Thursday, March 31, 2011

It's Only Television But I Like It

Yes I know it's a television program and yes I know they are playing up to the camera and yes I know we only see the 'edited highlights' but Jamie's Dream School on Channel 4 last night was an exemplar on how to deliver motivational talks to a disinterested audience. As I discussed last time the 'teachers' (actually people at the leading edge in their field) are truly inspirational, passionate individuals who use every trick in the book to engage with and inspire their students. Not only that they are incredibly humble, as typified by one of the pupils asking Robert Winston if he "had ever cured anything" to which he replied he "thought they had helped with some advances, yes". As well as all this inspirational and motivational teaching you will see there is not a single PowerPoint slide in sight. It's all about naked presenting (well, apart from the odd prop or two) and story telling.

I've recently been reading Nancy Duarte's book Resonate which looks at how storytelling as done by great writers and film-makers can be used by presenters to really engage with their audience. If you want a book that helps you with presentations that is something other than the boring 'how to' guides on structuring PowerPoint presentations then it's definitely worth a read.

So what's this got to do with IT architecture? Nothing and everything! At one level architecture is just a pile of models and diagrams describing ways for solving business problems. However architecture also needs to be 'bought alive' if the ideas it encompasses are to be explained and the costs of implementing it justified to non-technical people. Explaining and presenting architecture is probably one of the most important aspects of the architects role and communication skills should definitely be up their as one of the key competencies possessed by architects. Without these architectures will just remain a bunch of ideas gathering virtual dust in a modeling tool.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Lego, Granularity, Jamie Oliver and Architecture

There's a TV program running here in the UK called Jamie's Dream School where the chef, entrepreneur, restaurateur and Sainsbury's promoter Jamie Oliver brings together some of Britain's most inspirational individuals (Robert Winston, Simon Callow, Rankin and Rolf Harris to name but four) to see if they can persuade 20 young people who've left school with little to show for the experience to give education a second chance. The central theme seems to be one of hands-on student involvement and live demos, the more outrageous the better. The highlight so far being Robert Winston hacking away at rats and pigs with scalpels and a circular saw resulting in several students vomiting in the playground.

This set me thinking about how best to demonstrate software architecture to a bunch of students of a similar age to those in the Jamie Oliver program for a talk I gave at a UK university last week. Much has been written about the analogy between LEGO (R) and services (see this article from Zapthink and another from ZDNet for example). Okay it may not be quite as imaginative as pig carcasses being hacked about but LEGO was the best I had at hand! Here's how the demo works:
  1. First I give them my favourite defnition of architecture, namely: Architects take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways. (Seth Godin).
  2. Then I invite an unsuspecting candidate to come and assemble the body (importantly excluding the wheels) of a car out of LEGO (actually Duplo as its bigger) making a big thing of tipping a bag of bricks out onto the table. This they usually do without too much hassle, the key learning point being that they have created an "interesting" construct out of "existing components".
  3. I then ask them to add some wheels and tip out a bag of K'NEX (R). As I'm sure even non-parents know K'NEX and LEGO are essentially different "systems" and the two don't (easily) connect to each other. This usually ends up in bemused looks and a good deal of fiddling around with wheels and bricks trying to figure out how to make the two systems connect to each other.
Depending on how much time and energy you have as well as the attention span of the students there are lots of great learning points to be made here. In order of increasing depth these are:
  1. LEGO (components) have a well defined interface and can easily be assembled in lots of interesting ways.
  2. K'NEX is a different system and has been designed with a different interface. K'NEX and LEGO were not designed to work with each other. One of the jobs of an architect is to watch out for incompatible interfaces and figure out ways of making them work with each other. This is possibly done using a third party product e.g Sellotape (R). I guess an extension to this demo could be a roll of this.
  3. It may be in the component providers interest to use different interfaces as it results in vendor lock-in which means you have to keep going back to that vendor for more components,
  4. Granularity (i.e. in the case of LEGO the number of "nobbles") is important. Small bricks (few nobbles, fine-grained) may be very reusable but you need lots and lots of them to do anything interesting. Conversely LEGO have now taken to quite specialized pieces (not "bricks" any more but large-grained pieces) that perform one function well (the LEGO rocket for example) but cannot be reused so easily. The optimum for re-usability is somewhere in-between these two.
  5. LEGO may be aimed at children who, with relatively little expertise or training, may be able to assemble interesting things but they are not about to build LEGOland. For that you need an architect!
  6. Finally, if you are feeling really mean, disassemble the lovingly built construction of your student then ask her to re-build it in exactly the same way. Chances are that even for a relatively simple system they won't be able to. What might have helped was some type of document that described what they had done.
I'm sure there are other interesting analogies to be drawn but I'll finish by saying that this is not quite as trivial as it sounds. Not only was this a good learning exercise for my students I happen to know a client who is using building blocks like LEGO to help their architects architect systems. The key thing it helps demonstrate is the importance of collaboration in assembling such systems. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Skills for Building a Smarter Planet

This is the transcript of a talk I gave to a group of sixth formers, who are considering a career in IT, at a UK university this week. The theme was "What do IT architects do all day" however I expanded it into "What will IT architects be doing in the future?".

What I want to do in the next 30 minutes or so is not only tell you what I, as an IT architect, do but what I think you will be doing should you choose to take up a career as an IT architect and what skills you wil need to do the job. In particular I'd like to explain what I mean by this:

Today's world is full of wicked problems. Solving these problems, and building a smarter planet needs new skills. I believe that IT architects need to be a versatile and adaptive breed of systems thinkers.

Here's the best explanation I've seen of what architects do:

Architects take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways. (Seth Godin)

As an example of this consider something that we use everyday, the (world-wide) web. Invented by Tim Berners-Lee just 20 short years ago, Tim basically assembled the web from three components that already existed: hypertext, internet protocols and what are referred to as markup languages. All these things existed, what Tim did was to assemble them in an "interesting" way. So what I do is to use IT to try and solve interesting and important business problems by assembling (software) components. I'm not just interested in any problems though, the type of problems that interest me are the "wicked" variety. What do I mean by these?

Wicked problems are ones that you often don't really understand until you've formulated a solution to it. It's often not even possible to really state what the problem is and because there is no clear statement of the problem, there can be no clear solution so you never actually know when you are finished. For wicked problems 'finished' usually means you have run out of time, money, patience or all three! Further, solutions to wicked problems are not "right" or "wrong". Wicked problems tend to have solutions which are 'better', or maybe 'worse' or just 'good enough'. Finally, every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique. Because there are usually so many factors involved in a wicked problem no two problems are ever the same and each solution needs a unique approach.

But there's a problem! Here's a headline from last year Independent newspaper: "Labour's computer blunders cost £26bn". What's going on here? This is your and my money being wasted on failed IT projects. And it's not just government projects that are failing. Here's an estimate from the British Computer Society of how many IT projects re actually successful. 20%! How poor is that? It projects 'fail' for many reasons but interstingly it's rarely for just technical reasons. More often than not it's due to poor project and risk management, lack of effective stakeholder management or no clear senior management ownership. So we have a real problem here. As we'll see in a minute,  problems are not only getting harder to fix (more 'wicked') but our ability to solve them does not seem to be improving!!

So what are these wicked problems I keep talking about? They are many and numerous but many of them are attributable to inefficiencies that exist in the "systems" that exist in the world. Economists estimate that globally we waste $15 trillion of the worlds precious resources each year. Much – if not most – of this inefficiency can be attributed to the fact that we have optimized the way the world works within silos, with little regard for how the processes and systems that drive our planet interrelate. These complex, systemic inefficiencies are interwoven in the interactions among our planet’s core systems. No business, government or institution can solve these issues in isolation. To root out inefficiencies and reclaim a substantial portion of that which is lost, businesses, industries, governments and cities will need to think in terms of systems, or more accurately, a system of systems approach. This means we will need to collaborate at unprecedented levels. For example no single organization owns the world’s food system, and no single entity can fix the world’s healthcare system. Success will depend upon understanding the full set of cause-and-effect relationships that link systems and using this knowledge to create greater synergy. Basically many of the problems the world faces today are cause by the fact that our systems don't talk to each other. What do I mean by this? Here's a simple example to illustrate the point.

Imagine you are driving your car around town trying to find a parking space. You can be sure that somewhere in town there's a parking meter looking for a car to park in it. How do we marry your car with that parking meter? Actually the technology to do this pretty much exists already. However the challenge of actually fixing this problem stretches beyond just technology. A solution to this problem includes at least: intelligent sensors, communications, public and private finance, local government involvement, control and policing as well as well established open standards.

Like I said, from a pure technology point of view we are in pretty good shape to solve problems like this. We now have an unprecedented amount of: instrumentation, interconnectedness and intelligence
such that organisations (and societies) can think and act in radically new ways. However in order to solve problems like the parking one as well as significantly more 'wicked' ones I believe we need skills that stretch beyond the mere technological. If you are to help solve these problems then you need to be a versatile and adaptive systems thinker. A systems thinker is someone who not only uses her left-brained logical thinking capabilities but also uses her right-brained creative and artistic capabilities. Here are six attributes (from Dan Pink's book A Whole New Mind) that a good systems thinker needs to adopt which I think will help in solving some of the worlds wicked problems:
  • Design – It is no longer sufficient or acceptable to create a product or service that merely does the job. Today it is both economically critical as well as  aesthetcially rewarding to create something that is beautiful and emotionally engaging.
  • Story – We are living in a time of information overload. If you want your sales pitch or point of view to be heard above the cacophony of background noise that is out there you have to create a compelling narrative.
  • Symphony – We live in a world of silos. Siloed processes, siloed systems and siloed societies. Success in business and in life is about breaking down these silos and pulling all the pieces together. Its about synthesis rather than analysis.
  • Empathy – Our capacity for logical thought has gone a very way to creating the technological society we live in today. However in a world of ubiquitous information that is available at the touch of a button logic alone will no longer cut the mustard.In order to thrive we need to understand what makes our fellow humans tick and really get beneath their skin and to forge new relationships.
  • Play – In a world where we are all having to meet targets, pass tests and  achieve the right grades in order to get on it is easy to forget the importance of play. There is a lot of evidence out there of the benefits to our health and general well-being of the benefits of play, not only outside work but also inside.
  • Meaning – We live in a world of material plenty put spiritual scarcity. Seeking meaning in life that transcends above “things” is vital if we are to achieve some kind of personal fulfilment.
A Gartner report published in 2005 predicted that by 2010, IT professionals will need to possess expertise in multiple domains. Technical aptitude alone will no longer be enough. IT professionals must prove they can understand business realities – industry, core processes, customer bases, regulatory environment, culture and constraints. Versatility will be crucial. It predicted that by By 2011, 70 percent of leading-edge companies will seek and develop “versatilists” while deemphasizing specialists.

Versatilists are people whose numerous roles, assignments and experiences enable them to synthesise knowledge and context in ways that fuel business value. Versatilists play different roles than specialists or generalists. Specialists generally have deep technical skills and narrow scope, giving them expertise that is recognized by peers, but it is seldom known outside their immediate domains. Generalists have broad scope and comparatively shallow skills, enabling them to respond or act reasonably quickly, but often at a cursory level. Versatilists, in contrast, apply depth of skill to a rich scope of situations and experiences, building new alliances, perspectives, competencies and roles. They gain the confidence of peers and partners. To attain versatilist skills, IT professionals should..

  • Look outside the confines of current roles, regions, employers or business units. The more informed a professional is about a company, its industry segment and the forces that affect it, the greater the contextual grasp.
  • Lay out opportunities and assignments methodically. Focus on the areas and challenges that fall outside the comfort zone; those areas generally will be the areas of greatest growth.
  • Explore possibilities outside the world of corporate business. Not-for-profit ventures, startup companies, government agencies and consumer IT service providers offer powerful ways to bolster experiences, behavioral competencies or management skills.
  • Enroll in advanced degree programs or in qualified education courses to expand perspective.
  • Identify companies, projects, assignments, education and training that will increase professional value.
I believe we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what's possible on a “smarter planet”. However if we are to really address the truly wicked problems that are out there in order to make our world a better, and maybe even a fairer place, we need people like you to make it happen.

Finally you might be tempted in these hard economic times when you are being asked to pay outrageous amounts for your education not to bother with university. However bear this in mind:

"Unskilled labor is what you call someone who merely has skills that most everyone else has. If it's not scarce, why pay extra? Skills matter. The unemployment rate for US workers without a college education is almost triple that for those with one. Even the college rate is still too high, though.  On the other hand, the unemployment rate for skilled neurosurgeons, talented database designers and motivated recombinant DNA biologists is essentially zero, despite the high pay in all three fields. Unskilled now means not-specially skilled".

The only real investment you have for the future is the piece of grey matter between your ears. Make sure you continue to nurture and nourish it throughout your life by stimulating both the left and right sides.

Thank you and good luck with whatever path you choose to take in life.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Next Generation?

Demographers, social scientists and new media watchers are fond of dividing people into generations based on what recent (i.e. post-World War II) period of history they were born in. Whilst there are no consistent definitions of when these generations begin and end they roughly fall into these periods:
  • Baby-boomers: 1940 – 1960. Those born during the post–World War II demographic boom in births. This generation more than any other rejected the moral and religous beliefs of their parents and created their own sets of values. This is the generation that invented sex, drugs and rock'n'roll and is still largely the one that is ruling the roost so to speak (President Obama, born in 1961, catching the tail end of this particular demographic).
  • Generation X (post boomers): 1960 - 1980. This term was apparently coined by the great Magnum photographer Robert Capa in the early 1950s. He used it as the title for a photo-essay about young men and women growing up immediately after the Second World War. Sometimes referred to as the "unknow" or "lost" genaration this group has signified people without identity who face an uncertain, ill-defined (and perhaps hostile) future. This is the generation that grew up during the fall of the Berlin war, the end of the Cold War and various economic crises (such as the 1979 olil crisis) and were most likely to be the children of divorced parents.
  • Generation Y (the Millenial generation): 1980 – 2000. This is the culturally liberal generation that witnessed the start and wide-spread adoption of the internet and are the children of baby-boomers. This is the generation that owns, and is most comfortable with using, most computers, mobile phones and MP3 players.
So what is the next generation born during the last 10 years and possibly the next 10 to be called? The obvious name would be "Generation Z" although this would mean we will have run out of letters already so will have problems naming the post-2020 generation. Rather than following the obvious trend therefore how about naming this upcoming generation who will be entering the higher education system and workforce during the next 10 years "Generation V", the versatilist generation? These are the people, more than any others, who will need to adopt a whole new set of skills if they are to survive and prosper during their lifetimes. These are the ones who will be suffering the after-shocks of the baby-boom, X and Y generations and who will need to fix the wicked problems those generations have left in their wake. This is the generation that will probably have more jobs, in their lifetime, than the other three generations put together and who will, as Daniel Pink has suggested have to survive in a world dominated by the three A's:
  • Automation - Jobs can be done faster and more efficiently by computers.
  • Abundance - We have more stuff than we know what to do with and it is increasingly being produced at cheaper and cheaper rates.
  • Asia (or Africa) - More and more work is outsourced to these low cost economies. 
The skills that this generation will need to adopt will be many and varied and include:
  • Objectively viewing experiences and roles, learning from these (failures as well as successes) and using this knowledge to gain new roles.
  • Looking outside the confines of current roles, regions, employers or business units. The more informed a professional is about a company, its industry segment and the forces that affect it, the greater chance will the person have to predict and survive economic downturns.
  • Laying out opportunities and assignments methodically. Focusing on the areas and challenges that fall outside the comfort zone; those areas generally will be the areas of greatest growth.
  • Exploring possibilities outside the world of large, corporate business. Charities, startup companies, government agencies, even your own web-startup offer new and interesting ways to build experiences, learn new skills and maybe even modify behaviours.
  • Enrolling in advanced education courses to expand perspective, preferably outside your current discipline and area of expertise.
  • Targeting companies, projects, assignments, education and training courses that will increase professional value and make you more marketable.
Sadly Gartner seem to have coined the use of "Generation V" already, where V is for virtual. Pity, as they also coined the term "virtualist", missed opportunity I reckon.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Is Agile Architecture an Oxymoron?

Much has been written by many great minds on agile development processes and how (or indeed whether) architecture fits into such processes. People like:
  • Scott Ambler (Architecture Envisioning: An Agile Best Practice). "Some people will tell you that you don’t need to do any initial architecture modeling at all.  However, my experience is that doing some initial architectural modeling in an agile manner offers several benefits".
  • Mike Cohn (Succeeding with Agile). "On an architecturally complicated or risky project, the architect will need to work closely with the product owner to educate the product owner about the architectural implications of items on the product backlog".
  • Walker Royce (Top 10 Management Principles of Agile Software Delivery) : "Reduce uncertainties by addressing architecturally significant decisions first".
  • Andrew Johnston (Role of the Agile Architect): "In an agile development the architect has the main responsibility to consider change and complexity while the other developers focus on the next delivery".
  • Martin Fowler (Is Design Dead?):  "XP does give us a new way to think about effective design because it has made evolutionary design a plausible strategy again".
    I've been contemplating how the discipline of architecture, as well as the role of the architect, fits with the agile approach to developing systems whilst reviewing the systems development lifecycle (SDLC) for a number of clients of late. In my experience most people have an "either-or" approach when it comes to SDLC's. They either do waterfall or do agile and have some criteria which they use to decide between the two approaches on a project by project basis. Unfortunately these selection criteria are often biased toward the prejudices of the person writing the criteria and will push their favourite approach.

    Rather than treating agile and waterfall as mutually exclusive I would prefer to adopt a layered approach to defining SDLC's as shown here.


    The three layers have the following characteristics:
    1. Basic Process. Assume all projects adopt the simplest approach to delivery as possible (but no simpler). For most software product development projects this will amount to an agile approach like Scrum which uses iterations (sprints) and a simplified set of roles, namely: Product Manager, Scrum Master and Team where Team is made up of people adopting multiple roles (architect, programmer, tester etc). On such projects decide up front which artefacts you want to adopt. These don't need to be heavy-weight documents but could be contained in tools or as sketches. Here the team member performing the architect role needs to manage an "emergent architecture". The role of architect maybe shared or not dedicated to a single individual.
    2. Complex Process. At the next level of complexity where multiple-products need to be built as part of a single program of work and all these have dependencies some level of governance usually needs to be in place that ensures everything comes together at the right time and is of a consistent level of quality. At a micro-level this can be done using a scrum-of-scrums approach where a twice or thrice weekly scrum that brings together all the Scrum Masters happens. Here the architect role is cross-product as it needs to ensure all products fit together (including maybe third party products and packages). This may still be a shared role but is more likely to be a dedicated individual. This may involve some program level checkpoints that at least ensure all iterations have created a shippable product that is ready to integrate or deploy. The architecture is not just emergent any more but may also needs to be "envisioned" up-front so everyone understands where their product fits with others.
    3. Complex Integration Process. The final level of complexity is caused when not only multiple products are being developed but also existing systems need to be incorporated which have complex (or poorly understood) interfaces. Here the role of the architect is not only cross-product but cross-system as she has to deal with the complexity of multiple systems, some of which may need to be changed by people other than the core development team. Here the level of ceremony as well as the number of artefacts to control and manage the decisions around the complexity will increase. The architecture is certainly not emergent any more but also needs to be "envisioned" up-front so everyone understands where their product fits and also what interfaces they need to work with. This is something Scott Ambler suggests happens during "iteration zero". 
    Each of these layers is built on a common architectural as well as process "language" so everyone has a common understanding of terms used in the project.

    I'm much in agreement with Mike Cohn's comment on his blog recently where, in reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the Agile Manifesto he says: "The next change I’d like to see (and predict will occur) over the next ten years also occurred in the OO world: We stop talking about agile" and goes on to say "Rather than “agile software development” it is just “software development”—and of course it’s agile".

    I would like to see an agile or lean based approach as the de-facto standard that only adds additional artefacts or project checkpoints as needed rather than thinking that every time we need to either adopt an agile approach or a waterfall approach.