Architecture Vs. Structural Engineering

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We like to use a metaphor comparing software design to building architecture. Some people accept that this is flawed. Others cling to this metaphor too tightly, seeing developers as little more than tradesmen installing carpet in a new skyscraper.

A Building Architecture project includes a Structural Engineer. Her job is to ensure the building stands up. Her job is to determine what materials are used in the wall interiors. Her job is to make sure the windows will withstand the forces of straight line prairie winds against the 30th floor.

She is active in the design. The architect defines taste, purpose, form, function, and values. The Architect’s role is to define the spaces where she works. This, in my mind, is a very different role in software. I posit that most conflict between Architects and development teams stem from misunderstanding the role of the Structural Engineer.

Lets look at a large system. I have a web application that is used to track employee time spent on projects and turn that in to purchase orders. We have concerns about using this tool on client computers exposing sensitive data. We need to manage project membership. We would also like to use that to build employee and company “résumés” used in explaining our expertise to our clients. I’m not picking this real example because I think our current incarnation of this tool is wrong, but because this tool is an example of a large system that has many responsibilities.

What should I as the Architect spend my time doing? Should I start mandating the use of certain threading patterns? Building the ERD for the highly normalized database? Or start determining the bounded contexts, core contexts, use cases, external constraints, target response times, and security requirements?

I would get my Tech Leads in to a room and discuss how each context needs to talk with the other contexts. I would focus on how the contexts are realized and coordinate with each other. I would let my Tech Leads figure out the internals.

How do I make sure I understand the design tensions between the contexts? I would need to work on several teams, pairing with developers who work deep in the code to find where our abstractions are breaking down. An building architect spends time on site during construction for just this reason.

But I would make sure the teams are still talking, and still hitting those request times. They are my system engineers. While I may or may not know better than them as a developer, my job is to teach them to make the right choices, not make decisions for them.

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