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Radar retrospective: 10 years of Thoughtworks Technology Radar

In January 2010, a group of technologists at Thoughtworks got together to discuss their favorite topic: what was happening in the world of technology. They then summarized the talking points in a document, which became the first “Technology Radar”.

Ten years later, Thoughtworks’ Technology Radar is going strong. Recently, we caught up with some of the original group — a very select few, who were involved in the first Radar and are still part of the creation team today. We wanted to get their perspective on 10 years of the Radar. 

Starting in a very different world

Erik Dörnenburg: I don’t think any us would have imagined, when we started the Radar, how much broader the range of technologies it covers would be.

At that time, the iPhone was not long out, we were seeing the beginning of cloud computing, but we’d never had imagined, for example, how many products would follow EC2 and S3.

Xu Hao: When we started with the Radar, we didn’t really have a fixed idea on what a blip should be. So if you look back, you can see we put things on there like ‘user-centred design’ and ‘continuous deployment’. Those are huge topics. So one of the changes that happened over time is that we’ve got better at understanding the level of granularity that’s necessary for the Radar to be useful.

Getting it right

Neal Ford: One of the major trends that the Radar has tracked over the past decade is re-emergence of software architecture and the idea that it’s really important. Microservices have really set the world on fire — they’ve been the foundation of the belief that software really does deliver a strategic advantage.

Ian Cartwright: There’s a lot of ground we’ve covered in course of producing the Radar for the past decade. But one of the things I think we really got right was the idea of treating JavaScript as a first-class language. It’s hard to believe now, but at the time there really was an attitude that enterprises should be very cautious about JavaScript.

I think other things that the Radar got spot on were around cloud and containers. But the only reason we pick up things like that early is because our colleagues nominate them to go on to the Radar.

Xu Hao: When I think back to the early Radar meetings, my colleagues in the room from North America would be talking about technology and trends — things like cloud — that we really weren’t seeing in China at that time. Back then, cloud was seen as very new, and Chinese companies approached it with caution.

But in the last two or three years, I can see the topics coming up are ones that China is ready for — and in some cases, we’re talking about tech that’s completely new to Western companies.

What’s hot? What’s not?

Neal Ford: We didn’t really set out to create the Technology Radar. It actually emerged from meetings we had where we were talking about all the hot tech that we were seeing in projects we were working on.

Rebecca Parsons: The exercise itself started pretty informally. I was asked by our demand folks: What do our technologists think is interesting? And when we got a bunch of our technologists together, they started talking about all the things that they were passionate about. That’s where we started putting together a list: which things we thought were promising, what sounded bad.

Initially, it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone outside of Thoughtworks would care. But one of the group was telling a friend about this, who said he’d be interested in seeing what we came up with, and it got us thinking that we should just put this out there.

Erik Dörnenburg:  There was some talk at first about how we put the report out there: should if be behind a paywall? But that’s not really who we are: the Tech Radar has a similar ethos to open source software. We do it because we have a passion for tech and there’s value is sharing our work with others widely. 

Ian Cartwright: For me, the one of the strengths of the Radar is that we don’t set about building it with a particular agenda. We get the group together and try to select the best things from a long list of proposals made by our colleagues: the things we think will be helpful to know about. 

Biggest misses

Xu Hao: I think when you look back over 10 years of following technology trends, you’re not going to get everything perfect. So I think there were some things where our guidance wasn’t perhaps as strong as it could have been. I’m thinking of things like augmented reality. But I don’t think there’s too much that we got really wrong.

Neal Ford: For me, one of the big surprises is that we didn’t get more things wrong. I do think with hindsight that in the early days, we should have picked up more strongly on the shift towards mobile apps. But I think our process of proposing and rejecting blips has been a really good way to ensure we don’t get too many things too badly wrong.

The next 10 years

Rebecca Parsons: I do worry that the scope we originally set for ourselves for the Radar is, perhaps, broader than I would choose now. When we started, the tech landscape was nowhere near as complex as it is today.

And while we’ve never claimed that the Radar is comprehensive, we do take the entire tech ecosystem as ‘fair game’. And that does complicate things. I think there is a risk that someone could look at the 100-plus blips we’ve chosen for a particular Radar and think it seems somewhat random. So perhaps in future, we might contemplate making it more focused.

But I think if you look at the characteristics of the Radar — the idea that it’s based on real experience of solving real problems — people are still going to care about that regardless of what tech looks like in 10 years time.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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