Think Like An Architect

A previous entry suggested hiring an architect was a good idea because architects take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways. So how should you “think architecturally” in order to create things that are not only interesting but also solve practical, real-world problems? Architectural thinking is about balancing three opposing “forces”: what people want (desirability), what technology can provide (feasibility) and what can actually be built given the constraints of cost, resource and time (viability).

It is basically the role of the architect to help resolve these forces by assembling components “in interesting ways”. There is however a fourth aspect which is often overlooked but which is what separates great architecture from merely good architecture. That is the aesthetics of the architecture.
Aesthetics is what separates a MacBook from a Dell, the Millau Viaduct in France from the Yamba Dam Bridge in Japan and the St Mary Axe from the Ryugyong Hotel in North Korea. Aesthetics is about good design which is what you get when you add ‘significance’ (aesthetic appeal) to ‘utility’ (something that does the job). IBM, the company I work for, is 100 years old this year (check out the centennial video here) and Thomas Watson, IBM’s founder, famously said that “good design is good business”. Watson knew what Steve Jobs, Tim Brown and many other creative designers know; aesthetics is not only good for the people that use or acquire these computers/buildings/systems it’s also good for the businesses that create them. In a world of over-abundance good design/architecture both differentiates companies as well as giving them a competitive advantage.

Learning Architecture (Or Anything Really)

I spent most of 2010 travelling the world teaching Architectural Thinking for a client. (Here is a reasonable description of some of what this covers. It’s the best publicly available description I can find but please contact me if you would like more information on this class).I always reckon that you learn just as much as a teacher as you do as a student (or should do) so here’s some stuff I learnt myself. This is not rocket science and many people may consider this obvious but for those for whom this is not the case I hope you find it useful.

  1. People learn best when they have some fun. This doesn’t mean you have to be a great comedian to deliver an effective training class however it does help if you can arrange some fun activities as part of the learning. Quizzes (that also inject an element of competition) work well as a way of re-enforcing peoples learning.
  2. Ensure that at least half the time (and preferably two thirds of it) are spent on getting the attendees to do something. This does not have to be a full-blown case study (though you certainly need one of those) but should at least include plentiful opportunities for discussions and Q&A sessions (where the questions are not just asked by the students).
  3. Less really is more. When delivering a lecture, or a complete class, especially one you are very familiar with. It is tempting to cram more and more information in as you deliver more classes. People ask a question, you answer it and think “hey, why don’t I create a slide for that for next time”. Don’t. Slide-creep is one of the great evils of our time. Rather thank thinking “what can I add” think “what can I remove”. Hand out detail as additional reading. Keep the main-deal brief.
  4. Try, whenever you can, to tell stories rather than deliver dry facts. For me a teacher is, above all else, an experienced practitioner. Introducing your own “war stories” at appropriate points is what makes a great and teacher.
  5. Great public speakers (Richard Feynman, Steve Jobs, Banjamin Zander) inject passion into what they have to say. If you are not passionate about what you are saying then maybe you should not be standing up in front of others saying it! Think about what first made you interested in the topic you are delivering and weave that into the storyline. Injecting some of your personal self into a subject helps engage the audience and make them believe in what you have to say.

Finally take a look at this great advice from Seth Godin on organising a retreat. It may not be a full blown retreat you are organising but it contains great advice for just about any learning event where you want to get the best out of people.

Hire an Architect

Seth Godin has a great definition of what an architect is in his blog here. Here’s the description:

Architects don’t manufacture nails, assemble windows or chop down trees. Instead, they take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways.

He goes on to say that:

…intentionally building a structure and a strategy and a position, not focusing your energy on the mechanics, because mechanics alone are insufficient. Just as you can’t build a class A office building with nothing but a skilled carpenter, you can’t build a business for the ages that merely puts widgets into boxes.

I like this because for me this is absolutely the essence of what an architect does, take existing components and put them together in new and interesting ways. That’s exactly what Tim Berners-Lee did when he created the web. The key skill is not to get bogged down in the detail but to maintain the big picture of whatever it is you are doing. It applies equally to IT systems just as much as it does to buildings.

Architecting Out of the Box

I got this from a blog by Seth Godin. He was thinking about it in respect of marketers but it so applies to what we do as well.

Most of the time, we (IT architects or anyone else) think of our job as a set of tasks that take place in a box. We take inputs from upstream, add some value(hopefully) and create some outputs that we send downstream.

Architecting Out of the Box

It turns out, though (according to Seth), that if we go upstream and alter the stuff that comes to us, it’s a lot easier to do great work. And if we go downstream and teach people how to work with what we created, the final (work) product is better as well.

Seth gives as an example how a medical doctor can consider her work in the box of the examining room. But if she figures out how to get people to quit smoking before they come in, her results are better. If she figures out how to get people to take their pills after they leave, same thing.

As Seth says “the challenge lies in spending a lot of time and money on the upstream and downstream parts of the work, instead of always assuming that your [box] is just what happens inside your cubicle, or as a direct result of your actions”.

So here’s how I would translate this for the humble IT architect:

  • Visit your business sponsors by walking over to their desk (or calling them up on the phone if they happen to be on a different continent). Talk to them. Ask them what is troubling them today and see how you can help.
  • Take a long hard look at those requirements and make a point to go back to the person that wrote them if you don’t understand them. Don’t just assume stuff.
  • One persons architecture is another ones requirements. What you create will be used by designers and coders to build systems from. Make sure they really understand what you want. Go and visit them (possibly virtually) to see what makes them tick.
  • Here’s a really revolutionary idea. Write some code to a) convince youreself you can remember how to do it and b) show your downstream designers/implementers that you know what you are doing and have some empathy.

Most of what we do all day, intentionally or not, is aimed at keeping us in our boxes. Buck the trend and make an effort to get out of that box and make a difference.

Tweets, Cocktail Parties and the Real-Deal

You can have the greatest idea in the world but if you can’t present it effectively, aiming it at the interest level and time your audience has, then it’s not going to fly. Here’s a three-pronged approach to getting your ideas across I have borrowed from Dan Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (if you want a quick, animated summary of the book check this out).

You need to be prepared at all times to explain your idea. The amount of time you have to explain it will depend on a number of factors, not least of which is the amount of ‘face-time’ your stakeholder will give you. Here are three formats you should have prepared for selling your idea depending on how much time you can get:

  1. The Tweet version: A tweet (as delivered via twitter) can be a maximum of 140 characters. The challenge is can you describe your idea in 140 characters or less. Samuel Johnson (or Mark Twain or Winston Churchill depending on who you believe) said “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead”. This version is the most challenging of all. You really need to be brutal and pare your idea down to just the key facts.
  2. The Cocktail Party version: This is a variant on the elevator pitch. Can you describe you idea in 100 – 150 words or a maximum of one minute of talking (talking fast doesn’t count). Again you need to focus on the bare essentials but here you have a bit more leeway to focus on the business benefits.
  3. The Real-Deal version (with supporting takeaway): So you twittered your idea, you met some guy at a cocktail party (or in the elevator) to entice him a bit more and you finally got invited to present your idea. The presentation is the real-deal because this is really your chance to stand up and sell (and hopefully clinch the deal). Don’t, therefore, screw-up by preparing an overly busy presentation with slides full of tightly packed text (remember PowerPoint bullets kill interest like real bullets kill people). Suppose you have “an hour” to present. Aim for a presentation that can be done in 30 minutes allowing for 15 minutes of questions and five minutes or so either side for people to be late or have to leave early. No one can retain an interest for more than 50 minutes anyway so 30 is good. For some thoughts on presenting see here. I prefer not to follow rules like “one slide every two minutes”. The important thing is to structure the presentation first (probably before opening up your favourite presentation software) then write it, then practice until it fits into 30 minutes. For an interesting alternative view on how big a presentation should be see here (a slide every 12 seconds maybe!). Finally, because you will inevitably have had to leave out some detail prepare a short (two to four pages) takeaway which explains your idea that you can leave behind for your audience to take-away. Make sure you include the tweet as the “management summary”. You never know, your stakeholder may tweet it herself giving you a bit more publicity!

Art, Creativity and the Tyranny of the Timesheet

Apparently lawyers are some of the glummest groups of professionals out there! One of the reasons for this is the very nature of their profession; it’s usually a “zero-sum” game, if somebody wins someone else loses (and in extreme cases loses their life). Another theory, put forward by Dan Pink in his book Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is that lawyers have to deal with one of the most “autonomy crushing mechanisms imaginable – the billable hour”. Lawyers have to keep careful track of every hour they spend, sometime to the level of granularity of six minute time chunks, so they can bill their time to the correct client. As a result their focus inevitably shifts to from the quality of the work they do (their output) to how they measure that work (its input). Essentially a lawyers reward comes from time, the more hours they bill, the higher their (or their legal practices) income. In today’s world it is hard to think of a worse way to ensure people do high quality and creative work than making them fill in a timesheet detailing everything they do.

Unfortunately the concept of the billable hour is now firmly embedded into other professions, including the one I work in, IT consulting. As IT companies have moved from selling hardware to software that runs on that hardware and then to providing consulting services to build systems made up of hardware and software they have had to look for different ways of charging for what they do. Unfortunately they have taken the easy option of the billable hour, something that the company accountants can easily measure and penalise people for if they don’t achieve their billable hours every week, month or year.

The problem with this of course is that innovation and creativity does not come in six minute chunks. Imagine if the inventors of some of the most innovative software architecture (Tim Berners-Lee’s world-wide web or Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook) had to bill their time. When such people wake up in the middle of the night with a great idea that would solve their clients business problem what’s the first thing they reach for: a notebook to record the idea before its gone or a spreadsheet to record their time so they can bill it to the client!

As Dan Pink says, the billable hour is, or should be, a relic of the old economy where routine tasks (putting doors on cars, sewing designer jeans or putting widgets into boxes) had tight coupling between how much effort goes in and the work that comes out. In the old economy where a days work equaled a days pay and you were a day laborer you essentially sold out to the highest bidder. Isn’t what we do worth more than that? As Seth Godin points out “the moment you are willing to sell your time for money is the moment you cease to be the artist you’re capable of being”.

But what’s the alternative? Clearly IT consulting firms need to be able to charge clients for their work; they’re not charities after all. Here are my thoughts on alternatives to the tyranny of the timesheet which enable the art and creativity in building IT systems to flourish.

  1. Start with the assumption that most people want to do good work and incentivise them on the work products they create rather than the work inputs (time recorded).
  2. Recognise that creativity does not fit nicely into a 9 – 5 day. It can happen at any time. Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) has his most creative time between 5am and 9am so is just finishing his work when the rest of us are starting. Creative people need to be allowed to work when they are at their most creative, not when company accountants say they should.
  3. When charging clients for work agree on what will be delivered by when and then build the right team to deliver (a team of shippers not time keepers). Of course this gives company lawyers a nightmare because they get involved in endless tangles with clients about what constitutes a deliverable and when it is complete (or not). Maybe giving lawyers a creative problem to solve will cheer them up though.
  4. Give people time-out to do their own thing and just see what happens. Google famously give their employees 20% time where they are allowed to spend a day working on their own projects. A number of google applications (including gmail) were invented by people doing their own thing.
  5. Allow people to spend time having interactions outside their immediate work groups (and preferably outside their company). Innovative ideas come from many sources and people should be allowed to discover as many new sources as possible. If someone wants to spend half-a-day walking round an art gallery rather than sitting at their desk, why not? Frank Gehry allegedly got his idea for the shape of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao from Picasso’s cubist paintings.

In the new economy, the conceptual age where creativity and versatilism is the order of the day the timesheet should be firmly assigned to the shredder and people should be treated as innovaters not just cogs in the big corporate machine.

How to Create Artitecture

Forgive me for pushing yesterdays entry a bit further but I really like the idea of creating architectures that come from more of a right-brained way of thinking. So how should artitects go about creating an artitecture?

  1. Thrash early. Thrashing is a term used to describe the creative brainstorming process that happens during a project. Seth Godin in his book “Linchpin – Are You Indispensable?” says that amateurs thrash late whereas as professional thrash early. Late thrashing introduces bugs which are better to identify early rather than later.
  2. Make mistakes and learn from them. Like Fred Brooks said: “plan to throw one away; you will anyhow”. Use prototypes to understand how new and technically challenging components work but treat these as throwaways not release 1.0!
  3. Deliver (ship) something. According to Steve Jobs “real artists ship”. Delivering something (anything) on time and within budget is one of the great challenges of software development. Time or money (or both) usually run out before anything is delivered. Here’s a different way of looking at it though. Why not see the time/money constraint as a positive rather than a negative aspect of a project? So, if you have to produce something on time and within budget it’s quite simple really. Just work until the time/money run out then deliver something.
  4. Read the rule-book, but then change it. For software development projects the “rule book” is usually the process that is meant to be followed. However it’s important to recognise that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to SDLC (software delivery lifecycles). SDLCs are good but don’t follow them too slavishly. Be ready and prepared to customise them to your needs. A good SDLC will have this flexibility.
  5. Seek forgiveness not permission. I got this from an ex-colleague. In many companies today you are overwhelmed by (often) petty rules of engagement. If you always follow the rules that are supposedly “needed” to get a piece of work done then you won’t deliver. You’ll have done your job (followed the rules) but won’t have done the work that your client wants. Better is to not follow every rule and ask permission for doing something but to just do it and ask for forgiveness when the rules get broken (unless those rules are there to keep you out of prison of course).

Okay here’s the real irony in the above. If you read and believe my point number two from yesterday (artitects don’t follow the process in the manual, instead they write the manual) you won’t be following any of the above; instead you’ll be creating your own way of doing artitecture.

On Being an Artitect

My mum, who just turned 85 this month, mispronounces the word architect. She says “artitect” where a “t” replaces the “ch”. I’ve tried to put her right on this a few times but I’ve just finished reading the book by Seth Godin called “Linchpin – Are You Indispensable?” and decided that actually she’s probably been pronouncing the word right after all. I’ve decided that the key bit she’s got right and I (and all of the rest of us haven’t) is the “art” bit. Let me explain why.

The thrust of Seth’s book is that to survive in today’s world of work you have to bring a completely different approach to the way you do that work. In other words you have to be an artist. You have to create things that others can’t or won’t because they just do what they are told not what they think could be the right creative approach to building something that is radically new. Before I proceed much further with this thread I guess we need to define what we mean by artist in this context. I like this from Seth’s book:

An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity and boldness to challenge the status-quo. And an artist takes it personally.

As to what artists create:

Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that is creative, passionate and personal.

I’d also add something like “and changes the world for the better” to that last statement otherwise I think that some fairly dodgy activities might pass for art as well (or maybe even that is my lizard brain kicking in, see below).

Of course that’s not to say that you shouldn’t learn the basics of your craft whether you are a surgeon, a programmer or a barista in a coffee shop. Instead you should learn them but then forget them because after that they will hold you back. Picasso was a great “classical” artist. In other words he knew how to create art that would have looked perfectly respectable in traditional parts of the art galleries of the world where all the great masters work is displayed that follows the literal interpretation of the world. However once he had mastered that he threw the rule book out completely and started to create art that no one else had dared to do and changed the art-world forever.

So an artitect (rather than an architect) is someone who uses creativity, insight, breadth of vision and passion to create architectures (or even artitectures) that are new and different in someway that meet the challenges laid down for it, and then some.

Here are the five characteristics that I see a good artitect as having:

  1. Artitects are always creating new “mixes”. Some of the best IT architects I know tell me how they are creating new solutions to problems by pulling together software components and making them work together in interesting and new ways. Probably one of the greatest IT architects of all time – Tim Berners-Lee who invented the world-wide web – actually used a mix of three technologies and ideas that were already out there. Markup languages, the transmission control protocol (TCP) and hypertext. What Tim did was to put them together in quite literally a world-changing way.
  2. Artitects don’t follow the process in the manual, instead they write the manual. If you find yourself climbing the steps that someone else has already carved out then guess what, you’ll end up in the same place as everyone else, not somewhere that’s new and exciting.
  3. Artitects look at problems in a radically different way to everyone else. They try to find a completely different viewpoint that others won’t have seen and to build a solution around that. I liken this to a great photograph that takes a view that others have seen a thousand times before and puts a completely different spin on it either by standing in a different place, using a different type of lens or getting creative in the photo-editing stage.
  4. Artitects are not afraid to make mistakes or to receive ridicule from their peers and colleagues. Instead they positively thrive on it. Today you will probably have tens or even hundreds of ideas for solutions to problems pop into your head and pop straight out again because internally you are rejecting them as not been the “right approach”. What if instead of allowing your lizard brain (that is the part of your brain that evolved first and kept you safe on the savanna when you could easily get eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger) to have its say you wrote those ideas down and actually tried out a few? Nine out of ten or 99 out of a 100 of them might fail causing some laughter from your peers but the one that doesn’t could be great! Maybe even the next world-wide web?
  5. Artitects are always seeking out new ideas and new approaches from unlikely places. They don’t just seek out inspiration from the usual places that their profession demands but go to places and look to meet people in completely different disciplines. For new ideas talk to “proper” artists, real architects or maybe even accountants!!!

Perhaps from now on we should all do a bit less architecture and a bit more artitecture?

Are Architects Cogs or Linchpins?

I’m reading the book Linchpin – Are you indispensable? by Seth Godin. It raises in my mind a number of troubling thoughts about architects and whether we can be viewed as being cogs or linchpins according to Seth’s world view. According to Seth a cog is someone who:

  1. Relies on left (lizard) brained skills
  2. Keeps their head down
  3. Follows instructions (or a process)
  4. Creates widgets
  5. Works hard but just does what is needed
  6. Shows up on time
  7. Gets jobs by providing a CV (AKA resume)
  8. Is easily replaced (by another cog)

whereas as linchpin is someone who:

  1. Relies on right (creative) brained skills
  2. Raises their head above the parapet
  3. Makes judgment calls and leads others
  4. Creates art
  5. Focuses on connecting people and ideas
  6. Work to no fixed schedule or agenda
  7. Gets jobs by pointing prospective employers at their web site, blog, latest work of art or project
  8. Is indispensable

As with any job IT architecture is x% slog and routine and y% creativity, inspiration and creating great ideas or opportunities. By working on the linchpin attributes rather than the cog attribute you can hopefully increase y at the expense of x. I think this resonates well with these skills and my manifesto here.

PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid (Says the US Military)

A timely follow-up to my recent blog post. I got this via Seth Godin’s blog entry here. According to the US military (as reported here) “PowerPoint makes us stupid”. Brigadier General H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, likened PowerPoint to an internal threat. He says: “it’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bulletizable”.

US commanders say that “the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan”.

Incredible! Has the world gone mad? Imagine if PowerPoint had been around in the time of John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill or Mahatma Gandhi? Would their speeches have been enhanced by using a PowerPoint presentation with bullet points summarising their key messages? I think not. As Seth Godin goes on to say “guns don’t kill people, bullets do”.