Tuesday, May 25, 2010

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?

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