Should a Software Architect Code? is the Wrong Question

It’s a long-running argument in software architecture and I’ve seen some quite emotional comments on it. But it’s the wrong argument. The right question is surely one about ratios:

“What ratio of non-coding architects to coders will work best for us?”

A ballpark answer to this question would follow logically from calculating how many full-time-developers worth of work results in an amount of non-coding-but-still-requires-deep-or-broad-technical-understanding-and-vision work that adds up to one full time job.

I suggest, based mostly on e-commerce & similar SMEs, something like:
(1) 25 developers’ worth of coding results in 1 full-time non-coding-architect’s worth of work.
(2) Every team needs at least one coding-architect-or-architecturally-competent-developer per 5 developers

Which gets me to a ratio of



non-coding-architect : coding-architect-or-lead-dev : developer

Architecture features plenty of non-coding work. Dealing with people, plans, business change, technical design, design decisions, frameworks, principles, patterns, catalogues, quality attributes… There’s more than enough of it if you have 25 coders’ worth of development going on.

So in a workplace with 100 developers, you may want a chief architect, 3 or 4 non-coding architects and 20 coding-architects-or-architecturally-competent-developers. But if you are chief architect or even CTO of a company with 15 developers, you probably still code.

There’s no right answer to the question, how much coding does a coding-architects-or-architecturally-competent-developers do. It can vary from nearly-nothing to 95% as projects progress. Perhaps 50% is a good average?


There having been not one but two still-live threads on this on LinkedIn software groups since 2012:
LinkedIn – 97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know – Should architects continue coding … ?
LinkedIn – IASA – Should software architects code?
Anthony Langsworth’s 2012 post

Just Enough Design Upfront? How to draw the line between enough and too much

Earlier this year the term Hayim Makabee proposed the term ‘Adaptable Design Up Front’ as a way of pointing the way forwards between the Scylla of BDUF and the Charybdis of degenerating into a Ball of Mud.

Others have used the term ‘Just Enough Design Up Front.’ But what counts as just enough?

That’s the wrong question. Because ‘just enough’ is an insight that misdirects you. Design is not a scalar quantity like length. There is no amount of up-front design that is the right amount. The question is, what are the useful bits of design to do up front?

And this is what ‘Adaptable Design Up Front’ addresses. What you must do up-front is support the change and development to come — usually growth or change in functionality — whilst nailing down the things that ought to be fixed: the invariants which give stability so that developers don’t have to re-learn the system from scratch each day they come into work.

So the basic idea is this: you want just the up-front design that helps you to draw lines between things that will change frequently and things that remain stable over time.

So how to do it?

For the 3 minute kick-start, Hayim has an excellent set of slides to get you going. His ‘architecture vs interior design’ analogy and the idea of applying the open/closed principle at the architecture level hit that ‘brilliantly simple’ spot that make it all seem obvious in hindsight.

ADUF – Adaptable Design Up Front –Hayim Makabee

For more detail on designing for what changes vs. what stays stable, I seriously recommend Jim Coplien & Gertrud Bjørnvig’s under-rated book Lean Architecture: for Agile Software Development which contains decades of hard thought and wisdom. They know the pitfalls on the way first-hand and they can help you navigate them. More important, they show how to prioritise the human factors in your technical architecture. Which, as every architect knows, is what really matters.

Doing Architecture with Agile Teams

Alan Gawthorpe & I a talk last month on doing architecture with agile teams:

We did the session agile-style: We had cards for our topics, and the ‘customers’ in the audience prioritised. I think it worked okay, it would probably go smoother doing it a second time. Some of the significant books & articles that went into the slides were:

Agile Methodologies for the Enterprise

* Scott Ambler & Mark Lines – Disciplined Agile Delivery
* Scott’s whitepaper on [email protected]

What does a technical architecture for agile look like?

* Coplien & Bjørnvig, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development
* Poppendieck & Poppendieck, Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit

The further reading list

* George Fairbanks, Just Enough Software Architecture
* The UK government’s national audit office report on Agile Governance