The technical depth and breadth of an Architect

The Architecture Day in Oslo, with Neal Ford, Mark Richards and Venkat Subramaniam as the main speakers, was a full day event focused on topics such as the journey from developer to architect, expectations for and the roles of an architect, software design architecture and principles and much more. One of the talks was the relation between technical depth and breadth of an architect and why it so important to know the difference between them. In this article I will summarize this topic, which is relevant for not only architects but also for developers.

A good architect is an architect who knows the pros and cons about many topics – not an architect who is an expert on everything or a single technology. The knowledge that an architect have has to be maintained, while at the same time investigating and identifying topics the architect don’t know anything about. The relation between what you do know and what you don’t know can be illustrated with the following triangle:

tekniskDybdeOgBreddeEngelsk

The figure shows the relationship between technical depth (things you know a lot about and your expertise) and technical breadth (things you know about but are not expert on). On top of the triangular, which is also the smallest of size, is your technical expertise. Knowledge in this area is typically things you work on a daily basis or information you have gathered through the years and you can easily explain and learn it to others.

In the middle of the triangle, which is a part of your technical breadth, is the area where you have information about everything else. This is typically things you have analyzed and identified without have an in-depth knowledge. The latter, could for instance be pros and cons of some certain technology or platform. At the bottom of the triangle is a huge area of knowledge that you don’t know you don’t know.

In theirs talks, Neal Ford and Mark Richards recommended that an architect should investigate, stay updated and identifies knowledge without becoming an expert on every bits and details of that technology. Doing that, you will be able to lift unknown unknowns to the middle of the triangle and hence expand your technical breadth. With time and experience you might one day lift that knowledge to the top of the triangle and become a part of your technical depth.

The illustration also shows that technical breadth in fact is the sum of your expertise and the information that you only have some knowledge about. A good technical breadth makes you stronger in architectural discussions and also makes you a better leader. The overall advantages of this is that you become a better problem solver and makes you able to discuss technologies by showing examples and differences without actually being an expert on those technologies. Therefore, focus on the middle part of the triangle – that is – information you know about and lift more knowledge from the unknown unknowns to the known unknowns, Mark Richards explained.

Finally, I want to cite Neal Ford’s comment about an architect’s knowledge: An architect should understand why things work, not the mechanics of how they work.

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