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Software architects - glorified fashion designers?

In the movie “The Devil wears Prada” the opening title shows our main character as she is happily getting ready for her first day at a new job – assistant at a big fashion magazine. As she gets ready for her day, the movie contrasts her preparations with those of other busy bees -- ones that are closely tied to the fashion industry – models, secretaries and other people with lots of fashion sense. Our hero, Andy, though, has no fashion sense what so ever. She wears “normal” clothes, eats “real” food, and looks down on the world of high fashion as she first encounters it and makes its first steps inside it. (if you haven’t seen the movie – there’s a spoiler later on – read at your own risk!).


The movie takes great care in emphasizing the great differences between “mere humans” and the fashion industry. Here are some things it lets the audience think about the two different worlds:

Fashion designers :

  • Feel as if they are far superior to anyone not using their own fashion standards
  • Only mingle with their own kind
  • Feel that they are changing people’s lives with their creations
  • Create clothes the are not meant for humans, and prices accordingly
  • Treat “new flesh” with disdain until they prove themselves worthy
  • Hold fashion shows and meet up to discuss the latest trends
  • Live a horrible life committing themselves to modern slavery
  • Are rewarded with glamour, their idea of a dream job, acceptance, part of a very small group
  • Do not eat – keep in shape as part of the standards they enforce on others, except the top dogs. They are old, wise and simply nod their head to make people realize what the important next thing to do is

Real people:

  • Eat
  • Have fun
  • Some of them aspire to get and use the things created by fashion designers
  • But usually end up using either cheap knock offs or just plain clothes
  • Have a social life
  • Treat whatever goes on in the fashion world as a different world with different standards and rules.
  • Anyone gone over to the fashion world cannot continue to coexist with the “real people” – they will have to sell their souls.

Funnily enough, I kept finding more and more correlations between the world of fashion and the world of high level software architecture. (many of this can also be attributed to the auto industry). Bear with me here.

Let’s take a look at the latest version of the Architecture Journal from Microsoft. I’m using it as an example of many other places that have the same “features”.

Just like in the fashion industry’s fashion shows, the ideas presented here are

  • high level. sometimes even just conceptual. Not meant for the average company to deal with.
  • Most shops and developers will find it hard to use these ideas in their day to day work, or even grasp the entire concepts defined in these articles. That’s because they are meant for other architects to understand and use to lead the way in their own projects – they are not meant for “mere humans”. They are, in a way, setting fashion.
  • The people who write those articles, write it for many reasons, but getting recognition and trying out new ideas are up there at the top. They normally either don’t do real day to day work, or if they do, they do it at a very high level. (there are always exceptions, of course)

The articles presented in that journal are deep, insightful, but, let’s face it, too heavy for most developers and even self proclaimed architects to read. It’s not on purpose. The people writing that journal are aiming high because that’s the language that they want to speak in.

In one of the best scenes in the movie, Andy (our hero lady who works with Miranda, the hellish boss who runs the fashion magazine) gets a hard lesson about her connection to the fashion world:

Miranda Priestly: [Miranda and some assistants are deciding between two similar belts for an outfit. Andy hides a little smile because she thinks they look exactly the same] Something funny?
Andy Sachs: No, no, nothing. Y'know, it's just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y'know, I'm still learning about all this stuff.
Miranda Priestly: This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise,
[it's not lapis,]
Miranda Priestly: it's actually cerulean. You're also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

And herein lies another big truth about the software industry:

  • It takes a long time for the ideas in the journal to trickle down into the masses, and be implemented in one way or another.

In many cases, people don’t even realize that they are using and implementing ideas using technology or ideas that very smart people worked many hours in their ivory towers to create and present at just such architecture journals a year (or five) ago. Sure, it’s easy to say “I’m not that much into architecture – that’s too high level for me” – but the truth is you use architecture all the time. You might as well learn something about it.

  • Only a handful of projects in the world use the ideas presented in such journals as a whole. The reality just won’t fit into a neat little box of one single problem as architects would like it to. And to tailor the right solution to such a project requires people at such a high level it’s almost impossible to see people who’ve actually done it or seen it done.
  • Many who try to use the ideas in these journals end up getting burned, or know in advance this is time or money down the drain (the benefit will be way smaller than that promised)

There are some basic differences between the software and the fashion world:

  • Fashion designers build creative things just to see what happens. Software architects try to solve real existing problems, or even solve future problems that have not yet manifested in the industry. They are, in a sense, pioneering the field every day. Fashion designers would love to think they are the same, but they are merely re-solving the same issue – be creative while making loads of money. The clothing issue is long solved.
  • Software architects make waaay less money. However they affect just as many people as fashion..

The next time you run into a high level article about SOA, SCA or other TLAs, accept the fact that it may feel a bit condescending, theoretical, or not applicative to your world of work. You may very well see the face of the future in there. Then again, it may just be another fashion nightmare.

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