Random Acts of Architecture

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

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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 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

A Clash of Development Cultures

Software developers often consider themselves perfectly rational. After all, their jobs consist of programming deterministic, rational machines (computers). However, anyone who has worked with developers realises this is completely untrue. In particular, leaders that direct or influence different groups of developers need to understand what motivates them, especially the more vocal and influential developers and technical leads.

There are two types of influential developers. The first are the “craftsmen” (or the gender non-specific “craftspeople”). Craftsmen are motivated by the respect of their peers and want to be known as “good” developers. Craftsmen tend to:

  • Want to work with cutting edge tools, such as the latest version of an IDE or library, and techniques, such as agile development methodologies.
  • Think “good” code not only satisfies the requirements but is clear, maintainable and is an example to others. They are more likely to refactor code, follow (or create) coding  style guidelines and create automated tests, particularly when they have advance warning their code is going to be reviewed.
  • Thoroughly research and experiment with different ways of solving a problem. They are often critical of designs or direction from others, particularly those removed form the code.
  • Prefer a more egalitarian, flatter management and team structure. They are happy to work in a group of peers, each with their own area of responsibility.
  • Code in their spare time, discuss technical issues over lunch and read or write technical blogs. They hold examples of collaboration, such as open source software, in high regard. They tend to look past certifications and degrees to focus on what was studied or produced.
  • Hold technical opinions strongly. They may argue weakly because they feel their points are “obvious”.
  • Be more common in western cultures like in the US, UK and Australia.

The second are “success-oriented“. They see software development as a relatively well paid and respected stepping stone, usually to management.  They tend to:

  • Prefer familiar tools and techniques, so long as they are well compensated and have promotion opportunities.
  • Think “good” code meets requirements. Other facts are less important.
  • Seek help for problems when there is no immediate, obvious solution.
  • Look to seniority or management for guidance and direction. Indeed, if they are in a senior position, they will often demand the right to design or give direction.
  • Respect and seek “authoritative” measures of achievement such as degrees, certifications and training. The goal is usually to decrease the time to the next promotion, enter the industry at a higher position or be paid more.
  • Hold technical opinions weakly. They may argue strongly because it their training and education emphasized it.
  • Be more common in eastern cultures like in India and China.

Clearly, these groups are not well-defined or mutually exclusive and are generalizations. Craftsmen still want promotions and pay rises. Success-oriented developers may still be interested in technology. They key difference is that the software written by craftsmen is part of their identity so they work to make it as good as they can. They grok languages rather than just learn them.

Craftsmen are not better developers than success-oriented developers and vice versa. For example, craftsman may get distracted by perfectionism or experiments but may drive the organization to newer and (hopefully) better processes. On the other hand, success-oriented developers often use well-understood paths to complete tasks sooner and are happy to maintain older software using older tools.

Success-oriented developers are not more likely to provide business value than craftsmen. Although success-oriented developers are less dismissive of non-technical users and focus more on pleasing management, they commonly implement the requirements verbatim without additional understanding.

Although team composition and work assignment are often the domain of team leaders and management, it benefits everyone in the team to understand others’ motivations. For example, pointing out a better solution to success-oriented developers may frustrate them since their solution is no longer “successful” and requires additional work. Point out the simplicity, time-saving aspects of the new solution or how marketable the new skills required are to motivate or influence success-oriented developers. By comparison, pointing out a better solution to craftsmen may embarrass or make them feel threatened. Point to relevant code, articles or recommendations of industry thought leaders to motivate or influence craftsmen.

Also be aware the type of developer when soliciting feedback. Craftsmen generally give better feedback. Many success-oriented developers are happy to be directed by those more senior or want to direct those they perceive as junior. That said, craftsmen are likely to push newer designs and techniques while success-oriented developers look at things in the context of existing practises.

Moreover, having both developer types working together without self-awareness can create friction, such as when a success-oriented senior developer or manager asserts authority over a craftsman developer pushing what he or she considers a better solution, perhaps backed up by blogs or articles. Outsourcing or mergers/acquisitions often cause or exacerbate this.

The challenge is that developers have weak soft skills and many consider meetings and discussions unproductive time. They rarely focus on interacting with each other, sometimes oblivious to the problems it creates. Unfortunately, developers are not perfectly rational but understanding their motivations can solve common problems or avoid them completely.

(Thanks to Bryan O’Donovan for the helpful review and comments.)

Priming for Effective Feedback

Ignoring software architects’ code, the primary deliverables of architects are technical vision and high level designs. These are rarely complete and correct in the first draft and getting feedback from stakeholders and developers is vital to their success. Indeed, the best software architects are those that consistently extract the best feedback.

The key to effectively receiving feedback is for the software architect to change his or her attitude to feedback, particularly criticism. A software architect’s job is to own the problem, not a solution and providing the best solution, even one that contains elements from others, is the goal. When people give feedback, it means they are invested enough to care about the topic. By comparison, a lack of feedback or dismissive, detail-lacking response, such as “Looks good”, usually means the document has not been read or the reviewer is not invested in its success.

First, identify why feedback is being sought on the document, presentation or similar. Be more specific than just “standard procedure”. For example, is this a customer facing document that must not include company confidential material? Meeting minutes where important details and decisions need to be captured? A radical, new, partially-developed idea to create discussion and spark other ideas? This will dictate the audience and direct their attention.

Then identify what sections or details the reviewers should focus on, particularly for larger documents. Otherwise, some will focus on “big picture” issues, spelling and grammatical errors or otherwise get distracted. If uncertain, start with a high level introduction then focus on potentially controversial aspects such as assumptions, integration points and major decisions. If a document has multiple audiences, consolidate information for different audiences into separate sections for clarity and provide context if needed.

Given the above, many send out the document as an E-mail attachment or link, cynically expecting no response. There are two issues with this. First, typing responses can take time, be prone to misunderstanding and some people just do not communicate well in this medium. Second, without an articulated deadline, many will forget about it.

The solution is to still send document as E-mail attachment or link around but organize one or more meetings or conference calls, the latter preferably with document sharing software, to discuss it. Some will still respond with questions or comments before the meeting. However, the meeting gives people a deadline to review the document by and allows those that prefer verbal feedback to do so. Not everyone will find all issues with the document and a meeting allows feedback to be shared by all members of the group and not just the reviewer, potentially sparking additional ideas. For long or detailed documents, multiple short meetings are preferable to fewer longer ones. It avoids fatigue and fits in better with busy schedules.

Indeed, feedback is a conversation, not a download. The software architect, or whomever is providing the reviewed document, must provide a timely response and to a wider audience if warranted. If the architect is not detail-oriented, enlist the aid of someone who is to help keep track. Disagreements or contradictory feedback are learning opportunities and usually the result of missing information, assumptions or different experiences. In this case, either identity the facts that all parties agree on then build up from there or use an external expert or trusted authority.

Honest feedback requires safety. Architects are often senior developers with lots of experience and can be intimidating, particularly to junior developers. Remind others that you welcome feedback and emphasize other’s contributions to the document. Paraphrase feedback to confirm understanding. Humor, if culturally acceptable, can be a great tool if not overused, too.

Feedback requires mutual respect. An architect that disrespects a reviewer is likely to dismiss their feedback without adequate explanation or justification, impacting safety as mentioned above. If the experience or knowledge gap between reviewers is high, separate the reviewers into groups of similar capabilities then adapt the document or meetings for each audience. Often those with the best feedback are those that failed at something similar because they generally know why they failed better than those that succeeded know why they succeeded.

Similarly, reviewers that disrespect the architect may use it as a point scoring opportunity. An executive or customer may dictate rather than discuss. In these cases, paraphrase the points made to ensure understanding then agree to delve into more detail later in a dedicated meeting. Strong emotion may also be symptomatic of underlying issues probably beyond the scope of the document being reviewed.
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