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5 Minutes with Tom Graves

13th Aug 2014

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How do you explain to a lay person what you do? When you're consulting with a client, what problem are you trying to solve?

"How do you explain what you do" - 'with difficulty', is the honest answer! Probably the way I'd describe 'the problem we're trying to solve' is that the aim is to get things working together, better, and on purpose. The catch is that everything depends on everything else, and we may well start almost anywhere - literally. Although it's called 'architecture', at the EA level we don't all that much detailed-design - it's more big-picture than that.  In practice, much of it is about setting conversations between people from different disciplines, and different levels, and often from different organisations too - hence soft-skills are often even more important than technical ones.

What was your first job and how did you find yourself working as an expert in enterprise architecture?

My first job? A bit tricky to answer, because I've never been an employee in the regular sense - always either an independent or a contractor. But probably first 'real job' would have been as an illustrator in research on child-development, and photographer for a medical-education publisher. Next was guest-lecturer on typography and other themes, at art-college and elsewhere. The one after that - for seven years or so - was running a pre-press business, and developing the software for what became one of the key predecessors to desktop-publishing. Over the years, there's been some time on microcontrollers, a bit of robotics, a decade in aerospace research, the usual telecoms and logistics and banking and a whole lot more... In short, yeah, I've kinda careered, you might say. Which, it seems, is not at all unusual for an enterprise-architect these days: we need depth of experience, it's true, but we need breadth of experience even more.

And how did I "find [my]self working as an expert in EA"? It just kinda happened, really - there was no one day that I woke up and said "I am now an enterprise-architect!" Mostly it's about gaining a lot of experience across a lot of industries, building a sense of the problems and patterns, the samenesses and the differences, the tricks that work, the seemingly-obvious 'solutions' that don't - that sort of thing. And although, yes, I'm an 'expert' in that I do have a lot of experience in a lot of different fields, I don't regard myself as "an expert" in that usual over-glamourised sense - I'm just me, I'm just another guy doing my job the best way I can, that's all.

Describe a typical day as an EA?

There isn't one! - that's one of the joys, and stresses, of the job. It changes all the time, and it's at every level: one day it can be right up in top-level strategy, the next day we could be digging way into the depths of the fine-detail to find some key foundational flaw that could bring the whole enterprise down. "It depends" - that's one of the keywords here, really.

It's also a mixture of structure and story. Yes, there's some structure-type work - models and suchlike - but most of that is really the solution-architects' role, and they often won't like us barging onto their turf. Instead, much of what we do is more about building a story, about how things work now and how they could together better, either in the present or in the future. And we often deal with huge complexities, so the process of finding a simple-enough story to describe all of that, yet without losing any of the key nuances and 'gotchas', can be a surprisingly hard part of the work that we do.

How do you explain the emergence of crowd business models and social commerce. To what extent has technology enabled this?

As for how it emerged, well, 'social commerce' is really what people have always done - that's what markets are, after all. Different technologies enable different ways of doing 'social business', which in turn create new opportunities. So yes, in that sense, the technology is important. But whilst "it's not not about the technology" - to quote Andrew McAfee - it's really important to not get too distracted by the technologies themselves. Instead, we need to keep the focus on the social aspect - on the ways in which people work, think and relate, and the shared-purpose that brings them together.

Does the idea of business-integration also mean that working on weekends or outside office hours will become the new norm?

There's a lot of discussion happening right now about 'new ways of working', a lot of "It depends" - which puts it straight into enterprise-architecture territory, of course. For example, what exactly is meant by terms such as 'weekends', or 'office-hours', when people work remotely on an enterprise all around the globe at the same nominal time? If you want more detail on this, I'd recommend Jason Fried and David Hansson's book "Remote: Office Not Required" - they have a lot of practical real-world experience on this, on what works and what doesn't, and why.

From your experience, what are the common mistakes leaders make when executing a whole-of-business transformation?

Probably the classic mistake is to over-focus on the IT - possibly in the forlorn hope that doing so will somehow magically bring 'control' to something that's inherently not 'controllable', in the old Taylorist sense of the term. We see that mistake time after time, in many different forms.

Another variant of that we also see too often in EA is over-reliance on some prepackaged framework - people trying to follow TOGAF step-by-step, for example, even though the book itself is explicit in warning people that the framework needs to be customised for each different context. Prepackaged frameworks and 'best-practices' can help - no doubt about that - but because every context is different, they only take us so far before we really have to do it ourselves.

The real-world is messy and full of 'wicked-problems'; and there are no short-cuts that will always work. Most of the big mistakes arise from people choosing to ignore either or both of those two all-important facts...

What are the current developments in enterprise architecture in technology-centric businesses?

Probably the single most important development right now is the slow realisation that whilst the technology is important, the real problems aren't in the technology itself: as veteran IT-consultant Gerry Weinberg once put it, "it's always a 'people-problem'". And that's true no matter how technical it looks, because people are the only ones who can solve that 'technical problem'. Because of that shift, there's a much stronger emphasis now on so-called 'soft-skills' - which in practice often turn out to be much harder than the technology-oriented 'hard-skills'!

What's your advice to others who are interested in a career in EA?

Be interested in everything! - simple as that, really. Look at how things connect, or don't connect; look at the 'between-spaces', the gaps, the bits that connect between all of the different specialist disciplines and domains.

The technology is important - and not just the IT, by the way, but every kind of technology, machines, manufacturing, nanotechnology, materials, aerospace, the lot. Yet as I said earlier, the really important part is not the technology, but how people interact with each other, and with the 'story' that they share in order to do work and business together: that's where the 'enterprise' in enterprise-architecture really resides.

You are on a bit of world tour at the moment, why is this?

Spread the word, basically. I'm one of the relatively-few people who've been working for a fair old while on enterprise-architecture as the literal 'architecture of the enterprise' - rather than primarily 'the architecture of the enterprise-IT' - and since it's now becoming clear that that expansion of scope is crucially necessary to many enterprises, well, someone gotta get out there and show how to do it, haven't they?

Also, to be blunt, I'm now at an age where if I don't do this, an awful lot of the work that I've done and tools that I've developed will risk being lost forever. Kinda sobering sometimes... - yet also seeing some solid hints now of what's coming up ahead at a global scale in the not too distant future, it seems important to leave some kind of legacy that will help people deal with it when Reality Department does at last hit home.

You have written a number of books around EA over the years. How do you go about picking the subject for the next one?

I don't: instead, it's more like it picks me! That's how it feels, anyway.

To give a bit more detail, most of the work I do is about metaframeworks, the tools and techniques we use to build context-specific frameworks, tool and techniques. What I look for - or, perhaps more accurately, allow myself to notice in the passing stream - is some kind of gap, some tool that's missing in the metaframework space: two recent examples have been books on the role of story in enterprise-architecture, and on a simple tool called SCAN that's used for mapping out and guiding sensemaking and decision-making.

You travel frequently, what dish reminds you of home?

I'm nominally English, so yeah, it would have to be ham, egg and chips. (About as plain as it gets - but then English cooking is, well, uh, English cooking, isn't it?) But with tartare sauce for the chips, which seems to be an 'Aussie thing', somehow.

In a lot of senses, 'home' is where I am, rather than a specific place, so it's more that other dishes remind me of the places I've been, the places I've lived. Breakfasts, particularly. Such as the 'breakfast stack' of egg and bacon on top of a stack of pancakes, complete with maple-syrup, that was typical breakfast fare at the now-gone Koffee Klatch in Fairfax, a few miles north of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. In Mexico and Guatemala, it was 'huevos rancheros' - eggs, tortillas, beans and salsa. In France, it was croissants, of course; in the Netherlands, the vast 'uitsmijter', an all-too-literal 'pusher-out'! And Australia? - well, it would have to be muesli, soy-milk and yogurt, because, for almost a decade, that's what I grabbed each morning before rushing for the Melbourne train.

Food and places... yeah, you're right, food is an important key in how we experience an enterprise. So how come we don't include that in our enterprise-architecture too? Hmm, now there's a thought... maybe a suitable topic for another EA book, perhaps!

(And thanks for the questions, everyone!)