2011 Architecture Survival Guide

An article in last Sundays Observer newspaper about Facebook has set me thinking about how we architects can not only survive in today’s rapidly changing technological environment but also actually make a positive difference to the world (even if it’s not on the scale of Facebook, assuming you think that has made a positive impact on the world).The article by John Naughton examines the claim by the Winklevoss twins that they were ripped off when they reached a settlement with Mark Zuckerburg in 2008 after they claimed it was they who had invented Facebook. Their claim is that the number of Facebook shares they acquired was based on a false valuation. For an entertaining view of this see, or rent, The Social Network which goes into the history of how Facebook came into being. The article goes on to pose the question: would we now be looking at a social networking service with 600 million users if the Winklevoss twins had been the ones to develop Facebook?

Naughton thinks not and goes on to explain that although the Winklevoss twins were not stupid they probably “laboured under two crippling disadvantages”:

  1. They were, and probably still are, conventional people who may have been good at “creating businesses in established sectors but who find it hard to operate in arenas where there are no rules”.
  2. The twins weren’t techies and so had no real insight into the technology they were creating and its possibilities. They were therefore less likely to “spot the importance of allowing Facebook to become a software platform on which other people could run applications”.

Here’s my takeaway from this if you want to come up with new ideas, at whatever scale, no one else has thought of.

  1. Don’t think conventionally. Conventional thinking will end up creating conventional business models. Conventional means doing what you’ve been told or what your peers do. Someone once said “fear of our peers makes us conservative in our thinking“. Zuckerburg was not only fearless of his peers (the Winklevoss twins) but had no qualms about using (some would say stealing) their ideas and using them for his own ends. I guess it poses an interesting moral dilemma about when it is right to steal someone elses idea because you think you can do more with it. Facebook paid for this by handing over cash and shares to the Winklevoss twins but have benefited from this ‘investment’ many times over.
  2. Don’t think like everyone else. Walter Lippmann (a writer and political commentator) once said “where we all think alike, no one thinks very much.” Some people claim that Zuckeburg (if you believe the movie at any rate) exhibits characteristics that place him on the autistic spectrum. (actually as having Asperger syndrome). One of the characteristics of someone with Aspergers is that they display behavior, interests, and activities that are restricted and repetitive and are sometimes abnormally intense or focused. Zuckeburg not only thought differently to everyone else but took an idea and focused on it intensely (many, many hours of programming) until Facebook was created.
  3. Think visually. Interesting related to number 2. People on the autistic spectrum are often more visual thinkers than those who are not. We often joke about “back of an envelope” or “back of a fag packet” designs but setting aside the medium the ability to visualise your thoughts quickly and succinctly is a key characteristic it’s worth fostering. One of my more memorable ad-hoc design sessions took place over a meal in a restaurant where we used the table cloth as a our drawing canvas. Luckily it was a paper table cloth!
  4. Don’t get out of touch with technology. One of the dangers of becoming an architect in order to make yourself “more valuable” (see Dilbert below) is you not only lose touch with technology but you lose the ability to exploit it in ways others may not see. Making Facebook an open platform has been one of the key factors in its runaway success. I’ve discussed before the importance of being a versatilist (broad in several disciplines and deep in a few specialisms) and this ones all about picking your technology (we can’t all be good at everything) and specialising yourself in it!


Versatilism and Wicked Problems

The world is full of wicked problems. As stated previously a wicked problem is one that is:

  • Unique
  • Difficult to define
  • Linked to other problems
  • Not always clear when its been solved

Some wicked problems can benefit from the reasoned application of information technology to help in solving them. Solving wicked problems needs an innovative approach and the use of design thinking. A versatilist is someone who knows how to apply design thinking and can orchestrate the skills of multiple disciplines in solving wicked problems. A versatilist is also someone who:

  • Applies both left (logical) and right (artistic) brain thinking to the problem.
  • Uses rapid prototyping to test out solutions.
  • Understands that everything is connected to everything else and that sometimes solving one problem results in many more.
  • Is not afraid to disrupt the status quo and risk ridicule from his peers.
  • Is not afraid to propose a solution to a problem before the problem is completely understood.
  • Iterates (maybe many times) rather than expecting to arrive at a solution following a (simple-minded) analysis of the problem.

The world needs more versatilists if we are to solve the truly wicked problems. Solving wicked problems is one of the things we must do if we are to build a Smarter Planet.

We Need More Women (IT) Architectural Thinkers (Duh)!

Yes I know, a statement of the blindingly obvious. People of have been bleating on about this for years but nothing much seems to change. My recent and current experiences of teaching IT architecture for a number of different clients rarely has more than 10% of the classes being made up of women (and its usually 0%!). Even more depressingly, from what I’ve seen of university IT courses, there seems to be a similarly small number of female students entering into careers in IT. So why does it matter that 50% of the worlds population only have such a poor showing in this profession?

In his book Change by Design Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO relates the following apocryphal story. Whilst working on a kid’s product for Nike IDEO gathered a group of kids at their Palo Alto design studio to brainstorm ideas. The boys and girls (who were eight to ten year olds) were split into separate groups in different rooms, given some instructions and left to get on with it for an hour. When the results were analysed it was found that the girls had come up with more than two hundred ideas whereas the boys had struggled to come up with fifty. The reason for this? The boys were eager to get their ideas out there and were barely conscious of of the ideas of their fellow brainstormers. The girls on the other hand “conducted a spirited but nonetheless serial conversation in which each idea related to the one that had come before and became a springboard to the one that came next”. According to Tim one of the key rules of brainstorming is to “build on the ideas of others” and it would seem girls have an innate ability to do this whereas boys, possibly due to their more competitive tendencies, want to force the ideas to be the ones that “win”.

Although this story relates to a group of eight to ten year olds my own anecdotal evidence indicates it is equally applicable to all age groups. When observing how team members interact on case studies that we run as part of our architecture classes there is inevitably better and more informed discussion and end results when the teams are mixed (even when females are in the minority) than when they are made up of all males.

My hope is that we are entering a new age of enlightenment when it comes to how we put together project teams that are made up of true versatilists rather than traditional teams of “hard-core” IT techie types. Versatilists by definition have good skills across a range of disciplines whether it be in the arts, humanities or sciences. It is, I believe, only in bringing together both this range of disciplines together with mixed genders that we can hope to address some of life’s harder problems. Problems that not only require new ideas but solutions that build on the ideas of others rather than re-inventing everything from scratch in the usual brute force, testosterone charged way we typically seem to approach problem solving in IT.

Are Frameworks Too Constraining and is Chaos the Natural State?

ZapThink have recently published a number of good articles on complex systems, the death of Enterprise Architecture and the dangers of ‘checklist architecture’. These have resonated nicely with some of my thoughts on the state of (IT) architecture in general and whether we are constraining ourselves unnaturally with the tools, processes and thinking models we have created. Here are the problems that I see we have with our current approach:

  1. Systems are getting ever more complex but we are still relying on the same-old-processes to deal with that.
  2. We have processes which are too large, overblown and themselves too complex which lead to people being driven by the process rather than the business goals for the system(s) under development.
  3. We are creating siloed professionals who are aligning themselves to particular disciplines; for example: Enterprise Architect, Solution Architect, Integration Architect the list is almost endless! This results in sharing of responsibilities but no one person or group retaining the overall vision.
  4. The majority of enterprises faced with addressing these challenges themselves have such large and complex bureaucracies in place that the people working in them inevitably end up becoming ‘inward facing’ and concentrating on their own needs rather than solving the complex business problems. There is of course an interesting dichotomy here which is: do we develop systems that just reinforce the status-quo of the systems we live by?

What we need is a new approach which both encompasses the need to address the complexity of systems we must build but at the same time allows for the change and chaos which is almost the natural state of human affairs and allows new and interesting properties and behaviours to emerge. As I’ve said elsewhere what we need is a new breed of versatilists who, just like the Vitruvian man of Leonardo da Vinci, can bring to bear a whole range of skills and competencies to help address the challenges we face in building todays complex systems. I think what we need is an update of the agile manifesto. This won’t just address the relatively narrow confines of the software delivery processes but will be far more extensive. Here is my first stab at such a manifesto.

  1. Systems of systems rather than single systems.
  2. Business processes that provide automated flexibility whilst at the same time recognising there is a human and more collaborative element to most processes where sometimes new and unexpected behaviours can emerge.
  3. Adaptable and configurable software delivery processes that recognise business requirements are dynamic, unclear, and difficult to communicate rather than a single, monolithic ‘one size fits all’ approach that assumes requirements are stable, well understood, and properly communicated.
  4. People that objectively view experiences and reflect on what they have learnt, look further than their current roles, explore other possibilities and pursue lifelong learning rather than those that focus on the narrow confines of the current project or how to better themselves (and their employer).
  5. Enterprises (whether they be consulting companies, product developers or end users or IT) that recognise the intrinsic value of their people and allow them to grow and develop rather than driving them to meet artificial goals and targets that feed their own rather than their clients/customers needs.

V is for Versatilist

On the IT architecture class that I teach in IBM we have a thing about saying IT architects should be T-shaped. What we mean by this is shown below.

Ideally an architect should have a good range of general skills and at least one deep skill. So an architect might be a good Java programmer for example but also have a broader range of skills including project management, negotiating skills, SOA or whatever.

A Gartner research note I discovered recently called The IT Professional Outlook: Where Will We Go From Here? (from 2005) predicted that by 2011 “70 percent of leading-edge companies will seek and develop “versatilists” while deemphasizing specialists.” It defines a versatilist as someone “whose numerous roles, assignments and experiences enable them to synthesize knowledge and context in ways that fuel business value”. This diagram better shows the versatilist skills therefore:

I like this because not only is the versatilist a V-shaped sort of guy, denoting a broad range of skills at a greater depth of understanding and practice, I believe these skills should be cross-discipline and yes, maybe even consist of right-brain as well as left-brain skills.

As mentioned in a previous post I believe that we architects need not only breadth, to quite a level of depth, but also a good range of skills across all disciplines if we are to come up with new ways of thinking to solve some of the wicked problems out there. Architects should therefore by V(ersatilist), not T-shaped.

Skills for Building a Smarter Planet: A Manifesto

IBM is currently doing a big advertising campaign called Smarter Planet. I recently put together a lecture for a group of university students which tried to weave together a number of themes which I am currently interested in:

Here’s my manifesto:

In the 21st century IT professionals must adopt more of a systems thinking approach if they are to solve the wicked problems the world faces. If we are truly going to build a smarter planet then we need a new breed of versatilists who are able to solve these problems.

There are a number of themes here I plan to return to in future posts.