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Ground Control to Architect Tom . . .


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Astronaut in Space

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Project managers love him, recent software engineering graduates bow to him, and he compels code warriors deep in the development trenches to wonder if a technology time warp may have passed them by. How can it be that no one else has ever proposed software development with the simplicity, innovation, and automation being trumpeted by Architect Tom? His ideas sound so space-aged, so futuristic. But why should that be so surprising? After all, Tom is an architecture astronaut!1 You see, architecture astronauts like Tom naturally think at such high levels of innovation because they spend much of their time in high orbit where low oxygen levels counterbalance the technological shackles imposed by the inconveniences of reality.

Little did I know it at the time, but my daughter inadvertently stumbled upon several foundational tenets of architecture astronautics years ago while watching a television cartoon show called "Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders." One Saturday morning, while Gwenevere was feverishly fighting the forces of evil in the fairy-tale land of Avalon atop her beloved unicorn Sunstar, my daughter asked, "Daddy, are unicorns real?" I quickly debated the tactics to be taken to answer the question and decided that honesty and reality were going to be my guiding beacons. Unfortunately, my well-intended tactics had zero relevance in the ensuing discussion. Unicorns were real because my daughter wanted them to be and because I could offer no proof to suggest otherwise.

This seemingly innocuous exchange with my daughter, known as the "Sunstar Impasse of 1996," raised my awareness of a tactic that is most certainly described on page 1 of the official Architecture Astronaut Handbook. "An architecture astronaut in good standing shall exploit the impossibilities of proving nonexistence." For example, let's say that Architect Tom draws a picture of a spacecraft with an impressive array of dials and switches, describes its behavior with some complex yoo-mel diagrams, and then declares that the device's remaining production effort is merely an annoying detail. How does one prove that this spacecraft cannot be built when Architect Tom says that it can? Even worse, how does one convince nontechnical people that Architect Tom's spacecraft is heading for a fiery demise if there is a desperate reliance on his oxygen-challenged thinking to avoid controversy related to project commitments and promises?

Another foundational tenet most certainly included in the official Architecture Astronaut Handbook can be best illustrated by returning to the land of Avalon where Princess Gwenevere's fellow Jewel Riders, Tamara and Fallon, enter the scene with their unicorns and magical enchanted jewels in tow. On the occasions when my daughter invited friends over to watch the Jewel Riders with her, it was not unusual to overhear debate among them as to which of the Jewel Riders was the prettiest, which had the nicest unicorn, or which enchanted stone was the most desirable. Architecture astronauts similarly debate such fictional truths among themselves without the slightest concern that the foundations of their debates have no correlation with reality.

An example of an inane debate occurring between members of the Fraternal Brotherhood of Astronauts might involve one astronaut asking another, "Is it preferable to ride a unicorn or a magic carpet to work?" While the ensuing discussion would most certainly involve trading off the high costs of unicorn food versus the comfort of 200 knot-per-square-inch magic carpets, not a word would be spoken suggesting unicorns and flying carpets are make-believe. Speaking of similarly inane debate, I wonder which one of the Jewel Riders would be the most attracted to me if I were to travel to Avalon? My wife would undoubtedly suggest it would be the one clutching a white cane atop a seeing-eye unicorn.

Architecture astronauts are simple to recognize because they exhibit a number of signature qualities. One of the most prominent of those qualities is an uncanny ability to confidently speak on topics that sometimes momentarily humble even true subject-matter experts. Of course, a few probing questions are usually sufficient to expose even the most seasoned astronauts as the imposters they really are. Architect Tom and his co-orbiters further demonstrate astronautic allegiance by habitually speaking at extremely high levels of abstraction.a This tactic is very important because it allows astronauts to avoid engaging in tangible discussions that might lead to disclosing they really have no idea of what they are talking about. And finally, architecture astronauts often compromise themselves by voicing their dislike of "old" software technologies and design tactics. Astronauts prefer new technologies such as Web services, which now enable distributed computing, and XML, which has unharnessed the power of self-describing data.

At some point in the journey of a project being led by an architecture astronaut, the wheels on spacecraft begin to wobble and the spacesuit shows signs of transparency. It is usually a lack of tangible progress demonstrating the legitimacy of an astronautic vision that ultimately triggers a fiery descent from space. Beyond the traditional diversionary tactic of asserting that the design and development staffs are too incompetent to implement the vision, architecture astronauts rely heavily on the "spacewalk shuffle" where they move fast in their spaceboots to invent even further out-of-this-world ideas with which to divert and calm concerns with the original vision. The most clever architecture astronauts can string a project along all the way until its doom without ever being exposed as the charlatans they really are.

How is it that these astronauts can be placed in organizational positions with significant influence on the technical trajectory of a project? What qualifications entitle some of these astronauts to even have the title "architect" printed on their business cards or appended to their email signatures? The credential my wife earned in a food-handling course entitling her to sell nachos at our son's track meets represents more qualification for doing her job than many astronauts could produce for doing theirs. My wife, however, does not misrepresent herself as a nacho architect.

There is no evidence to suggest the Architecture Astronaut Continuum will cease to exist anytime soon, astronauts will continue to be hired, exposed, and fired. As a result, software projects will continue to be susceptible to the Continuum's accompanying carnage unless they adopt tactics to defend against it. The time has long passed for many software organizations to protect themselves from the damaging effects of architecture astronautics by requiring some form of credential or training before allowing their employees to call themselves architects or assume the responsibilities of one. The ability to create an illusion of knowledge among people who don't know any better is really a trait of a shrewd salesperson, not a software architect.


The ability to create an illusion of knowledge among people who don't know any better is really a trait of a shrewd salesperson, not a software architect.


Are you an architecture astronaut that is diverting the technical efforts of your program from following a realistic and value-added trajectory? If so, fear not, there is hope. A flourishing segment of the global marketplace is being fueled by astronauts just like you who have recognized a need to get out of high orbit and restore the constraints of reality to their thinking. Flavors such as peppermint, bayberry, cranberry, and wintergreen are just a few that await at an oxygen bar near you!

Can you hear me Architect Tom?

Can you hear me Architect Tom?

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References

1. Don't let architecture astronauts scare you. Joel on Software (Apr. 21, 2001); http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000018.html.

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Author

Alex E. Bell (alex.e.bell@boeing.com) is a software architect with The Boeing Company.

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Footnotes

a. Also noted by Joel Spolsky in 1.

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1435417.1435428


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