2 February 2021

IT Solutions Architecture

Over the years I was in the role of IT Solutions Architect, (SA) but I don’t think I understood what was going on at a deeper level. I was an SA, for sure, and I did those things well.

I would be asked how to do SA. To me it was quite natural, so I didn’t ever find a satisfactory explanation to what I did know was in part an art form combined with technical skill.

I could describe in a way how I looked at things, how I would provide solutions that took a number of factors into account, express and document that, and help facilitate people to do that well.

I could use corporate terminology and describe how SA work reduces risks ensuring successful outcomes, therefore saving companies money. I could talk about providing a balance between what the company wanted, and how people work for their interests.

When people got stuck on what to do, I could outline the way forward to what would become a reality. I had some complex problems people could not solve.

But what was an SA? That’s where I felt some deeper level of dissatisfaction in trying to describe that. Of course I could give some stock answers to people who asked.

Now I understand more about what was going on.

There are at least two types of people in the corporate environment. There are those who just do things and do it with precision and outstanding ability – the technical people, or perhaps those of a conservative psychology. They can take what the creative people do and make it into something economically big. They think they do the work, so, to them, creative people are not working, even though our creative people are in fact working, just not the same way. There is no less energy involved. Those who were less creative, not the creative psychology, would try to put a box around those who were creative.

For instance, it really bugged one manager who wanted to make me do some formal course that would structure what I did. He put my work down. He was not intending to be bad, he just didn’t understand what was going on and the differences between two distinct classes of people.

We all know it takes a certain type of person to drive a train all day. If you put them into some other “box” you think is right, it will drive them crazy.

While an accountant may be great at what they do, they are happy to do what they do, but a creative person forced into the same style of work would go nuts.

It is not that one type of person is better than the other, but we lack a fundamental awareness of what is happening here.

Some would point out, this is very much tied up with biology, so that being the case, good luck with trying to make a creative person an accountant, or an accountant an artist. It will never work.

I think it comes to this simpler definition of creativity that supports the way the SA works. That is what I was not understanding, because I was just being me.

What has happened though, as in any area of human endeavour and formalisation, is that people move into roles of SA thinking they are the masters when they do not have that creativity. Then, the managers who are “conservative” do not understand creativity so they damage what the SA does. One example is trying to redefine what the SA will do in their organisation, or even removing their qualified job title to something else. This is almost without words to describe, but it is possibly ignorance, unethical and for personal gain.

People like the sound of things, so a number get into technical positions that present opportunities to be classified as an SA. However, the true definition of SA involves peers, even Internationally who recognise this role developing in someone’s work. It is a role that does not have classes and exams. It is entirely dependent on previous work history and a different level or way of working, which is why it is successful. This of course bugs those who have specific examinations and complex processes for their projects.

Part of the SA environment is highly technical, but it is also a role of much more freedom that regular employees experience. This is adverse to some, who may judge the SA and think they are trying to big note themselves, when they are not. The SA has a really valuable role. To dismiss it from some personal position of one’s own problems is nasty to say the least. It may also reflect strong immaturity of another person – which does happen. But yes, some people are jealous. The SA has a lot of freedom. I can talk to the shop floor operator with as much genuine concern and interaction as with a CEO, and am fully able to talk with both. There may be different dynamics at play too. Shop floor banter is different to the tricks technical mangers get up to, and they do try to trick. I found that out very quickly in Taiwan.

In the Taipei project, people did not leave their office to have lunch with each other, or have morning tea outside. I stopped a meeting and said I refused to continue. I said I was going outside to get morning tea and that someone would have to go with me or I would not be able to get back into the building. That is what I did. We also had a team lunch, which was something no one had experienced before, and would not again. People’s lives were not accomplishing anything more by having most of their lives living at their desks and sleeping under them. I was so desirous and glad to get out of Taiwan despite it having the best food in the world I ever had. Back to the point…

The project manager tested me without telling me he was doing that. He withheld information. At some point I said things did not make sense and why. I told him what should be happening for their processing to work. One could not know this without detailed training or information on both the software, and understanding processes and solutions. The manager and his offsider were very expressive with joy and excitement when I said this. They said they knew, that they were testing me, not telling me to see if I knew. This backhanded approach is not right, but as an SA one will have to deal with many types of situations which by the way only proves you are qualified, that you did not get into that position by some flaky way that people may want to think or redefine according to their own views. They cannot stand in front of a CEO and provide a solution either taking into account culture, position, or body language from those who make the power decisions. The SA role is not simplistic or purely gradable in some inappropriate test.

On that same project I attended a meeting with lots of diagrams on a whiteboard concerning the servers they had throughout Taiwan. This was not what we had come overseas for. It was out of scope. The manager asked me for a solution. I gave some conceptual ideas, and said I would be better having time to think it through and get back on it. He kind of laughed at me and said if I was a solutions architect I had to give a solution now! I stood up, went to the whiteboard and discussed a solution with some caveats. They were satisfied as it was a solution that could work. Whether they wanted to do it or could afford to given the complexity is another question.

I was always encouraged by two of my managers in the back of my mind and experience. Once, my manager said how I have to be more confident and not move into that mode of worrying and communicating hesitancy. After all, I was working with one of the largest companies in the world. That helped a lot. Another piece of advise from another manager during a project in Perth, was to just be me. Do what I like to do, who I am, and from that point things just fitted and went well. By the time I was on the Taiwan project I had confidence to meet those unexpected situations that came up. I look back on the timing of things in amazement. But the point here is that creative people only work well when the are in the flow. Flow is everything. If we stop and look at the cavern below us, or if we become self conscious, it stops the flow. It is a healthy experience to move in this flow and find solutions, mapping them out for others to move with us. People love it. This co-operative, creative process is incredibly strong for bringing people together under common goals and outcomes.

Awareness is part of the creative person. We think about things. Why are we doing what we do? How do I feel about that? What does it do to you? During the Taiwan project, I noticed the incumbent contractor was doing wrong things. During my summary in the CEO’s meeting room, I thanked them for having me, that I could not possibly understand all their business was doing, so I asked for their patience with me on that front. Then I said I would like to be fairly frank about a few things. Thus said, I moved on to detail. I showed how their contractor was telling them what to do rather than them telling the contractor what to do, and where they could change some fundamentals. Awareness lets us try to identify what is happening, and how to construct solutions.

Because a larger section of people are in a structured mode of working, they may not see solutions outside of the box or boxes they work in. Creative people move outside the box and validate what they do. They see that way. They can therefore see what you are doing, and gaps in the floor. Some highly intelligent and wonderful people may have our entire respect, but we may be asked some hard questions about why we approach some aspect of a solution in the way we do. This is a real challenge.

Our work is not pie in the sky – some conceptualisation. Our hands may knit together a solution just as much as any detailed programmer would. It is surprising how many people in IT do not want to be called a programmer. I have no idea why, as I would be proud to hold that title. It reflects a real and valuable capability. They deflect this terminology even though that is what they do. One problem with it is that programmers may build a “solution” that really annoys the end user, or has severe faults. You can say what you like, but no one will listen to you. These issues can’t be solved by intelligence or reason. It goes back to how someone is experiencing life, their emotions, their opinions, or other factors. You can participate in these projects, but not move past these sticking points. I once got so frustrated that a project was making clients go through hurdles in order to use the software. My manager asked me to pull back, to let them do what they were doing. He knew what was happening. I learnt a lot from that.

But my own technical skills, as part of the roadmap towards being an SA were developed, a lot actually. And those skills were under the banner of exams, testing, proven outcomes. On one project, the requirement was first a concept. We got into some details with the client. As we developed the design we could request the client modify parts of the design so that it may become programmable. Our solution also recognised the newness of the work, so we split the project into manageable components that were safe, that could be developed further as or if needed. A Business Analyst, or a Project Manager will not add this value in this way to a project. The final process was outlined enough for us all to work with, but no one knew how to do the algorithms to make it work. It was too complex for all those in the project and the company’s “programmers” basically refused to do the work. It took me months to work out the logic. My creative approach tells the story, which I understand better now. I would use pieces of blank paper, no lines on it, drawing many pages of diagrams and “equations”. This would take place at any hour of day or night. I had a notebook beside my bed. However, the final algorithms fell into place on some smaller sheets of paper when I was at the airport waiting for my flight. This is creativity under a longer period of time. The American Express project was a success.

I think it is a bit like playing music. If we get into some details, we know when a person is playing F# instead of F. This is how we understand things. I was able to participate with lovely people who were different to me with levels of skills and abilities to deliver on projects that put me in both awe and thanks. But what do you do if someone is partly autistic, or has some other fundamental experience of life that is not your own? How do we get tasks done with people who are not the same as us? This is about humanity and is very upsetting if we fail to understand and do. My saddest moment during one period of time in the workforce was when someone kept saying they would provide the details which I outlined for a project that would cost us immense penalties if we did not deliver on time. As we develop a project, many people become dependent on others making progress on time. But this one fellow did not work this way. To him everything would be all right. He would say it is under control. As we approached D-Day it was not. I offered ideas about taking notes on a piece of paper like a check list to get through the tasks. I had no other way to manage this. He did not work this way, but the complexity needed it. I always felt ashamed and upset because it was as if I was negating who that person was, who was an adult, a wonderful person. I had no choice. Clearly this project did not fit in with how he worked, therefore who he was as a person. I don’t think I will ever sit well with this even though I tried to be careful about it. The reality was the project would have failed. So there we have another example of how a project may make demands on people that we as people cannot deliver. I have seen those projects and the tears people have trying to execute them. I feel there are other ways, but corporations do not provide those other ways. At least I too know what it is to suffer in the workforce.

I was once told by a senior engineer that my solution for a project with Qantas would not work. This was not a side comment. It was forceful, direct, and repeated. I have been known to be determined, like a dog not letting go of a bone. I re-validated even more carefully what I was doing, but the engineer still did not agree – by which stage he stuck emotionally to opinion and pride rather than evidence. Of course, the project worked. And incidentally, there was no other known technical solution available or known at that point in time.

There was another project involving a transition of technology from what we call legacy to current technology. I knew the direction people were taking was not achievable. Technology has its own definitions, and no matter what you do, you can’t ignore that to peril. The person who proposed a way of dealing with the project, did not present a solution. He relied on one piece of software, that I knew could not do the job. He was the kind of person who went to sleep during the day in front of everyone at his desk. He did have some past contacts who got along well with him, but he moved into an area of work that frankly I think became his demise. So there was this oddity of being really liked and respected by those people, and considered with no delight, to put it mildly, in his present work.

I proposed the way forward, which involved work with a team in USA. We showed parts of the work working well, and how we would work with the additional data in the same way to complete what we could define as a set of work. Because this needed interaction between USA and Australia, and required time, we knew the project would work. It did. However, the project team was told from people higher up the time had to be sooner, and there was no choice. It did not matter to those people that on the day we go live, nothing would work, and people would have no choice but to impose fines and sack people. The team manager tried very hard to move to that piece of software to complete the project, but I persisted.

So, we have a number of factors at play during project development and execution. If you want to ignore your architects, so be it, you will suffer for it.

But what I found hard to deal with was people asking me how to do SA work so they could do it. They wanted those techniques. I could only talk informally about some things that make it work, but they still wanted some clear-cut formalisation to put into practice. Obviously, this is the difference again between creative and conservative.

But what remained a mystery to me for several years, was why were the architects in some companies doing what I instinctively knew was the right thing, and other companies had SA’s who were in some other world of their own. Was I misguided?

I learnt that ANZ Bank, for instance, had great architects. These were good people. We knew how to work together and get excited, producing results.

But the architects in an outsourcing company were a horror story. When I worked with them, my doctor said I would get clinically depressed if it went on any longer. I resigned and told the managers in no uncertain terms it was the worst job I had ever been in! And then some!

Their work was clearly not the SA role that I knew, but who was I to know different. Looking back, I believe their work was in conflict with the industry definition and processes for recognition of the SA role and its proven qualifications. But a company can do what they want to do, so there you have it. And some companies used the SA out of an industry requirement perspective, even if the people doing those jobs were more in my view technical architects as opposed to solutions architects.

An outsourcing company may have incredibly intelligent people who work non-stop with great complexities. There is no other way at times to handle the hardest projects that exist in Australia. That was not my joy, even though I loved complexity.

Some companies use their staff, knowing they are abusive. Their architects or projects leaders truly abuse other people in the fullest sense and get away with it, but those higher up know this gets what they want. Many times people walk in fear and try to hide from these shocking people on the floor. Who will recompense those abusive impacts on people’s emotions and lives? No one. Don’t think for a moment that Human Resources stands up to a wide range of bad people in corporations. This is not some rant or opinion, but is based on observable incidents over years of work within the workforce.

At the end of the day, there are many personality types and biological backgrounds we all have. This is not being fostered and protected to greater benefit in the workforce. Some managers see the differences, even if they don’t understand what is going on – they just know what direction to go in and what to support.

Today, many young people want good people working around them, good mangers. The abrasive and harmful people of course do exist, even savages with spears in that corporate jungle.

The lesson from this is that for so many years, I moved in and out of projects using all the skills I had, doing successful work, using diplomacy, psychology as required, but I never really knew the things I am mentioning here. It would have helped me when I suffered greatly at the hands of some others. I feel it really does come down to distinctive types of people, and that a good manager should recognise this in order to foster it properly. Without this, and with no accountability to such awareness, we work by methodologies in the workforce that have been prescribed as templates, and in doing so we stifle better outcomes and hurt people all the time. This is not a sob story. It is not crying. It is simply saying, hey, this is what is actually going on and it helps to know what is going on if we want to be more sane or do better together.

Better means a better bottom line, but you can be assured there are well meaning, good people with qualification who simply cannot make decisions in times of need, even though you explain how something will give the results. This total inability is at first astounding to watch, but it too comes back to who people are, rather than their job roles.

The solutions architect, the “proper” ones, mix creativity with practicality in a way that uplifts us all. Our minds work in a different way to those who then leverage our work and focus in those aspects of conservatism that hold structures together and produce economic gains. Both ends of the scale are necessary or we would not have biological diversity, or interesting societies and environments.

What is an example of this outside the IT realm?

Do you recall how ragged and tattered the feeling once was in West End, in Brisbane? It was really energetic moving in this area, or even going to the markets. Developers took over. More conservative people moved in. The area tried to retain its reputation, but it changed. Those beautiful things that once defined it were reshaped or moved out. Now it is known as a highly noisy and dense area.

Do you recall how Eat Street Markets were once a collection of spaces that let you feel you could explore and at times get lost. The new markets are formally laid out. That sense is permanently lost. The new markets are nice. I really like the formality, but it is not the same.

I think there is a continual interaction between creative and pragmatic, the most conservative staying safely in the middle of these environments, and the artists further out to the fringes. Both are necessary to the other but it is always changing.

People see something is their way, not yours, and you get undervalued, but it can flip too. We all know too well that the highly accomplished technical musician is not imparting the inner joy of a creative musician. The flipper here is that if we support what develops creativity, the technical levels actually become better, not the other way around. Think of that. Creative people know this. Our society’s advancements never take place in isolation from an energetic, improvised, creative environment and a formalised environment. Advancement in music needed both to happen, the local musicians bustling away with each other, improvising, playing at get togethers and concerts, and the pieces of paper that published the Beethoven Symphonies. Without that publication, music stagnated for centuries. And where did the printing press come from? I bet you it was seeded as a creative act. We need both improvisation, creativity, and formalisation to move forward. I think there is something worth thinking about here, even though I have not furhter developed these realisations or thoughts.

1 December 2021

The SA job role is a logical progression from one’s past IT work. It is accorded to people by peers, even at an International level. It is not learnt from a text book and by passing exams. This means it is intellectual, diplomatic, psychological, creative, innovative as well as technical.

IT Solutions Architecture has some variation depending on what type of company makes use of it. It can be focused on the technical details with different team members, but the idea is to have oversight that enables people to have confidence to proceed with a planned design as a total solution, one that reduces risk and ensures project success.

An an example, a company may sell millions of dollars worth of printers, because the hardware is known to be a “cash cow”. This solves one problem. But what about the integration of the data used on those printers into an online payments system? A solution is needed.

Where there is pressure and demand, some products or services may be developed to at least tie together some of the most difficult pieces of the problem, but not all the pieces – which can upset and even hurt people.

A Sales rep is possibly desperate to make commissions. They may not understand their products. They may sell a “solution” (using the word to make it sound nice) that tries to force hardware and software products as square pegs into round holes. If this does not work, someone else picks up the pieces in the mess after. Or, if it is known the products cannot work, bespoke services may be sold that cost a lot of money, even millions of dollars. There was one case I saw where a company sold a client a promise to modify software at a cost of USD $1 million. I knew the software well. It was not designed to accommodate the promised tasks, so it seemed to me it would never work in a satisfactory way. There was another company I knew with the qualified engineers who could do the work for $50,000. Those engineers had the history of experience in the industry, but not the company selling the $1 million “solution”.

As an analogy, think of a developer who reviews large areas of land and projects that will develop a community across a fifty year period. They need underground services, shopping centers, houses and so on. If someone else comes along and only looks at a few acres of land, they are not seeing the larger picture. We have to see the larger picture to know ahead of time what will be happening.

This solutions approach is different to IT components that by themselves do a specific job. As an example, Sales reps often give customers brochures for a product. What they need is to have a solution, not a product. We identify their concerns, even pain, and see how a full solution addresses those things. This can occur even before thinking about product. We ensure the integration of many components together, addressing our aims, rather than installing hardware and software in isolation from the overall solution. We look at tangible and intangible benefits, such as revenue, costs, robust design, user-friendliness, peace of mind.

The role is balanced. A solution is put together with the needs of all parties, not just the seller.

While each team member has focus on specialised skills, the architect can look across a range of things, including the less obvious that may be critical. For instance, are there gaps or faults in a project? Have we identified and validated the business goals and issues? It is an active role. The SA has access to all kinds of people, from the shop floor up to the CEO. There is a certain freedom enjoyed in this that is not available to others who are working extremely hard in their discipline, such as the Project Manager.

This means we facilitate people and have confidence. The industry uses the SA role because it saves money from faulty or failed projects.There may be situations where a business cannot find its way to solve a problem, which becomes expensive. The architect gives that solution, even if it contains its own limits or boundaries. Technology keeps changing so we use what we have at a point in time. For example, some very old IT systems are well entrenched into the Banks. We call these legacy systems. At some stage Banks deal with these old systems in a variety of ways. It may not necessarily mean some underlying structures are removed, but there will be changes, such as placing customer data into an Oracle database.

As we come from a strong IT background, and I believe a strong problem solving background as well, to us it is quite normal to make use of certain IT components. For someone else, they may be new to it. We therefore help people proceed. Interestingly though, there is a perception about the SA. We go home at night like everyone else, and have all our own personal issues, but in the office, we have authority by default. People love to move forward to create solutions from what were previously ideas, diagrams, discussions, notes. People may have been thinking about things, thinking they are silly, but they are not. We help all aspects of communications.

Even though we encourage and facilitate people we will come across varying human behaviours, some of which are negative or positive. For example, in a meeting in Taiwan, who were the people making decisions? There were definite people we identified. We tend not to let things go past us without noticing. On this project some issues did not make sense because they were being withheld from us to see if we really knew what we were talking about. At some point I was quite forceful saying what their problem was. That is when they smiled and said they had been testing me. This is bad behaviour, but we ignore this as we are using our energy to move the project forward. We will have all sorts of odd things happen.

The point is, we do take a firm position on some project aspects, as we know the project will otherwise falter. So, it is not all sitting back being nice in order to facilitate. This can lead to heated affirmations, but with care. The more we understand ourselves and others, what processes are actually happening, the better.

On the negative side, we will have people yell at us, even senior people say our project cannot and will not work! When of course it does work.

During my IT career, I had not one IT system fail. I had several disaster recovery projects that were in real crisis. All of my projects and solutions worked well. This means something was going right, and part of that is attention to detailing, initiative, ownership, responsibility, transparency, and various environments that supported me with training and mentoring, or good business principles and business practices. It is especially important in looking back on all this to have good people around us, setting examples, building teams. When things do not function well, we see projects fall apart, managers who cannot make obvious decisions and so forth.

My Solutions Architecture role was always friendly and aware. I was told in my early years of IT work I was like a dog that would not let go of its bone. Tenacity, yes, but never arrogance, control or yelling at people, never such tactics that some project managers flaunt and get away with to their shame in Australia. In general I have met many wonderful people who pull together to create technology solutions that benefit things we are not usually aware of, such as what went on behind the scenes for the 2000 Olympics as just one. But enough of the past, the purpose here was to give an idea or sense of the SA role.