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".

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