Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bring me problems, not solutions

“Bring me solutions, not problems” is a phrase that the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was, apparently, fond of using. As I've pointed out before the role of the architect is to "take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways". For the architect then, who wants to assemble components in interesting ways, problems are what are needed, not solutions - without problems to solve we have no job to do. Indeed problem solving is what entrepreneurship is all about and the ability to properly define the problem in the first place therefore becomes key to solving the problem.

Fundamentally the architect asks:
  1. What is the problem I am trying to solve?
  2. What solution can I construct that would address that problem?
  3. What technology (if any) should I apply in implementing that solution?
This approach is summed up in the followng picture, a sort of meta-architecture process.

The key thing here of course is the effective use of technology. Sometimes that means not using technology at all because a manual system is equally (cost) effective. One thing that architects should avoid at all costs is to become over enthusiastic about using too much of the wrong kind of technology. Adopting a sound architectural process, following well understood architectural principles and using what other have done before, that is applying architectural patterns, are ways to ensure we don't leap to a solution built on potentially the wrong technology, too quickly.

For architects then, who are looking for their next interesting challenge, the cry should be "bring me problems, not solutions".

Friday, October 12, 2012

The art of what's possible (and what's not)

One of the things Apple are definitely good at is giving us products we didn't know we needed (e.g. the iPad). Steve Jobs, who died a year ago this week, famously said “You've got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology — not the other way around”  (see this video at around 1:55 as well as this interview with Steve Jobs in Wired).

The subtle difference from the "normal" requirements gathering process here is that, rather than asking what the customer wants, you are looking at the customer experience you want to create and then trying to figure out how available technology can realise that experience. In retrospect, we can all see why a device like the iPad is so useful (movies and books on the go, a cloud enabled device that lets you move data between it and other devices, mobile web on a screen you can actually read etc, etc). Chances are however that it would have been very difficult to elicit a set of requirements from someone that would have ended up with such a device.

Jobs goes on to say "you can't start with the technology and try to figure out where you're going to try and sell it". In many ways this is a restatement of the well known "golden hammer" anti-pattern (to a man with a hammer, everything appears as a nail) from software development, the misapplication of a favored technology, tool or concept in solving a problem.

Whilst all this is true and would seem to make sense, at least as far as Apple is concerned, there is still another subtlety at play when building truly successful products that people didn't know they wanted. As an illustration of this consider another, slightly more infamous Apple product, the Newton Message Pad.

In many ways the Newton was an early version of the iPad or iPhone (see above for the two side by side), some 25 years ahead of its time. One of its goals was to "reinvent personal computing". There were many reasons why the Newton did not succeed (including it's large, clunky size and poor handwriting recognition system) however one of them must surely have been that the device was just too far ahead of the technology available at the time in terms of processing power, memory, battery life and display technology. Sometimes ideas can be really great but the technology is just not there to support them.So, whilst Jobs is right in saying you cannot start with the technology then decide how to sell it equally you cannot start with an idea if the technology is not there to support it, as was the case with the Newton. So what does this mean for architects?

A good understanding of technology, how it works and how it can be used to solve business problems is, of course, a key skill of any architect however, equally important is an understanding of what is not possible with current technology. It is sometimes too easy to be seduced by technology and to overstate what it is capable of. Looking out for this, especially when there may be pressure on to close a sale, is something we must all do and be forceful in calling it out when we think something is not possible.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Disruptive technologies, smarter cities and the new oil

Last week I attended the Smart City and Government Open Data Hackathon in Birmingham, UK. The event was sponsored by IBM and my colleague Dr Rick Robinson, who writes extensively on Smarter Cities as The Urban Technologist, gave the keynote session to kick off the event. The idea of this particular hackathon was to explore ways in which various sources of open data, including the UK governments own open data initiative, could be used in new and creative ways to improve the lives of citizens and make our cities smarter as well as generally better places to live in. There were some great ideas discussed including how to predict future jobs as well as identifying citizens who had not claimed benefits to which they were entitled (and those benefits then going back into the local economy through purchases of goods and services).

The phrase "data is the new oil" is by no means a new one. It was first used by Michael Palmer in 2006 in this article. Palmers says:
"Data is just like crude. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analyzed for it to have value."
Whilst this is a nice metaphor I think I actually prefer the slight adaptation proposed by David McCandless in his TED talk: The beauty of data visualization where he coins the phrase "data is the new soil". The reason being data needs to be worked and manipulated, just like a good farmer looking after his land, to get the best out of it. In the case of the work done by McCandless this involves creatively visualizing data to show new understandings or interpretations and, as Hans Rosling says, to let the data set change your mind set.

Certainly one way data is most definitely not like oil is in the way it is increasing at exponential rates of growth rather than rapidly diminishing. But it's not only data. The new triumvirate of data, cloud and mobile is forging a whole new mega-trend in IT nicely captured in this equation proposed by Gabrielle Byrne at the start of this video:
e = mc(imc)2

  • e is any enterprise (or city, see later)
  • m is mobile
  • c is cloud
  • imc is in memory computing, or stream computing, the instant analysis of masses of fast changing data
This new trend is characterized by a number of incremental innovations that have taken place in IT over previous years in each of the three areas nicely captured in the figure below.
Source: CNET - Where IT is going: Cloud, mobile and data
In his blog post: The new architecture of smarter cities, Rick proposes that a Smarter City needs three essential 'ingredients' in order to be really characterized as 'smart'. These are:
  • Smart cities are led from the top
  • Smart cities have a stakeholder forum
  • Smart cities invest in technology infrastructure
It is this last attribute that, when built on a suitable cloud-mobility-data platform, promises to fundamentally change not only how enterprises are set to change but also cities and even whole nations.  However it's not just any old platform that needs to be built. In this post I discussed the concept behind so-called disruptive technology platforms and the attributes they must have. Namely:
  • A well defined set of open interfaces.
  • A critical mass of both end users and service providers. 
  • Both scaleable and extremely robust.
  • An intrinsic value which cannot be obtained elsewhere.
  • Allow users to interact amongst themselves, maybe in ways that were originally envisaged.
  • Service providers must be given the right level of contract that allows them to innovate, but without actually breaking the platform.
So what might a disruptive technology platform, for a whole city, look like and what innovations might it provide? As an example of such a platform IBM have developed something they call the Intelligent Operations Center or IOC. The idea behind the IOC is to use information from a number of city agencies and departments to make smarter decisions based on rules that can be programmed into the platform. The idea then, is that the IOC will be used to anticipate problems to minimize the impact of disruptions to city services and operations as well as assist in the mobilization of resources across multiple agencies. The IOC allows aggregated data to be visualized in ways that the individual data sets cannot and for new insights to be obtained from that data.

Platforms like the IOC are only the start of what is possible in a truly smart city. They are just beginning to make use of mobile technology, data in the cloud and huge volumes of fast moving data that is analysed in real-time. Whether these platforms turn out to be really disruptive remains to be seen but if this is really the age of "new oil" then we only have the limitations of our imagination to restrict us in how we will use that data to give us valuable new insights into building smart cities.