Thursday, July 14, 2011

Gold-plating or the Curse of the Architect

No solution should ever be engineered to be so technically complex or genericised to the nth degree that it becomes virtually impossible to redevelop, extend and maintain. While your years of technical experience have made things in your mind once seemed complex to now be easy,  the same is not true of those in your team who are likely to have much less experience than you. The same applies for the process and method that you must implement, which extends across the gathering and documenting of requirements, designing the software, developing it, building it, testing it, deploying it, maintaining it and so on and making sure it all integrates in a seamless fashion to deliver what is required on time and on budget. If only a select few or no-one at all “gets it”, then you’ll fall behind the moment you start. Communication is the one key attribute that you have to master; being able to communicate what must be done in clear, simple, language that is easily understood by all is a fundamental skill for an architect.

Complexity will bind you

Create too many staging gates, too many cumbersome and lengthy review and QA cycles, fail to clearly specify the deliverables, who owns them, how they align to the methodology and project plan or enforce a tightly coupled and rigid developer environment with no automation of quality and far too room for creative thought and things will fall apart. Nowhere is the need for this more pressing than in offshoring of software development too. The method, the process, the standards, they must be so well-defined and translatable from the architecture and the requirements right down to the lines of code that the concept of the “code factory” can actually be realised. But more on that in another article.

Consistency will save you

You must make sure that the solution is designed and broken down into components that can be easily understood by designers and developers so that they ultimately become reusable, testable and maintainable. Make sure that the way in which every single artefact is produced is done in a consistent fashion. There is no shame in creating more components within a solution if it improves the overall simplicity and consistency in the process of design and development. In fact it may end up making it quicker to produce than alternative methods because a simple and efficient process, once engrained and embedded in the minds of those following it, becomes innate, repeatable, measurable and also predictable. Make aspects of the solution, or the process to produce it, do too many things and it will grow out of control quickly because you will lose track of where and how things are being done. If consistency is inherent in everything you do changing things is simple. A highly modularised design is easy to modify and extend than one which is tightly coupled, cumbersome and inconsistent from one software layer to the next. We’ve all heard of the importance of architectural patterns, no doubt we’ve all read the Erich Gamma and co work, one of the principles that underpin this form thinking is consistency.

A saying I picked up early in my career as a junior developer from a highly skilled, if somewhat socially inept, architect was that I have never forgot: “I don’t care if you make mistakes; all I care about is that if you do make them, you make them consistently. Consistent mistakes we can fix inconsistent ones we cannot”

Minimalism will break you

There is a perception amongst many architects and developers that trying to be as minimalist as possible by putting as much complexity into the artefacts they produce is somehow conducive to creating a highly elegant and functioning application. It isn’t. Unless you are blessed with a team of people as equally smart and intelligent as yourself it will not work because fundamentally all IT projects are produced by humans and humans all think differently. Know your teams capabilities, know the expectations of the client and create processes, standards and a solution that meets these requirements in a simple and consistent fashion and you will be successful. Your worst enemy is always yourself, over-think, over-engineer, over-complicate it for your own ego’s sake and it will fail. You can sometimes get away with it on a small project < $500,000 AUD but you won’t on anything above and beyond $1M AUD

Owning the failures and sharing the success = respect

Back yourself and your judgement. Be confident in your decisions and people will buy-in to what you are selling, be cagey, un-cooperative and aloof and those below you will lose faith in the directions you set. There is no shame in being wrong or not knowing all the answers, just be accountable for your mistakes and learn to accept you are not always right and you will be amased at how well things will turn out. Don’t be afraid to stick your neck and take responsibility for when you fail. Because you will fail. But the most important thing is the way in which you handle and respond to it. Start pointing fingers, shouting and blaming others and you will lose respect. Own the response to fix the problem, commit yourself and always tell the truth, even if it hurts when doing so, and you’ll be respected.

How to sum it up? Why quote a luminary of course

I am both a victim and a perpetrator of this quote from Frederick Brooks, bookmark it and remember it, to keep yourself grounded:
An architect’s first work is apt to be spare and clean. He knows he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he does it carefully and with great restraint.
As he designs the first work, frill after frill and embellishment after embellishment occur to him. These get stored away to be used “next time.” Sooner or later the first system is finished, and the architect, with firm confidence and a demonstrated mastery of that class of systems, is ready to build a second system.
This second is the most dangerous system a man ever designs. When he does his third and later ones, his prior experiences will confirm each other as to the general characteristics of such systems, and their differences will identify those parts of his experience that are particular and not generalizable.
The general tendency is to over-design the second system, using all the ideas and frills that were cautiously sidetracked on the first one. The result, as Ovid says, is a “big pile.”

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