Third Republic are delighted to announce that on the 21st of February we held the second Architecture Republic MeetUp! With over 75 architects from all walks of life attending, we had an incredible array of professionals in the room; some just starting on their careers, and others who had been around the block and back again.
Add to this some brilliant talks from Charlie Wilkinson and James Fullarton, which we’ll dive into in more detail shortly, and you’ll get an idea of the engaging and interesting night we all had….
Talk One: Charlie Wilkinson
Following the typical drinks and networking on arrival, we kicked off with a talk from Charlie – Head of Enterprise Architecture at River Island – who chose to discuss the organisations journey so far from a traditional bricks and mortar retailer with all the trappings of heritage systems and architecture, to a ‘true digital’ organisation leading the way with cloud first, microservices and serverless architectures being the new norm. Specifically, he shared his take on the role of the architect in this brave new world and, in his words, ‘The demise of the enterprise architect’.
As a quick overview, River Island’s journey started just after the war and over time they have evolved to be a well-known high street name with a large digital estate. Having recently moved from being a big Oracle house to their own microservices, 3 years ago they also moved their web presence on to AWS. From there they started to figure out Microservices, what that would mean and how they could leverage this new industry trend.
Charlie opened by discussing the ‘mega platform’ – the Oracle’s, Hybris and SAP’s of this world. These types of platform very large commitments to organisations, costing a lot of money to buy and even more to implement. Yet, as such a high capital investment, they’re slow to iterate on and – in Charlie’s words – “a slow way of iterating one’s IT estate”. So, in a time when everyone expects instant service and gratification, mega platforms are only causing further issues for the likes of River Island who need to be able to change quickly. Indeed, Charlie did away with the idea of writing a 5-year roadmap for an organisation, and therefore in investing in a mega platform where you’re unable to see return on investment for 5 or 10 years to come.
Charlie also reflected on how River Island have done away with the Architecture Review Board. Seeing it as a negative process, Charlie maintained that it’s intended to make you pick holes in solutions and look for faults. Rather than empowering people to make decisions it slows down innovation, and whilst he contended that large businesses with very large programmes of work, might need one, for River Island in particular, that layer of governance slows down their progress.
Deciding that the best course of action is to implement Microservices, River Island now do not need every single bit of functionality that the mega platforms have to offer. As a result, they build their own capabilities and pick and choose certain bits of functionality they need. By going to smaller niche players in the tech world that are great at specific things and individual areas, River Island are able to manage a lot of the risk associated with procurement and take on much smaller commercial commitments.
In Charlie’s mind; the world has changed from people needing to rely on huge platforms to a world where you can cut, paste and create your own tailored to your own specific business need. So how is everything structured at River Island?
Charlie has built the team in such a way where process and governance is only added in when necessary; rather than assuming it is needed and added in anyway. Charlie does not set out a road map; rather, he sets an overarching mission instead, which doesn’t need to change as quickly as the industry requires them to change functionality. River Island don’t run an architecture review board, they don’t approve designs, and instead they agree as a community on a set of principals which underpin the mission they are trying to achieve, and this is then applied by everyone to their individual projects. Every architect at River Island is both a Solutions Architect and an Enterprise Architect, all of whom are empowered to make decisions and sometimes need to roll their sleeves up and cut code with developers.
All of this only works if Charlie trusts the empowered individuals in his team. All of them take ownership and accountability, and he hires professionals who are experts in their fields so – as he put it – why would he not trust them to make decisions?
So, as Charlie said, “is enterprise architecture dead?” No… but the game is changing. People and organisations need to adapt to keep up with the pace of change.
Talk Two: James Fullarton
Next up James Fullarton, Director of Architecture at Smith and Nephew, came to the stage to explore if it is possible to outsource Enterprise Architecture to Artificial Intelligence. Smith and Nephew are experts at using/creating technology to solve complex problems, and so applying those concepts to EA should be straightforward by comparison – as was said by James. He talked us through what this looks like and how it has impacted his job in a positive way. Notably, being the only Enterprise Architect (at the time), he is no longer pulled from pillar to post, and he no longer needs to sign off on every piece of work, meaning he can place more focus on doing what he was hired to do.
His presentation looked at how modern tooling and AI techniques can power EA to be a real change enabler. Creating capacity to think strategically, set the direction, execute on the roadmaps bridging the overall business goals and the day to day activity, with a small team, requires some new ways of thinking about how they can automate the processes and low value day to day activity that distracts from the bigger outcomes.
James set the scene by discussing the problems Enterprise architecture sets out to address. As he put it “business stakeholders want to know – how can I innovate, how do I deliver strategy, how much does it cost/save, what are the risks, is it possible? Project teams want to know – what do I build, what do I built it with, am I making good use of assets/good decisions, how well am I aligned with EA, what things should I not be developing? IT Leaders want to know – is my portfolio aligned to strategy, how do we get it done, how do I make sure it done correctly, what risks am I taking, what’s the roadmap, is it sustainable?” In summary, there are a lot of people asking a lot of questions, all of which the enterprise architect is expected to answer.
James noted that, when he started, he was the only enterprise architect at Smith & Nephew, and he was asked all sorts of questions – from what specific technologies to use for projects, to what servers to use for their printers, to whether projects can be approved in a day. He then took us through his decision process; thinking about how he can automate approval processes to empower people to make decisions. His answer? Self-service and “AI”.
James wrote reference material for people to follow and questions for people to ask when they were looking to get things approved. By going through this process, the tooling could provide an assessment and if your project/request is aligned it is automatically approved, and you could start. If you’re not aligned, you can change the way your project was structured and can give it another go until you got to a point where it was acceptable to go ahead. This enabled James to spend his time on his day job; actually, being an enterprise architect. This something worth looking in to if you are small team or in a maturing environment, it could save you a lot of time meaning you can focus more time on being an enabler for change and innovation within the organisation you are working for.
All in all, Architecture Republic 2.0 was a great evening. We met some great people from a wide variety of different businesses and industries, and we had some incredibly interesting conversations going on. The talks were highly engaging and created some great questions from the audience; who not only took on the role of questioning, but also of answering – leading to a great open forum style session to close the evening. Hopefully everyone left having learned something or at least feeling inspired to take certain elements from the talks to try and implement in to their own business and teams.
A huge thank you to everyone who attended; both new faces and old, it was great to see everyone there. If you attended the event, we would love to hear your feedback – and we’re always looking for speakers and places to host future events, so if you would be interested in either please reach out to me or one of the Third Republic Strategy and Architecture team – firstname.lastname@example.org
See you for the next one May!