When can you call yourself an architect?

A few of us were sat in the pub the other night and started discussing the difference between a lead developer and an architect. Specifically, we were trying to get to the bottom of when it feels right to call yourself an architect.

My first take on this was experience and confidence. I think the key thing that differentiates an architect from a lead developer is experience. That is, experience across many systems and many different types of solutions. Where confidence comes into play is that you need to feel confident in your experience to feel comfortable to call yourself an architect. What do you think? Let's try to continue this online.

About the author

Simon is an independent consultant specializing in software architecture, and the author of Software Architecture for Developers (a developer-friendly guide to software architecture, technical leadership and the balance with agility). He’s also the creator of the C4 software architecture model and the founder of Structurizr, which is a collection of open source and commercial tooling to help software teams visualise, document and explore their software architecture.

You can find Simon on Twitter at @simonbrown ... see simonbrown.je for information about his speaking schedule, videos from past conferences and software architecture training.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

First of all, wanted to say how much I enjoy your blog.

How about..when the buck stops with you?!

If you have the ultimate responsibility and accountability for technical decisions, then that has got to be a pretty good indicator.

It's a question of leadership, of sticking your neck out and being the person people turn to when pointy questions are asked such as:

  • why is the peformance so bad?
  • will we be OK if our business trebles? How confident are you of that?
  • why does it take so long to add such a simple function?

These are the sorts of things that a lead developer would shy away from, or respond to with unintelligible or blame-shifting answers. Of course, a bad architect will be guilty of that as well.

The above doesn't always apply when you have architects parachuted in during the project inception and moving on to the next green field before the impact of their decisons are fully understood.

I honestly believe that an important part of being a architect is about hanging around long enough to understand the repercussions of your choices and learning from them. I don't care if you've had 20 3 month engagements across 15 different industries.

I think this is one reason why we suffer from lingering suspicion and cynicism around the word 'architect' and are still, in the year 2006, having conversations along the lines of 'so, what's an architect, *really*?'



Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

Mike raises some excellent points so perhaps I'll continue the theme of when you can't call yourself an architect...

Since my post about first experiences of being an architect, as opposed to a lead developer, I've tended to think of the difference in terms of code (the clue's in the job titles!). Therefore I'd probably say you can't call yourself an architect until you've done a project without writing a line of code*! I found it fascinating to see how my thinking changed when I couldn't defer the research or design to the construction phase of the project. If you can't code your way out of trouble anymore you try to spot it in advance.

There's also a duty to the technology as well as the team. Perhaps you can't be an architect until you've selected a technology you know nothing about and lumbered somebody else with developing using it (but stayed on the project)! This means doing your research and supporting the development team despite being no more familiar with it than they are.

I guess this all boils down to more or less the same points that Simon mentions... experience and confidence. Experience lets you trust your instincts when in unfamiliar territory. If you're to make a detour through an unfamiliar technology then confidence is also required.

Perhaps I'd use a stronger word - something like "audacity". As Mike says, when the buck stops with you and the best technology choice isn't your forte it takes a degree of audacity to go ahead anyway. This isn't synonymous with being cavalier - your experience and hard work will get the job done in the best way, not necessarily the easiest way.

* I'm not advocating the "Architects Don't Code" anti-pattern, merely that there's valuable insight to be gained from having this safety net removed and drawing a slightly wider line between being a lead developer and an architect.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

Technically speaking, the term Architect is legally protected by a law typically called a 'Title Act.' "Architect" is legally reserved for those who build public buildings. They protect 'the health, safety, and welfare of the public.' Hence the impetus for states to require licenses to practice architecture, and therefore referring to yourself as an architect implies you hav e one of these licenses, just as referring to yourself as a doctor implies you are a licensed M.D. Therefore calling oneself an architect is illegal, even for those young architects who are not yet licensed, or those who only design houses. Hence the terms 'intern' 'build designer' and 'residential designer' are all used by young architects to avoid violating the title act. Its similar to impersonating a doctor if your not. Just a bit of 'whats in a name' trivia.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

I've heard this before and, while I believe it to be true, why hasn't anybody pushed back on the software industry to stop us using the term?

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

I guess one reason that they don't push back on the software industry is that the Architect's Act is (presumably) in place to prevent unlicensed design and construction of buildings. The use of the term isn't particularly ambiguous in the software industry (although the header image for this site might contradict that!).

Indeed, the Architects Registration Board are aware of the issue and seem to take a sensible approach to regulation.

In particular, the Board is aware of widespread use within the computer and IT industry of the word “architect” being incorporated into certain job descriptions, eg. “Systems Architect” or “Software Architect”. While such use may be a technical breach of the Act, the reason for and intention of continued regulation of title is principally to ensure that consumers of architects’ services are guaranteed a certain standard and quality of work.

It was never the intention of the Act to regulate the title for its own sake. The Board therefore takes a pragmatic view, and accepts that the use of the word “architect” causes no concern when used in a context which is clearly not related to the design and construction of buildings.

Equivalent laws outside the UK sometimes qualify it by saying that the use of the term is only restricted within the construction industry.

Incidentally, the UK is less restrictive with the term "Doctor", its use extending to academia.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

Wrong field. They are talking about software.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

"Technically speaking, the term Architect is legally protected by a law typically called a 'Title Act.' "Architect" is legally reserved for those who build public buildings. They protect 'the health, safety, and welfare of the public.' Hence the impetus for states to require licenses to practice architecture, and therefore referring to yourself as an architect implies you hav e one of these licenses, just as referring to yourself as a doctor implies you are a licensed M.D. Therefore calling oneself an architect is illegal, even for those young architects who are not yet licensed, or those who only design houses. Hence the terms 'intern' 'build designer' and 'residential designer' are all used by young architects to avoid violating the title act. Its similar to impersonating a doctor if your not. Just a bit of 'whats in a name' trivia." The title law can not by Constitution be enforceable that broadly. In fact, it is questionable in regards to the U.S. Constitution. 1st and 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The boards can not enforce title laws in such overarching pattern. Legally, they had to reign in their Constitutional breach by enacting such laws in the first place. Therefore to preserve and save their rear ends from going before U.S. Constitutional review and be scrutinized to nth degree, they decide to mitigate their problems by enforcing title uses as they pertain to Architecture, Engineering, Construction and closely related allied industries. If it pertains to design, alterations, deconstruction, additions or construction of buildings and structures then no person may use the title "Architect". FYI: "Interns" or more specifically "IDP Interns" refers to persons in NCARB's IDP program. It's "Building Designer" not "Build Designer" This refers to a person who has not pursued or completed architectural licensing whose business is in designing of exempted buildings. Usually, this title is used by designers where their state exempts some types of buildings with certain size rules that are not Residential such as Oregon, Oklahoma and others. This designer does more than just Residential. "Residential designer" aka "Home Designer" designs houses. Single Family Residences. In addition, age does not necessarily apply here. Some people simply never chosen to pursue licensing because they didn't want to design high rises, stadiums and buildings often of size and scale or type that is only designed by licensed architects when the state enacted such laws. Software architects and similar titles are not subject to the title law. Although the title laws may seem overarching as they are written, there has been a series of Attorney General interpretation that basically told the licensing boards they need to reign in their overarching zeal. There is a Constitutional grounds they be crossing. As long as the title use is clear and not pertaining to architecture in any way that would reasonably cause confusion by a person with reasonable adult reading comprehension. Someone who is totally screwed up so badly, they're a lost cause beyond hope, we can't do much about them. They are confused all the time. Nothing can be said to them. They would legally be incapacitated to make decisions for themselves.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

Just an aside - I can see Kevin's response to my post, but I can't see my own post? The page itself says there's only 1 comment..

Excellent point about not doing the coding any more. I think this is healthy, despite popular opinion otherwise. I believe that one of the most important 'customers' that a software architect has are the developers - their requirements must be addressed just like any other. This is where the stereotypical 'ivory tower' architectures hit problems, and why a solid background in development is so important.

This doesn't mean you have to be in the thick of it coding new features and bug fixes yourself. You can get just as much, if not more, feedback by watching someone else. You don't do usability testing by using something yourself - why should a software architecture be any different?

Ultimately, you have to learn to let go and this can be a deceptively hard thing to do; especially if you've spiked the initial implementation, the detail-obsessive side of any good developer can kick in!

That attention to detail is a valuable trait, as it keeps you honest, but staying focused at that level is unhealthy, and it'll make other people think you don't trust them.

Yes, there's a mentoring aspect, but that's no different to a lead deveoper, so it's not relevant to a discussion of 'distinguishing features'.

Phrases like 'audacity', 'confidence', 'go ahead anyway' etc - I think these are all different ways of describing leadership. You certainly need experience, depth and breadth of knowledge, etc to provide effective leadership - but plenty of developers out there have that depth of experience; that does not automatically make them good architects.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

>> Just an aside - I can see Kevin's response to my post, but I can't see my own post? The page itself says there's only 1 comment..

Sorry, my fault - I upgraded the site and didn't enable the e-mail notification, so didn't know there were comments waiting to be approved.

What I would like to know. . .

Is. . . when can an architect call herself a developer??????

Im writing a paper, on the architects role, and im going down that risky road, saying that i feel architecture is basically now part of a new kind of production line. . .

Pragmatic and Peter Keating. An architect for the people and developers. It an architecture for the society, and a FICKLE society at that.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

Here is what i think architecture should be able to do:

1> Develop Solution by selecting the right technology, keeping in mind the business goals

2> Layout the roadmap to deliver the solution to the customer

3> Understand non-functional requirement and accordingly makes suitable trade-off while designing on how different component meets the functional requirement

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

Regarding the '...not writing a single line of code...' argument; I would tend to disagree with this to an extent.

I reckon that part of an architects job is developing rapid 'proof of concept' apps/solutions to aid the 'buy-in'  from developers and stakeholders.

Does anybody else have any strong views on this?

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

I don't think I presented my point very well at all in my comment above...

You're right that proof of concept and spike architectures are an important part of the architect's role and that the ability to write production-quality code is crucial. I was simply trying (and failing) to capture how I noticed a strong difference between being a lead developer and being an architect - and, for me, that was through being placed on a project where contributing to the source repository was not possible. Definitely wouldn't recommend it but would recommend thinking about how you would solve your problems if you couldn't just code your way out of them.

So I strongly agree with you!

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

Hi, I am am also a strong believer in architects who can code. You won't get credibility from the development team (and often the develpoment manager, who can be the 'gatekeeper') without that. 

I also work in an environment where it's hard for me to directly make changes to trunk - there's a rigorous process to be followed, which I don't have the bandwidth to pursue for each of the things I want to happen. Initially this was very frustrating, but it has turned out to be beneficial! It has forced me to step back from the IDE, think harder about 'socialising' what I want to achieve, explaining the design, reviewing the code changes and generally getting more people involved with architectural issues and thinking.

By being obliged to push this out to others, it forces me to be a better communicator, think more carefully about the impact of changes on delivery schedules, customer constraints and all the other messy things that don't exist in an ivory tower. The developers know what's going on because they help make it happen, which makes them much more likely to stick with it and evangelise it amongst the team.


Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

You should call yourself an architect when you are licensed by a government agency to design buildings and spaces in order to protect and benefit the health, safety, and welfare of people who use them. Just like you wouldn't call yourself an "M.D."  or a "lawyer" or a "professional engineer" or a "CPA" if you weren't appropriately trained and licensed, so it should go with the title "architect".

Architects (real ones that is) appreciate the title-envy, but we're finding that everyone wants to be the architect of something these days be it public policy, war, criminal actions - or software!

Software designers  (creators, developers, coordinators, team leaders, gurus - whatever) should find another title to limit confusion and dilution and differentiate themselves from the art and science of creating safe and aesthetically beneficial buildings and spaces.

Go to www.aia.org to find out more about us.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

No complaints here - a valid point about regulation of title in the US. As you'll see from my previous post, the ARB (www.arb.org.uk) is a little more pragmatic about matters in the UK, simply requiring disambiguation when using the title.

I'm not sure if it qualifies as title envy or just plain metaphor. It is (as even the AIA concede), a valid use of English to use "architect" to describe anyone involved in design and planning, albeit of questionable (and state-dependent) legality to do so in the US when referring to a job title. The software industry is full of metaphor (Microsoft Windows isn't actually made of glass as it turns out), perhaps due to its recency or since it derived from branches of engineering or maybe due to software itself being a metaphor. Perhaps over time the industry will develop its own titles as the discipline achieves some of the rigour of building construction.

That said, I hope most people recognise and adhere to the regulation of the architect title in the US and don't mean to belittle the effort that goes into becoming qualified and registered as such.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

Does anyone know anything for a high school student looking to be an architect when older?

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

Being an architect sums up so many disciplines there for most of the arguments that have been made on this blog are true. So what we can see is that architect are typically people who are very versatile within all that surrounds software "developing". There can be differed type of architects in my opinion. Just like there are differed type of consultants. Depending on what type of architect (what your strongest skills are) gives you only an indication on how well you can preform as an architect for a certain position. The path to become an architect is not that easy. Specially since there is no entry position for this title like Junior software architect or is there?

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

When IT people are required to take a minimum of 5-8 years of college, then intern for a minimum of 3-4 years accumulating experience that is documented, reviewed, and approved; then pay for, study, and pass a series of exams that cost $1400-2000, some of which range from 4-10 hours EACH on a piece of crap drafting software developed by the IT industry used only in the tests, and THEN upon passing all of the sections of test they can rewrite the state legal code on the practice of architecture in layman's terms - ONLY then do they meet the technical definition of an Architect. Everyone else is a designer / developer / intern, IT creative thinker. Architects are for buildings with professional liability and accountability. Until software industries are required to go through a rigorous education and license process, they are NOT entitled to the term.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

You'd be surprised how many software architects actually have this type of education and experience, and if you consider certifications, taken the type of exams you are talking about. As pointed out above, the purpose of the title act is to protect public safety by making sure that people don't go around designing public buildings without any expertise. Although I am all for having stricter restrictions on IT architects, considering that making a mess of things here can be just as bad as a collapsing building... financial sector, anyone?

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

When you have enough education and experience along with passing a long series of examinations to make sure you are competent to design buildings for human occupation. And you pay your licensing fee. The use of the title Architect is protected this way in order to protect the health safety and welfare of the public that will use the buildings designed by an "ARCHITECT". and by the way: "Architect" IS NOT A VERB!...just call yourselves "computer programmers" or "computer program compilers" or "Computer program administrators" or "computer program designers"....but YOU ARE NOT ARCHITECTS. you see the public needs to be protected from incompetent designers designing buildings that might fall down and kill people or that people won't be able to get out of in a fire ...for example. The public regulates your digital world by buying or not buying the programs you write or design or "code" or program. Really...you are really important people...but you are not licensed like lawyers, doctors or Architects....

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

This is a great post.. Whether being an "Architect" in the software world involves coding or not.. i would say it Could.. so it's important to be able to code so you can lead the leaders.. On another note... @Real Architect.. we build things that manage your money, allow you to work remotely, allow you to use programs to build buildings.. the guideline should include software solutions because.. if you say you're an architect get hired as such by a bank, and then all of a sudden your money starts going into my account.. that could be bad... so virtual developers and "Brick and Mortar" Architects work with different mediums.. but whether doing a home room addition or a large building is like building a personal website or a financial infrastructure system can be measured similarly

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

Here are the legalities that NCARB enforces. http://www.ncarb.org/Becoming-an-Architect/Architecture-Basics.aspx Please respect the term and find your own.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

The word Architect has been a protected title since the early Romans. Today it is protected by LAW. So go a hear and keep using Architect in your titles and see some jail time and heavy fines.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

Well seeing as I am a graduate and working on getting licensed to DESIGN AND BUILD BUILDINGS I get so frustrated when web developers call themselves "architects." I mean, since the beginning of reformed design and building, the term architecture and architect directly relates to BUILDINGS. Not code. I get so mad when people refer to coding as "architecture" or being an "architect", because I have and am working my butt off. To be an Architect, we have to go through 5-7 years of schooling, 3+ years of interning, and have to take 7 intense exams called the ARE's just to be able to call ourselves Architect. I wish people would stop calling them architects just because they are building/coding a website. It's not the same!!! Plus it's really annoying when you're looking for a REAL Architect position and all that pops up is software and coding "architect" positions. GAHHH!!! (That's my rant and I'm sticking to it! And I will be writing a letter and sending out a petition for NCARB and related publications to enforce the efforts it really takes to be an ARCHITECT. We deserve a little respect for all the work we go through to get to the point where we call ourselves ARCHITECTS. Legally you can't call yourself and Architect until you pass all 7 ARE's.)

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

You should only call yourself an Architect if: 1. You have an NCARB accredited degree (Master of Architecture, etc.) which requires 5 to 7 years of schooling. 2. You have interned for 3 to 7 years with an Architecture Firm that produces construction drawings and specification for BUILDINGS. 3. Passed ALL 7 grueling exams called the ARE's. 4. Keep up with your Continuing Education Credits required by NCARB 5. And pay your annual registration dues to keep your NCARB account active. This has been the practice for many years, and REAL Architecture, dealing with BUILDINGS AND CONSTRUCTION, has been the ONLY type of Architecture for thousands of years. The term "architect" has been and should be reserved for those trained and qualified by State and Federal regulations to practice the DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION OF THE BUILT LANDSCAPE. If you code a website, you are not building something that could potentially kill someone. That's the liability and responsibility that comes with being an Architect. To Build BUILDINGS that are structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing. Coding is NOT ARCHITECTURE so stop calling it and those who code "architects." LEGALLY your are not allowed to use that term until you pass your ARE's. So STOP!!! It pisses architects off! We get little respect for what we do, and all we work towards is being able to call ourselves ARCHITECT. That term is and only refers to BUILDING DESIGNERS.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

All of this title-elitism from the 'real architects' is kind of hilarious. Contrary to some of the stated opinions above, 'architect' is also verb and it has significant connotations when applied to the practice of computer science; software architecture has semantically-significant alternative/additional meaning when compared to just 'software design' or 'programming.' I hate to cut through the pompous pride bubble, but: a) Usage and application of words may changes (through expansion or contraction) and that isn't going away. b) Usage of the term 'architect' in the context of software serves a purpose for many people, and the bellyaching of "real architects" is not going to magically convince everyone else to find a less-effective term. c) Lack of prosecution for the usage of the term 'software architect' is likely due in part to the fact that NO ONE IS GETTING THEM CONFUSED. I'd like to hear the plausible scenario where usage of the word 'architect' or 'architecture' in the context of software is going result in public safety risk due to confusion with the construction term. 'Software architects' are not going around claiming to design buildings, and no one is asking them to do so. Because there's no public safety risk to consider then, all that remains is personal pride. Your sense of prideful entitlement over the term is laughable and makes you look small-minded.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

'All of this title-elitism from the 'real architects' is kind of hilarious.' It has nothing to do with elitism. Personally, I object to our continuing descent into the meaningless of language. I mean if not software designers howabout burger flippers? Do they not 'architect' burgers? Why not we all call ourselves Architects? We can all be the 'Solutions Architect' of our own destiny and no one need feel left out. Architect has had a particular meaning for hundreds if not thousands of years, a meaning which is as relevant today as it's always been and therefore in no need of redefinition, while it's appropriation is nothing more than a vain attempt by a new 'trade' to affect the trappings of a long standing and respected profession to make itself feel more important. And yes, I am a 'real' Architect and this phenomenon has affected me personally - I'm unemployed and use online agencies to find job openings, which is not helped by an inbox and search results full of opportunities to become a software designer thank you very much.

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

I agree with much of the above but.....er, what about flight control cosftware, to name one of many, many public safety-critical software niches?

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

cosftware = software Sorry, kitten on the keyboard :)

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

The AIA has already issued its opinion on this matter in a paper titled "An Architect by Any Other Name . . .". See http://www.aia.org/aiaucmp/groups/ek_members/documents/pdf/aiap016426.pdf The second paragraph reads "IS THIS CORRECT USE OF THE TERM ARCHITECT? Although many AIA members have inquired about the cast of new uses for the term architect, and expressed their displeasure of it, there is no official AIA policy for the usage outside the construction industry. The term architect is a generic one and the AIA does not own the rights to it." A related concern... I wonder if I should take medical advice from a rug doctor? (www.rugdoctor.com)

Re: When can you call yourself an architect?

the CPU has taken hold on our lives to the extent it is difficult to fathom life without it. Back to pen and paper, and books, not ebooks. What we have now is a question of semantics and how the English language copes with new entities. If enough people use the word architect to define a person that is connected with the software industry then time will judge what is the correct meaning. Perhaps an adjective needs to be used as in software architect or building architect. This leads to another question relative to the software industry and the protection of the public. There is no collective body of 'software architects' that I am aware of that provides a forum for the public to deal with matters of public safety from 'rogue' software architects or 'hacks'. Architects have a tendency to speak a language of their own that only they understand. I remember attending an event where the speaker was a celebrated architect or nowadays aka starchitect, and on leaving I turned to my friend and asked him, "is it me or did I miss something, since I came away after listening to the talk, with a blank page in my mind". I really do draw the line at using the noun architect as a verb. It is akin to asking someone to 'Xerox' this or 'Google' that and with any hope when Xerox and Google have morphed into another corporate conglomerate, the words 'copy and do an internet search' will remain. Maybe the word internet will be replaced in time with something else. I am not sure what the Chinese interpretation is. I do know that those in the higher echelons of government are not pleased with the frequency of use of the term 'wifi'. Bottom line is defined in one word. Lazy. Hifi for high fidelity, but wireless fidelity is really meaningless. We are all guilty as charged.

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