Monday, February 28, 2011

Forget T-Shaped, We Need V-Shaped Architects

A recent blog from the Open Group discusses the benefits of so called "T-shaped people". According to this blog, T-shaped people are what HR are looking for these days. To quote from the blog a T-shaped person is someone who: "combines the broad level of skills and knowledge (the top horizontal part of the T) with specialist skills in a specific functional area (the bottom, vertical part of the T). They are not generalists because they have a specific core area of expertise but are often also referred to as generalizing specialists as well as T-shaped people". The picture below shows this.

Traditionally for software architects the specialism that T-shaped people usually have has come from their entry-level skills or the ones that got them into the profession in the first place. This is usually a skill in a particular programming language,  development approach (agile, scrum or whatever) or other areas related to software development such as test or configuration management. As you progress through your career and begin to build on your skills (learning more programming languages, understanding more about design etc) you may add to the verticals in your T's with these other specialisms. This, at least, has traditionally been the approach. The problem is that in some organisations in order to "progress" (i.e. earn more money) you almost need to know more about less. You need to generalise more and more quickly. No one is going to employ you to be a Java programmer if your salary is ten times that of what a Java programmer in India or China earns. This is not meant to be a criticism against software professionals in India or China by the way. It's just the way of things. Soon people in India and China will be out-sourcing to lower cost regions and so the cycle will go on. It does however raise an interesting problem of how those core specialisms will be developed in people just entering the profession. I spent a good 15 years as a programmer before I moved into architecture and would like to think that what I learnt there gave me a good set of core, fundamental skills that I can still apply as an architect. I firmly believe that the fundamentals I learnt from programming (encapsulation, design by contract, the importance of loose coupling etc) never go out of fashion.

As I have blogged before, I believe that whilst good "generalizing specialists" can also make good architects there is another dimension to what makes a true architect who has the skills necessary to solve the really hard business as well as socio-political (e.g. global warming, global terrorism, resource shortages etc) problems that the world faces today. Gartner coined the term "versatilist" back in 2005 and whilst this does not seem to have really taken off (there is a versatilist web site but it seems to be little used) I like the fact that the 'V' of versatilist makes a nice paradigm for what 21st century IT architects need to be. V-shaped people are not just ones who have deep skills in specific functional areas but also have skills in other disciplines. Further a good V-shaped person is one who has skills not just in technical disciplines but also business and artistic disciplines. So why does this matter?

The concept of bringing interdisciplinary teams together to break down boundaries in solving difficult or wicked problems is not a new one. It is recognised that pooling different academic schools of thought can often throw up solutions to problems that any of the individual disciplines could not. It follows therefore that if an individual can be well rounded and at least have some level of knowledge in an area completely outside his or her core discipliines then they to may be able to shed new light on difficult problems. This is what being a versatilist is about. As shown below its not just about specialising in different functional areas within a discipline but also across disciplnes. If these disciplines can be a mix of the arts as well as the sciences that exercise both right and left brains then so much the better.

So how should versatilists develop their skills? Here are some suggestions I give to IT students when discussing how they might survive as professionals in the 21st century world of work:
  • Objectively view experiences and roles - When you have finished an assignment note down what you learnt from it, what you could have done better and maybe ask others what they thought of your performance.
  • Look further than current roles. Today you are working on a particular project however always have in mind what you want to do next and an idea of what you want to do after that. Don't become stereotyped, prepare to move on even if you are in an area you know well.
  • Plan opportunities and assignments - This follows on from the last one. make sure each assignment really builds on and develops your skills. Step out of your comfort zone in each new assignment.
  • Explore other possibilities. Never assume there is only one option. Think differently and look at alternatives. Like Paul Arden said, "Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite".
  • Pursue lifelong learning - What it says. never stop exploring!
  • Identify companies that will increase professional value. Companies are out to get what they can from you. make sure you do the same with them.
So as we enter the second decade of the 21st century can we not look for more T-shaped people but start the search for V-shaped people instead? These are the ones who will really make a difference and be able to address the really wicked problems that are out there.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson, Turing and Clarke

So what do these three have in common?
  • Thomas J. Watson Sr, CEO and founder of IBM (100 years old this year). Currently has a computer named after him.
  • Alan Turing, mathematician and computer scientist (100 years old next year). Has a famous test named after him.
  • Aurthur C. Clarke, scientist and writer (100 years old in 1917). Has a set of laws named after him (and is also the creator of the fictional HAL computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Unless you have moved into a hut, deep in the Amazon rain forest you cannot have missed the publicity over IBM's 'Watson' computer having competed in, and won, the American TV quiz show Jeopardy. I have to confess that until last week I'd not heard of Jeopardy, possibly because a) I'm not a fan of quizzes, b) I'm not American and c) I don't watch that much television. To those as ignorant as me on these matters the unique thing about Jeopardy is that contestants are presented with clues in the form of answers, and must phrase their responses in the form of a question.

This, it turns out, is what makes this particular quiz such a hard nut for a computer to crack. The clues in the 'question' rely on subtle meanings, puns, and riddles; something humans excel at and computers do not. Unlike IBM's previous game challenger Deep Blue, which defeated chess world champion Gary Kasparov, it's not sufficient to rely on raw computing 'brute force' but this time the computer has to interpret meaning and the nuances of the human language. So has Watson achieved, met or passed the Turing test (which is basically a measure of whether computer can demonstrate intelligence)?

The answer is almost certainly 'no'. Turing's test is a measure of a machines ability to exhibit human intelligence. The test, as originally proposed by Turing was that a questioner should ask a series of questions of both a human being and a machine and see whether he can tell which is which through the answers they give. The idea being that if the two were indistinguishable then the machine and the human must both appear to be as intelligent as each other.

As far as I know Turing never stipulated any constraint on the range or type of questions that could be answered which leads us to the nub of the problem. Watson is supremely good at answering Jeopardy type questions just as Deep Blue was good at playing chess. However neither could do what the other does (at least as well). They have been programmed for that given task. Given that Watson is actually a cluster of POWER7 servers any suitably general purpose computer that could win at Jeopardy, play chess as well as exhibit the full range of human emotions and frailties that would be needed to fool a questioner would presumably occupy the area of several football pitches and consume the power of a small city.

That however misses the point completely. The ability of a computer to almost flawlessly answer a range of questions, phrased in a particular way on a range of different subject areas, blindingly fast has enormous potential in fields of medicine, law and other disciplines where questions based on a huge foundation of knowledge built up over decades need to be answered quickly (for example in accident and emergency where quick diagnoses may literally be a matter of life and death). This indeed is one of IBM's Smarter Planet goals.

Which brings us to Clarke's third law which states that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". This is surely something that is attributable to Watson. The other creation of Clarke of course is HAL the computer aboard the spaceship Discovery One on a trip to Saturn that becomes overwhelmed by guilt at having to keep secret the true nature of the spaceships mission and starts killing members of the crew. The point of Clarke's story (or one of them) being that the downside to a computer that is indistinguishable from a human being is that the computer may also end up mimicking human frailties and weaknesses.  Maybe it's a good job Watson hasn't passed Turing's test then?      

Monday, February 14, 2011

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.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

How Much Does Your Software Weigh, Mr Architect?

Three apparently unrelated events actually have a serendipitous connection which have led to the title of this weeks blog.

First off, Norman Foster (he of the "Gherkin" and "Wobbly Bridge" fame) has had a film released about his life and work called How Much Does You Building Weigh, Mr Foster. As a result there have been a slew of articles about both Foster and the film including this one in the Financial Times. One of the things that comes across from both the interviews and the articles about Foster is the passion he has for his work. After all, if you are still working at 75 then you must like you job a little bit! One of the quotes that stands out for me is this one from the FT article:

The architect has no power, he is simply an advocate for the client. To be really effective as an architect or as a designer, you have to be a good listener.”

How true. Too often we sit down with clients and a jump in with solutions before we have really got to the bottom of what the problem is. It's not just about listening to what the client says but also what she doesn't say. Sometimes people only say what they think you want them to hear not what they really feel, So, it's not just about listening but developing empathy with the person you are architecting for. Related to this is not closing down discussions too early before making sure everything has been said which brings me to the second event.

I'm currently reading Resonate by Nancy Duarte which is about how to put together presentations that really connect with your audience using techniques adopted by professional story tellers (like film makers for example). In Duarte's book I came across the diagram below which Tim Brown also uses in his book Change by Design.

For me the architects sits above the dotted line in this picture ensuring as many choices as possible get made and then making decisions (or compromises) that are the right balance of the sometimes opposing "forces" of the requirements that come from multiple choices.

One of the big compromises that often needs to be made is how much can I deliver in the time I have available and, if its not everything, what is dropped? Unless the time can change then its usually the odd bit of functionality (good if these functions can be deferred to the next release) or quality (not good under any circumstances). This leads me to the third serendipitous event of the week: discovering "technical debt".

Slightly embarrassingly I had not heard of the concept of technical technical debt before and it's been around for a long time. It was originally proposed by Ward Cunningham in 1992 who said the following:

"Shipping first time code is like going into debt. A little debt speeds development so long as it is paid back promptly with a rewrite… The danger occurs when the debt is not repaid. Every minute spent on not-quite-right code counts as interest on that debt. Entire engineering organizations can be brought to a stand-still under the debt load of an unconsolidated implementation".

Technical debt is a topic that has been taken up by the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) who are organising a workshop on the topic this year. One way of understanding technical debt is to see it as the gap between the current state of the system and what was originally envisaged by the architecture. Here, debt can be "measured" by the number of known defects and features that have not yet been implemented. Another aspect to debt however is the amount of entropy that has set in because the system has decayed over time (changes have been made that were not in line with the specified architecture). This is a more difficult thing to measure but has a definite cost in terms of ease of maintenance and general understandibility of the system.

Which leads to the title of this weeks blog. Clearly software (being 'soft') carries no weight (the machines it runs on do not count) but nonetheless can have a huge, and potentially damaging weight in terms of the debt it may be carrying in unstructured, incorrect or hard to maintain code. Understanding the weight of this debt, and how to deal with it, should be part of the role of the architect. The weight of your software may not be measurable in terms of kilograms but it surely has a weight in terms of the "debt owed".