There have been many questions with good answers about the role of a Software Architect (SA) on StackOverflow and Programmers SE. I am trying to ask a slightly more focused question than those. The very definition of a SA is broad so for the sake of this question let's define a SA as follows:
A Software Architect guides the overall design of a project, gets involved with coding efforts, conducts code reviews, and selects the technologies to be used.
In other words, I am not talking about managerial rest and vest at the crest (further rhyming words elided) types of SAs. If I were to pursue any type of SA position I don't want to be away from coding. I might sacrifice some time to interface with clients and Business Analysts etc., but I am still technically involved and I'm not just aware of what's going on through meetings.
With these points in mind, what should a SA bring to the table? Should they come in with a mentality of "laying down the law" (so to speak) and enforcing the usage of certain tools to fit "their way," i.e., coding guidelines, source control, patterns, UML documentation, etc.? Or should they specify initial direction and strategy then be laid back and jump in as needed to correct the ship's direction?
Depending on the organization this might not work. An SA who relies on TFS to enforce everything may struggle to implement their plan at an employer that only uses StarTeam. Similarly, an SA needs to be flexible depending on the stage of the project. If it's a fresh project they have more choices, whereas they might have less for existing projects.
Here are some SA stories I have experienced as a way of sharing some background in hopes that answers to my questions might also shed some light on these issues:
I've worked with an SA who code reviewed literally every single line of code of the team. The SA would do this for not just our project but other projects in the organization (imagine the time spent on this). At first it was useful to enforce certain standards, but later it became crippling. FxCop was how the SA would find issues. Don't get me wrong, it was a good way to teach junior developers and force them to think of the consequences of their chosen approach, but for senior developers it was seen as somewhat draconian.
One particular SA was against the use of a certain library, claiming it was slow. This forced us to write tons of code to achieve things differently while the other library would've saved us a lot of time. Fast forward to the last month of the project and the clients were complaining about performance. The only solution was to change certain functionality to use the originally ignored approach despite early warnings from the devs. By that point a lot of code was thrown out and not reusable, leading to overtime and stress. Sadly the estimates used for the project were based on the old approach which my project was forbidden from using so it wasn't an appropriate indicator for estimation. I would hear the PM say "we've done this before," when in reality they had not since we were using a new library and the devs working on it were not the same devs used on the old project.
The SA who would enforce the usage of DTOs, DOs, BOs, Service layers and so on for all projects. New devs had to learn this architecture and the SA adamantly enforced usage guidelines. Exceptions to usage guidelines were made when it was absolutely difficult to follow the guidelines. The SA was grounded in their approach. Classes for DTOs and all CRUD operations were generated via CodeSmith and database schemas were another similar ball of wax. However, having used this setup everywhere, the SA was not open to new technologies such as LINQ to SQL or Entity Framework.
I am not using this post as a platform for venting. There were positive and negative aspects to my experiences with the SA stories mentioned above. My questions boil down to:
- What should an SA bring to the table?
- How can they strike a balance in their decision making?
- Should one approach an SA job (as defined earlier) with the mentality that they must enforce certain ground rules?
- Anything else to consider?
Thanks! I'm sure these job tasks are easily extended to people who are senior devs or technical leads, so feel free to answer at that capacity as well.