I thought that the mental comparison between construction and systems was something that everyone had in their minds when looking at the maturity of architecture (which has been recently the scope of a recent engagement for a client).
The other day I was talking to a fellow architect and it surprised me that he had never made that metal comparison, so I guess a couple of paragraphs on the topic could be interesting.
 
So here’s the key thought: we IT Solution Architects are professional equivalents to our counterparts in the construction world, the Architects… what a revelation! J
It needs to be clarified that what we ordinarily understand as a “real world” architect, the one that architects buildings, bridges, airports, etc. would be the equivalent of the Solution Architect in the systems world.
 
In IT we have another half dozen other architect roles (Security, Application, Integration, Infrastructure, Data, Business); those have also their equivalent in the construction world, but in that business they’re mostly known as Engineers (I guess the fact that constructions relates to tangible physical elements makes it more of an engineering domain). But effectively it is the same approach: as a Solution Architect is responsible for delivering a balanced system design that addresses the business requirements across the technology and operational disciplines and drags in domain architects as needed, the construction architect does the exact same thing: he brings in the Security Engineers, the Electrical Engineer, etc. and each of those professionals provide their input into the overall blueprint for the building in question.
 
Hemienu: Vizier, Master of Works, and architect of the Great PyramidIt is important to highlight that the construction architecture discipline has been around for a very long time now, without being precise at least 5,000 years. And don’t try to tell me that while construction is indeed an old activity, architecture is not. Not true; it may have not been the mature discipline it is right now, but it’s been around for quite a while (think of the Chinese Wall, the Pyramids, the Coliseum, all those were definitely not architecture-less feats).
 
Obviously construction architecture has matured to incredible levels nowadays; just look for example how successful the construction work for the Olympics in London has been. The level of sophistication of the design patterns; the clear boundaries between the disciplines; the crystal clear definition of the design deliverables; the standardization of tools and techniques; the precision and control of delivery; the absolute repeatability and predictability of it all…
How I’d wish my work in the system architecture space would run under such advanced and controlled frameworks… How I’d wish that whenever I start a new project I wouldn’t have this hopeless feeling that I’m entering into unchartered territory again and again and again…
 
So what else is new? What is it so exciting about drawing this comparison? What’s the bottom-line?
Well, the bottom line is that I draw consolation in that IT Solution Architecture is in its absolute infancy, just short of 70 years against those 5 millennia!
So whenever I get frustrated by my project issues, by my inability to prevent the same issues to creep over and over again in my designs, by how frustrated my project team, my stakeholders and ultimately my client get through the whole process, I always bring this image to my mind.
The image is that I’m not the equivalent to those smooth and trendy architecture boutiques effortlessly designing incredible stadia with an amazing level of complexity; the image is that I’m more like that architect the pharaoh commissioned to build the pyramid for his mortal body so long ago.
I can very easily imagine and get sympathetic with the level of absolute difficulty that challenge surely was for that anonymous architect, and sadly or not, that image brings peace and quiet to my soul… J
 
There you go, 5,000 years of experience for my discipline to catch on but also a certainty that at some point in time we will reach that dreamed-of maturity*… though not all of it may come true in my life-time… shame!
 
As those architects of old were constantly told… “the damn thing it’s just a pile of blocks, it surely can’t be that difficult to put together?”
J
 
* maturity that will enable us to apply those exciting building architectural concepts. Like the design principle of “pace layering” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/shearing_layers), that allows the architect to define the different components of the building in a way by which faster changing layers, like the floor plans or seat distribution, are able to slip and evolved unobstructed by the slower changing layers, such as the building foundations… right now in IT architecture these concepts are just mostly aspirational, but their time is coming. In our current maturity state all layers in a solution change every day, if not every hour, during and after delivery, and little consideration is given to create durable structures… it’s like we’re constantly tearing down whole buildings and replacing them with new ones. Which is obviously one of the strengths of IT in itself, the pace and depth of change that systems support, but we definitely need to learn to architect in ways that enable us to evolve our systems by renewing “facades” and “floor plans”, while keeping long lasting components underneath for longer periods, foundations that are able and ready to support the frequent change on top of them.
 
PS: I haven’t touched upon Enterprise Architecture in the article, my view is that EA compares to the city planning activities that our beloved councils across the country try to deliver for our cities… I guess in one specific space it seems IT has already caught up and is probably doing a better job than our real world counterparts!
 
PS2: when drawing my comparison to pyramid architects, I humbly think of the lesser pieces, the ones that haven’t stood the test of time, the ones built for the pharaohs no one remembers… I haven’t really architected a system that will still be around and that technology tourists will explore, analyze and admire 3,000 years from today… but watch this space!