Live, From Austin, Texas

I originally wrote this post as I was sitting in the back of a 737 to Austin.

In the software industry, there is an interesting Catch-22 situation that many young developers will find themselves in: you generally aren’t afforded the opportunity to architect any meaningful system since you lack the experience to do so, but you really can’t gain the experience unless you do it yourself.

No number of classes, books, and training material can prepare you for architecting a real world solution; only real world experience and trial and error can. So you may be asking, then where to all of the architects come from? Well, in my view, most architects come from three different paths:

  1. Promotion. This situation arises by the natural progression of careers. You typically start out as a low level code monkey and work closely with a lead develpoer and architect. You learn their way of thought by viewing their designs. You learn the software and environments by implmenting their designs. One day, as your career progresses, someone will say: “Hey, Chuck’s been here a while, he understands the business model, he understands our environments, and he understands the tools, why don’t we let him architect this solution?” This can take considerable time as managers are reluctant to use unproven resources to architect anything of significance.
  2. Training. Microsoft has a host of acrhitecture and solutions experts certification programs. Many times, companies, especially the big name ones, will hire based on this qualification alone. To me, this type of architect is the most useless (and dangerous) architect (if not combined with one of the other two). Why? Well, this type of architect typically has very little real world experience digging into the tools and environments necessary to build the solution. As such, any design that arises may make sense on an academic level, but will end up being difficult, impossible, costly, or messy to implement. To me, any sort of sterile classroom training will only take you so far; there is no substitute for experience and knowledge of the tools, environments, and business problem. My ex-coworker, Kent Brown, was really against this type of architecting.
  3. Accidental. I think that this happens the most in the consulting world. I’ve been an accidental architect at most of the places where I’ve worked, none-more-so than at ITT, where I basically redesigned their existing intranet applications and rebuilt them all using a new, common codebase and paradigm. I literally did everything, from the database design to the UI design to the actual implementation and deployment. In general, this can be a dangerous situation as you never know what you get when you “accidentally” put someone into an architecture position. But I think that ITT lucked out inthat I was much more experienced then they initially thought for a guy coming straight out of college.

So why do I bring this up? Well, I find myself as an accidental architect at the moment as I ride in the back of a 737 to Austin. Without really thinking about it, I responded “Yes” to a request by one of the managing consultants (MC) at my company, INS, to head out to Austin to help with, what was described to me as an Access to SQL Server upsizing project. While I’m primrarily a developer, this is not outside the bounds of my experience and skillset as it was one of my primary responsibilities at ITT. As I would later learn, this is not the real role that they need to fill, but rather one of an architect.

As I accepted, my cross-divider fellow cube-dweller, Dan, chimed in and asked, quite bluntly, “Are you nuts?” For I had accepted a gig in Austin for two weeks without any actual details. To be honest, I really didn’t think about it that deeply. I mean, I had accepted other offsite gigs several times, none of which ever panned out (at least two). I was thinking that this would be the case as well. Plus, I figured that if my MC asked me to fill he had this role, then confidence that I could/would succeed at the task and I was assured that there would be more information forthcoming.

Hoooooo boy. I accepted late Friday afternoon and got “more” details, if you consider “more” one network infrastructure diagram with no legend or supporting documentation. Damn, I shoulda seen this coming. To make a long story short, I am currently heading to Austin with little knowledge of what I’m supposed to be doing or what the goal/scope of the assignment is.

Step back a couple of hours. Around 2 PM on Monday, I think it really started to sink in that I could be in a situation where I had no possibility of success (I hate that feeling). I had already booked my flight on Saturday ($1000+!!!) but i still didn’t know what exactly I was supposed to be doing. By 4, I was jetting home to pack my bags. I had spent most of the afternoon trying to set up accomodations and discussing what little details of the project were known among the other consultants and thinking to myself: “Brilliant Chuck, juuuuust brilliant.” One interesting tidbit is that my billing rate is actually a very fortunate number in Asian cultures, especially those that speak mandarin.

Bad news. As I’m driving home, my “service engine soon” light came on. Doh! I was just hoping to make it home in one piece. At the same time, my wife was enroute from work to help me pack and send me off (thanks hun!). We were cutting it close. We ran around and I prepped 7 days worth of clothing and other random stuff (like my Gameboy). We were packed and out of the house in under 30 minutes! Time: 5:00 PM.

Knowing Jersey, I really should have planned more time into this :-S No sooner had we passed exit 11 on the Turnpike did the traffic come to a standstill. It was literally a giant parking lot as we creeped at < 5 mph. Good gracious, we still had ~5-7 miles to go and baggage check-in. I don’t think I’ve ever hyperventillated, but I was starting to as I was sitting there, not moving. Scanning the XM stations revealed that there was a stalled truck on the Goethals bridge at exit 13…unfortunately, we needed the exit right past that. Fortunately, the reports were that the truck was moved and traffic was slowly movinig again. Yay!

So for now, my thinking is that I’ll try to make the most of it. Certainly, there are less qualified individuals that have been placed in my role in the past, right? Plus, at the least, it’s a learning experience on working with total strangers 😀 If it’s what I think it is, then I may have a good chance to come out on top. Wish me luck!

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