Thursday, December 22, 2011

Is Software Architecture Creative?

With my recent focus on building architecture and its comparisons to software architecture, a reader wrote me and said the he often found the field of software uncreative versus building architecture which he found very creative. I was surprised to hear this from anyone because I find software architecture inherently creative. I find living life creative though. So what do others think?

The Software Engineering Institute surveyed leaders in the field of software and asked them to define the skills of a software architect. This page collects those submissions. Out of the 37 or so entries, only eight listed the word “creative” in the description of skills needed.

Again I was surprised. I expected to find creativity as a key trait everyone looked for in a software architect. So maybe my reader was correct? Why do I find it so creative then?

Like any hard work, sometimes I get in a rut. Peter Cripps writes in his blog about keeping creativity flowing:. He has three points that I use in my everyday work.

First, collect the pieces as they come. Architecture in my experience is never designed all up front. We do the major framework and then we implement, then we change it, then we implement that new change, then we add something new to the framework, and we implement and test that. Make sure you don’t ignore that new information when it is fed back to you as the architect. Don’t gold plate your architecture.

Second, stop talking and do it. This of course is the heart of agile. Architects do get blamed for living in an ivory tower. This is why am I still writing code. Not only do I love to write code, but I can actually implement some of my designs. All that said, I know that I get criticized for thinking big picture when there are fires raging. I feel obligated to do that and I don’t consider it a waste of time. If that was all I ever did that would be a problem, but I believe in a combination of hands on work and pie-in-the-sky thinking.

Third, decide the time is now. This means using the information you have at the moment to set a direction and make a decision. I sometimes manage the risk of doing this but making the area most unknown the most flexible in the architecture. But I have also had to completely change directions in my design. Most managers hate when I do this. They feel it wastes time. Of course if I could always be right the first time, that would be ideal. But that is not realistic. Please, managers, allow your people to make mistakes!

So while building architecture is obviously artistic and creative, software architecture must also be. What happens sometimes with buildings is that they are so creative, the architect misses the function of the building. (Dare I point out some buildings at MIT that are like this? Not in this blog post!). In the field of software architecture, we strive to deliver functionality with a form that has the properties we desire over time – like maintainability, readability, extensibility – and other “ilities” that we compromise with depending on the system we are building. To me this is as creative as painting and it is work I could do for a long time.