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Deeper Developments

A database expert shares lessons from a life of coding and business.

By Jeff Erickson

September/October 2012

Cary Millsap often speaks on technical subjects at user group events. But in late 2011, at the UK Oracle User Group (UKOUG) conference in Birmingham, England, he tried something new. He opened up to the assembled technologists about his struggles, his successes, and the wisdom that can be gained from a life in software development and business.

“I talked about how our work requires us to think clearly and explain our conclusions, and how that is applicable to other parts of life,” says Millsap, an Oracle ACE Director with expertise in database management and performance. “I also talked about how running a business has made it imperative that I understand what I value most versus those things I can live without.”

The presentation in Birmingham found a receptive audience, and Millsap was asked to reprise his talk in June 2012 at the Oracle Development Tools User Group (ODTUG) Kscope conference in San Antonio, Texas. I caught up with him at Kscope to explore the themes of his talk.

Think Clearly

Millsap, who is married with three children, spent his early career at Oracle and later founded two businesses. “People think that consultants get paid for having the right answers, but we don’t,” says Millsap. “We get paid for convincing people that we have the right answers.” The way you do that, he says, is by showing them the exact process that led to your conclusion.

Millsap notes that this approach has had direct application when teaching math to his children. “When I work with my kids I want to see the same thing my clients want to see: how did they arrive at that answer?” he says. “That’s when a real understanding happens.”

But the steps to running a business, says Millsap, are far less straightforward than math equations. “A tragic event or a spectacularly good coincidence can happen to you at any time,” Millsap says. “Even in a career that looks like a steady path upward, there are amazing turns of luck.” Millsap designed compilers before coming to Oracle. The skill sat mostly dormant for years until it helped him cut a customer’s project from six months to just two.

“That kind of good coincidence happens in business,” says Millsap. “Sometimes you don’t know exactly where the next job will come from, and you begin to wonder if your business will be there in a year or even in a few months. You have to have the stomach to withstand the doubt and trust that the work you’ve done and the relationships you’ve built will pay off.”

Overcome Fear

According to Millsap there is one obstacle that never goes away: fear. Unchecked, fear is man’s most destructive emotion, he says, but it’s also a magnificent teacher. “One of the consistent themes of my life is detecting a place where I have fear and finding a way to overcome it.”

When he started a new business, Millsap feared all he would lose if it failed. So he prioritized the things he valued. “It’s important to understand where things rank, because if you don’t you might trade something dear for something shiny,” he says.

Millsap thought the list of things he couldn’t live without would be three to five items long. “It turned out to be one thing: my family,” he says. When his wife assured him that she wasn’t going anywhere if he failed, his confidence grew.

“I’ve learned that if I’m really afraid of something that I think can lead me to greener pastures, then it’s something I must try,” says Millsap. So while he feared speaking on personal themes that relate to his life as a developer and a businessman, when the opportunity came up, he didn’t hesitate.

“Since then I have had incredible conversations with people who’ve heard my talks and want to share lessons from their work,” says Millsap. “Others have disagreed with me on some points, and those too have been fruitful conversations.”

Next Steps

 READ Cary Millsap’s blog

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 WATCH the interview


Photography by Filios Sazeides, Unsplash