Challenging What Architects Do

For most of this year I’ve been fortunate (sic) enough to travel around several countries (and indeed continents) delivering a series of architecture workshops to a client. These workshops aim to teach, through the use of instructor led case studies, best practice approaches to building solution architectures. The workshops take a holistic approach to developing architecture by ensuring both the application as well as infrastructure aspects are considered together and both the functional and non-functional requirements are taken into account.

An enjoyable side-effect of these workshops is I get to meet lots of different people who like to challenge the approach and test my understanding (I sometimes think I’m learning more than the workshop participants). Here’s one such challenge (paraphrased) I received recently: “The problem with architects and the work products they produce (for example models built using the Unified Modeling Language) is that the work products become an end in their own right and we can easily lose track of the fact that actually what we want to build is a system with running code on real hardware”. The clear implications behind this challenge could be described via three architecture anti-patterns:

  • Antipattern: Architecture Overkill. Symptoms: Architects create work that no one understands or cares about. Multiple artefacts with overlapping content get created that no one actually reads. They are too large, too complex and may even be delivered too late.
  • Antipattern: Ivory Tower Architecture. Symptoms: Architects are out of touch with real-world technical aspects. Instead they just sit in their ivory-towers making their pronouncements (which most of the time no one listens to).
  • Antipattern: Work Creation. Symptoms: The role of the architect becomes self-fulfilling. They create work products which only they understand and therefore need more architects to help create these work products.

Here’s my response:

  • Any architectural work product needs to have either an up-stream (e.g. to the business) or down-stream (e.g. to the implementers) justification. Each of these groups of stakeholders needs to be able to recognise how the architecture, as encompassed in the work products, addresses their particular concerns otherwise the work product really is only for its own sake. There are other stakeholders who will have interests or concerns in the architecture but I just focus on these to illustrate my point.
  • The role of the architect needs to be clearly defined and work produced around that role. The role may change as business needs etc evolve but the work created should be in tune with that role and ultimately fulfil the needs of the business. This does not, of course, mean that part of what architects  do is research new technology or try out new ideas. Indeed if they don’t do this the next point will be tricky to fulfil.
  • One of the difficulties with the role of the architect is that it can mean the architect easily becomes out of touch with the latest trends etc in programming. This can be caused by a number of things including: architects are paid too much to do programming, architects are too senior to do programming, architects are too busy to do programming etc. This particular problem is particularly endemic in many services organisations where architects may be charged out at premium rates and where the role of programming is seen as almost too “menial”. What to do? It’s vital that this is not the case. There must always be time allowed in any software architects work day to stay in touch with the stuff that gives him his reason for being.
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