Wednesday, February 29, 2012

It's the NFR's, stupid

An apocryphal (to me at least) tale from Forbes that provides a timely reminder of the fact that even in this enlightened age of clouds that give you infrastructure (and more) in minutes and analytical tools that business folk can use to quickly slice and dice data in all manor of ways, fundamentals, like NFRs, don't (or shouldn't) go out of fashion.

According to Forbes the US retailer Target figured out that a teenager was pregnant before her parents did. Target analysed the buying behaviour of customers and identified 25 products (e.g. cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag and zinc and magnesium supplements) that allowed them to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. The retailer also reckoned they could estimate the due date of a shopper to within a small window and so could send coupons timed to very specific stages of a pregnancy. In the case of this particular shopper Target sent a letter, containing coupons, to a high-school pupil whose father opened it and was aghast that the retailer should send coupons for baby clothes and cribs to a teenager. The disgruntled father visited his local Target store accusing them of encouraging his daughter to get pregnant. The manager of the store apologised and called the father again a few days later to repeat his apology. However this time the father was somewhat abashed and said he had spoken to his daughter only to find out she was in fact pregnant and was due in August. This time he apologised to the manager.

So, what's the lesson here for architects? Here's my zen take:
  1. Don't assume that simply because technology seems to be more magical and advanced you can ignore fundamentals, in this case a persons basic entitlement to privacy.
  2. With cloud and advanced analytics IT is (apparently) passing control back to the business which it has done in a cyclical fashion over the last 50 - 60 years (i.e. mainframe -> mini -> PC -> client-server -> browser -> cloud). Whoever "owns" the gateway to the system should not forget they should have the interests of the end user at heart. Ignore their wants and needs at your peril!
  3. Legislation, and the lay-mans understanding of what technology can do, will always lag advances in technology itself. Part of an architects role is to explain, not only the benefits of a new technology, but also the potential downside to anyone that may be impacted by that technology. In the connected world that we now live in that can be a very large audience indeed.
Part of being an architect is to talk to everyone to explain not only your craft but also your work. Use every opportunity to do this and reject no one who might want to understand a technology. As Philippe Kruchten says in his brilliant interpretation of Lao-Tsu's Tao Te Ching for the use of software architects:
The architect is available to everyone and rejects no one.
She is ready to use all situations and does not waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.
Make sure you repeatedly "embody the light".

Friday, February 17, 2012

Its pretty interactive, yeah

I have said a number of times in this space that I believe Tim Berners-Lee to be one of the greatest software architects of all time. This conversation, as recorded in Wired, not only reiterates this belief but also shows how incredibly humble and self-effacing Berners-Lee is, as well as being the grand master of the understatement. 

Last week in a place called Tyler, eastern Texas, a scene which could have come straight out of a Woody Allen film was played out. For background on the case see here but, in a nutshell, a company called Eolas, claims it owns patents that entitle it to royalties from anyone whose website uses “interactive” features, like pictures that the visitor can manipulate, or streaming video. The claim, by Eolas’s owner, one Michael Doyle, is that his was the first computer program enabling an “interactive web.” Tim Berners-Lee was called as an expert witness and was being cross-examined by Jennifer Doan, a Texas lawyer representing two of the defendants Yahoo and Amazon. This is how part of the cross-examination went.
 When Berners-Lee invented the web, did he apply for a patent on it, Doan asked.

“No,” said Berners-Lee.

“Why not?” asked Doan.

“The internet was already around. I was taking hypertext, and it was around a long time too. I was taking stuff we knew how to do…. All I was doing was putting together bits that had been around for years in a particular combination to meet the needs that I have.” [My italics]

Doan: “And who owns the web?”

Berners-Lee: “We do.”

Doan: “The web we all own, is it ‘interactive’?”

“It is pretty interactive, yeah,” said Berners-Lee, smiling.
I just love this. Here's the guy that has given us one of the most game changing technologies of all time FOR NO PERSONAL GAIN TO HIMSELF, finding himself in a out of the way courtroom explaining one of the fundamental tenets of  software architecture: putting together bits that have been around.

Setting aside the whole thorny question of software patents and whether they are actually evil this is surely one of the greatest and most understated descriptions of what we, as software architects, actually do by the master himself. Thank you Tim.

Friday, February 10, 2012

You're building me a what?

This week I've been attending a cloud architecture workshop. Not to architect a cloud for anyone in particular but to learn what the approach to architecting clouds should be. This being an IBM workshop there was, of course, lots of Tivoli this, WebSphere that and Power the other. Whilst the workshop was full of good advice I couldn't help of thinking of this cartoon from 2008:
Courtesy geekandpoke.typepad.com
Just replace the word 'SOA' with 'cloud' (as 'SOA' could have been replaced by 'client-server' in the early nineties) and you get the idea. As software architects it is very easy to get seduced by technology, especially when it is new and your vendors, consultants and analysts are telling you this really is the future. However if you cannot explain to your client why you're building him a cloud and what business benefit it will bring him then you are likely to fail just as much with this technology as people have with previous technology choices.