What Architects Do

Posted 6 months ago | Originally written on 3 Feb 2021

If you are interested in building a house, unless you are an architect, you would do well to consult an experienced architect. You might have a good idea how your future house should look like but you wouldn't know much about how to bring together these various desirable elements into a house that, not only lives up to your taste, but also conforms to applicable building regulations. The architect is able to skillfully put together a sketch that might even include design elements that may be even more appealing, given her extensive experience doing the same for other clients.

How is she able to do this?

Well, any good building architect will have started their profession by undertaking rigorous training on rudimentary elements of design such as lines and form, shade, colour and gradually expand their knowledge by working on real-life projects even before they graduate. Thereafter, any good architect will spend some time under the tutelage of a practicing professional architect and experience the vagaries of demands from actual paying customers. Those who excel will find that their workload may gradually expand signifying that they add value to their clients' wants and may eventually set off on their own to commence their private firm, possibly leaving with some of thier mentor's clients.

Training, practice and experience. These are valuable stages in the development of an architect.

Architecture, however, is not confined to buildings. Even information needs structuring and it is the role of the information architect to breathe valuable attributes to information structures so as to make them useful to their users.

I'm sure you're wondering why I have used the phrase 'information architect' instead of the myriad other titles that are typically used such as 'systems architect', 'solutions architect' and increasingly, 'cloud architect'. I think it's fair to say that these alternative names refer to various facets of information. When we refer to information we need to keep in mind that there are multiple aspects involved: there is the infrastructure which stores and processes information as well as schemas and applications that digest this information running on the said infrastructure. Unlike in the architecture of buildings, information architecture is typically carried out by professionals who have experience in engineering of information. Building architects are rarely trained in the engineering tasks required to fulfill their designs. Software engineers, on the other hand, are the primary source of information architects and it's very rare to find exclusive training programs that will develop information architects who have no experience in software engineering. In fact, a lot of information architecture arises through vendor-specific training and certification.

We could ask a similar question for the information architect: how does she do her job?

In a manner similar to a building architect, the information architect is concerned with ensuring that the overall aspects of a design adhere to good design principles as well as make good use of available resources so that the end users are advanced, rather than impeded in using the final product.

A building architect wants to make sure that the building is a joy to use as well as safe; the building needs to make good use of natural light without wasting energy, conserve heat, have a strong foundation possibly taking into account the future needs for expansion (whether upwards, sideways or even downwards!), be made of strong durable materials, not damaged by the elements; the building may also aspire towards being an aesthetic landmark so that those who interact with it may take pride of its establishment in the community. A good building architect adds great value to the building owners' vision of the space and the same should apply to information architecture.

A good information architect will likewise take into account both current and future technologies and how this may shape the development of the product. She will consider the need to separate independent components so that their development may proceed without delay. She will ensure harmonious interactions between various elements of the design by having clear interfaces at which information is transferred. She will want to make it easy for new engineers to get up to speed when working on the project so as to maximise technical hands on deck. She will ensure that there is clear end-to-end documentation, not just for the final user, but also for component developers as well as business owners, sales and marketing, testing and devops personnel involved. All these are skills and know-how built over working numerous hours on similar projects.

From these tasks we could try to formulate what an architect does:

An architect is a professional who employs domain design principles to define meaningful boundaries.

While it might sound abstract to discuss the value of an information architect, the value of one is best appreciated when none is involved. Typically, projects lacking a coherent architecture are subject to haphazard code, misuse of computing and storage requirements, delays due to lack of coordination either between or within teams, staggard design with progress in some parts preceeding others. Poor and typically ad hoc documentation that is almost impossible to follow.

Have a skilled and experienced architect adds great value to a project and can bring about great harmony in execution just as a conductor coordinates the skillful expression of instrumentalists in an orchestra.

Does your project have one?