Tag Archives: itarchitecture

Uncommon Thinking…

From the Flickr stream of Bre_Pettis

From the Flickr stream of Bre_Pettis


I was chatting with a colleague about the new EDUCAUSE slogan, “Uncommon Thinking for the Common Good” when I realized that the saying encapsulates one way to think of my work as an I.T. Architect.  “Uncommon Thinking for the Common Good” is what I try to foster in the teams that I work with.  I’ll explain this in two parts “Uncommon Thinking” and “for the Common Good”.

Uncommon Thinking:

I try to break people out of their daily routine and their comfort zone.  For instance, I have sat in meetings where a team is supposed to develop a new user interface (UI) for a new application.  I’ve watched as team redraw the UI for the old application, that they use day-in and day-out, as the solution for the new system.  I’ve also seen teams “re-think” how a business process could be done.  The end result was an automated version of the current process.  The new implementation of the old solution substituted emails for people running around with paper.  They are following the same steps, replicating the same authorizations and sending the same forms often without asking “why this form” or “why this person” or even “is this necessary at all”.   My job is to get them to question their old ways of doing things.

People like what they know.  They understand what they use daily.  But advancement comes when we change and disrupt routines, not when we replicate them into a new technology.  You have a telephone book at home with White Pages for people and Yellow Pages for businesses.  Changing that into two Word files you can print doesn’t bring great advancement.  It might be easier to carry only the pages you need but that doesn’t really improve the process.  Search capabilities are a big improvement.  Rethinking how you use the information, such as mapping businesses onto maps so you can find restaurants near your hotel, that brings advancement.  The routine of grabbing a book and looking something up is thrown out.  The new routine is to grab a laptop, look for wireless and Search.

I often introduce myself to new teams saying that my job will make them uncomfortable because I will ask them to throw out what they know and what they are comfortable with.  I tell them I will challenge their assumptions.  I say this not because their assumptions are wrong but to make sure their assumptions are correct and we accept them for the right reasons.

I love the fact that the Web 2.0 explosion is going on.  There are so many examples of “other ways to do things”.  I bring these examples and ask, “why can’t we do this instead?”  I show them Netvibes and ask, “can we make our pages this flexible?”  I show them Etsy’s Find By Color page and ask, “can we make creative ways to search like this?”  I show them The Northface catalog and ask, “should we have filters to help people search like these?”


Etsy Color Browser

Etsy Color Browser



It’s not that I think we should have a UI that looks like any of these sites but I want to break the team’s mindset and get them to start thinking about all of the rich possibilities.  I want them to work with a blank canvas and a rich palette of colors.  I want them to really get imaginative in their solutions to the problems.

I had a watercolor instructor that I worked with at UC Santa Cruz.  We were painting in the woods one day.  Everything I produced came out flat, boring and uninteresting.  They were awful, actually.  I was having a terrible time.  He came by, had a look and asked how it was going.  I grunted out my disgust.  He said, “Give me three paintings, but you can’t use any browns or greens at all. No earth-tones.”  I’m sitting in a forrest of browns and greens.  I was forced to paint purple and blue trees and red ferns.  At first it was very uncomfortable and I was very hesitant.  The first attempts were also awful.  But then, it became fun and playful and the paintings improved.  I was forced to let go of “how it is” and instead I had to play with “how it could be”.

That is the uncommon thinking of the Architecture practice.  Letting go of the how it is and thinking about how it could be when we start with a blank canvas and rich palette.

For the Common Good:

The other aspect that I deal with on teams is the narrow focus of their solution.  Often, the solutions that are put forth solve the very local needs of the group of people sitting around the table.  My work is to ask, “how does this fit with the broader issues that the people deal with daily?”  “What does this solutions do to actually help people?”  “What impact will this have on them?”  Not all solutions should be broadened and generalized to solve a larger issue but we should consider their larger impact. 

Every application must fit into an already rich application environment.  No application is truly a silo-application anymore.  Someone has to use it.  That someone already has a username and password if not several.  That someone already has a day that is full of tasks and applications.  That someone has things that don’t work so well, things that they are comfortable with and things that they cherish dearly.

The impact assessment of a new solutions should consider all of those people that the solution will effect.  If the new process changes their lives from reading paper documents to reading email, the users might not consider it an improvement.  What if reading the paper documents is what they do on the train in the morning?  Then your solution is a step backwards for them.  What seemed like a good idea to the team, reduce paper and use electronic delivery, actually was negative impact to the user and to overall productivity.  The user did that work before they got to the office as part of their daily routine.

This is part one of the “For the Common Good” part of my job. The solution that is delivered needs to take into consideration all those that will be impacted and it needs to fit into their lives and, ideally, change their lives for the better.

The second part comes into play during information gathering and sharing about the solution.  The new application or solution needs to be described in terms of the business value and the overall positive value of the change.  If you are going to add work to busy departmental staff, then it better be for something more than “your system”.  It better be for something like improving the enrollment process for students.  It better be for some larger good than simply benefitting the group developing the solution. You need to gather the business process improvements that the new solution will provide and then use those improvements to describe why the solution is important.

The final part has to do with scope.  Often, issues in one group are problems in another group too. Finding co-sponsors is a way of expanding the positive gain for the new processes or solution.   I spend time looking for others who I can bring into the discussion.  I look to see if the problem can be solved once for several constituents.  The broader solution will require collaboration and compromise but it can bring greater value and reduce the chaos of one-off solutions.  If the problem is solved once for many groups, then there is only one solution to maintain and there are many people who can provide input and expertise.

For me, “for the common good” means considering the broad impact, looking for the greatest value and delivering a solution for the largest constituency.  

Uncommon Thinking for the Common Good:

Bringing this all together provides one view on what I do as an I.T. Architect.  I get people to think broadly about a solution.  I get them to use a blank canvas and a rich palette of ideas when thinking of how we should solve a problem.  I also get them to think about how that solution fits in the larger environment, who it will help and who it will impact and finally who else should be brought into the discussion so we can deliver a far-reaching solution.

If I do my job well, then we get truly creative and expansive solutions that fit into the organization, improve peoples lives and help the greatest number of users.


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Fishing Lessons and I.T. Leadership

Chris Holsman wrote an article on I.T. Leadership traits for our internal newsletter. One part struck me as a lesson that has been hard for me to learn…

A third leadership trait I’ve cultivated is to fish where the fish are, not where they aren’t. This seems obvious but I find it astonishing how many of us (including me) spend much of our time pursuing objectives that don’t align with those of our organization or our customers.

This has a different variation for me as an Architect. For me, it is to fish where the fish are actually catchable. There are lots of projects or “improvements” that I see that are not attainable. The are out of reach for technical reasons (when we first started our SOA initiative many of our apps and the standards weren’t mature enough), for cultural reasons or budgetary reasons.

It has taken me several years to really learn to pick my fishing spots. I have had to learn to walk away from projects where I will have very little input or impact for a lot of effort needed. I have also had to let go of certain ideals because they need the organization to be more “mature” or “strategically aligned” or different in another way.

It is interestingly circular: I need to apply leadership to my own time. I need to figure out how to use my effort in a strategic way. I do this with projects and technologies – figure out how to use them strategically in enterprise. I guess I also had to learn how to do this to myself and my time.

One of my first meetings with Chris when he took the Director of EIS position was to talk about the fact that I had 28 projects on my radar. I knew I could only really work on two or three and track two or three others. He was great about the issue and let me talk myself through it. I guess that was my first fishing lesson from Chris.


I was talking my good friend Richard about this lesson. He also mentioned that you need to work with people you like and respect. When I think about the projects that I enjoy, it is because I also enjoy the people on the team. Those people I enjoy working with are those who are open-minded, creative, energetic, cheerful, collaborative and positive. These aspects also make them more open to creative solutions.

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Agility – it keeps me up at night

Our last CIO, Annie Stunden, used to talk about “what keeps her up at night”. These were the big intractable things or the big high-risk, highly visible projects she was working on. For me, it’s agility. How does an enterprise that prides itself on tradition and autonomy of everyone at every level become agile – that is able to embrace change and implement new ideas and technology quickly.

Agility is the ability to change course or direction with ease and grace.  An agile athlete can cut and leap while making it look effortless.  An agile enterprise can implement new technologies or embrace changes in the world with ease and grace.  Universities are not thought of as being agile but rather the opposite – steeped in tradition and long-deliberating on new changes.

There was an announcement about a new (worthy) initiative to improve the education skills of our faculty. Faculty are highly trained in their fields. They have spent years becoming expert on some are of study. We hire them for their great intellectual achievements and their promising research careers. And then we ask them to teach a class. For many, this is the first time they have been asked to build and run a course. So, we have a new initiative to study  ways to improve the teaching skills of our new (and old) faculty. I fully support this effort in case there is any doubt. It is pretty easy to imagine a time-line that looks something like this:

  • Year 1:  Research and Planning
  • Year 2:  Implementation, pilot and roll-out
  • Years 3 – 4:  Early adopters and success stories
  • Years 5 – 6:  Majority adopters and general improvement

This is me guessing at the time-line but I think it makes approximate sense.  If, six years from now the new program for improving teaching and had reached 66% of the faculty and shown a improvement in overall education; it would be a great success.  I think that it is likely that it will do so.

What I think about when I hear of something like this is agility.  Students today have a laptop with 1GB of RAM, an 80 GB hard drive, 10 – 50 Mb/second wireless connections.  They have an iPod with 80 GB of storage with a screen that has a 640X480 screen.  Their cell phone has a web browser, MP3 player, camera, video camera and a suite of messaging clients (text messaging, voice messaging and email).  If we follow Ray Kurzweil’s thinking and  Moore’s Law; then the student who comes in at the end of this 6 year plan will have 2 to the 4th more computing power at their fingertips.  The 1 GB of RAM will be 16 GBs.  The network speed will be 160 – 1000 Mb/second wireless connections.  Their iPod and laptop both will hold a terabyte of information.  Their cell phone will have a high definition video camera and a 16Mb still camera.

These are just the attributes that are doubling – the capabilities increase dramatically as these technology pieces double.  What happens when I can point my laptop camera at an object, have it recognized and instantly retrieve high-def movies about the object to my cell phone?  What does that mean to instructional style?

The technology and the students are highly agile.  Vendors are designing products for launch 2 years out expecting technical capabilities to double in the meantime.   What is too big, too expensive and requires too much computing horsepower now; is perfectly reasonable 18 months from now.  The students who are entering college now have had access to the World Wide Web their entire educational life.  They have always been able to “look it up on the web”.

There is another project that is on-going here which I’ll call “anonymous”.  They are also on a 5 to 6 year adoption plan.  Their vision is to pick a standard software package and then hope that people migrate to it.  After 5 or 6 years, the majority adopters will be using the system and then more rigorous standards can be developed for its use.   This is a common approach in higher-ed where there is no top-down approach and where autonomy is highly valued.   The shortcomings of this approach are that: (1) it takes the approach that each software solution is a silo which has no effect on any other activity in the enterprise and (2) it assumes a stable environment – “we have 6 years for this to be adopted and that’s okay because much else won’t change over that time”.

Back to my student with 2 terabytes of data and high definition video capture and gigabit wireless everywhere – does a system we think of now take into account the rapid change of our user’s world?   I’m not a futurist but I do see, and I agree with Ray Kurzweil, that  paradigm shifts are coming more and more quickly.  The world is changing with greater and greater rapidity.  The way to deal with that change is through agility.  We need to be able to change with greater and greater agility.  Fortunately, technology can help us to some extent.

SOA and Web Services, when fully implemented, allow for changes in business process and new applications to happen at a much higher level in the enterprise.  These changes become almost configuration changes rather than whole new applications stacks that are implemented.  But technology is only part of the solution to this problem.

The greater more difficult problem has to do with culture change.  The academic culture is thick with individualism and heritage.  People still complain about changes that were made a decade ago or two or three.  This individualism allows our institutions to foster great experimentation and wonderful debate.  Faculty and students can state disagreeable viewpoints in the safety of the institution and their rights.  Departments can experiment with new ways to deliver their courses and information to the world.  Researchers can band together with whomever they want anywhere in the world to chase an idea.  All great and marvelous stuff.

But this leads to a belief system that has two elements: “You can implement any technology you want as long as I can do what ever want however I want”. And the partner belief, “you can implement a new system as long as I don’t have to change anything that I do.”

How do we become agile as an institution is this environment of individualism, autonomy and self-determination?  How do we shorten those projects from 6 years to 3 or 2?  How do we get people to see that each project is actually part of larger whole and that we each need to give a bit of autonomy to increase the overall functionality of the organization?  In some ways, our institution is more like a colony of early single-celled organisms.  Each one with its own complete functions.  Somehow we need to grow to that next stage where there is differentiation so we can move up the evolutionary tree.  That means that each cell will give up some functionality to become a specialist but overall all of the functions will be better carried out.

How do we become agile, not just technically but also organizationally, this is the issue that keeps me up at night.

ITANA.ORG – I.T. Architects iN Academia takes off

I have been talking with peers, pushing ideas around and working with various groups for a while and it seems that the work is finally paying off. ITANA.ORG (http://www.itana.org) is a peer group for I.T. Architects in Academia. We will share ideas, tricks and tools; work on common deliverables and working group projects; spread the word about what I.T. Architects do and help new Architects get their feet. At least, that is my vision for the group.

Head over to ITANA.ORG and sign up for the email notices, pick up the RSS and request an account. Have an idea for a post? Send me an email.

Thanks for everyone’s help, support and enthusiasm.

– Jim

Centers of Excellence – Human Integration

I was struck by a line out of a Burton Group document that I’m reading.

>… the creation of user groups… are the human equivalent of a technology integration strategy.

In Service Oriented Architecture, I.T. Portfolio Management and Model Driven Architecture; Center’s of Excellent (CoE) are a key part of the infrastructure. A key to the CoE is that it has broad representation and derives its expertise from both technical and business experts. A key outcome of forming CoEs is that you begin to form integration points between the PEOPLE in various parts of the enterprise. The CoE should bring in end-users and business experts and connect them with the correct technical experts.

DoIT (the Division of Information Technology at UW-Madison) spends 62% of our budget on interfaces and integration according to our Deputy CIO who handles finances. I wonder what part of our budget is spent on integration and interfacing the people within the enterprise?

One of the key things that I.T. Architecture does is to help form these integration and interfaces. We try to gather input from across the enterprise. We form groups with representatives from business, end-user and technical areas to formulate road-maps and gather requirements.

I guess this quote made me realize the importance of this activity and the importance of the various Centers of Excellence that we are working towards.

I.T. Architecture in Academia – need for a group of peers

I have discussed with several people the need for a group of peers that would meet regularly. This group of peers (GOP – nah, already in use) would focus on the practice on the I.T. Architecture in Academia

At the highest level, they would:

* Define I.T. Architecture and Enterprise Architecture within Academia (and government) which does have a different flavor than in business
* Define the role(s) of the I.T. Architect and Enterprise Architect

The next level down:

* Talk about the processes that are used, what works, what doesn’t work
* Define various artifacts that we all could use in our jobs (frameworks, etc)

At the lowest level:

* They might work on a common Framework, suite of models or roles and functions for a given area (like I.T. Portfolio or Integration Competency Centers).

I have been contacted several times recently from people at Universities who are looking to become an I.T. Architect or who have recently been anointed I.T. Architect. Others have asked that I speak about what we do and our role in the enterprise.

Universities are interested in developing a core Architecture group and they will need a group of peers from which to draw expertise and to send new Architects to learn the ropes.

The next question, is how to start? Is there a national meeting which would be a logical and easy place to attach ourselves? Should we have a dedicated set of meetings to get started? Who would fund the meetings (pay for rooms, et al)? Who should organize them?

U-Minn presentations: SOA, Folksonomy and IT Architecture

On Monday (April 3, 2006), I was at University of Minnesota presenting on four topics. Below are links to the slides as PDFs:

  1. UW-Madison’s SOA Migration Strategy – what is it and how do we get one
  2. Folksonomy and Web 2.0
  3. IT Architecture – What is it and why 3 isn’t enough
  4. Identity Management Nouns and Verbs

Note that the Folksonomy slides are from an Internet2 version of the talk and are more inclusive than the slides I used at U-Minn. Actually, I meant to grab these slides not the ones that I used. There are a list of links of the URLs that I used in the Folksonomy demo here:

Links I Use in My Folksonomy Demo

Google School Rankings

A graduate student at Stanford – Mike Tung – put together a suite of scripts and tools to generate College rankings based on Google searches. He didn’t want to pay for the USNews’ Annual America’s Best Colleges report. Though his work is quite technical, I imagine that it will be simplified into a web app that any student can use at any point in time. “What are the College rankings now?” click…

Continue reading

Three forces for migration to SOA

There are three forces that we can bring to bear to push change to a Service Oriented Architecture.

(1) Architectural Purity

>This is the force of arguing that it is the right thing to do. You can state a lot of reasons why it is the right thing to do like: composite applications, workflow, ROI, integration cost reduction, etc. Basically, you stand on high ground and preach that this is the correct approach. This is a difficult sell to pull off especially in a heterogeneous and feudal enterprise like a higher education institution.

(2) Consumer Request

>This is force of the consumer of the information or service asking for a new way of getting information. The statement goes something like, “I need to know X from your system. I would prefer to get that information in a Web Service rather than a flat file.” The reasons for making this argument may have to do with timeliness of data (it needs to be up-to-date at this moment) or ownership of the business rules (e.g. you have all of the data to determine if X is true so you should just provide the answer instead of sending me the data so I can derive the answer) or possibly wanting to be on the front edge of technology.

(3) Provider Demand

>This is the force of the data provider (or source or system of record) deciding they will no longer support older interface styles (flat file transfers et al) and instead will only support a Web service interface. This argument can bring to bear cost incentives. The provider can state, “if you use the Web service, we will make sure that the Web service is upgrade and updated. If you must have a flat-file, then you must pay for all of the work to develop, maintain and deliver the file”. They can also bring policy enforcement into play. “Any request for a flat-file will be reviewed and you will have to make an argument why you must have the flat file rather than use our Web service”.

The Provider Demand force is the one that has the most weight behind it and is the one that is mostly like to carry day. We can argue about the Architectural Purity of a SOA and we can request Web services but that will fall on deaf ears or at least un-funded ears. When the data providers demand that the data consumers use their Services or pay the bill, then we will see rapid adoption of SOA.

Tagging and Virtual Organizations

I have been espousing the idea that various conferences could choose a tag up front then implore their attendees to use that tag for their blog entries about the conference. This is a simple way to enable information aggregation from a virtual organization.

EDUCAUSE has just announced a tag for their upcoming conference. It looks like the will aggregate the various RSS feeds into a single page.

connect.educause.edu | Technology In Academia — Connect @ EDUCAUSE
Tagging the Annual Conference

If you’re blogging the conference or uploading photos from the show to a site that supports tagging (ala Flickr), please use EDUCAUSE_ANNUAL to classify your entries. We’ll be displaying aggregate information in the right-hand column at the url below: