Thursday, November 02, 2006

Oracle Guru: is it you?

Robert Vollman has written a response to an article by Don Burleson on "Oracle Gurus". In it he writes:"Strictly translated, guru can mean 'teacher' - and in many places like India and Indonesia I understand that guru is generally used in that sense."

Anu Garg, of A Word A Day, has this to say about the word:
When we talk about a software guru or an economics guru, we're invoking a word from this classical language [Sanskrit - Ed.]. The word "guru" came to English from Sanskrit via Hindi. It literally means "venerable" or "weighty". Going farther back, it descended from the same Indo-European root that gave us "gravity", "engrave", "grave" and "aggravate" to name a few.

It is only in the sense of being "one who is weighty" that I consider myself a guru ;)

The thing about gurus (in the original sense) is that they are spiritual teachers, people with a handle on the numinous and the ability to transmit their understanding to their students (followers). We should be puzzled by the common use of the term to describe IT experts. After all, computers are machines and programming is an exercise in logic not mysticism. Obviously there are a lot of people in computing who are interested in martial arts and yoga. But there are just as many who are into heavy rock and we don't say Tom Kyte is an Oracle lead guitarist1. So why do we label our experts "guru"? Is there anything less spiritual than tracing 10053 events? Has anybody ever attained satori by ploughing through a hex dump of a rollback segment's block headers?

According to Anthony Storr:
"almost all spiritual gurus are solitary children who have passed through a period of intense personal crisis, often provoked by feelings of isolation, leading to breakdown. They resolve the crisis through a revelation, usually arrived at in private, often on a long and never wholly explained journey."
Actually that does sound an awful lot like ploughing through a hex dump of a rollback segment's block headers.

I suppose the thing is computer systems have become so complicated that they frequently exhibit emergent behaviour. Given all the variables involved - hardware, operating systems, the many layers of software and the vagaries of user activity - it is tempting to think that anybody who can actually explain why our application just did that peculiar thing must be tapping into a store of arcane knowledge. In fact modern systems are generally so well instrumented that most things are (or ought to be) explicable to anybody with a basic level of understanding.

For several years in my twenties I studied T'ai Chi Chuan. My teacher's teacher's teacher was Cheng Man Ching. One of Professor Cheng's aphorisms was "There are no secrets." In other words, as a teacher he had no esoteric transmissions to pass on. He just had the principles of T'ai Chi and everything else preceded from them. To become a master in T'ai Chi is simply a matter of practicing the principles and reflecting on our practice. Or, as another guru recently put it:"forget the mystic, magic, cool in theory internal stuff - learn and master the basics and you’ll blow way past someone who has learned a handful of really cool internal tricks." That sounds simple enough. "Master the basics"? Well we can all read that fine manual. But it takes a lot of practice and reflection until we have the sort of real understanding that constitutes mastery.

On the matter of how we can tell a good Oracle guru from a bad 'un all I can say is that anybody who styles themselves "guru" almost certainly ain't. This unattributed article has some sound guidelines for spotting fake Buddhist gurus which I think apply to gurus in other areas. Remember, a guru is not just somebody who offers you advice: they are teaching you an approach to living (or a methodology for tuning Oracle databases) which will require you to make changes to who you are. At some point in your practice you stop learning the teachings and start learning the teacher. So always ask yourself if you want to be like this person. If the answer is "No" then they are not the guru for you.

1. Of course, if Tom was a lead guitarist it would be in an analytics rock'n'roll band.

1 comment:

Peter K said...

Great write-up. Yeah, forgot that "guru" in Malaysian or Indonesia means teacher.