Software Architecture

29 Jun 2011 » Giacomo Tesio

Today I had an interesting meeting with five other different software architects. It was the first of a series of meeting devoted to share the different architectural solutions developed in the different teams of our company.

Since it was an introductory session, I asked the others how they define the software architecture (and thus the role of software architect).

As expected, the definitions were quite different (it is still debated all over the world, and many architects hate the term), but no one defined the architect as overpaid, out of touch developers.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to find a syn thesis, a shared vision on the topic. May be we will have such a vision by the end of the meetings.

A generic definition

My own definition is a bit generic (and has been changed thanks to the others’ ones):

Architecture is the structure given to an artifact, to meet all the paid requirements.

The type of the artifact has to be related to the software, but it can be more than code design or tools’ selection, as an efficient development process for a specific project or a fast comunication protocol.

Being the structure of the artifact, architecture is very expensive to be replaced once the artifact has been built: it is important to get it right early.

Thus, architects have to be experienced “hands on” developers, able to debug and understand almost any piece of code rapidly, moving smoothly between layers, tiers and technologies.
Such qualities, even if rare, are still not enough.

Indeed, to my money, software architects need a deep experience to be able to (in this order):

  1. understand people
  2. understand requirements
  3. give a clear, unifying vision of the artifact that can guide its realization

Understanding people is the most important one becouse developers, project manager, stakeholder and customers are all fundamental variables that should forge every architectural decision.

Moreover architects should be responsible and thus leaders able to explain and convince all others that their decision was the only logical one, given all the requirements. Indeed if you understand the reasons of your decision you can explain them, otherwise you should not be in the position to decide.

The second and the third qualities derived from a deep development experience, are interconnected: an architect should be able to understand all the paid requirements and to produce a synthesis.

Such requirements are related to:

  • budget
  • functionalities
  • developers’ skills
  • personalities
  • standardization (NOTE: this is not always a requirement)
  • process sustainability
  • code maintainability
  • software stability
  • performances and so on…

Too much for a man

Getting such important decisions right and early might be too much for a single human being.

Indeed, our artifacts are complex and they move all the time! And we are also required to be able to change them rapidly and smoothly!

Thus I’m a fan of architectural teams, without any princeps inter pares: architects should be forced to always reach a shared decision.

This might seem inefficient at first, but it leads soon to a high level of trust between the members of the team. Moreover each decision given from such a team (two people could be enough, it depends on the complexity of the artifact’s requirements) is based on the different points of view and on the different experiences and thus it has more chances to be the right one.

Synthesis is a keyword in architecture.

But what about Epic?

How all this is related to Epic?

Well, first of all I recently wrote a chapter of the Epic’s manual describing its own architecture.

Second, the meeting made me to consider how such architecture fit a specific set of requirements but not others.

Finally the people involved in the meeting have inspired in various ways the ideation of Epic. One of them also developed with me the architectural vision behind Epic.Poem (the presentation layer of Epic).
Thus, if ever Epic will see the light of day, part of the merit will be of theirs.