Weeknote 17/2021: not yet digitally transformed

This week I’ve been struggling to focus but still moved a few things forwards. I also kept bumping up against some bizarre (non) efforts at “digital transformation”, courtesy of Standard Life (abrdn), Costco and the UK Government.

This week’s highlights included:

  • Realising that digital transformation hasn’t reached Costco UK yet – and no membership card means no entry and no shopping:

Looking ahead to the (long) weekend, I have no races to take the eldest teenager to and the weather ins’t looking wonderful. So, just the usual Youth Cycle Coaching on Saturday and, hopefully, some relaxing and pottering at “geek stuff” in the Man Cave…

This week in photos

No Insta’ from me yet this week (maybe there will be over the long weekend) so here’s a Line of Duty meme instead:

Weeknote 16/2021: look after yourself – and watch out for friends and family too…

Most importantly, this week:

  • I was reminded not to take family members’ health for granted. Also, that the NHS has many problems but a) is staffed by some truly wonderful people and b) I’m really, really glad it’s there when we need it.
  • I was also reminded that I have some really supportive friends and colleagues. You know who you are. Thank you.

Lower down the hierarchy of needs:

  • I finally got the (Enterprise) Architecture as a Service service that I’ve wanted to launch off the ground. After years of thinking that it might be useful for clients to have access to someone for a day or two a month, it seems that a couple of days a week is more useful – it’s actually time to do something meaningful. Anyway, it’s given Thom McKiernan (@ThomMcK) an opportunity to go back on site.
  • Related to above, I found I’m a little jealous of colleagues who get to visit clients and interact with humans again. I don’t want it every day – just one or twice a week would be nice.
  • I was frustrated to find that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is very misunderstood – and all too often given as a reason for not doing something, with no apparent knowledge of what the regulation covers.
  • A client project underlined that, even when using SaaS, you still have to plan for and take action around upcoming changes… such as the upcoming retirement of Microsoft Skype for Business Online.
  • I sold a bike. It felt odd:
  • Related to above, I found that Facebook Marketplace is a strange mixture of nice, normal people, and some very odd individuals who didn’t seem to understand why I wouldn’t accept their low offer when I had plenty of interest at the asking price.
  • My weekend activities were mostly cycling-related: riding in the sunshine; transporting my son to/from an XC MTB race; youth coaching, and marshalling at a road race (where my son was also racing).

This week in photos

Weeknote 15/2021: Jabbed!

This week (last week)’s weeknote is a few days late, so here’s what I learned in week 15 of 2021:

  • It’s hard coming back to work after taking a complete break for 10 days.
  • Autonomy over your calendar is a really important part of wellbeing.
  • Flesch-Kincaid readability tests are just a number, but we tend to overestimate people’s reading ability:
  • Email, Teams and other “productivity” tools are real “time hoovers” and reactive working is highly stressful. I’m increasing of the view that such tools hinder productivity in favour of reactiveness. It seems that I’m not alone.
  • The Microsoft Dynamics 365 HR app for Teams is a much better way to access holiday request info than natively in Dynamics. I did laugh at the message that “Human Resources sent a card” though:
Sample of the Microsoft Dynamics 365 HR app in Microsoft Teams
  • How to be a good colleague in Ramadan – Ramadan Mubarak!
  • Not to rely on the NHS COVID Vaccination site to send notifications of bookings, even when given a phone number and email address. I had to ring 119 and navigate minutes of menus before a very helpful human gave me my reference numbers to make changes. It took around 48 hours for the text message/email to arrive, quickly followed by updated ones for new appointments. I suspect there may be some CSV files and batch jobs in the background… especially as a friend who had a recent birthday was “not 45 enough” to book her vaccination.
  • Emailing and asking for someone to do something by Close of Business that day, then emailing at 15:45 and asking them to do it by 16:30 is probably using the wrong channels and setting the wrong expectations…
  • Don’t underestimate the value of your network for presenting new opportunities.
  • Three pints of IPA may be a good way to avoid side effects of the Oxford-Astra Zeneca COVID-19 vaccine (based on my not at all scientific sample size of one)!

This (last) week in photos

Weeknote 14/2021: A week off work

This week has been spent at home. Mostly. It also involved some time wrapped in blankets in friends’ and family’s gardens, as England and Wales return to some degree of limited socialisation but northerly winds mean it’s still pretty chilly. Actually, it was snowing as I started to write this blog post.

As I mentioned last week, there were a few things planned for my time away from work. I celebrated a birthday on Monday. I had the final assessment for my First Aid Essentials in Sport certification on Tuesday. Then, Saturday was my first experience of coaching a group of young people to help them develop their cycling skills. It was… interesting. Oh well, they do say that practise makes perfect…

This week in tech

I haven’t really got much to report this week from the world of tech except:

  • After helping my youngest son out with renewing his Xbox Live Gold subscription (hint: CDkeys is your friend), he found that some updates in Minecraft were conflicting with the Windows Family Safety settings. That can be a minefield, but the error message directed me to the “Minecraft Realms and Multiplayer Troubleshooting” page on the Microsoft website, which helped me adjust the settings. The “I’m Getting an Error When Trying to Play Multiplayer with a Child Account” page makes it even easier to work out what to change, although I was able to leave the Privacy settings as they were (so only his friends can contact him by voice or text). Kudos to Microsoft for making it easy to work out what we needed to do.
  • I also got pretty frustrated with the limitations on my Apple Watch pairing with various old iPhones (or not). The end result is, I’m still selling my iPhone 8 Plus (which still has some residual value) and I’ve bought an iPhone SE for my wife. Expect to see a blog post here soon on the fun and games of moving cross-platform (I switched to Android when I bought a Samsung Galaxy S20 last year). Spoiler: don’t do it unless you really like messing around with tech and various platform lock-ins.
  • Apps asking for feedback really should be more considerate about when they interrupt your workflow:
  • Vodafone let us know that our monthly broadband is going up by £3 a month and by 3.9% above inflation. Apparently, that’s to cover the extra costs of running their network, but it seems to something that many providers are doing now…

Elsewhere in my life

Without going into specific details about my family’s medical history, Mark Booth at Body Limits is bloody brilliant. After just one session with Mark, my son could feel a tremendous difference in the knee pain he had been suffering whilst cycling.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure if carpentry and power tools are “tech” or not, but:

  • I found that drilling holes through plywood can easily split the face of the wood. The trick is to stop, just as the centre of the drill starts to emerge, and then use that centre hole to drill back in the opposite direction.
  • This video was handy as I fought with a jigsaw I’d borrowed from a friend. I had seriously started to doubt my blade-fitting abilities as I got through four of them to slice a sizable hole between two sets of shelves:

More thoughts on hybrid and remote working

I’ve been pretty open about my thoughts on remote and hybrid working and it’s only a few months since I wrote this post musing about the future of the office. This week, I saw The Economist had an interesting video on some of the challenges of working from home:

I was particularly pleased to see they called out having good home working facilities as a privilege many do not have and the consequential need for hybrid working (not just remote). Meanwhile, for those who can go fully remote, The Republic of Croatia is offering a Digital Nomad visa for a year

Back in Blighty, my friend Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) was finally pushed over the edge with one online meeting too many:

“By removing the last filter of meeting organisation, the meeting room, we probably are organising more meetings than ever before.”

Matt Ballantine: “Zoomed Out”

And, as for the impact of remote work on our mental health… maybe let’s consider it’s not just remote working that’s been introduced to our lives over the last 13 months but also a whole load of other restrictions on social contact:

This week in photos

Weeknote 13/2021: Project progress and procrastination

This has been a short week (with only 3 days at work) but I’m pretty pleased with what I achieved in that time:

  • Publishing the Architecture Toolbox I’ve been working on for a few months. That sounds a bit grand for what’s really just a library of re-usable artefacts but, hey! I finally realised that I can’t do everything (perfection is the enemy of good) so it’s time to let it fly and let others contribute…
  • Starting to get under the covers of a new engagement with a local authority client where we’re carrying out some digital service design. It’s fascinating for me to learn from my colleague Richard Quayle (@RichardSQuayle) around concepts like the locus of control, the negatives of a command and control structure (cf. Edward Deming’s approach), failure demand – and much more as we jointly deliver this Business Consulting engagement.
  • A very insightful chat with a client where we’re looking to engage around an Architecture service. It was refreshing to hear that they find TOGAF too conceptual and want to take a more pragmatic approach around EA on a Page (which I referenced in my post on developing IT architecture skills).

I’ve struggled with procrastination/distraction this week too. The challenges of back to back online meetings are obvious but it seems meetings spaced out through the day can be equally problematic. The challenge is that they leave no time to really get into flow before the next meeting is due.

Anyway, both of these cartoons resonated with me…

(in the week that a the MV Ever Given got stuck and closed the Suez Canal, for 6 days.)

Back in the world of work, Alex (@LyleD4D)’s lateral thinking let me embed an msteams:// link in a SharePoint page, by changing the protocol section of the URI to https://.

Meanwhile, my colleague Richard Kleiser (@ThatRichK) introduced me to this diagram from Dave Clarke, which attempts to visualise the concept of Enterprise Architecture:

And that reminds me of something I meant to mention in last week’s weeknote – Rich Goidel (@RichGoidel)’s Strategy vs. Tactics cartoon, which featured in my Microsoft Catalyst pre-sales training:

I also started to see the direction that motoring is heading in. As electrification reduces revenues from servicing, software will become the next subscription opportunity.

Although it was probably intended as an April Fool, What Two Figures (WTF) pretty much sums up my feelings about What Three Words.

Outside work, the UK’s easing of “lockdown” restrictions saw the return to Caveman Conditioning – training outdoors again instead of over Zoom!

I also completed some online learning around First Aid Essentials in Sport. This is a requirement for my certification as a British Cycling coach but I’ve struggled to complete an approved course during “lockdown”.

A look ahead to the weekend

This weekend will see me:

  • Meeting up with another family for a country walk (something we’ve not been able to do for a while!).
  • Returning to Youth Training at my local cycle club (the first time we’ve been able to run a session since I became a coach).
  • Resuming Cyclist’s Dad/Directeur Sportif duties as my eldest son returns to racing.

It will probably also involve consumption of Easter Eggs (I did buy rather a lot of Creme Eggs this week).

Talking of Creme Eggs, Natalie Jackson (@NatalieDellar) alerted me to this post with “groovy things to do with Crème Eggs“.

And next week…

In addition to celebrating the 49th anniversary of my arrival on this planet, next week will be mostly spent at home including some time doing geeky hobby stuff in the Man Cave. There will also be the final assessment for my First Aid Essentials in Sport certification (which will be interesting over a Zoom call, to which I’ve been asked to bring a pillow and a bandage!).

This week in photos

Weeknote 12/2021: IT architecture, design thinking and hybrid work

I’ve tried writing weeknotes a few time over the years and they have been pretty sporadic. So, let’s give it another go… this should probably be weeknote 28 (or something like that) but it seems last year I named them after the week number in the year… so let’s try that again.

Because I haven’t done this for a while, let’s add some bonus notes for last week too…

Last week:

This week:

  • I published my long-form blog post on developing IT architecture skills, spun out from conversations with Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) but also part of the work I’m doing to develop my team at risual.
  • My technical training was interrupted to complete the Microsoft Catalyst pre-sales training. It started off as what I may have described as a “buzzword-filled gamified virtual learning experience”. Then, I started to learn some consulting skills as Rudy Dillenseger brought Design-Led Thinking (aka Design Thinking) to life.
  • It was interesting to see Microsoft recommending the use of Klaxoon with Teams when facilitating remote workshops, which made me speculate about the future of Microsoft Whiteboard.
  • Was a week of virtual calls – even in the evenings. I had Zoom calls with British Cycling and for some financial advice but also a really pleasurable couple of hours on Signal chatting with an old mate I haven’t seen or spoken to in a while, who now lives overseas. It was definitely one of those moments when I appreciated a good friendship and it made me think “we should do this more often”.
  • Just when I thought I’d handed off some project management duties to a real PM, they bounced back at me like a boomerang…
  • The UK Government’s comments on returning to work (ahem, we have been working, just not in the office) reminded me of a post I wrote at the start of the year. Hybrid working is the future folks – we ain’t going back to 2019

The last couple of weeks’ photos

Developing IT architecture skills

In a recent post, I looked at the topic of IT architecture from the perspective of what it is and why it’s not all about technology. For brevity, I decided to hold off on the next logical step, which developing the associated skills. So now it’s time to revisit the topic.

What skills does an Architect need?

In my first post, I made the distinction between Technical, Solution and Enterprise Architects and it’s clear that the skills, experience and knowledge will vary as across roles. There are some common things we can look at though, including:

  • Industry skills frameworks.
  • Formal certifications.
  • Other skills and knowledge.

It’s quite common to talk about T-shaped individuals, as they grow out of their domain expertise and gain some breadth. An Architect really does need to be more than T-shaped. They need to know a little bit about a lot of things – to be comb-shaped. If it’s not immediately clear what I mean, imagine a comb, with each tooth representing some knowledge on a different topic.

Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA)

Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) claims to be “the global skills and competency framework for a digital world”. I’m not a fan. In my opinion, it’s overly wordy and feels like it was designed by committee. It’s also true that part of the reason I chose to leave a previous employer was a decision about SFIA grading, so I may be bitter.

My current employer also uses SFIA, and I can see the advantages when selling into the UK public sector. And I do have to concede that the SFIA skills definitions are actually useful when defining Solution Architect and Enterprise Architect roles:

It’s interesting that Enterprise and Business Architecture is labelled STPL. Perhaps it was called something like Strategic Planning in the past? That would be very appropriate (although Strategic Planning is labelled ITSP… so who knows).

There are other skills that may be useful for an architect. Candidates include:

And, depending on the organisation (e.g. working for a service provider, rather than in-house), maybe Consultancy (CNSL) too.

But this is where SFIA falls down. It’s so broad and encompassing that we don’t know where to stop: IT Management (ITMG)? Innovation (INOV)? Information Security (SCTY)? We could spend forever assessing people against many skills, but does it really move us forwards?

What SFIA does though, is provide a reference for what these terms mean and some pointers of what to expect at different levels.

Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) Professional Capability Framework

Because we can never have too many standards, the UK Government came up with another framework for defining roles and the skills that are needed to perform them. That framework is known as DDaT – the Digital, Data and Technology Professional Capability Framework. Unlike, SFIA, DDaT is quite light, but possibly more relevant to the “digital” world.

DDaT doesn’t define a Solution Architect or an Enterprise Architect. Instead, it further muddies the water by defining various levels of Technical Architect, as well as Data Architect, Network Architect, and Security Architect. It also has a role of Technical Specialist Architect which seems to be some kind of ill-defined catch-all. I would suggest that the DDaT Technical Specialist Architect is some sort of specialist and probably not an Architect!

The “value” of certifications

Certifications are not everything, but they can help demonstrate having achieved a certain level of knowledge/experience. It’s worth noting that certifications are important to managed service partners as they are a factor in the partner competencies that a company holds. For some roles, they may also be important at an individual level, but they become less so as we tread the Architect development path.

Any technical certifications required for an architecture role will depend on context. The team I lead works predominantly with clients who have significant investments in Microsoft technology. For this reason, I ask every Architect (at all levels) to study for and pass all of the Microsoft Fundamentals series of exams.

At the time of writing there are six exams:

A seventh exam is in beta:

Some team members may have other certifications, but this is the base level. If I led an architecture practice working with clients who had a different focus, the list might have been focused on Amazon Web Services (AWS) or another technology stack entirely.

It’s also helpful to have awareness of competing technologies. In my case, I want the Microsoft-focused Architects to also have a foundational knowledge of AWS. That’s why I became an AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner (CCP).

But this is where the technical list ends. There is a Microsoft certification named Microsoft Azure Solutions Architect Expert but I consider it to be an oxymoron. It is my experience that the exams that lead to the award of this certification focus too much on detailed knowledge of Azure (the expert part) and have very little to do with architecture. They have breadth and depth within a single domain and in order to maintain the knowledge, it would be necessary to spend a lot of time working with the technology. That is certainly valuable in a technical role but it is not solution architecture (as discussed in my previous post).

Whilst the BCS has some examples of solution architecture certifications, they require attendance of formal training, which drives up the cost considerably. In fairness, there is a self-study option but it has no published learning path – just a reading list. Aside from these, I’ve struggled to identify good solution architecture certifications (I’m open to suggestions) but there is lots of reading that can be done.

One such area is around enterprise integration patterns but it’s worth absorbing the contents of the major cloud providers’ Architecture Centers too:

It’s also worth gaining some experience in other domains – for example, IT Service Management. This is why I have included ITIL Foundation certification on the development path for my team. I’m also considering whether a Business Analysis certification might be worthwhile, as well as knowledge of something like Lean Six Sigma.

And then there’s knowledge of Enterprise Architecture frameworks. It’s now 9 years since I took my TOGAF exam and I’ve not really had much opportunity to deploy that knowledge. Far more useful has been building out a set of artefacts around Svyatoslav Kotusev (@Kotusev)’s Enterprise Architecture on a Page.

I was also a Chartered IT Professional (CITP) for a while. Unfortunately, I found that it was not recognised or required by clients and it offered few, if any, benefits. It cost me quite a lot (both to become certified and for the ongoing fees). I couldn’t justify it to myself, so why expect my employer to pay? For that reason, I let it lapse.

It’s probably clear by now that I have mixed feelings about the value of certification for Architects. It can certainly help in some areas and it can demonstrate some knowledge (literally, getting the badge). But, for a Solution or Enterprise Architect, I’d be more interested to hear about their methods and approaches than the certifications they hold.

Other skills and knowledge

Soft skills are critical to success as an Architect and these are wide-ranging. First on the list is excellent written and verbal communication skills. The Architect needs to be able to present confidently, to a wide audience – both technical and non-technical. They need to forge relationships, manage stakeholders and exercise powers of persuasion and influence. They also need to be commercially aware. There’s a really good list of soft skills for architects in this post by Arnon Rotem-gal-oz (@arnonrgo). Arnon’s post is thirteen years old now but seems to have stood the test of time. In it, he outlines six key areas:

  • Leadership: acting as a technical manager for a project, influencing, guiding and directing others (who are often not direct reports) towards the same shared vision.
  • Systems thinking: understanding the “big picture” as well as the interdependence and interactions between components – how they operate independently and as a whole.
  • Strategic thinking: understanding the context that the solution sits within – how it supports the organisation’s goals and meets different stakeholders’ needs – balancing these needs to create a robust solution.
  • Organisational politics: Architects are logical thinkers – their decision making is based on analysing a set of options and picking the best one – except that in any organisation there will be other factors that apply non-rational influences to the decision making processes.
  • Communications: I’ve mentioned this already, but I cannot understate its importance. It’s not just about writing and presenting too – storytelling and negotiation are also key.
  • Human relations: covering team dynamics (how the team behaves at different stages of development), personal dynamics (motivations and personality types) and pragmatism (recognising when to let others have their way).

When I was writing this, I asked Matt Ballantine @Ballantine70 for his input. Matt reminded me of a post he wrote about CIO traits you won’t see on a job spec: curiosity; humility; and empathy. These are just as relevant to an Architect.

We need the curiosity to explore new things – not just new technologies but also new ways of doing business. Question why things are done as they are. What if we changed this? Could a new process help there? Could technology replace this manual process? What about our business partners and the way we integrate with them? Do the services we provide meet the needs of our end customers?

Humility is important too. The point is that the Architect is not an expert. They know a lot and they know how to put the pieces together – or if not, they can work out an approach. But it’s fine to say “I don’t know” sometimes. Actually, say “I don’t know but I have an idea how to find out” – and don’t do it too often. A little humility is good, but not so much that it calls your ability into doubt.

Empathy is essential. Understand the impact that what you’re doing has on others. Maybe the reason they are resistant to the change you want to implement is that they are concerned about the impact. Try to see things from other perspectives: is there another way to do it? Can we change something to make it more acceptable?

Back in 2017, I wrote about people change management and the ADKAR model. We need to understand people’s motivations in order to drive successful changes. Take them on a journey and help them to adapt. As Matt says in his post:

“If you are going to be successful in delivering new things, you have to be able to manage the balance of changing technologies and changing people’s behaviours.”

Ideal CIO Personality Traits, Matt Ballantine

Creating a development path

So I’ve come up with a huge shopping list of skills for our “comb-shaped” Architect and, clearly, they won’t all appear overnight. It may be useful to think about architecture skills in the form of a development path.

The first thing to understand is where we’re coming from. What skills does the person who wants to be an Architect already possess? Have they got experience in another role that could be relevant – perhaps they’ve already worked in IT Service, or Project Management, or as a Business Analyst?

Once you know the starting point, look at the target. Define the skills and experience that are needed, identify the gaps, and plan to fill them.

There’s a common misconception that Architects need to be über-technical but I would say not. At this point I should say this is not my first rodeo. (I have been burned by this point on Twitter in the past). Some people will argue that domain knowledge is needed – and that is true, but not at a deep level. And technology can be learned.

In my experience, some Architects can find it difficult to extract themselves from technology. Whereas taking someone from a different discipline (such as Business Analysis or Technical Project Management) and training them to understand how the parts fit together can work well.

What should the development path include? I’d suggest that there should be a mixture of things, but it could be something like this:

Technical Architect

A Technical Architect has broad domain knowledge. For example a Software Architect should look to develop an understanding of software development tools, methods and approaches.

Their experience may expand across multiple industries/market sectors.

They may have expertise in one technology stack (e.g. Microsoft .NET or Java) but they should be actively looking to increase their breadth and this will necessarily impact their depth of knowledge.

They should be able to communicate concepts and ideas to technical and non-technical stakeholders in a manner that’s easily understood, and they should understand the impact of their part of the solution on others.

Solution Architect

Able to guide the design and development of solutions that meet current and future business needs, eliciting requirements and determining the necessary logical components to create a solution.

A Solution Architect will take account of relevant architectures, strategies, policies, standards and practices. They will also ensure that existing and planned solution components remain compatible.

They will have experience across multiple domains and, normally, experience across multiple industries/sectors.

They will have excellent written and verbal communications skills. They will be able to present complex information, clearly, to both technical and non-technical audiences. They should demonstrate many of the soft skills discussed above.

They may also have experience of IT Service Management, Business Analysis or another discipline.

Enterprise Architect

Able to create and maintain business and enterprise architectures including the key principles, methods and models that describe the organisation’s future state, and that enable its evolution. These architectures support the formation of the constraints, standards and guiding principles necessary to define, assure and govern the evolution, and so facilitate change in the organisation’s structure, business processes, systems and infrastructure in order to achieve a predictable transition to the intended state.

An Enterprise Architect will interpret business goals and drivers; and translate business strategy and objectives into an “operating model”. This may include: the strategic assessment of current capabilities; the identification of required changes in capabilities; and the description of relationships between people, organisation, service, process, data, information, technology and the external environment.

An EA will have experience with one or more EA frameworks and will regularly make use of associated artefacts.

They should have excellent leadership skills, and should be able to inspire people in transforming the organisation to move to the target operating model. They must be comfortable in discussions with the C-Suite. To do this, they will need a complete toolkit of soft skills and the ability to deploy them appropriately.

In conclusion…

I hope this (rather long) post has given some insight into some of the skills that may be useful for a career in (IT) architecture and how to develop them.

Please let me know your thoughts – especially if you know of resources that can be useful to others who are developing skills as an architect.

Thanks to Matt Ballantine for his help in collecting my thoughts and ideas into something that almost flows (even if it is a bit long for a blog post).

Featured image by Crisco 1492 from Wikimedia Commons, licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence (CC BY-SA 4.0).

What is IT architecture?

I’ve been having a few conversations recently about what IT architecture is – both from the perspective of developing the practice that I run at risual and from conversations with others who are looking to develop an IT architecture capability in their organisations. It’s become abundantly clear to me that the term means different things to different people and is often abused. And that’s without considering that leading figures in construction would argue that IT folks shouldn’t be using the name “Architect” at all!

To be fair, it seems that even (construction) Architects are arguing over whether someone is an Architect or not. Which is somewhat amusing to me as the collective noun for an architect is… an “argument of Architects”. I kid you not!

In IT, for some organisations, becoming an Architect has become the term for a senior technical person who understands large chunks of the organisation’s IT. But that’s not what it should be. Architecture is not design. But design is part of architecture. Confused? Bear with me, please.

Etymology

Let’s look at the definition of the word “architecture”:

architecture /???k?t?kt??/ noun

1. the art or practice of designing and constructing buildings.”schools of architecture and design”

[e.g.] the style in which a building is designed and constructed, especially with regard to a specific period, place, or culture. “Georgian architecture”.

2. the complex or carefully designed structure of something. “the chemical architecture of the human brain.

[e.g.] the conceptual structure and logical organization of a computer or computer-based system.

Origin: mid 16th century: from Latin architectura, from architectus.

Oxford Languages

So there we have it, architecture is about conceptual structures and logical organisation. It is not about detailed design. Ergo, an IT Architect, is not just an experienced technician.

Unfortunately though, if we look at the definition of an “architect” it all starts to fall apart. The noun for the computing sense of the word is defined as “a person who designs hardware, software, or networking applications and services of a specified type for a business or other organization” and the verb (if you can consider that architecting is really a thing – I don’t!) is “design and configure (a program or system)”. Basically, in computing, we seem to be using architect as a synonym for designer!

Different types of architect

Maybe looking at definitions of words was not as helpful as it should have been. So let’s consider the types of Architect we have in the IT world:

Technical Architect

Sometimes referred to as a Domain Architect (reflecting that their knowledge relates to a particular area, or domain), the Technical Architect is probably the most common use of the architecture term in IT.

There may be variations reflecting a given domain – for example Software Architect, Data Architect, Infrastructure Architect, Security Architect.

Each of these will be able to take a logical building block (see Solution Architect) and define how this part of the solution should be achieved.

There will be elements of design – but that design should be broader than just technology and will often rely on specialists for expert knowledge.

Solution Architect

Solution Architects are concerned with solutions. By that, I mean that they view a problem as a set of requirements that need to be solved by a combination of people, business processes or technology and come up with a solution.

The solution will be constructed of logical building blocks. For example, a requirement to create a website may include components such as:

  • Identity and access
  • Mobile application/browser
  • Web server
  • Database server
  • Operating system
  • Hardware
  • Network

Note that none of these are technologies. It doesn’t say Active Directory, Chrome, Apache and MySQL, running on Linux on VMware and with TCP/IP over Ethernet using Cisco switches and routers. Those technical decisions may be taken as to how to address the requirements and fill the building blocks, but the logical blocks themselves are conceptual – not detail!

The Solution Architect will lead experts and combine their recommendations/experience into a coherent solution to a business problem. They should also consider the whole lifecycle of the solution, from development, into service (operation) and. eventually, retirement.

This post from CIO Magazine is one view of a Solution Architect, although it could be considered to be describing a little bit of a unicorn…

Enterprise Architect

Often, architecture at enterprise scale is mistakenly referred to as Enterprise Architecture (EA) but Enterprise Architecture is a discipline in its own right. A enterprise-scale solution still requires a Solution Architect.

The Enterprise Architect is (or should be) interested in:

  • Business
  • Data
  • Application systems
  • Technology

Note that technology is just a small part of that (and last to be listed), although technology is probably pervasive in the others too.

I’ve read some great posts recently on what an Enterprise Architect is – so instead of re-defining it here, I’ll signpost to these:

There are recognised EA frameworks, such as TOGAF and the Zacmann Framework but one of the easiest ways to understand the work of an EA is to look at Svyatoslav Kotusev (@Kotusev)’s Enterprise Architecture on a Page.

Often, the Enterprise Architects are not part of the IT function (but the Technical and Solution Architects are). Instead, the EAs are part of the organisation’s strategic planning function.

In reality, many people will move up and down this spectrum. Sometimes, a Solution Architect will have to “roll up their sleeves” and help out with a technical situation. Or maybe they will elevate themselves into the some of the Enterprise Architecture role – particularly if there is no formal Enterprise Architecture function within an organisation. But two things are clear in my mind:

  • Architecture is far more than just design.
  • Enterprise Architecture is not the same as architecture-at-enterprise-scale.

Sitting in ivory towers?

I’ve seen technical people with disdain for Architects because they consider them to have little practical understanding of their world. Similarly, I’ve seen “Architects” struggle to extract themselves from the mire of technical detail – particularly if that’s what they love to work with.

It’s important to be mindful of the relevance of the architecture work that’s taking place. Principles are all well and good if they make sense and are followed – but, if the Architects sit in an ivory tower generating paperwork that is of no relevance to the rest of the organisation, they will be doomed to failure. Similarly, we talk a lot about technical debt – sometimes that debt needs to be paid off, and sometimes it’s there for a good reason.

Perhaps a better way to look at it is this view, from the Enterprise Architecture Professional Journal, in which the author cautions against the argument of Architects becoming an arrogance of Architects.

Like so many things in the world of work, communication is key. And developing good architecture skills requires good written and verbal communication skills. Then there’s stakeholder management, building relationships, commercial awareness and much more.

Next time…

This post is long enough already and the topic of developing skills is pretty involved. So, in my next post, I’ll look at some ways we can develop (IT) architecture skills – and at why there seems to be so little value in (IT) architecture certifications.

Featured image by Donna Kirby from Pixabay.

Working out loud

For years, I’ve been active on social media. I’ve been blogging here even longer. Both of these are examples of working out loud, but they have their limits. I can’t talk specifics about clients – and it just wouldn’t be professional to say to my colleagues “read my blog” when they ask a question – but there really is a place for working out loud in business.

Collaboration in the enterprise

A decade ago, I would have been having conversations about enterprise social networks. The CIO would have been worried about people using Yammer (not owned by Microsoft at the time) in the way that we worry today about governance with groups using WhatsApp or Facebook. Meanwhile, those looking to drive innovation would be saying “hey, have you seen x – it looks like a great way to collaborate” (much like the conversations I’ve had recently around Altspace VR and Gather).

Back in the more mundane reality of the tools we have available to us, there are some pretty common factors:

  • Most organisations use email.
  • Quite a lot have some form of instant messaging.
  • Many have deployed chat-based collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. (Many more have accelerated their deployments of these tools over the last 12 months.)

As for enterprise social networks. Well, Yammer is still there, in the melee with SharePoint and Teams and other Microsoft 365 tools… maybe I’ll write about that one day too…

Wearing many hats

For the last couple of months, I’ve been juggling my normal role as Principal Architect with some Project Management. It’s tempting to say it’s only highlight reporting and resource booking (that’s how it was positioned to me) but there’s far more too it than that. I’m now handing over to a real Project Manager, because the project really deserves more than I can give to it.

I also have a team to manage. It’s not a big team. I like to think it’s small but perfectly formed. Most of the time, my direct reports (who are all experienced) don’t need a lot of input but, when they do, they can (and should) expect my full attention. Added to which, I am actively working to grow the team (from both the perspective of impact and headcount), so there’s a lot of planning going on. Planning that needs space to think.

And I deliver some consulting engagements myself. Typically that’s working with clients on strategies or forward plans but sometimes getting involved in the delivery.

I also work part-time. So all of the above has to fit into 4 days a week.

This is where working out loud helps.

You see, there is no way I can keep everything in my head. Tools like Microsoft To Do might help me with the daily/weekly/monthly task lists but there’s lots of surrounding minutiae too. Open loops need to be closed… I need a trusted filing system (see Getting Things Done).

When I’m not at work, or not available because I’m consulting, or because I’m working to support one of my team, things need to carry on happening. I don’t want things to stop because I haven’t responded. For those who have read The Phoenix Project, I don’t want to become Brent.

Working out loud is the answer.

Working out loud

At risual, when we start working with a client, we create a Microsoft Teams team. Inside that team, I create a channel for each project. Each channel will have a wiki (or similar) that describes what we’re doing for that client, what the expected outcomes are, and any key milestones. I also include standard text to use to describe the client or their project. And I include details of nearby hotels, car parks, public transport and anything else that might be helpful for our Consultants (or at least I did in The Before Times – when we used to travel).

When I manage a project, I post in the channel each week who’s working on what. I didn’t think it made much difference until, one week when I forgot, I was asked for the missing post!

I also encourage project team members to communicate with me in the open, on Teams. Sure, there are some conversations that happen on email because they involve the client but, in general, a message on Teams is better than one stuck in my Inbox. If I’m not available, someone else can help.

I do the same for my organisational team. Of course there will be some confidential messages that may happen over email (and I prefer to speak if there’s anything sensitive). But, in general, I don’t want things getting lost in my Inbox. Got an announcement? Teams. Need to bounce some ideas around? Teams. Let’s collaborate in the open. There’s no need to hide things.

Is that all?

This might not sound like much, but it’s a real mind shift for some people, who work in isolation and who rely on email for communication.

But I am not done. There’s always more to do. New tools come and go. My life doesn’t get any less busy. I am as stressed and anxious as always. And one of my sons told me that he doesn’t want to do my job because “it just involves getting annoyed with people”. Hmm… it seems I have more work to do…

“Perfection is the enemy of good” is a phrase often attributed to Voltaire, and my next step is to get more comfortable with sharing early drafts. I will generally share a document or a presentation for feedback when it’s nearly done, but I really must start sharing them when they’re barely started.

Do you have some ideas for working out loud? I’d love to hear more examples of how I can make this way of working more common. What do you see as the advantages? Or are there any disadvantages? Comments are open below.

Featured image by Harsh Vardhan Art from Pixabay.

Using Windows Autopilot to deploy PCs in the middle of a pandemic

A year ago, who would have thought that so many people would still be working from home because of COVID-19? That a pandemic response would lead to such a huge impact on the way we live? That we’d be having discussions about the future role of the office?

Lots of things changed in 2020. Some of them may never change back.

Changes to PC operating system deployment methods

There is a saying (attributed to the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus) that the one constant in life is change…

Over nearly 30 years working in IT, I’ve worked on a lot of PC rollouts. And the technology keeps on changing:

  • Back in 1994, I was using Laplink software with parallel cables (so much faster than serial connections) to push Windows for Workgroups 3.11 onto PCs for the UK Ministry of Defence.
  • In 2001, Ghost (which by then had been purchased by Norton) was the way to do it. Working with a a Microsoft partner called Conchango, my team at Polo Ralph Lauren rolled out 4000 new and rebuilt PCs. We did this across 8 European countries, supporting languages and PC hardware types with just two images.
  • By 2005, I was working for Conchango and using early versions of the Microsoft Business Desktop Deployment (BDD) solution accelerator to push standard operating environment (SOE) images to PCs for a UK retail and hospitality company.
  • By 2007, BDD had become Microsoft Deployment. Later, that was absorbed into System Center Configuration Manager.

After this, the PC deployment stuff gets a bit fuzzy. My career had moved in a different direction and, these days, I’m less worried about the detail (I have subject matter experts to rely on). My concerns are around the practicalities of meeting business requirements by making appropriate technology selections.

Which brings me back to the current day.

A set of business requirements

Imagine it’s early 2021 and you’re faced with this set of requirements:

  • Must deploy new Windows 10 PCs to a significant proportion of the business’ staff.
  • Must comply with UK restrictions and guidance in relation to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.
  • Should follow Microsoft’s current recommended practice.
  • Must maintain compliance with all company standards for security and for information management. In particular, must not impact the company’s existing ISO 27001, ISO 9001 or Cyber Essentials Plus certifications.
  • Should not involve significant administrative overhead.

A solution, built around Windows Autopilot

The good news is that this is all possible. And it’s really straightforward to achieve using a combination of Microsoft technologies.

  • Azure Active Directory provides a universal identity platform, including conditional access, multifactor authentication.
  • Windows Autopilot takes a standard Windows 10 image (no need for customised “gold builds”) and applies appropriate policies to configure and secure it in accordance with organisational requirements. It does this by working with other Microsoft Endpoint Manager (MEM) components, like Intune.
  • OneDrive keeps user profile data backed up to the cloud, with common folders redirected so they remain synced, regardless of the PC being used.

What does it look like?

My colleague, Thom McKiernan (@ThomMcK), created a great unboxing video of his experience, opening up and getting started with his Surface Pro 7+:

(I tried to do the same with my Surface Laptop 3 but unboxing videos are clearly not my thing.)

Why does this matter?

The important thing for me is not the tech. It’s the impact that this had on our business. To be clear:

We deployed new PCs to staff, during a national lockdown, without the IT department touching a single PC.

For me, it took around 10 minutes from opening the box to sitting at a usable desktop with Microsoft Teams and Edge. (What else do you need to work in 2021?)

That would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

It seems that, on an almost daily basis, I talk to clients who are struggling with technology to allow staff to work from home. It always seems to come back to legacy VPNs or virtual desktop “solutions” that are holding the IT department back.

So, if you’re looking at how your organisation manages its end user device deployments, I recommend taking a look at Windows Autopilot. Perhaps you’re already licensed for Microsoft 365, in which case you have the tools. And, if you need some help to get it all working, well, you know who to ask…

Featured image created from Microsoft press images.