The Many Challenges of a (Software) Architect

Software Architecture is a fascinating subject. The objective of a solid architecture for a system is to generate an underlying structure that is separates components in a meaningful way, but at the same time, is flexible to allow the system to grow in capacities and functionalities. That it’s performant, reliable and scalable within the required parameters, but it’s as easy to work with as possible.

Who doesn’t like to draw diagrams on whiteboards or glass? Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

Even worse than that, the work is to do that at the same time that a myriad of other competing priorities are being done, new functionalities are added and costs kept under control.

And, of course, while being as simple and elegant as possible.

In essence, nothing new to anyone doing software development…

After all, any program, even very small ones, have certain architecture in their design. Even when tiny, any structure in place can be rightfully understood as the architecture of the system.

Spaghetti is architecture as well. Not a great one, though. Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

The main difference when we talk about Software Architecture, is that usually we refer to systems that have already certain size, so multiple people are working on them. The view changes from “how much can fit in the head of one person” to “how the work can be divided so it can be done effectively”. A single person can have a strange way of doing things, but it makes sense for them.

And that’s the crucial element, the involvement of different people, and more commonly, different teams in the process. No longer esoteric divisions that make sense only for their creator are a good idea.

I’ve been involved into a lot of architecture discussions and processes in the last 3 to 4 years. First, as part of a group that was trying to give technical direction across the company where I was, and in my current role as Architect, where is a big part of my daily duties.

And it’s almost all about the communication. For example:

  • A very difficult task is to transmit the vision in your head or design to different people that may have other priorities and perhaps they don’t see things in the same way. Most of the time is because they don’t perceive the improvement in the same way, as they are focused in other tasks.
    This is similar to trying to teach someone to use a shortcut to copy/paste instead of going to the menu and select it. Sure, it’s faster, but they don’t see the point because they are focused in writing and not in learning how to be faster. A lot of architectural decisions are about making changes for improvements that may not be immediately obvious, like making processes more resilient.
  • It’s very common to be between two different teams trying to make them cooperate. But this is easier said than done, because each team have their own agenda.
    Another important detail is that there’s no hierarchical relation, so at best you can only influence the teams and that’s a difficult skill.
  • It’s great to have something designed, point a finger in the air and say: “Make It So”, but you need to do follow up on what’s the progress on the different tasks and ensure that the actual implementation of it makes sense and achieves the objectives.
  • There’s also the need to be self-reflective and acknowledge that every step needs to be evaluated critically to be sure that it’s in the right direction.
    The objective of work in the Architecture of the system is not to mandate top-down a Perfect Design™, no matter what. Instead, is to help the different teams into work better. There needs to be feedback in the process.

Surprise, it’s all dealing with people, it’s all soft-skills! Influence, teaching, negotiation, communication… While the tech skills and experience are obviously a prerequisite, in the day-to-day the muscles that gets more flexed are the the soft-skills ones.

Soft skills are hard. Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels.com

A consequence of this is that pressure and struggle manifest in a different way, as you are not only depending on something that a machine can do, as typical for engineers, but on what other people can do.

It’s a fascinating work, though. I like it a lot as, when everything comes together is great to feel that you are helping a lot of teams to work better together and to make your vision on what direction the system should follow gets implemented.

I like Software Architecture so much that I wrote one book exclusively about it, plus another that also talks a lot about these questions.

And you also get to draw a lot of diagrams! Diagrams everywhere!

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