Build It, And They Will Blame You


Here in England, architects (the kind who design houses and office blocks) seem to have a pretty poor reputation. Other than the "stars" who win prizes for designing skyscrapers, or weird shopping centers that look like an armadillo that wandered into a chrome-plating factory, they seem to be universally reviled. Perhaps it’s the same in the US. I remember once hearing the quip "Don't tell my mother I'm an architect, she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse". That sounds like a US-ism if you ask me.

We have a TV show named "Grand Designs" where people with huge ideas and equally huge piles of spare cash build strange houses. While all the houses are very different, all the shows have some things in common: it always costs more than they budget, it always takes longer than they planned, and they always fall out with the architect. Somehow you just know that the cantilevered roof won't pass building inspection, the windows won't fit, the kitchen will be totally impractical, and the rain and snow will ruin the exposed timber beams before the roof tiles arrive (though maybe you can't actually blame the architect for that).

The only show I can recall where it all went right was a young couple who bought an old pumping station for about £5 ($10), made a fortune selling the pipes and tanks for scrap, did all the work themselves over a two year period, and turned it into the most fabulous place with a lounge area so big they used a cut-down Mini car as a desk - and you didn't notice it till they pointed it out. Strangely, the house is only a few miles away from me, but when they sold it, the price was the equivalent of a million dollars US. Somewhat out of my reach unfortunately. Shame, I could probably have parked my car in the bathroom to wash it.

So, anyway, I wonder if software architects face the same problem. Do developers stand back from some complex business layer component and mutter "We'll have to chop some lines of code off that if you want it to fit into the server...", or "That data access layer will fall over the first time we get a decent breath of wind blowing off the hills...". Maybe the administrator goes off in a huff mumbling "Typical architect, never specified a long enough piece of HTTP to connect the Web server to the database server...". And the project manager is left to give you the bad news that the event handlers the architect specified are only available from one factory in Sweden, and they are closed for the holidays.

As an aside, it's actually illegal in the UK, according to section 20(1) of the Architects Act of 1997, to use the term "architect" in your job title if you don't have "appropriate" qualifications (see Regulation of Title). Though the Architect's Regulation Board seems a bit more relaxed about it these days. But I did hear that at one time they were trying to enforce this and make software people use something like "Software Designer" instead. What they probably meant was "Jumped up geek who does stuff with computers..."

Of course, in building houses terms, the architect is probably long gone when it all goes wrong, or is protected by something in the vast wad of small print. But I suppose you have to feel sorry for them. I mean, in terms of software projects, I never heard yet of one where the delays, bugs, lack of performance, or cost over-run were blamed on the architect. It always seems to be the developers fault. So guys, here's your answer. Lean back in your chair, suck your teeth and make that "not-my-fault" whistling sound. Then explain to the project manager that it's all the architect's fault. He designed it, you only built it...

And maybe add that you couldn't get the right bits...

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