The Understated Architect Role

So what’s in a software architect?

This is actually a question I’ve seen addressed a few times, and actually discussed during my career quite a bit. It’s a question I need to address if and when I search for new job as a software development architect. And it’s also a question that seems to have quite a few possible answers.

But eventually, there does some to be a common ground when trying to discuss the work of a software development architect. One could discuss the soft skills, the technical skills or the leadership skills required from an architect. It’s all true, at least to some degree. The exact combination of skills required to be a good software development architect varies between different organizations, operating contexts (the organization structure, company culture and size, history with the team, etc.) and your definition of “good”; so I won’t waste your time in trying to define an exact grocery list of skills.

I do believe, however, that one important role of the architect is often overlooked or not emphasized enough. And it’s probably not something you’ll learn in any course or training. It is something that I often felt during my work, but realized fully only when another (more experienced) architect has put it into words that resonated strongly with me.

Probably the most important job of an architect is to create and maintain a consistent understanding of the software system being developed. Or more precisely: creating a coherent and consistent picture of the developed system across all parties involved in the development project. To create an understanding between the development team and its stakeholders. To create an understanding within the team about the technical vision and direction for development. To create an understanding across teams on what is being developed and how systems interact.

This is probably the single most important job an architect has that is also unique to this role. Technical expertise is important, as is various design decisions and being able to weigh trade-offs properly. But the thing that truly separates the architect’s role from that of an expert software developer is the ability to convey a system structure and technical design, its capabilities, constraints and decisions taken when building it.

It’s really more than simply knowing the right words and using the right terminology. It’s about framing thoughts in a way that is consistent and understandable by the target audience. It’s about striking the balance between formalism and human comprehension. It’s about choosing the right methods to convey an idea. It’s about being precise and succinct, yet clear and understandable. It’s about being able to translate between different terminologies or “domains of thoughts”.

And herein lies the real challenge in being a software development architect, in my opinion. Technical mastery is important. But being able to convey an idea efficiently, to plant the right idea into the minds of people you’re communicating with is one thing you can’t learn on (which is a wonderful site, by the way).

And it’s a subtle act, often very delicate and hard to balance. Simply because people come from different schools of thoughts and experiences (and often with agendas). But choosing the right terminology, explaining it properly, making assumptions explicit or drawing the right diagram goes a long way towards aligning all involved parties on a single vision and a coherent mental picture of a system. Creating this mental picture in everyone’s mind is no easy task.

I had a boss who once told me that whenever there’s a disagreement on a technical direction to take, you should prefer to be the one drawing the diagrams. This simple fact already gives you an advantage. If you’re the one holding the marker pen, you already have an edge.

This is true from an organizational politics point of view, but also an important point to keep in mind when you want to reach an agreement and create this common understanding and consistency – if you wield the pen, you wield the power as well as the responsibility. And when you’re an architect, your job is to wield the pen.

When people talk about being an architect, they usually talk about what to do with the pen – what kind of diagrams to draw, what documents to write, how much code, etc. But there’s an overarching, implicit goal that is assigned to the one holding the pen – to make sure everyone is aligned and have a consistent mental picture in their heads, when approaching their individual jobs. This is especially harder in the software business, where there’s no shortage of abstractions and intangible concepts to keep in mind. Where the different levels of abstraction and complexity a developer has to keep in his head are often mind boggling. The ability to synthesize the important ideas and communicate them at the right place, at the right time, in a manner that will be adopted and accepted is quite a fit. Take someone who is good at doing that, add a decent technical and analytical abilities into the mix and you’ve got yourself a good software architect right there.