No Man is a Failure Who Has Friends: 5 Architecture Tips from It’s a Wonderful Life.

Dec 17, 2010   //   by Karen Lopez   //   Blog, Data Modeling, DLBlog, Fun, Social Networking  //  4 Comments

This post is a rerun from 2009, but the truth is still there.

image It’s a Wonderful Life is a part of many a holiday tradition.  While most of you probably know this as a Christmas film, the links to the Christmas holiday are fairly weak.  There’s an angel, some snow, and a background Christmas tree with a bell.  Other than that the story itself could take place at any time of the year.  So if you’d put off seeing this film because you think it is all happy, shiny, Christmas cheer-ish, you need to think again.

George Bailey is a protagonist in a small town, Bedford Falls, located in upstate New York. He finds himself on the brink of financial ruin due to no fault of his own.  He goes to visit the town big wig and resident bully, Henry Potter, to get a loan.  Potter tells him that with no equity in his life insurance policy, he’s “worth more dead than alive.”  In a fit of despair, George decides to sacrifice his life so that his family and company (The Bailey Building and Loan) can survive. However, his plans are side-tracked by Clarence, his guardian angel.  George rambles that he wished he’d never been born.  Sounds pretty dark, doesn’t it?  Not that Christmas-y at all. Clarence sees this as a great opportunity to show George just what a great impact he has had on not just his community, but on the world.

So George is shown what his family, friends, town and world would be like if he’d never been born.  The new town is called “Pottersville”, after the antagonist Mr. Potter.  It’s not a good thing.  Clarence tells him:

“Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”


“No man is a failure who has friends.”

The “feel good” part of the film is when George gets to return to the world he wished he’d never been born into.  I’ll leave the assignment up to you to see how this all happens and how George and his family do once he returns.

I’ve seen this film at least 50 times in my life, perhaps even more.  In fact, most people would probably think that I’m a bit obsessed with this whole story.  To which I say: everyone needs a hobby.  This just happens to be one of mine.

So what does this have to do with architecture and data management?  I think plenty.

  1. Enterprise-class projects can’t be done by one person.  No one is a failure who has good team mates who collaborate well.  You don’t have to be friends with them, or even like them that much.  But you do have to find a way to collaborate with them.
  2. Architecture done well can have all kinds of impacts elsewhere.  Each architect’s work touches so many other parts of the architecture.  When it isn’t there, it leaves an awful hole…to be filled by a non-architect to do. One small great architecture component can have huge impacts on solution quality for a long time in the future.  When George is a kid, he saves his brother Harry’s life.  But in the Pottersville world, Harry dies.  Clarence tells George: Every man on that transport died! Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry. 

    If you aren’t there to create the architecture, or if the architecture you create isn’t used, then the good stuff it could deliver won’t be there when it is needed.

  3. Fastest isn’t always “bestest”.  In running George and Clarence out of his Pottersville bar, Nick the Bartender explains what works in the bad world: Hey look, mister – we code fast here for people who want to get lots of stuff done fast, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint "atmosphere". Is that clear, or do I have to slip you my left for a convincer? Well, I paraphrased that quote.  But you get the point. Perhaps that was Nick’s collaboration method – using bouncers to run people out.  Some people feel that data and other architectures are just there for some sort of religious checklist nirvana.  It’s our jobs, as architects, to show them why architecture plays a key role project success.  A left convincer might work in the short run, but the best way to get support for an architecture is have one that works.  Good architectures need to be designed.  Hacking away on a pseudo architecture is more Pottersville than Bedford Falls.
  4. Architecture is more than drawing boxes and lines. George was fabulous at motivating people to do the right thing.  The first way he did this was by living by his own principles.  When put in a tight spot, he did the right thing.  We architects need to do the same thing.  We can’t tell development teams that they must treat data with respect and then treat our own meta data as if it weren’t important.  This means ensuring that our architectures are managed with real tools, backed up, disaster-proofed, and generally treated as production data – which they are.
  5. Sharing a vision is important. George was also great with expressing vision. He could get people to rally ‘round a cause by getting others to see what was in it for them.  His monologue to Potter about why the Bailey Building and Loan should carry on after his father’s death is a classic.  But his best was saved for Mary, in the moonlight:

George: What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.

Mary: I’ll take it. Then what?

George:  Well, then you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see… and the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair… am I talking too much?

I’m still not sure how I’m going to work that line in with one my vision/architectural reviews, but I’m still thinking about it.  Look for it on call soon.

For those of you who have seen IAWL and might appreciate some derivative works, I leave you with:

Carolyn’s Sill’s video and song “George Bailey”.  This is one of my favourite holiday running songs for the tempo and overall good feelings it leaves me with.  Her songs are available on iTunes.  While you are watching this video, head over to iTunes and buy it.  As an independent artist, she deserves the 99 cents for putting this together.

Next up is Angry Alien’s It’s A Wonderful Life in 30 Seconds with Bunnies.  A 30 second overview of the film.  Be sure to click on the bunny outlines at the end to see some clips that couldn’t be part of the 30 second summary.

Finally, dear reader, I want you to know that you personally touch many lives by being part of our communities, both here and on Twitter.

Happy Wonderful Life, everyone.


  • GREAT post, Karen. All of the points you are making are strong but the one that sticks out for me is #4 (treat our data as we preach to others).

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

  • In all my years of experience I would say #3 is the one that I fight the most. In the world of consulting, deadlines loom large every day and project managers will do whatever they can to avoid project delays. Since projects are kinda short-term, people not in IT/software tend to make decisions for the short-term.

  • Karel: It also annoys me when data professionals won’t practice what they preach. They let modeling repositories run on their desktop with little security and no tested backups (restores). Maybe I have another blog post percolating about that.

    Dan: It is really tough trying to get leaders to understand that while the software may be around for only a few years, the data might be relevant for decades or centuries depending on what lines of business we’re supporting.

  • […] No Man is a Failure Who Has Friends: 5 Architecture Tips from It’s a Wonderful Life. […]

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