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Why KScope?

Early this year, my friend Mike Riley from ODTUG asked me to write a little essay in response to the question, “Why Kscope?” that he could post on the ODTUG blog. He agreed that cross-posting would help the group reach more people, so I’ve reproduced my response to that question here. I’ll hope to see you at Kscope11 in Long Beach June 26–30. If you develop applications for Oracle systems, you need to be there.

MR: Why KScope?

CM: Most people in the Oracle world who know my name probably think of me as a database administrator. In my heart, I am a software designer and developer. Before my career with Oracle, I worked in the semiconductor industry as a language designer. I wrote compilers for a living. Designing and writing software has always been my professional true love. I’ve never strayed too far away from it; I’ve always found a reason to write software, no matter what my job has been. [Ed: Examples include the Oracle*APS suite and a compiler design project he did for Great West Life in the 1990s, the queueing theory models he worked on in the late 1990s, the Method R Profiler software (Cary wrote all the XSLT code), and finally today, he spends about half of his time designing and writing the MR Tools suite.]

My career as an Oracle performance specialist is really a natural extension of my software development background. It is still really weird to me that in the Oracle market, performance is regarded as a job done primarily by operations people instead of by development people. Developers control at least 90% of the leverage over how fast an application will be able to run. I think that performance became a DBA responsibility in the formative years of our Oracle world because so many early Oracle projects had DBA teams but no professional development teams.

Most of those big projects were people implementing big off-the-shelf applications like Oracle Financial and Manufacturing Applications (which grew into the Oracle E-Business Suite). The only developers that most of those implementation teams had were what I would call nonprofessional developers. Now, I don’t mean people who were in any way unprofessional. I mean they were predominantly businesspeople who had never been educated as software developers, but who’d been told that of course anybody could write computer programs in this new “fourth-generation language” called SQL.

Just about any time you implement a vendor’s highly customizable new application with 20,000+ database objects underneath it, you’re going to run into performance problems. Someone had to attend to those problems, and the DBAs and sysadmins were the only technical people anywhere near the project who could do it. Those DBAs and Oracle sysadmins were also the people who organized the early Oracle conferences, and I think this is where the topic of “performance tuning” became embedded into the DBA track.

The resulting problem that I still see today is that the topic became dominated by “tips and techniques”—lists of tricks that operational people could try to maybe make their systems go a little bit faster. The word “tuning” says it all. I almost never use the word except facetiously, because it’s a cheap imitation of what systems really need, which is performance optimization, which is what designers and developers of software are supposed to do. Even the evolution of Oracle tools for the performance analyst mirrors this post-production tips-and-techniques “tuning” mentality. That’s why most performance management tools you see today are predominantly oriented toward viewing performance from a system resource perspective (the DBA’s perspective), rather than the code path perspective (the developer’s perspective).

The whole key to performance is the application design and development team, especially when you realize that the performance of an application is not just its code path speed, but its overall interaction with the person using it. So many of the performance problems that I’ve found are caused by applications that are just stupid in how they’re designed to interact with me. For example, if you’ve seen my “Messed-up apps” presentation before, you might remember the self-service bus ticket kiosk that made me wait for over a minute while the application tallied the more-than-2,000 different bus trips for which I might want to buy a ticket. That’s an app with a broken specification. There’s nothing that a run-time operations team can do to make that application any fun to use (short of sending it back for redesign).

My goal as a software designer is not just to make software that runs quickly. My goal is also to make applications that are delightful to use. It’s the difference between an application that you use because you must and one that feels like it’s a necessary part of who you are. Making software like that is the kind of thing that a designer learns from studying Don Norman, Edward Tufte, Christopher Alexander, and Jonathan Ive. It’s a level of performance that just isn’t on the menu for operational run-time support staff to even think about, because it’s beyond their control.

So: why Kscope? The ODTUG conferences are the best places I can go in the Oracle market where I can be with people who think and talk about these things. …Or for that matter, who understand that these ideas even exist and deserve to be studied. KScope is just the right place for me to be.

An Axiomatic Approach to Algebra and Other Aspects of Life

Not many days pass that I don’t think a time or two about James R. Harkey. Mr. Harkey was my high school mathematics teacher. He taught me algebra, geometry, analytic geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. What I learned from Mr. Harkey influences—to this day—how I write, how I teach, how I plead a case, how I troubleshoot, …. These are the skills I’ve used to earn everything I own.

Prior to Mr. Harkey’s algebra class, algebra for me just was a morass of tricks to memorize: “Take the constant to the other side…”; “Cancel the common factors…”; “Flip the fraction and multiply…” I could practice for a while and then solve problems just like the ones I had been practicing, by applying memorized transformations to superficial patterns that I recognized, but I didn’t understand what I had been taught to do. Without continual practice, the rules I had memorized would evaporate, and then once more I’d be able to solve only those problems for which I could intuit the answer: “7x + 6 = 20” would have been easy, but “7/x – 6 = 20” would have stumped me. This made, for example, studying for final exams quite difficult.

On the first day of Mr. Harkey’s class, he gave us his rules. First, his strict rules of conduct in the classroom lived up to his quite sinister reputation, which was important. Our studies began with a single 8.5″ × 14″ sheet of paper that apparently he asked us to label “Properties A” (because that’s what I wrote in the upper right-hand corner; and yes, I still have it). He told us that we could consult this sheet of paper on every homework assignment and every exam he’d give. And here’s how we were to use it: every problem would be executed one step at a time; every step would be written down; and beside every step we would write the name of the rule from Properties A that we invoked to perform that step.

You can still hear us now: Holy cow, that’s going to be a lot of extra work.

Well, that’s how it was going to be. Here’s what each homework and test problem had to look like:

The first few days of class, we spent time reviewing every single item on Properties A. Mr. Harkey made sure we all agreed that each axiom and property was true before we moved on to the real work. He was filling our toolbox.

And then we worked problem after problem after problem.

Throughout the year, we did get to shift gears a few times. Not every ax + b = c problem required fourteen steps all year long. After some sequence of accomplishments (I don’t remember what it was—maybe some set number of ‘A’ grades on homework?), I remember being allowed to write the number of the rule instead of the whole name. (When did you first learn about foreign keys? ☺) Some accomplishments after that, we’d be allowed to combine steps like 3, 4 and 5 into one. But we had to demonstrate a pattern of consistent mastery to earn a privilege like that.

Mr. Harkey taught algebra as most teachers teach geometry or predicate logic. Every problem was a proof, documented one logical step at a time. In Mr. Harkey’s algebra class, your “answer” to a homework problem or test question wasn’t the number that x equals, it was the whole proof of how you arrived at the value of x in your answer. Mr. Harkey wasn’t interested in grading your answers. He was going to grade how you got your answers.

The result? After a whole semester of this, I understood algebra, and I mean thoroughly. You couldn’t make a good grade in Mr. Harkey’s algebra class without creating an intimate comprehension of why algebra works the way it does. Learning that way supplies you for a whole lifetime: I still understand it. I can make dimensioned drawings of the things I’m going to build in my shop. I can calculate the tax implications of my business decisions. I can predict the response time behavior of computer software. I can even help my children with their algebra. Nothing about algebra scares me, because I still understand all the rules.

When I help my boys with their homework, I make them use Mr. Harkey’s axiomatic approach with my own Properties A that I made for them. (I rearranged Mr. Harkey’s rules to better illuminate the symmetries among them. If Mr. Harkey had been handy with the laptop computer, which didn’t exist when I was in school, I imagine he’d have done the same thing.)

Invariably, when my one of boys misses a math problem, it’s for the same stupid reason that I make mistakes in my shop or at work. It’s because he’s tried to do steps in his head instead of writing them all down, and of course he’s accidentally integrated an assumption into his work that’s not true. When you don’t have a neat and orderly audit trail to debug, the only way you can fix your work is to start over, which takes more time (which itself increases frustration levels and degrades learning) and which bypasses perhaps the most important technical skill in all of Life today: the ability to troubleshoot.

Theory: Redoing an n-step math problem instead of learning how to propagate a correction to an error made in step – k through step n is how we get to a society in which our support analysts know only two solutions to any problem: (a) reboot, and (b) reinstall.

It’s difficult to teach people the value of mastering the basics. It’s difficult enough with children, and it’s even worse with adults, but great teachers and great coaches understand how important it is. I’m grateful to have met my share, and I love meeting new ones. Actually, I believe my 11-year old son has a baseball practice with one tomorrow. We’ll have to check his blog in about 30 years.

Brown Noise in Written Language, Part 2

Here is some more thinking on the subject of brown noise in written language, stimulated by Joel Garry’s comment to my prior post.

My point is not an appeal for more creative writing in the let’s-use-lots-of-adverbs sense. It’s an appeal for clarity of expression. More fundamentally, it is an appeal for having an idea to express in the first place. If you have an actual idea and express it in a useful way, then maybe you’ve created something that is not spam (even if it happens to be a mass mailing), because it yields some value to your audience.

My point is about being creative only to the extent that if you haven’t created an interesting thought to convey by the time you’ve written something, then you don’t deserve—and you’re not going to get—my attention. (Except you might get me to criticize your writing in my blog.)

What Lanham calls “the Official Style” is a tool for solving two specific problems: There’s (1) “I have no clear thought to express, yet I’m required to write something today.” And (2) “I have a thought I’d like to express, but I’m afraid that if I just come out and say it, I’ll get in trouble.” Problem #1 happens, for example, to school children who are required to write when they really don’t have anything in mind to be passionate about. Problem #2 happens to millions who live out the Emperor’s New Clothes every day of their lives. They don’t “get” what their mission is or why it’s important, so when they’re required to write, they encrypt their material to hide from their audience that they don’t get it. The result includes spam, mission statements, and 98% of the PowerPoint presentations you’ll ever see in your life.

I’m always more successful when I orient my thoughts in the direction of gratitude, so a better Part 1 post from me would have been structured as:

  1. Wow, look at this horrible, horrible sentence. I am so lucky I don’t have to live and work in an environment where this kind of expression (and by implication, this kind of thinking) is deemed acceptable.
  2. I highly recommend Lanham’s Revising Prose. It is brilliant. It helps you fix this kind of writing, and—more importantly—the kind of thinking that leads to it.
  3. I’m grateful for the work of people like Lanham, Fried, Heinemeier-Hansson, and many others, who help us understand and appreciate clear thinking and courageous writing.

Writing is not just output. Writing is an iterative process—along with thinking, experimenting, testing—that creates new thought. If you try to use the waterfall approach when you write—“Step 1: Do all your thinking; Step 2: Do all your writing”—then you’ll miss the whole point of how writing clarifies and creates new thought. That is why learning how to revise prose is so important. It’s not just about how to make writing better. As Lanham illustrates in dozens of examples throughout his book, revising prose forces improvement in the writer’s thinking, which enriches the writer’s life even more than the writing, however tremendous, will enrich the reader.

New Method R Blogs

Today we installed two new blogs over at our method-r.com web page. We created them to give us—all of us at Method R—a place to talk about our products and professional experiences. I hope you’ll come have a look.

I’ll still be posting here, too.