By Bob Rhubart
September 25, 2019
A successful freelancer, he began his work with Oracle Database nearly a quarter century ago. He has published more than 1,000 technical articles on his website, which has become one of the most popular in the global Oracle community. He is a sought-after speaker at Oracle OpenWorld and other conferences around the world. Along with a stack of Oracle certifications, he has earned a degree in biology, a PhD in genetic engineering, and a black belt in karate, and he is a certified yoga instructor. But if you ask Oracle Groundbreaker Ambassador Tim Hall, he’ll tell you that most of his career happened by accident.
Hall never planned on a career in IT. “As a little kid, I liked sci-fi, and computers just seemed like the future,” Hall explains. “I don’t really remember having a pivotal sort of experience. I just thought the technology was really cool.”
Early experiments with writing code evolved into formal training as a teenager in high school. “I was just playing around with silly things, writing code,” Hall says. He admits he wasn’t very good at it, “but I probably thought I was amazing.”
He entered a university in the UK with plans to study computer science. “But my high school biology teacher was really cool, and she convinced me that biology was far better than IT,” says Hall. That decision led to a biology degree, followed by a PhD in genetic engineering. But IT was lurking.
“Toward the end of the PhD, I was doing some simulations, writing them in C because I had used C in high school,” Hall says. “That was what really got me back into the IT frame of mind. I still didn’t really expect to do it as a career. But when I finished my PhD, I wanted a break from research to decide what I wanted to do with my life, and I accidentally got into IT work.”
A friend who was involved in IT recruitment offered to get Hall a job. Hall was indifferent. “I thought, well, I’ll see what’s happening. If I get one, great; I can check it out. And if I don’t, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just carry on doing research in biology. And I accidentally got a job, and that happened to be in a company using Oracle Forms.”
At that point, however, Hall had no idea what Oracle was. “I had no proper skills for what [my new employer] had. But it happened to be a pharmaceutical-related software house, and because I had a PhD in genetic engineering, they pretty much said to me, you’ve got none of the skills, but you’re obviously not stupid. We’ll give you a trial. I worked there for four or five months for free, and then they gave me a real job.”
The job involved learning to code Oracle Forms, along with SQL and PL/SQL. “I thought I was amazing. It turns out I was terrible, because I was too cocky,” Hall admits.
Owning up to his limitations, Hall dedicated himself to perfecting his skills. He credits his late start in IT as a boost. “I entered the market effectively six years after everyone else, so I always felt like I was chasing. I think that served me quite well, because I never stopped chasing, whereas I think maybe if I had gotten an IT degree, I probably would have been better in the early days and then just rested on my laurels.”
How did Hall get from awful to awesome? “It was just time and effort, constantly reading, constantly trying to improve,” Hall says. “Even now I’m 50 and I’ve been working in IT for 24 years, and I’m still chasing.”
The Oracle Groundbreaker Ambassador program recognizes modern experts who blog; write articles; and give presentations on topics such as containers, microservices, SQL, NoSQL, open source technologies, machine learning, and chatbots. Learn more and follow the Oracle Groundbreaker Ambassadors.
Hall’s ORACLE-BASE website has played an important part in that chase. “It’s never been about the readership; it’s never been about the website being popular. It’s always been about the way I learn things,” Hall says. “Typically, I write about new stuff I’m learning. So I kind of get forced into learning new stuff for fear of looking like I’m not writing any articles.”
Those articles have enhanced Hall’s reputation and led to paying gigs, but not by design. “Every job I’ve had has been by accident or coincidence, someone ringing me up saying, ‘I worked with you in a previous job. Do you fancy coming and working here?’ and I’ve gone, ‘OK.’ There’s never been a world domination plan. I’m really not like that, which is why, after 24 years, there is usually no one lower than me at the company I work for. I’m a grunt, a gigging DBA. I’m not a consultant. I’m not one of these people who goes around the world saving people’s systems. I just work in a regular job. Because that’s kind of the stuff I like to do. I like to present, and I like to speak to people about tech, but that’s not real life.”
Although Hall now enjoys presenting at conferences, that was not always the case. “I’ve always been a chatty person one-to-one or with friends, but speaking in front of a group, even of coworkers, is not natural for me. It has always scared me,” Hall confesses. “And I thought, am I missing out on opportunities because I’m scared of doing this?”
So Hall mustered the will to resist the temptation to say no after being asked to speak at an event. More than a decade later, he has accumulated major frequent flyer miles speaking at events around the world.
“I was just so sick of being afraid of doing stuff like that that I started to say yes to things,” Hall says. ”I went to conferences, and people would say, will you come to my conference? And I just go yes, even though I’m thinking I don’t know where that is on the planet and I really don’t want to do it because I’m scared. And even now, I’ve been to South America a handful of times, and every time someone mentions a potential tour, part of me is terrified. My natural place is sitting in my bedroom playing with tech. Everything other than that is a massive effort for me, but you have to make that effort occasionally.”
Hall eventually made that effort so often that he needed to take a break from speaking engagements in 2019. “I got a little bit burned out from doing so many. But I’ve had a bit of a year off, and the plan is to restart again next year.”
That’s the plan. But who knows where the next series of accidents will take Hall as the quest for awesome continues?
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Photography by Bob Adler/Getty Images