Thursday, February 18, 2010

Architects who aren't

Having cleared up some preliminaries, i.e. What is architecture?, we are getting closer to the big question: what do architects do? But I’ll continuing to take this piecemeal. In this blog entry I’d like to dismiss too groups of people who carry the Architect title but are not Architects.

The first group are “Architects by Seniority.” Some years ago I held a post with the title “Senior Software Engineer.” At first I though this might mean I was “the senior software engineer” but quickly realised I was one of many “senior software engineers.” The company conferred this title on anyone who had more than a few, about five, years of experience working as a software engineer. Or as I used to joke “anyone over 30.”

Some Architects get their titles the same way. My guess is this is more common on the services side of the industry were engineers are sold by the hour to clients and Architects have a higher billing rate.

A few months ago I was told it was common in the Indian outsourcing industry to confer the title Architect on engineers with 3 years experience. This is one data point, I don’t know how common that really is. Anyone out their know?

Unfortunately, some of the people who are given the title Architect simply because they have been around a while let it go to their heads. Which brings us to the second group who are Architects in title but not in practice: “Divorced Architects” or, as I think Joel Spolsky christened them “Astronaut Architects.”

These are Architects who sit around thinking big thoughts about “the system” but aren’t connected with what is actually happening. Just because you have the title “Architect” does not give you the knowledge or right to tell people what to do without doing it yourself. As Jim Coplien and Neil Harrison put it “Architect also Implements.”

If you are lucky these architects are pretty much harmless, they cost the company money, the developers tip their flat-cap to them in the morning but ignore them when they do work. If your unlucky their crazy ideas result in a messed up system and their egos get in the way.

Years ago I worked on rail privatisation, the Railtrack A-Plan timetabling system to be exact. It was on Windows NT with Sybase (yes, thats how long ago it was) in C and C++ with a little Visual Basic. 120 people worked on the system at the peak, of which four were architects and about 12 were coders, OK, maybe 16 if you include the SQL and VB guys.

But the architects came from a mainframe Cobol background so they designed a batch processing system, set down constraints and ways of working which just didn’t make sense for a client-server system. The company had a ISO-9000 system in place with lots of management so the result of this architecture was a lots of problems. Once they got into the code the developer just did what they wanted, the architects would never know because a) they wouldn’t get their hands dirty with code and b) they didn’t really know C let alone C++.

The project wound down and went into maintenance mode so I left. A couple of years later I found myself back on a much reduced project to redevelop parts of the system. Now we had about five developers, one architect part-time and a couple of dozen people tops.

We mostly ignored the architect, he saw one system and we saw another. ISO-9000 was nominally in place but widely ignored. The process worked a lot better. Occasionally we wrote a formal document to keep the formal process and architect happy but the real documentation was contained in “Rough Guides” which didn’t formally exist.

Moral of the story: Just because you are called an architect, just because you go to meetings, you aren’t an architect.