Five things every developer should know about software architecture

Now I may be biased, but a quick look at my calendar hints to me that there's a renewed and growing interest in software architecture. Although I really like much of the improvement the agile movement has provided to the software development industry, I still can't help feeling that there are a large number of teams out there who struggle with a lack of process. After all, not every team is staffed with rockstar engineers! Although we've moved away from heavy prescriptive process frameworks, at least they provided a starting point for many of the activities associated with software development ... and this includes software architecture.

Put very simply, software architecture plays a pivotal role in the delivery of successful software yet it's frustratingly neglected by many teams. Whether performed by one person or shared amongst the team, the architecture role exists on even the most agile of teams yet the balance of up front and evolutionary thinking often reflects aspiration rather than reality. The big problem is that software architecture has fallen out of favour over the past decade or so. Here are five things that every software developer should know about it.

1. Software architecture isn't about big design up front

Software architecture has traditionally been associated with big design up front and waterfall-style projects, where a team would ensure that every last element of the software design was considered before any code was written. Software architecture is basically about the high-level structure of a software system and how you get to an understanding of it. This is about the significant decisions that influence the shape of a software system rather than understanding how long every column in the database should be.

2. Every software team needs to consider software architecture

Regardless of the size and complexity of the resulting product, every software team needs to consider software architecture. Why? Put simply, bad things tend to happen if they don't! If software architecture is about structure and vision, not thinking about this tends to lead to poorly structured, internally inconsistent software systems that are hard to understand, hard to maintain and potentially don't satisfy one or more of the important non-functional requirements such as performance, scalability or security. Explicitly thinking about software architecture provides you with a way to introduce technical leadership and stacks the odds of a successful delivery in your favour.

3. The software architecture role is about coding, coaching and collaboration

The image that many people have of software architects is of traditional "ivory tower" software architects dictating instructions to an unsuspecting development team. It doesn't need to be like this though, with modern software architects preferring an approach that favours coding, coaching and collaborative design. The software architecture role doesn't necessarily need to be undertaken by a single person plus coding is a great way to understand whether the resulting architecture is actually going to work.

4. You don't need to use UML

Again, traditional views of software architecture often conjure up images of huge UML (Unified Modeling Language) models that attempt to capture every last drop of detail. While creating and communicating a common vision is important, you don't need to use UML. In fact, you could argue that UML isn't a great method for communicating software architecture anyway. If you keep a few simple guidelines in mind, lightweight "boxes and lines" style sketches are an effective way to communicate software architecture.

5. A good software architecture enables agility

There's a common misconception that "architecture" and "agile" are competing forces, there being a conflict between them. This simply isn't the case though. On the contrary, a good software architecture enables agility, helping you embrace and implement change. Good software architectures aren't created by themselves though, and some conscious effort is needed.

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 for information about his speaking schedule, videos from past conferences and software architecture training.

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