The role of an Agile architect

“Architecture is about the important stuff. Whatever that is.”

That’s what Martin Fowler told us way back in 2003. If you’re interested in the field of software architecture, it’s probably a quote you’re already familiar with. It’s often repeated, but it doesn’t really help explain what architecture is – or why it’s important. If we continue reading the same article, Fowler goes on to highlight a quote that goes a little further, from Ralph Johnson:

“Architecture is the decisions that you wish you could get right early in a project, but that you are not necessarily more likely to get them right than any other.”

Software development would be oh-so-easy if there was a reliable way to create a completely fit for purpose and efficient design up-front. Agile emerged partly from a realisation that our understanding of what we need will always change over the course of our development efforts. That could just mean adding more detail to our understanding or changing it substantially – that’s why we actively strive to respond to change in the way we work.

Even if we’re in an unlikely situation where we have a complete understanding of what we want now, there is very little chance we’ll know exactly how to solve all the problems we’re going to face getting there. We could spend lots of time up-front, acknowledging that there are risks with a completely predictive approach – or we could spend very little (or no) time in up-front design, reacting to any problems as they become known. Many Agile projects choose the latter and as a result produce less than elegant solutions – and are rightly criticised for it as a result…

How much forethought is enough?

We can’t accurately predict the future, so it seems a little unwise to rely on our precision in that area. Likewise, an entirely reactive approach is probably not going to be very efficient either – especially if we’re forced to rework large areas of our solution on a regular basis. So, we’re faced with a choice about how much time (and to what level of detail) we should invest in the architecture of our solution up-front. Talking about Agile Modelling, Scott Ambler described his “just barely good enough” approach:

I like to say they are just barely good enough (JBGE). I make the following critical points about a model or document (an artifact) being just barely good enough:

  • It is actually the most effective possible
  • It is situational
  • It does not imply low quality
  • It changes over time
  • It comes sooner than you think

All fairly self-explanatory, but in relation to his last point, he expands his explanation to include a very astute observation:

“Traditionalists seem to assume that significant investment in modeling, and corresponding specification, will continue to add value over time.”

This is a common assumption I’ve encountered many times myself. Funnily enough, in situations where the delivery of a project is delayed (or even derailed) by poor architectural decisions emerging after new information surfaces part-way through the delivery process, the response is often: “Go back, spend more time up-front and this time do it right!

If the previous activity exposed the only show-stopper your design will encounter, there’s a chance you’ll now be equipped with the information required to address the problem. The problem with this attitude is that in complex systems (and many simpler ones) there’s likely to be a whole host of potential show-stoppers – many in competition with each other. So what is the answer?

My advice echoes Scott’s – do just enough. What that looks like is highly situational, it doesn’t mean you can accept low quality and it may have to change over time. The traditionalist assumption was that prolonged investment will continue to add value – it kinda does, but the return is ever diminishing. There’s a sweet-spot, where after a certain point you’re spending more time than the value you’re adding – that’s the time to stop!

The Agile architect

In the same article from Martin Fowler we cited at the start of this one, he goes on to define two types of architect. The first is described as:

The person who makes all the important decisions. The architect does this because a single mind is needed to ensure a system’s conceptual integrity, and perhaps because the architect doesn’t think that the team members are sufficiently skilled to make those decisions. Often, such decisions must be made early on so that everyone else has a plan to follow.

Fowler’s first description is often associated (though sometimes unfairly) with the traditional architect job titles, who sit above lowly developers, dictating their every move from their ivory towers. That doesn’t sound very Agile to me… In contrast, the second type is described as:

This kind of architect must be very aware of what’s going on in the project, looking out for important issues and tackling them before they become a serious problem. When I see an architect like this, the most noticeable part of the work is the intense collaboration. In the morning, the architect programs with a developer, trying to harvest some common locking code. In the afternoon, the architect participates in a requirements session, helping explain the technical consequences of some of their ideas in nontechnical terms – such as development costs.

This time, we have someone actively collaborating with the other members of their team. They have an awareness of the overall project and spend time working on high and low-level problems. They get their hands dirty when required, but are also able to communicate with anyone less technical. This person sounds like someone useful to have around – and could fit in to an Agile environment very well.

If you have someone producing a design in a silo, who does not spend time with the people who are building or requesting that change, then you have an ivory tower architect. In a nutshell, collaboration is the mark of an agile architect.

Pulling it together

  • Start with a simple design, because at the beginning, you won’t have enough of a design to support all the software.
  • Have a more and more robust design as the project goes on, because you can’t make progress with insufficient design.
  • Wind up with a fully robust design, capable of supporting the whole project and its future needs.

Source: http://ronjeffries.com/xprog/blog/context-my-foot/

From the point you embark upon your mission to deliver the Product Owner’s vision in an Agile way, you should be collaboratively refining your understanding about what is required. You then agree on their relative priority and begin thinking about the ways to implement those ideas. Early on, your team should have some idea about what the minimum viable product (MVP) might look like. From there, you need to start articulating how you are going to start building it.

With any complex problem, there is very rarely ever just one “right way” to solve it – and those solutions aren’t going to be perfect. There’s always going to be some form of trade-off, that cannot be avoided. A good architect should have enough experience to highlight where some of these trade-offs may occur (and what the potential impact could be). Armed with that information, what you should be doing is finding a solution that could work, then quickly proving whether or not it is going to be (just barely) good enough. Importantly, that means good enough for what your product needs to do now – not what it may need to do later.

To give you a related example, I once attended a talk given by George Berkowski about his book “How to Build a Billion Dollar App”. He described how a team had spent months of long hours and late nights to get an app finished and ready for its launch. After a huge push they got it finished and it launched – then no one downloaded it! At the time, he reflected that they could have just created a single page website instead, to see if anyone ever actually clicked the download link. If as it turned out, no one did, they could have saved a huge amount of time and money. This example was originally given to illustrate the need to prove a market demand for an idea, rather than any technical design concerns, but it transcends the business lesson.

If you identify that your application component really has to handle 1000 concurrent requests from day one, that will impact the architecture of your application. Just letting your team blindly hack away without any discussion is unlikely to be effective – but don’t be tempted to try to predict every bottleneck and point of contention either.

Instead, formulate a plan to prove your proposed initial design can handle those 1000 requests in an identified test scenario. Then, continue working together with the (embedded or prescriptive) developer, test and other roles – leveraging their expertise to bring that idea to life. If one way doesn’t work, fine – move on to the next solution candidate and continue working until you’ve satisfied your minimum acceptance criteria.

Remember that meeting the business acceptance criteria doesn’t necessarily mean the solution is good enough (as the focus is very often solely at the functional level). Your team may still be faced with some refactoring required to clean the code up to a maintainable state – or you might have some edge-cases or other functionality to implement. The important thing is the team has proven a solution for the current situation.

A huge benefit of this approach is that you’ll probably learn about several pinch-points and possible limitations along the way. Often this is information you would not have predicted in advance, but you are now left in a very good position – where you are better able to explain the consequences of any change introduced later. For example, if the Product Owner subsequently wanted to add more functionality to a key user journey, where the change may affect performance, you will have detailed knowledge of many of the likely bottlenecks.This knowledge is based on empirical evidence (from your work in that area), not a crystal ball. You can help the Product Owner accurately assess whether the value added from any changes are going to be worth the cost to develop going forward. That level of understanding is a great place for any product team to get to.

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