I'm becoming more and more averse to the term architecture and architect in terms of creating software, partially because it is such an overloaded term that seems to cause so much continual opining about its meaning but, more importantly, because I don't think it is like what we do, at least not to the extent that seems to be commonly thought.
We are not building houses (or bridges, or skyscrapers, or cities). Houses, and other physical constructions, rely on pretty much immutable laws of nature, of physics, chemistry, etc. These sciences are sciences in the established sense--you can perform experiments repeatedly and get the same results, and others who perform those experiments will get the same results. Physical building, architecture, and engineering is fundamentally a scientific endeavor because it is essentially serving scientific laws.1
Software Serves Human Social Needs Software, on the other hand, is fundamentally a human and social endeavor. Above the basic electrical and magnetic level, i.e., hardware, it is purely human constructs built on layers of human-created abstractions built to serve human social needs--for, ultimately, business or pleasure. As such, we (as a human industry) are pretty much free to create the abstractions as we see fit.
Beyond the basic hardware translation layer, we are not bound by elemental laws, only by our imagination. The problem is, it seems to me, that early software development was very closely tied to the electrical engineering disciplines that gave birth to computing machinery, so the early abstractions were engineering-oriented and assumed an unnecessary scientific and engineering bent. Subsequent developments, for the most part, have built on this engineering basis, and our educational system has perpetuated it. Even though relatively few software creators these days need to understand the inner workings of the hardware (and even one layer of abstraction up), such low-level engineering is at the core of many computer science curricula.
As the power of computing machinery has grown, we've expanded the uses of software to take advantage of the new power, but we have remained an essentially engineering-based culture and have accrued other engineering-related words such as architecture and architect. We have engineers and developers, systems analysts, and architects. We have projects and project managers, and many try to manage software projects as if they were building projects. We have builds, and we say we're building or developing or engineering software.
We have, built into our very language, an implicit association with physical building, and we have the association repeatedly reinforced by those who want to draw direct analogies between our trades. Certainly, there are similarities, but I tend to think much of those similarities have been manufactured--they're not inherent to the nature of software. We've painted ourselves into a corner by such analogies and borrowing of techniques and language.
Perceived Crisis of Complexity and Terminology Now we're having this crisis, as some seem to paint it, where we need to elaborate further and push the idea that our systems are like cities and that we need varying levels and kinds of architects to help plan, build, maintain, and expand these software cities. We have folks struggling to define what an architect is, what architecture is, and creating various stratifications within it to expand on this analogy. We purportedly need enterprise architects, solutions architects, infrastructure architects, data architects, and more.
There is I think a well-intentioned effort to fix it because we do see this corner we've painted ourselves into, but we're reaching for the paint brush and bucket to solve it--reaching for those same ill-fashioned analogies, techniques, mindset, and culture. We see all this accrued complexity, and our solution is to make things even more complex, both terminologically and systematically, because we're engineers and scientists, and scientific problems are solved with scientific methods and precision, no?.
It seems the underlying problem is that we're approaching the problem all wrong. The problems we're solving are fundamentally human problems, particularly social problems. And by social, I don't mean social networking software that is now en vogue; I mean social in the basic sense of dealing with interactions between humans, be that economic, entertainment, education, social connection, or whatever. It follows, then, that the best solution will be fundamentally human in nature, not scientific, not engineering.
Realigning with Our Core Problem Domain Maybe we should avoid likening ourselves to engineering and scientific disciplines, and especially, we should shun terminology that ties us to them and binds our thinking into those molds. As a man thinks, so is he, as the saying goes. Surely, we can and should learn what we can from other disciplines, but we need to be more reticent to insinuate them into our own as we have done with building.
I do think various solutions have been tried to better align software with its problem domain. Object-oriented design is at a generic level an attempt to urge this sort of alignment, as is its more developed kin, domain-driven design. Agile and its like work toward human-oriented processes for creating software. Natural language systems, workflow systems, small-scale (solution-level) rule engines, and even some higher-level languages have attempted this. And in fact, as a rule, I think they succeed better than those more closely tied to the computing and building conceptual models, except that even these more human-oriented abstractions are chained by the lower level abstractions we've created.
What we need to do is continue to develop those human-oriented models of creating software. It seems that we may be at a breaking point, however, for our continued use of the building paradigm. Our repeated struggles with the terminology certainly seem to speak to that. Our terribly confused and complicated enterprise systems landscape seems to speak to that. Our control-driven, formal, gated processes have been most well shown to be broken and inappropriate to the task of software creation.
New Terminology To make the next step, perhaps we should reexamine at a fundamental level how we think about software, both the artifacts and how we create them. I think we need to make a clean break with the engineering and building analogy. Start fresh. Unshackle our minds. Maybe we need to drill down the abstraction layers and figure out where we can most effectively make the transition from hardware control to our human, social domain. I imagine it would be lower than we have it now. Or maybe it is just a matter of creating a better language, an intentional language (or languages) and a move away from our control-oriented languages.
At a higher level, we certainly need to rethink how we think about what we do. Some folks talk about the "architect" being the "bridge" (or translator) between the business and the technical folks. If that is a technical role, which I tend to doubt, it seems like a more appropriate title would be Technical Bridge or Technical Translator or Technical Business Facilitator or even just Software Facilitator. Call it what it is--don't draw unnecessarily from another dubiously-related profession.
But maybe thinking this role is best served with a technical person is not ideal. Maybe we technical folks are again trying to solve the problem with the wrong tools--us. Well-intentioned though many are, if we are technical in tendency, skills, talent, and experience, we are not as well equipped to understand the squishy, human needs that software serves or best identify how to solve such squishy human problems.
Since software is essentially a human-oriented endeavor, perhaps we need a role more like that which has been emerging on the UX side of things, such as [user] experience designer or interaction designer. They are better-equipped to really grok the essentially human needs being addressed by the software, and they can provide precise enough specification and translation to technical folks to create the experiences they're designing, even with the tools we have today.
Then again, some say that architects are the ones concerned with high-level, "important" views of a solution, interactions among individual pieces, that they are those who model these high-level concerns and even provide concrete tools and frameworks to help effectively piece them together. I say that we could call this role solution coordinator, solution designer, or solution modeler. But then, according to folks like Eric Evans, these folks should be hands-on to be effective,2 which I also believe to be true. In that case, what they become, really, is a kind of manager or, simply, team leader, someone who's been there and done that and can help guide others in the best way to do it. At this point, the skills needed are essentially technical and usually just a matured version of those actually crafting the solution.
Instead of software developers and architects, how about we just have technical craftsmen? The term is appropriate--we are shaping (crafting) technology for human use; it also scales well--you can add the usual qualifiers like "lead," "manager," "senior," whatever fits your needs. There's no unnecessary distinction between activities--whether the craftsman is working on a higher-level design or a lower-level, it is all essentially the activity of shaping technology for human use. Depending on the scale of the team/endeavor, one craftsman may handle all levels of the craft or only part, and in the latter case, the division can easily be made based on experience and leadership. And finally, it does not introduce cognitive dissonance through extremely-overextended and inaccurate analogy (like developer and architect).
Even if you don't like the term craftsman--we could collaborate to choose another that doesn't chain us to wrong thinking--the point remains that we should recognize that we've introduced unnecessary and unhelpful distinction in our discipline by using the dev and architect terminology. We could begin to solve the conundrum by abandoning these titles.
Resisting the Urge to Rationalize and Control Also, by looking at each solution as a craft--an individual solution tailored to address a particular human problem, it becomes clearer that we need not be so ready to try to rationalize all of these solutions into some greater system. As soon as we do that, we fall back into the engineering and computing mode of thinking that will begin to impose unnatural constraints on the solutions and inhibit their ability to precisely and accurately solve the particular human need.3
As I suggested before, we should rather treat these solutions more like a biological ecosystem--letting selection and genetic mutation mechanisms prevail in a purely pragmatic way that such systems have so well embedded in their nature. I believe it is a misplaced good intention to try to govern these systems in a rationalistic, control-driven way. We deceive ourselves into thinking that we are managing complexity and increasing efficiency when in reality we are increasing complexity that then, recursively, also has to be managed in such a philosophy (creating an infinite complexity management loop). We also reduce efficiency and effectiveness (well-fittedness) of solutions by interfering with solutions with controls and imposing artificial, external constraints on them to serve our governance schemes.4
Wrapping It All Up Once we stop trying to align ourselves with a fundamentally different endeavor--physical building--we free ourselves to essentially orient what we're doing towards the right domain--human social problems. In doing so, we can re-examine our abstraction layers to ensure they most effectively fit that domain at the lowest possible level, and then we can start building new layers as needed to further enable effective (well-fitted) solutions for that domain. By changing our language, we solve cognitive dissonance and illuminate where distinctions are truly needed, or not needed, and may even recognize where skills that are not inherently technical would better serve our solutions (such as UX pros). And lastly, by treating the solutions as fundamentally human, we recognize that the most efficient, effective, time-tested5 and proven technique for managing them is more biological and less rational. We see that they can best manage themselves, adapting as needed, to fit their environment in the most appropriate way possible.
If we're going to have a go at fixing the perceived current problem of complexity in software and, by extension, further understand how to solve it through our profession, I suggest that a somewhat radical departure from our current mode of thinking is needed, that we need to break away from the physical building analogy, and it seems to me that something like what I propose above has the most long-term promise for such a solution. What do you think?
Notes 1. I should note that I recognize the artistic and ultimately social aspects physical constructions; however, they are still fundamentally physical in nature--bridges are physically needed to facilitate crossing of water or expanse, buildings are needed physically for shelter. The social aspects are adornments not inherent to the basic problems that these constructions solve. The same cannot be said of software; it exists solely to serve human social advancement in one form or another. 2. See Eric Evan's "Hands-On Modeler" in Domain-Driven Design: Tackling Complexity in the Heart of Software. 2. As an aside, I truly do wonder why we should have to try to convince businesses of the need for the "architect" role. If you ask me, the need, and our value/solution, should be obvious. If it takes a lot of talking and hand waving, maybe we should question if the solution we're proposing is actually the right one. ? 3. I have to nuance this. Obviously, if there are governmental regulations you have to follow, some such controls are required; however, if you think about it, this is still adapting the solution to best fit the human problem because the human problem likely involves some need of societal protection. Certainly not all systems need such controls, and even only some within an organization need them. Keep the controls scoped to the solutions that require them due to the human social conditions. On the whole, I'd say that there are vastly far more systems that don't need them, though the ones that do loom large in our minds. 4. By this I mean to say that, according to evolutionary theory, biological processes have developed over many millions of years and have proven themselves as an effective means for highly emergent, living systems to self-govern. Businesses and human social structures in general, especially these days, are highly emergent, dynamic, and living and need software that reflects that mode of being.
The opinions expressed herein are solely my own personal opinions, founded or unfounded, rational or not, and you can quote me on that.
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Copyright © 2013 J. Ambrose Little