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Communication Tips For Software Architects

Cristian Bojinca

This article is taken from Cristian Bojinca book How to Become an IT Architect and is reproduced here with permission from Artech House.

Communication is defined as the activity of conveying information through the exchange of thoughts and messages by speech, visuals, signals, writing, or behavior. Together with leadership (and sometimes considered part of it), communication is one of the most important skills for an architect. As we saw in previous chapters, technical background is important to make technical decisions, but without proper communication it will not be possible to get the information necessary for the technical solution and to sell it to the stakeholders. Communication skills (or the lack of communication skills) can have a large impact on success. Even in other IT roles (as a developer, for example) where there is a bigger emphasis on the technical competencies, communication often makes the difference between successful and failure.

Communication Tips For Software Architects

The following types of communication have special meaning for IT architects:

Oral communication (spoken or verbal communication)

This used to be face-to-face communication that would give you immediate feedback. Nowadays, this can also be a telephone conversation in which it is important to be aware of other cues, including tone of voice. Verbal communication is very important for an architect to collect the information that he or she needs to crystallize the architecture solution but also to deliver successful presentations once the solution is ready.

Written communication

Allows you to communicate messages with clarity and ease to a far larger audience than through face-to-face or telephone conversations. This is crucially important for architects because they have to deliver an architecture solution in written form. Poor writing skills create poor first impressions and many readers will have an immediate negative reaction if they spot a spelling or grammatical mistake. The focus in this case might shift from conveying technical information to making sure the language of the message is correct. Sometimes a reader might also make assumptions that the content is only as good as the delivery container and poor written communication might mean an architect has to spend a lot of time trying to rectify this assumption. Under written communication, we also include presentations that anarchitect is likely to need to produce and deliver. These are some of the most important ways to deliver information, and as a result, it is important to be careful about the kind of information included as well as the delivery format. Consider the audience before making the presentation itself and where the audience is unknown at least try to simplify the vocabulary so that the majority of the audience can understand it. In a later chapter, presentation skills will be discussed in more detail because they are also crucial to success.

Nonverbal communication

This does not mean written communication. It is also known as body language. All of our nonverbal behaviors - the gestures we make, the way we sit, how fast or how loud we talk, how close we stand, how much eye contact we make - send strong messages. Nonverbal communication is constant and applies to speakers and nonspeakers. There are many types of nonverbal communication, including facial expressions, body movements, gestures, eye contact, and voice. For the architect, nonverbal communication is important as people will watch him or her during presentations or other meetings to try to gain more information about his or her personality. A mismatch between the verbal message and the nonverbal ones might be also an important clue that something is fishy, and as a result, others might lose their trust in the architect.

Nonverbal communication takes precedence most of the time over verbal communication as it is basic human nature to find behavioral cues and to try to guess what is behind the words. For example, when trying to collect more information for the solution architecture, if you assure the person with whom you are talking that you are very interested in what he or she has to say but you yawn, fiddle with your fingers, or (even worse) look somewhere else, the other person would definitely think that you are not being completely honest. It is not possible to totally control our behavior and it is inadvisable to try to mask all signals like this, but be aware of the effects that this (sometimes involuntary) nonverbal communication can have on the perceptions of others and adapt accordingly.

Previously, we ran through various types of communication and how they are useful to the architect in the day-to-day life. Next, let us take a closer look at how we can develop effective communication skills:

Listening

This is one of the best ways to get the most out of a conversation and also increase trust between those in a conversation. Listening means not only hearing and understanding the words being spoken but also understanding how they are being spoken and the nonverbal messages sent with them. What you hear may not be what the speaker actually meant, so most of the times, paraphrasing and restating both the feelings and words are a good way to ensure that both speaker and listener are in agreement. This is an important component of active listening that also includes making eye contact (and maintaining it) and reacting (e.g., nodding) to what others are saying. This is important, as everybody looks for cues that they are understood as they are speaking. If listeners do not give any indication that they actually understand what is being said (or if they agree or disagree with it), then the conversation is more difficult. At the other end of the spectrum, do not nod at everything as others will soon understand that this means nothing and is just a reflex.

Attempt to resolve conflict

Use communication skills to negotiate conflicts instead of leaving things bubbling under the surface until an explosion occurs. In some cases, this might be only about taking discussions offline and trying to settle an argument in private instead of having a huge conflict in front of everybody in a meeting. Acknowledge the good points that the other person has made that you have not considered. Do not create conflicts just for the sake of resolving them. As an architect, there may be quite a few conflicts because others may believe that the architect lacks the technical knowledge to create an adequate solution. The only way to negotiate this is to explain why the solution is architected the way it is and answer all questions, no matterhow technical they might be. This might mean some research is needed before the disagreement can be solved.

Empathize

Try not to be judgmental or biased by preconceived ideas or beliefs and instead view situations and responses from the other person’s perspective. If appropriate, offer a personal viewpoint clearly and honestly to avoid confusion. Bear in mind that some subjects might be taboo or too emotionally stressful for others to discuss. This is a great way to avoid or resolve conflicts as most of these occur because of our inability to cross the bridge from the other’s end or see the problem from the other’s point of view.

Encourage and treat all persons equally

Try to praise and encourage others, especially when they might be reticent. The goal is to get the most out of communication, so try to make other people feel welcome, wanted, valued, and appreciated in communications. If others know that they are valued, they are much more likely to value the conversation, be more cooperative, and give their best. Encourage open and honest feedback from the receiver to ensure your message is understood to avoid the receiver feeding back what he or she think that the architect wants to hear. In all conversations, treat people equally making sure they get to share their ideas. Architects need to eliminate as much as possible the perception that they only listen to the project sponsor and that the developers or infrastructure specialists are less important. If this were the case, it might seriously damage the architect’s reputation and others may then withhold (either consciously or subconsciously) information that might be vital.

Maintain a positive attitude

Be friendly, upbeat, and positive with other people. Maintain a positive, cheerful attitude about life: when things do not go according to plan, stay optimistic and learn from mistakes made, including your own. If you smile often and stay cheerful, people are more likely to respond positively to you. Architects with less knowledgewho approach an assignment with a smile on their faces are often more successful than others. This is the best way to eliminate tension when communicating with others especially when new to a team (or organization) because a smile will subconsciously make people relax. Remain calm, smile, and try to find out more information, even if this might mean significant changes to the architecture. It is always better to do this early instead of when the document is ready for approval.

Do not hold on to bad news

Communicating early can help avoid misunderstandings and potential conflicts with others. Communicate early and find a way to state the news objectively. It is always a good idea to try to leave emotions out (although it is equally important to pay close attention to others’ emotions). Architects should communicate the risks and downside of solutions and always be prepared to list options and recommendations that include next steps and action items. Although bad things happen, communicating on time and being proactive to find a solution will minimize the impact of new problems as they are discovered.

Fortunately, there are quite a few ways to improve your communication skills and to be able to share those wonderful ideas and technical solutions that you are so good at creating. Previously, I mentioned the American Management Association (AMA), which helps professionals to improve their leadership skills and to cultivate some related performance competencies such as communication. AMA also offers different communication courses designed specifically to meet various communication needs such as:

  • Advanced Leadership Communication Strategies: This course is ideal for architects requiring leadership skills by adapting according to changing circumstances.
  • The Voice of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire, Influence and Achieve Results: This course helping architects to communicate their solutions and inspire the others to implement them.

Another great way to improve communication and leadership skills is to not only get trained but also to be able to get coached and coach others by becoming a member of a Toastmasters International group. The mission of this organization is to provide a supportive learning environment in which members are encouraged and empowered to develop communication and leadership skills. Many people are not born leaders, are not able to talk in front of a large group of people, or are not able to give and accept feedback. Toastmasters is a great environment to improve soft skills and to be able to practice them and exchange feedback. Their central idea is learning by doing and from obtaining constant feedback. The biggest advantage is that Toastmasters does it in a friendly environment and not at work where the boss can quickly penalize every mistake and, even worse, may not give necessary feedback and coaching. There is a communication and a leadership track and for each of these you can start with a manual and then quickly practice during the club meetings. There are currently more than 15,000 clubs in 135 countries. Be careful in choosing a club that meets your expectations as well as your schedule.

As with any other skill, you need to practice, get feedback, adjust, and then continue to improve. The architect needs to make sure that he or she is regularly talking with team members or make sure that the management knows about the issues on the project.


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This article was published in November 2017

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