The Death of Architecture

Strategy and the Buddhist Time Illusion

6 minute read

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death as a fiddler
Arnold sensed he’d better
get this architecture diagram right

If you looked for places on the earth to experience unusual clarity of thought I don’t suppose the island of Aruba would make it to your shortlist. I recently got back from a trip there to watch my brother-in-law get married, but if you’re not from the North or South Americas then you probably haven’t even heard of it (it being a very long multi-hop flight from everywhere else). I certainly hadn’t and had to fly there from London via Miami. Fourteen hours in the air, plus six or so hours hanging around the airport. And let me say this - I hate flying. I hate everything about it. The pre-dawn parking, the waiting, the lugging heavy bags, the faint medical smell of the airport, but most of all the flying. Despite a total acceptance of the statistical fact that I am more likely to die on the way to the airport than in the sky, I have an all-encompassing fear of flying, one which recent membership to the Lorazepam Flight Club has done little to abate.

But if there’s one thing that focuses the mind on the big picture aspects of life, it’s sitting in a metal tube hurtling across the Atlantic, surrounded by air four times as cold as a domestic freezer, holding back vivid images of yourself spinning into oblivion whilst espousing your new-found religious convictions in your new-found soprano voice.

In my career I’ve tried many times, and through various analogies and similes, to describe to semi-recumbent post-lunch directors what Enterprise Architecture is and why it’s a good thing to do. It’s like building a house, or a car, no it’s like building lots of houses on one street, it’s like plumbing a house, wiring a house, directing a movie, and so on. And then, in a moment of enlightenment brought about by fourteen hours transcendental focus on a continual threatening present, I saw everything. As clear as day. There is a perfect way to describe it.

There is no such thing as architecture. It simply doesn’t exist.

Now before you go thinking that I popped one too many lorazepam, effected a frontal lobe distortion, and erased half my life’s work, allow me to explain. I promise it makes sense, even without the drugs.

A business is what it is. Let’s face it, from a technical perspective, most are not what you would call optimal. When we look at a business whose applications and integration are in a bit of a mess we often say that what they lack is architecture. And by that we mean some kind of consistently applied structuring of functionality, software and all the glue that binds things together.

So in roll the architects. Much documentation is created, slides slid and talks talked. Time passes and, lo … nothing is any different. There might be a new application that works better than the previous one but this is counterbalanced by the aging of something else that now works worse than it did. Equilibrium is restored. The process starts again. I’ve actually heard consultants say that the great thing about telling companies how to get their IT architecture straight is that you do it, make a pile of cash, and then go back and do it again.

The fact is that you can’t change everything overnight, all you can do is define a process to govern future change so it aligns with something. And that thing should be measured regularly so that you know alignment to it is better for the business than alignment with something else. And that something is an enterprise architecture.

But it’s not real. It’s not even an idea, it’s an ideal. I might want to look like Brad Pitt. I may decide to copy his clothes and haircut. It may make me more attractive (surely not possible..) but I’ll never actually be Brad Pitt. Even with plastic surgery I’d struggle to convince Jennifer Aniston to pop out for a pizza because I wanted her back. She would sense my pride at knowing a bunch of cool vi shortcuts, or an unusual knowledge of the HTTP protocol and call the police (I am jesting of course, but Jen if you’re reading this my wife is usually out on Thursdays).

There’s a Buddhist notion that time is an illusion. That history is a figment of mind and that the future is simply the mirrored expectation of more of the past; that what we perceive as ‘time’ is our earthly mind playing a series of instances by us like frames of a movie. What’s relevant about that is what I said before, a business is what it is. It isn’t what it will be.

Of course the problem with the idea that time is an illusion is that, if it were true, there could be no change. Change requires cause and effect. In fact if time didn’t exist, then a physical, moving, world couldn’t exist, but before we start to make our collective ears bleed let’s just agree that all you can do in the present is make change well, given what you know to be true, and what you hope to be coming true. An as-is architecture exists, but not a to-be, because the to-be will be the as-is if it comes to pass (which is unlikely because the to-be is a changing concept).

My son doesn’t believe in the future. When he says he wants ice cream and I reply “later”, he just hears “something that isn’t relevant to right now”. He holds this view because he is two years old and hasn’t experienced enough time, or ice cream, to understand that patience and faith in your father’s promises can help develop a more considered attitude to life.

I’ve often defined architecture as non-functional requirements delivered. And that’s all it is. What more could there be? If the future is only an expectation of something then so is strategy. Making change well if you are a developer means meeting functional requirements and making change well if you are an architect means meeting the non-functionals.

About this time of year many companies are putting the finishing touches to their plans for next year. The words strategy and vision will have been used a lot and programme offices will be going into meltdown trying to collate all the change demanded for the next budgeting period. IT, if it is even aware of this activity, will be either smirking at the unrealistic attitudes of the business or panicking about the growing level of expectation.

A business is what it is. Right now it’s still that mixture of one or two decent applications and a pile of limiting legacy software. But markets are tough and targets are high. In order to do anything the business needs to change everything, hence the piles of documents vaguely suggesting all those impossible projects. The fact that the competition is in the same boat doesn’t seem to register. And that’s really important. Because their strategy plans and strategies aren’t real yet either.

And this is where agile and pragmatic architects can make a difference. My moment of clarity, such as it was, wasn’t about not planning, or not having an idea how the application landscape needs to evolve. Great ideas and plans are what inspires and guides people to focus on making those tactical changes well.

And the tactical is real because it’s the now, and what we think is strategy is just tactical done well.

What makes it done well is knowledge, understanding and experience. To do Enterprise Architecture well you don’t need to explain it, explaining it doesn’t really add any value. What does add value is showing precisely how all that knowledge, understanding and experience can be used today, right now. That lovely diagram showing clean service-oriented interfaces, between unified systems of record, holding clean data, performing well-defined business processes is never going to be. Ever. And that can be a scary thought for some architects, no longer allowed to hide in the mythical future, they have to roll up their sleeves, talk to the business, analysts, developers, operations and make a contribution that makes those boxes and arrows real.


  • The painting, called “Self Portrait with Death as a Fiddler”, is by Arnold Bocklin from 1872