Skills for Building a Smarter Planet

This is the transcript of a talk I gave to a group of sixth formers, who are considering a career in IT, at a UK university this week. The theme was “What do IT architects do all day” however I expanded it into “What will IT architects be doing in the future?”.What I want to do in the next 30 minutes or so is not only tell you what I, as an IT architect, do but what I think you will be doing should you choose to take up a career as an IT architect and what skills you wil need to do the job. In particular I’d like to explain what I mean by this:

Today’s world is full of wicked problems. Solving these problems, and building a smarter planet needs new skills. I believe that IT architects need to be a versatile and adaptive breed of systems thinkers.

Here’s the best explanation I’ve seen of what architects do:

Architects take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways. (Seth Godin)

As an example of this consider something that we use everyday, the (world-wide) web. Invented by Tim Berners-Lee just 20 short years ago, Tim basically assembled the web from three components that already existed: hypertext, internet protocols and what are referred to as markup languages. All these things existed, what Tim did was to assemble them in an “interesting” way. So what I do is to use IT to try and solve interesting and important business problems by assembling (software) components. I’m not just interested in any problems though, the type of problems that interest me are the “wicked” variety. What do I mean by these?

Wicked problems are ones that you often don’t really understand until you’ve formulated a solution to it. It’s often not even possible to really state what the problem is and because there is no clear statement of the problem, there can be no clear solution so you never actually know when you are finished. For wicked problems ‘finished’ usually means you have run out of time, money, patience or all three! Further, solutions to wicked problems are not “right” or “wrong”. Wicked problems tend to have solutions which are ‘better’, or maybe ‘worse’ or just ‘good enough’. Finally, every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique. Because there are usually so many factors involved in a wicked problem no two problems are ever the same and each solution needs a unique approach.

But there’s a problem! Here’s a headline from last year Independent newspaper: “Labour’s computer blunders cost £26bn”. What’s going on here? This is your and my money being wasted on failed IT projects. And it’s not just government projects that are failing. Here’s an estimate from the British Computer Society of how many IT projects re actually successful. 20%! How poor is that? It projects ‘fail’ for many reasons but interstingly it’s rarely for just technical reasons. More often than not it’s due to poor project and risk management, lack of effective stakeholder management or no clear senior management ownership. So we have a real problem here. As we’ll see in a minute,  problems are not only getting harder to fix (more ‘wicked’) but our ability to solve them does not seem to be improving!!

So what are these wicked problems I keep talking about? They are many and numerous but many of them are attributable to inefficiencies that exist in the “systems” that exist in the world. Economists estimate that globally we waste $15 trillion of the worlds precious resources each year. Much – if not most – of this inefficiency can be attributed to the fact that we have optimized the way the world works within silos, with little regard for how the processes and systems that drive our planet interrelate. These complex, systemic inefficiencies are interwoven in the interactions among our planet’s core systems. No business, government or institution can solve these issues in isolation. To root out inefficiencies and reclaim a substantial portion of that which is lost, businesses, industries, governments and cities will need to think in terms of systems, or more accurately, a system of systems approach. This means we will need to collaborate at unprecedented levels. For example no single organization owns the world’s food system, and no single entity can fix the world’s healthcare system. Success will depend upon understanding the full set of cause-and-effect relationships that link systems and using this knowledge to create greater synergy. Basically many of the problems the world faces today are cause by the fact that our systems don’t talk to each other. What do I mean by this? Here’s a simple example to illustrate the point.

Imagine you are driving your car around town trying to find a parking space. You can be sure that somewhere in town there’s a parking meter looking for a car to park in it. How do we marry your car with that parking meter? Actually the technology to do this pretty much exists already. However the challenge of actually fixing this problem stretches beyond just technology. A solution to this problem includes at least: intelligent sensors, communications, public and private finance, local government involvement, control and policing as well as well established open standards.

Like I said, from a pure technology point of view we are in pretty good shape to solve problems like this. We now have an unprecedented amount of: instrumentation, interconnectedness and intelligence
such that organisations (and societies) can think and act in radically new ways. However in order to solve problems like the parking one as well as significantly more ‘wicked’ ones I believe we need skills that stretch beyond the mere technological. If you are to help solve these problems then you need to be a versatile and adaptive systems thinker. A systems thinker is someone who not only uses her left-brained logical thinking capabilities but also uses her right-brained creative and artistic capabilities. Here are six attributes (from Dan Pink’s book A Whole New Mind) that a good systems thinker needs to adopt which I think will help in solving some of the worlds wicked problems:

  • Design – It is no longer sufficient or acceptable to create a product or service that merely does the job. Today it is both economically critical as well as  aesthetcially rewarding to create something that is beautiful and emotionally engaging.
  • Story – We are living in a time of information overload. If you want your sales pitch or point of view to be heard above the cacophony of background noise that is out there you have to create a compelling narrative.
  • Symphony – We live in a world of silos. Siloed processes, siloed systems and siloed societies. Success in business and in life is about breaking down these silos and pulling all the pieces together. Its about synthesis rather than analysis.
  • Empathy – Our capacity for logical thought has gone a very way to creating the technological society we live in today. However in a world of ubiquitous information that is available at the touch of a button logic alone will no longer cut the mustard.In order to thrive we need to understand what makes our fellow humans tick and really get beneath their skin and to forge new relationships.
  • Play – In a world where we are all having to meet targets, pass tests and  achieve the right grades in order to get on it is easy to forget the importance of play. There is a lot of evidence out there of the benefits to our health and general well-being of the benefits of play, not only outside work but also inside.
  • Meaning – We live in a world of material plenty put spiritual scarcity. Seeking meaning in life that transcends above “things” is vital if we are to achieve some kind of personal fulfilment.

A Gartner report published in 2005 predicted that by 2010, IT professionals will need to possess expertise in multiple domains. Technical aptitude alone will no longer be enough. IT professionals must prove they can understand business realities – industry, core processes, customer bases, regulatory environment, culture and constraints. Versatility will be crucial. It predicted that by By 2011, 70 percent of leading-edge companies will seek and develop “versatilists” while deemphasizing specialists.

Versatilists are people whose numerous roles, assignments and experiences enable them to synthesise knowledge and context in ways that fuel business value. Versatilists play different roles than specialists or generalists. Specialists generally have deep technical skills and narrow scope, giving them expertise that is recognized by peers, but it is seldom known outside their immediate domains. Generalists have broad scope and comparatively shallow skills, enabling them to respond or act reasonably quickly, but often at a cursory level. Versatilists, in contrast, apply depth of skill to a rich scope of situations and experiences, building new alliances, perspectives, competencies and roles. They gain the confidence of peers and partners. To attain versatilist skills, IT professionals should..

  • Look outside the confines of current roles, regions, employers or business units. The more informed a professional is about a company, its industry segment and the forces that affect it, the greater the contextual grasp.
  • Lay out opportunities and assignments methodically. Focus on the areas and challenges that fall outside the comfort zone; those areas generally will be the areas of greatest growth.
  • Explore possibilities outside the world of corporate business. Not-for-profit ventures, startup companies, government agencies and consumer IT service providers offer powerful ways to bolster experiences, behavioral competencies or management skills.
  • Enroll in advanced degree programs or in qualified education courses to expand perspective.
  • Identify companies, projects, assignments, education and training that will increase professional value.

I believe we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible on a “smarter planet”. However if we are to really address the truly wicked problems that are out there in order to make our world a better, and maybe even a fairer place, we need people like you to make it happen.

Finally you might be tempted in these hard economic times when you are being asked to pay outrageous amounts for your education not to bother with university. However bear this in mind:

“Unskilled labor is what you call someone who merely has skills that most everyone else has. If it’s not scarce, why pay extra? Skills matter. The unemployment rate for US workers without a college education is almost triple that for those with one. Even the college rate is still too high, though.  On the other hand, the unemployment rate for skilled neurosurgeons, talented database designers and motivated recombinant DNA biologists is essentially zero, despite the high pay in all three fields. Unskilled now means not-specially skilled”.

The only real investment you have for the future is the piece of grey matter between your ears. Make sure you continue to nurture and nourish it throughout your life by stimulating both the left and right sides.

Thank you and good luck with whatever path you choose to take in life.

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The Next Generation?

Demographers, social scientists and new media watchers are fond of dividing people into generations based on what recent (i.e. post-World War II) period of history they were born in. Whilst there are no consistent definitions of when these generations begin and end they roughly fall into these periods:

  • Baby-boomers: 1940 – 1960. Those born during the post–World War II demographic boom in births. This generation more than any other rejected the moral and religous beliefs of their parents and created their own sets of values. This is the generation that invented sex, drugs and rock’n’roll and is still largely the one that is ruling the roost so to speak (President Obama, born in 1961, catching the tail end of this particular demographic).
  • Generation X (post boomers): 1960 – 1980. This term was apparently coined by the great Magnum photographer Robert Capa in the early 1950s. He used it as the title for a photo-essay about young men and women growing up immediately after the Second World War. Sometimes referred to as the “unknown” or “lost” genaration this group has signified people without identity who face an uncertain, ill-defined (and perhaps hostile) future. This is the generation that grew up during the fall of the Berlin war, the end of the Cold War and various economic crises (such as the 1979 olil crisis) and were most likely to be the children of divorced parents.
  • Generation Y (the Millenial generation): 1980 – 2000. This is the culturally liberal generation that witnessed the start and wide-spread adoption of the internet and are the children of baby-boomers. This is the generation that owns, and is most comfortable with using, most computers, mobile phones and MP3 players.

So what is the next generation born during the last 10 years and possibly the next 10 to be called? The obvious name would be “Generation Z” although this would mean we will have run out of letters already so will have problems naming the post-2020 generation. Rather than following the obvious trend therefore how about naming this upcoming generation who will be entering the higher education system and workforce during the next 10 years “Generation V”, the versatilist generation? These are the people, more than any others, who will need to adopt a whole new set of skills if they are to survive and prosper during their lifetimes. These are the ones who will be suffering the after-shocks of the baby-boom, X and Y generations and who will need to fix the wicked problems those generations have left in their wake. This is the generation that will probably have more jobs, in their lifetime, than the other three generations put together and who will, as Daniel Pink has suggested have to survive in a world dominated by the three A’s:

  • Automation – Jobs can be done faster and more efficiently by computers.
  • Abundance – We have more stuff than we know what to do with and it is increasingly being produced at cheaper and cheaper rates.
  • Asia (or Africa) – More and more work is outsourced to these low cost economies.
The skills that this generation will need to adopt will be many and varied and include:
  • Objectively viewing experiences and roles, learning from these (failures as well as successes) and using this knowledge to gain new roles.
  • Looking outside the confines of current roles, regions, employers or business units. The more informed a professional is about a company, its industry segment and the forces that affect it, the greater chance will the person have to predict and survive economic downturns.
  • Laying out opportunities and assignments methodically. Focusing on the areas and challenges that fall outside the comfort zone; those areas generally will be the areas of greatest growth.
  • Exploring possibilities outside the world of large, corporate business. Charities, startup companies, government agencies, even your own web-startup offer new and interesting ways to build experiences, learn new skills and maybe even modify behaviours.
  • Enrolling in advanced education courses to expand perspective, preferably outside your current discipline and area of expertise.
  • Targeting companies, projects, assignments, education and training courses that will increase professional value and make you more marketable.

Sadly Gartner seem to have coined the use of “Generation V” already, where V is for virtual. Pity, as they also coined the term “virtualist”, missed opportunity I reckon.

Six Non-IT Books for IT Architects

There are now several myriad books out there on the topic of software architecture, including this one I have contributed to. There are other skills an architect needs to do their job which are not just to be found in IT books however. Here are six books which have helped me in my job together with a few reasons why I think they are useful:

  1. Change by Design by Tim Brown. Tim Brown is the CEO of IDEO a design company based in Palo Alto, California. Introduces the concepts of “design thinking” that can be applied to any problem and shows how empathy, play, storytelling and prototyping can all be bought together in coming up with new and innovative designs. Top tip: Deploy interdisciplinary teams of multi-talented people (i.e. true versatilists) to solve hard design problems. Even if you don’t get the book at least visit the link I’ve given to view the wonderful mid map.
  2. Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. Garr is the master of giving advice on how to create simple, clear and relevant presentations. Here he applies the zen principles of simplicity that will change how you think about creating presentations using PowerPoint or Keynote. Top tip: Picture superiority effect. Pictures are remembered better than words. Humans are hardwired for using images to communicate. Go visual wherever and whenever you can.
  3. A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink. Dan describe how, if we are to survive in the 21st century world of work, we must make more use of the left side, the creative side, of our brain rather than the traditional right (logical thinking) side. Top tip: Use stories to help illustrate your ideas. Stories represent a pathway to understanding that doesn’t run through the left side of the brain.
  4. Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander. Alexander recognises that problems come with multiple, poorly understood requirements that interact with each other, creating conflicts and contradictions. Something we in IT have known for years. This book describes an approach for dealing with often multiple conflicting requirements to come up with the “best fit” solution. Top tip: It is difficult to specify a complete set of requirements that need to be met to achieve a “best fit”. A practical approach is to define ‘good fit’ as the absence of ‘misfits’, since these are usually what makes the problem obvious and can be ascertained through inspection of prior designs. Although designers may argue over the importance of a particular misfit, they are less likely to disagree on whether the misfit exists.
  5. Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod. Hugh is an artist that makes a living creating art on the back of business cards, selling wine and running an extremely insightful web site on applying creativity to help you improve your job as well as your life. Top tip: Don’t try to stand out from the crowd, avoid crowds altogether.
  6. The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo. Great book with lots of example on how Steve Jobs creates, prepares for and delivers his presentations to introduce new Apple gadgetry on the world. Top tip from book: Use plain English and photographs rather than techno mumbo-jumbo and slides densely packed with indecipherable text and bullet points.

Tweets, Cocktail Parties and the Real-Deal

You can have the greatest idea in the world but if you can’t present it effectively, aiming it at the interest level and time your audience has, then it’s not going to fly. Here’s a three-pronged approach to getting your ideas across I have borrowed from Dan Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (if you want a quick, animated summary of the book check this out).

You need to be prepared at all times to explain your idea. The amount of time you have to explain it will depend on a number of factors, not least of which is the amount of ‘face-time’ your stakeholder will give you. Here are three formats you should have prepared for selling your idea depending on how much time you can get:

  1. The Tweet version: A tweet (as delivered via twitter) can be a maximum of 140 characters. The challenge is can you describe your idea in 140 characters or less. Samuel Johnson (or Mark Twain or Winston Churchill depending on who you believe) said “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead”. This version is the most challenging of all. You really need to be brutal and pare your idea down to just the key facts.
  2. The Cocktail Party version: This is a variant on the elevator pitch. Can you describe you idea in 100 – 150 words or a maximum of one minute of talking (talking fast doesn’t count). Again you need to focus on the bare essentials but here you have a bit more leeway to focus on the business benefits.
  3. The Real-Deal version (with supporting takeaway): So you twittered your idea, you met some guy at a cocktail party (or in the elevator) to entice him a bit more and you finally got invited to present your idea. The presentation is the real-deal because this is really your chance to stand up and sell (and hopefully clinch the deal). Don’t, therefore, screw-up by preparing an overly busy presentation with slides full of tightly packed text (remember PowerPoint bullets kill interest like real bullets kill people). Suppose you have “an hour” to present. Aim for a presentation that can be done in 30 minutes allowing for 15 minutes of questions and five minutes or so either side for people to be late or have to leave early. No one can retain an interest for more than 50 minutes anyway so 30 is good. For some thoughts on presenting see here. I prefer not to follow rules like “one slide every two minutes”. The important thing is to structure the presentation first (probably before opening up your favourite presentation software) then write it, then practice until it fits into 30 minutes. For an interesting alternative view on how big a presentation should be see here (a slide every 12 seconds maybe!). Finally, because you will inevitably have had to leave out some detail prepare a short (two to four pages) takeaway which explains your idea that you can leave behind for your audience to take-away. Make sure you include the tweet as the “management summary”. You never know, your stakeholder may tweet it herself giving you a bit more publicity!

Should We Ask Can We Fix It or State We Can?

In a recent Sunday Telegraph column author Dan Pink draws on recent scientific research which suggests that contrary to popular belief  “declarative” self-talk (I will fix it!) may not be as effective as “interrogative” self-talk (Can I fix it?) when it comes to solving problems. He also draws inspiration from that legendary management guru Bob the Builder.

Lisa Gansky (a serial entrepreneur) says that business leaders in general, and entrepreneurs in particular face an occupational hazard that she calls “breathing your own exhaust”. Gansky goes on to say:

“When you create something, you can fall in love with it and aren’t able to see or hear anything contrary. Whatever comes out of your mouth is all you’re inhaling. But when you ask a question – Will I? – you’re creating an opening. You’re inviting a conversation – whether it’s self-conversation or a conversation with others.”

So what’s this got to do with software architecture I hear you ask? The need for solving problems, especially wicked ones where there is no definitive formulation and maybe even no immediate or ultimate test of a solution, needs an approach which is different from the “all guns blazing” we can fix anything usual style of management consultants. Some problems are so hard they may never have a fully compete solution, just a series of compromises which hopefully result in you being in a better place than you were at the start. Maybe a little humility at the beginning will help in the setting of expectations therefore and reduce the distance you have to fall if you don’t deliver to those expectations.

In the meantime here are some videos to provide you with some inspiration around the fixing it theme:
Can We Fix It – Bob the Builder
Yes We Can – Barak Obama
Fix You – Coldplay (just in case it’s you that needs fixing)

Art, Creativity and the Tyranny of the Timesheet

Apparently lawyers are some of the glummest groups of professionals out there! One of the reasons for this is the very nature of their profession; it’s usually a “zero-sum” game, if somebody wins someone else loses (and in extreme cases loses their life). Another theory, put forward by Dan Pink in his book Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is that lawyers have to deal with one of the most “autonomy crushing mechanisms imaginable – the billable hour”. Lawyers have to keep careful track of every hour they spend, sometime to the level of granularity of six minute time chunks, so they can bill their time to the correct client. As a result their focus inevitably shifts to from the quality of the work they do (their output) to how they measure that work (its input). Essentially a lawyers reward comes from time, the more hours they bill, the higher their (or their legal practices) income. In today’s world it is hard to think of a worse way to ensure people do high quality and creative work than making them fill in a timesheet detailing everything they do.

Unfortunately the concept of the billable hour is now firmly embedded into other professions, including the one I work in, IT consulting. As IT companies have moved from selling hardware to software that runs on that hardware and then to providing consulting services to build systems made up of hardware and software they have had to look for different ways of charging for what they do. Unfortunately they have taken the easy option of the billable hour, something that the company accountants can easily measure and penalise people for if they don’t achieve their billable hours every week, month or year.

The problem with this of course is that innovation and creativity does not come in six minute chunks. Imagine if the inventors of some of the most innovative software architecture (Tim Berners-Lee’s world-wide web or Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook) had to bill their time. When such people wake up in the middle of the night with a great idea that would solve their clients business problem what’s the first thing they reach for: a notebook to record the idea before its gone or a spreadsheet to record their time so they can bill it to the client!

As Dan Pink says, the billable hour is, or should be, a relic of the old economy where routine tasks (putting doors on cars, sewing designer jeans or putting widgets into boxes) had tight coupling between how much effort goes in and the work that comes out. In the old economy where a days work equaled a days pay and you were a day laborer you essentially sold out to the highest bidder. Isn’t what we do worth more than that? As Seth Godin points out “the moment you are willing to sell your time for money is the moment you cease to be the artist you’re capable of being”.

But what’s the alternative? Clearly IT consulting firms need to be able to charge clients for their work; they’re not charities after all. Here are my thoughts on alternatives to the tyranny of the timesheet which enable the art and creativity in building IT systems to flourish.

  1. Start with the assumption that most people want to do good work and incentivise them on the work products they create rather than the work inputs (time recorded).
  2. Recognise that creativity does not fit nicely into a 9 – 5 day. It can happen at any time. Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) has his most creative time between 5am and 9am so is just finishing his work when the rest of us are starting. Creative people need to be allowed to work when they are at their most creative, not when company accountants say they should.
  3. When charging clients for work agree on what will be delivered by when and then build the right team to deliver (a team of shippers not time keepers). Of course this gives company lawyers a nightmare because they get involved in endless tangles with clients about what constitutes a deliverable and when it is complete (or not). Maybe giving lawyers a creative problem to solve will cheer them up though.
  4. Give people time-out to do their own thing and just see what happens. Google famously give their employees 20% time where they are allowed to spend a day working on their own projects. A number of google applications (including gmail) were invented by people doing their own thing.
  5. Allow people to spend time having interactions outside their immediate work groups (and preferably outside their company). Innovative ideas come from many sources and people should be allowed to discover as many new sources as possible. If someone wants to spend half-a-day walking round an art gallery rather than sitting at their desk, why not? Frank Gehry allegedly got his idea for the shape of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao from Picasso’s cubist paintings.

In the new economy, the conceptual age where creativity and versatilism is the order of the day the timesheet should be firmly assigned to the shredder and people should be treated as innovaters not just cogs in the big corporate machine.