Avoiding the Legacy of the Future

Kerrie Holley is a software architect and IBM Fellow. The title of IBM Fellow is not won easily. They are a group that includes a Kyoto Prize winner and five Nobel Prize winners, they have fostered some of the IBM company’s most stunning technical breakthroughs―from the Fortran computing language to the systems that helped put the first man on the moon to the Scanning Tunneling Microscope, the first instrument to image atoms. These are people that are big thinkers and don’t shy away from tackling some of the worlds wicked problems.

Listening to Kerrie give an inspirational talk called New Era of Computing at an IBM event recently I was struck by a comment he made which is exactly the kind of hard question I would expect an IBM Fellow to make. It was:

The challenge we have is to avoid the legacy of the future. How do we avoid applications becoming an impediment to business change?

Estimates vary, but it is reckoned that most organizations spend between 70% and 80% on maintenance and only 30% to 20% on innovation. When 80% of a companies IT budget is being spent in just keeping the existing systems running then how are they to deploy new capabilities that keep them competitive? That, by any measure, is surely an “impediment to business change”. So, what to do? Here are a few things that might help avoid the legacy of the future and show how we as architects can play our part in addressing the challenge posed in Kerrie’s question.

  1. Avoid (or reduce) technical debt. Technical debt is what you get when you release not-quite-right code out into the world. Every minute spent on not-quite-right code counts as interest on that debt. Entire engineering organizations can be brought to a stand-still under the debt load of an error-prone deployment. Reducing the amount of technical debt clearly reduces the amount of money you have to spend on finding and patching buggy code. Included here is code that is “buggy” because it is not doing what was intended of it. The more you can do to ensure “right-first-time” deployments the lower your maintenance costs and the more of your budget you’ll have to spend on innovation rather than maintenance. Agile is one tried and tested approach to ensuring better, less buggy code that meets the original requirements but traditionally agile has only focused on a part of the software delivery lifecycle, the development part. DevOps uses the best of the agile approach but extends that into operations. DevOps works by engaging and aligning all participants in the software delivery lifecycle — business teams; architects, developers, and testers; and IT operations and production — around a single, shared goal: sustained innovation, fueled by continuous delivery and shaped by continuous feedback.
  2. Focus on your differentiators. It’s tempting for CIOs and CTOs to think all of the technology they use is somehow going to give them that competitive advantage and must therefore be bespoke or at least highly customised packages. This means more effort in supporting those systems once they are deployed. Better is to focus on those aspects of the business’ IT which truly give real business advantage and focus IT budget on those. For the rest use COTS packages or put as much as possible into the cloud and standardise as much as possible. One of the implications of standardisation is that your business needs to change to match the systems you use rather than the other way around. This can often be a hard pill for a business to swallow as they think their processes are unique. Rarely is this the case however so recognising this and adopting standard processes is a good way of freeing up IT time and budget to focus on stuff that really is novel.
  3. Adopt open standards and componentisation. Large monolithic packages which purport to do everything, with appropriate levels of customisation, are not only expensive to build in the first place are likely to be more expensive to run as they cannot easily be updated in a piecemeal fashion. If you want to upgrade the user interface or open up the package to different user channels it may be difficult if interfaces are not published or packages themselves do not have replaceable parts. Very often you may have to replace the whole package or wait for the vendor to come up with the updates. Building applications from a mix of COTS and bespoke components and services which talk through an open API allows more of a mix and match approach to procuring and operating business systems. It also makes it easier to retire services that are no longer required or used. The term API economy is usually used to refer to how a business can expose its business functions (as APIs) to external parties however there is no reason why an internal API economy should not exist. This allows for the ability to quickly subscribe to or unsubscribe to business functionality making business more agile by driving a healthy competition for business function.

Businesses will always need to devote some portion of their IT budget to “keeping the lights on” however there is no reason why, with the adoption of one of more of these practices, the split between maintenance and innovation budgets should not be a more 50:50 one than the current highly imbalanced 70:30 or worse!

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The Wicked Problems of Government

The dichotomy of our age is surely that as our machines become more and more intelligent the problems that we need them to solve are becoming ever more difficult and intractable. They are indeed truly wicked problems, no more so than in our offices of power where the addition of political and social ‘agendas’ would seem to make some of the problems we face even more difficult to address.

Poll Tax
A Demonstration Against the Infamous ‘Poll Tax’

In their book The Blunders of Our Governments the authors Anthony King and Ivor Crewe recall some of the most costly mistakes made by British governments over the last three decades. These include policy blunders such as the so called poll tax introduced by the Thatcher government in 1990 which led to rioting on the streets of many UK cities (above). Like the poll tax many, in fact most, of the blunders recounted are not IT related however the authors do devote a whole chapter (chapter 13 rather appropriately) to the more egregious examples of successive governments IT blunders. These include:

  • The Crown Prosecution Service, 1989 – A computerised system for tracking prosecutions. Meant to be up and running by 1993-94, abandoned in 1997 following a critical report from the National Audit Office (NAO).
  • The Department of Social Security, 1994 – A system to issue pensions and child benefits using swipe cards rather than the traditional books which were subject to fraud and also inefficient. The government cancelled the project in 1999 after repeated delays and disputes between the various stakeholders and following another critical report by the NAO.
  • The Home Office (Immigration and Nationality Directorate), 1996 – An integrated casework system to deal with asylum, refugee and citizenship applications. The system was meant to be live by October of 1998 but was cancelled in 1999 at a cost to the UK taxpayer of at least £77 million. The backlog of cases for asylum and citizenship which the system had meant to address had got worse not better.

Whilst the authors don’t offer any cast iron solutions to how to solve these problems they do highlight a number of factors these blunders had in common. Many of these were highlighted in a joint Royal Academy of Engineering and British Computer Society report published 10 years ago this month called The Challenges of Complex IT Projects.The major reasons found for why complex IT projects fail included:

  • Lack of agreed measures of success.
  • Lack of clear senior management ownership.
  • Lack of effective stakeholder management.
  • Lack of project/risk management skills.
  • Evaluation of proposals driven by price rather than business benefits.
  • Projects not broken into manageable steps.

In an attempt to address at least some of the issues around the procurement and operation of government IT systems (which is not restricted to the UK of course), in particular those citizen facing services over the internet, the coalition government that came to power in May 2010 commissioned a strategic review of its online delivery of public services by the UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox. Her report published in November 2010 recommended:

  • Provision of a common look and feel for all government departments’ transactional online services to citizens and business.
  • The opening up of government services and content, using application programme interfaces (APIs), to third parties.
  • Putting a new central team in Cabinet Office that is in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels and that commissions all government online information from other departments.
  • Appointing a new CEO for digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services and the power to direct all government online spending.

Another government report, published in July of 2011, by the Public Administration Select Committee entitled Government and IT – “a recipe for rip-offs” – time for a new approach proposed 33 recommendations on how government could improve it’s woeful record for delivering IT. These included:

  • Developing a strategy to either replace legacy systems with newer, less costly systems, or open up the intellectual property rights to competitors.
  • Contracts to be broken up to allow for more effective competition and to increase opportunities for SMEs.
  • The Government must stop departments specifying IT solutions and ensure they specify what outcomes they wish to achieve.
  • Having a small group within government with the skills to both procure and manage a contract in partnership
    with its suppliers.
  • Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) should stay in post to oversee the delivery of the benefits for which they are accountable and which the project was intended to deliver.

At least partly as a result of these reports and their recommendations the Government Digital Service (GDS) was established in April 2011 under the leadership of Mike Bracken (previously Director of Digital Development at The Guardian newspaper). GDS works in three core areas:

  • Transforming 25 high volume key exemplars from across government into digital services.
  • Building and maintaining the consolidated GOV.UK website –  which brings government services together in one place.
  • Changing the way government procures IT services.

To the large corporates that have traditionally provided IT software, hardware and services to government GDS has had a big impact on how they do business. Not only does most business now have to be transacted through the governments own CloudStore but GDS also encourages a strong bias in favour of:

  • Software built on open source technology.
  • Systems that conform to open standards.
  • Using the cloud where it makes sense to do so.
  • Agile based development.
  • Working with small to medium enterprises (SME’s) rather than the large corporates seen as “an oligarchy that is ripping off the government“.

There can be no doubt that the sorry litany of public sector IT project failures, rightly or wrongly, have caused the pendulum to swing strongly in the direction that favours the above approach when procuring IT. However some argue that the pendulum has now swung a little too far. Indeed the UK Labour party has launched its own digital strategy review led by shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah. She talks about a need to be more context-driven, rather than transaction focused saying that while the GDS focus has been on redesigning 25 “exemplar” transactions, Labour feels this is missing the complexity of delivering public services to the individual. Labour is also critical of the GDSs apparent hostility to large IT suppliers saying it is an “exaggeration” that big IT suppliers are “the bogeymen of IT”. While Labour supports competition and creating opportunities for SMEs, she said that large suppliers “shouldn’t be locked out, but neither should they be locked in”.

The establishment of the GDS has certainly provided a wake up call for the large IT providers however, and here I agree with the views expressed by Ms Onwurah, context is crucial and it’s far too easy to take an overly simplistic approach to trying to solve government IT issues. A good example of this is that of open source software. Open source software is certainly not free and often not dramatically cheaper than proprietary software (which is often built using some elements of open source anyway) once support costs are taken into account. The more serious problem with open source is where the support from it comes from. As the recent Heartbleed security issue with OpenSSL has shown there are dangers in entrusting mission critical enterprise software to people who are not accountable (and even unknown).

One aspect to ‘solving’ wicked problems is to bring more of a multi-disciplinary approach to the table. I have blogged before about the importance of a versatilist approach in solving such problems. Like it or not, the world cannot be viewed in high contrast black and white terms. One of the attributes of a wicked problem is that there is often no right or wrong answer and addressing one aspect of the problem can often introduce other issues. Understanding context and making smart architecture decisions is one aspect to this. Another aspect is whether the so called SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) technologies can bring a radically new approach to the way government makes use of IT? This is something for discussion in future blog posts.

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.

Forget T-Shaped, We Need V-Shaped Architects

A recent blog from the Open Group discusses the benefits of so called “T-shaped people”. According to this blog, T-shaped people are what HR are looking for these days. To quote from the blog a T-shaped person is someone who: “combines the broad level of skills and knowledge (the top horizontal part of the T) with specialist skills in a specific functional area (the bottom, vertical part of the T). They are not generalists because they have a specific core area of expertise but are often also referred to as generalizing specialists as well as T-shaped people“. The picture below shows this.

Traditionally for software architects the specialism that T-shaped people usually have has come from their entry-level skills or the ones that got them into the profession in the first place. This is usually a skill in a particular programming language,  development approach (agile, scrum or whatever) or other areas related to software development such as test or configuration management. As you progress through your career and begin to build on your skills (learning more programming languages, understanding more about design etc) you may add to the verticals in your T’s with these other specialisms. This, at least, has traditionally been the approach. The problem is that in some organisations in order to “progress” (i.e. earn more money) you almost need to know more about less. You need to generalise more and more quickly. No one is going to employ you to be a Java programmer if your salary is ten times that of what a Java programmer in India or China earns. This is not meant to be a criticism against software professionals in India or China by the way. It’s just the way of things. Soon people in India and China will be out-sourcing to lower cost regions and so the cycle will go on. It does however raise an interesting problem of how those core specialisms will be developed in people just entering the profession. I spent a good 15 years as a programmer before I moved into architecture and would like to think that what I learnt there gave me a good set of core, fundamental skills that I can still apply as an architect. I firmly believe that the fundamentals I learnt from programming (encapsulation, design by contract, the importance of loose coupling etc) never go out of fashion.

As I have blogged before, I believe that whilst good “generalizing specialists” can also make good architects there is another dimension to what makes a true architect who has the skills necessary to solve the really hard business as well as socio-political (e.g. global warming, global terrorism, resource shortages etc) problems that the world faces today. Gartner coined the term “versatilist” back in 2005 and whilst this does not seem to have really taken off (there is a versatilist web site but it seems to be little used) I like the fact that the ‘V’ of versatilist makes a nice paradigm for what 21st century IT architects need to be. V-shaped people are not just ones who have deep skills in specific functional areas but also have skills in other disciplines. Further a good V-shaped person is one who has skills not just in technical disciplines but also business and artistic disciplines. So why does this matter?

The concept of bringing interdisciplinary teams together to break down boundaries in solving difficult or wicked problems is not a new one. It is recognised that pooling different academic schools of thought can often throw up solutions to problems that any of the individual disciplines could not. It follows therefore that if an individual can be well rounded and at least have some level of knowledge in an area completely outside his or her core discipliines then they to may be able to shed new light on difficult problems. This is what being a versatilist is about. As shown below its not just about specialising in different functional areas within a discipline but also across disciplnes. If these disciplines can be a mix of the arts as well as the sciences that exercise both right and left brains then so much the better.

So how should versatilists develop their skills? Here are some suggestions I give to IT students when discussing how they might survive as professionals in the 21st century world of work:

  • Objectively view experiences and roles – When you have finished an assignment note down what you learnt from it, what you could have done better and maybe ask others what they thought of your performance.
  • Look further than current roles. Today you are working on a particular project however always have in mind what you want to do next and an idea of what you want to do after that. Don’t become stereotyped, prepare to move on even if you are in an area you know well.
  • Plan opportunities and assignments – This follows on from the last one. make sure each assignment really builds on and develops your skills. Step out of your comfort zone in each new assignment.
  • Explore other possibilities. Never assume there is only one option. Think differently and look at alternatives. Like Paul Arden said, “Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite“.
  • Pursue lifelong learning – What it says. never stop exploring!
  • Identify companies that will increase professional value. Companies are out to get what they can from you. make sure you do the same with them.

So as we enter the second decade of the 21st century can we not look for more T-shaped people but start the search for V-shaped people instead? These are the ones who will really make a difference and be able to address the really wicked problems that are out there.

Versatilism and Wicked Problems

The world is full of wicked problems. As stated previously a wicked problem is one that is:

  • Unique
  • Difficult to define
  • Linked to other problems
  • Not always clear when its been solved

Some wicked problems can benefit from the reasoned application of information technology to help in solving them. Solving wicked problems needs an innovative approach and the use of design thinking. A versatilist is someone who knows how to apply design thinking and can orchestrate the skills of multiple disciplines in solving wicked problems. A versatilist is also someone who:

  • Applies both left (logical) and right (artistic) brain thinking to the problem.
  • Uses rapid prototyping to test out solutions.
  • Understands that everything is connected to everything else and that sometimes solving one problem results in many more.
  • Is not afraid to disrupt the status quo and risk ridicule from his peers.
  • Is not afraid to propose a solution to a problem before the problem is completely understood.
  • Iterates (maybe many times) rather than expecting to arrive at a solution following a (simple-minded) analysis of the problem.

The world needs more versatilists if we are to solve the truly wicked problems. Solving wicked problems is one of the things we must do if we are to build a Smarter Planet.

IT Architecture and Wicked Problems

A wicked problem is one that, for each attempt to create a solution, changes the understanding of the problem. A wicked problem exhibits one or more of these characteristics:

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution. Despite your best efforts you don’t actually know what the problem really is and developing solutions only shows up more problems.
  2. Wicked problems have no ‘stopping rule. That is to say if 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!
  3. 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’. Further, as most wicked problems tend to have lots of stakeholders involved there is not usually any mutual agreement about which of these the solution actually is.
  4. 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.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation’. You can only learn about the problem by building a potential solution but each solution is expensive and has consequences.
  6. Wicked problems have no single solution. There may be lots of solutions to a wicked problem any one of which may be right (or wrong). Its often down to personal (or collective) judgment as to which one to follow or adopt.

By reading the list of properties that wicked problems exhibit you can easily see that many (or even most) large and complex software development projects fall into the category of wicked problems. Especially those which involve many stakeholders, multiple systems and difficult social, political, and environment challenges (e.g. such as building a nations social security or health system) or re-engineering an enterprises core systems whilst still trying to run the business.

I think that the really interesting and challenging roles out there for us IT architects are in tackling some of the wicked problems that many large and complex systems engineering projects contain. In my experience it is very often not just the technological aspects of the problem that needs to be addressed but also the social, political and economic aspects as well. I think the real challenges and also key roles that IT architects will take as we move into the next decade are in bringing new and creative approaches to solving these wicked problems. I’m currently preparing a lecture to be given at a UK university next month around this theme.

Attributes of an IT Architect

I’ve recently been reviewing some course material for a further education institute here in the UK to see how well suited the material was for preparing students to enter the IT industry. This made me think about what skills we as IT architects really need to have. The following points describe (some) of the realities of working in a business/IT services company as we enter the second decade of the 21st century. They are intended to act as a reality check to enable new entrants into this profession to assess their skills. In my experience these are all skills that an effective IT architect needs to master or at least be aware of.

  1. Understand Business Drivers. Cost reduction is the number one driver for businesses. IT for the sake of IT is no longer an option for a business’ IT department (was it ever, really). IT must be seen as being responsive to the needs of the business. If IT is not seen as removing cost from the business then no business case will ever (or should ever) be signed off by the board. As a consequence of this the market for service providers is fiercely competitive and when responding to Invitations to Tender (ITT) service providers must be acutely aware of this. Bids are often won purely on price.
  2. Work With Offshore Developers. As a further consequence of 1) as much work as possible is put out to off-shore, low-cost economies. This applies to most aspects of programming, package integration, web development and test. Whilst knowledge of object-oriented techniques, Java programming etc is useful it is unlikely to be a major part of the day to day work of an IT professional in a services company. Instead we must be aware of the cultural and social differences and work effectively with these folk.
  3. Understand Complex Systems Integration. Today the really wicked problems are in the area of complex systems integration (CSI). With mergers and acquisitions (M&A) in large multi-nationals occurring regularly as well as all government departments wanting to reduce costs by merging departments or systems this is a trend that is only going to increase. As a consequence understanding how to interface between systems (at a technical level) is crucial. My colleague Jeremy Caine blogs on this topic. In particular Jeremy has a nice entry here which links this and my point 5) below.
  4. Be Aware of Organisational Aspects. A further consequence of 3) is that it is not only technical integration which is needed but also organisational integration. Dealing with the points-of-view, biases, entrenched views etc of people in organisations is often more difficult than dealing with the technical aspects.
  5. Apply Processes Pragmatically. The pressure to deliver projects quickly often means that software delivery lifecycle (SDLC) processes are by-passed, overlooked or just not followed at all. Understanding how to apply processes in a pragmatic and efficient way is key to a successful system delivery project.
  6. Manage Stakeholders Effectively. Stakeholder management is crucial to effective and successful systems development. Understanding who the stakeholders are, their motivations and interests as well as how they interact with each other is a key skill for an IT services professional.
  7. Manage Non-Functional Requirements Effectively. Whilst the industry is fairly good at gathering functional requirements it is still very bad at defining non-functional requirements (i.e. the systems qualities and constraints under which it must be built and operated). IT professionals need to understand how to gather and analyse these.
  8. Understand Package Integration. The majority of systems being built today are a combination of packages, integration with existing systems and (relatively small) bespoke development. Understanding packages (e.g. from companies like SAP, Oracle) and products (such as IBM’s WebSphere Message broker) is therefore a key skill.
  9. Apply Systems Engineering Techniques. Systems are not just about software! Understanding the people, process and deployment aspects of systems is equally, if not more important.
  10. Understand Application and Infrastructure Management Issues. Systems, once built, have to be run and maintained. Understanding how to work with infrastructure providers and application maintenance providers early on in a project is therefore crucial.
  11. Be Aware of Enterprise Level Computing. Understanding the business at an enterprise-level (i.e. business and IT enterprise architecture) rather than at just the parochial system or project level is key to delivering successful IT projects. An IT system rarely works in isolation but instead needs to operate in a complex eco-systems consisting of multiple interacting systems if the propagation of more, siloed business systems is to be avoided.
  12. Don’t Forget the Human Computer Interface. In a similar way that the process is often overlooked, the effective design of the human-computer interface (HCI) is also regularly overlooked. In a business system, where interfaces are being used all day long and a few effectively designed shortcuts can literally save hundreds of hours work.

I will return to some of these themes in future blogs.