Software Architecture: It’s a Lot of Talk

Communication takes up a big chunk of a software architect’s day.

By Bob Rhubart

May/June 2011

It’s fascinating. A surprising amount of the conversation about software architecture on various social networks, including LinkedIn and Wikipedia, is devoted to exploring what software architecture is, as opposed to talking about how to do it. How can the role of software architect be among the most promising professions if there is so little understanding of what the job entails?

Of course, the lack of understanding about the profession may come as a surprise to people already in that role who have earned their architect’s stripes. I turned to just such people in an effort to get a general sense of how software architects actually spend their time.

As it happens (this may set off your irony detector), most of that time is spent talking—and listening—at least among the architects I contacted. But if you think that means software architecture is a lot of coffee-infused hot air, think again.

“The majority of my time as an architect is taken up with communication,” say Jeff Davies, a senior principal product manager at Oracle and a veteran of more than a decade in software architecture. “I meet with all stakeholders and explain clearly what the architecture achieves, how it achieves it, and what the stakeholders’ responsibilities are in realizing that architecture. During these meetings I also gather information that helps the architecture group to make the inevitable real-world trade-offs in time and capability to bring each project to fruition.”

Veteran architect and Oracle ACE Director Ron Batra, director of cloud computing product development at AT&T, also says that much of his time is spent communicating.

“I find that communicating an architectural vision or roadmap to the stakeholders and implementation teams takes the most time,” says Batra, who has spent most of his 15 years in IT as an architect. “Everyone’s perception of the picture is different, and it seems to take continuous repetition to ensure the details are absorbed. Sometimes it feels there is more time spent talking and presenting than on the teams actually doing the work.”

That’s right, presentations. For software architects, slide decks can be weapons of mass instruction.

Pat Shepherd, an enterprise architect at Oracle, emphasizes the importance of a strong presentation. “It’s all about gathering information and perspectives—everything from business imperatives with CIOs and lines of business to discussions with architects about what is and is not working. Along those lines, I always spend time creating presentations, at both strategic and tactical levels, that provide insight into key findings and recommendations for the path forward.”

Staying on the right path can require a dual focus. That’s because software architecture is more than a vision thing. It’s as much about dealing with where you are today as it is about where you’re headed tomorrow.

“A large part of my day involves reacting to changes and issues,” says Brian Jimerson, a technical architect for Avantia who has spent eight years in the software architecture trenches. “These can be anything from staffing and resources to evolving customer expectations to software bugs or even power outages. These changes and issues can all affect solution delivery and are usually unpredictable. But they still need to be addressed in a consistent manner that keeps the delivery team on course and doesn’t impact the overall solution.”

Of course, all that multitasking can easily deteriorate into a substantial time drain. Keeping all the balls in the air is a matter of skill, balance, and attitude.

“Since software architecture spans so many facets of IT, such as infrastructure, process, people, and development, I find myself switching focus quite a bit,” says Jimerson. “The fact that I get to be involved in so many things is a great part of my job. It gives me insight, expertise, and leadership in the full IT lifecycle. The downside is that it takes time to switch my focus between these different aspects. But this is definitely an acceptable price to pay to be able to do what I do.”

So is software architecture a lot of talk? Yes, indeed. But it’s talk with a mission, and that’s time well spent.

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