Is “Architect” a Job or a Role?

This is one of the questions posed in the SATURN 2011 Keynote called The Intimate Relationship Between Architecture and Code: Architecture Experiences of a Playing Coach by Dave Thomas. The article is a series of observations, presumably made by the author and colleagues, on the view of architects as seen by developers on agile projects and is fairly damning of architects and what they do. I’d urge you to read the complete list but a few highlights are:

  • Part of the problem is us [architects] disparate views from ivory tower, dismissal of new approaches, faith in models not in code.
  • Enterprise architect = an oxymoron? Takes up so much time.
  • Models are useful, but they’re not the architecture. Diagrams usually have no semantics, no language, and therefore tell us almost nothing.
  • Components are a good idea. Frameworks aren’t. They are components that were not finished.
  • The identification of high-value innovation opportunities is a key architect responsibility.
  • Is “architect” a job or a role? It’s not a job, it’s a role. They need to be able to understand the environment, act as playing coaches, and read code.

Addressing each of these comments probably justifies a blog post in its own right however I believe the final comment, and the title of this post, gets to the heart of the problem here. Being an architect is not, or should not, be a job but a role. Whatever type of architect you are (enterprise, application, infrastructure) it is important, actually vital, to have an understanding of technology that is beyond the words and pictures we use to describe that technology. You occasionally need to roll up your sleeves and “get down and dirty” whether that be in speaking to users to understand their business needs, designing web sites, writing code or installing and configuring hardware. In other words you should be adept at other roles that support and reinforce your role as an architect.

Unfortunately, in many organisations, treating ‘architect’ as a role rather than a job title is difficult. Architects are seen as occupying more senior positions which bring higher salaries and therefore cannot justify the time it takes to practice, with technology rather than just talking about it or drawing pretty pictures using fancy modeling tools. As discussed elsewhere there is no easy path to mastering any subject, rather it takes regular and continued practice. If you are passionate about what you do you need to carve out time in your day to practice as well as keep up to date with what is new and what is current. The danger we all face is that we can spend too much time oiling the machine rather than using the finite number of brain cycles we have each day making a difference and making real change that matters.

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