Yes of course, there is the role of a ‘software architect’ in any non-trivial software development project. Even in times of agile projects, dynamic markets and vague terms like ’emergence’. The simple reason for that is that emergence and democracy in teams only work within constraints. Though, it’s not always clever to assign somebody the role explicitly. In an ideal world one developer in that team evolves into the architecture role.
When I started working as an IT professional at a *big* american software & IT consulting company I spent around five years with programming. After that time I got my first architecture job on a big project at a german automotive manufacturer. My main responsibility was to design the solution, advice developers, project managers and clients in doing things and to organize the development process. I wrote many documents, but I didn’t code anymore. The result was that I lost expertise in my core business: programming. So after a while my assessments and gut instinct got worse, which results in worse decisions. As a sideeffect of generic (vague) talking it got harder to gain acceptance by the developers, project managers or clients. When I realized all that I decided to do more development again. Today, I am doing architecture for 10 years. I am developing code in the IDE of my choice at least 20-30% of my time.
Whilst programming is a necessary activity, there is a whole bunch of activities that are sufficient to be successful as an architect. Doing architecture is a lot about collaboration, evaluating alternatives objectively (neutral and fair-minded) and about decision making. It’s a lot about communication, dealing with other individuals that almost always have their own opinions. Further more it’s a lot about forming teams and designing the ideal development process around those teams to solve the concrete problem. Last not least it’s about designing (structuring) the solution in a way that all functional and non-functional requirements are well covered. You can do all that more or less without super actual technical knowledge. But I believe an architect can do better if he/she has technical expertise gathered by day-to-day coding business. In the long run you cannot be a technical architect without sufficient coding practice.
|Figure 1: Activities of the software architect|
When I worked as an architect I often found myself in difficult tradeoff situations. That is, I wanted to improve one quality attribute, but to achieve that I needed to downgrade another. Here is a simple but very common example: its often desireable to have a highly changeable system with best possible performance. However, these two attributes – performance and changeability – typically correlate negatively, when you want to increase changeability you often loose efficiency. Doing architecture often means to find the golden mean between competing system qualities – it means choosing the right alternative that represents the best compromise. It’s about finding the balance between system qualities and the environmental factors of that system (e.g. steakholders, requirements). The operations manager will focus on the efficiency of a new system, while the development manager will argue that it’s important to have a changeable system that generates little maintenance costs. The client wants to have a new system with the highest degree of business process automation as possible. These situations consume a reasonalbe amount of time and energy.
Sharing knowledge and communication
Another superior important activity: sharing knowledge in a team of technical experts and other steakholders. The core problem of software development is to transform fuzzy knowledge of domain experts into merciless logical machine code of silly computers that only understand two digits: 0 and 1. This is a long way through the venturesome and endless jungle of human misunderstandings! Therefore, architects communicate a lot. They use models to do that. Models serve as a mapping mechanism between human brains and computers. The set of problems that can arise during the knowledge-to-binary transformation is very diverse. It’s impossible that every team member knows all of them. That’s another reason why sharing knowledge in a team is so superior important.
Nobody is perfect!
Needless to say that nobody is perfect. Every team is different and so is every concrete situation. So in one situation one may be the right architect for the team while in other team set-ups that person doesn’t fit. An architect can also have different strengths. I know architects that communicate and socialize very well but don’t do so good in designing solutions or organizing the development process. Although they don’t master each individual skill, they’re all good architects. The common ground is that they were all down-to-earth developers.
Reference: 5′ on IT-Architecture: the modern software architect from our JCG partner Niklas.