How to Introduce Yourself as an IT Architect

If, like me, you are an “IT” architect, you’ll know that describing what you do to other people is a challenge… even to people who have some idea about information technology.

It’s definitely not like being a fireman.

I think where we go wrong is that we try to explain the totality of what we do, which is too much (too broad, too complex, too nuanced).  Instead, perhaps we should just pick one thing and put it in a context people will understand.

Let’s break it down.  Broadly I think architects do four things:

  1. Create visions
  2. Craft decisions
  3. Technical leadership
  4. Be wise gnomes

Creating visions is all about the ability to paint the metaphorical big picture.  It’s the big picture that helps people understand where we should all be going, and why.  Sometimes the vision is ours – we discover it; other times the vision comes from others – they simply need help crystallizing it and then communicating it.

Crafting decisions is about getting decisions made.  Sometimes it’s about guiding and facilitating people so that they make the necessary decisions, in a logical and sensible way;  other times we need to make and assert decisions – to break an impasse, fill a void, or provide a specific direction.

Technical leadership is about making sure the thing is well made.  It’s dealing with the nuts and bolts, widgets and gizmos.  It’s not just limited to which tools should we use and how should we put the parts together, it also extends into how we should structure our work so that complexity is managed.

Wise gnomes have been there before.  They’ve done that.  They have first-hand knowledge of where the traps are and experience in dealing with them.

Which of these resonates with you the most?  For me, it probably depends on my most recent project, so if someone asks me what I do I’d mentally gravitate to whatever was most front-of-mind.

Explaining it to someone

  1. Pick one thing that you do (i.e. one of the four above if you’re stumped).
  2. Put it into a context the person will relate to.

Putting it into context could mean using the metaphor of someone they know, someone with qualities that have some relevance to what you do:

“Basically I’m like Gandalf, I stop the team getting themselves into trouble, support through mentoring, and take the lead in making hard decisions.”

“I’m like the ‘Spock’ of our team – when something complicated needs to be solved I’m the go-to person for logical advice and to make sure we’re not going to break anything.”

Alternatively the context could be based on something you do:

“I’m like the translator that helps the techies figure out what people want, and I help people understand what the technology can do.  That means I usually get stuck in the middle and have to work out the hard problems.”

“I’m like the navigator of the ship – people have a vague idea of where they want to go but need help deciding exactly where and how to get there.  That’s kinda what I do in terms of choosing which technology we use and how we want to use it.”

“Oh, so you design computers?”
“Sort of, I design systems for [system purpose or name of organisation] and help make the big decisions like which technology we’ll use.”

I’m an IT architect

Do you start with “I’m an IT architect“, or something similar?  Personally I do.  Most people know a little about a regular (i.e. building / civil engineering architect) and that context is useful for helping to explain what is it you do.

Some of my peers think architect is becoming a dirty word in some circles – I hope that’s not really the case.

 

Remember the Audience

Finally, the important foundation underneath all of this, is to tailor your response to the audience – what background information you think they might already have, and how you want to come across.

You’ll notice that in the examples above I’ve largely avoided talking about the specifics of what we do, this is because successfully leveraging those topics requires the audience to already know what you are talking about.

I think the key is to just get the conversation successfully started – stick to small easy concepts, once that’s achieved you can elaborate further or add to it with additional information.

 

 

 

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WSAF Meet-Up on the “Brand” of Architects & Architecture

For those who couldn’t make this meet-up, here’s a summary of what was discussed (or at least some of it, it was one of those organic discussions that took it’s own path, and I don’t have a lot of notes as I was too busy actively listening or blabbering making insightful contributions).

The basic question was around: how are architects perceived, and what is our “brand”?  We tried not to focus on specific types of architect too much (i.e. enterprise vs solution), although we tended to focused on solution architecture.

This raised initial discussion around:

  1. What does it mean in the context of Agile – which we decided to come back to, but then didn’t.
  2. Distinguishing between architects and architecture – the latter will always be needed regardless of who does it and what they are called.
  3. The correlation between governance and architecture – where there’s a lack of good governance there is often a lack of good architecture or appreciation of architecture in general.

This led to a significant discussion around “can we define the benefits of (solution) architecture, and the risks of not doing it”?  Whilst this is hardly a new problem it is one that we really need to put to bed.  The obvious challenge is not merely to define it, but to do so in a way that is broadly and easily understood.

We also discussed what would logically follow next – assuming you had the ideal definition, what would you do with it ?  But unfortunately the conversation took a turn and I don’t have any notes.  From memory, there weren’t any major epiphany moments arising directly from this.  Sad.

People Who Do Similar Things

The topic then came up of comparing what architects did with people who do similar things.

One of the attendees mentioned her brother, whom is effectively an architect but doesn’t like to call himself one, but unfortunately we didn’t (or weren’t able to) dig into exactly why that was.

There was also a connection made between the role of a program manager and an architect.  Personally I can see how this might be the case in terms of seniority and leadership, but in other areas the correlation is much less clear.  Perhaps it is such that in some cases a program manager takes on some architectural leadership responsibilities when there is an absence of architects or effective governance.

Later on, this broad topic came back with a comparison to service design.  The widely agreed takeaway was that architects should add this to their general toolbox, the toolbox we all have of skills and ideas that we get from various places but don’t always get to use “for real”.  Service design feels like one of those – something it’s worth knowing a bit about – just enough to be dangerous.

Focus of the Solution Architect: Technical or Business?

We discussed the focus of the solution architect role – is/should it’s focus be technical or business?  There’s no doubt SA’s need a foot in each camp, but is one aspect inherently more dominant than the other?  And because this is about brand, i.e. perception, I asked people to consider not just how they see this for themselves, but also how they think non-architects perceive it.

I asked everyone to think about a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 was all business and 100 was all technical.  I then asked them to silently (in their own heads) come up with the answers to those two questions.  I then drew the scales up on the board and invited people (without changing their minds) to put their scores up.

15-09-2017+5-08+PM+Office+Lens+(1)

As you can see, people see solution architecture as a largely technical role, and their perception of how they think others perceive it is similar but not identical.

It makes me wonder about engineering architects (people who architect buildings, etc) – do they have a similar or comparable issue with brand?  Are they perceived as being largely technical, and is this how they want to be perceived?

It Ain’t What They Call You, It’s What You Answer to

We then got on to names – what do we call ourselves.  Sadly the list wasn’t very long and we didn’t really push past the obvious, but it was an interesting enough starting discussion for a Friday afternoon.

What’s wrong with “architect” – well nothing in my book, I still think it’s a useful term, and I still often compare myself to a building architect when describing what I do to a lay-person.  But that didn’t get in the way of our discussion.

“Digital Strategist” came up, but then we realised that’s probably taken.  Later someone adroitly evolved this to “Digital Capability Landscaping”.

“Principle _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _” made it up onto the whiteboard, a brave start but leaves just a tad too much to the imagination.  Typical architect, right?  In  my notes I wrote “(domain)”, implying the name of the domain you’re a principle in is the key – but what are those domains?  perhaps it goes back to the technology vs business discussion – do you go for a technology or business domain?

Someone suggested “Technologist”, and “Solution Design Thinking”.

I’m quite proud of one I dreamt up later: “Trade-off Merchant”.

The conversation then took a turn when someone suggested we pull up Google Trends with “enterprise architect” and “design thinking”.  We then played around with other terms.  I must admit I was pleased to see solution architect is still trending upwards. What is Google Trends? see Wikipedia.

wasf - trends

Final Tidbit

Someone mentioned a neat little resource: http://openmodels.org/

“The openmodels.org website hosts the Open Model Initiative, a project to collaboratively develop enterprise reference models for everyone to copy, use, modify, and (re-)distribute in an open and public process.”

The WSAF would also like to thank Middleware NZ for hosting us and providing drinks and nibbles.

Were you an attendee?  Got anything to add to my semi-random collection of notes?  Add a comment 🙂

Try This: Everyone Draw The Architecture – A Retrospective

There’s this really cool idea I read about in Luke Hohmann’s book “Beyond Software Architecture : Creating and Sustaining Winning Solutions”, only I haven’t yet found an opportunity to use it… until a couple of nights ago.

Have you ever been in a situation where: you’ve started working with an existing team and realised that things aren’t quite right?  The way people talk about the solution isn’t entirely consistent, things seem to be going in random directions, maybe they are talking at cross-purposes or even arguing about how things are done?  You might be familiar with this – it’s the kind of discussions you get when there isn’t a consistent team view of what the architecture is.

Luke’s idea is pretty simple:

  1. Get everyone in the team, as an individual (no talking), to draw the architecture as they perceive it.
  2. Once everyone is done, put all the drawings up on the wall and review as a group.

Have a discussion along the lines of “what occurs to you and the team”, and “do you find congruence? If not, why not?”.

The idea fascinates me, but I hadn’t yet had a chance to do it – until I got a chance to speak at the Product Tank Wellington meet-up.  This specific meet-up was basically about architecture, and the intersection with product development.  I wanted to introduce some architecture ideas and get some discussion going around how they perceived architecture in their space.

Here’s the intro slides and brief I gave for the exercise:

Try This Draw The Architecture

Try This Draw The Architecture - brief

It all sounds great, what could go wrong?

Well, I was feeling a little bit flat that day – nothing major but not quite as “on to it” as you’d want to be if you’re presenting – especially when some of the audience are possibly more qualified in some ways to present on this than I am.  During the exercise I walked the floor observing, and after a few minutes we put all the 16 or so pictures up in the wall.

Everyone gathers around, a piece of pizza in-hand, and waits for the pay-off moment where I take what they have done and deliver some revelation and insight.

[Gulp].

Unfortunately it was bit of a “fake it until you make it” moment.  Because I hadn’t done the exercise before I was a little unprepared for what to do next, but that’s the problem with activities like this where you need the input from a group of people – it’s a little tricky to test it out in a meaningful way.

Before I explain further – take a look at some of the diagrams – what might you have said?  (Think of that as a little self-test).

30-08-2017+7-35+PM+Office+Lens_30-08-2017+7-36+PM+Office+Lens 1_30-08-2017+7-36+PM+Office+Lens_30-08-2017+7-37+PM+Office+Lens 1_30-08-2017+7-37+PM+Office+Lens 2_30-08-2017+7-37+PM+Office+Lens_

I managed to waffle a little bit so it wasn’t a complete farce, I asked a few questions and we generated some “ok” discussion – so I don’t think it was a totally wasted effort, before moving the conversation on.

Retro – What Did I Learn?

So first off – my thanks to everyone at the meet-up who took part, thanks for being guinea pigs in this little experiment!  I hope you got something out of it even if it wasn’t necessarily what I was aiming for.

What Worked Well:

One of my colleagues at Middleware attended, and like a lot of people I meet he’s interested in architecture but the whole concept is a little intimidating and he’s keen to know more.  He said the exercise was really great for keeping people engaged:

  1. It gave people a chance to get up and stretch their legs, good for energy.
  2. It gave people a break from listening to me and watching slides.

But that’s not exactly a surprise, in my experience (both presenting and being presented to, anything interactive is usually positive).

Challenges

  1. The volume of information to process.
  2. The variety of visual styles and approaches.
  3. Messy handwriting.
  4. Having very little time to analyse and respond – in front of a group.

I tried to look for common themes and areas where people had varied wildly; and in this regard the exercise went exactly as I had anticipated as there was a lot of variety.  The problem was that:

  • The insights that occurred to me weren’t quite in-line with the brief I thought had given the group, and I didn’t want to start making comments people thought were unfair because the goal-posts had changed.
  • I had a clear idea in my mind of how the exercise would go and how I would respond, but my assumptions didn’t entirely survive what actually happened, and consequently I felt I didn’t responded as well as I wanted to.

What Could Have Gone Better If:

  1. I had been more “on to it”.
  2. I had done more preparation and thinking about what might get drawn, and how I might need to respond.
  3. I had thought to ask one or two people to give us a quick summary of what they were thinking and the process they went through, as a way of generating some further discussion.
  4. I had picked a drawing at random and tried to interpret it “Ok, this is what I think you’re saying”, and use that as a way of generating some discussion and insight.  Repeat as appropriate.

Final Observations

The context of the exercise is important, as the objectives flow from the set-up:

  1. In this exercise people were dealing with a domain problem (flight bookings) that was essentially new to them – I presume they all have some background idea of such a system, but it not like they will have be actively building one for some time – which would be the case in a real-life scenario.
  2. It’s similar for the reviewer/facilitator; they way I would run the second half of the exercise would be different because what I needed to get out of it would have been very different.  Unlike an exercise at a meet-up, in a real-life project I would be bound to the outcomes as a member of the team – i.e. I’d have to live with them, so the drivers would be immensely stronger.

Would I do it again?

Absolutely.  In some ways the exercise was bit of a failure, at least in the short term, and I can only hope that people were able to take away something useful from it.  That said, it was a success from an iterative point of view: I now know a lot more about this technique and how to make it better next time.  These learnings will also help me should I ever need to do it “for real” in a project.

I also hope it was successful in that this write-up gives you something to think about, and perhaps the inspiration or basis to run this exercise yourself – either informally as a meet-up/learning activity, or as a “serious-face” exercise as part of your project.

Postscript

I’d like to belatedly comment on the work people did and share some observations on the content and possible thought-process (rather than the visual style):

  1. It’s interesting how people’s background comes through – the second diagram takes a decidedly infrastructure based lens.  This is not necessarily bad.  In situations like this (where it might not necessarily answer the question you thought you had asked) it may prompt valuable questions you hadn’t thought to ask.  That’s a strength of this sort of exercise, the variety of responses can provide insights you hadn’t expected and therefore might not have uncovered.
  2. It’s also interesting the different functional emphasis people use.  For example the last one seems to have a finance focus – three of the most prominent boxes are “Prices”, “Finance” and “Payment”, the first two of these are also in the center of the diagram, which might also be where they started drawing – and where they conceptually started.
  3. The first one is interesting because it blends functional concepts like “flights” and “Finance” with solution/technology concepts such as the enterprise service bus that links stuff together.
  4. The third example appears to have started with the “portal”, large and across the top; it then decomposes the portal down into parts, and then further elaborates those into related concepts.  It’s easy to see how the drawers mind may have been methodically working through the problem.
  5. The second-to-last example is interesting because it seems to very much be an exploratory diagram, where the drawer is literally working it out as they go: drawing some concept and then digesting that before adding the next piece.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach.  It’s true that a “messy” diagram might reflect the drawers understanding of the domain, but it hasn’t stopped them bringing in elements that others missed, such as thinking about search through to external providers (Expedia).  Like some of the other, this example also mixes technical and non-technical concepts (think “apples & pears”): “bank API’s” and “Weight Allowance”.
  6. Not all of the examples have included people/actors.  Neither approach is wrong, but to me including people starts to provoke thoughts around who does what, what scenarios they might have, and begins to bring people back into the discussion – which I think has a lot of value.

Were you one of the participants in this exercise?  If so, please feel free to add your thoughts in a comment.

 

 

3 Ideas from Nick Malik on Design Thinking (#ITEA 2017)

Following the 2017 ITEA conference, I recently reiterated what many of us have known for a while: that traditional architecture and architects are endangered.  I also promised to share some of the great ideas from that conference – practical concepts that you can use right now, and which started to demonstrate how architects can still be relevant and add value.

I’d like to start with ideas from a really valuable talk given by Nick Malik, a 37 year industry veteran who describes himself as a “Vanguard Enterprise Architect, Digital Transformation Strategist, Author, Blogger, and General Troublemaker”, currently Senior “Principal Consultant – Enterprise Architecture” with Infosys.

The subject of Nick’s talk was “Using Design Thinking to Develop your Enterprise Architecture Core Diagram“.  In this post I’ll briefly introduce this key concept as well as some of the other ideas that I wrote down during Nicks talk.

#1 – Actually Understand the problem

The first thing I wrote down was incredibly obvious and shouldn’t need reiteration: taking sufficient time to actually understand the problem.  Nick emphasised bringing people into this process – actually talking to people to really understand what they need, so that we “build solutions that people want to use”.

The quote that came to mind during this bit of the presentation was Eisenhower’s “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.”  Why did I think that?  Well, some people will equate “understanding the problem” with analysis and documentation, where the scale of the analysis and documentation corresponds to the perceived scale and complexity of the problem.

But that’s not what was meant – it’s more around the quality of the discussion, and ensuring that there is real understanding of what the problem is, and what is needed.

In my view, the challenge here for some people (and architects) is that doing this well requires quality interpersonal engagement.  I wonder how often we end-up with solutions that are system-centric rather than people-centric?  I suspect it’s partly due to that fact that some of this stuff is hard – it’s easy to let the technology control you.  But I also think there’s another aspect to it – that some people who are good with systems & tech aren’t always as confident with people, and so the people-centric part loses out.

Interestingly, the design thinking page on wikipedia contrasts design thinking with the scientific method; whilst both approaches use iteration, design thinking consciously “considers the consumer’s emotional state”.  Having quality discussions with people doesn’t necessarily equate to discussing emotional state, but even so, I think that the organic relationship between these concepts is apparent, as is their relevance to arriving at better and more holistic solutions.

So, focus more on having quality engagement with people and taking the time to understand.

#2 – The Core Diagram and Design Thinking

The heart of Nick’s talk was the Core Diagram, and using Design Thinking as a way to developing it.  The crucial idea I took from this was connecting the existing and accepted (although possibly under-utilized) architectural concept (the core diagram) with the “modern” technique (design thinking) which has become somewhat hijacked by a market that is “going digital”.

I say “modern” with the slightly sarcastic quote marks because the roots of design thinking actually go back a long way before it became vogue in the current “digital” era. That said, “digital” is relevant to architects because it’s the current language of business, and those not conversant in it risk being marginalised, regardless of what people think digital means.

Before I go too much further I just want to point out that I am new to the concept of the core diagram – at least regarding the specifics of the concept as Nick describes it.  My goal here is simply to help spread the word on this as a idea, because I think it has value.

Nick has been writing about core diagrams for some time (circa 2012), and I wonder how much the approach to developing them have changed?  I haven’t yet properly read and digested the original approach, but it’s now 2017 and Nick is connecting the development of core diagrams with design thinking – I’m not sure whether this represents a fundamental shift in the approach, or a natural evolution that recognizes shared principles that were always inherently there.

The reason I mention this is that if you go searching online you’re going to find articles from a few years ago (c’mon, 2012 isn’t that long ago) , and you might (incorrectly) feel compelled to dismiss them out-of-hand as not being contemporary and not solidly connected to “design thinking” as is currently vogue.

So, what’s a core diagram?

As with a lot of good ideas the key concept is relatively simple, according to Jeanne Ross (Director, MIT CISR):

“For most companies, I think some kind of picture is essential for understanding the expectations for a business transformation.”

The bold is mine.  Nick included this quote in his deck – having taken it from an email Jeanne sent him in 2011.  Nick described it as “the best advice we all ignored”.

Actually Nick, I think I might have a tongue-in-cheek explanation for that – there’s currently no wikipedia page for Core Diagram 😛

Jeanne describes it as:

“a simple one-page view of the processes, data, and technologies constituting the desired foundation for execution.”

One-page is key.  What you’re after is something that everyone wants to put up on the wall, in their office or the teams shared space.  You want it to support a wide range of discussions and thinking across all your stakeholders – especially those who are responsible for, or have a lot of influence over, the end result.

Here’s some links for you:

  • Enterprise Architecture As Strategy” by Jeanne W. Ross, Peter Weill and David Robertson, on Amazon.
  • What is a core diagram?” MSDN blog post by Nick Malik, 2012.
  • (Slides from) Open Group Presentation on MSBI method of creating Enterprise Architecture Core Diagrams on slideShare, 2012.

A Brief aside info Marketecture

As Nick was describing the core diagram I couldn’t help but mentally connect it with Marketecture and effective marketecture diagrams.  In Nick’s view they aren’t the same thing, and I can see why he says that – but it’s subtle, multi-dimensional, and I’m still thinking about it.

I’ve previously found a number of useful definitions that help capture what I think marketecture is (which I sketch out in “Appendix: The Mysteries of Marketecture” in this post).  In summary it’s:

a business perspective, including concepts such as licensing, the business model and technical details relevant to the customer; it can also serve as an informal depiction of the systems structure, interactions and relationships that espouse the philosophy behind the architecture.

We had a very brief discussion whilst walking out at the break, Nick’s view was (and assuming my recall is accurate) that marketecture is designed to assist the “sale” of the solution, with the underlying implication that relates to the “transactional” nature of the sale; where as “you can take a core diagram to governance meetings”.

I guess it depends on what is meant by “sale” – there’s the commercial sense i.e. trying to sell faster processors to end users, but there’s also the idea of “selling” a solution as being viable to executives and governance bodies.  From a philosophical stand-point I think good marketecture and core diagrams have that in common.  There’s no doubt a lot more to explore here.

 

#3 – Ideation Techniques

Design thinking, and the concept of rapidly coming up with ideas deserves more time and space than I can give it here, so to get you started, let me just give you a couple of the ideas Nick shared:

  • Reverse Brainstorming – Instead of asking, “How do I prevent this problem?” ask, “How could I cause the problem?”  The idea is that by initially focusing more on the problem you’re then better equipped to start considering solutions.  It reminds me of the 37 Signals piece called “Have an Enemy”: “Sometimes the best way to know what your app should be is to know what it shouldn’t be. Figure out your app’s enemy and you’ll shine a light on where you need to go.
  • SCAMPER – an acronym of activity based thinking process which help you think out of the box: Substitute, Combine, and so on.  It’s been around since 1953.

 

#ArchitectureInTransformation

Is the Tide Turning? #ArchitectureInTransformation

Good news, I think, from the 2017 IT & Enterprise Architecture Conference, which I attended earlier this week.  As is well known, “Traditional” architecture, and Enterprise Architecture in general, has been on the endangered list for a while now – but I’m starting to see really positive signs that (some) architects are bouncing back and starting to successfully adapt.

In due course, I’ll share some of the many notes and great ideas I captured during the event, but before I do I just wanted to quickly preface the whole thing with this overarching theme (that architects are starting to adapt) – because it was a theme that permeated much of the conferences content – and from what I could see these ideas were generally being embraced by the attendees – but it’s still very early days…

So what are these magical signs?

#1 – Attitudes

It was clear from the architects I spoke with that they recognised the need to adapt, have a positive attitude about doing so, and are on that journey.

#2 – Platform as a Product

One of the clearest signals was from Mike Nooney, who shared with us how Air New Zealand are developing their platform strategy.  A key takeaway here was “platform as product”, in other words, start thinking about your organisations platform and systems as a product (and everything that mental-model entails).

Of course it’s a non-trivial exercise – there’s lots of deep and subtle implications in the statement.  I’ll be looking into this more (a lot more, I’m sure), but for now I suggest you start by thinking about what good products are and how they come into being – i.e. “it’s not just about technology”; thinking about the entire ecosystem: end-users, API-users, support, marketing (and so on); and how you’d actually work with the other human beings across that entire ecosystem to make it happen.

It’s worth noting that there’s a spectrum here; in some circumstances you might simply get away with (or start with) a simply terminology change: “(Digital) Platform” instead of “EA”, although obviously a deeper change is likely to be needed at some point.

#3 – Embracing ‘new’ techniques, such as Design Thinking

Design thinking is one of several approaches that have been gaining serious traction in recent years.  Sure, some of the core concepts inside some of these approaches are not necessarily new, but they’ve reached a level of maturity and market presence that means ignoring them isn’t wise.

There’s this fuzzy nexus of concepts – Digital is one, taking a (platform as) product centric view is another – think of it as the new/emerging paradigm for how the mainstream now conceptualises systems.  Design thinking, and related approaches, are a part of that paradigm.

The good news for architects is that, as mentioned above, the core stuff inside these approaches isn’t necessarily new – it’s stuff that as architects we kinda mentally do already, so the leap isn’t as big as it looks.

Positive evidence of architects taking this sort of approach on was visible in several presentations beyond Mike’s:

  1. Nick Malik emphasised the importance of gaining a deep understanding of the problem, and whilst he didn’t refer to design thinking directly I found it to be a pretty easy mental leap from his advice to leveraging design thinking as one of the ways of getting there.  Update – as per Nick’s comment below, design thinking was a focus of his talk – my memory here isn’t quite as accurate as I’d like it to be (thanks for correcting me).  I’ll share more on this in due course, including links to where you can get Nick’s thoughts first hand.
  2. Nick also made reference to several books including “Stories that Move Mountains: Storytelling and Visual Design for Persuasive Presentations” – and whilst this isn’t billed as “design thinking”, (as a newbie) I can see some parallels.
  3. Blair Loveday did a whole session on design thinking – the fact that this even happened is itself an indication of how things are moving in architecture circles.
  4. Chris Tuohy spoke about his experiences with Agile and culture change at Westpac – design thinking was explicitly called out as being part of their approach.

So whilst “traditional” architecture may be dying, I’d think the good bits from that legacy will continue – with some new additions and perhaps adapted a little in terms of tactics and approach.  When you realise that such a major transformation is slowly happening right before your very eyes, and that you’re part of it – that’s pretty cool.

#ITEA – https://www.conferenz.co.nz/events/it-enterprise-architecture

 

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.

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.