measured amount of coffee into the coffee pot, if it’s me I just dump it into the filter I’ve put into the coffee maker.

But it’s what she said, in that southern German Swabian dialect I grew up hearing, as she unplugged it that stopped me.  “Also domme Leut’ däen d’r draht in d’r Steckdose bleiba lassa.” (roughly translated: „Dumb people leave it plugged in.”) – and I just took it to be a bit of gray haired wisdom that I didn’t quite understand until years later.

See, that wisdom was pretty simple: Don’t do stupid things.

In fact, it seems that her advice could have been used about 40 years later… See, it seems that a small coffee company here in Seattle had a coffee grinder made that really wasn’t too different from the one Oma had way back when.  It turns out that several people (some of them smart in some ways) managed to actually injure themselves by getting (or putting) their fingers into this little machine.  One that’s designed to take small things and make them into much smaller things.  Apparently the coffee grinders turned on while they were trying to clean them, and that advice about unplugging… a machine… that’s (let me repeat this) designed to take small objects and make them smaller… to keep it from turning on could have been quite useful. But my Oma wasn’t around to give that kind of advice, and as a result, the advice wasn’t heeded, and the company recalled over half a million of the things.

And that wouldn’t have happened if they’d been unplugged.

After I’d thought about Oma, (having unplugged the coffee grinder and put it away) I had another thought, this time about something that happened with Opa (German for Grampa) a few weeks later, having nothing at all to do with coffee.

See, growing up in Germany when I did, the towns and cities still had more than just a touch of a medieval feel to them, what with the cobblestone streets, and some towns still snug inside the walls that were designed to keep the inhabitants in, and any attackers out.  It had been this way for centuries. People were inside the walls, all the agriculture was on the outside, and one day, I went with Opa to one of the gardens that had been in the family for generations, where there were plum trees and potatoes, cabbage and cauliflower, beans and broccoli.

But to get to the garden, we had to walk through a long, narrow orchard, and the only thing Opa had to cut the grass that grew there among the trees with was a scythe, so it didn’t get cut often, and was about waist high on me.  I didn’t really care, and was having fun running through it when I noticed Opa was gone.  He was short but not that short, so I hunted a bit and found he’d crossed over the fence into the neighbor’s orchard, which, as I recall, had horses on it occasionally, and the grass there was much shorter as a result.  It really surprised me, as it was some work to get over the fence and he was over 80 years old at the time, so it was counterintuitive to even think of him going over the fence to walk down along the fence only to have to come back, and I was young and didn’t care about doing something as simple as walking efficiently (on the other side, where experience had told Opa that it was easier).  I just cared about doing it, even if it wasn’t efficient.  In fact, I asked him why he was over there, and he invited me to come over and join him, saying, in that Swabian dialect, “S’isch leichter zom laufa auf dära seite.”  (“It’s easier to walk on this side.”)

I didn’t go over there, being full of spit and vinegar (or the German equivalent) , as it were, and he didn’t push it and let me run like a young maniac through the tall grass on one side of the fence while he walked sedately over the short grass on the other side.

And it got me thinking…

Again.

There was something about that gray hair of theirs.

It symbolized wisdom.

Oma didn’t stick her fingers into the coffee grinder without unplugging it first.

That kept her from losing bits and pieces of her fingers in the grinder.

Opa did walk on the right side, where it was easier.

That was where he didn’t have to waste energy he needed for working in the garden on something as mundane as getting there.

So those were some pretty non-technical examples, but you can easily translate those into all the technical things you do, whether that’s making sure you don’t do the IT equivalent of sticking your fingers in a coffee grinder, or making sure you do the IT equivalent of taking the time to walk down the path on the other side of the fence.

While you’re here – take the opportunities you have and learn from those who have gone before, and who have done stupid things (and learned how to fix them) because you won’t live long enough to make all the stupid mistakes there are to make.

Take the opportunities, some of which you only have here at PASS.  Learn from those who have gone before, and who have done wise things, because you won’t live long enough to learn all the wise things yourself.

Look around you at the PASS Summit, both when you’re between sessions and especially at lunch.

See, most people here with some gray hair (figuratively or literally) didn’t get to be that way in this industry by being stupid.  Pay attention to the things they do. The things they do are often the result of hard won wisdom.

You’ve heard that wisdom (or, good judgment) comes from experience.

Of course, experience often comes from bad judgment.

So when you see a person who looks like they’ve been around awhile here at PASS, pay attention, not only to what they do, but also pay attention to the things they don’t do.

And don’t be afraid to ask them why.

You might learn something.

Oh, and if you’re still in the industry when you find that first little gray hair of your own sprouting, and you see a wide eyed up and coming DBA looking at you as if you’re the fount of all knowledge, shyly asking some advice on something, just to say they heard it from you, remember what it was like when you were thirsty for all that knowledge, and treat that request with  the respect and humility it deserves, because once that happens, it’s definitely time to give back to the community that helped make you who you are.

Take care –

Tom

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Posted by on November 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Male Logic, Female Logic, how it all applies to Tech


It’s been said that part of being smart is knowing what you’re dumb at.  Part of being smart is letting other people know it – but – how do you say this…  There are several ways of solving problems.  I happen to know of several ways on this, and before anyone gets all PC on me on this next bit, hear me out.  There is nothing I admire more than someone who can think their way through a problem to a solution.  I love it if they can explain it – but if they get the answer, awesome.  Now a word used to describe problem solving like this logic.  Many years ago, Bill Cosby did a little schtick on Male Logic and Female Logic – and the way he said it, the male logic was very – well, ‘logical’.  If there was a 10 step process to go through, well, it took a guy 10 steps to go through it.

It went something like this:

Male logic

One… <click>

Two…<click>

Three…<click>

… all the way up to 10.

It was simple, elegant, and – to be honest, some might consider it a little boring…

Female logic

Now female logic, he said, was a lot different – and, as much as people want to think men and women are the same, we’re not – not by a long shot.  He pointed out that giving a female the very same 10 step process, she’d go at it like this:

One…<click>

Fourteen…<click>

10.

How the heck did that happen?

In fact, ladies out there – how do you do that?

See – that 14 is COMPLETELY outside our frame of reference, we don’t think about it – it’s not there.  We can ask you how or why it happens, but explaining to someone the concept of 14 when the numbers only go up to 10 is just baffling to us guys – and the way you relate things together that have you making connections and drawing conclusions that we might not see gives you a stunning edge in some incredible areas.

Call it intuition.  Call it what you will, but and it’s like women have a math coprocessor or something so they can shove a problem over there, let it get solved, and come back in a bit with an answer that even they don’t know how they got.

And often the guy’s on step 3, the gal’s at 10,

In fact, I gave the bulk of this blog post as part of a presentation once and got an astonishing piece of feedback from a woman who had “made it” in the industry.  It came to me sanitized, and I couldn’t tell you who it was if I wanted to, but what you read above was written by a guy, me.  What you’ll read below was written by a gal, is in her words, and she quite literally wished to remain anonymous.

When I ended up in the technology industry, I was usually the first female technical peer any of the guys had worked with, and the first technical female any of the (universally male) managers had tried to manage, and it gets ugly when you’re asked for status and all of the guys are all at steps 2-4 and you’re doing something … completely different.   It’s ugly then, and it’s uglier when, without being able to explain it or teach it … you get at least the same result, faster.  And as you gain confidence, much faster. I still remember being assigned to teach a pretty talented guy who have had all the right experience and skills, how to triage a network sniffer trace.  In my mind it starts with “you scroll quickly through the packets looking for something that’s not quite right” … and I knew the exercise was doomed when I looked at his notebook and he’d neatly written “Step 1.” I knew then I would never be able to explain the concept of not really reading, just relaxing with cup of coffee and scrolling through, knowing that your subconscious will throw up an alert if it sees something that’s “not quite right”. There’s your “skip to #14” bit – I can write or use a parsing app for a network trace, but before I go the effort, I’ll just use my eyes.  Sit back with a cup of coffee and scroll through the trace, looking for patterns that “aren’t quite right”.  I’m not looking closely, I haven’t the slightest notion what I’m looking for, and when something strikes me as “not quite right” it can take me some time to figure out exactly why, but it’s often not the sort of thing I could have ever found using traditional analytics and parsing tools.

I was just thrilled to find this info.  It proved my point, not that men are better or women are better. But that they’re different, and that difference needs to be recognized, acknowledged, even if, as guys, we may not completely understand it.

In fact, please understand – this is not a jab at either gender.  There’s no way I’d say one is right or wrong, they’re just different.   And this whole “14” thing – women seeing/feeling/perceiving relationships intuitively where men might not see them in the same way, I think, honestly, that’s why, while IT is traditionally a male dominated field, that database administration (hint: relational databases…) seems to have a greater percentage of females in it.

So, is there more to the story? Yes, there is.

In a nutshell: just because a guy doesn’t understand the existence of 14 doesn’t mean her 14 isn’t valid.

And just because a gal can’t explain the 14 to a guy doesn’t mean he’s an idiot.

It takes a wise manager to see that the problem-solving skills that employees bring to the technical table, whether 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 or 1-14-10, can actually be quite complimentary.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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SQL Family – (and SQL meme Mondays)


Tom LaRock’s (blog|twitter) question this month: What does SQLfamily mean to me?

Interesting concept – this SQLfamily thing, one I hadn’t really thought of, but the longer I stay in it, the more I understand it, and the more I learn there is to understand.

When I first started out in IT, I found myself reaching up to the people who’d been here longer than me, always reaching, learning, growing.

I’ve found that lately, while the reaching, learning and growing hasn’t stopped, there’s another aspect to it now.  I’m reaching, learning and growing – but reaching back, and learning a lot by teaching some of the people who are coming up the ranks behind me.  I learn so much from teaching, because I actually have to explain why I do something, and often, in that very act – understand it better myself.

I can’t tell you how many times the exercise of having to explain something has helped me understand it – even if it’s trying to explain a problem I’m having and am asking for help on.  One place I worked, the lead dba there would see me show up at his desk, with a puzzled look on my face, say thank you, and leave (leaving my puzzled look on his face).  Turns out that just in trying to figure out how to ask him the question, I’d figured it out for myself.

I’ve dealt with folks who are wonderful at answering questions, and folks that taught me much, not only in the basics, but also learning how to learn.

I’ve also dealt with folks who are the SQL equivalent of curmudgeons (nicest word I could think of) – and like it or not, learned from them.

It’s just like a regular family.  Some functional… some dysfunctional… All the wonderful fruits and nuts we’re used to dealing with in our own families.

And that’s part of it, right? We’re all human, we make mistakes, and things go wrong, often at the worst possible moment.  Having that SQL family out there is like having someone you can depend on – even if it’s not technical, but “just” moral support.

In fact, I’m training a new fellow here in the company, we’ve been troubleshooting a horked out master database on an old box that should have been put out of our misery a long time ago, and of course, I’m trying to distill years of “don’t believe the UI” into a simple “because” statement, and it’s challenging – but he’s part of the SQL family, and so while I teach him, he helps me, and it turns out he’s training others.

And that’s cool.

It’s… It’s a “Circle of Life” kind of thing…

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Coding for Georgiana…


A number of years ago, in my first job in IT, I worked for a local health care cooperative automating the data gathering of an outbound call center.

That sounds nice and sophisticated.  What really happened was that I worked in a group with a bunch of little old ladies –meant in the dearest sense you could mean it – they were little, and old, and ladies.  Imagine working with your mom or grandma to get the picture.  They made calls to new members in the various regions to inform them of the possibilities they could expect with their new membership.  My job was to automate the data gathering of the department.  Each telephone call was logged, categorized, and eventually summarized so the region could be billed for the work done on their behalf.

How this was done was simple: Paper, pencil, and a bunch of little hash marks: IIIII IIIII IIIII,

My job – summarize it so those hash marks could be turned into money at the end of the quarter.

I sat there with a solar powered calculator adding hash marks for weeks every quarter while a $2000.00 computer sitting on my desk burned electrons.  So automation became necessary, but automating it so a bunch of little old ladies could use it – correction – would use it – was key.

I’d been told that for this data gathering project, I would not be allowed to use a database, I would have to use Microsoft’s Excel.  And so, technically, I had to make Excel look and act like a database, but more importantly, I had to get these little old ladies (who can be mighty stubborn, I might add) to go from things they could see and feel (pencil and paper) to things they couldn’t (electrons).

One of the little old ladies was named Georgiana.  She had been diagnosed with ADD, and was quite aware of it, so she worked hard, with stacks of post-it notes all over to help keep herself on track.  She also was an absolute delight to work with, and would tell me any time some code I wrote didn’t make sense.  Conversely, if it did make sense, and she understood it, she would let me know – and then I knew everyone else would understand it as well.

So Georgiana became my canary in the coal mine.  She would not only tell me when she didn’t understand how some functionality was supposed to work, she would also tell me when the others had trouble.

And as a result, that trouble, whatever it was, would get fixed.  In human terms, they’d understand it better.  In business terms, their productivity would go up.  In human terms, they’d have less frustration.  In business terms, there’d be fewer impediments to them doing their jobs.

All because the code was written with the customer in mind.

I wrote thousands of lines of code for that project.  It eventually became a distributed data repository, on two separate, totally incompatible networks, that could quite literally only communicate via email, so the calculations happened via Excel macros, daily reporting happened via distributed Excel, Outlook macros and Novell Groupwise automation, and summarization and reporting at the end of the quarter was done in Excel and Word.  This took the generation of the report down from weeks to two hours, a major accomplishment – but it became very clear to me that no matter how wonderful, how exciting, how shiny, sparkly or technically brilliant the code was, if I didn’t listen to my customers – if my code didn’t solve the problems they were facing on a daily basis, then they wouldn’t use it.  If it didn’t do what the customer wanted, then all the effort I put into it was a complete waste of time.

And over time, I realized that more and more, the code I wrote was written with a little old lady in mind.  It’s been 15 years now, but in every line of code I write now is a little bit written for my friend Georgiana.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Databases and Frat Houses…


I had to explain to a colleague why database autogrow and autoshrink were a bad idea, so I did, he laughed, but got it, and so I went back to my desk and hammered this out – no editing, just hammering…

DATABASES AND FRAT HOUSES

Okay folks, so here’s a basic example of why you want to have your database the right size to start with, and why setting things to “autogrow” and “autoshrink” is a bad idea.

Ready?

Let’s say you go to – oh, say, the Local University, and you live in a frat house with 39 of your closest friends and associates.

Let’s also say that this frat house has parties on a rather regular basis, like, every Friday and Saturday night, and about 100 people show up.

Now if the house is big enough, you set up tables, snacks, “beverages”, and music, and people have a good time, in addition to getting plastered, puking on the lawn and so on – (but that’s outside the house, so we’ll deal with puking on the lawn in another issue.)

So far so good, right?  People have places to congregate, dance, chat, do all that other stuff that happens at frat parties, and so on.  No problem… The house is big enough, might be a little crowded sometimes, might be full of hot, sweaty bodies during the party, but basically, it’s a party, everyone’s having a good time, and no one will remember much of it on Saturday morning.

Except for those guys lying on the front lawn, but again, that’s another story.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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