Random Acts of Architecture

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

Tag Archives: Communication

Rebranding Corporate Politics

politicsThe term “corporate politics” conjures up images of sycophantic, self-serving behavior like boot-licking and backstabbing. However, to some IT professionals’ chagrin, we work with humans as much as computers. Dismissing humans is dismissing part of the job.

The best way to “play” corporate politics is solve big problems by doing things you enjoy and excel at.

“Big problems” means problems faced not just by your team but by your boss’s boss, your boss’s boss’s boss and so on. If you don’t know what they are, ask (easier than it sounds). Otherwise, attend all hands meetings, read industry literature or look at your leaders’ social network posts, particularly internal ones.

This is not just for those wanting promotions into management. Individual contributors still want better benefits and higher profile or challenging projects. These come easiest to those known to be providing value and not the strict meritocracy some IT professionals think they work in.

Start by solving small problems as side projects. Choose something impacting more than your own team and minimize others’ extra work. Build up to bigger problems once you have demonstrated ability and credibility.

You need not be the leader. Assisting others making an effort can be just as effective. You can own part of it or bask in the halo effect. If not, recognize those that are. This creates a culture of recognition that may recognize you in the future.

While some IT professionals solve big problems everyday, communicating and evangelizing their work “feels” wrong. This what salespeople do, not IT professionals. Many also think their work is not interesting.

Being successful requires people knowing what you do. This may be as simple as a short elevator chat, a brown bag talk or a post on the corporate social network. It also helps get early feedback and build a like-minded team. Others will be interested if you are working on the right things.

What about the potentially less savory aspects of corporate politics like work social events, sharing common interests with management, supporting corporate charities and so on? These are as much an art as a science. Focus on common goals and building trust, internally and externally. People like to deal with people at their level and contact builds familiarity.

However, this is no substitute for solving big problems. If you are delivering value, interactions with senior decision makers and IT professionals with similar goals should occur naturally. Build on that.

Be aware that problems change over time. Problems get solved by others. The market changes. Competitors come and go. Understanding organizational goals is an ongoing process.

Also realize decision makers are human. They make mistakes. They want to emphasize their achievements and not their failures, just like software developers’ fundamental attribute error bias for their own code and against others’.

However, if your organization makes decisions regularly on “political” grounds, leave. Culture is rarely changed from the ground up and many organizations are looking for good IT staff.

Ignoring the worse case scenario and IT professionals’ bias against self evangelism, the biggest problem with “corporate politics” is actually its name. The concepts behind “agile” and “technical debt” came into common usage once the correct metaphor was found. Corporate politics needs rebranding from something avoided to a tool that IT professionals use to advance themselves. It badly needs a dose of optimism and open mindedness.

Image credit: http://thebluediamondgallery.com/p/politics.html. Usage under CC BY-SA 3.0.

InfoSec: Not just for hackers

everybody-needs-a-hackerI recently read Troy Hunt’s blog post on careers in information security. Troy makes good points about information security as a potential career and the benefits of certifications like the Certified Ethical Hacker. Hackers are getting increasingly sophisticated, requiring specific knowledge to counter, and cryptography is hard. We need more information security specialists.

However, one criticism of the post, indeed the information security industry, is its implication hacking is the sole information security career path. This binary viewpoint – you are either a security person or not and there is only one “true” information security professional – does more harm than good.

Hacking is technology focused. However, security’s scope is not just technical. Information security needs people that can articulate security issue impact, potential solutions and their cost in terms non-security people can understand. This requires expertise and credibility in multiple disciplines from individual contributor level to management to boardrooms.

Security solutions are not just technical. We live in societies governed by laws. These can be standardized government security requirements as FedRAMP or IRAP. These can be contractual obligations like PCI-DSS, covering credit card transactions. These can hold organizations accountable, like mandatory breach disclosure legislation, or protect or privacy, like the European Union’s Data Protection laws. Effective legislation requires knowledge of both law and information security and the political nous to get it enacted.

We are also surrounded by financial systems. Financial systems to punish those with weak security and reward those with good security will only evolve if we (consumers and investors) value security more. Cyber insurance has potential. Cryptographic technologies like bitcoin and block chain algorithms are threatening to disrupt the financial sectors. Information security has and will continue to impact finance.

The list goes on. Law enforcement needs to identify, store and present cybercrime evidence to juries and prosecute under new and changing laws. Hospitals and doctors want to take advantage of electronic health records..

The security technology focus drives people away non-technology people. In a world crying out for diversity and collaboration, the last thing information security needs is people focusing solely inward on their own craft, reinforcing stereotypes of shady basement dwellers, and not on systems security enables.

Bringing this back to software, many organizations contract or hire in information security experts. Unfortunately, the OWASP Top 10 changed little from 2010 to 2013 and some say is unlikely to change in the 2016 call for data. According to the Microsoft Security Intelligence Report, around half of serious, industry wide problems are from applications. Developers make the same mistakes again and again.

Education is one solution – security literate developers will avoid or fix security issues themselves. A better solution is tools and libraries that are not vulnerable in the first place, moving security from being reactive to proactive. For example, using an Object-Relational Mapping library or parameterized queries instead of string substitution for writing SQL.

Unfortunately, security people often lack skills to contribute to development and design beyond security. While information security touches many areas, information security expertise is not development (or networking or architecture or DevOps) expertise.

Information security needs different perspectives to succeed. As Corey House, a Puralsight author like Troy Hunt says in his course Becoming an Outlier, one route to career success is specialization. Information security is a specialization for everyone to consider, not just hackers.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/adulau/8442476626

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.

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.

Working Remotely and Successfully

A software architect is a difficult role at the best of times, particularly when working in a different office, time zone or country to the development team, other architects or management. In this case, architects miss the “water cooler” and “hallway” conversations and, unfortunately, “out of sight” is often “out of mind”. Much of what follows applies to non-software architect positions, too.

To be successful, remote architects must first create an environment where they are involved. A regular 1am team meeting on Saturday, for example, is neither sustainable nor fair. The team and its management need to adjust. Share minutes or notes for those that cannot attend meetings, too.

Remote architects must use meeting time effectively. They must know what information they need, who they are going to ask and follow it up afterwards. Regularly ask what team members are doing, such as training, travelling or talking to customers. Make time for small talk and rapport building, too.

Apply this to wider communications, too. Move away from E-mails for distributing documents and move to a common repository, like SharePoint or a Wiki so everyone can see what others are working on in addition to helping with versioning, auditing and knowing where the latest version is, and use an approved instant messaging system. When communicating, use a communication mechanism that targets the widest appropriate audience, such as a Wiki, and send notifications or links via traditional mechanisms, like E-mail.

Video conferencing is not as useful as many would claim. Skype and similar products suffer from the lower bandwidth and higher latency of international Internet connections. Professional telepresence systems like HP Halo are like being in the same room but can be difficult with people in different time zones or those that live or work away from the office.

Ensure the team travels to a central location for face-to-face meetings several times a year, too. If the organization cannot afford to bring important team members together for face-to-face meetings, an organization cannot afford to have remote employees. The critical aspect is not the meetings but the lunches, the drinks in the bar afterwards and relationship building, something video conferencing lacks.

During this “non-work” time, identify common interests with other team members, such as sport or similar aged children, and share them. Add the human element back into the team. As a previous workmate of mine once said, “You need to build a relationship before you can do business“.

Remote architects must recruit allies. Architects should talk regularly with their management, ensuring they understand their wants and needs, including up the management chain. Even the best communicators chronically under communicate with remote peers or subordinates, so remote team members must accept that their immediate manager cannot provide them all the information they require. They should talk to their peers and others outside their team, advertising their contributions and strengths, and create mutually beneficial relationships

Remote architects should do something interesting, professionally or not, and share it. Write up a few paragraphs and E-mail it to the team after attending conferences. Work on an open source project, join a local interest group or tutor a local college class.

Remote architects should make an effort to help others within the organization. For example, if someone wants a document proof read or reviewed, take the time to send intelligent comments through and carbon copy (CC) the rest of the team for visibility. Publicly give credit and thanks to others who help you with internal organizational reward systems, if they exist. Laugh at and remember other people’s jokes. Making people feel included will include the remote architect in the process.

Remote architects should get involved in projects outside their area or team. Many large organizations have discussion groups or committees, such as strategy or  review committees. Participating introduces the architect to new people, exposes his or her ideas to wider audiences and, once again, builds relationships.

Most importantly, remote architects should make an effort not to fall behind. They should do  training or otherwise become known as  experts in a field or a product, drawing them  into discussions about this area or product. Volunteer for new projects, particularly high-profile ones, and work hard to make them successful.

Ultimately, the success of a remote software architect is the architect’s responsibility. not the manager or team. This is the ultimate example of “managing your manager” and, if done right, allows an architect to enjoy a compromise of life style and professional success.

Who Needs a Software Architect?

Small teams of senior people working on a well understood problems with known tools and little integration or dependencies on other applications do not need architects. This covers a significant proportion of line of business applications written today. However, there comes a point where cracks appear. There is no well understood threshold for a team size or a product’s complexity to require a software architect – no two individuals, teams, products or deadlines are the same, so what works well for one may not work for the other. However, there are four indicators or “smells” that a software architect is needed.

First, the product either lacks or does not meet non-functional requirements such as scalability, performance or security. Product Managers (PMs) or other customer advocates rarely articulate such requirements and, when they do, usually articulate them poorly or give them too low a priority. A software architect can balance the customer or business requirements with technical ones and provide the technical foundation to meet the customer requirements.

Second, the product lacks technical vision. Enterprise applications rarely exist in a vacuum. They need to integrate with other applications, often share components and need to lay the foundation to make likely future changes easier. Useful new components, frameworks or libraries may become available that allow the team to focus on business value and not solved problems, especially for older products (i.e. 10 years+). The industry may trend toward different platforms (e.g. mobile) or business models (e.g. cloud). Development teams are often too focused on the current release of the current product to take a step back and few others have the technical knowledge required, unlike a software architect.

Third, the development group has poor interteam communication and collaboration. Effective communication is easy for small teams of three to five people. This is much harder if the group has several hundred members in different continents and time zones. Effective cross team management may be difficult because individual team leads are usually focused on their own teams and the common management point may be a director or even an executive who has bigger problems on his or her mind and lacks the required technical focus. A software architect can divide the work and act as a coordinator between teams.

Communication with development teams outside the group is also critical. A development group often needs someone with broad rather than deep knowledge to evangelize their product(s) or identify integration points or sharable code. Once again, team leaders are usually too focused on their teams,  directors are often too removed from the technical details and individual developers find the higher, longer term views too distant from actual code. A software architect usually has better communication skills, the right breadth of product knowledge and understands its technical vision. Similarly, non-technical but development-related teams like user interface designers, documentation writers or localization require someone with a broad technical knowledge and a customer focus.

Fourth, the group has unclear requirements or problem domains. Relatively few teams boast many subject matter experts or developers that use their software like their customers, particularly in junior teams, remote teams or those with a high turnover. PMs are often focused on dealing with customers or support issues rather than communicating detailed requirements to every developer. They also may not understand what the developers do not know and so provide too little or too detailed information. This process is also ongoing due to turn over and changing market conditions. Lastly, requirements also change as the project progresses, whether due to changing customer requirements, competitive landscape or just learning more about the problem.

These are traditionally areas where business analysts (BA) rather than software architects are used and can be used in tandem with a software architect. However, one exception is where business requirements may have unclear technical ramifications and feasibility, such a compliance with industry standards or regulations. Federal Information Process Standard (FIPS) 140-2 or Common Criteria require changes and documentation at many levels of detail which an architect is better suited to than a BA.

Note that software architects do not solve all problems with development. In particular, they highlight or exacerbate political or organizational problems when they try to bring stakeholders together or reconcile conflicting decisions and requirements. This may be intentional (to drive change) but is not sustainable in the long term.

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