More Thoughts on Architects and Architecture

Speaking of things crossing my Inbox, Shane Paterson sent me this email:

Hi Ted,

How’s things in the USA?

I just wrote the following little blog entry I wanted to share with you, which I thought you may find interesting.


I used to work with a Naval Architect a few years back. On day we were discussing where the name "Naval Architect" came from. He explained that "Naval Architecture" is really "Naval Engineering" or "Ship Engineering". The word Engineering came into use AFTER the industrial revolution, however ship design existed hundreds of years before. At that time, people needed a name for ship designers, so they reasoned that Architects designed buildings, therefore ship designers must be a kind of Architect too - hence the name "Naval Architect".

Clearly IT didn't exist before the industrial revolution, and IT Architects don't design buildings, so the question begs to be asked "How did we end up with the word Architecture being used for a role in IT". It seems to me to be a rather vague and grandiose name for a role which is probably better described by the use of the word "Engineer".

Perhaps instead of the names "Solution Architect" and "Enterprise Architect" we should actually be using the names "IT Solution Engineer", "IT Enterprise Engineer"?

I've heard this idea put forward before, and I have to say, I'm not overly fond of it, because I believe that what we do as architects is fundamentally different from what a civil engineer does when he engages in the architect's role.

When a civil architect--be it Frank Lloyd Wright or the folks who designed the I-35 bridge in Minnesota--sits down to draw up the plans for a given project, they do so under a fairly strict set of laws and codes governing the process. Not only must the civic restrictions about safety and appearance be honored and respected, but also the basic physical laws of the universe--weight loads, stress, wind shear and harmonics (which the engineers of the first infamous Tacoma Narrows bridge discovered, to everlasting infamy). Ignoring these has disastrous consequences, and a discipline of mathematical calculation joins in with legal regulation to ensure that those laws are obeyed. Only then can the architect engage in the artistry that Lloyd Wright made so much a part of his craft.

Software architecture, though, is a different matter. Not only do we mostly enjoy complete freedom from legal regulation (Sarbannes-Oxley compliance being perhaps the most notable exception, and even then it routinely fails to apply at the small- to medium-sized project levels), we can also ignore most of the laws of physics (the speed of digital signal across a cable or through the air being perhaps our most notable barrier at the moment). "Access data in Tokyo from a web server in Beijing and send the rendered results to a browser in San Francisco? Sure, yeah, no problem, so long as there's a TCP/IP connection, I don't see why not...." There's just so much less by way of physical restrictions in software than there is in civil (or any other kind) of engineering, it seems.

And that sort of hits the central point squarely on the head--there's a lot we don't know about building software yet. We keep concocting these tortured metaphors and imperfect analogies to other practices, industries and disciplines in an attempt to figure out how best to build software, and they keep leading us astray in various ways. When's the last time you heard an accountant say, "Well, what I do is kinda like what the clerk in a retail store does--handle money--so therefore I should take ideas on how to do my job better from retail store clerks"? Sure, maybe the basic premise is true at some levels, but clearly the difference is in the details. And analogies and metaphors have this dangerous habit--they cause us to lose sight of those limitations, in the pursuit of keeping the analogy pure. Remember when everybody was getting purist about objects, such that an automobile repair shop's accounting system had to model "Car" as an object having an "Engine" object and four "Tire" objects and so on, not because these were things that needed to be repaired and tracked somehow, but because cars in real life have an engine and four tires and other things? (Stroustrup even touches on this at one point, talking about an avionics system which ran into design difficulties trying to decide if "Cloud" objects were owned by the "Sky" object, or something along those lines.) All analogies break down somewhere.

Now, to go back to architects and architecture. At the risk of offering up yet another of those tortured metaphors, let me proffer my own architect analogy: an architect is not like a construction architect, but more like the conductor of a band or symphony. Yes, the band could play without him, but at the end of the day, the band plays better with one guy coordinating the whole thing. The larger the band, the more necessary a conductor becomes. Sometimes the conductor is the same thing as the composer (and perhaps that's the most accurate analogous way to view this), in which case it's his "vision" of how the music in his head should come out in real life, and his job is to lead the performers into contributing towards that vision. Each performer has their own skills, freedom to interpret, and so on, but within the larger vision of the work.

Is it a perfect analogy? Heavens, no. It falls apart, just as every other analogy does, if you stress it too hard. But it captures the essence of art and rigor that I think seeing it as "architecture" along the lines of civil engineering just can't. At least, not easily.