Human Architecture

March 17, 2005

A large company is a very complex organism. Something may be changing, growing, improving, declining in one of the extremities right now, but it could be weeks or months or years before it is known to the central nervous system. It might never become known to the other extremities at all. Organizations are constantly in motion, constantly in change.

My own company is a very good example of this. With tens of thousands of people worldwide it is often impossible to know from here what is occurring over there. We are probably one of the most effective users of technology on the planet, but communication still takes time and effort. I can’t imagine what it must be like at a less technology savvy company. How do they know what is occurring tomorrow if they barely know what happened today?

To enable communication like this, and ultimately to enable the organization to prosper and grow, requires some thought about how it all fits together. That is, I believe, the essence of architecture.

We have been discussing this very issue a lot in my team — exactly what is architecture and what is its purpose? There are many ways to address these questions. My more technical co-workers are exceptionally capable of doing this job on a technical and implementation level. We all think about it at a strategic and enterprise level as well. I think, however, that I am one of the few people that dwells on the issue of the human in the whole architectural model.

Architectures of all types require a human element. From a building to an IT infrastructure, nothing works without the people that must dwell within. In the case of a building, the wrong architecture can make the occupants feel disoriented, oppressed, and depressed. The right architecture can lift the human spirits to new heights of contemplation (Rothko Chapel), wonderment (Seattle Public Library), or sheer awe (Fallingwater). A good building is an experience.

In technology architecture, however, we very rarely get to experience the beauty, wonder, or majesty. In fact, in technology architecture it is often a point of pride that a good architecture is invisible. A bad architecture is often the whipping boy for systems that don’t work as expected. A good architecture is a proprietary solution for the business that has competitive advantage. A bad architecture means the CIO or CTO is looking for either a new vendor or a new job.

Yet, people — the humans inside the system — are impacted by the architecture of technology every day. For each frustration when a query fails to execute, a report never appears, parts are not automatically ordered, email fails, security is breached, the architecture has caused pain. The results are tallied by the company on spreadsheets, but by the person in stress, illness, frustration, depression, and other unpleasant effects. Architecture can cause heart attacks, ruin relationships, and destroy lives.

A little dramatic effect above, I realize. But, think for a moment about the last time the architecture of the systems around you failed. Remember the tension in your neck or head or shoulders. Think about how annoyed you were by the time you got home and how damn good that beer tasted. The architecture touched you.

Go tell your architects to create systems that elevate the human spirit. Tell them to design for better conversations, better effort, more beautiful products, and more time for you to get to the kids soccer game. Suggest that in doing so they will also help the top and the bottom line of the company. (I am a capitalist as well as a humanist – -the two are not incompatible.)

I hate when humans are reduced to nothing more than mere “objects” in the architecture. Think about human action, human brain power, and human desire. These things make the technology real, not the clever distribution of web services or the effectively modeling of processes. Those things are tools. Humans are the engine of rationality behind it all.

I have written in the past about the magic of software. I fully believe in it. Magic, however, only exists when there is magician and audience.

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