Saturday, 11 December 2010

No More Learners?

I ran across a short video by Jay Cross today, in which he states:

"Let's not think of people as learners. Let's think of them as people, and use our opportunities together -- in conversation, in collaboration, online, face to face, whatever -- to be partners in learning...."

"We're brothers and sisters here", he writes in the intro to this clip, "not parents and children".

I couldn't agree more.

If you've ever been in class with me, you've probably heard me talk about how most of us subconsciously see a person in the front of the room, and neat rows of desks where we're sitting, and think: "Oh no, I'm back in high school."  I try to defuse this subconscious tendency by making it explicit at the start of class.  "You're not here to serve me; I'm here to serve you."  It's a servant leadership model that I've been using in the classroom for most of my career in technical training. It also puts most of the responsibility for learning upon the learner.  I can't teach anybody anything -- but I'm pretty good at helping them do the learning.  "I Karate teach; you Karate learn."

Occasionally, this approach doesn't work. I've had individuals, and sometimes entire classes, that WANT the strong leader to take responsibility for them, to tell them what to do. If that's the culture at the organization, I blend with it and am only occasionally "subversive."  But my goal is always the same: to help a group of individuals get what they need from the time we have together.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Business and Technology Black Belts

I've seen several references recently to black belt rankings in business and technology, similar to those used by some martial arts schools. In some martial arts (by no means all), the color of the belt used to hold one's practice jacket closed is colored to indicate student rank. Tests given in front of the class and judged by a panel of teachers are the basis for the ranking. A scheme widely used in Karate, for example, includes the sequence: white belt (the natural color of the belt) for beginners, advancing through green belt, brown belt, and black belt.

Although a recent invention, not an ancient practice (the black belt was invented by Judo's founder Jigoro Kano in the 1880's, and colored belts date back only to the early 1900s), it has caught the popular imagination, especially the black belt that indicates the first of the advanced ranks. Because of this popularity, some business and technology organizations have adopted the terminology.

For example, the manufacturing quality program Six Sigma developed by Motorola in the 1980s, ranks its practitioners as green belts (beginners), black belts (advanced), and Master Black Belts (champions and coaches).  David Allen, author of the Getting Things Done productivity system, has referred to "GTD Black Belts" in some of his talks, although he has no formal system like Six Sigma.  And another company I'm aware of, which has cloud-based process modeling software, also grants various belt rankings to the consultants who implement their methodology.

I'm not sure what to think about this, having been a student of both Judo and Aikido in the past. I remember vividly suiting up for Aikido class one night, glowing with the accomplishment of passing my last test in the MIcrosoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) series. I was sharing with the other students getting dressed, who didn't know "Microsoft-fu," that this was like a black belt in computing.

They looked at me like I just crawled out from under a rock.

I tried to explain that I knew that the black belt isn't the top or expert level, that it is in fact really the starting point (it shows you're a serious student), and that I felt the same way about achieving my Microsoft certification. Still, I got the same stony silence.

It was many years and many certification tests later that I realized that while my analogy had a certain amount of truth to it, there really is no comparison between the daily practice and dedication it takes over years to get to that "advanced beginner" stage in a martial art, and passing a series of computer-based tests that you can cram for. You can't cram for reality.

Certification programs, in general, have been criticized for not being reality-based.  Some people have advocated putting into place a certification review board, like those for other professions, in which your peers would decide if you qualify. The Microsoft Certified Architect program uses this approach. Others have promoted the idea of hands-on lab testing. The Oracle Certified Master (OCM) program is an example: it requires a two day, timed, practical test performing the kinds of activities a database administrator would be called upon to perform.

I think that identifying senior level practitioners is a useful idea, and if borrowing martial arts terminology because it's familiar makes it easier to understand, all the better. But in the words of Mr. Miyagi, the wise teacher in the Karate Kid movies:

"In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope to hold up pants."  

Words to live by.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Article: Collections in PL/SQL - An Introduction

My latest technical article, "Collections in PL/SQL: An Introduction", has been published online in the newsletter of the Dallas Oracle Users Group (DOUG). 

The article explains why collections are an important part of the PL/SQL language, and lists some typical uses for them. It then walks through three sample scripts showing an associative array indexed by a character string instead of an integer; using a collection to read multiple rows from the database at once with a bulk fetch; and creating a collection in which each element is an entire row from a table.

The newsletters are available to the public without membershp or registration on the site.

Monday, 16 August 2010

MR Trace: SQL Developer Add-In Gets Trace Files for You

Cary Millsap and the folks at Method R have devised a cute add-in to Oracle SQL Developer.  It's called Method R Trace (MR Trace or "Mister Trace" for short) and it does a very simple thing elegantly: when you run PL/SQL code, it automatically turns tracing on and off at the right times, fetches the trace file for you, and presents it in a list right there on the screen.

I read about it on Cary's blog.  Here's a short video demo with Cary at the keyboard:  

He's proud of it because it's the "smallest software tool we've ever designed," but it's usefulness seems way out of proportion to its size.  Just not having to bug the DBA to get your trace files seems worth it to me!

(I'm going to start a new policy here that I hope will catch on among all bloggers: anytime I talk about a product, I'm going to disclose whether or not I received anything of value for the mention.  I didn't, though I did win a Method R door prize at an Oracle User Group meeting once.)

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Simple Oracle Practices

Sometimes, it's the simple things that get us into trouble -- or can save us big time.

Any experienced UNIX admin will tell you to always do an "ls" (list structure) command with your wildcards before you use them in a "rm"  (remove) command.  Similarly, you should test your WHERE criteria in a SELECT statement (perhaps with COUNT) before you use them with a DELETE.

Here are some more very simple practices to develop as a habit, and which will save you at some future time.

1.  After you set ORACLE_HOME manually, test it by changing your current directory to it.  In Unix/Linux, the command is "cd $ORACLE_HOME"; in Windows, it's "cd %ORACLE_HOME%".  If the cd command succeeds and you list the contents of the directory, you should see a standard ORACLE_HOME.  If the cd command fails, or doesn't have the usual subdirectories in it, you've mistyped the pathname and can fix it before relying on it in other commands.

2.  After you connect to the database using "/ AS SYSDBA", test it by the following query:

SELECT instance_name, status FROM v$instance;

You'd be surprised how many times you THINK you connected to one instance, but in reality, you've connected to a different one. This only takes a second, and can save you a LOT of grief.

3.  After a SHUTDOWN ABORT for any reason, immediately follow with STARTUP RESTRICT.  This lets the SMON process perform instance recovery, so that the database is consistent; but it doesn't allow non-privileged users into the database.  Then do a SHUTDOWN IMMEDIATE and continue with whatever corrective action you need.

Three simple things, which if made into a habit, can help prevent gunshot wounds in your feet.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Apologies for my Blackberry

Well, not mine.  I don't have a Blackberry.  What I'm referring to is a trend I've begun to see in emails from my Blackberry-toting friends and associates at work: adding a signature line apologizing for the fact that the email was sent from their Blackberry.

Originally, the tag line "Sent by Blackberry" was probably RIM's strategy for viral adoption of the device: promoting that this email was sent by someone with a cool new technology gadget.

But lately, I'm seeing signature lines more like the following:  "Please excuse misspellings, sent by Blackberry."   Or "Sent by Blackberry, excuse typos and terse replies."

Am I crazy to think that if you have to apologize for a technology, you might have to rethink why and how you're using it in the first place?

  • Are you misspelling things because you're trying to text and drive? Pull off the road before replying so you can focus on your typing (and on keeping the rest of us alive).
  • Are you sending such a terse reply because it's hard to type on the tiny keyboard? Could your reply wait until you get back to the office, when you could send a more thorough reply? Just because you CAN respond immediately, does every incoming email require an immediate reply at the risk of offending the recipient?
  • Are you sending a short reply because you're in a meeting or with someone else? Is the person you're replying to that much more important than those sitting with you, that it's worth disrespecting those in the room?

Text is such an unforgiving medium, that people are forced to read between the lines when interpreting the messages they receive. Right or wrong, a very short reply is often seen as a sign that the sender is angry or upset.  Right or wrong, typos make the sender look like someone who doesn't care enough to correct them before sending, or worse, doesn't know how to spell in the first place.

Granted that the Blackberry is a very useful device, and judging by its nickname ("Crackberry") highly engaging to use. But if you have to apologize for it, maybe you're using it wrong.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Tear Up Your Moleskine

I've been conducting an experiment that may seem like heresy to those who swear by the Moleskine brand of pocket notebooks.

I rip the pages out.

Now before you organize an angry mob of townspeople with torches and pitchforks, let me explain why I'm doing such a thing, and how I use my Mokeskine 3.5" x 5.5" ruled pocket notebook with my GTD system.

As I wrote in my previous post on Capture and Focus, it's important to have a notePAD not a noteBOOK as a capture tool, so you can toss loose sheets, 1 per idea, into your In Box for later processing. I don't use the Moleskine as a journal; I have another solution for that, so permanence is not an issue as it would be if I were using the sketchbook like my son does.  (Yes, he keeps them.) 

The durability of the Mokeskine stitched binding actually put me off from buying it for a while. I looked in all the office supply stores for a nice cover with a refillable notepad and a pocket for loose papers, without success.  Finally, I decided to try the Moleskine -- and I'm glad I did.  It's just the right size, and the unfolding pocket in the back is perfect for collecting ATM and debit card receipts.

I was mesmerized by the beautiful binding at first, so I just wrote my notes and checked them off as I processed them into my GTD system. Except that it was too easy to forget.

Then one day I figured what the heck, and the next time I got back home I grabbed hold of the three sheets I had used that day, and slowly ripped them asunder from that oh-so-perfect binding. I was surprised to find that the skies did not open and smite me with lightning, the earth didn't shake, and most important, the book seemed unfazed by it all.

If a couple of sheets come loose by my doing this, well, the elastic strap will certainly keep them in place until I need them. (The book supposedly has 16 perforated pages designed to be torn out, but I didn't see them.)  And at $12 at Barnes and Noble, it's a heck of a deal compared to the $80 leather Notetaker Wallet kit sold in the David Allen Co online store.

By the way, since the Moleskine doesn't have a pen like the Notetaker Wallet, I've found a marvelous companion to my Moleskine in the Zebra F-301 Compact Pen, which folded in half is less than 4" long and protected from leaks because the cap snaps into place. You get two in the package for under $10 at Staples and refills are available in fine point in various colors.

UPDATE 7/20/2010:  My latest experiment is the Mini Booksling with Pen from The Container Store. I replaced its plastic pen with my Zebra, and I'm good to go.  I taped the elastic that comes with the Molestine inside the back cover so it's out of the way, and use the Booksling across the width of the Moleskine instead. This places the pen along the long edge of the notebook. It still fits in my pocket.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Capture and Focus: I Don't Have to Do Everything RIght Now

On my business trip last week, I listened to an older David Allen podcast on the Best Practices of Collect. I download these podcasts to my iPod so I can listen to them on airplane rides. I seem to hear something new each time I review them.

What struck me this time around is the impact that having a good collection system has on your ability to focus. David was describing his own capture tools, such as a tray of loose sheets of paper on his desk. When he gets an idea in the middle of doing something, he writes it down and throws the paper into his Inbox tray. Then he can let go of it, because he knows it's in his system and he will see it again the next time he processes his Inbox.

A lot of what I do, such as software installs or courseware development, requires intense focus. Interruptions blast my concentration to pieces, and it takes time to put those pieces back together again so I can make sure I'm not forgetting a step (installs) or that I'm keeping the big picture in mind as I write (courseware).  Although some interruptions demand immediate attention (such as an instant message from my manager) many more of them really don't need to be acted on in the moment.

So the past few days, I've been trying to ask myself, "Do I need to do this now?" Even if it will take less than two minutes to do, if it will interrupt something and cause a context shift, I capture it and keep working. I don't need to do everything Right Now for fear of losing it, if I can capture it for later processing.

Another tip: all three speakers in the podcast were insistent that they captured thoughts on a notePAD, not a noteBOOK.  You have to be able to tear out the individual sheets and put them into your Inbox for later processing.  It's too hard to go back through a whole notebook to hunt for action items. With one item per sheet, it's easy. They recommended half-size legal pads so they didn't waste a whole 8-1/2 x 11 sheet of paper for each idea.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Two thoughts on Deciding What to Do Next

It's easy to get stuck in between tasks, trying to determine what is the best thing to do next. This leads to an excess of planning and strategizing, and not enough doing. I had two anti-procrastination thoughts today about the Doing phase of the Getting Things Done methodology.

1. You don't get better at making decisions by thinking or planning, only by doing. It sounds counter-intuitive, but sometimes you can't tell what the best choice is in advance. Only when you choose something and actually do it, can you see the results and use them as feedback to make better choices later.

2. If you're stalled because you don't want to choose "wrong", think about this: if it's in your system as an action item, it's not wrong.  You've already processed the item and decided what it means for you, what the next action is, and put that action on your calendar or an action list.  So if you can't decide what to pick, pick anything at all, rather than continuing to stew.  Anything on your list will move some priority forward, and will provide feedback on what to choose next. Plus, once you're in motion, it's easier to stay in motion and pick the next action... and the next one after that.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

New GTD folder - @Watching

I've been using David Allen's Getting Things Done method (GTD) to organize my time for over a year now.  I have a fairly typical set of "@" folders in my Outlook mailbox, such as:

@Action - things to be done as soon as possible, but not on a specific day
@Reading <listname> - things to read when I have time (several of these, one for each mailing list I'm on)
@Someday - ideas for Someday/Maybe
@Waiting - things on hold while I'm waiting for a response from someone

I also have many folders with no "@" on them, which are my project support materials and reference. When I'm assigned a task, I create a folder for its correspondence. But I was having trouble with emails that didn't fall into any assigned task -- typically things that I've been copied on but have no immediate action. However, I want to keep a closer eye on them than burying them among my reference folders, because they may turn into an assignment quickly.

So I added the folder @Watching. I create a subfolder for each topic, and track the email traffic to these subfolders as it arrives. Now, by expanding @Watching, I see a list of topics I'm tracking. If nothing happens or the task is assigned to someone else, I can delete the folder and its contents easily. If the task is assigned to me, I can just drag it up out of @Watching so that it becomes a regular reference folder.

So far, I'm liking this refinement. But of course, I will keep evaluating it as I go.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Interesting Daylight Saving Time Problem

I was teaching an Oracle Database Administration class last week and ran into an interesting problem involving the change to Daylight Saving Time  (you did know that it's Daylight Saving, not Daylight Savings, right?)

For this class, we usually install just the base version of Oracle Database 10gR2 (, because we're on a private network behind a firewall and we don't cover how to upgrade and patch Oracle until the advanced class. And then we show Enterprise Manager Database Control.

Except that this week, it wouldn't come up. We got Java errors, and the home page said that the status of the database instance couldn't be determined. When we tried to start the DB Console service (this is on Windows), it said it was already running; but when we tried to shut it down, it said it wasn't running. Very weird.

In doing a web search for the Java messages (Google is my friend), time and again we were advised to check how our time zone was set. That seemed odd; you wouldn't think that would matter. But it does: the EM agent checks to see that its time zone is (a) valid, and (b) configured is the same as the server.

Enter Daylight Saving Time. In 2007, the US and Canada changed the start date of Daylight Savings Time to be in mid-March (March 11 that year) instead of the first Sunday in April as it had been. This required patching Oracle products with a new timezone file, so they could properly detect the change. (The document ID on My Oracle Support is 359145.1).  This year, we changed to DST on Sunday, March 14.

The class was held the week of March 29, and the unpatched software still thought we should be on Standard Time until April 4. So the EM agent wouldn't start. Had we done the class a week later, or three weeks earlier, this wouldn't have been a problem; and in fact we have done this class many times since 2007 and never hit this issue because the timing wasn't JUST right.

So we did an unscheduled lab to download patchset and apply it, and EM came right up.

Stuff like this underscores the importance of patching your databases, even in a training environment!

There's something to learn from a training perspective here too. We often think that if things go wrong, our students will lose faith in us and think we don't know what we're talking about. But in this case, I was able to model the proper response a DBA should take: stay calm, research the issue, test. I've had students comment in the past when things went wrong that seeing how to resolve such issues was an unexpected bonus of the class. This class felt the same, they enjoyed the "detour" and the problem solving.