Avoiding Regret

After working for a variety of companies in the 1980s, after working for Oracle in the 1990s, after trying (and failing) to build a company with friends at the turn of the century, and after more than a decade working as an independent consultant in this new century, I found myself in a professional dilemma last year.

I know I need to work at least another ten years, probably more like fifteen years, to be able to retire.  I had survived the nastiest economic downturn since the Great Depression, the Great Recession of 2008-2011, while self-employed, and felt ready to take on the economic upswing, so I was confident that I could work steadily as an independent Oracle performance tuning consultant for the next 15 years or more.

Problem was: I was getting bored.

I loved my work.  I enjoy the “sleuthiness” and the forensic challenge of finding performance problems, testing and recommending solutions, and finding a way to describe it clearly so that my customer can make the right decision.  I am confident that I can identify and address any database performance problem facing an application built on Oracle database, and I’ve dozens of successful consulting engagements to bear witness.  I have a legion of happy customers and a seemingly endless supply of referrals.

Being confident is a great feeling, and I had spent the past several years just enjoying that feeling of confidence on each engagement, relishing the challenge, the chase, and the conclusion.

But it was becoming routine.  The best explanation I have is that I felt like a hammer, and I addressed every problem as if it was some form of nail.  I could feel my mental acuity ossifying.

Then, opportunity knocked, in an unexpected form from an unexpected direction.

I have a friend and colleague whom I’ve known for almost 20 years, named Kyle Hailey.  Kyle is one of those notably brilliant people, the kind of person to whom you pay attention immediately, whether you meet online or in person.  We had both worked at Oracle in the 1990s, and I had stayed in touch with him over the years since.

About four years ago, I became aware that he was involved in a new venture, a startup company called Delphix.  I wasn’t sure what it was about, but I paid attention because Kyle was involved.  Then, about 3 years ago, I was working as a DBA for a Colorado-based company who had decided to evaluate Delphix’s product.

Representing my customer, my job was to prevent a disaster from taking place.  I was to determine if the product had any merit, if the problems being experienced were insurmountable, and if so let my customer know so they could kill the project.

Actually, what my boss said was, “Get rid of them.  They’re a pain in my ass“.  I was just trying to be nice in the previous paragraph.

So OK.  I was supposed to give Delphix the bum’s rush, in a valid techie sort of way.  So I called the Delphix person handling the problem, and on the other end of the phone was Kyle.  Hmmm, I can give a stranger the bum’s rush, but not a friend.  Particularly, not someone whom I respect like a god.  So, instead I started working with him to resolve the issue.  And resolve it we did.  As a result, the company bought Delphix, and the rest is history.

Here’s how we did it…

But first, what does Delphix do?  The product itself is a storage appliance on a virtual machine in the data center.  It’s all software.  It uses sophisticated compression, deduplication, and copy-on-write technical to clone production databases for non-production usage such as development and testing.  It does this by importing a copy of the production database into the application, compressing that base copy down to 25-30% of it’s original size.  Then, it provides “virtual databases” from that base copy, each virtual database consuming almost no space at first, since almost everything is read from the base copy.  As changes are made to each virtual database, copy-on-write technology stores only those changes for only that virtual database.  So, each virtual database is presented as a full image of the source database, but costs practically nothing.  Even though the Oracle database instances reside on separate servers, the virtual database actually resides on the Delphix engine appliance and is presented via NFS.

I was asked to understand why the virtual databases were slow.

On the other end of the phone was Kyle, and he was easily able to show me with repeatable tests where and what the nature of the performance problems were, and that they were predictable and resolvable.

But I’m not really writing just about Delphix, even though it is very cool and quite earthshaking.  Rather, I’m writing about something bigger that has stormed into our industry, bringing to fruition something that I had tried — and failed — to accomplish at the turn of the century.  Back then, at the turn of the century, when some colleagues and I tried to build a hosted-application services company, we failed in two ways:  1) we were ahead of our time and 2) we chose the wrong customers.

Being ahead of one’s time is not a failure, strictly speaking.  It shows a clarity of vision, but bad timing.

However, choosing the wrong customers is absolutely a failure.

Before I explain, please be aware that I’m going to change most of the names, to protect any innocent bystanders…

After leaving Oracle in July 1998, I founded my own little company-of-one, called Evergreen Database Technologies (a.k.a. EvDBT).  The dot-com boom was booming, and I wanted to operate as an independent consultant.  I had been living in Evergreen in the foothills west of Denver for years, so the choice of name for my company was by no means a brilliant leap of imagination; I just named it after my hometown.  Business was brisk, even a bit overheated as Y2K approached, and I was busy.  And very happy.

In early 2000, I had been working with another young company called Upstart, and we felt that the information technology (IT) industry was heading in one inescapable direction:  hosted services.  So I joined Upstart and we decided that providing hosted and managed Oracle E-Business Suites (EBS) was a good business.  EBS is the world’s 2nd most prevalent Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system and can be dizzyingly complex to deploy.  It is deployed in hundreds of different industries and is infinitely customizable, so in order to avoid being eaten alive by customization requests by our potential customers, we at Upstart would have to focus on a specific industry and pre-customize EBS according to the best practices for that industry.  We chose the telecommunications industry, because it was an even bigger industry in Colorado then, as it is now.  We wanted to focus on small telecommunications companies, being small ourselves.  At that time, small telecommunications companies were plentiful because of governmental deregulation in the industry.  These companies offered DSL internet and phone services, and in June 2000 our market research told us it was a US$9 billion industry segment and growing.

Unfortunately, all of the big primary telecommunications carriers bought the same market research and were just as quick to catch on, and they undercut the DSL providers, provided cheaper and better service, and put the myriad of small startups out of business practically overnight.  “Overnight” is not a big exaggeration.

By October 2000, we at Upstart were stunned to discover that our customer base had literally ceased answering their phones, which is chillingly ominous when you consider they were telecommunication companies.   Of course, the carnage directly impacted the companies who had hoped to make money from those companies, such as Upstart.  Only 4 months in business ourselves, our target market had vanished like smoke.  You might say we were…. a little disconcerted.

We at Upstart had a difference of opinion on how to proceed, with some of the principals arguing to continue sucking down venture-capital funding and stay the course, while others (including me) argued that we had to find some way, any way, to resume generating our own revenue on which to survive.  I advocated returning to Upstart’s previous business model of consulting services, but the principals who wanted to stay the course with the managed services model couldn’t be budged.  By December 2000, Upstart was bankrupt, and the managed-services principals ransacked the bank accounts and took home golden parachutes for themselves.  I jumped back into my own personal lifeboat, my little consulting services company-of-one, Evergreen Database Technologies.  And continued doing what I knew best.

This was a scenario that I’m told was repeated in many companies that flamed out during the “dot-bomb” era.  There are a million stories in the big city, and mine is one of them.

But let’s just suppose that Upstart had chosen a different customer base, one that didn’t disappear completely within months?  Would it still have survived?

There is a good chance that we would still have failed due to being ahead of our times and also ahead of the means to succeed.  Hosted and managed applications, which today are called “cloud services”, were made more difficult back then by the fact that software was (and is) designed with the intention of occupying entire servers.  The E-Business Suites documentation from Oracle assumed so, and support at Oracle assumed the same.  This meant that we, Upstart, had to provision several entire server machines for each customer, which is precisely what they were doing for themselves.  There was little reason we could do it cheaper.  As a result, we could not operate much more cheaply than our customers had, resulting in very thin cost savings or efficiencies in that area, leaving us with ridiculously small profit margins.

Successful new businesses are not founded on incremental improvement.  They must be founded on massive change.

What we needed at that time was server virtualization, which came along a few years later in the form of companies like VMware.  Not until server virtualization permitted us to run enterprise software on virtual machines, which could be stacked en masse on physical server machines, could we have hoped to operated in a manner efficient enough to save costs and make money.

Fast forward to today.

Today, server virtualization is everywhere.  Server virtualization is deeply embedded in every data center.  You can create virtual machines on your laptop, a stack of blade servers, or a mainframe, emulating almost any operating system that has ever existed, and creating them in such a way that finally makes full use of all the resources of real, physical servers.  No longer would system administrators rack, wire, and network physical servers for individual applications using customized specifications for each server.  Instead, virtual machines could be configured according to the customized specifications, and those virtual machines run by the dozens on physical machines.

The advent of virtual machines also brought about the operations paradise of abstracting computer servers completely into software, so that they could be built, configured, operated, and destroyed entirely like the software constructs they were.  No more racking and wiring, one server per application.  Now, banks of “blades” were racked and wired generically, and virtual machines balanced within and across blades, with busier virtual machines moving toward available CPU, memory, and networking resources and quieter virtual machines yielding CPU, memory, and networking to others.  Best of all, all of this virtualization converted hardware into software, and could be programmed and controlled like software.

Everything is virtualized, and all was good.

Except storage.

Think about it.  It is easy and cheap to provision another virtual machine, using fractions of CPU cores and RAM.  But each of those virtual machines needs a full image of operating system, application software, and database.  While server virtualization permitted data centers to use physical servers more efficiently, it caused a positive supernova explosion in storage.  So much so that analysts like Gartner have predicted a “data crisis” before the end of the decade.

This is where Delphix comes in.

By virtualizing data as well as servers, it is now truly fast, cheap, and easy to provision entire virtual environments.  Delphix works with Oracle, and it also works with SQL Server, PostgreSQL, MySQL, DB2, and Sybase.  Even more importantly, it also virtualizes file-systems, so that application software as well as databases can be virtualized.

So back in early 2014, Kyle contacted me and asked if I would be interested in joining Delphix.  My first reaction was the one I always had, which is “no thanks, I’ve already got a job“.  I mean, I’m a successful and flourishing independent consultant.  Why would I consider working within any company anymore.  Business was brisk, I never had downtime, and the economy was improving.  I had successfully been operating as an independent consultant for most of the past 15 years.  Why fix what wasn’t broken?

But here was the crux of the matter…

I wanted to try something new, to expand beyond what I had been doing for the past 25 years since I first joined Oracle.  If it was a large established company beckoning, I wouldn’t have considered it for a second.  But a promising startup company, with a great idea and a four-year track record of success already, and still pre-IPO as well?

I couldn’t resist the gamble.  What’s not to like?

It’s possible I’ve made an enormous mistake, but I don’t think so.

Not to turn excessively morbid, but all of us are just a heartbeat away from our common destination.  I believe that, when I’m at the last moments of my life, the thing I fear will not be death itself, or pain, or leaving life behind.

It is regret that I fear.

And regret can take many forms, but the most painful regret will undoubtedly be what might have been, the opportunities passed or missed.  Career is only one aspect of life, and I don’t want to give it too much significance.  I’ve accumulated regrets in how I’ve lived my life, and how I’ve treated people in my life, and in some cases they are small but there are some which will always haunt me.

But with regards to my professional career, as Robert Frost said, I’ve taken the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference.  No regrets here.

If you want something done, ask a busy person…

This is a re-post I originally made on the ODTUG website on 17-Jan 2013 at the beginning of my two-year term on the board of directors...

This past weekend, I attended my first face-to-face Board of Directors meeting with ODTUG. Monty Latiolais, current president of ODTUG, asked me to let him know if there was anything “less than stellar” about my experience, and I have say the answer is “no”.  It was a stellar experience, all weekend.  Here’s why…

For 20 years, I’ve been a member of the Rocky Mountain Oracle Users Group.  My boss at Oracle at the time, Valerie Borthwick, told everyone in our team that the best thing we could do for our career and for our business practice was to “become famous”.  Not famous (or infamous) as in “celebrity” or “rock star”, but famous as in “known within our industry”.  Today, she would be telling us to blog and tweet, but back then, she was telling us to write and post white papers and to do presentations.  Put our ideas out there.  Discuss what we knew.  Submit to peer reviews.

The biggest thing I learned then is that you cannot claim to know something until you’ve tried to explain it to others.  Lots of people know something well.  But unless they’ve tried to explain it to others, there will be gaps in knowledge, fuzzy areas in understanding, and lack of depth.  Explaining to others fills gaps, clarifies fuzzy areas, and deepens the superficial.  Weak points are rapidly exposed while presenting information in public.  So, as I found ways to explain what I thought I already knew, I had to fix these problems, and my career flourished.

So in 1995, I joined the board of directors at RMOUG, because I wanted to spend more time around smart people, and see how they make things happen. That’s where I learned my next big lesson, which is when you have an important task, give it to a busy person, because they get it done.

It seems a bit counter-intuitive, but as you stop and observe those around you, it becomes obvious…

  • Some people like to think about doing things, but never do it
  • Others plan to do things, but never do it
  • Others talk themselves out of doing things before they ever get started, so they never do it
  • And others simply refuse to do anything

The people who are always busy are always getting things done.

That is what I found with the board of ODTUG, busy people who have plenty to do already, doing one more thing.

My favorite kind of people.

One year at Delphix

It’s been over a year since I leapt into the void.

OK, more than a little melodramatic.  In many respects, I was leaping from the void by joining a promising and exciting startup company like Delphix.

Business was still brisk as an independent consultant at EvDBT, but for the past several years, I was experiencing what I called “just-in-time engagements”.  That is, new consulting engagements were just mysteriously showing up at the right time just before the current one was ending.  Frankly, it was getting a bit spooky, and I had been on pins and needles for a couple years watching it happen, wondering like a farmer if the day would come when the rain did not appear on time.  That day had shown up previously, during the recession of 2001 – 2002, when I experienced about 2-3 weeks of no work early in 2002, but that was the only dry spell I encountered in almost 16 years at EvDBT.  However, I wasn’t eager to see another one…

So a little over twelve months ago, on 01-May 2014, I left the world of Oracle technology consulting that I had first entered on January 15, 1990.  Well, I haven’t really left Oracle technology, but I’m no longer making a living at it.  Oracle is a big part of Delphix, but only a part.

What have been the highlights during my first year at Delphix?

  • learning data virtualization
  • learning how to tune virtual databases for Oracle and SQL Server
  • learning VMware and earning my VCA certification
  • carving a personal niche within a small company
  • became proficient at Windows Powershell    <- no kidding!  true!
  • continuing to present at Oracle conferences, often traveling and presenting with my brilliant wife, Kellyn Gorman

Yes, Kellyn and I got married during the past year!  It took us each a few tries at marriage, but we each hung in there, and got it right this time.  They say that remarriage is the triumph of optimism over experience, and I’m delighted to say that optimism trumps experience.  We did the deed in grand style, spending the week at Oracle Open World in San Francisco, coming home on Friday and getting married that Sunday in a tiny ceremony with immediate family only.  We finished up the RMOUG TD2015 call-for-papers on Wednesday and Kellyn publshed the agenda on Thursday, and then on Saturday we flew to Europe to do a joint-keynote and present at the Slovenian Oracle Users Group in Ljubljana and the Croatian Oracle Users Group in Rovinj.  After spending time with Joze and his lovely wife Lili, we blasted out of Croatia and scooted over to beautiful Venice for a quiet, blissful week-long honeymoon, meeting with Lothar and his lovely wife Birgit during the week as well.

Then, it was back to reality through the end of the year, getting swept up in the preparations for the RMOUG conference.

Delphix had a spectacular Q4 ending on 31-January 2015, where that financial quarter alone equaled the earnings from the entire previous fiscal year.  Lots of celebrations, victory laps, and high fives at the company all-hands meeting in early February, but what none of us in the Professional Services division saw was the looming tsunami of freshly-sold new deployments cresting just over our heads.  That wave crested and crashed down on us, and I found myself buried in work.  Just now, four months later in the new fiscal year, I’m finally able to look up and look around to find that winter and spring have passed and summer has arrived.My second year at Delphix has begun, and I’m curious as to what it will bring.

I’m continuing to heed the advice of Tim Minchin, who counsels against pursuing one’s Big Dream and instead suggests passionate dedication to short-term goals, in short that one be “micro-ambitious”.  That is say, that thing that is right in front of you right now?  Do it the very best you can, and put your back into it.  Whether it is a blog post, cutting the lawn, an email, or a new wax ring for the toilet in the basement.  Especially the new wax ring – don’t bugger that up!  And then do the next thing the same way.  And the next.  And the next.  Before you know it, you’ve climbed a mountain and have made a pretty good career besides.

Not unexpectedly at a small fast-growing company, hints have been made of a transition from the technical track to the managerial track.  This would finally reverse the track switch I made over 20 years ago while at Oracle, when I stepped off the managerial track in favor of the technical track.  I’ve never looked back on that decision, but should I be “micro-ambitious” here as well, take the new task right in front of me, and work to excel?  Or stick to my guns, stay with the technical track?

I’ve learned that it is a mistake to just “go with the flow” and bob along with the prevailing current.  If one is to succeed at something new, it must be a whole-hearted plunge accompanied by a full-throated war cry.

So, if you hear a strange noise rather like a cross between a “Tarzan yell” and someone choking on an avocado pit, don’t be alarmed.  Just listen a little longer to find whether you hear the “splat” of my corpse hitting pavement, or the “whoosh” as I learn to fly again.

And rest assured, that wax ring in the downstairs toilet?  Nailed it.

Hello Delphix!

After almost 16 years as an independent consultant, with a couple side-steps into the world of small consulting-services startups, I’ve accepted an offer from Delphix, a startup building the future of information technology, enabling agile data management and storage virtualization.

I’m closing EvDBT as a business, since the employee count will reduce from one to zero, and finishing up my consulting engagements, starting with my new employer on 01-May 2014.

Thank you, EvDBT.  You were my lifeboat and my vehicle to a better career and a better life!

15 years of EvDBT

I worked at Oracle Consulting for eight and a half years, from January 1990 until July 1998, starting as a senior consultant and finishing as a technical manager.  In the summer of 1998, I was experiencing a dual crisis in my career, directionally and ethically.

From the directional perspective, Oracle Consulting was sending very clear signals that the way Gary Dodge and I were doing business in the Denver consulting practice was not aligned with corporate goals.  The corporation wanted vertical “centers of expertise” with global and national scope.  In Denver, Gary and I managed about a dozen generalists, with experience ranging from very junior to very senior, who effectively covered all types of technology.  Our goal was to let each person work locally on the type of work they enjoyed, occasionally coercing some to try something different.  Many of us had families, and all of us lived in Colorado for a reason.

Attempting to adhere to corporate direction, when we received a request from a local customer, we began to first contact the relevant national or global “center of expertise”.  Most often, we would be told that nobody was available within the next few weeks (or months) and that, when they did become available, the rates charged would reflect a very senior person coupled with travel expenses.  We would feed that response back to the customer, who understandably became concerned or irate, and asked for one of our local generalists, whom they had probably used previously, which would have been our first response anyway.  In almost each case, we would end up staffing one of our local folks in the engagement, who completed the engagement often before the national or global group’s person became available.  As this continued, the pressure from corporate became more direct, complaining about a “black hole in the Rockies”.  So, looking ahead into the future at Oracle, I saw a model of business with which I wasn’t comfortable:  our local people getting on planes to work elsewhere, while out-of-town personnel were flying into Colorado to work here.  Perhaps it looked good from a higher level, but from our street-level view, it was absurd.

However, I also had a more serious ethical problem.  I had been sent to Los Angeles to work an engagement involving my primary expertise at the time:  Oracle Parallel Server on IBM RS6000/SP clusters.  The customer was a start-up website job board.  Both IBM and Oracle were determined to sell some massive hardware and software in there, and were working together toward common purpose with rare cooperation.

Except the customer wasn’t cooperating.

Instead, they had come up with a far less-expensive scheme involving dozens of commodity servers, where the one server contained a master database to which new job postings were added and changes were made, which was then replicated to dozens of read-only database servers using backup/restore, with a connection load-balancer directing traffic.  This allowed their read-mostly website to scale as needed by off-loading the reads from the master database and segregating writes from the read-only databases.  It was fast, cheap, and easy — a rare occasion when it wasn’t necessary to choose only two.  It was novel for the time, I was impressed, and said so.  Nowadays, such a thing is called a reader farm and can easily be implemented using Active Data Guard.

However, the IBM and Oracle teams were adamantly opposed – fast, cheap, and easy would ruin the lucrative deal they had planned for themselves.  So I was directly ordered by the regional vice-president in charge of the deal to reject as unworkable the customer’s plans and instead extol the virtues of Oracle Parallel Server and IBM RS6000/SP clustered servers one way or the other, and recommend it strongly in conclusion.

What to do?

I certainly did not enjoy being ordered to lie.  Not asked, but ordered.  On the other hand, I worked for Oracle and I had a boss and that boss stated very clearly what to do, as he had every right to do.  After all, no blood would be spilled, no babies would be killed.

So my solution to the ethical dilemma was:

  1. Complete the engagement as directed
  2. Prevent it from happening again

I am not smart enough to avoid making mistakes, but I believe in making mistakes only once.  I did what I was told to do, enduring the astonished looks from the good folks who couldn’t believe I was spouting such nonsense.  I subsequently resigned from Oracle, to avoid ever having to make that mistake again.  But having resigned from one well-regarded corporation, the question became:  are there any corporations, anywhere in the world, where I would not be asked to do something like that again?

The answer was simple and, in August 1998, Evergreen Database Technologies, Inc opened for business.

The first person I told of my decision to resign was Gary Dodge.  He wasn’t my supervisor, but we were peers.  I entered his office and closed the door, and he looked up and commented, “Oh, that’s not a good sign.”  I sat down and told him, and he nodded and said, “Well, good thing you closed the door, because I’m leaving also.”  He didn’t leave Oracle, but he left consulting, for the same directional reasons as I.  So, we didn’t inform our management together, but we informed them at the same time.

EvDBT hasn’t been open continuously over the past 15 years;  I have far too much to learn.  I spent a few years attempting to start another consulting-services company with some colleagues, and that ended unsuccessfully.  Any deal that starts with handshakes inevitably ends with lawyers, so my lesson is to always start with lawyers so that it ends with handshakes.

At one point, I hired in with Compaq Professional Services because they offered an intriguing opportunity.  However, my timing was bad, as Compaq was absorbed by HP a few months after I started, and knowing that I would not enjoy the noise and mess of the mating of the elephants, I moved on.

Thank you all for the past 15 years, and I look forward to the next 15 years.

Update on Friday 18-Oct 2013:  I’ve received some criticism and questions for my perceived criticism of Oracle in this article, particularly with the ethical dilemma described above.  I didn’t write this to criticize Oracle as a company, the situation simply happened while I was working there.  It is a large company like many others.  Corporations are comprised of people who respond in varying ways to the incentives given them.  I’m personally aware of many people with similar roles at Oracle who have not and never will react to their incentives in that particular way.  Likewise, I know of a few who would have reacted far worse.  It’s all part of the grand pageant of human behavior.

The person who ordered me to do my job was not himself facing an ethical dilemma.  He had brought me onto the engagement to expedite the deal, and he never imagined that I would balk;  it just wasn’t professional.

He had a task to do, and I began to jeopardize the success of that task.  I would hope to be as decisive and effective as he.

Remembering Gary Dodge…

The world lost a remarkable person this week, my friend and mentor Gary Dodge.

He is survived by his wife Luann, to whom he was married 33 years, by his daughter Brigid and by his son Ryan, and by a tight-knit and equally talented and accomplished family.  And by friends and admirers too numerous to count, worldwide.

As long as I knew him, his email signature stated, “Building tomorrow’s legacy systems today, one crisis at a time“, succinctly expressing his dry, lightly-warped sense of humor, suitable even in an uptight business environment.

He is deeply missed.  Thank you, Gary.