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Archive Monthly Archives: December 2016

Building Tech Radars for Fun and Profit

The technology landscape is exploding. New technologies, platforms, and tools are being creating at an ever-increasing rate. VR, AR, and wearables give us new app stores to target and new experiences to create. Conversational UI (Alexa, Bots, Cortana API) is a totally new way to interact with users, and another dozen different platforms you can target. Even the web space is exploding. It feels like there’s a new JavaScript framework roughly every ten minutes.

All of the new stuff is amazing, but also exhausting. There’s so many new things out there. Finding your focus is hard.

confused kitty

Keeping track of all this new stuff is tough, but we have tools to help us. One of those tools is tech radar. A technology radar is a collection of new technologies and how important they are to you or your organization. You enumerate new technologies and assign them a value somewhere between “run away screaming” and “let’s use this for EVERYTHING”.

The tech radar was created by Thoughtworks. They publish their radar a couple of times a year. It’s a great snapshot of what technologies they are using in their organization. I recommend you check it out.

Thoughtworks Tech Radar

While the Thoughtworks tech radar is great, it’s more fun (and useful) to do it yourself. Neil Ford has a fantastic talk about building your own tech radar. Check it out here:

In his talk, Neil mentions two tech radars. One for your company and one for yourself. After viewing this talk, I was hooked by the idea and decided to give it a try. I’ve worked on both styles of tech radar and learned a few things along the way. 

Organizational Tech Radars

An organizational tech radar is a picture of the technologies used in your company along with recommendations for new things you should keep an eye on. Your team sorts technologies into one of four categories.

Adopt – Use when appropriate. This is a default best practice.
Trial – Use on non-critical projects. Good, but not 100% there yet.
Assess – Keep an eye on this. Use it for POCs and Demos.
Hold – Avoid using this on new projects.

To conduct a tech radar, get representatives of the different teams in your organization together and have them discuss some of the new technologies they are using or interested in using. Assign each technology to the proper category and record the highlights of each conversation.

Shoot for fewer than 30 people per discussion session. Try to get a diverse slice of your organization’s tech users. If your organization has teams outside of generic enterprise app dev, make sure they get a seat at the table. (examples: designers, SharePoint Devs, Salesforce Devs, DBAs, DevOps, mobile devs, etc… )

I’m involved in two different organizational tech radars. One as the primary organizer and another as an observer. It’s been an educational and useful experience. I’ve gained insight into some of the dynamics behind how technology is used in these two organizations.

One of the major benefits of doing a tech radar is that you deepen your understanding of how technology is used in your organization. You also gain insight into what different people are thinking. It can highlight blind spots in your own thinking and surface interesting technologies to check out. Another benefit is that it can make your organization more proactive about technology adoption. By knowing what’s available, you can begin to plan earlier. You also gain consensus about which technologies to adopt. It’s a lot easier than trying to campaign for new technologies on your own.

It’s not all rainbows and puppy dogs though. I ran into several challenges while coordinating my organization’s tech radar. First, I had to make a special effort to represent all the developer communities in my organization. We have a lot of practices and not all of them came to the discussion meetings. Next time, I may hold special meetings for each group.

The second hurdle I ran into was that everyone was very focused on things to adopt now, as opposed to future technologies. This issue was relatively easy to solve. We created a new category for “obvious best practices” and focused more on the “trial” and “assess” categories. Don’t be afraid to make tech radar your own. You don’t have to copy Thoughtworks verbatim. I found that making a category for things that aren’t new, but part of your default tech stack, cleared up the “adopt” list and kept the radar future forward. It also provides you with a handy list of architectural recommendations for new projects.

The final challenge was dealing with all the conversations. It was easy to go off on tangents or get caught up in how you feel about a particular technology. It’s tough to keep on track. One way we addressed the issue was by splitting up the meetings into small chunks. It’s easier to schedule and no one gets burned out from a 4 hour meeting from hell.

Overall, I found this exercise highly beneficial. I learned a lot and picked up a few technologies for my tech radar.

Personal Tech Radars

If you’re like me, you have “the list”. Sometimes referred to as “the guilt list”, because I never finish it. It’s the pile of technologies you intend to research. If that sounds vague, that’s because it is. “to research” doesn’t really give you  a finishing point. I built a personal tech radar to help clear up that ambiguity.

For me, a personal tech radar is a much less formal affair than the organization radar. It’s also, by necessity, a smaller one. I changed the definition of the categories. Instead of focusing on adoption, my categories focused on how much effort I want to put into learning the technology. Here are my categories and a few examples for each one.

Adopt
Agitate for use and learn deeply. This is for your core skills.
Examples: .NET Core, Angular 2, TypeScript, Azure

Trial
Seek functional knowledge on. Build a demo apps or POCs.
Examples: Python, Spark, R, Progressive Web Apps

Assess
Keep an eye on it, but don’t worry about getting deep knowledge.
Examples: Hololens, Unity, Xamarin, Chatbots

Hold
Avoid using when possible. Don’t waste a lot of time learning new things about this tech.
Examples: Old ASP.NET, Angular 1

I only had one challenge with my personal tech radar. I’m interested in everything, so I had a lot of trouble keeping my categories small enough to be doable. I consider this a feature, not a bug. Doing this exercise forced me to take a holistic view about what I’m interested in and edit accordingly. I also did some journaling about where I wanted to go in my career, which helped clarify my thinking. For example, I realized that learning data analysis is a better use of my energy than learning native mobile development. I’m still keeping an eye on mobile, but it’s not a top priority for me. Overall, it narrowed my scope and helped me focus.

Conclusion

If you want to better deal with the ever-growing deluge of new technologies, consider doing a tech radar. Both the organizational and personal flavors offer insights that you can use in your daily developer practice. It’s a great way to end the year.

PS – For some reason, I think of this song every time I bring up Tech Radar.

 

Great Reads for Innovators

As technologists, we are the vanguard of innovation. We’re at the forefront of technological innovation. Even if you’re slagging COBOL in the basement of some bank, you’re still dragging your organization into the future. Ever wonder how that process actually happens? What can you do to be more creative?

I’m fascinated by this topic, so I put together a talk about it.  (abstract / slides) It distills what I’ve learned from reading dozens of books on innovation and the history of technology. To save you some time, I put together a list of my favorite innovation related reads. If you’re curious about this topic, these books are a good place to start.

Books for Innovators

Sapiens

Sapiens is a highly entertaining, unorthodox view of human history. Not only is it informative, it challenges basic assumptions about ideas that most people don’t realize they’re making. It’s a great description of early human history and how we got to the modern age. It’ll really open up your mind.

Geography of Genius

Innovation is not evenly distributed. There are certain times and places throughout history that have “golden ages” of innovation. Geography of Genius explores a few of these places and tries to find what ties them all together. This book is very interesting and you’ll learn about some places that you don’t see much of in the classroom.

Evolution of Everything

Unlike what the history books tell us, innovation is more bottom up than top down. Matt Ridley does a fantastic job describing how in Evolution of Everything. He covers a several major innovations including religion, money, and government. This book challenges many deeply held beliefs and illustrates how innovation is an evolutionary process.

Smarter Better Faster

This book offers a more tactical look at creativity. It’s also a great guide to improving other aspects of mental performance. Charles Duhigg does a fantastic job mixing science with fascinating stories.

Deep Work

Creativity requires concentration. A commodity in short supply in the modern age. In Deep Work, Cal Newport makes a compelling argument for making “deep work” (focused work) one of your primary priorities. I changed several of my habits after reading this one.

Competing Against Luck

While I enjoyed the Lean Startup, I felt like it treated innovation more like a roulette wheel than a process you can influence. “Just pivot until you make it big or run out of money.” In Competing Against Luck, Clayton Christensen describes a fantastic intellectual power tool for building new products. The “Jobs to Be Done” theory of innovation. If you want to build a product, I highly recommend this one.

The Righteous Mind

One of the most important things you can do to become more innovative is empathize with and learn from people whom you disagree with. We live in a society that’s increasingly polarized, but this book the antidote. In the Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explains the moral foundations for different political outlooks and makes a strong case for civility in political discourse.  This is a must read if you have trouble dealing with people who don’t share your beliefs.

Bonus Materials:

Here are a few non-book resources to check out:

Protopia (Kevin Kelly)

Kevin Kelly’s concept of protopia (as opposed to utopia or dystopia) is really enlightening.

In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, cartoonist and business author Scott Adams describes his “success formula”. Each area you master roughly doubles your odds of great success. This is a great case for diversifying yourself. You can either get his book or read this article:

Dilbert Creator Scott Adams Reveals The Simple Formula That Will Double Your Odds Of Success

If you’re looking to diversify yourself, here are two excellent resources:

Personal MBA

The Personal MBA is a reading list that’s meant to give you the business skills taught by an MBA program. I’ve read many books on this list and have not been disappointed. It’s also got great selections on personal finance and psychology.

The Great Courses (Amazon)

The Great Courses are a series of college level lectures that you can listen to in your car. Personally, I’m a big fan of their history selection. They also have courses on psychology, philosophy, and business.

Why Innovation Thrives in Cities

Innovation is partly a network effect. This article describes why cities with a higher population density have higher per capita rates of innovation.

Everything is a Remix is a video series about cultural innovation by Kirby Ferguson. I have yet to find a better description of how culture is generated by remixing other cultural elements.

This is a TED talk on how Google X (Google’s own skunkworks company) takes risks and creates a culture that fosters psychological safety.

Conclusion

This list of resources will open your mind and help you become a better innovator. If you think I missed something, feel free to drop it in the comments.