Are there any good reasons to not continuously work with a system’s architecture?
I don’t think so. In my opinion it should be part of every development team’s work to know in what direction they’re heading, and also to try to influence that direction. I’ll try to help by describe how it can be done.
In most teams I’ve been working with there are a lot of complaints about the current code but there are very little money for refactoring. The system is slowly degrading, changes become expensive, and random refactorings (if the team can for once persuade their management) are done without getting any real improvements.
I usually follow the same steps to get in control of the system’s architecture and find a way forward:
- Describe the current architecture
- Define the target architecture
- Sell in to management
- Implement with team
It’s absolutely fundamental that the team starts to cooperate during this process, because to be successful you have to get the whole team running in the same direction. Quite often there are different opinions that has to be discussed and considered, to eventually agree on a way forward.
Describe current architecture
It is very common that the developers can’t describe their system, or draw it on the board. They know exactly where they need to do their changes, and they read the code efficiently, but they can’t give an overview of the system. This makes it very hard to describe it to new developers, and to discuss it with other team members. Which part of the system are we actually talking about? Which are the responsibilities and purpose of that part?
So the first step to improve the system is to describe the current architecture, to draw a picture of it as-is. When describing the system, don’t get into too much details. One page is usually enough. Of course this depends of the size of your system, but be rather too brief than too detailed. I would recommend something like this:
The different clients and servers are described, and which technology/tool they are developed with. There is also an overview of other systems that this system is integrating with, and how.
When you’ve finished this description, put it on the wall and use it when you talk about the system, or when there are developers that are new to the team. Even project leaders and product owners can understand this kind of picture.
Define a target architecture
Next step, now when you know what you have, is to define the target architecture; how you want the system to be.
Now, if not done earlier, and even if you’re an appointed architect, you need to start discussions within the team about the future. Because it is now you have the best chance to involve the team members, listen to them and make them part of the decisions.
Involved team members will be dedicated when the architecture is to be implemented later on!
This takes time. It is also a phase full of learning, discussions and compromises. It is important that you understand as much as possible about the business:
- What is the business making money of? (The vacuum cleaners or the dust bags? The cars or the parts?)
- What part of the system is core, i.e. supports the business domains that makes the most money?
- Which parts of the system is in most need of improvement, from the business perspective?
- How would the business see the system evolve?
If your system is not very small, you need to do some domain modeling here to divide the system into smaller parts and structure the business logic into domains where it can be found, changed and reused. Also try to define non-functional requirements like availability, performance requirements and usability. These might already be known, but it’s good to write them down and agree about them.
Preferably, do proof of concepts of the parts of the architecture that you feel uncertain about. But since you have not convinced your management about this new architecture yet, you might not have time or resources to do technical investigations at this point. Remember that you can do the target architecture on the basis of what you know at this moment, and adjust it later as you learn more.
It can also be a good idea to learn more general things about architecture and coding conventions together with the team; read books, watch videos, have study groups. This makes it easier to get out of “deadlocks” when it comes to different opinions.
When you’ve gone through this phase you should hopefully end up with a target architecture more or less different from the current architecture:
Try to not get started on the technical choices made in the target architecture above. It’s hard, I know, but this is just an example!
Sell in to management
Now you know your current architecture and you have defined the target architecture. It’s time to decide how to reach the target architecture.
To implement the target architecture in one big bang release, or to rewrite the system part by part must be decided from case to case. I always recommend to do it one part at a time because then you get payback from you investment sooner. That also significantly lower the risk.
What should you start with? From my experience, the best is if you can find something that would benefit both the business and the system itself. You can argue that to rewrite something without improving the business functionality is also good for the business because it will save money in maintenance, improve automated testing etc, which is probably true. But it can be hard to convince management to do that kind of investment.
In short, when moving towards the target architecture:
Start with the parts where the business wants a lot of functionality improvement.
Use the architecture pictures that you’ve made when discussing with your management, but leave technical details out of the discussion as much as possible. Try to see it from their perspective.
Implement with team
Hopefully, the work with the target architecture has resulted in a good team spirit because that’s what you need when you start to implement the target architecture. The way forward is now clear to everyone, but there are still a lot of details that must be solved and maybe a lot of new technology to be dealt with.
It is now important to keep focus on the benefits that you did sell in to the management, and make sure that you’re deliver something that fulfills the requirements. Keep the risks and the scope down. What you deliver now will hopefully build confidence and open up new possibilities for the future. If you fail, which we all do sometimes, be clear and honest of what failed and what you’ve learned from that.
There is a lot to write about the implementation of the architecture, too much for this blog post. I would recommend you to read more about hexagonal architecture or onion architecture, business logic and layering. It is also a good idea to read about business events, and event-driven development. Some of these I might have happened to write about in other blog posts!