Video killed the Radio Star

During my career, I have witnessed so many changes and happily rode the wave of innovation. I bought my first IBM PC in the year they were released. First mobile phone: late 1980s.  I worked as a field engineer at Cisco Systems during the massive expansion of the internet in the early 2000s. I have published 4 technical books about software development before my 30th birthday. I wrote my first database application in 1985. I designed and built my first enterprise software application with Oracle in 1996.

That’s me.

My grandfather, a nationally syndicated radio guy, once described television as a passing fade. His colleagues on the NBC Red Network (yeah, dials and tubes in a box) each signed contracts to join NBC television. These guys went on to be the black-and-white faces in the 1950s and 1960s. We celebrate these TV pioneers in movies and books.

My grandfather faded into obscurity with the A.M. radio. My grandfather was a radio star. During WWII, he had unlimited gas rations to facilitate his role as a news guy reporting on global war. He was dead before I was born, if you’re trying to do that math.

Daily, weekly, I explore if I am a pioneer or am I a radio star. My sistah-by-another-mistah bought a Compaq luggable the week it got released. We bought the first laptops, first mobile phones. There is scene of me sitting on a carpeted floor manually keying an IP address and mask into my computer before dialing into IP based bulletin board. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was using the internet protocol to exchange tsunami data between satellites and buoys floating in the mid-Pacific. My team built a deployed the first telemedicine system in Alaska during that same time. That earns me full marks in pioneer.

Then I have these voices in my head shying away from newer tech. Am I suddenly the Radio Star?

Until that moment when I have to stop my pandemic-era truck and reboot it repeatedly to keep it going. I have to reboot my truck to get the nonsense on my dashboard working. Weekly, when I drive the thing, it tells me that it is doing a software patch….Oops, the internet connection dropped in the rural mountains where I live. “Please do not disconnect”. Right, the truck assumes that mobile signal is ubiquitous. It isn’t. I served as a rural paramedic for decades. 90% of my town of 40 square miles has no mobile phone signal. In fact, I think 70% of the two southern counties in my state have no or limited mobile. I drive a truck that presumes that the internet is a viable, sustainable, always available element of public infrastructure.

Why do I need my truck to reboot? Ever? I have a 20-year-old diesel farm tractor. It is happy with some tax-free diesel and a few hours of maintenance per year. I plug it during cold winters so it starts with one or two turns of the ignition key.

I now live in a world where our own tech competes against itself. My truck desperately wants me to drive down the mountain and park in a lot for an hour allowing it to actually update software. I don’t care to go down the hill and frankly, I don’t care if my truck gets a software upgrade. That is until I tried to back towards a trailer in a busy farmyard. It engaged auto-breaks when tall grasses moved in the breeze. It freaked with alarms when I tried to back between 2 other trailers to get to the one I was connecting. Then did it ever freak when the trailer I plugged into did not meet the specifications within the existing digital definitions of trailers. Yes, my truck auto-braked and screamed with alarms when the weight of the trailer dramatically changed. I had to hack the system by disconnecting and reattaching the trailer’s wiring. Oh, right I unloaded a tractor. My truck panic and though the load was unsafe.

My truck broke a sensor while driving through a farm field in 4WD to check on a friends hogs (not motorcycles but pre-bacon critters). It spent 2, nearly 3 weeks at the shop because that failure generated a cascade of electronic failures that cost someone a lot of money to fix (not me, warrenty).

When did I become the anti-tech person? I am a tech pioneer. I am that soldier that says ‘follow me.’

There is a specific place for human, real, intelligence in our approach and employment of technology. My friend and neighbor, who’s husband was a Nobel laureate and Pulitzer winner finally quit teaching creative writing at a prestigious New England university when 100% of the papers she had to grade were generated by AI. I commiserated with her with genuine but distant sympathy.

Then I started encountering AI generated PL/SQL code in our application development. Geez,man I get it doing a rollup summary report without code references or a library can be challenging. But then it fails. In decades of teaching and leading teams of developers, suddenly, I am being told that this code is good because it was AI generated.

And yet, it fails. Sure, AI generated PL/SQL code will improve. We publish basic rules, standards, within our guidelines. Hey, validate your parameters. Who knows what other procedures or pages will call that code? Evaluate the quality of the data before, during and following processing. Data quality is a variable. And what Oracle programmer hasn’t had to learn the challenge of nulls within our data. Or had to manage the regional assumptions of NLS settings. Suddenly, you get errors about “mask terminated” when a date format doesn’t match the format of the date data presented.

During the recent years, we have written and supported an enterprise application that also generates invoices. As of last month, we exceeded 100K invoice since going live 18 months ago. Our error rate is below 0.01%. These errors are 100% due to poor quality data coming via an API from a legacy system. We are not permitted a math error. We cannot ball up the tax calculations. There are legal and regulatory impacts to mistakes at that level. My own firm has a commercial time/expense billing system that has significantly over 1M rows. And during our time supporting hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico, we used an Oracle database application to manage $5B in federal grant funding and over 400K PDF documents.

Know who is not allowed to make mistakes? Us.

Oracle makes these jobs a joy to work with. The power and the prestige of the Oracle brand and Oracle tech permit us to operate within these parameters.

A colleague offered great wisdom to me a decade ago when I called for help with a problem. He said, “Christina, there is no random code generator in your application. If your data is doing something, it is happening because you told it so.”

That’s right! I have the expertise to know, understand, and audit 100% of the data manipulations. I can be wrong in my thinking, my approach, or even my typing. Data we pull in from legacy systems can be wrong, incomplete, or just plain screwy. It is our job to fix or reject that data. But once in our system, the tools that manipulate our data were written by skilled software developers with years of training and skills.

There I am positing myself as a luddite. These are the words of a data pioneer, a tech pioneer.

The strength of an Oracle database is predicated on the legacy of database pioneering from the 1970s. The power, strength, and capabilities of PL/SQL sits in the very boring, very real, very stable, world of generating invoices, purchase orders, inventory systems, issuing airline tickets, tracking and balancing bank balances and credit card balances. I recognize the Radio Star in me when I question the role of AI in the mundane development of enterprise application systems that are used to manage public funds, public trusts, and public documents.

I try to recruit people into our world of Oracle database development and writing code in PL/SQL. It isn’t sexy. It isn’t glamorous. It is barely even in full color. It is a trade. We are the modern plumbers and modern carpenters. Our work is precision. Our work is elegant. Our work succeeds or fails based our own skills to comprehend business data and model it within an digital framework. Then when needed generate results that have an error rate that is as close to zero as possible.

Did I become my own grandfather who died before I was born? Did I become the crusty old guy that says, “back in my day?” And I the radio star?

There is a way of thinking that is database centric that we teach, and young developers need to learn. We need to instantly look at data and evaluate its fitness, quality, and normalization. We need to write code that works beyond the narrow scope of perfect data. It gracefully tolerates poor quality data, null data, data presented in unexpected formats.

Like the Fortran and Cobal programmers before me, I knew that Oracle PL/SQL is both contemporary and legacy at the same time. We are building massive systems that will live for decades and decades pushing dollars, documents, and data at the behest of humans. We must build systems that survive every audit. We must preserve data that can take the beating placed on it by certified or chartered accountants.

A PL/SQL developer stepping into the market today will be employed through their entire career if they honestly develop the technical skills to write outstanding, but boring, code that manages and manipulates massive data sets. I celebrate this.

Pioneer? Or Radio Star? You decide.

A note about the title:

“Video killed the Radio Star” was the very first music video that played on MTV at 12:01AM on 01 AUG 1981. In February of 2000, when I was at Cisco Systems, it became the One Millionth video to have played on MTV. Today, there are those who might ask: What is MTV?

About my grandfather

He wasn’t a complete looser, guys! He published 20 novels and numerous films. Although most of his films are lost to history due to the nature of cellulose film. My father published over 20 novels as well. And during the autumn of 2024, I have my first novel being published. That would be my 5th book.

Posted by Christina Moore

First database application during undergrad years: 1985. First full-time work in Oracle db: 1995 at FedEx in the land of international shipping and regulatory compliance. First APEX application: 2008 with a U.S. based wholesale grocery distribution outfit (logistics, finance, and regulatory compliance). First commercial APEX application: 2012 (time tracking/invoices, grant management/finances/regulatory compliance. There seems to be a trend with finance, regulatory compliance, logistics.