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Dumbing Down: Et Tu, Europe?

by Fabian Pascal

Q: “I have no IT experience, am changing jobs after 20 years, which certification should I take for DBA and will the certification without experience by accepted by workplace? Thanks.”

A: “First, you need to decide the top systems: Oracle, DB2, SQL Server, Informix, Sybase, etc. Then you’ll need to take a training course (thousands of dollars) and read a hell of a lot of books. The cheapest way to proceed is to download, for example, Oracle 8i … install it, then start playing with it. Read the reams of free Oracle info on the web, and get your hands dirty.”

— Online exchange

The above is hardly surprising, and can actually be expected in the U.S. But when I recently proposed to a European company to teach a seminar on data fundamentals, I received the following reply:

“I have organized a few seminars with Chris Date in 1996, but we are now preferring less theoretic and more pragmatic database seminars, while being vendor-independent.  People have to build database-based applications with the products that exist today,  and it is unrealistic to expect that users will be able to persuade their vendors to  change their products.

I am not sure where you exactly fit into our seminar offering. What I see on your Web site looks theoretical, harsh on SQL and current database implementations, and there is a sense of fundamentalism throughout your Web site. If you can persuade me of the opposite, please do.”

Looks like the dumbing down process in the American IT industry is spreading. Europe better not emulate blindly the “American way,” or it may find itself in the same sad state. Here are some of the pitfalls:

1) The first fallacy is the common one of assuming that if something is “theoretic,” it is not pragmatic; or, in other words, theory is unpractical. This argument would not be made by anybody who received a proper education (and who should not be in the education business in the first place, if he lacks it). Getting educated means that you learn that theory — science, that is — exists for entirely practical purposes. Try, for example, to build bridges or skyscrapers without the benefit of the theories of physics; or try to develop drugs without relying on biochemical theories. There are, indeed, those who, out of ignorance, try to do this sort of thing, and the consequences are pretty well known. The difference is, however, that in the building or pharmaceutical industries, they are in a minority, because they can’t survive for long; in the data management industry, they are in the majority, and can get away with it, because the consequences are not always as obvious. How many database practitioners know that database management is, essentially, logic, and that you cannot hope to be a good practitioner while ignorant of this fact? (Note that I did not say successful, but good; given the state of ignorance in the industry, the former does not require the latter.)

In all fairness, it is not just the practitioners’ fault. Rather, it is an abysmal failure of the educational system, which allows itself to be driven by an industry undergoing a dumbing-down process. Most of the education is now in China and India, where they seem to understand its value, and they are starting to reap the benefits that we have started to lose. To quote Dijkstra:

“Industry suffers from the managerial dogma that for the sake of stability and continuity, the company should be independent of the competence of individual employees. Hence industry rejects any methodological proposal that can be viewed as making intellectual demands on its work force. Since in the US the influence of industry is more pervasive than elsewhere, the above dogma hurts American computing science most. The moral of this sad part of the story is that as long as the computing science is not allowed to save the computer industry, we had better see to it that the computer industry does not kill computing science.”

2) I would really like to know how it is possible to (a) give seminars about “database-based applications with products that exist today” while (b) staying vendor-independent. This is an attempt, so characteristic of marketing, to obscure what is obviously a commercial, not educational, reality.

In fact, the only way to stay vendor-independent is precisely to focus on data fundamentals. Knowing whether products do — or, alas, more often than not, do not — adhere to fundamental principles, is very practical knowledge; it is critical to the ability to take full advantage of products and to avoid taking disadvantage of their flaws. Not to mention that such knowledge applies to all products, not just specific ones, which means that a practitioner possessing it will be able to work with any product, rather than be limited to a particular one, and be unable to switch if necessary. Is that less practical than training in individual products?

3) There is the knee-jerk reaction that practitioners cannot persuade vendors to improve their products. This is an illogical argument and practically guarantees that products will never improve. Instead of enhancing user knowledge and, thus, helping to bring about improvement, those in the seminar business seem to be more interested in acceptance by users of whatever vendors (who are equally ignorant) sell them, without questioning. For consider:

How can either vendors, or practitioners get products improved, if they are unaware of product flaws, and do not know what desirable and possible improvements are? And how can they acquire such knowledge if neither educational companies, nor academia, are interested in providing it?

To take a concrete example, often when SQL products fail to perform satisfactorily — a consequence of flaws in their implementation, vendors, and consultants (including those who teach the kind of seminars the company in question offers) who advise users to “denormalize for performance.” Even if that achieves better performance — which is not always the case, or across the board — improvements do not come from denormalization, but from trading off integrity for performance, to which practitioners are almost totally oblivious (refer to Database Foundations paper #6,“The Costly Illusion: Normalization, Integrity and Performance”). And they are oblivious precisely because they do not have the necessary foundation knowledge. Had they had such knowledge, for how long would have they, collectively, accepted denormalization, rather than better implementations, as a solution?

It is rather silly to imply that learning fundamentals are intended for practitioners as individuals to demand and obtain product improvements from vendors. But assume, for the sake of argument, that corporate IT departments would instill foundation knowledge in their staff — exactly what Dijkstra said they don’t do — such that they would be able to evaluate products properly (refer to “Models, Models Everywhere, Nor Any Time to Think: A Fundamental Framework for Evaluating Data Management Technologies, Products and Practices”). Can anybody doubt that collectively and in the long run it would be increasingly difficult for vendors to fail to improve their products? Such doubts would mean dropping the belief, by those who carry it, in the efficient free market theory (what do you know, a theory yet again!); it would mean that changes in demand won’t affect supply. We very much doubt that they would drop the belief in that theory.

4) Equally silly is to take fundamental education and product-training as an either/or proposition. The appropriate sequence is for practitioners to go through some academic education that does instill foundation knowledge (e.g., some measure of logic and math, what is database management, data modeling, and so on). Then, and only then, armed with that knowledge, they would undergo product training. It should be obvious that their understanding and use of products would be superior and it would be much more difficult to sell them less than adequate products.

Unfortunately, as Dijkstra deplores, driven by industry, academia is increasingly renouncing its educational function and turning itself into the same kind of vocational training venue for vendors (refer to “The Myth of Market-based Education”). Therefore, it can no longer be assumed that practitioners come to product training with the necessary foundation knowledge. In fact, that knowledge is entirely ignored and dismissed by the whole system; yet another component in The Ignorance Mechanism.

5) This attitude prevails in the industry as a whole. The concern does not ever seem to be with the validity of my debunking of products and practices, but rather with its “harshness” and “fundamentalism.” In other words, no matter that products are flawed and fail to adhere to sound principles; the problem is that they are harshly criticized. We have no choice but to agree that as long as this attitude persists, there is no reason to expect any serious improvement in education and, therefore, in products and practices. Indeed, we can expect more reinventions of technologies discredited decades ago, without anybody being aware of it.

Europe used to be better. It looks like in data management too American practices are hard to resist. And that’s sad.


Fabian Pascal has a national and international reputation as an independent technology analyst, consultant, author and lecturer specializing in data management. He was affiliated with Codd & Date and for 20 years held various analytical and management positions in the private and public sectors, has taught and lectured at the business and academic levels, and advised vendor and user organizations on data management technology, strategy and implementation. Clients include IBM, Census Bureau, CIA, Apple, Borland, Cognos, UCS, and IRS. He is founder, editor and publisher of Database Debunkings, a Web site dedicated to dispelling persistent fallacies, flaws, myths and misconceptions prevalent in the IT industry. Together with Chris Date he has recently launched the Database Foundations Series of papers. Author of three books, he has published extensively in most trade publications, including DM Review, Database Programming and Design, DBMS, Byte, Infoworld and Computerworld. He is author of the contrarian columns Against the Grain, Setting Matters Straight, and for The Journal of Conceptual Modeling. His third book, Practical Issues in Database Management serves as text for his seminars.

Special Offer: Author Fabian Pascal is offering readers subscriptions to the Database Foundations Series of papers at a discount. To receive your discount, just let him know you’re a DBAzine reader before you subscribe! Contact information is available on the “About” page of his site.

Contributors : Fabian Pascal
Last modified 2005-04-12 06:21 AM
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