Database Anesthesiologist, or Database Psychiatrist?

October 21, 2009

When people learn that I had been working with the database product “Progress” since it was first introduced (more than twenty five years ago!), they put me in the “technical” box.  Indeed, with my graduate degree in computer science, they might assume that I have a full grasp of this product.

Ten or fifteen years ago, they might have been right.  I could design and build systems, install Progress and my application, tune the whole system for great performance, work with staff to ensure that the system is well utilized, and enhance it so that it better serves its purpose.

But the world now is more complex. Now I do only some of these things — particularly those focusing on interface, usability, and integration into the creative organization. Meanwhile, some of my colleagues focus just on the technical performance issues — everything from configuring the right disk drives and data paths, to stitching together databases that have somehow become corrupted.  I refer to these friends as my “database anesthesiologists” — doctors who carefully monitor the vital signs, and keep the patient alive.

I don’t know why they dislike this name.  It’s a sign of respect to me.  In fact, I’ve an allergy to general anesthesia that could easily be fatal if an incident occurs.  I know that I’m putting my life in the hands of anesthesiologists every time I go into the hospital for elective or emergency surgery!  (The condition is called “malignant hyperthermia”, and I’ve already had one episode).

In this paradigm, I  call myself a “database psychiatrist”.  My job is to keep systems communicating effectively and efficiently, and functioning as part of a social team with people and with other technology. Systems need to be easy to use, hard to mis-use, and they need to do right things with the data they handle.  They also need to come with realistic and helpful expectations.  For example, systems designed to help forecast or plan may be invaluable tools to help staff understand the implications of a model, and of the data that fed into it.  But where the assumptions of the model break down, or where the data is not realistic, the validity of its projections need to be questioned.  I call  work in this area “computer assertiveness training”.  It’s about learning when to (figuratively) turn the computer off, or put it in its place.

Today I’m much more than the “database psychiatrist” described above.  Much of my time is spent listening to other kinds of management issues — typically involving such things as communication and values within organizations, marketing strategy, management of creativity, and general problem solving.  I also spend time “coaching” (I prefer to call it “clarifying””), where I’m offering a helpful process, and not a solution.  But one thing I’m not — the database anesthesiologist!

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