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Architecting From the Bottom Up

I’m sure I’m going to steal someone’s cheese with this one, but I have very strong feelings about how systems are developed and who is involved in the process.

It’s been my experience that most companies employ someone in the Chief Architect role. This person interacts with the stakeholders to determine short and long-term technical needs, works with managers to integrate architectural change through internal product development, and above all else, let no man enter the Ivory Tower.

For whatever reason, many really smart (I mean really really smart) developers make their way into the role of Chief Architect without ever understanding who their audience is. They assume their audience is the IT Director, the Board, the principals, and all managers. It’s my contention that this is entirely wrong. The main audience for architecture is the developer. And not just any developer. I’m talking about Joe Average Developer. I’m not talking about the clock-watching consultant who tries to get his straight-eights in. I’m not talking about the workaholic senior developer who, if he (or her – no gender slights meant) doesn’t understand something, will draw his own blood in nightly rituals of self-abuse in order to gain an understanding. I’m talking about the developer that comes to work, gets handed an assignment, and wants to do a good job. They know they’re not likely to be a senior developer. They’re probably going to fork off into business analysis or project management at some point. But for now, they’re a developer. Heck, they may actually be an actor or singer who happens to know how to code. Coding pays the rent.

Back to our architect. The architect also assumes that they know what’s best for the company. They may claim they have no prejudice but believe me, they do. We all do. Out of the gate, all architects are suspect zero. We all have an agenda, we all like things a certain way. In most cases, the architect will arrange the pieces on the board that makes us feel the most comfortable. We will set out on a relentless quest to see a technical environment come to life that bears our heart and soul. We do this because we know that we can be successful in such a world. Well, actually success isn’t the motivator. That’s an illusion. We want to control our environment. That is our primary goal and in many cases, the architect doesn’t even understand their own primary goal.

However, there is another way. I see the lead architect role with four primary responsibilities.

First, there has to be strong communication with all levels. The architect should know the stakeholders, the analysts, the developers, the testers, the infrastructure staff, and the users. They should have strong communication networks with all of these people (and probably more). If you have an architect that likes to hide, boy do you have problems. I’m not talking about someone who’s digging in to get work done. I’m talking about someone that you’re never quite sure what they’re doing.

Second, there has to be a strong set of standards written down, introduced at all levels, discussed at all levels, and monitored at all levels. This may include code reviews, static code analysis, check-in policies. Developers like the freedom to write code, but they don’t like everyone doing it differently. In this respect, developers are a lot like soldiers. If you give them strict guidelines, they will find the art of their skill in being productive. They will be better for it and so will your company. If standards are given short-shrift or treated as an aside, your developers will be unhappy, less-productive, and very likely to switch jobs after the next disappointing pay-raise.

Third, all new technical requirements should be developed with all hands on deck. That means that developers should have a say in any newly developed framework. Everyone should be given the opportunity to provide technical ideas and in fact, the entire process should be presented in such a way that developers are encouraged and rewarded for their input. The less an architect listens to the developers, the more costly and time-consuming any and all new projects will become.

Fourth, and this is probably the most important. Keep it simple. I’ll say it again. Keep it simple. I don’t care if you have three PhD’s in math, engineering, or computer science. You are not going to be writing code. The developers, Joe Average Developer, are going to be writing code. So if your plan is to implement a complex set of requirements as a framework, you have failed before one line of code is written in your new framework. If you have an architect that constantly talks about object-relation mapping, object containers, dependency injection, separation of concerns, and abstraction layers, you have an architect that will create a set of middleware that no one, and I mean no one, will understand. If he gets hit by a bus, you’re screwed.

I have a rule. It’s a pretty simple rule. Take any framework or middleware or API. Grab any Joe Average Developer off the street and ask him or her to create a small data entry application with three or four related tables or a handful of related classes. It doesn’t matter if they start at the domain level or the database level. They get the same assistance that anyone else does on staff. If there’s training or pair programming in the regimen, that’s great. Here’s the rule. If Joe Average Developer can’t deliver a simple application in less than two weeks (and that’s a very forgiving schedule in my book), then you have completely failed at creating a productive and cost-effective framework. If you can’t get them to create a screen or report or web page in a few days, you’ve really messed up.

Some of the arguments I’ve heard over the years include:

“We know there are average developers, but we’re going to segregate them off into simpler jobs, like UI development.” – This is great for new development. What happens when someone has to maintain the code and all the smart people are missing?

“This isn’t that hard. I find it hard to believe that a good programmer won’t understand the framework.” – This is hubris. Don’t smart people know they’re smart? I don’t like to be an elitist but I’ve been around this business for a long time. There are many different kinds of developers, but I can assure you, only a handful will reach architect status and only a few those actually know design patterns. You can’t expect to hire all architects and senior developers. It’s just never going to work.

“We (meaning the smart people) have researched all of the requirements thoroughly. We understand all of our strengths and weaknesses. We know what’s best.” – By your divine right, you shall (cough) succeed. In the short-term maybe….let’s see your framework and code base in two years.

In summary, developers are the meat of any company that relies on computer systems for its products and services. Instead of putting one person in charge of the function of your business, doesn’t it make more sense to have everyone involved? Doesn’t it make more sense to rely on simplicity? Doesn’t it make more sense to create a technical environment that can be handed over to twenty Joe Average Developers and sustain productivity?

Or maybe you like your Ivory Tower.

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