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This chapter is from the book


Now that we have defined what we mean by architecture, we can turn our attention to the role that is responsible for the creation of the architecture: the architect. The role of the architect is arguably the most challenging in any software development project. The architect is the technical lead on the project and, from a technical perspective, ultimately carries responsibility for the technical success or failure of the project.

  • [An architect is] the person, team, or organization responsible for systems architecture. (IEEE 1471 2000)

As the technical lead on the project, the architect must have skills that are typically broad rather than deep (although architects should have deep skills in particular areas).

The Architect Is a Technical Leader

First and foremost, the architect is a technical leader, which means that in addition to having technical skills, the architect exhibits leadership qualities. Leadership can be characterized in terms of both position in the organization and the qualities that the architect exhibits.

In terms of position in the organization, the architect (or lead architect, if the architect role is fulfilled by a team) is the technical lead on the project and should have the authority to make technical decisions. The project manager, on the other hand, is more concerned with managing the project plan in terms of resources, schedule, and cost. Using the film industry as an analogy, the project manager is the producer (making sure that things get done), whereas the architect is the director (making sure that things get done correctly). As a result of their positions, the architect and project manager represent the public persona of the project and, as a team, are the main contact points as far as people outside the project are concerned. The architect in particular should be an advocate of the investment made in creating an architecture and the value it brings to the organization.

The architect should also be involved in determining how the team is populated, because the architecture will imply the need for certain skills. Dependencies among elements of the architecture influence the sequencing of tasks and, therefore, when these skills are required, so the architect should contribute actively to planning activities. On a related note, because the success of the architect is closely linked to the quality of the team, participation in interviewing new team members is also highly appropriate.

In terms of the qualities that the architect exhibits, leadership can also be characterized in terms of interactions with other team members. Specifically, the architect should lead by example and show confidence in setting direction. Successful architects are people-oriented, and all architects take time to mentor and train members of their team. This practice benefits the team members in question, the project, and ultimately the organization itself, because some of its most valuable assets (people) become better skilled.

Also, architects need to be very focused on the delivery of tangible results and must act as the driving force for the project from a technical perspective. Architects must be able to make decisions (often under pressure) and make sure that those decisions are communicated, that they are understood, and that they ultimately stick.

The Architect Role May Be Fulfilled by a Team

There is a difference between a role and a person. One person may fulfill many roles (Mary is a developer and a tester), and a role may be fulfilled by many people (Mary and John fulfill the role of tester). Given the requirement for a very broad set of skills in an architect, it is often the case that the architect role is fulfilled by more than one person. This practice allows the skills to be spread across several people, each bringing his or her own experiences to bear. In particular, the skills required to understand both the business domain and various aspects of technology are often best spread across several people. The resulting team needs to be balanced, however.

Throughout this book, the term architect refers to the role, which may be fulfilled by either an individual or a team.

  • [A team is] a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. (Katzenbach 1993)

If the architect role is to be fulfilled by a team, it is important to have one individual who is considered to be the lead architect, who is responsible for owning the vision, and who can act as a single point of coordination across the architecture team. Without this point of coordination, there is a danger that members of the architecture team will not produce a cohesive architecture or that decisions will not be made.

For a team that is new to the concept of architecture, it has been suggested that to achieve this common purpose, goals, and approach, the team should create and publish a team charter (Kruchten 1999).

Good architects know their strengths and weaknesses. Whether or not the architect role is fulfilled by a team, an architect is supported by several trusted advisors. Such architects acknowledge where they are weak and compensate for these weaknesses by obtaining the necessary skills or by working with other people to fill the gaps in their knowledge. The best architectures usually are created by a team rather than an individual, simply because there is greater breadth and depth of knowledge when more than one person is involved.

One pitfall with the concept of an architecture team, especially on large projects, is that it may be perceived as an ivory tower whose output is intellectual rather than useful. This misconception can be minimized from the outset by ensuring that all the stakeholders are actively consulted, that the architecture and its value are communicated, and that any organizational politics in play are considered.

The Architect Understands the Software Development Process

Most architects have been developers at some point and should have a good appreciation of the need to define and endorse best practices used on the project. More specifically, the architect should have an appreciation of the software development process, because this process ensures that all the members of the team work in a coordinated manner.

This coordination is achieved by defining the roles involved, the tasks undertaken, the work products created, and the handoff points among the different roles. Because architects are involved with many of the team members on a daily basis, it is important for them to understand the team members' roles and responsibilities, as well as what they are producing and using. In essence, team members look to the architect for guidance on how to fulfill their responsibilities, and the architect must be able to respond in a manner that is consistent with the development process being followed by the team.

The Architect Has Knowledge of the Business Domain

As well as having a grasp of software development, it is also highly desirable (some would say essential) for architects to have an understanding of the business domain so that they can act as intermediaries between stakeholders and users, who understand the business, and the members of the development team, who may be more familiar with technology.

  • [A domain is] an area of knowledge or activity characterized by a set of concepts and terminology understood by practitioners in that area. (UML User Guide 1999)

Knowledge of the business domain also allows the architect to better understand and contribute to the requirements on the system, as well as to be in a position to ensure that likely requirements are captured. Also, a particular domain often is associated with a particular set of architectural patterns (and other assets) that can be applied in the solution, and knowing this mapping can greatly assist the architect.

Therefore, a good architect has a good balance of software development knowledge and business domain knowledge. When architects understand software development but not the business domain, a solution may be developed that does not fit the problem, but instead reflects the comfort zone of things that the architect is familiar with.

Familiarity with the business domain also allows architects to anticipate likely changes in their architecture. Given that the architecture is heavily influenced by the environment in which it will be deployed, which includes the business domain, an appreciation of the business domain allows the architect to make better-informed decisions in terms of likely areas of change and the areas of stability. If the architect is aware that new regulatory standards will need to be adhered to at some point in the future, this requirement should be accommodated in the architecture, for example.

The Architect Has Technology Knowledge

Certain aspects of architecting clearly require knowledge of technology, so an architect should have a certain level of technology skills. An architect does not need to be a technology expert as such, however, and needs to be concerned only with the significant elements of a technology, not the detail. The architect may understand the key frameworks available in a platform such as Java EE or .NET, but not necessarily the detail of every application programming interface (API) that is available to access these platforms. Because technology changes fairly frequently, it is essential that the architect keep abreast of these changes.

The Architect Has Design Skills

Although architecting is not confined solely to design (as you have seen, the architect is also involved in requirements tasks), design clearly is the core aspect of architecting. The architecture embodies key design decisions, so the architect should possess strong design skills. Such decisions could represent key structural design decisions, the selection of particular patterns, the specification of guidelines, and so on. To ensure the architectural integrity of the system, these elements are typically applied across the board and can have far-reaching effects in terms of the success of the system. Therefore, such elements need to be identified by someone who has the appropriate skills.

  • One does not acquire design prowess overnight; instead, such skill is the result of years of experience. Even expert designers look back on their early work and shudder at how bad it was. As with every other skill, one must practice design in order to obtain proficiency. (Coplien 2005)

The Architect Has Programming Skills

The developers on the project represent one of the most important groups that the architect must interact with. After all, their work products ultimately deliver the working executable software. The communication between the architect and the developers can be effective only if the architect is appreciative of the developers' work. Therefore, architects should have a certain level of programming skills, even if they do not necessarily write code on the project, and those skills need to be kept up to date with the technologies being used.

  • The Architect should be organizationally engaged with Developers and should write code. If the architect implements, the development organization perceives buy-in from the guiding architects, and that perception can directly avail itself of architectural expertise. The architects also learn by seeing the first-hand results of their decisions and designs, thus giving them feedback on the development process. (Coplien 2005)

Most successful software architects have, at some stage, been hard-core programmers. To some extent, this experience is how they learned certain aspects of their trade. Even as technologies evolve and new programming languages are introduced, good architects can abstract out the concepts in any programming language and apply this knowledge to learning a new programming language to the depth required. Without this knowledge, the architect will be unable to make decisions with respect to the architecturally significant elements of the implementation, such as the organization of the source code and the adoption of programming standards, and a communication barrier will exist between the architect and the developers.

The Architect Is a Good Communicator

Of all of the soft skills associated with the architect, communication is the most important. Effective communication involves several dimensions, and the architect needs to be proficient in all of them. Specifically, the architect should have effective verbal, written, and presentation skills. Also, the communication should be two-way. The architect should be a good listener and a good observer also.

Being able to communicate effectively is a skill that is fundamental to the success of the project for many reasons. Clearly, communication with stakeholders is particularly important to understand their needs and also to communicate the architecture in a way that gains (and maintains) agreement with all stakeholders. Communication with the project team is particularly important, because the architect is not responsible simply for conveying information to the team, but also for motivating the team. Specifically, the architect is responsible for communicating (and reinforcing the communication of) the vision for the system so that the vision becomes shared, not something that only the architect understands and believes in.

The Architect Makes Decisions

An architect who is unable to make decisions in an environment where much is unknown, where insufficient time to explore all alternatives is available, and where pressure to deliver exists is unlikely to survive. Unfortunately, such environments are the norm rather than the exception, and successful architects acknowledge the situation rather than try to change it. Even though the architect may consult others when making decisions and foster an environment in which others are included in decision-making, it is still the architect's responsibility to make the appropriate decisions, which do not always prove to be right. Thus, architects need to be thick-skinned, because they may need to correct their decisions and backtrack.

An inability to make decisions will slowly undermine the project. The project team will lose confidence in the architect, and the project manager will be concerned because those waiting for the architecture cannot make the required progress. The very real danger is that if the architect does not make and document decisions about the architecture, team members will start to make their own, possibly incorrect, decisions.

The Architect Is Aware of Organizational Politics

Successful architects are not only concerned with technology. They also are politically astute and conscious of where the power in an organization resides. They use this knowledge to ensure that the right people are communicated with and that support for a project is aired in the right circles. Ignoring organizational politics is, quite simply, naïve.

  • Politics involves a great deal of ambiguity, which makes many technical people nervous. It forces them to play on "someone else's court," as it were, a place where they feel they are at a disadvantage because their technical prowess doesn't count for much. (Marasco 2004)

The reality is that many forces at work in organizations lie outside the project delivering the system, and these forces need to be accounted for.

  • Human beings tend not to all think alike; in order to resolve differences of opinion, a political process is unavoidable. So, rather than condemn it, it is better to understand politics as an effective means of dealing with the inevitable need to resolve differences of opinion. (Marasco 2004)

The Architect Is a Negotiator

Given the many dimensions of architecting, the architect interacts with many stakeholders. Some of these interactions require negotiation skills. A particular focus for the architect is minimizing risk as early as possible in the project, because minimizing risk has a direct correspondence to the time it takes to stabilize the architecture. Because risks are associated with requirements (and changes in requirements), one way to remove a risk is to refine the requirements so that the risk is no longer present—hence, the need to push back on such requirements so that stakeholders and architect can reach a mutually agreeable position. This situation requires the architect to be an effective negotiator who is able to articulate the consequences of different trade-offs.

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