Sunday, February 26, 2012

Technical architects - what are they?

I'm often asked to explain what a 'software architect' or 'technical architect' does. Is this just a title for highly-tenured engineers? A vanity title? A distinct role?

I believe software/systems architecture is a distinct role, and an important one, especially in the context of software that requires a more complex stack than simply PHP or RoR or (put your favorite tech here) backed up by a database:

  1. Architects have to be comfortable working with higher-level abstractions - thinking in terms of separation and packaging of concerns, integration/intermediation and other patterns, problem and solution spaces before they zero in on specific point solutions.
  2. Architects, compared with similar level engineers, have to trade some of the depth for breadth. This does not mean being superficial or glossing over important technical details. It means having enough depth - understanding the salient aspects but of more domains. A seasoned engineer is expected to have a more detailed knowledge, but of fewer domains.
  3. Architects have to be comfortable with weaker ownership ties to many code artifacts - they may own an interface definition, but not its implementation, for example. Since most of us come to architecture after being seasoned developers, it's not always an easy transition.

Not every organization has the title 'architect', but most of those of sufficient scale do have people who play that role.