My mate Larry Ellison

Larry Ellison on stage.

Larry Ellison on stage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each year I say I’m not going to go this time and each year I end up going. It’s not that I don’t enjoy Oracle Openworld. San Francisco is a fantastic place to visit and the conference, with over 60,000 attendees, is impressive in scale and ambition. But it’s another long haul flight; another weekend up in smoke; another week away from home. Once the novelty wears off, it loses its lustre.

The fact that this year’s conference coincided with the Americas Cup finals in San Francisco bay added more pizzazz and I looked forward to grabbing an opportunity to see the boats. The bay makes an impressive backdrop, with Alcatraz sandwiched between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge (arguably the prettier of the two). The boats make an impressive spectacle, but the race itself is impossible to fathom from ground level. Where it really comes into its own is on a big screen with overlaid graphics showing speeds and the distance between the two boats.

Probably more impressive still is Larry Ellison, the gregarious founder and CEO of Oracle. Just like Steve Jobs, he was both adopted and a University drop out. Today he is the world’s 5th richest man and a self-declared legend. One of the most often hear jokes about Larry; “What’s the difference between God and Larry Ellison?  God doesn’t believe he’s Larry Ellison.”

His keynote speeches are something to behold. Full of superlatives about how amazing his new software, hardware or combination thereof happen to be. These claims are typically outlandish and difficult to disprove. If Steve Jobs had a reality distortion field, he bought it from Larry.

One thing that tickles me is his inconsistency. I remember watching him one year denouncing cloud as a ridiculous fad. The very next year, Oracle were more cloudy than a cumulonimbus! One year, he was on stage with his counterpart from HP telling the world what strong partners they were. Shortly afterwards, Oracle announced that support for HP’s Itanium machine would soon cease. Shortly afterwards they ran a highly publicised cash for clunkers campaign persuading people to trade in HP hardware for shiny new Oracle machines.

There is no doubt who’s in charge. He reportedly cancelled one of his keynotes because it clashed with an Americas Cup race! But my favourite Larry story came from one of my fellow delegates. Apparently he once spoke to Larry and asked him what his favourite exercise was.

“Basketball.” said Larry. “I like to play it on my yacht.”

“But doesn’t the ball keep flying off the side?”

“That’s OK, I have a guy in a speedboat who zips around collecting the balls!”


What’s the hardest short word to say in the English language?

A moving GIF showing a basic 3 ball-cascade ju...

A moving GIF showing a basic 3 ball-cascade juggling pattern: good for juggling explanation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a short-term success strategy, going round saying yes to everything is hard to beat. Not only that, but it’s infectious as the more you get a reputation for saying yes, the more things come your way to say yes to. The guy asking you to do something walks away happy because he has someone to do his thing. You feel happy because you feel respected and liked.

But the worse thing you can do is to say yes to things and then not follow through. If you have too many balls in the air, then that’s what tends to happen. You’ve said yes to so much stuff that you can’t give any of them the attention they deserve. You end up half doing everything.

A better success strategy is to focus on the important things that you should be doing in your role and succeed at those so that the company prospers.

The first thing to ask when someone asks you to do something is should someone else be doing this. I’m not suggesting getting all slopey shouldered, but if you have a help desk, why is this person coming to you for help. If you have a sales force, why are they coming to you asking you to go out and sell something. In a small company it’s different, because everyone does anything. Any kind of scalable endeavour cannot rely on a hero culture.

They must be asking you because they know you can do it. But if someone else should be doing it, the crucial question is why. It could be because they lack confidence. It could be because they don’t know how to do the thing in question. It could be because they are lazy. Whatever the reason, the person in front of you wants help. Of course you can help him, but that doesn’t fix the problem. And guess where he’ll come next time.

The next question to ask is what needs to happen for the right person to do the job next time? And plan to put steps in place to make it happen.

How many times has someone come up to you late in the day because they have a demo / meeting / Powerpoint to get done / document they need (delete as appropriate). If someone does this to me, I try to establish whether this is something that has really come out of the blue or whether they knew about it some time ago. If it’s the former, I’ll help, assuming I don’t have my own personal emergency to take care of, but point out that I might be busy / on holiday / in a meeting next time and they really need to let me know as soon as possible so that together we can plan when it will happen.

If they make a habit of it, then it’s obvious which short word to use next; NO!


Cover of "The Complete Robot (Robot Serie...

Cover of The Complete Robot (Robot Series)

I don’t know why I never got round to reading it. I picked it up in a charity shop eons ago. The cover showed its age and the title didn’t seem that exciting. Even the blurb on the back of the book failed to motivate any kind of desire to read it. How wrong I was.

I tend to find books where politics form the central thread of the story tedious. There are some notable exceptions; The Song of Ice and Fire trilogy by George Martin the main one that springs to mind. I also have low tolerance for books that don’t grab me early in the story. So I didn’t have high expectations. Despite all that, Foundation is the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read.

The central premise of the story is interesting. The behaviour of any sufficiently large society can be mapped and predicted using mathematical models. Professor Hari Sheldon, as a Psychohistorian predicts the downfall of the empire using such mathematical models. There is no way to avoid it, but the effects are mitigated by forming the Foundation.

The story rattles along at a cracking pace as the epochs unfold. Each epoch requires a different set of skills and a different set of people to come to the fore. The scale of the story is sometimes staggering, but as a writer, I can appreciate the crispness of Isaac Asimov‘s prose. The end of every era is marked by a crisis as the new epoch is born. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I was genuinely disappointed when the book finished. 

I went to the local bookshop to pick up the sequels, only to find that they were out of stock. Impatient to get another dose of Asimov, I picked up the Complete Robot anthology. All of the 31 stories revolve around the robots of the US Robotics and Mechanical Men corporation and the nuances of the 3 laws of robotics. Some might think that such a subject would be severely limiting, but there is huge variety in the stories. My personal favourite is Reason where the robots decide that the best way to obey first law is to start locking the humans up.

By a sheer stroke of coincidence the day after I finished the series I, Robot came on the TV. I have yet to read the story, but I couldn’t turn down the chance of some visual Asimov goodness. The character names and the terminology used are reminiscent of the world I’ve come to know and love, but it’s almost as if they put together all the ingredients of a good Asimov robot story and threw half of them away. Not a bad film, but somehow a wasted opportunity.

I can’t wait for someone to create a film version of Foundation. In the meantime, I’m patiently waiting for the next books in the series.


English: An example of the newly-designed Guin...

English: An example of the newly-designed Guinness glass, put into use in April 2010. It was designed to gradually replace the older tulip-shaped glasses. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An excited member of my team once came up to me and told me he’d sped up a subsystem by a factor of 700 times. Once he ran some full system tests, we found that the optimisation had absolutely zero performance impact on any observable aspect of the system. The online requests still took the same amount of time. There was an overnight batch that took almost exactly the same time as before we applied the optimisation. The guy was crestfallen.

How many times have you been on the phone to your bank and the operator says something like “Sorry for the delay Sir, the computer’s really slow today”? Performance problems are an annoyance. Unless things are really bad, you can typically use the system, but it’s slow. We human beings are an impatient lot, so the annoyance level of a system taking 5 seconds to respond instead of 1 is higher than you might expect.

There is some mystique about the performance of a system. With good reason. To really understand performance, you need to understand a hell of a lot about the 1s and 0s that are flying around at the lower level. You need an understanding of what’s happening at the hardware level to make sure there are no bottlenecks there. Sometimes it might be the operating system running out of resources or perhaps the database. It might even be the application code itself. A good performance expert will have many years of experience and an intuitive grasp of what’s going on at every level.

It usually boils down to three different types of problem. Either the tasks in the system are taking too long, or there are too many tasks going on or there is contention.

Suppose you have a bar. Suppose that each time the barman serves a customer, he has to go next door and buy a glass. Each customer interaction is going to take a long time. Adding more barmen is the wrong approach. To fix the performance problem, you need to have a shelf full of glasses that the barman can use whenever a customer places an order. You also need to make sure the shelf gets restocked.

Suppose 20 thirsty people turn up. Now, there is contention for the barman. Cutting the amount of time the barman takes to serve each customer will help, but adding more barmen would probably help more.

Suppose 14 coach loads of thirsty Irishmen turn up on the way back from a rugby match. Now you’ve got a real problem. Not only have you got too many customers to serve, and you have contention on the bar staff, the chances are that a good proportion of them are going to order Guinness (the drink that takes the longest time to serve). To add insult to injury, they’ve probably spent all their money at the match so many of them will also be paying by credit card.

In this example, you’ve got multiple examples of all 3 types of problem at once, which is typically how it goes when you are looking at a complex application. So the next time you’re on the phone to the call centre and the system’s slow, cut them some slack. And spare a thought for the poor sod in the back room who’s trying to work out why.


Pocket watch

Pocket watch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The snap of his briefcase clasps shattered the silence like a gunshot. Wordlessly, Nickleback (of Nickleback, Orchard and Furrow) retrieved a sheaf of papers before closing the briefcase. The disorder of the papers was in stark contrast to Nickleback’s meticulous appearance. His jet black hair, parted exactly at the corner of his squarish forehead. He pulled off his frameless spectacles and cleaned them using his handkerchief.

“Mr… Albert Muller?”

The old man sat across the other side of table grunted his acknowledgement. Most of Albert Muller’s hair was no longer there and what remained was an atoll of wispy white strands. A bushy white beard framed his face. Like his lawyer, he wore a suit but his seemed to accentuate Albert’s dishevelled appearance.

“Charged with Criminal Damage?”

Albert swallowed audibly before bridging his fingers in front of his face. As if unhappy with the pose, he immediately folded his arms across his barrel-shaped chest.

Nickleback looked up. “Is that correct?”

Albert didn’t trust his voice in responding. He nodded, once.

“How will you plead, guilty or not guilty?”

Alberts chair flew backwards as he stood and pounded his fist upon the table scattering papers from the pile.

“It is they who are criminals. They stole my whole life from me. Everything I ever worked for, they took from me. They should be locked up!”

Nickleback removed his glasses and sucked on the earpiece, weighing up what Albert said before gathering the scattered papers. He replaced his glasses and read on.

“The errr… subject of the criminal damage was some sort of machine. A machine that they bought from you for £10,000.”

Albert sat down again. “A compulsory purchase is no purchase. It is robbery by the government. They should be sat here as your clients”

“But there’s an accounting here for every single nut, every single screw, every piece of wire, every panel. They paid you a very fair price.”

“Who’s to say that’s a fair price? Every nut, every bolt… What about every bead of sweat, every sleepless night, my painstaking research and experiments, the very essence of my being. What price do you put on that?”

“But they paid you an additional £5,000 for estimated labour costs.”

Albert leaned forward, before lowering his voice. “Five thousand pounds? How much of your labour would I get for five thousand pounds Mr Nickleback?”

“What was the machine Mr Muller?”

“It was a time machine.”

Nickleback leaned forward, curious. “Did it work?”

“Yes, of course it worked. That is why the bastards stole it from me.”

“How did it work?”

“You know nothing of the base principles of temporal science, so it is very difficult to explain. Let’s just say the machine helps to locate the strands of time and follow them backwards into the past and in limited circumstances forwards into the future.”

“Why did you destroy the machine?”

“Because they could not be trusted. They wanted to go back and remove Hitler. They wanted to steer the Titanic round the iceberg. They wanted to stop the terrorists from crashing into the world trade centre. They even wanted to use the machine for financial gain to pay off the deficit – fools. They do not understand the dangers. It is all too easy to blunder into significant changes to the present. If they cause feedback by tying the present to the past, they can cause a temporal causality loop. And then there are paradoxes. Fools as well as criminals!”

Albert sat back in the chair. “Besides, I did not destroy the machine.”

“It says here that all that was left was a pile of twisted metal and wires.”

Albert spoke slowly. “I tell you, I did not destroy the machine.”

“Who did then?”

“I simply moved the machine and left in its place the detritus you describe.”

“Where is it now?”

Albert smiled. “To a man with a time machine, hiding places are limitless.”

Nickleback shook his head, opened his briefcase and cast in the sheaf of papers. “If found guilty, you are looking at a significant custodial sentence.”

Albert’s smile broadened into a wide grin. He began to laugh, slowly at first, but before long, his shoulders shook with exultant laughter.

Catching his breath Albert said “My dear Mr Nickleback, to punish me, a temporal scientist, they intend to give me…”

He descended into hoots of laughter again before gasping out the word “Time!”

Nickleback left the room shaking his head. He could hear Albert’s laughter a long way down the corridor. At the reception desk, he located his name in the ledger to sign out and frowned. He looked at his watch and then looked back at the ledger.

The reception clerk looked up “Everything OK?”

Nickleback stared into space. “Yes – it’s just… I could have sworn today was Friday.”

The Bowden Trophy

Laughing girl

Laughing girl (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Life is serious and taking it too seriously robs you of happiness, fun and productivity. A solemn outlook increases stress, squanders creativity and innovation, and stifles progress.  

Making a fool of yourself is often considered a brave or stupid thing to do. To expect the company to do it in unison every year sounds like madness and yet that is what happened every year at BP while I was there. The event, known as the Bowden Trophy took place in the restaurant of BP House. Teams of 10 people competed in a variety of challenges to find the true champions in the company.

Some took it very seriously. Most approached it with trepidation and a sense of humour. From memory, there were about a dozen or so events and a bar was on hand to offer liquid courage to those who needed it.

All of the events involved simple team tasks. There was an element of suggestiveness to most of them. The early rounds were uneventful, but as the evening wore on and the teams became less and less sober, co-ordination started to disappear making the tasks very difficult indeed.

Transferring a polo mint from mouth to mouth using matchsticks and balloons from knees to knees became almost impossible. Transferring a key on a piece of string inside everyone’s clothes becomes slightly easier because when the drink flows, inhibitions disappear. Winning was more about stamina than any level of skill. Most teams retired early to the bar.

People from all over the company took part. Senior management through to the most junior staff. Every department was represented, even the most reserved such as legal and personnel (as they were known before they became human resources).

For one evening of the year, everyone forgot about the hierarchy. We left all the stresses and strains of keeping the wheels of industry turning back in the office and just had fun together. New friendships were made. New contacts were found. Compromising photos were taken.

I have no idea whether the event continues to this day. I suspect it died out as a casualty of political correctness. But it was fun while it lasted. During the whole time it ran, no-one was seriously hurt (physically or psychologically). Discipline in the office didn’t break down. Oil was still drilled, refined and sold all over the world and the company still made money.