Are traditional architecture engagement models still relevant?

An article I wrote, originally posted on the Davanti Consulting website, 30th November 2016, reposted here with permission.

Reinvention dominates the business landscape, pervading how we work and how we engage with those around us. As an architect, I sometimes wonder how many of my industry colleagues have noticed this and contemplated similar innovation. As architects we are often perceived as dinosaurs; surely then, the time to start reintegrating ourselves is now.

THE CURRENT STATE OF ARCHITECTURAL ENGAGEMENT

A good architect can bring excellent value, but that value is lost if it arrives too late. Some of the barriers to this value even appear to be systemic or stem from entrenched legacy thinking.

The way in which architects engage is influenced by several factors, including:

  • Control: architectural governance is often perceived as regulatory rather than wisdom.
  • Processes: these are often complex, “heavy”, unwieldy and time-consuming.
  • Resourcing: architectural capability is often scarce, a scarcity which is exacerbated by heavy processes.

Traditional architectural engagement tends to be based on a “these are the rules” approach renown for volumes of documentation and thinking before any real work starts. Interestingly this way of working doesn’t really have a name – it “just is”. There’s definitely a number of architects who got the Agile memo, but overall that percentage is still relatively small.

There are architecture frameworks such as TOGAF, but a framework is not an engagement model. TOGAF has the “Request for Architecture Work” concept, but this is more of a one-shot form. TOGAF is aimed at enterprise architecture and whilst it refers to solution architecture it does not attempt to address how architects should engage with stakeholders in a product or project delivery setting.

At the project level, architectural engagement will ideally be in the form of an embedded solution architect. Ideally their engagement will start with the business case and continue through to overseeing the implementation. At worst, their involvement will be sporadic or non-existent. For various reasons such as a scarcity of architects, coupled with the weightiness of architecture processes, this engagement will likely be forgone for smaller projects. The associated risk is that smaller projects often grow into bigger ones, consequently attracting belated architectural attention.

So, short of everyone drinking the agile Kool-Aid what should we do? What might a revamped engagement model look like? How do we start, and what are the challenges we need to solve?

FUTURE STATE

The goal is to ensure that architects are able to add value in a timely and sustainable manner.

As architects often work as part of an architectural practice, and within the boundaries of architectural governance, both the architecture practice and governance may need to be revamped:

  • The architecture practice should reinforce behaviours and processes that make the team more consistent in their approach, allows them to support each other, and thus positions the team to offer a more consistent experience to their business clients.
  • Ideally architectural governance should support the team in this change as they are its ambassadors. Governance should not be about doing architecture for the benefit of the architect.

At a high level, think about making these changes so that the following value is unlocked:

Do this 

 So that

Revamp governance.
  • It provides supportive guidance, rather than be a place where things go to be vetoed.
  • It is easy and relatively painless to use, and therefore gets used more often.
Create a toolbox of processes, tools & artefacts that is accessible.
  • Non-architects find it easier to understand and use, as a result the architects will need to spend explaining it.
  • More time can be devoted unlocking value and less time given to discussing the process.
  • Architects have the time (and opportunity) to spend engaging more broadly and more regularly with the business.
Encourage architectural mentoring and coaching.
  •  Architects can be seen more as collaborators and supporters.

 

REVAMPING GOVERNANCE

This isn’t a wholesale re-write, but more of a health check and possible diet.  You might be familiar with the concept of a good value proposition being one that your grandmother could understand; check your architectural governance processes and make sure they can pass that test. Make sure that what is expected is very clear, not onerous, and that its business value is self-evident.

CREATE A TOOLBOX OF PROCESSES, TOOLS & ARTEFACTS THAT IS ACCESSIBLE

Empowering the business, whilst keeping them and the architect team aligned, is going to mean having some supporting materials available. These will work with the revamped governance and be very practical in nature. In situations where architects are working with the business in a mentoring context they will need materials that they can refer the business too, and which the business can use with a degree of self-reliance. These materials should outline:

  • Technology constraints that are deemed important, and why. If possible, a sense of direction, as business and architecture are seldom static.
  • What questions to ask themselves, and when, so that the business doesn’t paint themselves into a corner.
  • Areas of danger or concern; things they should escalate to the architect so that they can be appropriately supported. Thinking along the lines of RACI can be helpful – for example: when should they inform and when should they consult.

These material might be pre-written guides, checklists and (lightweight) documentation and diagrams, or, checklists that the business progressively complete with varying degrees of assistance from an architect. They might be anything from risk assessments, solution option assessments to solution architecture definitions.

Creating materials that effectively support the business (and the architects) means creating materials that are easy to access – not just in terms of being easily located, but also easy to read, and understand.Materials should be suitably light-weight, so that they are easy to consume and keep up to date. After all there’s no point freeing up an architect’s time just to write more documents.

In terms of the artefacts you expect the business/projects to deliver, ask yourself “who will read the documents”? If the answer is “only other architects” then exactly what value does it provide and is it really necessary?

ENCOURAGE MENTORING AND COACHING

There will always be a need for architects to do the architecture, and to be deeply embedded in a given project; but conversely there are many opportunities where a lighter touch may be equally effective.

Coming to the business with a mentoring approach places everyone on a more equal footing, and increases the chance of a more meaningful collaboration. The architects are close enough to spot potential issues, establish some sort of rapport with the business and lead them where appropriate. The business is free to do some of the heavy lifting themselves, freeing up some of the architect’s time.

If successful, architectural value should become easier to unlock, and more valued by everyone.

ENGAGEMENT STYLE

So far we’ve focused on the engagement model, i.e. elements of structure, broad approach and the rationale behind it. Hand-in-glove with those concepts is the style of engagement, i.e. the communication style used and how you relate to stakeholders on a personal level.

It is vital that you tune-in to your audience. Architects need to be leaders, they need to manage stakeholders of all types, and in a range of different situations. To do this effectively will require you to adjust your engagement style to suit both the audience and the message.

The best laid plans are easily ruined by poor execution, and as good architecture is dependent on good communication it is essential to get this right.  Effective communication is a substantive topic in its own right, and beyond the scope of this article, but to get started, consider:

  • Being available, approachable and responsive.
  • Being good at active listening.
  • Being able to relate to others.
  • Being able to simplify the complex.
  • Being able to speak up.
  • Being good at asking questions.
  • Being effective at persuasion, mediation, facilitation.
  • How to say no without coming across as (or actually being) a roadblock.
  • Picking the right communication style for the audience.

IN CLOSING

As a discipline architecture offers great value, and architects tend to be clever people, but realising that value is not straightforward – as architects we need to be proactive, we need to be mindful of changing expectations as the world changes around us. Just because architecture deals in the fundamental does not mean it is impervious to change.

As practitioners of architecture, take what you can from new ways of working, such as Agile and collaborative tools.

Show the business and the rest of IT that architecture is not something up an ivory tower, and that we can lead innovation and change by example.

Uber Fail

I wouldn’t normally pollute the internet with stuff like this, but I always tend towards the cynical when much feted, “tech-savvy”, market defining, paradigm shifting companies show us that their mastery of technology and process is really no better than anyone else’s.

Firstly, I was on the Uber website and accidentally started the process of registering as a driver – which was not what I wanted to do.  My bad, I admit that; anyway usability of the website’s not the main focus here.

I soon start getting SMS message’s as part of the “new driver” process.  Ooops, I had better reply STOP to unsubscribe…

Oh dear, did anyone actually test that unsubscription works, or do you:

  1. Have shares in the Telco industry
  2. Forgot to implement it
  3. Deliberately not implement it

wp_ss_20170501_0001wp_ss_20170501_0002wp_ss_20170501_0003wp_ss_20170501_0004wp_ss_20170501_0005wp_ss_20170501_0006wp_ss_20170501_0007wp_ss_20170501_0008

But we’re not quite done yet.

I’m not just getting enduro-spammed via SMS, this is a multi-channel affair:

uberemail1

Although the email campaign has it’s own issues – nothing major, just the occasional missing subject line and total absence of any content.

Oh, but at least the template is nice.

uberemail2

@Uber #STOP

 

Architecturally Significant

“Architecturally significant” is a simple and useful concept that covers a few things…

It’s anything the architect (or anyone doing the architecture) needs to actively spend time and effort on.  It’s relatively more important, and getting it wrong would be “sub-optimal” – it won’t be easy to change and would have far-reaching consequences (e.g. costs and re-work).

Sometimes its about “picking your battles”.  Designing and developing solutions can be described as one long stream of decision making; in such a context the architect is going to be heavily involved in making these decisions, and sometimes the number of decisions that need to be made are more than they can easily handle – so picking the right ones is important.  (Putting aside for a moment the extremely valid point that decentralized decision making is a useful approach and so maybe the architect shouldn’t be the one making all of these decisions – at least not alone).

Working out when something is architecturally significant is a key part of an architects role (if you aren’t going to do it, not one else is), and given all too familiar time-pressures you’ll want to spend your time where it adds the most value.

randomwhiteboard001Confused?  Being able to “separate the wheat from the chaff” is a key skill for anyone performing the role of an architect.

Let’s take an example

Imagine you were talking with someone about what they needed, and they said:

  1. We need an online form that the user can fill in.
  2. The submit button needs to be red.
  3. The form needs to load in [x] seconds.
  4. As part of the form they need to upload a file.

Which of these is architecturally significant?

“We need an online form that the user can fill in”

The lesson here is that, like a lot of things, this is unlikely to be architecturally significant in of itself, but, hiding underneath this might be something which is significant.  It’s one of those situations where you just need to keep a watching brief on it in case something comes out of the wood work.

As always, context is critical.  If this is part of a solution where there is already an identified way of implementing forms, then it’s less likely to be architecturally significant as there is already a solution in place.  If this is a “first” for the project and there isn’t an identified way of implementing the form then it probably is architecturally significant.  How many forms are you building, one?  Probably not so significant; 50 – that sounds significant.

“The submit button needs to be red”

Aesthetics aren’t architecturally significant – red Ferrari’s might go really fast, but red doesn’t have the same implications for databases (yes, shocking, I know).

But there might be a wider need here, one that as an architect and thought-leader within the project you are well placed to raise: “Is using red for the submit button good from a usability perspective?  Isn’t there something about colour-blindness we should think about?  Who’s looking after usability anyway”?

Sometimes being an architect isn’t to solve all the problems, it’s to help identify the skills that you need.  “Yes, because this is a new 30 million dollar multi-region, multi-language e-commerce initiative we think having a usability lead is a good idea”.

“The form needs to load in [x] seconds”

In general terms, anything that involves System Quality Attributes¹ (SQA), i.e. the concepts that underpin non-functional requirements (NFR), should immediately receive the attention of the architect; they may not be architecturally significant, but NFR’s are usually one of the architects key areas of attention.

In this case is it architecturally significant?  It largely depends on what the value of X is, and how the architecture and infrastructure compares to that.

As a stake-in-the-ground, I suggest to you that the 80/20 rule applies: 80% of the time a new solution will meet the performance needs of most users, without needing any “special” performance enhancing work.  In such cases performance isn’t architecturally significant.  It’s often something that is discussed – but it’s not common (in my experience, i.e. in more than 20% of projects) that something “serious” needs to be done for performance reasons.  By all means keep an eye on it but don’t loose sleep over it.

When might it be architecturally significant?  If the value of X is especially high, you know the infrastructure is especially poor (slow, known to not meet the requirement), or if there are other functional or computational factors which are out of the ordinary – then yes, it might be architecturally significant.

Don’t forget that you can always push-back: “yes we understand the performance targets you want to hit, but are you aware it looks like it may cost between $x-y,000,000”?

“As part of the form they need to upload a file”

This is an interesting one, for which I have a real-world example.  So before we continue, do you think this sounds architecturally significant?²  After all, handling file uploads is nothing new these days.

For this project:

  1. We were using a COTS package which allowed users to upload files.
  2. The client was relatively large organisation and successfully managed their own infrastructure.
  3. Internal policy required all files coming into the organisation to be virus-scanned.
  4. Their infrastructure included a server-based anti-virus solution that was used to verify email attachments going through the email server(s).

Unfortunately, whilst the anti-virus solution had no problems scanning attachments in the email flow it wasn’t able to scan the files being uploaded through the application – as these were embedded in a custom application web-service call from the client back to the service layer, and got inserted into the application database as a blob, and not as a separate file that the scanning solution could read.  And as strange as it might seem, yes we were the first project where web-based file uploading was a thing.

Without doubt, this scenario is of architectural significance.

For a start, what’s going to happen if we are unable to scan the embedded files?  Will functionality be disabled, affecting users?  Or will the entire solution scrapped for one that can? (not likely after >18 months work & associated costs).

Can we get dispensation to just not apply anti-virus scanning?  If so, the architect will be leading those discussions from the projects point of view, probably taking it to the relevant design authority, and documenting the decision(s).

In scenarios like this there’s often no immediately obvious “slam-dunk” technical solution, instead there’s probably going to be a number of technical solutions – all with trade-offs and implications that need to be considered (i.e. “it depends”).

There’s also the non-technical / “business” angle to consider.  If the business/client/users are happy to change the way they do things this can open up new technical solutions, or make existing ones more viable.  Remember that bending the business to meet technology half-way is not always a bad thing, the more aligned the two are the better the end result usually is.

To briefly expand on the technical options, in this case we could change the way the COTS package works and obtain a new module for the existing anti-virus solution so that it can be called by the COTS API.  But even then there’s still a raft of technical options and detail to work through (starting with a proof-of-concept would be wise), and not forgetting we’d also need to convince the COTS vendor that they should change their product and the client that they need (and pay for) this new component.

In situations like this “architecturally significant” takes on new meaning as we’re now impacting the wider organisational architecture – not just the projects.  This is not a totally uncommon thing to happen – in larger organisations change affecting the wider organisation can come from within individual projects, as they are often the ones driving new needs and capabilities.

So to close

  1. Constantly be on the look-out for the things that matter.
  2. Focus your time and effort accordingly.
  3. Keep a watching-brief on things which seem innocent now but could be significant later or if circumstances change.

 

Footnotes:

  1. An SQA is a way of describing, defining and thinking about a solution.  Examples of SQA’s include performance, security, maintainability and so on (aka the “illities”).  SQA’s are not NFR’s, just as “Performance” is not a NFR on it’s own: an NFR is testable.  SQA’s are the basis for NFR’s – but they aren’t the same thing.
  2. If you said ‘no’, you’re wrong, if fact if you said ‘yes’ you’re also wrong.  Based on that much information (i.e. no where near enough) the correct response is something along the lines of “it depends”.  Once you learn to prefix any response to any question with “it depends” you are half-way to being an architect (yes that’s only partially serious).  Whether the rest of your subsequent response is actually helpful or not remains to be seen.

The Experience that is Bonriki International Airport (Departures)

 

Another luxury travel review for the internationally renown, Paris-London-Whakatu-Wutunugurra based magazine Luxury-Leisurecation .

Yes it’s slightly satirical.

Bonriki International Airport (departures) in Tarawa is an absolute scream, and fully lives up to the high expectations set by arrivals.

First you go into the departures area, a sweeping statement of Kiribati interior decoration and architecture.  The customs and check-in facilities are both very handy – no long tortuous walks in air-conditioned banality so often encountered in the West.

wp_20170112_09_06_40_proThe immigration portal is ergonomically blended into the check-in lounge next to the relaxing check-in space.

At first glance, it appears that travelers are free to choose which they do first – check-in or customs – as there is physically nothing to stop you choosing which to do first, however, completing check-in formalities first is recommended.  Conveniently there’s a fairly long relaxed queue, so travelers needn’t feel under pressure if they don’t arrive at the airport by the scheduled check-in time.

Once all formalities have been completed, you pass into the executive-class departure lounge.  As with check-in, conventional Western pretentiousness has been fully rejected in favor of a culturally rich fully immersive experience; here you are not only free to mingle with local plane-spotters but you have complete access to all of Kiribati, as there are none of the access restrictions so common-place in I-Matang cultures.

wp_20170112_09_37_54_proLocal executives relaxing in the Bonriki international executive lounge.

Kiribati plane-spotting is a very well patronized pastime.  There is always a large number of enthusiastic plane-spotters of all ages, calmly passing the time until the scheduled arrival of the next plane: waiting cross-legged on traditional woven mats, enjoying conversation and children running with screaming delight along the concourse.

wp_20170112_09_55_22_proEarly-bird plane-spotters starting to take up the prime spots.  

The arrival of the plane is nothing less than an eruption, twofold.  First the unannounced roar of the engines as the de-accelerating plane rushes past the panoramic open windows of the executive-class lounge.  This is immediately followed by the roar and agile movement of the plane-spotters, particularly the younger less experienced ones, moving swiftly to the windows to greet the plane with gentle words of welcome, uttered in measured 120 Decibel screams.

Having then passed an idyllic hour-and-a-half in the executive lounge (or nearby location of your choice) you are free to pass through security and board.   In typical Kiribati style, the original departures area is cunningly transformed into access to the security area – through a door at the rear of the departure area.   Here at least the locals have subtly blended in Western décor with the addition of the security equipment and stark walls.

You then proceed across the gently warmed tarmac to the waiting aircraft, where you can prepare for the final stages of your emotional journey before beginning the physical one.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0025b

Career Progression into Architecture

In terms of career progression into architecture, people typically start off from one of several common “starting positions”. For example, a solution architect or application architect this is likely to come from a software development background.
Here a map of some of the more common paths:

typical-career-progressionThere are more types of architect and pathways than what’s depicted here, but based on conversations with architects I have met (or interviewed) this is a fairly accurate summary of some of the more common paths.

The Architectural Role Meta-Model

For simplicity, I define it in three parts (outlined below). In broad terms, Enterprise and Solution architecture disciplines cover the full range of domains but operate within a specific level of abstraction; whereas Domain architects cover all levels of abstraction but within a specific domain.  An in-depth write up on this can be found here, but in summary:

  1. Enterprise Architects – who typically operate at the highest level of architectural abstraction and across a broad range of domains.
  2. Solution Architects – who typically operate at a project or programme level. Although solution architecture covers the full breadth of domains, an individual solution architect will typically be relatively narrow in their focus – either providing general technical leadership within the scope of a specific project, technology or domain.
  3. Domain Architects – typically operate simultaneously across the spectrum of enterprise and solution architecture, but within a single specific domain. They will support both enterprise and solution/delivery specific needs.

Progression

We typically see common paths into and through architecture, such as the software developer into the application or solution architecture space; business analysis into the business architecture space, and so on.  Once in the architecture space it is possible to side-step into related roles – this might be done as a conscious and fundamental career choice, or may simply represent shorter-term variety driven by the work available.
The progression from solution architecture to domain architect to enterprise architect is common but by no means the only career path.

To a certain extent there’s a drift upwards in terms of abstraction (developer to solution architect; solution architect to domain or enterprise architect), but this isn’t always strictly the case.  It’s fair to say that each role has a set of skills and a temperament that suit it – some people will mature from one role into the next, others will take an alternate path.

The Product Specialist

One of the assumptions behind the solution, domain and enterprise architect roles is that these people often have a breadth of experience that goes beyond a single product or technology stack.  In other words, their careers are not defined along narrow vendor specific lines.  This is largely borne out by what I have seen in the market in terms of the experience people have and the career paths they have taken.

Such specialists will be genuinely skilled at what they do but lacking breadth of vision and depth of understanding that someone with a more diverse background is likely to have.

Is this good or bad?  Well I think that depends on what you need for the problem at hand; sometimes you need a very specialized tool for a very special problem, whilst other-times a more flexible tool is best.

One thing to be sure of though, as the technology market grows in breadth and diversity, areas of specialization will deepen.  As anyone familiar with web development in the early 2000’s can tell you, the number of stacks and architectures available has grown considerably; as that range increases so does the potential for individuals to specialize; so does the possible combinations of skills a specific job description might call for.

This specialization is reflected in the vendor space where larger vendors have their own subset of roles (think marketecture) that mirror the role hierarchies found in the general market. We therefore have product specialist roles starting to emerge, with people operating at the level of a solution architect but with a background that cannot assumed to be as broad as those from a more general background.

 

The Layman’s Guide to IT Architecture Roles

Most roles within information technology are fairly well understood and defined but this can’t always be said of architects.  This can be a problem for anyone considering a career progression into architecture – exactly what are the options and how do you get there?

Here’s my view on what the architecture roles are that you’ll typically see in today’s market, and how you might progress to them.

How to define architecture roles

There’s two ways we can define architecture roles…

The first concept I want to clarify is that of the domain.  An architectural domain is simply a conceptual area within the wider IT / architecture landscape, for example: infrastructure, applications, data, security and so on.  These domains are essentially areas within IT and architecture just as disciplines such as cardiology and neurology are areas within medical science.

A simple way of understanding architecture roles is to consider them against these domains, specifically in terms of breath and depth:

  • Breadth – how many domains the role covers.
  • Depth – at what level of detail does the role typically operate.

structure-of-architecture-roles-breath-and-depth

Please note this is not a definitive list of all architecture domains.

The second way we can classify architecture roles is by placing them on a marketecture-tarchitecture spectrum.   In the simplest possible sense:

  • Tarchitecture (technical architecture) – deals with the actual components a solution is made up of, how it will actually work and how that technology is managed.
  • Marketecture – (a portmanteau of the words marketing and architecture) typically deals with views of the solution that are more readily understood by laypeople, and tend to focus on non-technical aspects. There are 2 or 3 different definitions of marketecture but the exact differences are not critical for an introductory understanding to architecture roles; see the end of the article for more information.

It would be correct to assume that there’s often tension between these two perspectives, however, it would be wrong to blindly assume that all marketecture is inherently evil and adds no value.

Architecture roles and how to classify them

In my world view, there are three broad types of architecture work:

  1. Enterprise Architecture
  2. Domain Architecture
  3. Solution Architecture

I want to call out these three because they account for the majority of architecture work out in the market, even if the person doing the work has a job title that sounds different.  In addition to these there’s a few outliers that are organically linked to these but which aren’t your classic architect role, or which defy the classifications I’m using here.  Let’s ignore those for now.

structure-of-architecture-roles-3-broad-examplesNote, the basis of this diagram isn’t necessarily new and it might be something you’ve seen before.

What about the whitespace between enterprise and solution architecture?  Diagrammatically the whitespace exists to make the diagram easier to interpret, however, in the real world the exact point at which one ends and the other begins will vary from one organisation to another, partially based on what work needs to be done and the people available to do it.   In simple terms though, solution architects tend to focus on project specific work, enterprise architects do not.

We’re now at the point of fundamentally understanding the difference between architecture roles (please forgive the role descriptions which aim to give an idea of what the role is about in less than 30 words).

Role Description Relative Breadth and Depth Marketecture – Tarchitecture
Enterprise Architect Strategic, high level analysis and architecture across the entire organisation. Broad, high level 90/10
Application Architect Strategic, high level analysis and architecture within the given domain, plus supporting delivery / project work. Narrow, all levels 50/50
Business Architect Narrow, all levels 50/50
Data Architect Narrow, all levels 50/50
Infrastructure Architect Narrow, all levels 50/50
Integration Architect Narrow, all levels 50/50
Network Architect Narrow, all levels 50/50
Security Architect Narrow, all levels 50/50
Solution Architect Analysis, architecture and design for a specific project. Broad, low level 10/90

Please note that the roles listed above is not definitive, you’ll frequently come across variations to these.  How I suggest you understand those variations is to start by understanding the concepts described above, and then figure out where those variations sit in that context.

A further word on Solution Architecture

It’s important to remember that for solution architecture, although in definition the scope of the role is broad, the practical scope of the role in terms of a specific project is relatively constrained.  This is why the term solution architect has such broad usage, and why many people struggle to accurately define it.

Consider this hypothetical example:

structure-of-architecture-roles-solution-architect-example

For this hypothetical project, the “scope” of the domains that the solution architect is dealing with is heavily focused on the application domain, with a notable amount of security work and a bit of data and infrastructure thrown in.  The point is that whilst the level of “depth” they will be working at will usually be relatively consistent, the pieces of the “breadth” they focus on will vary greatly.

The exact mix of domains that the solution architect will cover on a given project will depend entirely on several factors, such as the what the project is trying to achieve and what other skills are available to support the project.  Consider the example above; if the organisation has dedicated infrastructure and data architects then the relative effort the solution architect is likely to spend on those domains is much less than if the organisation does not have infrastructure and data architects.

Appendix: The Mysteries of Marketecture

There are a number of definitions of what marketecture is, the three below being the most relevant; you might find that in a given your specific context what marketecture means is a hazy combination of these:

  1. The Hohmann / Fowler view: the business perspective of a systems architecture, including concepts such as licensing, the business model, technical details relevant to the customer (i.e. not necessarily ‘real’ ones). Brand elements, and so on.
  2. The Ian Gorton view: an informal depiction of the systems structure, interactions and relationships, possibly augmented by labels that espouse the philosophy behind the architecture.
  3. The Urban Dictionary view: a fairly cynical view in which the architecture is dreamed up by the marketing department and has little to do with reality.

Done properly, marketecture should fall into definitions 1 & 2, and serve as an excellent support to stakeholder discussions throughout the life-cycle of solution development.

Further reading on Marketecture:

Volunteer IT Consulting in Kiribati

As I mentioned recently, I had recently had the privilege to visit Kiribati, and do some volunteering – helping the Kiribati Family Health Association (KFHA) with a couple of nerdy things.  It would be extremely selfish of me to not share some of those experiences.

Not only are technical skills scarce in Kiribati, there’s also a desire to stay up with current trends both in technology and methodology.

Some Context – “The Work”

The main points of interest I want to share are centered on a workshop I ran, but before we get into that it might help if I briefly frame-up the wider “engagement”.

KFHA is a great organisation – lots of passion directed at meeting local Kiribati needs regarding family planning, sexual and reproductive health, HIV testing, and more. Importantly, that passion is also backed up by some real skill, all the medical staff are top-notch and are regularly developing their skills.

The IT department consists of one, a chap by the name of Toani.  His background is in networking – which is great since mines not; they needed help with some data collection and their website – areas that happily I can help with.

First off ,they collect a bunch of data around people who visit their clinics – both the single “static” clinic which also houses the main office, and mobile clinics which operate across all of the 22 inhabited islands spread across the 3.5 million square kilometers of Kiribati waters.  The data is collected by hand, with information hand-written by a nurse into a form, The IT department (i.e. Toani, when he’s not fixing the internet) is then entered into a spreadsheet.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0349b“Toani’s the man, he can fix the internet”.  “Adrian’s the man if you need sunblock, see how much he puts on his face”.

There’s not a lot to talk about as far as the clinic data solution is concerned – basically I just did the usual: talk with a few stakeholders about what they actually did and why.  I then tightened up the spreadsheet by rationalizing the schema, designed new data capture forms that were print friendly, adding some data validation, added bit of a data dictionary, added some other random bits of goodness, and a pivot table (and chart) to handle the analysis and reporting basics.  I then rounded this off with a 12 page design doc and 19 page user guide.  Completing this all just minutes before the farewell party held in my honor was a relief and immensely fulfilling – especially given the 30+ degree heat (and the humidity).

The Website

The brief I got for the website was not a 158 page request for RFP, but something more along the lines of “We think it’d be good to do something with our website, but we’re not sure what.  What  ideas do you have?”

Their site at that time was arranged along the ‘classic’ lines – i.e. our services, about us, etc.  Definitely not a bad start, but in immersing myself in the culture and talking with locals a few things became clear:

  1. Internet performance in Kiribati is not impressive.  The site had some great images and content but the overall load-time in Kiribati was sub-optimal.  Given KFHA’s primary objective is to serve locals this seemed like an important issue.
  2. The site is written in English, and although English is not uncommon content aimed at locals really needs to be in the Kiribati language.  Many of those who most need KFHA’s services come from a impoverished background – meaning there’s less of a chance they’ll speak English (true, they might not also have internet access, but KFHA need to be as inclusive as possible).
  3. Internet access is on the rise, especially amongst Kiribati youth, and most of that access is via mobile phone.

The Workshop – Inception

After mentally getting to this point I ran my ideas past Toani, and then the Executive Director, Norma.  I floated the idea of a workshop, which she said was a great idea, and so it was arranged.

My objectives were… what were they?  Actually I had a few of them, to get my head straight I did some architectural diagrams and mind-maps, and then put together an agenda and eventually a PowerPoint deck to really get my thinking clear.  I had no idea if we’d be able to get hold of a projector, but I knew I could improvise with paper if I had to.

So, objectives:

  1. Regardless of what I do, KFHA need to be as self-sufficient as possible.  I’m certainly happy to support them long-term, but the less I have to do the more sustainable it will be for me.
  2. I needed to get KFHA mentally onboard with my high-level concept for the website, specifically:
    1. Tailor the sites structure, content and tone for those who need it, i.e. focus on local I-Kiribati.
    2. Optimize for mobile, low-bandwidth internet access.

The Workshop – Kick Off

Anyone familiar with Pacific island culture in general may be familiar with “island time” – the time vacuum created by the ocean’s presence.  Given the heat it’s not hard to imagine why.  I often thought about my time in Singapore and how much the GDP would fall if all the air-conditioners failed, office productivity would surely plummet.

Anyway, we were initially delayed for reasons that need not be discussed, but eventually “Ok, let’s start”.  I think we were only 45 mins late in starting, which by some measures means we actually started early, ha ha.

So I stood up and kicked the session off, about 5 seconds after I did this 4 of the 6 attendees started video-recording me on their phones!  This is not something that usually happens when I facilitate workshops with government departments in Wellington.

I introduced the workshop agenda as an “I-Matang” (foreigner) agenda, and invited them to change the format if they wanted.  Of course just because you make offers like this does not automatically mean that people will take you up on them – particularly in cultures that are more conservative.  There’s also aspects such as gender to consider; as with many other cultures men tend to dominate in Kiribati (although that is slowly changing), and so the women might not volunteer suggestions to the floor due to the fact that a man is leading the meeting and other men are in attendance.  In the event everyone seemed okay, perhaps even enthralled by the prospect of an I-Matang agenda, so I just forged on.

As A, I Want, So that.

The first “real” exercise we did was based on Agile user stories.  I wanted them to start thinking about who was actually coming to their website, why, and what they were trying to achieve.  My assumption was that once they understood this they’ll be in a better position to form a good site structure and create content.

I introduced the concept of a user story, and gave some examples.  I then explained why I wanted them to think in this way and how it would help them conceptualize the site and it’s content.  We also spent some time talking about the “so that” and why that part can be really hard and so crucially important – because often the reason why people want something isn’t as straight forward as how it first appears (i.e. the five whys).

“As A…”

We then explored who they thought actually needed to come to the site.  I gave them some examples to get them started and then pushed them firmly to go beyond the easy answers.  Some of the user groups identified were interesting:

  • It transpires that the bus drivers are a special interest group because the role they play in society puts them in frequent and direct access with young women attending school, and because they can leverage this role with the young women.  I’m not sure if calling this a “barter economy” is appropriate but that certainly seems to be the result based on what we discussed.
  • Another group was the Toddy manufacturers / sellers.  Toddy is an alcoholic beverage that can be naturally produced off coconut trees, the links between alcohol consumption and social issues needs no elaboration.
  • Finally, there’s an array of traditional and cultural leaders that are pivotal to sustained family planning activities in Kiribati.  These leaders include what you might call tribal leaders and heads of household; and almost without exception these roles are held by men.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0269bImprovisation is a valuable ability to possess when working in developing nations, matching wallpaper and shirt is optional.

The next exercise was around prioritization – “You have all these user groups, but are we going to treat them all equally (which is fine, you just have a lot more writing to do straight-off), or are you going to prioritize some?”  To do this I introduced the exercise where everyone gets to spend $10 on what they think most needs it the most.

It took a little bit of cajoling to get everyone up to the wall, but they did it and quite enjoyed it too.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0272b

For anyone unfamiliar with this technique, all you do is tell people they have $X dollars (can be any amount) of pretend money to spend on any of the items listed.  They can spend all their money on one item, evenly across several, or any other combination they choose – but they can only spend the amount you give them.  Once they have done this you simply add up the totals and see where the most money was spent.

They quickly got the idea and said they can see themselves using the technique for some of the work they do (same for the user stories).

The Affects of Catering

Then it was time for lunch.  As you can see by Abby’s face (he leads their youth programmes) they were really disappointed in having to stop for a free catered lunch.  Yes that was sarcasm.  Toani told me they don’t often get catered lunches like this and encouraged me to tell Norma we needed to hold some additional workshops.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0277b

You can probably guess what happened next.  Think about it… its hot, we’ve just had a big lunch and its early afternoon.  Yep, people got a little lethargic.  As I am a consummate workshop facilitator, and addicted to dark chocolate, I had a private stash on hand that I dipped into before energizing the room for a final push.

Following traditional western workshop protocol, we then used this post-lunch-should-be-taking-a-nap time to tackle the most mind bending part of the agenda: “I want, so that”.

Actually it wasn’t too hard to get the group going – mostly because they are all very passionate about what KFHA does and the importance of the website.  As you can see from the photo below there was some very deep thinking going on, which yielded excellent results.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0280b

Another indication that value was being unlocked was the nature of the discussion; most of the time things were discussed in English, but sometimes the discussion obviously became deep, complex and impassioned – because they  switched to Kiribati and spoke really really fast.  In these cases I’d just let them thrash it out and wait until some sort of decision seemed to have been reached, and then probe in English.

The Farewell Party

On big projects you might have a go-live party, but I’ve never had a formal farewell party “for me” before at the end of a 10 day, part-time engagement.  And by party I don’t simply mean food, drink and some music playing off someones phone…

In accordance with cultural norms we started about an hour late – which was fine with me as it gave me time to finish writing the user guide for the clinic visitor data solution!

Abby was the MC (surely his true calling if life, sometimes I think he views people at gatherings as his personal play-things “OK, just two more songs” [first song is performed] “OK, just three more songs).  To cut to the chase it was a full-on affair with speeches, songs, cultural items – and of course food.

As evidence of the songs, we managed to record my favorite (Onga Te Bwanaa) on my wife’s Dictaphone:

The song is performed as a group, everyone stands in a circle and sings with some simple movements which include clapping your hands with the person next to you (one face up, the other face down).

The event was then concluded with the obligatory photo shoot, including “free-style”.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0331b

I can’t remember doing any volunteering before – certainly nothing even close to providing IT consulting in a developing country, but I’d definitely recommend it.  There’s plenty of deserving places in the world that could do with some help if you can spare the time, and the rewards are rich even if they aren’t financial.  There are some things money just can’t buy.