Saturday, March 7, 2015

What I learnt in a year running an Architecture Review Board (ARB)

Among my first tasks after joining the Enterprise Architecture team for my employer - a multinational Ag Biz company - was to redefine the Architecture Review Board (ARB), a need that was triggered by a review of our Enterprise Architecture program.

The head of architecture explained the company’s “history” of architecture governance and the shifting focus of the architecture function. As in many large multinational enterprises, the company’s IS team continues to evolve to mirror changing business drivers. The pendulum had swung from extremely governed to the laissez faire model, and I was tasked with operationalizing a fit-for-purpose ARB.

So, what did I learn?

As should be expected of any global organization, the architecture landscape is complex. Running the ARB process gave me a ringside view into changes being introduced into the landscape.

To appreciate the value chain, understand organization change
  • The architecture tradeoffs used to review proposals and the ARB recommendations are a good dipstick into the stakeholders’ appetite for change.
  • The ARB is integrated into the portfolio and program management processes. Hence, ARB members can try and understand Who (stakeholder/sponsor) is paying for the change, and Why (the value expected from the investment)
Appreciate the subtleties of “business” engagement

Passionate debates on engaging with business frequently surface in online Enterprise Architecture forums. Some of it is because the term ‘business engagement’ is nebulous, and may be used to describe several things
  • People – Business user of a business system or process
  • Functions - Business function like Finance, HR, Supply Chain etc, or Business unit - like the British or Turkish subsidiary of a multinational or the “Houston manufacturing plant”
  • Leaders and leadership teams – Ranging from top tier CxO reporting to the CEO/Board to leaders of functional or business units and others in between
During ARB reviews, I sometimes find it easier to just work with the sponsor - people with money or people who know people with money - than to debate how to engage “business”. The assumption is simple: sponsors follow the money.

Aspire for a “seat at the table” but be pragmatic

Engaging business to “define strategies” is another topic of continual debates in Enterprise Architecture forums. In reality, a seat at the table may be more about effective realization of strategy than about ideating on business scenarios in an ivory tower. For example, a few scenarios:
  • M&A: Mergers & Acquisitions are generally strategic business decisions involving a handful of people - the board, CEO, CXO, a business head or two and handpicked lawyers and accountant with sundry advisors.
  • Decision to expand or divest business: Also strategic business decisions involving only a handful of people.
  • Decisions to enter new line of business. E.g a software services company deciding to operate data centers or expand into “cloud operations” or an AgBiz company introducing a complementary solution for farmers
In these scenarios, EA’s and other senior managers may be engaged to enable execution *after* such strategic decisions are taken.

In this article, I try and highlight a few of my empirical observations and learnings. A more detailed discussion of Architecture Review Board and my case study can be found in this month's Cutter IT Journal article (Enabling Successful EA Governance -link).

Cross post from my Linkedin Pulse

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Tech Executives: Don’t underestimate 2015 Cricket World Cup

Cricket World cup has started. And over a billion people in the world - much of south Asia and most residents of commonwealth countries are going to be reverted to televisions for the next few weeks.

Even the mainstream media in America is watching closely. A recent Wall Street Journal article Cricket’s Big Day Falls on Valentine’s, Bowling Couples a Googly put it succulently “Cricket may be little known in the U.S., but the more than 200-year-old sport has roused passions of everybody from best-selling British authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle to India’s Bollywood movie stars.”
So, what does the game being played thousands of miles away have to do with Tech executives in America or Europe? A lot!

About four years ago, I was leading a major eCommerce rollout for a client in Columbus Ohio. I was living in Phoenix and commuting frequently to Ohio and between the project and travel, wasn't too distracted by the tournament being played across the world. Not so for my colleagues, many of who were either traveling from India or working on the project from there.

The project go-live was planned for first weekend in April. I could feel the energy in the project go down as we approached the semi-finals, especially India continued to march to the finals. A month before the go-live, I tried to warn the Program Manager, his boss and the Senior VP of eCommerce but I kept hearing “It is just a game.”

Guess what happened? My arguments that this was more than “just a game” went unheeded. And then India beat Pakistan to get to the finals. And the project release had to be aborted after a botched attempt to go-live that weekend.

There was only one lesson learnt then, which I thought I’d share here again: If you have an IT project or major milestone planned for the last weekend in March, please, please reconsider the dates.

By the way, if your IT applications or systems are being supported by a vendor or a team in India - which is a very likely – cut them some slack during the weekend of finals.

(Cross posted from my Linkedin blog)

Friday, February 13, 2015

"30 years this February" Musing on Free Agents in IT

Many of us in the vibrant field of Information Technology (IT) think of ourselves as “Free Agents.” Chasing the next cool project and opportunity to work on newer technologies or simply jumping for more money seems to be the norm.

Hence I was pleasantly surprised to see a Linkedin notification inviting me to “Say Happy work anniversary!” to a connection, a fellow EA who shall remain unnamed, for “30 years this February” I had to do a double take before I “liked” the post and added my Congrats!

Thirty years working for a single employer is a lifetime, especially for corporate IT professionals. All the more surprising, given the constant corporate churn, periodic reorganizations, M&A, outsourcing and offshoring that folks in corporate IT have to work through.

This got me reflecting on the arguments I had made in an article over a decade ago (IEEE’s Computer Magazine: “From organization man to free agent”) My thoughts had been triggered by Daniel Pink’s bestseller, Free Agent Nation. In his book, Mr. Pink extends the term Free Agent from the field of sports to corporate world, contending that emergence of moonlighting was a way for corporate professionals to hedge their bets in a changing world.

My argument was that IT and computing professionals are breaking away from the typical mold of an “organization man*” by striving to become free agents. Some do it by moonlighting or job-hopping and others by building and maintaining a personal “brand” independent of their corporate identity. I took that message to heart and have tried to live the life of a free agent, albeit within the umbrella of large employers. (For instance, the rather long stint of 8+ years I spent with my previous employer was really a series of gigs, relocating across three continents and four countries.)

A lot has happened since I wrote that paper, redefining my perception of free-agents including:
  • Globalization and maturing of offshoring: Maturing of offshoring IT services has meant that organizations are no longer in unchartered waters when it comes to managing projects across time zones and cultures with globally distributed teams.
  • Continuing economic downturn and limited mobility. Major economies around the globe continue to struggle. Unemployment continues to be high in many western economies, and anti-globalization sentiment continues be fueled by the media. In many cases this translates to protectionism, tightening of immigration controls and restrictions on free movement of people and services providers across national boundaries.
It is almost as if protectionism is boosting offshoring of IT services, while limiting mobility and marketability of free agents. Of course, one can argue that, Elance , taskrabbit and others micro-job platforms have made freelancing global, and in many cases we are seeing a flattening world (apologies Friedman). But those are at the bottom of the IT services pyramid.

A few tenacious corporate IT professionals continue to beat the 30+ year mark as Organization Men. Their knowledge of organization dynamics, constraints and organization culture help them survive and thrive at the core of their organizations while everything and everyone around changes.

My guess is that an IS/IT graduate starting a “career” with a global / Fortune 500 / large enterprise as a technical analyst or a programmer today can’t really plan to spend the rest of a “career” working for that employer, even if s/he really wanted to.

*PS: not trying to be politically incorrect, just reusing the title of William H Whyte’s much acclaimed book “Organization Man

(Blog cross posted from my Linkedin post)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Musing on Corporate Data and trust!

The report in WSJ today "Puzzle Forms in Morgan Stanley Data Breach" made me reflect on corporate data. The article describes
“Morgan Stanley fired one of its financial advisers after it accused him of stealing account data on about 350,000 clients and posting some of that information for sale online, in potentially the largest data theft at a wealth-management firm.”
Many of us in the corporate world realize the value of “data” and information, especially corporate data. Securing and protecting the data is an entire industry in itself, and incidents like the recent Sony hacking saga highlight how vulnerable corporations are when it comes to protecting data and information.

The Morgan Stanley incident was clearly a case of an insider with access to data either acting with malicious intent or erring big time
“Robert Gottlieb, Mr. Marsh’s attorney, said his client had acknowledged obtaining the account information and confirmed that he was fired. But Mr. Gottlieb said Mr. Marsh didn’t post the data online, and wasn’t seeking to sell it.”
The article adds
“Already, the episode is having ramifications within Morgan Stanley: On Tuesday, people familiar with the matter said the firm has tightened access to its client database so that individual advisers no longer have access to such wide swaths of account data.”
Employees and Information workers need access to critical, sometimes sensitive corporate data to do their job. Athough the jury is still out on whether Mr. Marsh acted with malicious intent, it brings up a question information security experts, business and technology leaders continually grapple with: in an age of big data, where access to information, including corporate data is required to make information workers productive, how to add the right level of checks and balances to avoid such incidents!
Preventing workers from misusing data goes beyond codifying policies. Additional security, access control restrictions, monitoring data access etc comes with additional cost, effort and overhead that may be justified for some data types – PII, Social Security numbers etc. Additional requirements may also be dictated by industry or corporate requirements (account information of financial institution’s customers as in this example). However, additional restrictions may not be practical for all or “routine” information shared across a company.

At the end of the day, it comes down to a balancing act between:
  • Human intelligence: The ability to identify the odd rogue employee/contractor/third party who has access to your data and may be inclined to act with malicious intent and
  • Trust: The need to continue to trust those who legitimately need access to corporate data do their job
Not easy to balance the two!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Book reviw: "Family Life" by Akhil Sharma

I decided to read Akhil Sharma's Family Life after I came upon his essay in Sunday NYT (essay: “The Trickof Life”). The book is semi-biographical and expands on Mr. Sharma's essay  so I was prepared for a sorrowful narrative of the Sharma family saga. In the NYT essay, Akhil highlights the crux of his story:

“When I was 10 and he was 14, my older brother, Anup, dived into a swimming pool, struck his head on its bottom and remained underwater for three minutes. When he was pulled out, he could no longer walk or talk, could no longer feed himself, could no longer even roll over in his sleep. Only a few months before, he was heading to the Bronx High School of Science.

My parents are deeply pious Hindus. We had been in America for two years when the accident occurred, in 1981. And of course when tragedy occurs, even nonimmigrants and nonpious people find themselves turning to their most atavistic selves. My parents took Anup out of the hospital and brought him to our house. For the next 28 years, until he died, they tried to fix him through faith healing. Strange men — not priests or gurus, but engineers, accountants, candy shop owners — would come to the house and perform bizarre rituals, claiming that God had visited them in a dream and told them of a magical cure that would fix Anup.”

These two paragraphs are perhaps a summary of the book “Family Life.” If this was it, would the book have become a NYT bestseller? To continue to engage readers through descriptions of tormented youth is a skill in itself, and in this respect Akhil does not disappoint.

Much of the book focuses on the travails and tribulations of immigrant Sharma family seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Akhil. He wallows in self-pity while taking us through experiences of an Indian immigrant family in New York. And despite all odds, does well academically and is accepted into Princeton. The rest – a well paying job in investment banking etc follow.

No doubt Akhil and family were dealt a lemon, but as the adage goes ‘We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.’ It is admirable that Akhil turned his lemon into a story, a bestseller at that!

Bottomline: “Family Life” is neither a must-read nor everyone's cup of tea. However, it is well written, fast paced read if you are in for it.

Note to self: If life gives you a lemon …. write a story about it. (My review on

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

RIP AirAsia Flight 8501 passengers and crew!

Three major airline incidents involving south Asian airlines starting with the disappearance of MH370 earlier this year, downing of another Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in Ukraine and now the news of AirAsia Flight 8501. In case of this latest incident involving AirAsia flight, we have received news of bodies being recovered: What a way to end the year!

As a frequent air traveler, I take solace in the high level of safety and professionalism of  the commercial airline industry around the globe. However, as a parent who lost a child on an international flight  (link) I am also highly cognizant of risks of air-travel.
I know how hard it was for us to accept the reality of the abrupt loss of our child on board Jet Airways Flt 229 on 17th June 2008; the memory of which occasionally haunts us. And just as my wife, Sujatha and I learnt to cope with the reality and move forward, I pray that survivors of this tragedy move forward too.

My prayers and sympathies are with the surviving families of AirAsia Flight 8501 passengers and crew! 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Musing on Uber incient in Delhi : When digital sharing economy meets real world

Airbnb and Uber stand out as pioneers in discussions of cyber sharing economy (aka peer-to-peer economy - wikipedia). New businesses models go through growing pains that include regulatory hurdles and acceptance by society at large. Airbnb that created a market for individuals to share spare rooms/property/living space has continually faced regulatory hurdles. For a while, it was even ruled Illegal in New York City (Huffington post). Uber is a cyber sharing economy darling, that is shaking up taxi cab and personal transportation business

This week, it is Uber's turn to be under the gun. There is a lot of chatter in media - traditional and digital - following the reported rape of a female passenger by driver of a cab requested from her Uber app (Indian Express).

Indian digirati has learnt to take on an activist stance using social media by highlighting incidents of rapes and sexual violence on women, especially after the brutal incident in December of 2012. Twitter flooded with angry messages against Uber (link). Interestingly, some of the very same digirati in India are also consumers and proponents of peer-to-peer services. They are waking up to its limitations, especially to fast paced commercialization of digital services that can negatively impact lives in real world.

One is left wondering if services like Uber designed for sharing economy in the west can (or should) be transplanted to other geographies like India. Uber in the US targets non-commercial drivers -  the average Joe or Jane -  to partake in sharing economy by running his/her car like a "virtual" taxi. The peer-to-peer model relies on a strong foundation of credit, background and criminal checks, and an educated consumer aware of peer-rating system. In India, on the other hand, Uber seems to be merely extending a broken taxi service without fixing the fundamental flaw: non-existent system of credit and background checks. Even criminal checks on Taxi Drivers are spotty as the Delhi incident has glaringly highlighted. (link)

The case brings to fore questions that corporate leaders will also have to address, especially around liability, legal and regulatory policies on use of peer-to-peer services for businesses travel. Interestingly, just last week, a friend was excitedly describing his experience with Uber during a recent trip to Phoenix. We began discussing the lack of corporate policies of managing "liability" when employees use such service for a business trip. A case like the one in Delhi is bound to give corporate executives and lawyers around the globe pause for thought.

It will be interesting to see how Uber rides through this incident. (link:NPR's Marketplace). But it is not a question of whether Uber survives: Taking on risks of creating a new market comes with its rewards [Just recently, Uber was valued at an astounding $40 billion!  (CNN Money).

Cross post on linkedin Pulse