A friend recently loaned me a thought-provoking book called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell. The general subject is how epidemics spread. Not just diseases but more importantly - epidemics of information. What starts fashion trends? How does word-of-mouth lead to a restaurant becoming wildly popular? Why are some advertising messages memorable and why do others flop? Click here for a summary of the book’s primary points and definitions.
When I was about half way through the book I commented to the friend who loaned it to me how much I was enjoying it. He runs his own Real Estate Title business and he commented that the book changed the way he looked at his career and the way he runs his business. He explained that a lot of his business comes thru referrals from real estate agents. Around Christmas time and New Years, many businesses like his invite customers, prospects, and business partners to parties. He said he had done that before but after reading this book, he decided to wait until after the usual party rush. He threw an “Equinox” party in March and invited all the real estate agents around him. He was amazed at how many people called to ask “What’s an equinox party?” and how many more people showed up for this unusually named event than had showed up at Christmas parties in previous years. The equinox message was “sticky”
His comment got me thinking, “Is there an application of The Tipping Point in the field of Enterprise Architecture or in a successful I/T Architect career?”
In the book, the author identifies a “Law of the Few” which describes how an epidemic can start with only a few people... if they’re the right kinds of people:
- “Connectors” – People who know lots of people. People other people want to know. They are “social glue”.
- “Mavens” – People who provide us with new information. People who accumulate knowledge but are not passive collectors. They want to share what they know. They educate and help without persuading.
- “Salesmen” – They persuade us when we are unconvinced. They get us to make decisions or change our minds. They build trust and rapport quickly. They infect others with their emotions.
The author also says that in order for a message to spread rapidly, the message has to be “sticky”... an attribute called the “stickiness factor”.
Another important consideration is what Malcolm Gladwell calls “The Law of Context.” Rapid spread of information, rumors, opinion, disease, etc. is heavily dependent on the conditions and circumstances of the time and place.
Back to the question, “Is there an application of The Tipping Point in the field of Enterprise Architecture or in a successful I/T Architect career?”
Is, for example, all the current focus on Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) an example of an information epidemic? It seems that not too long ago, only the true “early adopters” of technology were taking it seriously. Now, even some of the more technology risk adverse companies are taking notice. Is the SOA message “sticky”? There are certainly a lot of “salesman” out there extolling the virtues of SOA. There are certainly a lot of I/T Architects who want to be "thought leaders" in this area. The concept of being a thought leader certainly seems like being a “Maven” to me. Am I an SOA “connector” by virtue of the number of people in my email address book, the number of visitors to this blog, the number of people I’ve talked to on IBM conference calls over the last 13 years, and the number of clients I’ve shared a whiteboard with? All this talk about SOA also comes in the context of many companies moving from mere cost cutting to seeking business flexibility to chase “top line growth”. And what about the “resume” factor as epidemic context? I am sure there are thousands of technologists who all want to make sure their resume contains real-world experience with the latest buzzwords and alphabet soup just in case the next round of “business transformation” has them looking for a job soon. That context certainly makes one segment of our industry very receptive. (It may be a little off topic but check out Scott Mark’s “Resume Points to Consider if You Want a Job at a Large Enterprise” and James McGovern’s “Enterprise Architecture and Resume-Driven Design” for some good discussion on this.)
Returning to my friend with the Real Estate Title business, what should I do to take advantage of these concepts to enhance my I/T Architect career? What follows is my attempt to cast the characteristics of an information epidemic into career advice.
- Be a connector. Spread the word of another’s success. Know who to talk to that knows people. Be a friend just because you can. Don’t worry about whether there is something in it for you. If all your friends are in I/T, make a conscious effort to cultivate personal relationships in other areas.
- Be a maven about something someone cares about. We all need to have some expertise that others value. More importantly, don’t hoard your knowledge. Help others be successful. (The Golden Rule comes to mind.) Pass lessons learned (good and bad) on to others so they can benefit. Educate others respectfully for their benefit. Expect to learn something valuable in the process but something probably unanticipated.
- Though some I/T Architects may consider it “going over to the dark side”, be a salesman. Maybe you don’t sign up for a real sales quota ($$), but be able to persuade others and sell your ideas. It is also important also to be able to translate back and forth between business and technology domains and be able to communicate costs and benefits to both sides in their language. Be enthusiastic about what you’re doing let it infect others. Be trustworthy.
- Make your architectural messages “sticky”. State your message in a way it will make sense to the hearer and in a way it will be memorable. See also my previous post “Naming Well, an Essential Skill of an I/T Architect”. Looking back on it, I think that good class names, method names, variable names, pattern names, etc. are “sticky”. Learn to judge how much detail is just enough for the listener and how much detail is too much for them.
- Be aware of the political context. I used to call this “political awareness”. Be aware of what is keeping your client up at night. Be aware of which “boat anchors” (an architectural anti-pattern) are out there that nobody will criticize because the guy who bought it is too powerful and won’t admit to making a mistake. Know how to work your organization’s budget cycle (or your clients). Also it is good to know what is keeping your customer’s customers awake at night, too. Be aware of which decision makers are “movers and shakers” and which ones are coasting to retirement. Know who has influence even if they don’t make the decision.
- And here's the hard one. Don’t be afraid to be part of an epidemic. Ride the wave fearlessly. Enjoy the process. Stretch the envelope. Get out of your comfort zone. See also "The Value of Rough Seas." Now if only I can practice what I preach.
"A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner." -- English Proverb
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