The Superpowers of a Technology Architect

Every profession requires special skills which make an individual best or mediocre in that field. If you are a superhero, flying without engines, seeing behind the walls or firing laser beams off your eyes would certainly make you a favourite amongst the others.

Having spent close to two decades in technology architecture, I tried imagining the superpowers of a super architect. I focused on the character skills instead of domain, technology, or methodology knowledge and experience. I believe an architect who has these skills would pull off any complex design problems even they are new in the field or don’t have a shiny architecture badge.

None of these would be considered a superpower unless it comes with a flashy name. The outcome is not as striking as Negasonic Teenage Warhead, but I tried my best.

Neutral Perception

I’m not even sure if I have picked the right words to describe this superpower, but it surely points to a fundamental skill of a good architect. Getting rid of preconceptions and listening to comprehend but not to respond is an art of mind and harder than it sounds. This article explains the science of listening, and how our brains process what we hear. We tend to handpick bits and pieces from the entire conversation which correlate to our past learnings and experiences and what we already know. Once we think we got the gist of the talk, we quickly land on a judgment and rest of the communication seems unworthy of attention. We instantly shift our focus more on building up a response than listening what the other party has to say. Although this is a common human behaviour, it is unacceptable for a super architect.

A super architect is all ears and encourages the other party to elaborate further with questions. She is keen to learn and experience other perspectives and skilled in using empathy to precisely understand different viewpoints. Stephen Covey also draws attention to the importance of empathic listening in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If you are lazy like me to read the whole book, check out this article. It does not only point out to Covey’s empathic listening but also lists other critical communication skills.

In the end, for a conversation to become meaningful someone has to do the listening.

Random Contextual Jump

It is a great luxury for any architect to deal with only one aspect of a single solution at any given time. Usually, architects are inundated with various queries and unknowns from multiple solutions concurrently. More often than not, architects find themselves under abrupt spotlights where they are expected to explain intricate solution dependencies, comment on a compliance risk, improvise a detailed technical decision, provide a finger-in-the-air budget estimate, answer to security design questions and so on… Dealing with such sporadic variety of enquiries requires an exceptional comfort with ever-changing contexts as well as some level of Hyperthymesia.

A super architect maintains an ever-growing, multi-dimensional, non-volatile mind map of events and data in her surprisingly human-sized head. This mind map links every bit of information element to time, people, and locations where the super architect effortlessly hops between the nodes at any time of the day and under every condition. A super architect never stutters, never gives a half-baked answer, never forgets the rationale behind design decisions and never lets herself get into an “I should have said that” situation – even when she is being interrogated by a tableful of infuriating architects, aka Architecture Review Board.

Unfortunately, in reality, continuous context switching is a hideous form of multitasking. As this article elegantly points out it is also “the mother of all time sucks”. It doesn’t only kill your productivity but also lowers your IQ in some cases.

There are methods to deal with the challenges of continuous context switching such as Memory Palace or Mind Palace. If you are like me and find those methods complicated, and if you are not Sherlock Holmes, you can simply start by not trusting your memory and take notes in meetings, timely record rationale and decisions in your design documents.

Ethical Mindtrick

Powerful communication is key to designing an optimal solution architecture. With that said, an architect must also sharpen her communication skills with persuasiveness. Solution design process often involves convincing stakeholders why a particular design option is the best fit amongst others. Likewise, there are also times when an architect has to reason with stakeholders on why a seemingly lower cost, shorter time-to-market solution idea is not exactly the best option. A typical example of this is where business sees an opportunity in leveraging an existing design which is not aligned with the target architecture state of the organisation. Such quick-win, tactical solutions may result in long-term performance issues or technical debts which may not be immediately visible to business stakeholders. In a case like this, a super architect would simply wave her finger in the air while saying the following words with a soothing voice: “This is not the solution you’re looking for“.

Unfortunately as mind trick only exists in a galaxy far, far away, architects may choose to look into some down-to-earth techniques to make their communication clearer, logical and unquestionably convincing. Although these techniques are different in implementation, and a few like these may run your blood cold, in essence, they all require the architect to be the observer as well as the governor of the communication apart from being a participant of it. Architects can also shoot a glance at sales techniques as a super architect is also a master salesman of reasoning. Exploring techniques such as SPIN Selling can help architects to build up that observer perspective and have a greater command of their communications with other parties.

Hyper Cerebrum (or Extreme Learning)

One common statement used while describing the work of an architect is to suggest that she is the bridge between business, user experience, technology, operations and other stakeholders. A better way of looking at this is to consider the architect, not as the bridging role in between but as the intersection of all of these roles. That essentially means a super architect would design the best customer experience while creating the most profitable solution. Likewise, she would understand the business and even figure out how to fence off the competition. She would also appreciate the risk, compliance and legal impacts. At the same time, she would be the master of all the relevant technologies no matter how contemporary or antiquated they are. She would also know the ins and outs of DevOps, release and test management. She would even know Kung-Fu if necessary.

Vitruvius, the author of the first book on architecture theory takes the definition of the ideal architect (i.e. super architect) a step further in his book:

The ideal architect should be a man of letters, a skilful draftsman, a mathematician, familiar with historical studies, a diligent student of philosophy, acquainted with music, not ignorant of medicine, learned in the responses of jurisconsults, familiar with astronomy and astronomical calculations.

Sadly, humans have limits and no one is born with innate knowledge of everything. However, a good architect should be passionate about learning new things whether technical or business related. Just like an accomplished detective, she should develop her methods for getting to accurate information. She should enjoy chatting with people from all parts of the organisation and encourage them to talk about the issues they have and the details of their work. Also, she shouldn’t mind digging shared portals, wikis, document repositories to access to bits of information and connecting the dots. Additionally, she should follow industry news to keep up-to-date with the outside world.

Along with learning new things, she should also work on enhancing her learning skills. This article slightly touches on the science behind learning and provides some tips on learning faster. As the article points out, practice makes perfect and learning new skills helps the brain pick up further new skills more comfortably.

Crystal Articulation

We all heard of philosophical conundrums probing the relationship between perception and existence of things. There are a number of these but I believe the most commonly known is this one: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?“. Here’s a collection of answers to this question for the interested.

Here, I want to pose my own philosophical conundrum:

If there is a great architectural design and yet it is articulated very badly, is it a great design?

Powerful articulation is an essential skill of an architect. It goes beyond accurately expressing the facts visually or verbally. It is about using correct articulation techniques to ensure the message is delivered to the right direction with the right context. Here’s a great story about Harry Beck and his map of London Tube. Beck created his map back in 1933 and it became the standard for all metro maps. Beck’s map was not interested in depicting railways, stations and landscape accurately but to convey information to its consumers in a manner that is useful to them.

Just like Beck, a super architect creates the optimum design artefacts and chooses the optimum words, creates architectural seer stones, and delivers the rationale and impact of her designs exactly from the audiences’ viewpoints. Anyone interacting with the super architect – or with the artefacts she has created – would leave with zero questions lingering in their minds.

When it comes to creating diagrams, there are lots of best practices out in the wild such as Geert Bellekens’ 5 rules for better diagrams. However, I believe the magical ingredient is empathy and focus on how the information can be best conveyed to its consumer. For instance, in some cases, it may be better re-drawing a diagram on a whiteboard while telling the story of the solution, instead of simply presenting an existing diagram.

Atlassian Endurance

Endurance doesn’t sound like a flashy superpower but it is a complementary factor of a superhero character – in some cases making the mere immortals get closer to superheroes.

Architects fed on uncertainty and their job essentially is to facilitate change in a good direction. Change is not always easy and as Dan Heath, co-author of a couple of books on change, points out in this short video, it may even get you exhausted to a point you don’t really care anymore. Architects tell people that things are going to change, and they may even have to step into new, unknown territories. In many cases, people will be reluctant to change or won’t fully agree with the direction architect is pointing at. Even architect herself might have inner debates on how to get there. She would question whether she should compromise on the architectural principles to deliver the business value earlier, or whether she should say no to the business sponsors to avoid technical debts. Either way getting from an idea to a delivery-ready design is a pretty exhausting task and architects should find ways to keep up their willpower.

One easy method is simply to accept the fact that non-architectural tasks of chasing and convincing people, having endless discussions and developing business cases are also part of an architect’s job. If it helps, architects can imagine themselves as management consultants sent to a client to develop business. As a dexterous consultant wouldn’t leave the client without a meaningful outcome both for the client and herself, an architect should also display the same endurance in order to get to the best solution for the organisation.

This wraps up my list of superpowers a super architect must have. Anything missing or doesn’t make sense? Let me know in the comments.

Learning magic from the “real” architects

Florence - September 2014

Designing something from an idea or as in many cases from a problem that needs to be solved is surely an exciting but not always an easy  process. We architects have to make sure we design the best possible solution meeting all the business requirements while adhering to global and organisational design best practices. One challenge we commonly face is incompletely or ambiguously expressed requirements which turns the analysis process into solving a rubik’s cube problem while skydiving. Furthermore, as we architects are mostly the middleman between business teams and technology units, we have to carefully manage the perceptions and expectations while using the relevant language to our audience. And we have to do all of these within a deadline and a budget while ensuring enough level of security and compliance, performance and fault tolerance etc.

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