A System Failure in Comunication

By Scott Andersen

In the iconic movie “Cool Hand Luke,” there is an epic line that resonates to this day. The sheriff looking at Luke says “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” It is said with as much intent as you wish in the line. It works to this day as both a threat and a shrugged shoulder response to an argument.

Communication is the essence of what software architects do. We live in a world where gathering requirements is a critical path component of our success. Where listening to end users talk about what it is that they need drives what we build. Where security is a critical piece, and may not always be as easily found as we would like. 
But the reality of communication is the lens. We at IASA have been working (for me more than 10 years, for Paul nearly 15 years now) on standardizing not only what Software Architects say but we say it as well. Standard communication is a critical component of any profession.

Sometimes though, we have to take our professional hats off to communicate. Outside of collecting and building requirements for solutions and traceability matrices, we have to communicate. We have to be able to have a conversation that we don’t view throughout professional lens.

It takes 10,000 hours to master something. 10,000 hours, that translate into 416.67 days from decision “I want to be a software architect to the reality of being a professional. The 10,000 hours has been verified, validated and confirmed by any other number of professions. It is what it is. The time required to go from being a student to being a practicing professional.

In that time period we develop a professional lens. A filter if you will that we see and hear the world via. It is the way we approach things. A hat, a coat or even an umbrella. The problem is that sometimes we forget to take that lens off.

Not everything should be viewed as a software architect. In fact, even software architecture should be viewed without your software architect lens on. We have to be able to communicate with developers, end users and business owners. Our filter or lens can actually limit those conversations.

“That,” begins the worst thing anyone can ever say “isn’t the way we talk about it as X.” Where X equals any profession. It isn’t just software architects that have this problem. When your doctor tells you that you have x issue, and you then look blankly at the doctor, “what does X mean?” You ask the doctor is in their professional communication pattern. They have their medical lens on. So good doctors stop, and in your terms explains the problem you have.

The same should be true of all professions. Never respond to someone with the comment, “in blah de dah profession we don’t look at it that way.” Take off your professional lens for a moment and try to figure out what the person is trying to say. Figure out if the other person in the conversation is also stuck in their professional lens.

You see during the 10,000 hours it can be really hard to switch your lens off. Everything becomes software architectures. Everything becomes viewed with the bias of your professional lens. In the end as pointed out in the movie creating “a failure to communicate.”

Reality is all of us have professional lens. Turning those on or off determines our communication pattern. If we cannot turn our Parental lens off, or turn off our professional lens everything will be colored with the color of that lens. My parental lens looks at a disorganized room far different than I would as a solutions architect. As a parent I would say “clean that mess right now.” As a solutions architect I would evaluate the storage capabilities of the space in case there wasn’t enough storage for what was contained. Two Len’s, two views, both right and depending on the context of the conversation you could both be wrong.

Becoming a professional software architect takes 10,000 hours. 416.67 physical days in total of learning, understanding and building your lens. Learning to turn your lens off when appropriate is the last and hardest process to becoming a professional. Balancing all the lens you have in your life? It takes even more time than learning to turn your professional lens off. Communication and the failure to communicate comes from wearing or using the wrong lens. Viewing a water cooler conversation with your professional lens means you will consider the systems architecture of a touchdown pass. You can break down the requirements (receiver, quarterback, time, distance and ball) resulting in a touchdown. A system with inputs (ball, offence line, field, time) a process (decision of quarterback, route of receiver, route of defensive back, time to throw the ball) and outputs success, touchdown, completion or first down. Or you can take off the systems lens of a software architect and instead be happy your team scored! 

What the sheriff doesn’t say, because he was wearing his professional lens and didn’t see it is this; a failure to communicate is two sided. Unfortunately if you only wear your professional lens and the other person only wears their professional lens its guaranteed your communication will fail.

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