Architects and Communication

Architects and Communication

Presentation as a skill (or when Architects Present)

Communication as a core skill

Scott Andersen Microsoft Certified Infrastructure Architect

Lewis Carroll must have had a software architect in mind when he created the character The Cheshire Cat in the novel “Alice in Wonderland.” Wonderland was a place filled with change and whimsy where little if anything followed the “rules.” Alice, completely lost comes across the cat sitting in a tree. She asks him for directions. Being a good architect, he asked her where she was going. She didn’t know, so of course the software architect replied – then it doesn’t matter which way you go, does it?

The Cheshire Cat in this scenario displays the architectural principals of asking a follow-on question. The answer given by Alice leaves the Cat no choice but to respond with a useless answer. From asking questions to explaining solutions architects need to communicate. Communication is the skill that helps us translate the vision of tomorrow into the actionable items of the project plan. No matter how good you are at what you do, if you can’t help move a solution in the right direction through communication skills you will struggle as an architect.

As an architect could the Cheshire Cat have asked Alice more questions? Yes of he could have. A good architect would have quickly begun a line of questioning around first where she had come from. Establishing an understanding of the current state can help determine even the most rudimentary direction for a solution. Potentially another line of questioning might involve the expectations for this new “direction.” Having a vision of what to shoot for is a critical skill architects both possess and work on constantly!

Questions and questioning are not the only component of communication. Architects often have a unique position both internally and externally to an organization where they are asked to speak to many different levels of the team. Architects converse with the technical professionals who will implement the solution. Within the architect profession there are multiple types of architect. Enterprise Architects focus on mapping the requirements of the business to overall solutions and capabilities. Infrastructure Architects manage the plumbing of the organization. Solution Architects focus on building new capabilities into the infrastructure. Each has a very specific set of information they require in the conversation. Finally architects have conversations with the business itself.

A Solutions Architect proposing a new ERP solution may present different information about the same solution to many different audiences:

·         What value does this ERP solution has for our business?

·         Does this ERP solution Map to our overall business goals?

·         Does this ERP solution map to our overall technology goals?

·         What are the prerequisites for our infrastructure to deploy this ERP solution?

Each conversation requires a different set of information as well as often a different communication style. For example the business might want a PowerPoint presentation around the value the ERP solution will bring to the organization. They may be looking for analysis around cost savings and process improvements. The infrastructure architect may want to have a conversation around capabilities and the requirements of the solution. This might include technical conversations around bandwidth requirements, security requirements and other technical issues for a solution. The Enterprise Architect will want to have a conversation around how this new ERP solution maps to the overall planned solutions of the future. As architects do we focus enough attention on communication? Or do we fall back to the old adage “your born with it.” Are architects made into communicators or born with communication skills?

Since this paper focuses on the concept of communication, let’s postulate that in fact communicators can be made. But how? Communication is more than tailoring your conversations. It’s the ability to interact with another person on a level where that person feels comfortable. Personally I break communication down into three components. Each of which represents a part of what it takes to be a good communicator.


Everyone hates a bad presentation. Someone once told me that a great presenter can take bad material and make it acceptable. A bad presenter can take good material and make it bad. Presentation is all about understanding the topic that is being presented. More than simply being able to say what you mean in a presentation, a presentation is about being comfortable with process of presenting.

1.       Present

2.       Know your audience

3.       Make it your own

4.       Ask the question

The initial area to help architects improve their communication skills is in the area of presentations. For this we can look to several organizations that were built specifically to improve people’s presentation skills. My personal recommendation has always been to leverage the Toastmaster’s organization. They have chapters in most cities and are a wonderful place to learn the art of presentations. The other part of presentation skills is knowing more than you are presenting. A good rule of thumb is to have 2 hours of material for every hour you intend to present. The first few times this seems painful, but after a few presentations you will end up wishing you had more time, not more information!

Things I can do to improve:

·         Present to someone else – I recommend Toastmasters as a great starting point.

·         Peer reviews of your materials always help make it a stronger presentation!

Know your audience:

Everyone hates a boring speaker who doesn’t pay attention to the audience. Once you’ve mastered that initial presentation style you can now expand your abilities by adding the capacity to measure your audience. People communicate both with words and with body language. One of the hardest things to pick up on is how your audience perceives what it is you are presenting.

1.       Present

2.       Know your audience

3.       Make it your own

4.       Ask the question

How do you teach someone to know their audience? The first thing you need to have is a comfort level in presenting. Once you’re comfortable presenting to an audience you can begin the larger concept of watching the body language of the participants. Often in this scenario you can video tape yourself presenting. Place the camera so that it captures both you and your audience. Watch how the audience reacts to you. The more you understand how the audience reacts to your information the quicker you can adjust to their needs. A quick way to do this is listening. Listening both to the questions the audience is asking as well as to the context and types of questions. If the audience asks multiple questions around a specific point as clarification, go back and talk through that point again the audience may have missed it the first time!

Things I can do to improve:

·         Listen to the questions being asked, clarification questions often mean the audience didn’t get the point the first time.

·         Watch the body language of the audience sometimes this tells you if you are moving to slow or too fast through the material!

Make it your own:

Another component of communication that I find critical is the concept of “making it your own.” It’s easy to memorize facts and use them in conversations. It’s more difficult to take information and present that information in your own style. This concept to me is the crux of communication.

1.       Present

2.       Know your audience

3.       Make it your own

4.       Ask the question

This is the hardest component of communication. The concept comes from martial arts, and is the step beyond memorization. Once you’re past rote presentation you make something your own. In making content your own you are now able to apply your presentation skills, understand the needs of your audience and can now present your information in any format. This is where knowing more than you are presenting helps considerably. You will never run out of information, only time.

Things I can do to improve:

·         Practice, Practice, Practice (need I say more?)

·         Use your own words! Nothing helps you understand a topic then putting it into your own words and reusing that!

Ask the question:

Once you’ve mastered the three components we layer on the fourth and highest level skill required by an architect in the communication space. Asking your audience the follow on questions you need in order to determine the next steps and to clarify the information you are presenting (as well as in the role of active questioning of someone else’s presentation).

1.       Present

2.       Know your audience

3.       Make it your own

4.       Ask the questions

a.       Clarify

b.      Follow on

Let’s examine that initial conversation between the Cat and Alice. What information did Alice really want from the Cat? Did the Cat have that information? Was the Cat the right person to ask the information of? All of these are components of knowing your audience.

Things I can do to improve:

·         Listen, Listen, Listen

·         Lead the audience to where you want them to go.

Clarifying Questions:

As you master that skill you can begin to examine the next step, the clarifying question. A clarification question is relevant to the material being covered and is the initial step towards understanding. Clarifying questions are based on the information presented with the affect of clarifying the message presented. An example of this would be asking Alice “Do you mean you don’t know where you want to be, or you don’t know which way you should go?” It’s critical that a clarifying question be based on information actually presented and should be used as a tool to focus the information.

Follow on questions:

An example of the next tier of questioning is the follow-on question. A follow-on question does not seek to clarify information presented; rather it is intended to push the presentation in a different direction. An example using Alice and the Cat might be the Cat asking Alice “I understand that you don’t know where you want to go right now. But removing that where is it you would like to be, right now?”


It’s critical that as a architect we are able to communicate without the electronic tools so many people use as a crutch. Death by PowerPoint I’ve often heard as a description of a sales or technical event. When the participants in these events walk away later, the sessions they remember are the ones that follow these three simple rules in this document. Anyone can be a good presenter with good material (although some people hide behind PowerPoint). Knowing your audience let’s you focus the materials on what your audience wants and needs to hear. Making it your own allows you to follow the path the audience wants rather than rotely presenting the same information over and over.

Following these four simple steps will improve your communication skills. As you master these communication skills you open the door to many other skills that will help you as an architect. Making the concept you are presenting your own allows you to quickly formulate replies to questions tailored to a specific audience. Knowing the audience helps you tailor your presentation speed, delivery and even if required moving to other topics and sections. Finally being a solid presenter allows you to move away from the crutch that is PowerPoint.

The Cheshire Cat as an architect communicating with Alice leveraged the higher level skill of asking the follow-on question. In knowing his material and having made it their own, he was able to quickly provide Alice with the right answer, based on the information given. The only thing he failed to do, was know his audience. What did Alice really want to know when she asked “which way should I go from here?” Ultimately she wanted to go home.

One thought on “Architects and Communication

  1. So…
    You start out with 4 bullet points (which are numbered in my RSS reader but not here… weird), then move to 6 bullet points (which are 4a and 4b in my RSS reader but not here… weird), then in yout conclusion, you make reference to "three simple rules" in the first paragraph and "four simple steps" in the second paragraph.  Weird.
    I was with you until the beginning of the conclusion, and I like the Cheshire Cat metaphor 🙂

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