The Four Jedi (software architects) You Meet in Heaven

Millenium Falcon at Galaxy's Edge

*with apologies to Mitch Albom, of course. We recently got Disney+, and I finished watching The Mandalorian, and then, casting about for what else there is worthwhile, dove headlong into The Clone Wars animated series. It’s great! And somewhere deep in my subconscious, this analogy emerged.

After writing about the paths to Senior Developer, I’ve been thinking about what comes after that. Specifically about what comes after that at TELUS Digital, because that’s where I’m working. Important caveat here:
these are my musings, and not official TELUS Digital policy.
It should also be noted that the types of technical roles quickly bifurcate over and over like a career river-delta if you survey the industry: tech leads, team leads, staff engineer, fellows, principals, architects, managers, etc, so as you talk about more senior technical roles, there’s a higher-chance that you’re being very specific to your current organization. I asked on twitter about one facet of this too, as I thought about tech leads vs architects.

That I ask this question probably reveals a fair amount of how things work at TELUS Digital. But this also made me thing very specifically about the delta in those roles here, as I see it. I’ll talk about the tech lead role another time, but want to think about Software Architects, and the kinds of skills, focus and interests that make for good candidates.

Anakin Skywalker: The Solution Architect

Anakin Skywalker is confident, quick thinking – surging headlong into trouble and thinking creatively on his feet to find a solution to the problem in front of him. This is the kind of architect I’m the most comfortable speaking about because it is how I self-identified when doing this kind of work. It is a broad rather than deep role – a good solution architect can think creatively, laterally about a problem and propose a variety of potential outcomes to solve it. I’ve seen this role advertised many places as a web architect as well. If you’re a developer who loves the challenge of working in an unknown space, who prefers prototyping to refactoring or incremental improvements, this is a great fit. A solution architect has an obligation to keep current on shifting trends – be knowledgeable across a varied set of technologies, frameworks, languages, etc. More importantly than what you do know is a deep understanding of what you don’t know. A good solution architect will know to bring in other expert voices to stress-test and verify an idea. Because of this need, solution architects need to have pretty solid social skills as well to succeed, and should work more closely with developers on a day-to-day basis than others.

Of note: if you know the story of Star Wars, you’ll know that things do not end well for Anakin Skywalker, who falls to the dark side and becomes a force for evil. While this may be really stretching this metaphor, this is a useful thing for solution architects to think about too – too often we hear of Ivory Tower, or “architecture astronaut” if you don’t stay connected to the work happening.

Mace Windu: The Domain Architect

Mace Windu is a master of lightsaber combat, wise and careful of words, thinking deeply about the practice of his craft. He is a specialist, through and through. Domain Architecture is a path for deep specialization and knowledge. This is also variously called a practice lead. This is a good role to think long and deeply about a particular topic to develop unparalleled expertise in it. Spending time learning from, and talking to other experts in your domain is important in this role, to ensure that you do not end up so specialized in your particular company’s needs as to lose relevance. A key duty of this architect role is to impart knowledge to the people around you – both technical and non. More so than a solution architect, ensuring that there is a succession plan – that there is a clear apprentice to follow on is a good practice. Some examples of domains of specialization: Network Security, Testing, Telemetry, Performance, Data, etc. This role is still one of software, and so spending time writing, refining best-practice examples; pushing the state-of-the-art forwards are key outputs from a domain architect. Leading development of mission-critical implementations within your domain is also an important role for this kind of architect.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: The Integration Architect

Obi-Wan Kenobi always saw the underlying truth of a scenario as a way to find the way through it – never hurried, always already where others were going to. He understood, holistically, what was happening around him. This is a role for understanding what lays beneath: how different tools, architectures, endpoints, etc work together. It demands an incredible ability to keep hugely complicated systems in mind and be able to anticipate side-effects and unexpected outcomes from new additions. I’ve only encountered this type of architect at very large companies that have very complex, often legacy systems – a smaller scale operation is unlikely to require this kind of specialization. Interestingly, I’ve met several excellent integration architects who came into this from a business or system analyst role, as well as from a developer role. Integration architects, in my experience, make and maintain the best diagrams, are excellent teachers to others, and unparalleled in their ability to reduce complexity into more digestible chunks. If you’re a developer who likes working on edge-cases, who likes to find the weird exception to every rule, or who likes to think holistically about an entire system, this is an excellent role. It is very much a role of incremental operation of a whole system, rather than rapid prototyping or deep dives. It’s a great place to iterate on a particular system for a long time. If you want to have impact at scale through small incremental change, this is exactly that type of role.

Yoda: Principal Architect

Yoda guides the entire Jedi council with a clear vision of what a Jedi can be, should be, and helping everyone stay on the path to that vision. Including a Principal Architect may seem something of a cheat, in that I would consider this an additional tier of seniority than others – certainly at where I work now it is – but it isn’t always. Sometimes, it is the only architect. And this is largely a visionary role, to look forwards towards what might be, what can be, what must be for organizational success. It needs to be an architect who can think broadly about the range of opportunities to improve technology, who can work with other leadership to translate technological vision into business relevance. At some places, this role may well simply be the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). At somewhere large enough, there may be multiple principal architects, spread across the vast swathes of organizational complexity. A key duty of this role is to help support all the other architects as well – to provide support for their decisions, to provide rigour in decision-making, to ensure that everything roles up towards a coherent vision of good.

Do these kinds of role exist where you work? There’s probably all sorts of variants of this. For TELUS in particular, the software architect path is generally for people who want to stay primarily as individual contributors, rather than leads/managers. A path of bits, rather than heartbeats as it were. One thing I wish I had more insight is to what some key differences between something like a staff engineer and a software architect. Do places have both? My instinct is what I’m calling a solution architect may be akin to the staff engineer elsewhere, but YMMV.