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Those Who Can, Code; Those Who Can't, Architect

Architects seem invincible to failure and rise within the ranks of their organizations

At the moment there seems to be an extremely unhealthy obsession in software with the concept of architecture. A colleague of mine, a recent graduate, told me he wished to become a software architect. He was drawn to the glamour of being able to come up with grandiose ideas - sweeping generalized designs, creating presentations to audiences of acronym addicts, writing esoteric academic papers, speaking at conferences attended by headless engineers on company expense accounts hungrily seeking out this year's grail, and creating e-mails with huge cc lists from people whose signature footer is more interesting than the content. I tried to re-orient him into actually doing some coding, to join a team that has a good product and keen users both of whom are pushing requirements forward, to no avail. Somehow the lure of being an architecture astronaut was too strong and I lost him to the dark side.

He'll be in good company though. I was recently called to a customer who expressed interest in a software tool I'm working on. I came armed with the latest build of the product, looking forward to the opportunity to test some ideas and concepts in front of potential users. Instead I found myself in front of the customer who had also invited a competitor in order to create a conference room product shoot out. While I had my PC with running code to show, my opponent had brought along a briefcase full of PowerPoint presentations. Their slides were impressive: good use of color, animation, and a generous splattering of buzzwords and acronyms. Despite the fact I had working code to showcase, the discussion quickly degenerated into a discussion about the fact that mine was a so-called "fat" client, in fact a pretty lean Eclipse RCP-based product, while the opposition had a "thin" client.

The truth was the opposition didn't have a thin Web-based offering; their current product was built six years ago as a desktop application that could be downloaded as an 87M applet. However, they were in the process of rewriting it all to run in a lightweight Java EE container as portlets. In other words, they had nothing. They were peddling vaporwear. Worse than that, despite the fact their company had a perfectly good product offering that I was prepared to go head-to-head with, they seemed to have given up on making it more usable and instead opted for the deep thought option: a total rewrite just to suit the whims of today's architectural fashion.

I kept wanting to take the customer's IT manager and shake him back to reality; however, he somehow got drawn into their trap and was asking me architectural questions rather than focusing on whether the product I had brought to show and tell was going to make his users more productive.

Remember the kid in the playground who knew the name of a band you didn't, or who had a new album? They were cool; they had knowledge we didn't; and whether or not it was any better didn't matter, it was new and shiny and we had to have it too. If we did, then we would also be in possession of knowledge that others didn't own, and we in turn could be the cool kid to someone else.

This kind of atavistic worshipping of the obscure and unknown piece of knowledge is the personality disorder that plagues the software industry and is somehow encouraged and admired by architects who are never satisfied with what they have available to them to build software. They're not innovators or research pioneers pushing knowledge forward though - such people are hugely important as they invent the future and redefine technology boundaries. Instead these silver-bullet junkies just latch onto ideas and fads for the sake of it, because if nothing else it makes them appear ahead of the curve and in possession of secret facts and information. As soon as a project gets into trouble, they can launch these facts at programmers and proclaim, "Aha, it's because you're not using BOJOX and NADA 2.0 combined with YML that you have a bug" in front of the nervous manager who wants nothing more than to buy more time by telling his reporting chain that he needs a year to do a total rewrite. During this time, because nothing ships, nothing can go wrong and, hopefully, the stock price will have grown to the point the manager can cash in his options in time to go be a coward somewhere else.

Meanwhile, the architects seem invincible to failure and rise within the ranks of their organizations, ordering fresh business cards each year with the words "architect," "senior" or, for the power blowhards, "distinguished" in the title. They are drawn to the tar pit of attending and creating presentations, or joining conference calls with fellow architects who showboat their knowledge of obscure standards specifications or bleeding-edge research projects. They'll have copies of Christopher Alexander books in their office and spend hours googling for obtuse and arcane quotations to lace their presentations with and gain kudos from fellow fools.

When confronted by such people, recant the following mantra:

Code ships,
code runs,
code helps users,
get their job done.

Remind any architects in your path that presentation charts, e-mails, project plans, line-items spreadsheets and so forth, are all there to help the code ship on time and to spec. The goal of everyone on a project should be to spend as little time as possible on tasks that distract from the job of creating quality, tested, and shippable code. Please architects, please understand this, respect this, and quietly stay out of the way of those good folk who prefer to spend their day working with an IDE writing code rather than composing e-mails.

More Stories By Joe Winchester

Joe Winchester, Editor-in-Chief of Java Developer's Journal, was formerly JDJ's longtime Desktop Technologies Editor and is a software developer working on development tools for IBM in Hursley, UK.

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