Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Why the Oak Table Was So Great

This weekend, I watched a wonderful TEDx video by Barbara Sher, called “Isolation Is the Dream-Killer, Not Your Attitude.” Please watch this video. It’s 21 minutes, 18 seconds long.

It reminded me about what was so great about the Oak Table. That’s right: was. It’s not anymore.

Here’s what it was. People I admired, trusted, and liked would gather at a home in Denmark owned by a man named Mogens Nørgaard. Mogens is the kindest and most generous host I have ever encountered. He would give his whole home—every inch—to keep as many of us as he could, for a week, once or twice a year. Twenty, maybe thirty of us. We ate, drank, and slept, all for free, as much and for as long as we wanted. 

And the “us” in that sentence was no normal, regular, everyday “us.” It was Tom Kyte, Lex de Haan, Anjo Kolk, Jonathan Lewis, Graham Wood, Tanel Põder, Toon Koppelaars, Chris Antognini, Steve Adams, Stephan Haisley, James Morle, John Beresniewicz, Jože Senegačnik, Bryn Llewellyn, Tuomas Pystynen, Andy Zitelli, Johannes Djernæs, Michael Möller, Peter Gram, Dan Norris, Carel Jan-Engel, Pete Sharman, Tim Gorman, Kellyn Pot'Vin, Alex Gorbachev, Frits Hoogland, Karen Morton, Robyn Sands, Greg Rahn, and—my goodness—I’m leaving out even more people than I’m listing.

We spent a huge amount of our time sitting together at Mogens’s big oak table, which was big enough for about eight people. Or, in actuality, about twice that. We’d just work. And talk. If there wasn’t a meal on the table, then it would be filled with laptops and power cords covering every square inch. Oops, I mean millimeter. That table had millimeters.

And here’s what was so great about the Oak Table: you could say what you wanted—whatever it was!—and you could have it. You could just say your dream and your obstacle, and someone around the table would know how to make your dream come true.

It’s tricky even trying to remember good examples of people’s dreams, because I’m so far removed from it now. Some of them were nerdy things like, “I wonder how long an Oracle PARSE call would take if we did a 256-table join?” You’d hear, “Hmm, interesting. I think I have a test for that,” and then the next thing you know, Jonathan Lewis would be working on your problem. Or, “Hey, does anyone know how to do such-and-such in vim?” And Johannes Djernæs or Michael Möller would show you how easy it was.

I got into a career-saving conversation late one night with Robyn Sands. She had asked, “Is anybody else having trouble finding good PL/SQL developers? I can’t figure out where they are, if there even are any. Are there?” We talked for a while about why they were so scarce, and then I connected the dots that, hey, I have two superb PL/SQL developers at home on the bench, and I had been desperately trying to find them good work. The story that Robyn and I started some 3:00am over beers resulted in a superb consumer femtocell device for Robyn and a year’s worth of much-needed revenue for my tiny little team.

It was a world where you could have anything you want. Better yet, it was a world where you could dream properly. Today, in isolation, it’s hard to even dream right. After nearly two years of being locked away, I can barely conceive of a world that’s plentiful and joyous like those Oak Table years. I feel much smaller now. (Oh, and it wasn’t COVID-19 that killed that Oak Table experience. It died years before that—but, obviously, it’s a factor today.)

I want it back. I want my friends back. How are we going to do this?


Bjørn Kisbye Engsig said...

300km and 2hours after I left the German border, probably passing a fartkontrol en route, I arrived at Mogens's place with supplies. Beer. It was too late to find empty space on The Oak Table for my laptop, but there was always a router and a cable so the laptop was put on the lap. And Johannes registered oaktable.net. That was a really fantastic thing.

Yes, it was great, Cary, but it isn't coming back. Grandchildren and pension funds grow, mortgages and time to retirement shrink. It is not only that the zoom table network appears much less attractive than the one from solid oak, but neither the individuals who were there nor the world around them have stayed the same. There are more important things than spending hours in an airplane just to meet, drink beer and discuss wait events. Let us remember and tell all the anecdotes to those who want to listen.

In many ways, we are of course still the same people, and many of us hopefully still have the same way of approaching things and doing things. The same craziness if you like. Find something else to be crazy about. I have, and I'm happy.


Marco Gralike said...

Yeah it really numbed us, the current day feel of "normal".
I still feel blessed to have experienced the OakTable feeling though and if possible, pay it forward to the youngsters out there ...