My thoughts on what it means to be an architect

Architecture, Improvement, Techniques

An architect is like an Army Ranger, or an Old West scout. Their job is to go ahead of the main force to determine the best paths and clear obstacles when appropriate. This means it is up to them to figure out what technologies and architecture patterns to use. It is their job to find what the risky parts of the application or system will be and prototype them enough to remove the risks. If these prototypes are meant to become part of the production software (and let’s be honest, they always become part of the production software) they have to be built to the same standards as production code, which means good automated tests (unit, functional, and integration, as appropriate). They need to be prepared to discover that the approach they wanted to take is not the correct approach and abandon it before a lot of time and effort is spent trying to make the wrong tools or technologies work. Sometimes the seemingly obvious path is not the best path. You may have to attack a problem from an unusual direction to get to the best solution.

In order to do this, architects need to be able to see the big picture yet still write good code quickly. Good code is code that is easily understood and maintained, which means code with tests and low complexity and coupling. Not every developer can see the big picture – it is easy for us to get lost in the details or try to create the perfect solution instead of just doing enough to satisfy the requirement with solid code. This is not a bad thing if it can be kept under control, and the person qualified to keep it under control is an architect. A manger will want the developer to stop at satisfying the requirement.

Architects need to be concerned about the -ilities of a system. They need to keep an eye on performance – will the system be able to handle the expected number of peak users while still being responsive? Will it handle user load while background processes are under heavy load as well? Can it handle securing it’s data from malicious users and outside attack? The person qualified to make sure good technologies and development techniques are used to produce the system may not be qualified to define performance tests or security. This is why you often need a team of architects each specializing in one or more areas. Of course, this does not absolve an architect from knowing anything about these other concerns – an architect should know enough about these thing to call bullshit on bad ideas. But you need to have people with deep experience and knowledge in these important areas, and it is extremely unlikely that one person will be able to do the job. This is why you need an architecture team for any project of significant size.

Architects should not be treated in any special way. They will have knowledge that other people do not, but they should not horde this knowledge. They need to accept that other people may have good ideas as well and be ready to hear them out and employ these ideas when possible. In order to make this possible, they need to be approachable and respectful of these opinions and ideas. They should document decisions with the ideas considered and the reasons why they were not used as well as a compelling story for the idea that is being used. This provides a level of transparency and over time will give others an understanding of what values the organization holds when considering technologies and architectures.

Done properly, being an architect is still a very hands on job. You have to maintain your coding skills and keep in contact with other developers, or else you will stagnate and become of little value to your organization. You need to have solid teamwork skills because modern software requires lots of experts to get to a solidly built, long-lived result. The days when architects could hide in an ivory tower are completely gone, if they ever really were here.