Above-the-line and below-the-line

Making sense of the complex world of software

Engineering, for much of the twentieth century, was mainly about artifacts and inventions. Now, it’s increasingly about complex systems. As the airplane taxis to the gate, you access the Internet and check email with your PDA, linking the communication and transportation systems. At home, you recharge your plug-in hybrid vehicle, linking transportation to the electricity grid. At work, you develop code, commit it to a repository, run test cases, deploy to production, and monitor the result. [Read More]

Building Learning Communities

Leading software companies have discovered that developing capable technology is not enough to guarantee long-term success. To stay relevant, software leaders need to develop and support the repeatable systems necessary to develop and sustain knowledge and expertise. Many organizations have taken inspiration from Spotify’s culture and adopted the concept of a guild or community of practice to connect engineers throughout the organization and steer them towards common goals. As organizations adopt this model, what is often missing is a clear understanding of the purpose of communities of practice and a repeatable process for developing the communities to their fullest potential. [Read More]

Optimizing Processes Using a Design Structure Matrix

Complex processes may require collaboration and coordination of many components. We can model such processes using a Design Structure Matrix to represent information flow among the components, and then optimize the process to avoid rework and downtime. As a simplified example, consider a project with only two tasks: “A” and “B”, and a directed graph representing this system where a vertex represents a task and an edge represents the flow of information between tasks. [Read More]

Interdependence and Self-Reliance

After graduating from university my (future) wife and I travelled and worked in Kenya as part of the Commonwealth of Learning — an intergovernmental agency dedicated to open learning and distance education. As fortune would have it, my brother had an internship in the neighbouring country of Tanzania during the same time period, and we were able to meet for a few days to enjoy the East African coast in the city of Mombasa. [Read More]

Improving Software Architecture Using a Design Structure Matrix

To meet the challenges of scaling systems in size, scope, and complexity, it is useful to look at new approaches and theories to analyze, design, deploy, and manage these systems. A Design Structure Matrix (DSM) is an approach that supports the management of complexity by focusing attention on the elements of complex systems and how they relate to each other. DSM‐based techniques have proven to be very valuable in understanding, designing, and optimizing product, organization, and process architectures. [Read More]

Riding the Architecture Elevator

Large organizations have a lot of layers. From the C-Suite that is concerned about strategy and vision, to middle management who are executing on projects and programs, down to individual contributors working on project features. These layers provide a number of advantages, all derived from being able to better manage complexity. For example, layers provide a nice separation of concerns: as a software engineer, I don’t have to worry about tax codes and payroll because the finance department can take care of this. [Read More]

Curate Don’t Dictate

Inspiration for software architecture often comes from the world of building architecture. In building architecture, the architect takes in local building codes to understand construction requirements. They analyze various building components like ductwork and furnaces, windows and doors, and figure out where and when to use standard components and when to build custom. They provide cost estimates for each of the components and for the whole, and then build out a blueprint providing upfront design and specification. [Read More]

Principles of Architectural Leadership

Software is core to the operation of our business, and as architects, we are the key conduit between business and technology. Being technical leaders within this intertwined relationship means that we have a responsiblity to make sure that our business decisions and our technology decisions stay aligned. Being in this position demands leadership skills that are equal or better than our technical skills, so that we can effectively align business strategy with technical strategy, communicate that strategy to teams, motivate both teams and individuals, and influence outcomes. [Read More]

Innovation with Constraints

One of the many paradoxes of human creativity is that it seems to benefit from constraints. Although we [perceive] the imagination as requiring total freedom, the reality of the creative process is that it’s often entangled with strict conventions and formal requirements. Pop songs have choruses and refrains; symphonies have four movements; plays have five acts; painters still rely on the tropes of portraiture. Jonah Lehrer Constraints can seem like the last thing you’d want for a creative project, but they’re actually beneficial when it comes to doing good work. [Read More]