Information Systems Architects should write solid code. Part 1, Why?

I believe that, in Information Systems environments, an architect should be first and foremost a very good programmer. The architect should write code on occasions, it would be better if writing code is actually a habit. When this is the case, the Architect is able to bring a positive influence to the organisation. When this is not the case, the Architect would most probably be less efficient and will find himself/herself regularly stuck in unproductive discussions. Unfortunately, a non-negligible amount of inefficiencies stem from the Architect’s lack of awareness of the application platforms and code and the engineering activities surrounding them.

This can be proven ab absurdo, but I will provide a simple case to illustrate the point.

In this and subsequent postings, I plan a multi-part posting, I will be using the term Architect to refer to anyone who has responsibility in capturing user requirements and translating them into instructions for programmers. This broad definition includes business analysts and application designers. Though infrastructure architects and designers play a key role in shaping up the IT environment, I will classify them as programmers in this discussion because they are often at the receiving end of something specified by someone else.

Those who have needs and ask for something to be done with the IS/IT systems are users.
Those who translate user needs into work instructions are architects.
Those who actually execute the tasks of creating or modifying IS/IT systems are programmers.
The expression write solid code designate the act of creating an artefact that can be unambiguously understood as machine code, when used in a modelling context these are formal model artefacts, when used in a programming context these are program source code.

I know there might be a million other definitions out there. I think, at this point, someone could take offence and quit reading. That would be too bad. I am not interested in definitions and titles, I want to make a point and I need these specific working definitions. They work fine in this context, take my word for it.

Let’s give a simple persona to our IS/IT Architect,  Kermit. Kermit is a man in his mid-thirties, he works for a company called Trotters Fresh Dairy Products  Ltd (known as Trotters).

Say that Kermit does not write code, whatever the reason. This means that Kermit is not familiar with coding issues because he doesn’t deal with them regularly (so Kermit actually knows a programming language? good for him, but he is not involved in coding at Trotters and that that’s the point here). Kermit only talks in concepts, not related to code.

Kermit communicates his concepts to the programmers Robert and Marie-Louise using diagrams and explanatory notes. Kermit also communicates with business stakeholders using diagrams and explanatory notes.

As software is written, there will inevitably be mismatches between the application release(s) and user expectations – malfunctions are particular kinds of mismatches, changes in user expectation are also forms of mismatches. Resolving any such issues involves representatives of users, programmers and architects. At the very least, Trotters IS/IT will be facing a number of challenges due to the combined effect of the following factors:

  • Kermit made his architecture decisions based on his extensive knowledge of widely used architecture frameworks and standards, papers from industry analysts and discussions in architecture communities, his own perception of what the business is about and what matters most to Trotters business and organisation
  • Kermit’s architecture was interpreted by the business according to their knowledge, their perception of IT and software (often shaped by external influences and people background), and their evolving needs
  • Kermit’s architecture was interpreted by the programmers according to their knowledge, the platform and programming tools they are using and the resources that were available to do the work.
  • Coding was constrained by a number of factors including technology platform, programming tools, resource availability, Robert and Marie-Louise are not aware of everything that might be possible with the tools in their possession. Some of Kermit’s suggested principles were not feasible due to these constraints, choices had to be made on-the-fly.
  • Changes constantly occur in Trotters’ business environment, with them people adjust their perceptions and their expectations, it is very hard to convey all those changes in a usable and timely manner to all stakeholders. So people make assumptions that they feel comfortable with and won’t necessarily validate such assumptions.
  • Business is always pressed for time, competition is fierce in Trotters’ industry, financial constraints are ever present, decision makers are dealing with compromises all the time

Arguably there is more to say about the factors that influence complexity in the organisation, the above seem sufficient to make the point here. Let’s analyse the impact of Kermit’s lack of awareness of the code:

  • Industry architecture best practices, analyst white papers, none of this make sense until they are cast into the reality of a specific organisation. This cannot be done efficiently without intimate knowledge of the platform and the way the application is being (or supposed to be) coded. With Kermit, Trotters organisation will be learning this reality casting process the hard way
  • Even if perfectly drafted, the architecture can quickly become stale because the business reality would have moved after Kermit issued his blueprints but before the applications could be fully built and released.
  • Kermit couldn’t coach Robert and Marie-Louise efficiently, because he wasn’t involved in the coding. Even if Kermit would work closely with the programmers, since Kermit can’t write solid code, then a significant amount of the programmers’ time would go into educating Kermit on coding issues and practices
  • The numerous micro-decisions made during the software construction contribute to a non-negligible change in the initial promises of the architecture, such changes will not surface until an application release is available to the users.
  • Kermit misses the chance of bringing any lessons learned back into his architecture vision, because the feedback loop is not present or is poorly executed. Conversely, Kermit has little or no way to ensure, thus guarantee, that his vision is actually been executed upon. If the vision wasn’t correct, that fact is not properly reflected everywhere. If the vision was correct but was poorly executed, there was nothing to prevent that from happening
  • Vendor platforms evolve, so any knowledge built on a particular set of vendor solutions is likely to become obsolete and require refreshing before it is put to use after a certain amount of time. This constant knowledge renewal typically doesn’t happen, sometimes because it cannot be afforded, but also partly because people tend to get stuck in their routines and fail to notice that their knowledge is becoming obsolete. There is nothing in place to validate that knowledge at Trotters’ is adequate and aligned between the architecture practice and the programming practice
  • Kermit probably know some technology platforms very well, but there is no telling that he knows the particular platform that is part of the solution at Trotters, or perhaps the platform has evolved since the last time that Kermit did any hands-on work on it.
  • Kermit cannot assess the experience of Robert and Marie-Louise on the platform either. Conversely, Robert and Marie-Louise have no effective way to find out about each other’s strengths and ensure they are complementary. Trotters’ organisation has to trust that things would work out somehow
  • Sometimes people do notice that their knowledge might no longer be sufficient, some could then become defensive and would fight to keep any blind-spots from the open. This is human, it can be fought but it should mostly be managed. Users, architects and programmers at Trotters are facing the same dilemmas, they might not even be aware that this could be motivating some of their actions.

We can go on and on about the factors that could be causing mismatches between user expectation and application releases, but the above is sufficient to derive a pattern and draw some preliminary conclusions.

When there is any significant distance between the architects and the actual solution building and delivery, inefficiency tends to creep in very quickly and organisations don’t get the most of their assets. It does not help when those who specify what needs to be done and outline how it should be done, are removed from the actual construction of the solution. When the architect has no idea what code was (or is being) written, he could be talking about concepts that only exist on his slides and documents but actually never materialised. What would be the point of that? The above is the rationale behind my statement that An IT Architect should write solid code.

In next settlements I will elaborate on how an architect could be writing solid code, increase his effectiveness in the organisation and ensure that his vision of the solution is as close as possible to the actual solution. I will call this Say it in Code.

PS:

I am an IS/IT Architect, I could be subject to the same shortcomings described above. This is one of the lessons that I have learned over time. I’ve always felt this to be an issue in my job, I try to minimise any gaps between the vision and the realisation that was made of it by staying close to the code.

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