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What is architecture worth?

January 24, 2010


I first ran across a reference to John Morefield’s “Five Cent Architecture” booth in this New York Times piece. The spin there is all about “out of work architect looks for unique ways to reboot his practice.”  The stories of John (and other out-of-work architects) is a stark reminder of the state of the economy.

But the quick pic (like a visual soundbite?) of an architect sitting under a 5¢ banner got me thinking about the value that we add as systems architects, whether at the enterprise or application level. On every project, on every interaction, how are you adding value to the systems you are working on?

Because too much of the mumbo-jumbo @enterprisey arguments aren’t very convincing even when our employers are flush with cash. And in serious downturns, when we’re trying to wring max value out of every dollar spent, they don’t even pass the snicker test.

You can’t really convince business partners (or IT delivery folks) based only on the long-term value of the ideas you are pushing. Because if they don’t make their short-term commitments they won’t be around to bask in the eventual glory of strategic success. Keynes’ famous observation that “in the long run we’re all dead” applies doubly so to those of us whose careers live or die by our ability to meet immediate project commitments.

As I read John’s 5 Cent Architecture website, I found his two simple rules resonate strongly:

1. Good design should be available to everybody, period
2. No project is too small for BIG ideas

All too often we IT architects want to think about huge, grand, sweeping reinventions of entire portfolios. We have a much harder time thinking about how to make things better right where we find ourselves, in the real live application landscape. Those greenfield re-imaginings happen very rarely, and 90% of an application’s lifetime is spent in maintenance and sustain. How do we keep improving the design even after implementation?

There’s a great Kent Beck quote that I sort of remember going something like “I don’t care whether your system design is good or bad. I care whether, each and every day, it is getting a little better or a little worse. If it is getting a little bit better every day, I can live with a bad design for a while.” (apologies if I’m misquoting or misattributing that one!)

We have to help project teams choose those day-by-day, little-bit-better design decisions. And we have to have the sleeves-rolled-up, man-in-the-trenches, real-world street cred to be included in those discussions.

That’s how we deliver our 5¢ of value every day.

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