SOA, architecture without foundation

Service Orientated Architecture (SOA) is something that is easy for the lay person to understand.  (Try getting a techie to explain REST and you will see the attraction of SOA to the business person – it’s understandable!)  Understandable, in my non-techie hands, is dangerous.  I am entirely unqualified to pass judgment on it, but there are a couple of  things I’ve observed and have been on my mind when I’ve seen SOA nastiness going on.  So excuse me whilst I wax lyrical.

Problem 1. IT haven’t got a clue.

My (lay) understanding of SOA: IT build ‘services’ that can be consumed by different applications.  SOA enables us to remove duplication and build the foundations for a scalable architecture that will accommodate changing requirements as the business evolves and grows.  Herein lies the problem; IT build ‘services’, second guessing what the business actually needs from said service.

Exhibit One:  Customer Details Service. It exposes details of customers to any application that will use information about customers.   It was designed by the architect in isolation based upon what IT believe a Customer Details Service will be required to do (e.g. the nature of the fields, the domain etc).  This is even though no application has been built, yet alone specified for (“we just know we are going to need customer details”).  It’s putting the cart before the horse.  But IT go ahead and build the service anyway, because they own SOA.   At a later date the business articulate requirements for a new downstream application that requires Customer Details.  It’s the Corporate Business whose domain is Corporate Customers.  But what happens?  The service doesn’t quite meet their requirements.  The fields are wrong.  The Customer Details Service fits the domestic consumer model but not the corporate customers model.  What gives? More likely than not the downstream application.  The corporate customer has to be shoe-horned into the domestic customer service. I’ve seen this done.

Lesson 1. Don’t build SOA in a void.  Get out of that architectural ivory tower and engage with the business (if you can get them to listen – see next point). Better still engage in Guerrilla SOA.

Problem 2. The business haven’t got a clue.

One of the sad realities of the corporate world is that walls that have sprung up and created internal silos that are difficult to bridge.  As the business, the consumer of technology, I want IT to deliver to my requirements, no more, no less.  If I am in the domestic consumer part of the business, frankly I don’t care about Corporate customers.  I’m fighting for my budget, and hell, if this SOA thing is going to cost more than doing a closed application that fits only domestic customers, that only I can use I don’t care.  I’m not going to pay for a “Customer Details” service that does anything except give me what I need to know about my customer.

Lesson 2. The architects should facilitate the discussion.  SOA is as much about your business vision as it is technical architecture.  Unless the business grasps what you are trying to do, drives the solution and requirements are both local and global, before long you’ll see some grand services that few use in the core and chaos is the periphery where the real business is done.

Bottom line?  All too often architects fail because they tend to focus upon the architecture part of SOA rather than the services.    Unfortunately, because of the siloed nature of so may organisaitons, unless it is driven by the architects it is unlikely to gain traction.  If there is a maxim that should be followed when considering SOA in an organisation, it is probably instilling the notion of ‘think local, act global’.

Personal branding is more than stoking your ego

It is easy to knock social media and building a prescence and profile on the web as little more than stoking the ego.  “I’ve got more Twitter followers than you”, “I’ve got more facebook friends, more subscribers to my blog, more linkedin contacts…”  But there is more to it than that.  The way you use social media should be about building you as a brand.

Take a look at David Armano’s excellent presentation on Brand U.0.  Celebrities have brand, and with that comes influence.  Similalry people like you or me who develop their brand start to have influence.  And that influence gets you places.  At ThoughtWorks we are recruiting for a new Information Architect role.  Rather than describing the role in terms of skills and competencies, the starting point has been ‘we need a person “like that”‘, pointing to to both particular people within ThoughtWorks, and also on the broader web, looking at LinkedIn profiles, blogs etc.  If you have a brand you have already made yourself stand out.  In these challenging times your profile is not about your ego, it is about your future.

Design vision

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you don’t need to do any design when you adopt Agile.  Agile development strives to deliver business value early and often, focusing on getting working software to market as soon as possible rather than dwelling in documentation and ‘analysis paralysis’.  But let’s be clear, “business value” and “working software” are not the same thing.  You can quite easily get something into production that fails to generate revenue, decrease costs or whatever other yardstick you use for ‘value’.  What differentiates the two of them is design.  I don’t mean big up front design that details all the features and provides a concrete spec, I mean a design vision that articulates what the product goals are and a roadmap for getting there.  And what is a design vision?  A short statement of intent is a good place to start, and soon after a user interface mocked up in pen and ink.  It is cheap and easy and helps bridge the path from idea to execution.

Persecute or communicate

Yesterday I twitteredIndustrial Age, Atomic Age, Jet Age, Space Age, Information Age… What’s next?” Andre Martin replied “social age?”  If the world around us is moving to the social age, far too many corporations are stuck in the industrial age, the stone age even.

With growing economic uncertainty, inter-office rumors, gossiping and eavesdropping in the workplace are inevitable.  More than 20 per cent of respondents to an HR survey said their employees had been disciplined for such behaviour.  And so the solution is to invest in technology to prevent it.  But you are never going to be able to stop it, indeed taking such measures is more likely to give oxygen to fear, mistrust and dissent.  The investment would be better spent opening up channels of communication, getting the gossip out in the open and developing a culture of trust and understanding.  How?  Introducing a corporate FaceBook to replace the moribund intranet would be a start.

If software was an airline

All airlines are the same.  They fly the same planes to the same airports for (roughly) the same prices. What differentiates them?  Attention to detail.  It’s not just the functional detail – it’s the experiential detail that really makes the difference.

It’s the same with software.  If the application you are building was an airline, which airline would it be?  All to often developers focus on the plane, building something to fulfil the utility of getting people from A to B.  Yet the customer doesn’t care about whether it’s an Airbus A330 or a Boeing 777, what they care about, and what they remember is the experience they have.

(This can be a useful exercise at the outset of a new project, ask stakeholders to imagine their finished applciation was an airline, what brand would it be?  This helps anchor expectations; are you building a full service Singapore Airlines or a no-frills EasyJet?)

On doing business in Hong Kong…

…there are two things that are essential, the business card and the company chop. Every business meeting starts with the customary exchange of business cards, after a year in Hong Kong I have amassed a mountain of them that lined up end to end would get me a fair distance. And no official document is official without a company chop – ink stamp in any other language. Probably a remnant from British bureaucracy, a signature is not sufficient, no document is complete without a chop. The fact that you can get a chop made up at any stationers doesn’t seem to matter. In fact you’d probably get away with a potato print as a chop if you were that was your thing. The chop and the card are de rigueur, if there was something else I might add it would be the fax machine. It is not unusual to suggest correspondence via email to be told to send a fax instead.

Words are slippery things

Want to prove it? Take a sheet of paper. Tear it in half (under the table so I can’t see).  Now show the two halves.  You tore it in half side-ways didn’t you.  I tore it length-ways.  Same instruction, same materials, completely different result.

Why you should care about twitter

Motrin, a US healthcare company put on their home page a large video advert with the basic premise that mothers who carry their babies are likely to get back ache and their pain killers are right for the job. Nothing wrong with that, however the message was ill-judged “Wearing your baby seems to be in fashion…” going on to “supposedly it’s a real bonding experience”. Oh dear. That ‘s the sort of language that stokes the fire of mothers. There once was a time that they would have complained to each other at the NCT meeting (or whatever the US equivalent is), more recently a few might have blogged about it. But there is overhead in setting up a blog, and you need to think about what you write. Not so for Twitter. Twitter is low cost of entry, instant gossip.

Over the weekend Twitter has been buzzing with mums complaining about Motrin and their ad at #motrinmums. Look at the stats. From nothing to hundreds of negative sentiments in a matter of hours. Over a weekend.

(From Twitscoop)

It will be interesting to see how long before the ad is pulled. Will one person take responsibility, make the right decision (and do the right thing and apologize), or will it be a decision by committee and ultimately hurt the brand?

I started with the title “why you should care about Twitter”. Not so long ago I would talk to people about blogging and its importance to the enterprise and was told it was not relevant to that persons organisation. I’m surprised at how many CxOs I talk with today either don’t know what Twitter is or don’t seem to care. This is a good wake-up call. (Oh, and I picked this story up on Twitter via Jerimiah).

Customer or Client?

One of the things that bugs me in IT development is that the business is too often referred to as “the customer”.  “Customer” implies a transactional relationship.  A customer purchases from a seller; there is little incentive for any meaningful relationship as it will ultimately come down to price.  The buyer wants to pay as little as possible, the seller wants to charge as much as possible.

All to often IT is seen as a cost centre rather than a driver of business innovation and profit.  Maintaining the transactional language to describe the relationship between IT and the business helps perpetuate this.  We need to stop thinking of the Business as our customer.  Instead of “customer” we should look to other professional services for our metaphor.

Professions that involve a more personal, relationship driven approach to their business use “client” rather than “customer”.  Whilst retail banking has customers, wealth management talks about clients.  I think it is a subtle but important difference.   The relationship between IT and the business should not be seen as transactional, it is more consultative in its approach.  Structuring our relationship as consultant-client is a small but important first step to redressing the perception of IT as a commodity.

A new page

This blog was getting tired in its design so I’ve given it an overhaul, including introducing some widgets.  (What an awesome piece of software WordPress is).  I’ve also added a new page with a bunch of published papers.  some classics in there (if I do say so myself) such as “Heat stress in night clubs” and “Occupational disorders in Ghanaian Subsistence farmers” !!.  The rest of the dancingmango site was not built using wordpress, so to update it all in one go would be time consuming and of little value.  OK, so there is inconsistency across the site and as a UI guy that hurts, but it is one of the trade-offs that needs to be made.

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