Random Acts of Architecture

Tales of an architect trying to bring order to the chaos that is modern information technology.

Category Archives: Software Architecture

Rebranding Corporate Politics

politicsThe term “corporate politics” conjures up images of sycophantic, self-serving behavior like boot-licking and backstabbing. However, to some IT professionals’ chagrin, we work with humans as much as computers. Dismissing humans is dismissing part of the job.

The best way to “play” corporate politics is solve big problems by doing things you enjoy and excel at.

“Big problems” means problems faced not just by your team but by your boss’s boss, your boss’s boss’s boss and so on. If you don’t know what they are, ask (easier than it sounds). Otherwise, attend all hands meetings, read industry literature or look at your leaders’ social network posts, particularly internal ones.

This is not just for those wanting promotions into management. Individual contributors still want better benefits and higher profile or challenging projects. These come easiest to those known to be providing value and not the strict meritocracy some IT professionals think they work in.

Start by solving small problems as side projects. Choose something impacting more than your own team and minimize others’ extra work. Build up to bigger problems once you have demonstrated ability and credibility.

You need not be the leader. Assisting others making an effort can be just as effective. You can own part of it or bask in the halo effect. If not, recognize those that are. This creates a culture of recognition that may recognize you in the future.

While some IT professionals solve big problems everyday, communicating and evangelizing their work “feels” wrong. This what salespeople do, not IT professionals. Many also think their work is not interesting.

Being successful requires people knowing what you do. This may be as simple as a short elevator chat, a brown bag talk or a post on the corporate social network. It also helps get early feedback and build a like-minded team. Others will be interested if you are working on the right things.

What about the potentially less savory aspects of corporate politics like work social events, sharing common interests with management, supporting corporate charities and so on? These are as much an art as a science. Focus on common goals and building trust, internally and externally. People like to deal with people at their level and contact builds familiarity.

However, this is no substitute for solving big problems. If you are delivering value, interactions with senior decision makers and IT professionals with similar goals should occur naturally. Build on that.

Be aware that problems change over time. Problems get solved by others. The market changes. Competitors come and go. Understanding organizational goals is an ongoing process.

Also realize decision makers are human. They make mistakes. They want to emphasize their achievements and not their failures, just like software developers’ fundamental attribute error bias for their own code and against others’.

However, if your organization makes decisions regularly on “political” grounds, leave. Culture is rarely changed from the ground up and many organizations are looking for good IT staff.

Ignoring the worse case scenario and IT professionals’ bias against self evangelism, the biggest problem with “corporate politics” is actually its name. The concepts behind “agile” and “technical debt” came into common usage once the correct metaphor was found. Corporate politics needs rebranding from something avoided to a tool that IT professionals use to advance themselves. It badly needs a dose of optimism and open mindedness.

Image credit: http://thebluediamondgallery.com/p/politics.html. Usage under CC BY-SA 3.0.

InfoSec: Not just for hackers

everybody-needs-a-hackerI recently read Troy Hunt’s blog post on careers in information security. Troy makes good points about information security as a potential career and the benefits of certifications like the Certified Ethical Hacker. Hackers are getting increasingly sophisticated, requiring specific knowledge to counter, and cryptography is hard. We need more information security specialists.

However, one criticism of the post, indeed the information security industry, is its implication hacking is the sole information security career path. This binary viewpoint – you are either a security person or not and there is only one “true” information security professional – does more harm than good.

Hacking is technology focused. However, security’s scope is not just technical. Information security needs people that can articulate security issue impact, potential solutions and their cost in terms non-security people can understand. This requires expertise and credibility in multiple disciplines from individual contributor level to management to boardrooms.

Security solutions are not just technical. We live in societies governed by laws. These can be standardized government security requirements as FedRAMP or IRAP. These can be contractual obligations like PCI-DSS, covering credit card transactions. These can hold organizations accountable, like mandatory breach disclosure legislation, or protect or privacy, like the European Union’s Data Protection laws. Effective legislation requires knowledge of both law and information security and the political nous to get it enacted.

We are also surrounded by financial systems. Financial systems to punish those with weak security and reward those with good security will only evolve if we (consumers and investors) value security more. Cyber insurance has potential. Cryptographic technologies like bitcoin and block chain algorithms are threatening to disrupt the financial sectors. Information security has and will continue to impact finance.

The list goes on. Law enforcement needs to identify, store and present cybercrime evidence to juries and prosecute under new and changing laws. Hospitals and doctors want to take advantage of electronic health records..

The security technology focus drives people away non-technology people. In a world crying out for diversity and collaboration, the last thing information security needs is people focusing solely inward on their own craft, reinforcing stereotypes of shady basement dwellers, and not on systems security enables.

Bringing this back to software, many organizations contract or hire in information security experts. Unfortunately, the OWASP Top 10 changed little from 2010 to 2013 and some say is unlikely to change in the 2016 call for data. According to the Microsoft Security Intelligence Report, around half of serious, industry wide problems are from applications. Developers make the same mistakes again and again.

Education is one solution – security literate developers will avoid or fix security issues themselves. A better solution is tools and libraries that are not vulnerable in the first place, moving security from being reactive to proactive. For example, using an Object-Relational Mapping library or parameterized queries instead of string substitution for writing SQL.

Unfortunately, security people often lack skills to contribute to development and design beyond security. While information security touches many areas, information security expertise is not development (or networking or architecture or DevOps) expertise.

Information security needs different perspectives to succeed. As Corey House, a Puralsight author like Troy Hunt says in his course Becoming an Outlier, one route to career success is specialization. Information security is a specialization for everyone to consider, not just hackers.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/adulau/8442476626

Treating Enterprise Software like Game Design

Mechanics, Dynamics and AestheticsIn 2005, Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek wrote an academic paper titled “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research“. It was and is an influential attempt at quantifying game design and theory.

The “MDA” acronym stands for “Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics”. Mechanics refers to the algorithms and data structures that drive the game, such as how running characters animate or the arc of a character’s jump. Dynamics refers to the run-time interaction between the mechanics and the player, such as the pressing this button to jump or showing the character’s health as a bar at the top left of the screen. Aesthetics refers to how the player enjoys the game and what the player gets out of the game.

Aesthetics is often the hardest to describe to non-gamers. Some games may offer multiplayer where players enjoy the social and competitive aspects, like the an online game of “Call of Duty” or “Doom”. Other games offer an easy way to pass the time, like “Angry Birds” or “Candy Crush”. Others provide intense challenge, like Chess. Most games focus on a few core aesthetics and this is reflected by the difference audiences for each game.

As the paper points out, game designers and developers approach games from the mechanics side then dynamics, which hopefully impart the desired aesthetics. Game players, however, experience the aesthetics through the dynamics. Outside of statistic-heavy role-playing games and sports simulations, players rarely encounter the mechanics. Game designers should always keep aesthetics in mind, if possible.

Recognizing different layers and viewpoints gives game designers a nomenclature for understanding games’ inner workings and highlighting shortcomings. For example, a game aimed at a social aesthetic needs some form of multiplayer or social network integration. A game aimed at competition needs a visible score or ranking and consistent, well communicated rules.

How does this relate to enterprise software? The MDA framework layers have equivalents. Mechanics refers to the code and database queries software developers create along with business processes. Dynamics is unchanged, referring to user experience and interaction with the software. Aesthetics refers to the business value.

Also like game design, enterprise software customers and users approach the benefits the opposite way to software developers. Like game designers, software developers tend to start with the mechanics and work up to dynamics. Management aims for the aesthetics and, for those that directly use the software, the dynamics. While some software developers may enjoy the technical challenges of enterprise software, they must not lose focus of the business value.

As with any classification or taxonomy, the MDA framework provides a way of dissecting and comparing different applications. For example, two applications can aim for the same aesthetic (business benefit) but use different dynamics (user experiences). One might be a touch-heavy mobile application. One might be a web site storing its data in the cloud.

The MDA framework can point out where a business need (aesthetic) is not supported through user experience (dynamics) or a user experience does not relate to any of the defined business needs. Software developers and architects could also create a reusable mapping of dynamics to aesthetics or mechanics to aesthetics, like linking tactics to quality attributes.

Software developers have traditionally split systems into different layers or components. The aim was to improve maintainability by localizing the effects of changes. However, the MDA framework reminds us that changes in one layer can and do affect other layers. For example, a database query change (mechanics) may affect the results shown in the UI (dynamics) and the business value (aesthetics). Conversely, new or different aesthetics may require changes to both dynamics and mechanics.

The MDA framework also reminds us of requirement compartmentalization. For example, problems occur when management or business users specify dynamics (user experience) instead of aesthetics (business requirements). Management and business users should have opinions and input but user experience designers are experts.

With the increasing popularity of IT consumerization and gamification, game design has already encroached on enterprise software. The MDA framework goes deeper by identifying things important to the target audience (whether they be games or management) and a structured way of providing them. The fact that a closely related field has also produced something similar to existing software architecture and design best practices reinforces them.

Indeed, despite the fact that games are also created with limited time and resource constraints, enterprise software has a poor record of user experience design. There is probably a lot more game designers can teach software developers about improving enterprise software, considering games succeed or fail purely on their ability to satisfy users.

Architect/Stakeholder Inversion

Stakeholder Architect InversionArchitect/stakeholder inversion occurs when non-technical stakeholders tell software architects how a system should work, not what it should do. Without the “what”, software architects are left trying to guess or reverse engineer it. The resulting system may not solve the customer problem or may bloat with features attempting to do so.

Architect/stakeholder inversion is not a stakeholder wanting to move a system into the cloud to reduce costs. It is not wanting a mobile app to reach a different, younger market or offer a better user experience. It is not marketing pushing for a better analytics tool. They have business justifications.

Architect/stakeholder inversion is wanting two products integrated without saying what data to share or tasks to provide. It is creating a report engine without knowing the reports it will run. It is any framework created solely to handle nebulous requirements.

Architect/stakeholder inversion occurs due to one of three reasons. First, non-technical stakeholders feel they need to give low-level, technical requirements. Usually a sign of inexperience or frustration, the stakeholder bypasses discussion with technical details.

Alternatively, software developers may be used to implementing what they are told. This is common in environments with many ancillary roles (user experience, visual design, business analysis, copy writing, solution architecture, application architecture, agile coach, project manager, scrum master, team leader, etc) and stakeholders may take advantage of this.

Second, stakeholders often make technical assumptions and present those assumptions as solutions. They may not even realize they made assumptions.

Technical people may miss the business impacts of technical choices. However, non-technical stakeholders may miss technical impacts of business choices, too. For example, while the ongoing costs of moving to an “Infrastructure as a Service” (IaaS) or “Platform as a Service” (PaaS) provider may be lower, non-technical stakeholders may not consider the transition cost and impacts on compliance, security, jurisdiction, privacy, bandwidth and latency. The stakeholder might not have considered other benefits, such as elasticity (rapid scale up or scale down), built-in monitoring and management tools and cheap creation of test and staging environments, either.

Stakeholders with technical backgrounds may exacerbate the problem. While the technical solution requested may be good, the business context is still needed. Software architects are part of the checks and balances for the business requirements and stakeholder technical knowledge does not negate this.

Third, stakeholders may not yet know the business goals of the system. This may be driven by schedule (“We need to start coding now so that we will hit the deadline”), a misunderstanding of agile processes (“We will work it out as we go”) or a lack of preparation.

Architect/stakeholder inversion is usually solved by highlighting assumptions or providing alternate solutions. Forming these into questions (“Have we considered doing X instead of Y?”) and prototypes/spikes are effective. However, if software architects are on a “need to know” basis, stakeholders set direction solely by intuition instead of evidence or stakeholders take offence at challenges or questions, there may be wider organizational problems.

Architects and stakeholders should cooperate and respectfully challenge each other, providing greater understanding to both sides. Software architects can make better informed design decisions and glean insight into wider and future direction. The stakeholder can get a better understanding of and confidence in the solution.

That said, there are no sides here. Both the stakeholders and architects are working toward the same goal. If the organization has appointed stakeholders and architects, it realizes the value of each. Architect/stakeholder inversion contradicts this and produces a lower quality product.

Update: This post is featured in a discussion in the International Association of Software Architects (IASA) group on Linkedin.

Big Design Up Front versus Emergent Design

BDUF vs Emergent Design(This post is in response to Hayim Makabee’s posts on emergent design and adaptable design along with some of the follow-up discussions, such as the thread in the “97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know” Linkedin Group and Gene Hughson’s post on emergence vs evolution.)

One argument software architects regularly encounter is that time spent designing systems is wasted. Many say that “big design up front” is not the agile way and “emergent design” is more effective. This cuts straight to the value proposition of an architect. If up front design has no place in the Agile world, are architects redundant?

To most people, “big design up front” (BDUF), sometimes called “big up front design” (BUFD), means a lengthy, detailed design created at the start of a project. It works on three assumptions. First, one can create requirements for a project. Second, one can create a design to meet those requirements. Third, the design’s suitability for meeting the requirements can be evaluated without implementing it. In other words, there can be good designs and bad designs.

Meanwhile, emergent design means minimal or no design up front (NDUF). It works on the assumption both the requirements and design must be deduced so the team starts developing the product and iterates as they learn more about the problem and the solution. The process finishes at a predetermined time or when “good enough” requirements and design “emerge”.

By inference, emergent design assumes designs are often highly problem/solution specific. Adapting existing designs may create more work than they save. It also removes the focus from providing value to following the design.

Emergent design is quite popular among Agile and Lean practitioners. They argue emergent design reduces some waste (unnecessary work) by not creating lengthy documents that people may never read. Of the read design documents, few are updated as changes are made. Many developers are so cynical they refuse to read documentation and jump straight to the code to answer questions.

Big design up front may encourage over design. Unnecessary features may be added (violating the YAGNI principle) or the system may be unnecessarily complex (violating the KISS principal). Emergent design, particularly when coupled with Test Driven Design (TDD), can produce the minimum code required to meet a requirement and no more.

Big design up front may create an illusion the team knows more than they do. This may prompt decisions when the team knows the least about the problem, meaning big design up front can become big commitment up front. Meanwhile, a team that delays making decisions until necessary may discover different features are needed.

Big design up front’s assumptions are also not always true. Every project has a goal but it may not be clear how to get there. Most startups do not have quantifiable requirements, for example, where coding is more experimenting than implementing. New technologies may supersede old techniques or require new ones, meaning designs are either too difficult to create or cannot be evaluated without implementation.

However, proponents of big design up front point out that designing is often more useful than design documents. The design exercise validates and challenges requirements, explores edge cases and discovers mistakes. Without it, developers often dive straight into low level details and even a short time thinking about the problem can expose assumptions or alternate solutions they would otherwise miss.

Emergent design assumes change is cheap. A lot of effort and attention has been directed to this. Continuous integration and continuous delivery aim to make releasing easy. Test Driven Design (TDD) and automated testing aim to find regressions quickly. Agile methodologies like Scrum provide visibility and guidance on how to manage change.

However, not every change is cheap. Hardware can be difficult or impossible to change once manufactured. Network infrastructure changes need to be scheduled to minimize impact to others. Engaging external vendors may require lengthy contract negotiations. Legacy code may lack sufficient automated unit test coverage. Aspects like security, compliance and scalability are difficult to retrofit.

Similarly, software development must be accountable to the organization. Required skills and teams must be hired or contracted. Budgets must be determined. Progress is usually tracked against milestones and must be approved based on return on investment (ROI) estimations. Risks must be identified and mitigated. Early designs (as part of architectures) can help drive all of this.

Designs present abstracted views of the system, emphasizing important decisions and removing noise. This means designs can also be reviewed by others before the more expensive and time consuming implementation to find weaknesses or suggest improvements. Designs of notable projects can teach others, either by following or avoiding them.

The problem with comparing big design up front against emergent design is it usually devolves into straw man arguments. Neither are absolutes. Good big design up front recognizes some design and details are filled in during development. Good emergent design must start with some idea of how the system will work.

Both big design up front and emergent design can be done badly. Poor big design up front can miss important factors, provide a poor solution or communicate good ideas badly. Poor emergent design can waste time rewriting code, introduce regressions and impede governance. Both can create a big ball of mud. However, big design up front need not be change averse. Emergent design need not be chaotic and unpredictable.

Big design up front and emergent design are process agnostic. Big design up front originated in waterfall processes. As mentioned above, emergent design is common with agile development methodologies. However, emergent design can be used within a waterfall design phase (prototyping) or for defined components during development (spikes). A team using agile development methodologies may do some design inside, outside or between iterations.

Both approaches can be combined. For example, adaptable design is a technique where parts of the system that anticipate change,such as unknown or changing requirements, are designed to accommodate them.

Looking at the comparison from a different angle, what does “design” mean? Is it thinking about how to approach the system or is it documenting and communicating it? A small system may be something a developer can completely understand and describe in a few sentences. It has an implicit, undocumented design and can be iterated over time using emergent design. However, a large or complex system using a mix of legacy and new components whose development is split across different teams may need a different approach. In other words, the benefit of up front design increases as the system complexity increases.

Different approaches require different skills. Big design up front requires thinking about a system in abstract terms. It is skill that not every developer has, requiring breadth rather than depth, and is often why democratizing design fails. By contrast, emergent design embraces a detail and code focus, particularly with the focus on unit testing and small, incremental changes. This is one reason emergent design is more attractive to software developers.

Both big design up front and emergent design are tools a software development team can use. Rather than being excluded, software architects are in a unique position. They can help determine which approach is best for a situation. The real challenge for a software architect is knowing the right amount of design for a system and when to do it.

The Software Development Employment Jungle

When I first looked for software development jobs after leaving university, most employers were looking for candidates with the right attitude, right aptitude and good marks. However, as the years passed and my positions were increasingly senior, I found employers wanted the right person for the role, not just someone with the right skills. Having recently left Symantec (where I spent almost 13 years), waded through the employment jungle (as one of my peers called it) and started a new job, I wanted to capture my experiences and observations. Hopefully this applies beyond just software architect and software development roles in Sydney, Australia.

Recruiters

Recruiters

Many have negative opinions of recruiters and employment agencies. They try to provide candidates from the limited pool they can attract for clients whose requirements they sometimes do not fully understand. However, such an opinion is unconstructive and unfair. Many recruiters work long hours to fill roles whose remuneration sometimes dwarfs the recruiter’s in a rapidly changing technology and business landscape. Instead, consider the following:

Recruiters are paid by employers so candidates are the product, not the customer. Recruiters are very interested in candidates while applying and going through interviews and work hard to sell positions to candidates  and candidates  to employers. Rejected candidates  are rarely worth recruiters’ time (“no news” is generally “bad news”) while successful candidates are pursued, particularly for recurring contract roles.

Recruiters find candidates for positions not positions for candidates. Candidates are responsible for finding their next job, not recruiters. Candidates need to market themselves (such as joining job search sites, talking to hiring managers, attending conferences and user groups), generate as many good leads as possible (such as applying for jobs and distributing their resume), following up the leads, understand the employer needs (such as emphasizing particular skills on a customized resume) then sell themselves in interviews. This process changes over time, as the candidate learns and the market changes, and recruiters and employment agencies are one part of the process.

Preparation

Preparation

Start working toward the next job or promotion now, even for those happy with their current position. Why now? Because you cannot control when new job opportunities will arise or when your current position may end or change for the worse. Starting now means you will be prepared.

For example, identify activities that look good on a resume or will help for that next promotion, even if they are not immediately appealing. Plan conversations in advance, such as introducing yourself to peers at networking events, thinking of an insightful question for the boss’s boss and answering the inevitable “Why do you think you would be the right person for X?”

Start networking with people that could help you find a job in the future, such as peers and managers within the industry or related industries. Many are put off by the time commitments others recommend but simply reaching out, getting contact details and occasionally (once every few months) commenting on a post or tweet is usually more than sufficient. Aim for mutually beneficial relationships but realize peoples’ needs change overtime. Beyond getting the next role, it also gives context across the industry, identifies the skill level of peers, the challenges they solve and gaps in your own skills.

Create an online presence. It can be as simple as a LinkedIn profile that lists your employment history, important projects and key skills (and is a great way to keep your resume up-to-date). It can be as complex as a lengthy blog, strong social networking presence, a high Stack Overflow reputation and contributions to multiple open source projects. Start small, work up and do not be afraid to experiment.

Some fear others will infer the worst from making achievements visible – Dunning-Kruger is rife in software development – but being able to answer an interview question thoroughly because it was the topic of your recent blog post or pointing to your project on Git Hub when asked about a library or framework is invaluable. Unless you are aiming for a thought leadership position, most people simply do not care enough to discover other’s mistakes and having a demonstrable history is better than not, all other things being equal.

Some are deterred by the implicit pressure to maintain a blog or social networking activity. While thought leadership is may be best maintained by a steady stream of content, a different strategy is to post or blog fewer but better articles and content. A small number of insightful, relevant articles can be more useful than a regular stream of retweets, for example, because the articles show original work. This reduces the time commitment and interviewers will see better articles when they browse your content, too.

Be open minded. What you think you need may not be what you actually need and the people you think you should be talking to may not be who you should actually be talking to. Talking to those outside software development can be insightful and there are always things to learn and different perspectives to respect. Do not neglect soft skills, either.

Focus the resume. Customize it for the role to emphasize relevant skills. Write a cover letter but do not expect anyone to read it.

Interviews

Role

Employers and interviewers come with their own preconceptions. They have their own backgrounds and experiences, their immediate need for a new hire and their vision of a suitable candidate for the role. This leads many interviewers to grill the candidate about the candidate’s fit for the interviewer’s idea of the role, to see if the candidate “fits in the box”.

The “box” approach works well for software development roles where the programming languages and frameworks are known but interviewer skills vary. Bad technical interviews fixate on minutiae under the misplaced assumption good software developers will have touched those areas. Good technical interviews involve writing code, explaining technical concepts or defending decisions.

However, candidates with broad or unusual experiences may not easily fit the box, encouraging interviewers to label candidates (“Are you an X or Y? You cannot be both!”). Finding a candidate that fits a box is less successful the more senior the role gets, particularly for leadership roles like management and software architect positions, where strategic and broader thinking is required, because people the box approach prefers are less likely to have new ideas and different perspectives.

Understanding the interview strategy can help the candidate identify the sincerity of the role. For example, is the role being advertised as a technical leadership role, like a software architect position, but they are conducting a “box” style interview? This hints at an impressive title being used to attract people for an otherwise straight coding job. Alternatively, a software development role containing lots of open questions may hint at a more senior role or a higher expected standard of candidate.

Moreover, what many interviewers forget is interviews are as much about the interviewer as the candidate. Even without asking questions, the candidate learns about the types of problems the interviewer thinks are important, their priorities and the interviewer’s communication skills. Is the interviewer asking questions about challenges you are interested in or have experience with? Is it something you enjoy talking about? Are they happy with high level answers or do they want detail? How did they react to your last answer? Did they ask for clarification or move to the next question on the list?

The usual recommendations about interview preparation apply. For software development and particularly software architect roles, understand your last few projects, the important design decisions and why they were made. Have scenarios prepared for behavioral questions on leadership, dealing with difficult stakeholders or working under pressure. Focus on the interviewer’s business first and talk about the candidate’s benefits at the end. Good questions for the interviewer include questions about how to be successful in this role and what challenges do they expect to face but do not be afraid to ask questions throughout they interview if they are relevant at the time.

Final Thoughts

Much is written about things candidates can do to improve their chances of finding a job, like resume writing or interview practice. However, a key part is patience. All the hard work will help you if and only if the job you want is available – the Australian IT employment market hibernates over summer, for example. Some people often need a new job due to financial or other pressures and, by all means, adapt to the market’s needs  but getting a new role does not have to be a question of choosing what to sacrifice. Be good at what you do, have faith in yourself and the jungle will not seem so bad.

Should Software Architects Write Code?

Much has been written and debated on whether software architects should write code. Many argue the more architects understand the language, tools and environment they are designing for, the more effective they are and this is best achieved by implementing some or all of the design. Non-coding architects, sometimes called “PowerPoint architects”, “astronaut architects” or “ivory tower architects”, may use archibabble and talkitecture to convince non-technical stakeholders of their expertise while delegating the unsolved, real problems to developers, so much so that it has become an organizational pattern (“Architect Also Implements“) and corresponding anti-pattern (“Architects Don’t Code“). Others argue that architects responsible for implementing their architectures lose focus on the bigger issues and longer term vision. Understanding does not necessarily require knowledge of the minutiae and, as systems scale up and diversify, implementing it requires too much time or spreads the architect too thin. Therefore, should software architects write code?

As with many difficult questions, the problem starts with the question itself. “Should a software architect write code?” can mean “Should a software architect always prototype or implement their own architectures?”, “Should a software architect write production code most of the time?” or “Should a software architect be able to write code?”. It could also mean “Is coding the best or only way to become a software architect?” or “Can non-coders be good architects?” but that is best left to another blog post.

It also depends on the definition of “software architect”. The Canadian architect (of buildings rather than IT) Witold Rybczynski wrote in his 1989 book “The Most Beautiful House in the World“:

“For centuries, the difference between master masons, journeymen builders, joiners, dilettantes, gifted amateurs, and architects has been ill defined. The great Renaissance buildings, for example, were designed by a variety of non-architects. Brunelleschi was trained as a goldsmith; Michelango as a sculptor, Leonardo da Vinci as a painter, and Alberti as a lawyer; only Bramante, who was also a painter, had formally studied building. These men are termed architects because, among other things, they created architecture — a tautology that explains nothing.”

This is exactly the same issue for software architects. Without a clearly defined and segregated role, anyone designing software or IT related systems can rightly be called an architect, including many developers and technical leads. For the sake of argument, this post uses Simon Brown’s definition, where software architects are responsible for high level design, non-functional requirements and technical vision.

Should a software architect should be able to write code? Architects should be able to read and write code because it:

  1. Verifies the code written by developers matches the design and identifies deviations.
  2. Helps the architect learn about changes or new features. If the architect has been assigned to a new project, he or she can learn the product sooner by looking at the code, too.
  3. Allows the architect to write a proof of concepts or prototype. A working demo is much more convincing than an architecture diagram and will usually facilitate better estimates. Care must be taken to prevent non-technical stakeholders attaching too much credibility to it, as with any prototype however.
  4. Provides another pair of capable hands during the project crunch periods.
  5. Makes the architect more forgiving of bugs because the architect has likely made similar mistakes in the past. At least, the architect should have a better understanding what types of issues to expect.

Writing code may help earn the architect respect of the developers. Developers can be notoriously dismissive and a software architect producing some of his or her own code, even if it is just a proof of concept, or providing good feedback from a code review can make the developers feel like the architect is one of them. Having a working development environment and access to source code means the architect can try out new versions without waiting for a build or release. Any significant build, development environment or source code control issues also become apparent to the architect.

Note that code reviews do not replace talking to developers because regular discussions between developers and software architects can help build mutual respect. Otherwise, developers may see the architect as a constraint or threat that must be circumvented. Also, developers often know or can find problem areas faster than the architect reading the code but there needs to be a balance between architect self-sufficiency and squandering developer time.

Software architects are often required to settle disputes between developers, such as when one team discovers a better way of solving a problem or that the proposed design will be harder to implement than first thought. Software architects are also sometimes mentors or coaches for developers or may be used as internal consultants to examine process, quality, automation or similar issues. Understanding code means the architect can use his or her judgment more effectively rather than rely on which developer is more persuasive.

Should a software architect write production code most of the time (usually implementing their own architecture)? If a software architect implements their own architectures, this ensures the design is implementable with the tools and environment used. This can lead to new insights, improved designs and more accurate estimations. It is also implemented by the person most familiar with the design so minimizes miscommunication.

However, architects may jump to implementation (depth thinking) before exhausting other solutions (breadth thinking). Existing implementations may overly influence the architect or the architect become attached to his or her code, fighting against needed improvements. It can distract the architect from higher level tasks such as longer term planning, communicating with stakeholders and reviewing other developers’ code.

Also, part of the role of an architect is to fight for reuse, security and other non-functional requirements. Being forced to prototype or implement their design may encourage compromises that the team need not make. It is not that an architect does not make compromises – design is the art of compromise as many have said – more that it is the architect’s job to make the right compromises rather than those the architect makes creating the initial implementation. The developers will likely rewrite much of the architect’s code, anyway.

Indeed, the more an architect focuses on communication, requirements analysis, stakeholder management and non-technical activities, the more the development skills of software architects may atrophy. As long as the architect is providing value via other means this is not an issue. However, an architect should maintain his or her development skills; whether by extensive research, working on their own projects or contributing where they can; but needs to focus on capabilities, limitations and edge cases rather than speed or a complete understanding.

Problems may occur when organizations promote their strongest developers into a software architect role rather than good communicators that are capable of working at higher levels of abstraction. Friction arises when these architects try to “lead from the front” by implementing their architecture rather than facilitating others to do so. Organizations should promote a developer that has better soft skills, instead.

Many confuse not writing code with a lack of feedback. An unprototyped architecture, hypothetically, may be difficult to implement or problematic. However, a senior developer or technical lead can prototype the architecture if required. This also allows architects and developers to work together and ensure the design is communicated well. Alternatively, the architecture can be shared with others that have implemented similar systems previously or architects or developers working on integrating products. Requiring an architect to implement their own architecture beyond a proof of concept also does not scale well, particularly for large or complex products.

Similarly, many confuse an architect not writing code with a lack of accountability. Architects must produce designs that not only are approved (whether formally or informally) by stakeholders but also developers and developers should not approve a document that does not meet their needs. Issues or errors in the designs should be noted. Some change is expected but major or expensive errors should be attributed to the architect. An architect implementing their architecture in code does not guarantee an issue-free project.

With increased use of agile development methodologies, architects are no longer creating an architecture and “throwing it over the wall” to developers. Even previously ivory tower architects are more involved with lower level issues since less critical decisions are deferred until later in the process and design is iterative. For example, architects in organizations using Scrum should attend at least the planning, review and retrospective meetings. (Some architects may move to other projects or otherwise not see the project through, the “Architects Play Golf” pattern. This is an organizational issue and unrelated to whether architects code.)

Many developers also look down on “PowerPoint architectures”. However, many forget the role of a software architect is as much communication as development and completed, implemented architecture does not help non-technical stakeholders, QA, localization, documentation writers and so on. Of course, these stratospheric PowerPoint architectures are not substitutes for high-level designs developers can implement but the architect represents the developers and products to outsiders and developers often feel any time not spent developing is unproductive. Ultimately, PowerPoint architectures do have their place but developers are as much the architects’ customers as the stakeholders.

Should architects write code? The question is loaded and should be determined by the team on a case by case basis. Architects may prototype high risk projects, experiment with new libraries or try out now tools. Architects may completely delegate the design and implementation of well understood, low risk components. The real question is “How does an architect be successful?”. It is a question of managing and mitigating risk. Architects are often good coders but good coders are not necessarily good architects.

Update: There is a large discussion about this post on the IASA (International Association of Software Architects) LinkedIn group: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Should-Software-Architects-Code-1523.S.188454845

Developer to Architect: A Matter of Perspective

When interviewed for a promotion some time ago, the interviewer told me two developers are arguing over whether to use programming language A or B for a project and asked me which I would recommend.

There are different ways to answer the question. The first is technical, comparing the language minutiae, libraries, IDEs and tool support. It argues the merits of the vendors, communities behind the languages and often has a bias toward favourite languages or tools.

Team leaders and managers approach the problem differently. They look at the existing skills of the team. They look at support structures (such as contracts and consultants), the longer term viability of languages and their organization’s investments in each. They consider the risks and benefits.

I gave both these answers. While correct, these answers miss a critical viewpoint: customer benefit. For example, the product may have to integrate with existing applications using mechanisms only supported by or heavily geared toward certain languages, like COM with C++, Visual Basic or C#. The target device or operating system may support one primary language, such as iOS and Objective-C. Languages may have runtimes that require additional configuration and patching, such as Java or Flash, and the customer lacks the infrastructure and expertise.

Customer benefit is an assumption so implicit in the question that people consider it assumed or ignore it. However, this assumption is what makes the question a great (trick) question, particularly for a software architect that needs to interpret, challenge and identify requirements.

“We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.” Talmud

Moving from a developer to an architect involves a change in perspective. Developers leap to details with the “how”, arguing libraries or techniques. Managers identify resource requirements and risk. Architects step back and ask “Is this even the right question?”

“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea if it’s the only one you have.” Emil-Auguste Chartier

Thinking inside the box is easy. Thinking outside the box is hard. Finding the box is harder still. Architects may specialize but are expected to delve into enough detail to validate a proposed solution without risking leaping to conclusions or becoming too attached to a solution. Developers focus on the best and fastest way to solve a given problem.

“The limits of my language is the limit of my world” Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Design patterns are useful for conceptualizing and communicating designs. Understanding the business problem and customer viewpoint is critical to identifying the best solutions. Architects straddle both the developer and customer worlds and so must learn the terminology of both and translate concepts between them.

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” Lewis Carroll

It is an understatement to say technology changes rapidly. Whereas developers must keep up with their chosen tools and languages in detail, architects evaluate and adapt to a wider set of technologies but less deeply than a developer, particularly those architects responsible for a technical strategy or vision.

“It is a painful thing to look at your own trouble and know that you yourself and no one else has made it.” Sophocles

Architects are responsible for the product without being the ones implementing it, including design delegated to others and trade-offs  made to handle  technical or business constraints, and their role is as much communication and evangelism as high level design. Managers have long been accustomed to this level of responsibility and facilitation but it may be new to a developer.

Of course, this is not to say a developer cannot think like an architect or manager (or other permutations) or that these are immutable, defined roles. Like Edward de Bono’s Six Hats, recognizing that there are different viewpoints and switching between them is key. It is also challenging, particularly when under the pressures of commercial software development. Or an interview.

An Architect’s Place in Agile

Scrum, the most common implementation of the Agile development methodology, has many well-defined roles. Those that contribute directly to the sprint (a unit of work usually lasting 2-4 weeks) are called “pigs”. Those that consult or assist only are “chickens”, the “scrum master” coordinates the sprint and the “product owner” prioritizes work and ensures the customer needs are met.

So where does the software architect fit in? The architect is not a pig if he or she does not write production code. Is he or she a chicken? The architect needs to be driving his or her features in the sprint and be more involved than a chicken. The architect is not responsible for team organization and a customer representative is usually the product owner.

Going back to basics, why is a software architect needed? Architects are rarely needed in projects with small, co-located teams full of senior developers working on well-defined requirements or well-understood problems. They can usually design and cooperate well enough to produce the desired results. However, large, distributed teams full of junior developers working on vague requirements or complex problems need coordination and direction. This is where architects are most useful.

One way of looking at it is Scrum is a software development methodology, not a productization methodology. Software development is one part of producing a product but there are many other parts, particularly for commercially sold software, such as business case design, marketing, licensing, documentation and localization. The architect could deliver non-functional requirements and high-level designs outside sprints like the other non-development tasks.

However, the architect need not deliver a monolithic document for the high-level design. In keeping with the Agile manifesto, as well as the Lean principle of making decisions as late as possible, the architect only needs to produce enough of the design to unblock the next sprint. The architect will still need a high-level design and identify non-functional requirements initially but Agile recognizes that design is as much a process as a product. Designs for subsequent sprints can be fleshed out in parallel with the development team, minimizing design rework as the team learns more about the problem and finds better solutions.

Could a software architect use Scrum to create the high-level design, either separate to or in parallel with the development teams? This can work if the architect has easy access to the resources he or she needs, such as customers to help understand the business problems, architects from other teams to discuss integration and development managers to check resource estimates. This cannot be guaranteed, particularly with larger, distributed groups – the cases where architects are most useful. However, it will occur in practice if the architect is providing designs for the start of each sprint.

Indeed, if the product owner is remote or often unavailable, an architect fits best into Scrum as a stand-in product owner. This breaks the Scrum rules of only having one product owner. However, different time zones, large projects and multiple commitments mean a single person cannot scale, as a former colleague of mine explained.

Development management may baulk at the perceived loss of control by making an architect a product owner. However, the word “owner” in “product owner” does not mean control of the product, merely creating, prioritizing and clarifying tasks, which architects often do anyway. Architects may not be customers but are judged whether the product meets the requirements or creates business value, just like product owners. They also know the product strategy and have spent time with the customer understanding the problem so are well-suited for this role, using their judgment to determine whether to escalate each question to the product owner.

Moreover, I think the question is not “Where does the architect fit into Agile?”, it’s “How can architects leverage Agile to better perform their role?”. For example, the architect can gain more visibility into the development team’s progress and status (through the backlog and burn down charts). The architect can present the design and gain consensus at the planning meeting that starts a sprint and (hopefully) see it working in the hand-over meeting at the end of a sprint.

Most importantly, architects must be in control of their performance rather than victims of process. A lot of smart people have worked very hard on Agile and Scrum and developers new to Scrum are advised to follow it as written, at least initially, because the reasons behind its nuances are often unclear. However, no development methodology can handle every case, and software architects are one of those things that can fall into the gaps.

Handling Challenges to Architectural Decisions

One of the most critical aspects of a software architect’s job is the initial high-level design. Based on customer requirements and the architect’s own non-functional requirements, this is where development starts from. It is also written when the development organization knows the least about the problem and so issues often arise as the development team works it.

Challenges are inevitable. It is important is not to panic and not to take it personally. The architect’s goal is to get the best product, not necessarily his or her product. Therefore, first get the other person to explain their issue and reasoning. Common scenarios include:

Different understanding of requirements:  All major analysis and design discussions around the product should involve the architects. (If not, then this indicates possible broader organizational issues.) Explain the decision’s rationale and ask if that matches the other person’s understanding. One or both of you will probably learn something in the ensuing discussion.

Proposes a better solution: Has the person raising the issue tried it before? Did they use a different tool or technique? Do some research to see whether others have had similar problems and their solutions. A small proof of concept is almost always helpful. Non-functional requirements, such as scalability or integration with other systems, are often the deciding factors.

Use an existing solution: This is often a difficult issue. If the person raising the issue was involved in the “better” solution, he or she may take this personally. Explain why it was not selected and work through the decision-making process. It is easy for developers (and architects) to apply their previous work beyond its design goals, even when it is no longer appropriate. However, existing solutions may save time and effort, help standardize products and are politically safer choices.

Resourcing or deadlines: The architect should understand the current and near future resource allocations, such as looking at the Scrum backlog, and do his or her own estimate of resource requirements because this is often an excuse given when the development team feels a task is not in their best interests. The important question here is prioritization rather than total work, so the architect should work with the customer to deprioritize tasks if needed.

Non-technical reasons: Sometimes decisions have to be made quickly, such as to meet changing market requirements or an unexpected opportunity, or people have conditions imposed upon them, such as head count reassignments or reductions. Those in senior positions do not have to justify their decisions but an explanation (usually discretely from a trusted source) may be invaluable. Politics is a fact of life and organizational awareness is important for architects, even if they choose not to “play the game”.

Before considering a solution, what is the impact of the change? Are other components affected? If so, do those teams have the bandwidth to make the changes? Also, does the change use a familiar, proven technology or is it speculative. Each organization has it’s own level of risk tolerance. Clearly, the larger or riskier a change, the more likely to go through a formal change control process. Assuming it is not clearly in that area and a change is warranted, solutions include:

Accept Change: You are only one person and there are always people smarter than you, people more familiar with the problem than you or just luckier. Assuming the impact is acceptable, make the change, communicate it and move on. In the long run, admitting mistakes will earn you more respect than defending the indefensible. If the change is small or low risk, even if it is a worse solution, it may be easier just to accept the change and move on because it gives others a more personal investment in the design.

Compromise: The solution is what neither of you are proposing or bits of both. Although almost cliche, finding a solution that keeps the important aspects of the original design and the person raising the issue happy is best. The architect must be open-minded even if others are not.

Delay: Sometimes the issue raised requires a change that is simply too large to accomplish with the remaining time and resources. In that case, add it to the requirements for the next version.

Escalate to Customer: If there is a disagreement about customer requirements, often the best solution is to take the question to the customer, such as the Scrum product owner. Remember to put this in terms the customer can understand, emphasizing the impact on users. The area may not have been covered in detail and so require more investigation.

Escalate to Management: Perhaps a team is demanding changes that would make their component easier but have a great impact to the rest of the product. Perhaps an external team is demanding changes without an adequate business purpose or return on investment. In this case, it is best to escalate this to the appropriate level of management if no compromise is possible.

Note that infrequent escalation to management or the customer is not a sign of failure. Indeed, involving them in the project can give them much-needed updates and let them know problem areas.

Lastly, do not forget to capture and communicate details of any changes. This may be a short announcement at the next team conference call, entering something into a change log and/or updating the original high level design documents.

No matter how thoroughly an architect researches and presents the high-level design, there will always be those who disagree. Sometimes, it is important to distribute the high-level design to air decisions and elicit feedback. Sometimes, deadlines dictate a incomplete design must be used. Sometimes, someone just wants to prove they know better than the architect. Remember that “architect” is a role, not a rank, and reacting well to challenges may speak more to an architect’s ability than the architecture itself.

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