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Posted 7 Feb 2015

What Is a Software Architect?

, 7 Feb 2015
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What is a software architect?

There is so much confusion surrounding the purpose of a Software Architect and the value they provide and what they are supposed to do. So much so, that it seems the title is being used less and less by companies and replaced with a different title such as principal or staff. I assume this is due to the perception there must be a way to distinguish a level above senior, which is handed out after only about three years of experience.

Introduction

This has been a topic that I have wanted to discuss for quite some time. However, up until I read this question "Are there any Software Architects here?[^]" at CodeProject.com, I had been more compelled to focus on the more technical aspects of software development.

This is an excellent post that has multiple questions. If you were to take a quick peek at the question (it's ok, just come back), you would see about 80 responses in the discussion; with a wide variety of facts, opinions, and jokes related to software architecture and software development in general. Furthermore, many of the posts differ in opinion and even contradict each other.

I define the role of Software Architect in this entry. The definition is based upon my nearly two decades of experience developing software. Up to this point in my career, I have worked for small companies where I was the only software developer; all of the way up to companies where I was one of hundreds of developers and about one-thousand engineers of many engineering disciplines. Through the years, I have performed just about every role found in the Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC) including a software architect.

The Basics of the Role

The Software Architect is not another stepping stone above Senior Software Engineer or Software Engineer V. They do work closely with people in these other roles, and in smaller companies they may also function as a Software Engineer V. However, the role of Software Architect is an entirely different position, and it has different responsibilities that are so much different than the task of writing software.

The software architect is a technical leader for the development team, and they are also the figurehead of the product for which they are responsible. One reason they become a figurehead for the product, is because the organization should make them responsible for the technical aspects of the product.

This makes them a good point of contact for information regarding the product, especially for personnel in the organization that may not be closely tied with the product. They may not always be the best person to answer a question, but they most certainly know who is.

As a leader, the architect is responsible for foster unity and trust among their team for success. The technical aspect requires the architect to mentor and guide the team along the way toward maintainable product with high quality. Moreover, they provide technical guidance and recommendations to the customer, which quite often is their own management team.

The Value

The architect adds value to the product and the organization by providing structure to both the design and implementation of the system, as well as the flow of information. If you are a fan of Fred Brooks and his book, The Mythical Man Month, you will recall that he states the implementation of a system tends to mimic the communication structure of your organization. In my experience, this has always proven to be true.

Improved Quality and Stability

Design by committee can work. However, you often need a group of like-minded individuals that do not differ in opinion too drastically for this succeed. In the extreme circumstances, if there are wildly divergent opinions, the group must be willing to forego their egos and accept the decisions that are made even when the decision is the polar opposite of what they believe to be the best decision. When all else fails, there is a final decision-maker at the top.

Thus enters the architect. They are after all, responsible for the product that is ultimately designed and built. They will help the team make decisions that are aligned with the macro-scale goals for the organization. While the development team themselves focus on the design decisions that are most beneficial at the micro-scale of the feature or system for which they are responsible.

Communication

A good flow of information is often required for harmony and success among a group. This can lead to other desirable benefits such as a high-level of morale and greater productivity. Effective communication is essential. Technical endeavors especially suffer when teams do not communicate effectively.

Development may move along steadily during the initial stages. However, if the integration of the components was not planned well in advance, progress will screech to a halt. Adjustments will need to be made for each component to be joined correctly. The architect can monitor the progress and direction for each developer or team, and provide guidance early on to correct course for the intended target.

The management team and key stake-holders communicate with the architect to remain in touch with the technical aspects of the system that require their attention. Such as clarifications on requirements, or missing resources that are necessary to continue to make progress on the project.

One problem that I see talented engineers struggle with, is to be able to adjust the language and content of their message to match their audience. Generally, they tend to be too technical and provide too many extraneous details for the important message to be properly conveyed. A good architect helps bridge this communication gap. They are able to effectively use the best style of communication to convey the details and properly persuade their audience.

Roles

At this point, I would like to diverge and briefly and discuss the different roles that are required or exist for a software development project. Primarily because I often run across the question "What does an architect do that a developer doesn't?" This will also provide some context to refer to for the final section in which I will list desirable qualities you should look for in a software architect.

I mentioned there are many roles in software development. Each role is responsible for performing certain tasks. The problem is, the responsibilities for each role differ based on the organization. The size, culture and industry can affect how responsibilities are organized.

A company with a small staff may assign multiple tasks to its employees. To be able to complete all of the work in a timely fashion, the different roles may be responsible for overlapping tasks. While a large organization and development team may have many people that focus on performing a single task. All of the while, both companies may use the same titles to describe the roles of their employees.

It is important to know what your role and responsibilities are for any organization to be able to succeed at your own job; not to forget the success of the project and company as well. Therefore, I think it makes more sense to discuss the basic tasks that must be accomplished or commonly are included with a companies SDLC.

Tasks

Here is a non-comprehensive list of the technical tasks that are required to develop software.

  1. Analysis: Determining what you want, need, or should build
  2. Requirements Gathering: Create a definition of what is to be built.
  3. Planning: Create the budget and the schedule. This task is not entirely technical, but the schedule and budget will be more accurate with technical guidance.
  4. Coordination: This is a bit abstract, however, it basically covers all communication and resource scheduling.
  5. Design: Create plans for the structure and operation of your product.
  6. Development: Build the product.
  7. Verification: Verify that it meets requirements, specifications and quality levels.
  8. Source Control Management: Organization of the resources required to build the product.
  9. Documentation: Useful or necessary information to the creators and users.

The only task listed above that is actually necessary is development. However, the process of development and the quality of the product suffers when the other tasks are omitted. Also, this same effect can occur when the level of effort is reduced for any of the other tasks.

Example: Analysis

How difficult is it to build a jigsaw puzzle when you do not even know what the final image is? It is possible. However, it is much more difficult without knowing what you are aiming for.

Let's complicate the example further. How much more difficult does it become to assemble the puzzle when:

  • Extraneous pieces from another puzzle are added to your pile of loose pieces
  • The number of pieces in the puzzle is not known
  • No corner pieces exist
  • No edge pieces exist

Example: Coordination

When you run in a three-legged race, the team that is most coordinated will have a great advantage. As the amount coordination increases, the less amount of time the team-members will spend fighting each other trying to find a rhythm.

The same concept holds true when you have more than a single person performing tasks on a project. These are the types of things that should be targeted through communication and coordination:

  • Agreement between the groups for how their systems will interoperate.
  • Scheduling project tasks to minimize conflicts and dependencies. If each task is dependent linearly upon another, it will not make sense to have more than one person on the project at a time.
  • Good communication throughout the project helps spot potential issues and address them before they are too difficult to tackle.
  • If the schedule requires your software team to develop at the same time the hardware is being developed, some alternate and temporary solution will be required for the developers. Virtual machines or reference hardware maybe acquired for software to use until the hardware is available. This is also an effective solution when there is a shortage of real hardware compared to the number of developers on your team.

Return to Roles

I will describe the set of tasks the software architect may perform for a small to moderately sized team. We will define this as about 20 people, with 8 or so are developers. The remainder of the team includes product managers, personnel management, marketing, sales, and quality control.

Analysis, Requirements. Planning and Documentation

The architect should be involved from the beginning. Once you know there may be a product to create, or a new engineering cycle on an existing project, bring the architect in. They can assist with the analysis, requirements gathering, and planning tasks. They can spend a fraction of their time acting as a consultant for these tasks. They can help advise and make sure the right questions get asked, the proper information is gathered, and only realistic promises are made. When it comes to creating documentation, the architect and development team should be accessible to answer questions for the technical writers.

Coordination

As a leadership role, one of the primary responsibilities of the developer will be to communicate. More so listening than speaking. One of the most valuable things that an architect, or a software lead and manager for that matter, can do is to make sure their team understands what they are building. Then make sure each individual understands how their work will contribute to the final project.

I have seen projects go from extremely behind schedule, to finishing on time, after a new software lead was put into place. On one particular project, the developers had a vague idea what they were building, but on the surface it only seemed like another version of the five things they had built before. The new lead spent the first few days going over the project, its goals, what made it so cool, and verified each member of the team knew what they were responsible for. At that point, they moved forward with excitement and a new understanding. When some engineers finished their work, they jumped in and helped in other areas where possible. Do not underestimate the value of proper team coordination.

Design

Design is definitely something that the software architect will be involved with. However, I think that most people start to misunderstand the responsibility of the architect when the task of design is mentioned. The perception that I see the most often is that the architect designs the entire system; and this can cause some angst among developers that believe this is the case.

The cause of any angst may be because the developers believe their control and creative freedom will be limited; hopefully that is not the case. I have a bit more to say about this later in the essay.

The architect should take responsibility for the overall structure of the program. High-level behavior, control-flow and technologies to be utilized will all be determined by the architect. Other software developers are given the responsibility to design smaller sections of the program at a higher level of detail. Their design should be guided by the structure the architect puts in place.

Development

Any work performed up to this point is mostly focused on making this stage run smoothly. Hopefully all of the assumptions are correct, and the requirements are fixed. If not, the team must adapt. This is where the architect's responsibilities really become important. A foundation designed to be flexible with logically separated modules will have a better chance of adapting to any surprises that appear during development.

The architect is most likely to play more of a support role during this phase than a primary producer. That is because their time will be spent on guiding, mentoring and guiding the developers, as well as inspecting the results, and providing support where it will be most valuable. Moreover, they will keep the technical teams aligned with one and other, as well as the business and management teams informed of progress.

Furthermore, any surprises or new discoveries that appear along the way can also be adequately managed by the architect. On the other hand, any events occur that require the architects attention could cause further delays if their time is scheduled nearly 100% towards a development work items.

Verification

This is one phase where I believe the architect should have as little to do with this as possible. The reason being, you want an independently verified product. QA teams usually get the raw end of the deal when it comes to verifying and shipping software. If the programmers overrun on their schedule, QA is often tasked with finding creative ways of making the quality of the software better, faster.

If the architect is involved, the integrity of the verification process could be compromised. QA is a control gate to verify that things work correctly before they are released to the customer. The last thing you want is the architect and developers influencing QA's findings; making excuses for why something is not a bug, or at least why it should be classified as a level 4 superficial bug, rather than a level 2 major.

The architect should only coordinate with QA in order to get QA the resources they need to properly perform this task.

Source Control Management

There is so much that can be said about software SCM, but I am not going to. that is because it is a complicated task that deserves an entire essay of its own. The bottom line is the architect must be involved in the SCM for the product. It is crucial during development. It is damn near critical that SCM is handled according to a policy the architect defines (based upon the guidelines and strategies of the organization of course.)

Some products live a single existence, and slowly evolve with each release. Others spring into existence, and core components are reused to build other projects, which the process is then repeated ad infinitum. If there is no one managing the source code appropriately, or the way it is managed does not work for everyone, you may just get forked[^].

An Effective Software Architect

I was going to write a section titled Qualities. However, qualities are subjective, and you could probably guess the items on the list. It would look like every job ad for a software architect, and nearly the same for every software engineer. Just fill in the blank for the desired number of years of experience.

Because that list of qualities is so predictable and repeated everywhere, it would not add any more value to conveying the purpose and value of a software architect. Therefore, I thought it would be better to describe a few actions an Effective Software Architect would perform and the potential benefits that can be realized.

Focus on the Future

Jargon litters our lives. When job ads say "work in a fast-paced environment", that's a nice way of saying, "We want it right now!" No matter how quickly a piece of software can be developed, it still isn't quick enough. That is where many projects go awry; they are too focused on just for today. Tomorrow always becomes another today. Next thing you know you're programming in a swamp of code.

The software architect should focus on the long-term direction of a product, and execute towards the short-term goals of the business. It is good to have goals, they help provide direction. Every step forward may not lead directly to the goal. However, if the goal is always kept in mind when design decisions are made, the goal will become more attainable.

Shortcuts will be taken, and technical debt will accrue on the product. There never seems to be enough time to go back and correct all of those blemishes. However, the design can be made to mitigate short-term decisions and still provide a stable path towards the goals of the product.

Management and Business Development need to support the Software Architect by providing them with goals and information regarding the product. This will help the architect to develop a vision for the project and help guide it towards long-term goals; despite all of the rash and short-term decisions that are usually made in software development.

Create Unity

This is a more focused description of the coordination task above. This action is focused on building and maintaining a level of trust between all of the development team, as well as the management and other stake-holders that are involved with the project. As I mentioned earlier, the software product tends to mimic the communication style of the organization. Therefore a more unified team is more likely to develop a program that is unified in structure and quality. There is more to unity than the final structure of the program.

Trust

You may think that it is odd that I started an essay discussing computer programming, and I now I am on the topic of trust. For a team to work well together, they must trust each other. They must also trust their leaders that are directing them. The software architect is in a perfect position to help foster trust.

They are a technical leader, which means that they focus their attention on the technology and the way it is used. The role itself does not manage people. However, some organizations make the architect the manager of the developers as well. I believe this is a mistake because it throws away this opportunity to have a role to mediate situations of mistrust between development and management. This is especially true with respect to the technical aspect of the project.

The list below briefly describes how trust can be fostered with the other roles in the organization:

  • Developers:

    Listen to the development team. Incorporate their ideas into the design where they may fit, and be sure that they get credit for their ideas and work. When someone shares ideas, then implements them or sees someone else implement them and get the credit, they will tend to share less.

    That's unfortunate, because the variety of experience and ideas that come from a collective group potentially provides more ideas to choose from when searching for a solution.

  • Management:

    A software architect needs the trust of management to succeed for two simple reasons:

    The managers control the purse strings of the business, and they decide where money is invested. If the trust of management is lost, they may be less likely to invest in your product. Developers may be peeled off and moved to another project that is deemed a higher priority. In the worst case, they decide they no longer want to fund you or your position.

    The software architect is the steward of the product; they take all of the responsibility yet do not own it. In many cases, you will simply do the research, and present the facts, possibly providing a few options for management to choose from. However, for the topics that matter the most, persuasion of management to support your initiatives may be crucial. It is much easier to persuade someone when you are in good favor with them. Moreover, you may find yourself in a conflict with the development team, and without the support of management, you may lose that battle.

    1. Funding:
    2. Support:
  • Business Development and Marketing:

    This group if interested parties becomes important to the architect if their software is a product that is owned and sold by the company. Having a good line of communication with the groups that drive the business's growth is extremely important. Information is the most valuable thing in our industry; a lack of information leaves us to speculate. It's better to in line with the initiatives set by the company, if for no other reason than you may spot problems before too many resources have been invested. Change becomes much more difficult at that point.

    One other potential benefit of creating a strong relationship with these groups is they can gain a better grasp of what your product does. This is important because it allows them to consider the existing capabilities of your product when they are looking to convert a business opportunity into a sale. You flow information upstream, they flow information and potentially more sales back downstream.

  • Customers:

    The customer is the reason we write the software in the first place. The best way to earn trust with the customer is to listen to them. Sometimes it may seem like they don't know what they're talking about. However, it could simply be because you two are using different terms to mean the same things.

    Therefore, it is important to clarify what you understand the customer is telling you. A quick way to lose their trust, as well as their confidence in you, is to ignore the advice or requests of the customer. If you can't do something or decide that you are not going to do it, have that discussion with them rather than avoid them.

Let's compare trust to technology, or a software codebase. You need to maintain relationships, otherwise that bond of trust starts to weaken. I am sure there already is a fancy term to describe this like trustfulness debt. If not, there you go. Open and transparent communication will help develop trust. Returning and visiting with your contacts periodically is another way to help maintain that bond. When trust is lost, it is very difficult to earn back.

Utilize the Teams Abilities

In a way, this is the Software Architect showing trust in their development team. People expect the Software Architect to be the smartest person on the team, or the most knowledgeable. That does not have to be the case, and usually it depends on the question or topic that you are referring to. Architects are good at seeing the Big Picture. In most cases I would expect there to be a number of developers with finer skills when referring to a deep domain topic, such as device drivers.

Say the architect is responsible for the development of an operating system kernel. There are many generalizations and design decisions that can be made to create structure for the kernel. Then a bit more thought would go towards a driver model and its implementation to simplify that task. When you reach the implementation for each particular type of driver, there are different nuances between file-system drivers, network drivers, and port I/O drivers. At some point, you will reach the limit of the architect's knowledge and expertise, and you will reach the realm of the domain expert.

Some engineers like to learn every minute detail about a topic, no matter how abstruse; that, is the domain expert. Typically they do not do well in the role of architect because they tend to get caught up in the low-level details when it is not necessary; think, Depth-first Search. Nonetheless this is the perfect candidate for the architect to trust and depend on when knowledge and advice is required on the expert's domain of specialty.

Summary

When the word architect is used, it is usually associated with design, and every programmer already does design (whether it is formal or on-the-fly is another discussion.) I think it would be best to help clarify the role of the position if effort was made to emphasize structure when discussing the software architect, with regards to both team and the software product. This may help disambiguate the purpose and value a software architect provides and distinguish it from the next step up after senior engineer.

There is much more to this role that dictating how the program should be built, which if you read the entire article you now know that isn't even one of the architect's responsibilities.

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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About the Author

Paul M Watt
Engineer
United States United States
I am a software architect and I have been developing software for nearly two decades. Over the years I have learned to value maintainable solutions first. This has allowed me to adapt my projects to meet the challenges that inevitably appear during development. I use the most beneficial short-term achievements to drive the software I develop towards a long-term vision.

C++ is my strongest language. However, I have also used x86 ASM, ARM ASM, C, C#, JAVA, Python, and JavaScript to solve programming problems. I have worked in a variety of industries throughout my career, which include:
• Manufacturing
• Consumer Products
• Virtualization
• Computer Infrastructure Management
• DoD Contracting

My experience spans these hardware types and operating systems:
• Desktop
o Windows (Full-stack: GUI, Application, Service, Kernel Driver)
o Linux (Application, Daemon)
• Mobile Devices
o Windows CE / Windows Phone
o Linux
• Embedded Devices
o VxWorks (RTOS)
o Greenhills Linux
o Embedded Windows XP

I am a Mentor and frequent contributor to CodeProject.com with tutorial articles that teach others about the inner workings of the Windows APIs.

I am the creator of an open source project on GitHub called Alchemy[^], which is an open-source compile-time data serialization library.

I maintain my own repository and blog at CodeOfTheDamned.com/[^], because code maintenance does not have to be a living hell.

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QuestionDesign Pin
data entry31-Aug-16 0:29
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GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Humayun Kabir Mamun17-Mar-15 0:55
memberHumayun Kabir Mamun17-Mar-15 0:55 
QuestionSoftware Architect Pin
geoyar14-Feb-15 11:38
membergeoyar14-Feb-15 11:38 
AnswerRe: Software Architect Pin
Paul M Watt15-Feb-15 7:15
mentorPaul M Watt15-Feb-15 7:15 

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