Random Acts of Architecture

Tales of an architect trying to bring order to the chaos that is modern information technology.

Monthly Archives: January 2012

Priming for Effective Feedback

Ignoring software architects’ code, the primary deliverables of architects are technical vision and high level designs. These are rarely complete and correct in the first draft and getting feedback from stakeholders and developers is vital to their success. Indeed, the best software architects are those that consistently extract the best feedback.

The key to effectively receiving feedback is for the software architect to change his or her attitude to feedback, particularly criticism. A software architect’s job is to own the problem, not a solution and providing the best solution, even one that contains elements from others, is the goal. When people give feedback, it means they are invested enough to care about the topic. By comparison, a lack of feedback or dismissive, detail-lacking response, such as “Looks good”, usually means the document has not been read or the reviewer is not invested in its success.

First, identify why feedback is being sought on the document, presentation or similar. Be more specific than just “standard procedure”. For example, is this a customer facing document that must not include company confidential material? Meeting minutes where important details and decisions need to be captured? A radical, new, partially-developed idea to create discussion and spark other ideas? This will dictate the audience and direct their attention.

Then identify what sections or details the reviewers should focus on, particularly for larger documents. Otherwise, some will focus on “big picture” issues, spelling and grammatical errors or otherwise get distracted. If uncertain, start with a high level introduction then focus on potentially controversial aspects such as assumptions, integration points and major decisions. If a document has multiple audiences, consolidate information for different audiences into separate sections for clarity and provide context if needed.

Given the above, many send out the document as an E-mail attachment or link, cynically expecting no response. There are two issues with this. First, typing responses can take time, be prone to misunderstanding and some people just do not communicate well in this medium. Second, without an articulated deadline, many will forget about it.

The solution is to still send document as E-mail attachment or link around but organize one or more meetings or conference calls, the latter preferably with document sharing software, to discuss it. Some will still respond with questions or comments before the meeting. However, the meeting gives people a deadline to review the document by and allows those that prefer verbal feedback to do so. Not everyone will find all issues with the document and a meeting allows feedback to be shared by all members of the group and not just the reviewer, potentially sparking additional ideas. For long or detailed documents, multiple short meetings are preferable to fewer longer ones. It avoids fatigue and fits in better with busy schedules.

Indeed, feedback is a conversation, not a download. The software architect, or whomever is providing the reviewed document, must provide a timely response and to a wider audience if warranted. If the architect is not detail-oriented, enlist the aid of someone who is to help keep track. Disagreements or contradictory feedback are learning opportunities and usually the result of missing information, assumptions or different experiences. In this case, either identity the facts that all parties agree on then build up from there or use an external expert or trusted authority.

Honest feedback requires safety. Architects are often senior developers with lots of experience and can be intimidating, particularly to junior developers. Remind others that you welcome feedback and emphasize other’s contributions to the document. Paraphrase feedback to confirm understanding. Humor, if culturally acceptable, can be a great tool if not overused, too.

Feedback requires mutual respect. An architect that disrespects a reviewer is likely to dismiss their feedback without adequate explanation or justification, impacting safety as mentioned above. If the experience or knowledge gap between reviewers is high, separate the reviewers into groups of similar capabilities then adapt the document or meetings for each audience. Often those with the best feedback are those that failed at something similar because they generally know why they failed better than those that succeeded know why they succeeded.

Similarly, reviewers that disrespect the architect may use it as a point scoring opportunity. An executive or customer may dictate rather than discuss. In these cases, paraphrase the points made to ensure understanding then agree to delve into more detail later in a dedicated meeting. Strong emotion may also be symptomatic of underlying issues probably beyond the scope of the document being reviewed.

The Other Side of Software Architect Innovation

As stated previously in this blog, software architects must be innovators. They are responsible for creating a technical vision to apply new technologies to further the customers’ goals and/or reduce development costs and for high level designs. Many books, lectures, blogs and so on describe the process of innovation and are not repeated here but, when confronted with a problem, most developers and architects either work out their own solution or lazily Google something similar. However, software developers and architects, in particular, need not “reinvent the wheel”.
 
Ignoring structured learning, such as degrees and certificates, there are two ways architects can learn ways others do things. The first is to proactively listen for new information.Most software architects will already read favourite blogs or web sites, follow twitter luminaries, subscribe to magazines, read textbooks, attend conventions and so on. However, the key with information sources is efficiency – five sources providing predominantly relevant information is better than one hundred poor sources.
 
Aim for a mix of information sources, including some technical, some design, some industry commentary and some aggregators (those that provide interesting links to other sources that may only occasionally have relevant information). Review sources over time because the architect’s requirements, knowledge and expectations will change over time. Experiment with new things and plan to either remove “old favorites” or check them less often when they are no longer being consistently useful.
 
The second is to research topics when the need arises. Competitor’s products are good places to start but, unless this is a major feature, information is often sparse. Internet searches or dedicated development sites are useful but iterating synonyms is time-consuming.
 
Software architects often neglect academic texts or papers, which are particularly useful if the group is using more complex algorithms. Use Google Scholar or consider joining ACM or IEEE to access their academic paper repositories. Such papers may be dry or assume too much knowledge initially but persisting may reveal better approaches, establish common terminology and point out less explored areas suitable for potential patents or the architect’s own academic papers if he or she is so inclined.
 
Some would recommend looking at open source software. Assuming the product is chosen with care, open source software or other people’s code in general is a great source of information from obscure language features to new algorithms. However, the software architect must not copy any code verbatim or infringe patents or licenses.
 
If the problem is not solved or not solved sufficiently by prior art and the organization has a process in place, software architects should create and file patents. Arguments over whether software patents encourage or discourage innovation are irrelevant. As they say, “You cannot win the game from the sideline”. The IT industry is pursuing patents aggressively and companies that do not, such as Google with Android, now face legal challenges and hurdles. For the software architects, patents are one of the few peer-reviewed, universally available measures of creativity available. Many organizations also offer financial incentives for them, too.
 
Beyond the software architect’s products and patents, avenues for innovation include open source software, apps in app stores, writing a technical blog, conferences or academic papers. Approval may be required from the organization and social networking activity will need to comply with the organization’s policy but this can help the software architect’s personal brand and help find or precipitate conversations with like-minded individuals.
 
The single most important thing about innovation is to start. A software architect must be a technical leader but cannot lead without producing and cannot produce without starting. The first attempts may be unremarkable or unsuccessful but persistence will bear fruit.

Creating an Innovative Environment

“Innovation” appears to have joined words like “synergy” in the buzzword nomenclature but is central to a software architect’s role, whether it be creating and driving either customer impacting or cost saving innovations. Unfortunately, many software architects and developers get frustrated when new ideas, features and improvements continuously are ignored, pushed to a nebulous future release or get anemic implementations. Innovation needs an environment and culture that allows it to succeed.
 
Many organizations feel that the greatest barrier to innovation is time. After all, many software development organizations are known for time specifically devoted to innovation. Google, for example, has “Google Time” where all employees spend a day a week working on their own projects. Atlassian, an oft quoted example, has “FedEx” days  where all the development staff spend 24 hours on their own projects and present them to the group afterwards. In both cases, this is where many new products or product features originate.
 
Unfortunately, organizations focusing solely on the time allocate it, expect developers to produce wonderful, insightful and customer worthy new products and features then scrap the exercise after initial disappointments or during the next crunch time. These organizations miss three important points.
 
First, these organizations put ideas created by developers (not just product management and support issues) into their product. This means that developers need the communication and exposure to customers or be customers themselves. Atlassian writes software for developers and they use their own products (or “Eat their own dogfood” as many people say) as does Google but most organizations lack this luxury. Software architects and developers need to create communication channels where they can get this information time efficiently. For example, start with requiring developers to use the product for basic tasks when they first join the team then periodically do manual testing in realistic environments (in addition to that done by QA) and have regular lunches with support.
 
Ideally, have architects and senior developers talk with customers directly, such as attending a support call or a conference. Development teams often receive a skewed view of the product consisting of support incidents and requirements from a few important, vocal customers only. Developers and architects ask different questions than non-technical people and hear the same answers with different ears. Even simple act of architects and developers watching customers use the product can reveal incorrect UI assumptions.
 
Build opt-in telemetry into the product, too. Two of the biggest issues with successful innovation are the self-supporting bias, where people over-estimate their own contributions to successes and under-estimate their part in failures, and the confirmation bias, where people interpret facts to support their own existing conclusions. Telemetry does not replace product management’s vision or support’s intuition but effective telemetry provides the most accurate information about what features are used, how often by when and by whom, particularly during A/B testing.
 
Second, innovative organizations have easily extensible or modifiable products, usually by people outside the development team responsible for that feature. No commercial software is ever perfect but the biggest hurdle to innovation execution is getting product quality to a manageable level and stopping endless “fire fighting”. This is particularly difficult on products with a small, maintenance staff or those with overly ambitious deadlines and usually requires extensive automated unit testing, refactoring, documentation and possibly new tools.
 
The team must also have room in the backlog (scheduled modifications or enhancements, some beyond the current release, for those unfamiliar with the agile term). Even brilliant ideas will have difficulty competing if the team has years of work outstanding or over-committed to customers. The team needs to focus, create a more effective and transparent prioritization mechanism and reign in the sales organization.
 
Third, innovation, when it occurs, must also be communicated and shared. If only the immediate manager knows about it, much of its value is lost. Similarly, innovation must be expected and rewarded with goals set, tracked and judged like other performance goals.
 
Software architects and development are not the only source of innovation, either. The best customer impacting innovations come from those that understand both the customer and the technology or product. Software architects are in a prime position to drive product and technology information to others that may innovate such as technical product management, professional services, support leads, architects from other products.
 
Software architects and developers must take responsibility to drive change throughout their organization. Organizations’ inertia often makes this a challenge but innovation does not spontaneously occur in a vacuum. As usual, start small, advertise successes and persist.
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