Monkeys at Typewriters Painting the Forth Bridge

Ian Bailey

Lets imagine there was once a very big EA project that involved lots of people modelling lots of things, in lots of depth, with no particular goals in mind, and in an environment where the things they were modelling were constantly changing. Under these circumstances, you’ve got “Monkeys at typewriters, painting the Forth Bridge” – a term I once heard used to describe enterprise architecture. I think it aptly describes a number of EA projects across various industries. Every bank, telco and defence organisation has had one of these, and most of them happened around the early 2000s.

I’d like to think that no-one does EA that way any more, certainly not at that scale. However, for the last couple of years various blogs and and LinkedIn posts have been mourning (or celebrating) the demise of Enterprise Architecture. There are plenty of these blogs out there, and while they all share a common theme, they don’t often agree on what the cause is. Some think the EA frameworks are bloated and overly complex – which is probably true, but it seems a somewhat churlish explanation for failing EA. Some think it’s all to do with IT taking over the discipline and ignoring the business aspects. Again, I think there’s an element of truth to this, but systems architecture seems to be alive and well, so why would it fail if you just happen to call it “enterprise architecture” ? Some like to blame the tools. Others argue that EA fails when you try to align business and IT, because that’s just not possible. I’d argue it’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.

So, why have so many EA projects failed ?  Well, I’m not sure that many have failed, and a lot of the blogs I’ve been reading seem to emphasise failures so they can sell their own particular brand of snake-oil EA that will definitely not fail. Probably.

Anyways, failing or not, dead or alive, I can’t help thinking the ones that failed did so because of the people involved. Not the individuals, but the combination of their personalities and approaches. There are a few organisational antipatterns that sometimes emerge when you get too many people of a certain personality type in the EA team.

The Men in the High Tower

OK, so they’re not all men, but the really bad ones are usually male.  This is the corporate EA function. A collection of beard-stroking (told you they were men) intellectuals who set policy and guidance for all architectures in the organisation. They like to argue – often amongst themselves, but usually with project/programme architects. They tend to be somewhat detached from reality and don’t have much experience of actually building anything. I’ve encountered a few of these units over the years, and they seem to  consist of highly paid, bright people who’ve somehow managed to become architects without ever having done anything else. They are universally loathed by the coders and solution architects they dictate to. They are also made of teflon. No matter how stupid their decisions, and how obvious the link from those decisions to project overruns, they never get the blame. Some poor sucker in the project always has to take it on the chin.

 

Minecrafters

These guys love to dig. No problem is too small enough, no architecture is complete until it’s modelled the enterprise at a subatomic scale. They will spend every ounce of project budget modelling an as-is architecture that the project is intended to replace. This is sometimes called “analysis paralysis” and I’ve seen it more times than I care to think about. If you get enough of this personality type on a project (or even just one, in a leadership position) you’re in for a very expensive ride.

Steve Jobs, without the talent

These are very single minded individuals, so sure of their ideas, and so persuasive they get to bulldoze them past all technical objections. They’re great at persuading management, and they’re all about their ideas. Unfortunately, their ideas are often rubbish. That doesn’t seem to stop them though. Steve Jobs was said to have unbelievable tenacity and bullheadedness. He also had good judgement though, and he paid attention to the details. There aren’t that many people like that out there, only ones who think they are.

The Voice of the Business 

These are the user’s friends, there to defend what the user wants against those horrible naysaying techies !  Or are they ?  Maybe they just heard something in a user requirements session and wrote it down ? Maybe they thought it was a bit weird, but didn’t want to challenge the requirement because “the customer’s always right” ?

OK, so I’ve make up some really horrible caricature stereotypes, and emphasised some of their worse points.  But, nobody’s perfect, and my point is more that if you have an EA team made up of predominately one of these groups you’ve got trouble. Ideally you’d like a good mix of all those people, ready to challenge each other and get a balanced design that solves the business problem with affordable, reliable technology. You need the beard strokers to set policy, scan the horizon and specify the logical architecture. You need minecrafters to dig into some of the architectural problem areas, but you don’t want them doing deep dives on everything. You need the vision people with the ability to sell the ideas (not always their own ideas) to sceptical management, and you need good business analysts who are part of the design team rather than agents for a customer they don’t really understand.

If you don’t have all of those aspects, the EA function / project will be in trouble. Without the vision and salesmanship, the architecture will be ignored. Without the business analysis, the architecture will miss the point. Without the diggers, significant problems will be overlooked and workarounds will be needed. Without the beards, the architecture will be just business as usual. You need a balanced EA team. The projects I’ve seen fail over the years didn’t have that.

If you’ve got a lot of minecrafters with strong leadership, but you lack vision about what the goal is, or what the customer wants, then you’ve got a problem. Add a big budget to that, and you just might attain the holy grail of EA dysfunction –  monkeys at typewriters painting the Forth Bridge.