Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What Would Google Do?

Readers of this blog will know that one of my interests/research areas is how to effectively bring together left-brain (i.e. logical) and right-brain (i.e. creative) thinkers in order to drive creativity and generate new and innovative ideas to solve some of the worlds wicked problems. One of the books that have most influenced me in this respect is Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind - Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Together with a colleague I am developing the concept of the versatilist (first coined by Gartner) as a role that effectively brings together both right- and left-brain thinkers to solve some of the knotty business problems there are out there. As part of this we are developing a series of brain exercises that can be given to students on creative, problem solving courses to open up their minds and start them thinking outside the proverbial box. One of these exercises is called What Would Google Do? The idea being to try and get them to take the non-conventional, Google, view of how to solve a problem. By way of an example Douglas Edwards, in his book I'm Feeling Lucky - The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, relates the following story about how Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, proposed an innovative approach to marketing.

"Why don't we take the marketing budget and use it to inoculate Chechen refugees against cholera. It will help our brand awareness and we'll get more new people to use Google."

Just how serious Brin was being here we'll never know but you get the general idea; no idea is too outrageous for folk in the Googleplex.

To further backup how serious Google are about creativity their chairman Eric Schmidt, delivered a "devastating critique of the UK's education system and said the country had failed to capitalise on its record of innovation in science and engineering" at this year's MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh.  Amongst other criticisms Schmidt aimed at the UK education system he said that the country that invented the computer was "throwing away your great computer heritage by failing to teach programming in schools " and was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn't even taught as standard in UK schools. Instead the IT curriculum "focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made." For those of us bought up in the UK at the time of the BBC Microcomputer hopefully this guy will be the saviour of the current generation of programmers.

US readers of this blog should not feel too smug, check out this YouTube video from Dr. Michio Kaku who gives an equally devastating critique of the US education system.

So, all in all, I think the world definitely needs more of a versatilist approach, not only in our education systems but also in the ways we approach problem solving in the workplace. Steve Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, who revealed last week that he was stepping down once told the New York Times: "The Macintosh turned out so well because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians – who also happened to be excellent computer scientists". Once again Apple got this right several years ago and are now reaping the benefits of that far reaching, versatilist approach.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Creative Leaps and the Importance of Domain Knowledge

Sometimes innovation appears to come out of nowhere. Creative individuals, or companies, appear to be in touch with the zeitgeist of the times and develop a product (or service) that does not just satisfy an unknown need but may even create a whole new market that didn't previously exist. I would put James Dyson (bagless vacuum cleaner) as an example of the former and Steve Jobs/Apple (iPad) as an example of the latter.

Sometimes the innovation may even be a disruptive technology that creates a new market where one previously did not exist and may even destroy existing markets. Digital photography and its impact on the 35mm film producing companies (Kodak and Ilford) is a classic example of such a disruptive technology.

Most times however creativity comes from simply putting together existing components in new and interesting ways that meet a business need. For merely mortal software architects if we are to do this we not only need a good understanding of what those components do but also how the domain we are working in really, really works. You need to not only be curious about your domain (whether it be financial services, retail, public sector or whatever) but be able to ask the hard questions that no one else thought or bothered to ask. Sometimes this means not following the herd and being fashionable but being completely unfashionable. As Paul Arden, the Creative Director of Saatchi and Saatchi said in his book Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite

"People who create work that fashionable people emulate do the very opposite of what is in fashion. They create something unfashionable, out of time, wrong. Original ideas are created by original people, people who either through instinct or insight know the value of being different and recognise the commonplace as a dangerous place to be."

So do you want to be fashionable or unfashionable?

Friday, August 12, 2011

On Being an Effective Architect

In a previous blog entry I talked about the key skills architects needed to develop to perform their craft which I termed the essence of being an architect. Developing this theme slightly I also think there is a process that architects need to follow if they are to be effective. Stripped down to its bare essentials this process is as shown below.

This is not meant to be a process in the strict SDLC sense of the word but more of a meta-process that applies across any SDLC. Here's what each of the steps means and some of the artefacts that would typically be created in each step (shown in italics).
  • Envision - Above all else the architect needs to define and maintain the vision of what the system is to be. This can be in the form of one or more, free-format Architecture Overview diagrams and would certainly include having an overall System Context that defined the boundary around the system under development (SUD). The vision would also include capturing the key Architectural Decisions that have shaped the system to be the way it is and also refer to some of the key Architecture Principles that are being followed. 
  • Realise -As well as having a vision of how the system will be the architect must know how to realise her vision otherwise the architecture will remain as mere paper or bits and bytes stored in a modeling tool. Realisation is about making choices of which technology will be used to implement the system. Choices considered may be captured as Architectural Decisions and issues or risks associated with making such decisions captured in a RAID Log (Risks-Assumptions-Issues-Dependencies). Technical Prototypes may also be built to prove some of the technologies being selected.
  • Influence -Above all else architects need to be able to exert the required influence to carry through their vision and the realisation of that vision. Some people would refer to this as governance however for me influence is a more subtle, background task that, if done well, is almost unnoticed but nonetheless has the desired effect. Influencing is about having and following a Stakeholder Management Plan and communicating your architecture frequently to your key stakeholders. 
Each of these steps are performed many times, or even continuously, on a project. Influencing means listening as well and this may lead to changes in your vision thus starting the whole cycle again.

Adopting this approach is not guaranteed to give you perfect systems as their are lots of other factors, as well as people, that come into play during a typical project. What it will do is give you a framework that allows you to bring some level of rigour to the way you develop your architectures and work with stakeholders on a project.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Happy Birthday WWW

Today is the 20th anniversary of the world wide web; or at least the anniversary of the first web page. On this day in 1991 Tim Berners-Lee posted a short summary of the World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup:

The WorldWideWeb (WWW) project aims to allow all links to be made to any information anywhere. [...] The WWW project was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation. We are very interested in spreading the web to other areas, and having gateway servers for other data. Collaborators welcome!

He certainly found a lot of collaborators!

As I've said before I believe the WWW is one of the greatest feats of software architecture ever performed. Happy Birthday WWW!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Tools We Use

Back in 1964 Marshall McLuhan said  "We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us". McLuhan was actually talking about the media when he said this but much of what he said then has a great deal of relevance in today's mixed up media world too.

It occurs to me that McLuhan's tool quote equally applies to the tools we use, or misuse, as software architects. PowerPoint (or Keynote for that matter) has received pretty bad press over the years as being a tool that inhibits rather than enhances our creativity. Whilst this does not have to be the case, too many people take tools, such as PowerPoint, and use them in ways I'm pretty sure their creators never intended. Here are some common tool (mis)uses I've observed over the years (anti-patterns for tools if you like):
  1. Spreadsheets as a databases. Too many people seem to use spreadsheets as a sort of global repository for dumping ideas, data and information in general because it gives them the ability to easily sort and categorise information. Spreadsheets are good at numbers and presenting analytical data but not for capturing textual information.
  2. Presentations as documents. Sometimes what started out as a presentation to illustrate a good idea seems to grow into a more detailed description of that idea and eventually turns into a full-blown specification! The excuse for doing this being "we can use this to present to the client as well as leaving it with them at the end of the project as the design of the system". Bad idea!
  3. Presentations as a substitute for presenting. The best presenters present "naked". Minimal presentations (where sometimes minimal = 0) where the presenter is at the fore and his or her slides are illustrating the key ideas is what presenting is or should be about. Did John F Kennedy, Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King rely on PowerPoint to get their big ideas across? I think not!
  4. Word processors as presentations. This is the opposite of number 2. Whilst not so common  people have been known in my experience to 'present' their documents on a screen in a meeting. It goes without saying, or should do, that 12pt (or less) text does not come across well on a screen.
  5. Word processors as web sites. Although most word processors have the capability of generating HTML this is not a good reason for using them to build web sites. There are a multitude of free, open and paid for tools that do a far better job of this.
  6. Emails as documents. This is variant (generalisation) of one of my favourite [sic] anti-patterns. e-mails are one of the greatest sources of unstructured data in the world today. There must be, literally, terabytes of data stored using this medium that should otherwise be captured in a more readily consumable and accessible form. e-mails clearly have a place for forming ideas but not for capturing outcomes and persisting those ideas so others can see them and learn from them.