When great thinkers think about problems, they start to see patterns. They look at the problem of people sending each other word-processor files, and then they look at the problem of people sending each other spreadsheets, and they realize that there’s a general pattern: sending files. That’s one level of abstraction already. Then they go up one more level: people send files, but web browsers also “send” requests for web pages. And when you think about it, calling a method on an object is like sending a message to an object! It’s the same thing again! Those are all sending operations, so our clever thinker invents a new, higher, broader abstraction called messaging, but now it’s getting really vague and nobody really knows what they’re talking about any more. Blah.
When you go too far up, abstraction-wise, you run out of oxygen. Sometimes smart thinkers just don’t know when to stop, and they create these absurd, all-encompassing, high-level pictures of the universe that are all good and fine, but don’t actually mean anything at all.
These are the people I call Architecture Astronauts. It’s very hard to get them to write code or design programs, because they won’t stop thinking about Architecture. They’re astronauts because they are above the oxygen level, I don’t know how they’re breathing. They tend to work for really big companies that can afford to have lots of unproductive people with really advanced degrees that don’t contribute to the bottom line.
A recent example illustrates this. Your typical architecture astronaut will take a fact like “Bitcoins are a blockchain service to exchange money anonymiously” and ignore everything but the architecture, thinking it’s interesting because it’s blockchain, completely missing the point that it’s interesting because it allows to exchange money anonymously.
All they’ll talk about is blockchain this, that, and the other thing. Suddenly you have blockchain conferences, blockchain venture capital funds, and even blockchain backlash with the imbecile business journalists dripping with glee as they copy each other’s stories: “Blockchain: Dead!”
The Architecture Astronauts will say things like: “Can you imagine a concept like Bitcoin where you can exchange anything, not just money?” Then they’ll build applications for supply chains that they think are more general than Bitcoin, but which seem to have neglected that wee little feature that lets you send and receive money without giving away your name — the feature we wanted in the first place. Talk about missing the point. If Bitcoins weren’t blockchain but they did let you swap money anonymously, it would have been just as popular.
Another common thing Architecture Astronauts like to do is invent some new architecture and claim it solves something. Kotlin, ProtoBuffer, REST, RabbitMQ, GraphQL, IOT, Micro Services, oh lord I can’t keep up.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with these architectures… by no means. They are quite good architectures. What bugs me is the stupendous amount of millennial hype that surrounds them. Remember the Microsoft .NET white paper?
The next generation of the Windows desktop platform supports productivity, creativity, management, entertainment and much more, and is designed to put users in control of their digital lives.
Currently, the Apple MacBook Pro whitepaper claims:
Processor and Memory working at the speed of thought
Oh, good, so now I can finally stop thinking on my own since apple found a way to cut years of advance research in quantum computing and artificial intelligence.
Microsoft and Apple are not alone. Here’s a quote from a Sun Jini:
These three facts (you are the new sys admin, computers are nowhere, the one computer is everywhere) should combine to improve the world of using computers as computers — by making the boundaries of computers disappear, by making the computer be everywhere, and by making the details of working with the computer as simple as putting a DVD into your home theater system.
And don’t even remind me of the fertilizer George Gilder spread about Java:
A fundamental break in the history of technology…
That’s one sure tip-off to the fact that you’re being assaulted by an Architecture Astronaut: the incredible amount of bombast; the heroic, utopian grandiloquence; the boastfulness; the complete lack of reality. And people buy it! The business press goes wild!
Why the hell are people so impressed by boring architectures that often amount to nothing more than a new format on the wire for RPC, or a new virtual machine? These things might be good architectures, they will certainly benefit the developers that use them, but they are not, I repeat, not, a good substitute for the messiah riding his white ass into Jerusalem, or world peace. No, Apple, MacBooks are not suddenly going to start reading our minds and doing what we want automatically just because they got a new processor. No, Sun, we’re not going to be able to analyze our corporate sales data “as simply as putting a DVD into your home theater system.”
Remember that the architecture people are solving problems that they think they can solve, not problems which are useful to solve. gRPC may be the Hot New Thing, but it doesn’t really let you do anything you couldn’t do before using other technologies — if you had a reason to. All that Distributed Services Nirvana the architecture astronauts are blathering about was promised to us in the past, if we used DCOM, or JavaBeans, or OSF DCE, or CORBA.
It’s nice that we can use GraphQL now for the format on the wire. Whoopee. But that’s about as interesting to me as learning that my supermarket uses trucks to get things from the warehouse. Yawn. Mangos, that’s interesting. Tell me something new that I can do that I couldn’t do before, O Astronauts, or stay up there in space and don’t waste any more of my time.
This entire blog post was shamelessly copy & pasted (including one of the pictures) from the same named post by Joel Spolsky, the former CEO and founder of StackOverflow: https://www.joelonsoftware.com/2001/04/21/dont-let-architecture-astronauts-scare-you/
All I did was to replace the mentioned technologies in this 19 year old text with recent examples, as my friend and former colleague Herman Vöcke suggested on Twitter.
The result is an up-to-date blog post. And what does that actually mean?
It means that while we developers like to concentrate on solving technical problems we still have to – also after 19 years – solve problems in the real world. And it is a good example of how everything old is new again in our industry.