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.

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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.

 

About the Author Dustin Ewers

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