My ‘Accidental DBA’ story

I started out as a shareware developer in the late 90’s, initially working on a CSS editing product on VB4 among other tools for Web Developers (or Webmasters as they were then known!). Eventually I decided that I should join the corporate world, to learn about how big organisations operate and work with people smarter and more experienced than me. So I applied for and got a job with an IT consultancy.

During my time there I was mentored by a team of DBAs working with Oracle 8i. They were working on a sighting database as part of a government initiative for the protection of endangered wildlife. It was my first exposure to an “industrial-grade” DBMS, and the enthusiasm those guys had for their craft left an impression that would set the tone for the next decade of my career.

After a couple of years of consulting work, I changed to a more permanent team role within a retail finance company and moved away from Oracle to the Microsoft toolstack. Moving to SQL Server 2000 was something of a revelation: I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, databases can be friendly?”. I was particularly taken with DTS and how readily large amounts of data could be shuffled around from server-to-server. Enterprise Manager and its point-and-click query and table designers unleashed all sorts of possibilities for me. In time, however, I would learn that these GUI tools could also be dangerous if not applied with proper forethought and due care.

I have to admit that the whole RDBMS paradigm didn’t come that easily to me. Initially I saw it simply as a way to persist my application object data; something I later learned was quite common among AppDevs (Grant Frichey summed up this quandary well in his article on DBA/Developer communication). But in time I came to appreciate the subtleties of working with relational databases and got to grips with deployment techniques, like how to preserve the integrity of a schema during table object changes.

As our team started to face the pressures of shorter release cycles, and as tensions between Devs and DBAs became evermore frayed, my manager and I saw a need for a role that would keep the wheels of our application lifecycle turning. So for 3 years I did nothing but prepare and execute releases to our enterprise contact centre systems, working with both teams to find ways to make our deployments go a little smoother and a little faster each time. I discovered the wonders of Continuous Integration with TeamCity, integrating our build process with a Compare API, which helped us with our deployments as well as keep our environments in-sync. My manager helped me put a DevOps team together and over time we got deployments down to a fine art, making the best of our ever-narrowing release windows.

I enjoyed this work so much I recently quit my job to develop and market a tool for database professionals. So in a way my career has come full circle with a return to independent software development. The difference to when I started out 15 years ago is that the vernacular has now changed from “shareware developer” to “Micro-ISV”. Times may have changed and certainly the tools for software development and deployment have come a long way, but in a lot of ways database development tools are still stuck in the dark ages. Having worked on both sides of the Dev and DBA divide, I have been fortunate to gain an interesting perspective on the challenges faced with software delivery and operations.

So the gauntlet that I’ve now thrown down for myself is to make the best of that opportunity: to help teams work more harmoniously and simply get more releases out the door.

Total unabashed fanboy review of The 7th Guest for iPad

WARNING: I’ve made absolutely no attempt to curb my bias here. This game is what got me into computers all those years ago and I just had to repost it!

Review of 7th Guest for iPad – 18th December 2010

In the summer of 1993 I received a copy of the 7th Guest as a present from my parents, and immediately I was enthralled. The first thing I noticed when opening the box was the stunning artwork, featuring the mansion of toymaker Henry Stauf, exquisitely architected by Robert Stein and his team.

In the box was a host of treats, including a stunning lithograph featuring one of Stauf’s enigmatic dolls. Behind that the two CD-ROMs containing the hours of live-action video, gameplay and 3D Studio-rendered graphics, with the remainder dedicated to the game’s haunting CD-audio soundtrack. And finally, nestled behind a small doorway was a “making of” video cassette which offered a detailed insight into how all the diverse elements of the 7th Guest came together. Later versions also shipped with a booklet entitled The Stauf Files which provided a new story arc featuring the investigative journalist Robin Morales. This also acted as a nice segue into the game’s sequel, The 11th Hour.

As a 13 year old kid, it was like having Christmas all in one beautifully packaged box. I can’t tell you how many countless hours I spent on my dad’s PC in the study, exploring all the rooms of Stauf’s sprawling mansion, looking for so-called “kinetic hotspots” like the hidden portal to the subterranean portrait gallery, screaming blue murder over the infuriatingly difficult Microscope puzzle (Note: this had to be dropped for the iOS version due to technical issues) and piecing together the (intentionally) fragmented storyline of what took place when 6 guests were invited one night.

In the near two decades since its release, there have been multiple ports of the game, including one to the long-forgotten CD-i platform. The latest and first one in 13 years is to the iOS platform, with both iPhone and iPad flavours being made available.

In firing up this game for the first time in years, the first thing I realise is how far the gaming platforms themselves have come. It’s easy to take this for granted in the age of the smartphone and the PS3, but I can still clearly recall the difficulty in setting up the game back in the 90’s: Correct VESA/SoundBlaster  drivers? — check, MIDI/WAV volume balance — check, enough available Conventional/Extended memory — check. Indeed, the first puzzle of the game could be described as actually getting it up-and-running (later releases of the game did improve on this, thankfully). But it was all worth it as the game’s ouija board was revealed and that delectably evil voice of Henry Stauf offered that unnerving greeting: “Welcome to my… house.”

Players of the PC/Mac version will notice how true to the original the iOS port is. Thankfully, the clever team that has brought this version to us (under the direction of the game’s co-creator, Rob Landeros) has left the game for the vast majority intact, avoiding any George Lucas-style tinkering of its parts. One thing I did miss, however, was the game’s cinematic title sequence, which featured a bone-chilling crescendo provided by the musical genius George Sanger, aka The Fat Man. This introduction, which lead into the haunting exposition of Stauf’s “road to evil” (which is included in the iOS version), set the tone and atmosphere for the game in a way that had me checking my back as I explored the house’s darkened corridors. I distinctly remember at one time being a little freaked out having got lost in the vast maze that leads to the house’s crypt: as I rounded a corner and was met with a dead-end, Stauf offered his most chilling taunt of all, “Feeling lonely?”.

Now as I fire up the ouija board on my iPad and that skeletal hand beckons me deeper into the bowels of the mansion once more I can’t help but feel a certain sense of trepidation all over again: will I beat the house in the face of Stauf’s merciless taunts and “live to play another day”, or will I once more fall victim to the house having succumbed to my “mere mortal” weaknesses?

Either way I’m sure I’ll be reminded why this game made a such a big impact when it was released all those years ago: it’s straight-forward and intuitive gameplay, it’s uncompromising production values but most of all it’s focus on storytelling, which was way ahead of its time (my favourite of the camp cast of characters being the man-eating seductress, Martine Burden). As this latest incarnation spreads throughout the Internet, I will follow with great interest the thoughts and reactions of a whole new generation of Egos who dare to enter the mansion.