10 Things I (Should Have) Learned in (IT) Architecture School

Inspired by this book I discovered in the Tate Modern book shop this week I don’t (yet) have 101 things I can claim I should have learned in IT Architecture School but this would certainly be my 10 things:

  1. The best architectures are full of patterns. This from Grady Booch. Whilst there is an increasing  need to be innovative in the architectures we create we also need to learn from what has gone before. Basing architectures on well-tried and tested patterns is one way of doing this.
  2. Projects that develop IT systems rarely fail for technical reasons. In this report the reasons for IT project failures are cited and practically all of them are because of human (communication) failures rather than real technical challenges. Learning point: effective IT architects need to have soft (people skills) as well as hard (technical skills). See my thoughts on this here.
  3. The best architecture documentation contains multiple viewpoints. There is no single viewpoint that adequately describes an architecture. Canny architects know this and use viewpoint frameworks to organise and categorise these various viewpoints. Here’s a paper myself and some IBM colleagues wrote a while ago describing one such viewpoint framework. You can also find out much more about this in the book I wrote with Peter Eeles last year.
  4. All architecture is design but not all design is architecture. Also from Grady. This is a tricky one and alludes to the thorny issue of “what is architecture” and “what is design”. The point is that the best practice of design (separation of concerns, design by contract, identification of clear component responsibilities etc) is also the practice of good architecture how architectures focus is on the significant elements that drive the overall shape of the system under development. For more on this see here.
  5. A project without a system context diagram is doomed to fail. Quite simply the system context bounds the system (or systems) under development and says what is in scope and what is out. If you don’t do this early you will spend endless hours later on arguing about this. Draw a system context early, get it agreed and print it out at least A2 size and pin it in highly visible places. See here for more discussion on this.
  6. Complex systems may be complicated but complicated systems are not necessarily complex. For more discussion on this topic see my blog entry here.
  7. Use architectural blueprints for building systems but use architectural drawings for communicating about systems. A blueprint is a formal specification of what is to be. This is best created using a formal modeling language such as UML or Archimate. As well as this we also need to be able to communicate our architectures to none or at least semi-literate IT people (often the people who hold the purse). Such communications are better done using drawings, not created using formal modeling tools but done with drawing tools. It’s worth knowing the difference and when to use each.
  8. Make the process fit the project, not the other way around. I’m all for having a ‘proper’ software delivery life-cycle (SDLC) but the first thing I do when deploying one on a project is customise it to my own purposes. In software development as in gentleman’s suits there is no “one size fits all”. Just like you might think you can pick up a suit at Marks and Spencers that perfectly fits you can’t. You also cannot take an off-the-shelf SDLC that perfectly fits your project. Make sure you customise it so it does fit.
  9. Success causes more problems than failure.This comes from Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus. See this link at TED for Clay’s presentation on this topic. You should also check this out to see why organisations learn more from failure than success. The point here is that you can analyse a problem to death and not move forward until you think you have covered every base but you will always find some problem or another you didn’t expect. Although you might (initially) have to address more problems by not doing too much up front analysis in the long run you are probably going to be better off. Shipping early and benefitting from real user experience will inevitably mean you have more problems but you will learn more from these than trying to build the ‘perfect’ solution but running the risk of never sipping anything.
  10. Knowing how to present an architecture is as important as knowing how to create one. Although this is last, it’s probably the most important lesson you will learn. Producing good presentations that describe an architecture, that are targeted appropriately at stakeholders, is probably as important as the architecture itself. For more on this see here.
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