Friday, November 8, 2013

Should Architects Evangelize?

When making radical changes to operating practice, you by definition will be injecting large amounts of change into the organization you are working with.  Things like private cloud are different enough that they will cause strain within organizations who attempt to implement these new technologies.  I find that there is an interesting dichotomy within the IT business around change and progress.  The business is populated by people who love technology and often pursue the latest bright shiny object just because it is, well, new.  Is it better?  Who knows?  At the same time, we work within extremely large infrastructures that are incredibly expensive to build and thus are very long lived.  These two things seem at odds and often create a type of cognitive dissonance that seems to escape some people.

This is especially true of the press covering the high tech world.  They’re always searching for that new thing which means that the tried and true technology that actually works usually gets short shrift.  If all you did was read the blogosphere or the high tech press, you’d think that things were very different than they actually are.  I spend most of my working life worrying about private cloud adoption.  This is something that’s been around for a few years now and you’d think that it’s a known thing.  However, the reality is sharply at odds with this.  Recently, I conducted an informal survey of about a hundred customers.  I asked them questions like “do you have a private cloud.”  Unsurprisingly, about 50% claimed to have one.  We then we asked, "do you allow self service provisioning?"  Very surprisingly, only about 50% of those companies said yes.  This means that only about 25% of the total (admittedly small) sample had even the most basic cloud feature enabled.  There’s always debate about what “cloud” really means, but pretty much everyone agrees that self-service is a necessary basic feature.  Let’s be clear, we didn’t ask if ALL their workloads were running on a cloud style architecture.  We just asked if ANY of their infrastructure supported it.  This means that the vast majority of enterprise workloads are not running on a cloud.  This may be a stunning revelation to those who are already talking about the "post cloud era."

As an architect, this is disappointing.  I really think that my customers can benefit from the concept of cloud.  Whether they buy my product or not, the core concept of cloud has immense power.  If they’re not aware of the benefits or don’t really understand the term, I can’t really help them reach their full potential.

This brings us to the question of evangelization.  The first person I ever met who called himself an evangelist was Guy Kawasaki when he worked at Apple.  His business card just said “Software Evangelist” which I thought was pretty cool.  I wish I’d been more careful with the card, I thought I’d kept it but couldn’t find it the other day when working on my new book about architects.  Sigh.

Being an evangelist is a funny thing.  Much like “Architect” the job description is a little fuzzy.  What I can say is that I know a good one when I see one.  For many companies evangelization is a key part of their business strategy.  Rackspace for example is doing an awesome job of pushing their agenda for OpenStack via evangelization.  Yes, they’re doing it for self-serving reasons, but they are also doing a great job of promoting what is essentially a free technology.  That’s good for all of us.  On the other hand, doing it poorly can be really annoying.  Not to be mean, but if you look at what my old employer, Microsoft is doing in this space, it’s not amazing.  The last OpenStack talk I attended by a MSFT presenter quickly turned into a naked sales pitch for their product.  The audience then checked out and started to disengage.  It’s a fine line, but you need to understand why Evangelization isn’t selling.

I bring this up because I believe that this is a key skillset and activity for the fully actualized architect.  Having a vision is nice.  Having a massive impact on the organization is what we live for.  The implication is that the journey to truth involves convincing others that your vision for the future truth is a big part of that journey.

If you’re a senior IT guy and you’ve never worked for a vendor in a customer facing role, this may not be an obvious skill that you’ve spent time developing.  On the other hand, I’m sure you understand that you need to have political support to get anything done.  Everyone’s heard the joke about the “Eighth Level” of the ISO stack.  In fact, the joke is so common that you usually don’t have to explain it to people.  I think that’s because it’s fundamentally true.  Like many things, it’s the shared understanding of the truth that makes it funny.

If you shy away from the term evangelist or if you feel this is really selling in disguise, think about how you would like to learn about something new.  Pick an area of technology that’s completely foreign to you.  Would you rather be exposed to that new area by a sales guy?  Or would you rather talk to someone you consider a peer?  Unless you’re strangely into self-abuse, I’m guessing the latter (no disrespect to sales guys…. OK, that’s a lie, it’s pretty disrespectful).  If you are learning about a new technology, do you want to talk to someone who thinks that technology is crap?  Wouldn’t that be a pretty short conversation?  “Hey, should I use the new FOO operating system?  Nah, that’s crap.”  OK.  End of conversation.  So, now you’re talking to a pretty technical person who’s really enthusiastic about something that you know very little about.  What do you call that?  Yep, evangelization. 

Now that we agree that evangelization is a vital part of an architect’s role, let’s talk about what it really is.

It’s selling.

Wait, what?  Didn’t we just agree that everyone hates a salesman?  Yep.  That’s true.  People hate being sold to.  Being really, really, good at selling means that you don’t really sell at all.  The true master salesman seeks to understand the customer’s underlying need and then satisfies that need.  When this happens, it’s called “customer service” which we all love.  When the salesman tries to force fit you into a product or solution with zero regard for what the customer really wants or needs, it’s called “being sold to” and most of us hate that.

I mentioned this in my book “Why we Fail” about enterprise adoption of private cloud.  The best book I’ve ever read about selling to technical people is called “Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play” by Mahan Khalsa.  In that book Khalsa introduces many awesome concepts, but one of them that I really like is what he calls “Peeling the Onion” to get down to what a customer really needs.  The implication for us as architects is that we need to understand both the underlying business requirements and the capabilities brought by the technologies.  It is by merging these two that we become evangelists.  Essentially, the future truth that we week to create is assembled by merging these two things.  This discovery process has many forms.  In most cases, all the information we need is hiding in the heads of those around us.  Despite our best intentions, most of the really critical facts are not written down and will never be discovered by browsing the web or reading whitepapers.  It is by talking to business stake holders, users, engineers, administrators and others that the architect can begin to bring those two domains into alignment.

Once you really understand where that overlap occurs, you form your vision.  You begin to understand what application, platform or service can satisfy the stated and un-stated requirements.  You begin your march towards that future truth.  However, you cannot do this by yourself.  Any serious enterprise system is going to be too large for a single person to implement.  This implies that you will require fellow travelers.  How will you recruit these brave souls?  How will you help them understand why the future truth you envision is superior to what they have now?  What secret superhero skill does the architect use to project this future truth onto others and entice them to journey into this great and glorious unknown future?

Wait for it.

Oh yes my brother; it’s evangelization. 





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