The Sarah Chana Chronicles
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Accidental Architect–I Think Not!
The Sarah Chana Chronicles
Accidental Architect–I Think Not!
Accidental Architect–I Think Not!
Sarah Chana Mocke
11 Jan 2013 10:42 AM
I often hear people in our industry describe themselves as "accidental architects". I sometimes look at my past career similarly, but at some point we need to step out of lethargy and deconstruct our journeys without falling into the trap of clichés and appropriate sounding analogies.
There was a time when I set out to be the master techie in my company. In the very late ‘80s that meant knowing every Microsoft product in depth (yes, that was possible then), and IBM OS/2 and Lotus Notes too! I did everything I could to know everything in my domain and was quite a capable one-man show going from enterprise customer to enterprise customer both installing and supporting everything from LAN Manager and SQL Server, Microsoft Mail, MS-DOS and Windows desktops, Office for Windows and Word for DOS. I could tweak every parameter in every .ini and .sys file and, yes, even the server heuristics settings for LAN Manager! I also held the record for the most memory freed up in DOS when MS-DOS 5.0 shipped with EMM386. MSD was for wannabes, FDISK was consummately boring and I used Norton Utilities and Debug on MS-DOS. I could program in Assembly Language, and even when I got dragged kicking and screaming into the world of Turbo Pascal I admit I felt relieved when v5.0 came out and most of my programming could being with "asm:" after the usual preamble.
At some point Norton Desktop for Windows 2.0 was my desktop and I found myself writing some fairly insane macros for Lotus 1-2-3 and AmiPro.
So why mention all of this? Well it's a part of my career history, but more importantly it's a stark admission that I didn't get into IT to become an Architect. I was a geek. I was head of my school computer club which consisted of some basic IBM-compatible Epson PCs, a couple of Acorn BBC Micros and a RadioShack TRS-80. BBCs had the best games, but more importantly the best resolution and color. My friends and I would spend hours trying to get the most done with the simplest, most readable BBC Basic. We'd fight over the supremacy of the Commodore 64 and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (my venerable home machine - which I still own today!). At no point did I set out to be an Architect. That came later.
At some point the scale and complexity of software grew, and a combination of customer demand for expertise and my own choices I started to focus a lot more on network operating systems, platforms and security (platform and security pretty much meaning OS with antivirus software prior to the Internet becoming more prevalent). As the first Windows 95 leaks started to surface on gopher, which I accessed through my MS OS/2 1.3 and/or a TrumpNet Winsock-enabled Windows system, I recall being so shocked at what I saw that I simply couldn't ever consider abandoning OS/2. For a long time I was in two-minds… but then I started getting official access to Windows NT early builds and I was hooked. I did spend time doing other interesting things on OS/2 for quite a while. The Microsoft Mail MTA required OS/2 for handling simultaneous connections and so I kept up to scratch on that.
As Windows NT, Systems Management Server and Exchange 4.0 came along, with all of their capabilities and complexities, I kind of got bogged down into focusing primarily on them. I recall being fascinated by the possibilities of Network DDE that shipped with Windows for Workgroups and ended up writing a client-server app in Visual Basic and Turbo Pascal for Windows (I did DLLs in that) to allow everyone on our network to page staff on pagers via TCP/IP. I maintained some pretty advanced skills on Microsoft Office too, but those rapidly devolved to tools I used for my own purposes rather than helping others.
I also wrote a book about running an entire Internet platform on Windows NT (HTTP, WAIS, GOPHER and FTP using free tools) long before we released the Windows NT 4.0 Option Pack. Then I learned IIS. In 1993 I attended TechEd in Orlando and remember discovering a brand new product called Site Server underneath my seat. At that point in my life it was the finest trick in the World. Now I recognize it as an Oprah moment, but wow, that worked. I learned that product and I loved it for all its flaws. I remember writing an entire bookstore for my company that ran on top of it, as well as a Java-based IM client that I developed from scratch and integrated into the store website.
And there's more, but I'll spare you ;-)
While my activities seem like a crazed set of randomness what was resulting was a rapidly developing focus on what technology could do for others, rather than a focus on technology just because it was cool and detailed. I started to make the first forays into a career that I didn't even know was called Architect. Microsoft didn't have those people in those days. We had Enterprise Program Managers and Consultants of varying seniority. We had Practice Managers too, but no Engagement Managers and our projects, at least in my geographies, didn't need project managers just yet. Around the time Windows 2000 shipped all of that exploded into life. Suddenly we needed both Project Managers and Engagement Managers and Architects started to become more visible at Microsoft. Only when I saw that title did I ever consider becoming one. It seemed like the uber-techie, and I still wanted to be it!
In the mid-‘90s as the Internet hit South Africa, I remember the owner of the large publicly listed company I worked at talking to me about the things that excited him about the Internet. Something that struck me, that I never forgot and actually did a lot of work on later, was the way he described the Internet being a great leveler for education. In a country with stark differences between the haves and the have-nots he could see opportunities to provide access to information to anyone that only children attending private schools previously had access through from volumes of encyclopedias, no matter how underprivileged and poverty-stricken they might be. He practically bubbled with enthusiasm, and me having come from a very poor family caught his infectious enthusiasm and doled it out too.
In 1998 I attended Microsoft global sales conference. Steve Ballmer was on stage as fired up and passionate as ever. Something he said really stuck with me. He asked the audience to take a look around them as they went about their day to day lives and notice all of the people in the streets and ask themselves a simple question, "how many of them have been affected by Microsoft technology." It was a simple question with a simple answer. Everyone was using Windows or depended on a system that used Windows and Office. It was a remarkably simple question with an even more remarkable answer. At that time at Microsoft it dawned on all of us that everything we did everyday was affecting almost everyone on the planet in ways we couldn't even imagine. Those two experiences changed me. I have never thought about technology in the same way ever since. I had already started to become interested in what technology could do for others, but as those events transpired I started to become interested in how I could shape the solutions I delivered to service the needs of others. The former and the latter sound similar, but they're not. They differ remarkably, and the simplest way I can sum that up is to simply say that in the case of the latter I started to consider how I could shape the solutions at my disposal to service a set of business needs, rather than expect the business to adjust itself to the limitations of technology. In the case of the former I would occasionally suggest alternatives and/or 3rd party solutions, in the case of the former I was happy to do the maximum, sometimes with intense customization, to service the need. Servicing a business need and engaging in lower risk (managed risk) behavior is something we expect of all staff now, but in those days most especially Architects.
In short I developed a passion for helping customer realize value from their investments in our technology long before I recognized that I wanted to be an Architect. I was growing organically.
My engagements also shaped me. I was the most senior technical resource in my location and a combination of my superiors not necessarily understanding who they were throwing me in front of and my own willingness to learn saw me get thrust into engagements working with extremely senior IT staff in financial organizations; the types of senior people that worked with Anderson Consulting and IBM senior staff. In the Jewish world we have a word called chutzpah, and I've always had plenty. I remember a big pivotal moment in my career when the CTO at the big insurance company I was thrown into looked at me the first day I walked in the door (yes, I was very appropriately attired - not wearing a t-shirt and jeans) and challenged me. He simply said, "Microsoft doesn’t know anything about Architecture." I remember taking a very deep breath and panicking a bit, knowing full-well I probably didn't have his experience and that I had been resistant about being thrown into the engagement in the first place. I simply said, "show me what you think architecture is."
I didn't understand the magnanimity of my question and I barely knew him, but it turned out he'd actually created a work of art with his team and he proudly showed it to me. I pored over it all and while learning a lot about his IT organization I also got to learn a lot about how to deliver architecture. It was helpful that his architecture was actually used in the enterprise and my awareness of what solutions they had deployed previously helped me find some common frames of reference that helped me connect up some very meaningful dots. I wasn't an Architect in Role at Microsoft at the time. I was a Senior Consultant and billed as such. I did however start doing architecture things, and that CTO and his #2 ended up mentoring me for a number of years during and after my engagements there.
As I practiced and practiced, and continued to work with enterprise architecture practices in all of the large financial institutions in my geography I learned an enormous amount about architecture praxis. It was "school of hard-knocks" learning coupled with any material that I could lay my hands on. That continued all the way until I moved to Seattle in late 2011.
My experiences that resulted in me becoming in Architect at Microsoft cannot be described as apprentice or journeyman to master. I never set out to become an Architect initially, but as I developed various passions and knowledge that I derived from my experiences I ended up becoming one. In the classic building analogy we assume the journey to Architect entails some kind of journey from draughtsman to architect. In many career paths, including ours, there are interns that aim to become masters in their domains. The proverbial blacksmith's apprentice becoming a master crafter of swords. Becoming an Architect was not accidental. I didn't wake up one day and discover I was an Architect. I didn't set out in my youth to become one either. I know I was headed on a trajectory in my career and at some point architecture concepts became a little more present in my awareness. That's when I focused more specifically, found two great mentors and engaged in as much architecture work as I possibly could. A few years later I ended up in the role and delivered in it for a number of years very successfully.'
Architecture in it's implementation (the point at where value is realized), delivering customer value and seeing great solutions in action solving real-world problems is something I'm very passionate about and have enjoy for years. It wasn’t always that way.
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