Thinking aboutA Trace in the Sand

by Ruth Malan





Architects Architecting Architecture  

What I see. (Image by Sara B.)December 2012


What's a Trace?

For those new to my Trace, be warned, this is "different"... Something like:

  • This is where I prototype/mock-up my thinking, so stopping by here is like... coming into my garage-shop and seeing what I'm working on in all it's stages of experimentation and incompletion...
  • This is the journal of my exploration, as I scout out interesting features of the architects architecting architecture landscape and territories beyond. I chart these features, but also try to make sense of them, reflecting on what they mean for our field.
  • This is a conversation, where I draw in other voices, add my perspective, and explore deeper based on the (asynchronous) interactions of minds.
  • This is my "platform for change," where I develop (and share) flexible variety / requisite flexibility necessary for designing and enacting complex systems
  • This is an open brain experiment. I'm giving you a preview of what it will be like when we advance beyond the social internet and internet of things to internet-of-directly-connected minds (no voices or hands needed to transport thoughts). Yep, overwhelming much... (talk about "big data")... Yep, messy. With ooey gooey human stuff mixed in with reason and rationality. ;-)
  • This is my personal maker space -- where what I am building through exploration, discovery and experimentation is myself, my point of view on architecture and being an architect.
  • This Trace weaves its audience into the narrative -- one where architects star in an unfolding story of our field. So... it must be awesome!

Well, you might not be impressed at how I positioned my Trace in terms of all the vectors of trendiness du jour, but I am. Oh, I am mean to myself, but only so that you don't need to be. ;-)

In short, it is a good sort of place for those with a sense of whimsy and fun, and a distinct appreciation for what diversity of perspective will add to their IQ [remember, Alan Kay promises 80 IQ points for perspective ;-)].

If you have no prior encounter with my work, you might prefer to read something more topically organized than this Trace, which is a longitudinal view of evolving thinking. If so, please consider one of our papers "short e-books" (which you can download free from Cutter Consortium using these links):

Image by Sara B.


Requisite Variety Blog

I've launched a Requisite Variety blog with an experimental format. Essentially the idea is to create an architect's learning lab of sorts, where (to use a learning-as-making-new-connections and hence a learning chemistry analogy) we create new insight compounds by tossing a starter into the learning crucible and adding various insights into the mix. I launched with a scene-setting set of stories that explore the topic of mastery, elaborating some on the system development/learning loop with an observe, orient, decide, act theme.

Of course, such things depend enormously on goodwill, and it is very encouraging to see who engaged in these first discussions. Goodwill includes positive expectations and trust. Whether you're doing a ropes course or this, you need to trust that you will learn something valuable about yourself and leadership -- and other architecting skills. So if you're wondering what the fish does a kid fixing radios have to do with architecting, then just think "ropes course" and go with flow. :-)

If you would like to encourage the blog as place to interact with other architects in a guided learning lab kind of space, please engage. I need to debrief the Feynman story in the "By Thinking" post, but I was interested to see if anyone was going to take up the challenge to jiggle more insights loose, share related observations or draw on the set of three stories to make new points looking across the three in conjunction.

Should I adapt the format? So far I have refrained from hopping in to the discussion to allow others the chance to add ideas, insights, questions, experiences, etc. But I have been debriefing the discussion not because I want to stop it there, but to add my perspective before too much time passes. Does this seem like a good approach, or do you have suggestions to adapt/tune it up/serve you better?

12/2/12: Hm. Given Peter Bakker's thoughtful feedback, I see that the notion of a debrief may be problematic...

Whether I call it a debrief or not (does "discussion" sound better?), and whether I share my observations in the comments, at the end of the post (so they are easier to find), or in a follow-up post, there may be an air of formality... I imagine there'd be some people who would wonder why I tossed a particular story or other learning object into the crucible, and want to see what I have to say... But maybe that is just a delusion. Maybe what I have to say should simply be among the comments, so as to give all contributions to the discussion a fair airing? Anyway, the question is, is it helpful for me to summarize and fill out coverage of the learning points and, if so, where should that go and how do we demark that for findability?

As collegial as my workshops are, I am still ultimately in the "driver's seat" so I can pull a discussion together, draw points out, make new points to fill in gaps left open by the discussion in areas where I really need points to be made to enhance the learning, and so forth. But if that is not a good idea in this forum, I am open to dropping that part of the role of facilitator of this online "learning lab." :-)

Let me know what you think -- my "debrief" (by whatever name, in whatever format -- or not) of the "by thinking" post is (over)due. :-) You can add your suggestions in a comment on the introduction to the blog, or send me email. I can be reached at

Peter also wondered if a framing post would be useful to set the scene for a theme. I have tried not to set expectations or hint at how I see each of the stories yielding lessons for architects. Why? I recognize that novices can feel uncertain and vulnerable to being "wrong," but in my experience, architects have a lot of experience/insight/cognitive resources to draw on. Further, the stories don't have a right or a wrong translation into lessons for architects, and I don't want to block off insights you may have by framing the stories with a theme I have in mind. That doesn't mean the theme isn't valuable. It just means that I want to allow other kinds of value and insight to emerge too. So at least this time round we are building up the themes, rather than having them presented in advance. Besides, each story has standalone merit.

If there are no other suggestions, I'm going to run the experiment of debriefing the "By Thinking" post in a follow-up post. If that still feels uncomfortable, I can experiment with putting my 2c in the comments for the next "learning object." (Which isn't a story.)

These are early days for the blog, so your support and encouragement (entering the discussions, giving feedback on format, letting others know, etc.) is all the more significant and very much appreciated!



Software Architecture Workshop

I will be teaching our Software Architecture Workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa on December 10-13.

So wow, hey you know what -- South Africa has exported some pretty amazing people -- Elon Musk (Space-X) and Mark Shuttleworth (Ubuntu) among them. And Ruth Malan (Visual Architecting ;-)...

12/26/12:What a wonderful group of architects! All working in some way in financial services. They remind me that very smart, intellectually inquisitive, fun people busy themselves doing good work on systems that are not in the spotlight, yet impact our daily lives in all sorts of important ways.




A Break from Tracing

Two months away from 7 years of this Trace. It's a hard habit to break. :-) Still...

While I'm taking a break from Tracing/reassessing the merits of doing so, you could catch up on some of the previous months of traces using the sidebar on the right. I indexed a couple of the years of traces in a Journal Map. Even though it is incomplete, you might like to look it over, if only to get a sense of the scope of topics and my organizing framework for architects architecting architecture. Both of those things (the conceptual model/organizing framework) and the topic elaborations within the framework are major contributions to the field in their own right. Note that it is a different use of the 6 interrogatives than that used in the Zachman framework -- in this case, focused on the discipline of architecture (as opposed an architecture). Caveat: Since it is a (partial) map of traces, it is not, and doesn't try to be, a comprehensive map of topics. But it is illustrative of both the topics and the scope of this Trace. Leg lamp in the window  (iconic  reference to A Christmas Story)


Seasons Greetings

Just a quick note to thank everyone who has looked in on me through the window of this Trace -- your assessment of my willpower is ... touching. ;-) Thank you, sincerely! Your collegial cameraderie -- and for those most dear, your friendship -- means a lot to me. I wish you much joy over the Holidays.

12/31/12: It is humbling that the visitor count and, perhaps even more significantly, the average number of return visits for December was higher than for November. If I do nothing, people come back more? The Tom Sawyer Scarcity Principle?


The Power of (Self-) Rationalization

Janus comes to a head, or two, at this time of the year. Ouch, ouch! ;-) But 'tis the time for either getting all self-helpy and motivational, or wringing our hands at everyone else doing so. Now I'm in the camp that believes it is a good thing to revisit priorities on a certain rhythm. And the calendar provides a good one, what with the New Year coming so close on the heels of Holiday materialism... er, I mean, the necessary duty of keeping the wheels of commerce turning... er, I mean time with family and gratitude and joy. And Joy. And... the panic induced by another year passing... And Despair. The human condition. Sublime. And Corrupt. And the constant struggle to lead a good life, figuring out what the Dickens that means. Anyway.



Requisite Variety and Requisite Imagination: Permission to Range

Tim O'Reilly got a flurry of attention with the "I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away" soundbite lifted from an interview he did. I don't know if that has anything to do with Why Poetry Is Necessary doing its tweet-rounds yesterday, but regardless the timing is good:

"On my good days, I knew better, which is why I kept writing. I knew that great poetry has the power to start a fire in a person's life. It can alter the way we see ourselves. It can change the way we see the world. You may never have read a poem in your life, and yet you can pick up a volume of Mary Oliver say, or Neruda, or of Rumi, open it to any page, and suddenly find yourself blown into a world full of awe, dread, wonder, marvel, deep sorrow, and joy.

Poetry at its best calls forth our deep being. It dares us to break free from the safe strategies of the cautious mind; it calls to us, like the wild geese, as Mary Oliver would say, from an open sky. It is a magical art, and always has been -- a making of language spells designed to open our eyes, open our doors and welcome us into a bigger world, one of possibilities we may never have dared to dream of."

-- Why Poetry Is Necessary, Roger Housden, 06/26/11 (via Richard West)

As contemplations of being go, last night's workout was set to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which followed on the heel of My Left Foot, another Daniel Day Lewis classic, a few nights before.

Relevant to the architect? Impossible!? A stretch? Definitely!?

Well, architect. Litmus test time. What was your answer? "It depends!"? Really?

Ok. Try this:

"A ski area in summer is a rugged, foreboding place, full of crags, rocks and brush, rough to look at and to hike. But the snow falls, and fills the holes and softens the points, and the jagged becomes smooth. A snow-covered hill is a mathematician’s dream come to this earth. All detail is gone, and there is nothing but the surface itself. This is the joy captured by the helicopter shot of the lone skier in the untrammelled backcountry bowl. At that moment the skier experiences a pure surface, and there is nothing but the contour of the slope."

-- Gregory Buck, The Wondrous Mathematics of Winter, December 28, 2012

Gregory Buck is explaining the process of abstraction in math:

"Looking for these forms is often just the process of abstraction—trying to see the thing in its most elemental of characteristics, and no more."

Art uses one thing to enhance our understanding of another thing:

"This is the theory… that anything that is art… is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”' -- Edward Gorey (via Maria Popova)

We use analogy and metaphor in software too. Michael Feathers mentioned Broken Windows in a discussion thread, reminding me of Jeff Atwood's post. We use analogies to explore and guide the process of creating software. And in the process of creating software, for very often we name abstractions with the analogies we are leveraging.

er.... need to finish this... maybe... Or not... Meh?

1/3/13: What I was working my way toward is the insight flash that we are so absorbed in the concerns of our moment, that our circle of view can become very close to our metaphorical feet (or next step). Art gets us to look around inside ourselves to know our values, and without, to test and expose our values, but also to see greater opportunity to make a meaningful difference. Art, then, we can see as a lever that hefts us to new views. Views that give us a better sense of ourselves, and more self conscious (in the best way, conscious of self) sense of our values, and where we want to get to. We imagine, empathize, quest more if we (from time to time) lift our eyes from the immediate, from the pragmatics of now, and see the larger scope of pain, and striving, and magnificence in the world. We need to also be strategic about our lives (not just our organizations), for time rushes through us so fast. Art fosters imagination and questioning questing for meaning and truth, insight, and wisdom. The artists we consider great*, tantalize us with insights we can reach in communion with their art and within our own conceptions and values -- not with the hammer of didactic postulates, prescripts and pronouncements that tend to focus us on a narrow view. The latter may be useful, but more so in a context where we can select such tools using our evolving moral compass as we do what is meaningful with our life.

Another insight flash -- the sparks lit by Tim O'Reilly's controversial statement -- is that from exploring outside the focus of our here-and-now concerns, we gain ideas and insights, knowledge, capabilities. That broader encounter changes our capacity to see and frame problems and create solutions. (Where I use "problem" and "solution" loosely.) Seeing new problems, or problems with fresh perspective or greater acuity, gives us ideas for innovation, and comes of gaining insight into our own or others frustrations, aspirations, etc., from direct and indirect encounter, from expanding our capacity for empathy, from serendipity, and more.

Moreover, there is art at the technical heart of architecting -- for example, we use visual thinking and design, analogy, intuition and experience honed in patterns and heuristics to achieve "the creation of resilient abstractions, a good separation of concerns, a balanced distribution of responsibilities, and simplicity" (Grady Booch).

Vaguely related:

* That others consider them great, lends us confidence that their art will so yield to considered encounter. Those first to, with some level of credibility, notice and draw attention to the greatness of the artist, are therefore very important to society!)



Over lunch yesterday, I was explaining my (latest) system, system-in-context, context and strategy-architecture distinctions to Dana, and finding ourselves still in the restaurant at 3pm... we took our conversation on the road. So it was that driving home Dana said something like "strategy is deciding how we want the world to be different because we are in it, and deciding how we will make that impact." I set context that way to excuse my not having a pen to write down exactly what Dana said, but what I have captured is the sense I made of it, and I like it. A lot! So for emphasis:

"Strategy is deciding how we want the world to be different because we are in it, and deciding how we will make that impact." -- Dana Bredemeyer

Anyway, I was struck this morning when I read:

"Strategy is about getting to where you’d like to be." -- Max McKeown, December 21, 2012

Again, for emphasis: strategy is about deciding. Deciding on the difference we want to make. And how to make it. The destination, in visionary terms. And the route, in strategic terms, not in the details -- except where the details are strategically significant.


I also write at:

- Bredemeyer Resources for  Architects

- Trace In the Sand Blog

- Follow ruthmalan on Twitter



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Chief Scientists

- Grady Booch

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Enterprise Architects

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Architects and Architecture

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- Todd Hoff (highly recommended)

- Gregor Hohpe

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Architect Professional Organizations




Software Visualization

- Adrian Kuhn

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Domain-Driven Design

- Dan Hayward

Agile and Lean

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- hackerchickblog

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Agile and Testing

- Elisabeth Hendrickson

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Software Reuse

- Vijay Narayanan

Other Software Thought Leaders

- Jeff Atwood

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CTOs and CIOs

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CEOs (Web 2.0)

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Innovate/Tech Watch

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- Marci Segal


Visual Thinking

- Amanda Lyons


Social Networking/Web 2.0+ Watch


- Mashable


Visual Thinking

- Dave Gray

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- David Sibbet (The Grove)

- Scott McLoud


Leadership Skills

- Presentation Zen


Strategy, BI and Competitive Intelligence

- Freakonomics blog

- Tom Hawes

- Malcom Ryder


Um... and these
- Nick Carr

- Tom Peters


Green Thinking

- Sylvia Earle, TED

- CNN Money Business of Green videos

- Matter Network


- xkcd

- Buttercup Festival

- Dinosaur comics

- geek&poke

- phd comics

- a softer world

- Dilbert




I also write at:

- Resources for Software, System and Enterprise Architects

- Trace In the Sand Blog

- Follow ruthmalan on Twitter



- Strategy, Architecture and Agility: The Art of Change: Fractal and Emergent, 2010 

- Innovation and Agile Architecting: Getting Past ‘But’: Finding Opportunity and Making It Happen, 2008

- EA and Business Strategy: Enterprise Architecture as Strategic Differentiator, 2005

- The Role of the Architect:: What it Takes to be a Great Enterprise Architect, 2004


Ruth Malan has played a pioneering role in the software architecture field, helping to define architectures and the process by which they are created and evolved, and helping to shape the role of the software, systems and enterprise architect. She and Dana Bredemeyer created the Visual Architecting Process which emphasizes: architecting for agility, integrity and sustainability. Creating architectures that are good, right and successful, where good: technically sound; right: meets stakeholders goals and fit context and purpose; and successful: actually delivers strategic outcomes. Translating business strategy into technical strategy and leading the implementation of that strategy. Applying guiding principles like: the extraordinary moment principle; the minimalist architecture principle; and the connect the dots principle. Being agile. Creating options.

Feedback: I welcome input, discussion and feedback on any of the topics in this Trace in The Sand Journal, my blog, and the Resources for Architects website, or, for that matter, anything relevant to architects, architecting and architecture! I can be reached at

Restrictions on Use: If you wish to quote or paraphrase original work on this page, please properly acknowledge the source, with appropriate reference to this web page. If you wish to republish any of my or Bredemeyer Consulting's work, in any medium, you must get written permission from the lead author. Also, any commercial use must be authorized in writing by myself or Bredemeyer Consulting. Thank you.


- Links to tools and other resources



- Other Interests




a deer in the headlights sort of look is just perfect next to an expression of openness to feedback ;-) [dry sense of humor alert]

Copyright 2012 by Ruth Malan
Page Created: September 2, 2012
Last Modified: November 4, 2013