The rise of the Chief Software Architect

May 18, 2015

ArchitectureSoftware is increasingly important to everyone, it’s everywhere. It’s in our phones, runs our cars, our cities, our healthcare, entertainment and utilities. There are few businesses without a software element and many that are critically software dependent. What these organisations are finally beginning to understand is that the business of doing software is difficult, in fact it’s complex. It needs C-suite level direction and coverage.

Being good at software isn’t a matter of hiring the good coders, buying the right workflow management tool, using the right Configuration Management system, hiring the right management consultants or using the correct technology. These things all have a part to play but they’re supporting parts to the most important factor: culture.

Software Development is a team activity and the team is bigger than we used to think it was (a few developers, testers, direct customers, managers, analysts etc.). A good set of development practices at team level isn’t enough to be effective because software development is a business enabling activity and so it touches all parts of an organisation (development teams, hr, procurement, security, business change, legal, financial, business services, operations, support etc.).

As organisations evolve to make the maximum use of technology they are making increasingly complex software products, often through diverse technology stacks, using a variety of in-, near-, and out- sourcing partners. Delivering systems of systems across teams of teams is not simple and so organisations are now looking to embrace the importance of software, technology and ways of working to their businesses at board level.

What is a Chief Software Architect?

Whether a “Chief of Software“, a “Chief Software Officer“, a “Chief Digital Officer” or “Chief Architect” the role tends to include:

  • Leading and encouraging a positive software development culture
    • Where delivery of business value is the primary measure of success and decisions are based on business value
    • Where failing fast is a cause for celebration not a career ending issue
    • Where software is designed for users/customers needs
    • Where continuous/iterative development integration and deployment are the norm
    • Where teams collaborate and co-create with each other and their customers to produce the best products
    • Where thinking all day to write a perfect algorithm is worth more than pushing out hundreds of lines of code quickly
    • Where professionals are trusted to do their jobs properly
    • Where organisational impediments to smooth software development are removed, from board level if necessary (due to Conway’s Law transformational change is often impossible without such top-level leadership)
  • Providing top level architectural direction and governance (sometimes called Enterprise Architecture)  that strikes the balance between directing technical decisions towards alignment but not imposing restrictive unchanging standards on development teams
    • Architecture is understood cohesively at Enterprise, Solution and System levels
    • Architecture exists in the form of directed (but community driven) standards, off-the-shelf mechanisms and principles
    • Architecture exists primarily as executable software although appropriate weight documentation, models, examples and usage guides describe it
    • Architecture provides a context for making technical decisions in normal development, makes technical decisions on commoditized platform/software/operations choices but does not constrain innovation and research (architecture has a different impact in different parts of a hybrid dynamic model)
    • Architecture enables control of whole-lifecycle costs by smoothing the flow of work from innovation and research into mainstream development and support
  • Ensuring that teams can use the tools they want and need to use, not those that had the best sales pitch to a non-technical board (hint: these are normally small, simple and/or open source, not those provided by large vendors) balanced by creating a cohesive community that isn’t unnecessarily fragmented by every team needing to set up different tools environments
    • Tool chains take the pain out of development, testing, build and deployment – automated wherever possible
    • Development environments are appropriate for actually developing, building, testing and deploying
  • Ensuring, and embodying, the principles of agility, devops, and agility-at-scale at the organisational level – promoting the evolution of working practices, operating models and ways of working while avoiding endless management fads
    • Building and championing the needs of the development community, attending to their needs
    • Ensuring that portfolio selection takes into account technical issues, shaping it in line with architecture and in turn using business priorities to shape architectural choices

Why “Architect”?

The Vitruvian Man - Leonardo Da Vinci

The Vitruvian Man – Leonardo Da Vinci

At a business level Architecture exists to guide organisations through the business, information, process and technology changes necessary to execute the organisation’s strategy. Because “architecture” has always been more than just the technology bit, it also focusses on the non-functional aspects necessary to make the technology work terming a “Chief Software Officer” an Architect is an organisation recognising that to be successful at software a holistic approach is required that combines business concerns with technical concerns.

The idea of an “Architect” role with such a broad focus is analogous to that of a structural architect concerned with buildings. Indeed in 25 BCE Vitruvius (a well known Roman writer and architect who inspired Leonardo Da Vinci, hence the Vitruvian Man ) described an architect as:

The ideal architect should be a man of letters, a mathematician, familiar with historical studies, a diligent of philosophy, acquainted with music, not ignorant of medicine, learned in the responses of jurisconsults, familiar with astronomy and astronomical calculations.

Virtuvius is famous for stating that architecture must be solid, useful, beautiful (De architectura). The same three qualities relate to software architecture. Architecture is a fine balance between a subtle science and an exact art – as such it is the magic sauce that turns a technology strategy into business benefits.

If your business is reliant on technology and/or software and you don’t have a Chief Architecture, you should promote/get one before you become technically irrelevant, encumbered by lumbering traditional delivery approaches based on manufacturing and negative development cultures.

It’s time for businesses to recognise the important of software, and architecture, before they’re outmanoeuvred by those who have.


 

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