Thursday, December 13, 2012

What does it take to be the Technical Assistant (TA) to the ThoughtWorks Technology Advisory Board?

Jeff at TAB meeting © Martin Fowler
We have a Technology Advisory Board (TAB) to help us keep a pulse on technology throughout our very diverse organization.  The TAB is a group of 21 senior technologists from all over the world that meets over the phone every two weeks and in person twice a year. This group is very busy, because the members are essential to our success in their own regions.  They are the ones that make sure our new projects are technically interesting, keep our projects on track, and fix them when they fall off the track. 

To keep the TAB running smoothly, we have a Technical Assistant (TA).  Like the other members of our TAB, the TA is a technologist.  The TA is an ex-officio member of the TAB that has five primary responsibilities. I have been the TA for the TAB for the last two and a half years. 

The first responsibility of the TA is sharing.  There are two major aspects to sharing:
  • One of the most visible outputs from the TAB and possibly ThoughtWorks as a whole is the Technology Radar.  The primary responsibility for collecting content, writing, and editing the radar belongs to the TA.  For more detail read how the technology radar is created.
  • ThoughtWorks is a very flat organization, and the TAB works in the open.  The notes for our meetings are available to anyone from our organization who is interested.  The TA is responsible for taking meticulous notes during our meetings, summarizing them, and publishing them. 
The second responsibility of the TA is connecting.  This entails a few different things:
  • Collect topics for our meetings, create our agenda with Rebecca Parsons, our CTO, and keep track of things that we will want to come back to later. 
  • Plan meetings, taking into account the availability of our consultants and the dramatic time differences in regions that spread from China to the east coast of the United States.
  • Arrange the logistics for our meetings, such as arranging space to meet, making sure we have the right supplies (we love our sharpies and post-it notes), ordering food, and setting up conference calls.
The third responsibility of the TA is facilitation.  Keeping meetings running smoothly with 21 very vocal technologists can be challenging.  The TA is responsible for facilitating meetings to make sure that they are effective and that everyone, including quieter members have a chance to speak.

The fourth responsibility of the TA is advocacy.  There are two aspects to advocacy:
  • The TA is a representative for the TAB in their region, making sure that the work of the TAB is visible and taken advantage of.  This involves presenting at regional events as well as informal conversations and written communication.
  • The TA is also a representative for their region in the TAB.  They are responsible for keeping a pulse of what is happening in their region and making sure that the important issues are covered by the TAB.
The final responsibility of the TA is contribution.  As an ex-officio member of the TAB, the TA has the opportunity and responsibility to help shape our technology direction. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How the ThoughtWorks Technology Radar is created

ThoughtWorks creates the Technology Radar to help champion the cause of software excellence and revolutionize the IT industry. Because we have lofty goals, this is an intentionally opinionated document that is meant to challenge us all to improve.

The radar is created by the Technology Advisory Board (TAB). It is a group of 21 technologists from around the world that includes Martin Fowler -our chief scientist, Rebecca Parsons - our CTO, Neal Ford - a prolific author and speaker, and Pramod Sadalage –author of NOSQL distilled and Refactoring Databases. This group brings together a cross-section of technologists with very different interests and focuses. We meet in person every 6 months to focus on technology strategy for our company and the IT industry as a whole. The radar is one of ways that we share that strategy.

To prepare for these face-to-face meetings, our consultants collect feedback from their regions about the most interesting techniques, tools, platforms, frameworks, and languages. For example, to collect feedback from our Chicago office, Wendy Istvanick, Pramod Sadalage, and I ran a Chicago technology radar session. The session involved:
  • About 50 consultants
  • Two large walls filled with post-it notes with items that people were passionate about
  • A buffet of really good Mediterranean food
  • 1.5 hours of heated discussions about topics ranging from problems with Rails to emerging cloud providers.

The feedback from these regional meetings and the interests of the members of the TAB are refined at our face-to-face meeting by:
Radar brainstorming session
  • Brainstorming hundreds of items that we are interested in.
  • Discussing the relative importance of these items and how they affect different parts of the world.
  • Choosing the most important items.
  • Deciding how to advise our consultants and the industry as a whole about these items.

As you can imagine, those are some heated discussions, because we have 20 technologists working on very different projects with very different constraints.

Rough radar graphic

After the face-to-face meeting, these discussions are transformed into the document you know as the Technology Radar.
  • We start by picking out items that each member is most knowledgeable about.
  • They do some research to deepen their understanding. This research usually involves discussions with other ThoughtWorkers and our friends in the industry.
  • They write up a paragraph that captures their thoughts about each item.
  • We sort the items and rewrite the descriptions to have a uniform voice and appropriate length.
  • We work with our graphic designer to make the document look professional.

Because of ThoughtWork’s flat organization structure and open culture, we are a group that works out in the open. For us that means our discussions are held on mailing lists that are open to any ThoughtWorker. Early drafts of the radar are shared and we actively encourage discussion and even disagreement from everyone.