It’s the NFR’s, Stupid

An apocryphal (to me at least) tale from Forbes that provides a timely reminder of the fact that even in this enlightened age of clouds that give you infrastructure (and more) in minutes and analytical tools that business folk can use to quickly slice and dice data in all manor of ways, fundamentals, like NFRs, don’t (or shouldn’t) go out of fashion.According to Forbes the US retailer Target figured out that a teenager was pregnant before her parents did. Target analysed the buying behaviour of customers and identified 25 products (e.g. cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag and zinc and magnesium supplements) that allowed them to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. The retailer also reckoned they could estimate the due date of a shopper to within a small window and so could send coupons timed to very specific stages of a pregnancy. In the case of this particular shopper Target sent a letter, containing coupons, to a high-school pupil whose father opened it and was aghast that the retailer should send coupons for baby clothes and cribs to a teenager. The disgruntled father visited his local Target store accusing them of encouraging his daughter to get pregnant. The manager of the store apologised and called the father again a few days later to repeat his apology. However this time the father was somewhat abashed and said he had spoken to his daughter only to find out she was in fact pregnant and was due in August. This time he apologised to the manager.

So, what’s the lesson here for architects? Here’s my zen take:

  1. Don’t assume that simply because technology seems to be more magical and advanced you can ignore fundamentals, in this case a persons basic entitlement to privacy.
  2. With cloud and advanced analytics IT is (apparently) passing control back to the business which it has done in a cyclical fashion over the last 50 – 60 years (i.e. mainframe -> mini -> PC -> client-server -> browser -> cloud). Whoever “owns” the gateway to the system should not forget they should have the interests of the end user at heart. Ignore their wants and needs at your peril!
  3. Legislation, and the lay-mans understanding of what technology can do, will always lag advances in technology itself. Part of an architects role is to explain, not only the benefits of a new technology, but also the potential downside to anyone that may be impacted by that technology. In the connected world that we now live in that can be a very large audience indeed.

Part of being an architect is to talk to everyone to explain not only your craft but also your work. Use every opportunity to do this and reject no one who might want to understand a technology. As Philippe Kruchten says in his brilliant interpretation of Lao-Tsu’s Tao Te Ching for the use of software architects:

The architect is available to everyone and rejects no one.
She is ready to use all situations and does not waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.

Make sure you repeatedly “embody the light”.

You’re Building Me a What?

This week I’ve been attending a cloud architecture workshop. Not to architect a cloud for anyone in particular but to learn what the approach to architecting clouds should be. This being an IBM workshop there was, of course, lots of Tivoli this, WebSphere that and Power the other. Whilst the workshop was full of good advice I couldn’t help of thinking of this cartoon from 2008:

Courtesy geekandpoke.typepad.com

Just replace the word ‘SOA’ with ‘cloud’ (as ‘SOA’ could have been replaced by ‘client-server’ in the early nineties) and you get the idea. As software architects it is very easy to get seduced by technology, especially when it is new and your vendors, consultants and analysts are telling you this really is the future. However if you cannot explain to your client why you’re building him a cloud and what business benefit it will bring him then you are likely to fail just as much with this technology as people have with previous technology choices.

Does Architecture Matter Any More?

I’ve been reading up on the whole cloud/mashups/social computing thing and the above question occurred to me. Within the context of what are essentially several new architectural styles what is the role of the architect in all of this and what exactly is the architecture he or she is trying to create? In attempting to answer this question my mind diverted to an IT architecture course that I have been lucky enough to teach on a number of occasions both inside and outside IBM. The course is called Architectural Thinking. I imagine (hope) that some people reading this will have attended that class and it occurred to me just how clever the people that created the first version of that class back in 1999 were. The key word of course is thinking. It’s not a class about a particular style of architecture, about a particular architectural process and is certainly (thankfully) not about any particular technology. The key part of that class is about how to think about problems and create architectures, often using an existing style or pattern, to come up with solutions to a client’s business problem. The main axiom being that the architecture should drive the technology and not the other way round. In other words it’s about the fundamentals that never go out of style or, to paraphrase Grady Booch:

Architectural styles come and go but the enduring fundamentals (crisp abstractions; clear separation of concerns; balanced distribution of responsibilities; simplicity) endure and never go out of style.

This course is available outside of IBM for clients so if anyone is interested in running the class get in touch with me on here.

Architecture for a New Decade

Predicting the future, even 12 months ahead, is a notoriously tricky past-time. Arthur C. Clarke the English scientist and science fiction writer who sadly died in March 2008 said:

If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run – and often in the short one – the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative.

As we move into a new year and a new decade the world, in my memory at least, has never seemed a more uncertain place. As the doom and gloom merchants predict an even more troubled economy and the ongoing threats from global warming, increasing pressure on dwindling natural resources and yet more wars do not make for a happy start to 2010.

Whilst solving these truly wicked problems is slightly beyond me I am left to wonder what this new year brings for us architects. According to Gartner the top 10 strategic technologies for 2010 include a number of things which we as an architect community need to be getting our heads around . Of the list of ten, there are three technologies in particular that interest me:

  • Cloud Computing
  • Advanced Analytics
  • Social Social Computing

Whilst it is easy to get consumed by the technology that these new architectural “styles” bring to the table I think the key things we as architects need to do is:

  1. Gain sufficient understanding of these architectural styles to be able to articulate their benefits (and of course their risks) to clients.
  2. Understand what the real difference between these technologies and the one that went before it are so we can build solutions that take advantage of these differences rather than more of the “same-old-architecture” in a slightly different guise.
  3. Figure out how we sell these benefits to the really important stakeholders (the RIS’s).

I reckon that in 2010 being able to identify the RIS’s and convincing them of the business benefits of going with solutions based on technology X is going to be the absolute number one priority. Most businesses in 2010 are going to be struggling to survive and not thinking about IT spends. However survival needs businesses to be both agile and also have the ability to swallow less fortunate companies as efficiently and quickly as possible. Thankfully I think the really good architects that can do this and span the business-IT gap will still be around this time next year. I’m not sure about the rest though?