A few years ago I was attending the O’Reilly Software Architecture conference in London where I had prepared a talk on Target’s new vision for the future, a Target Retail Platform. After the conference I had a couple days of vacation and I stopped by an art exhibit at the Saatchi Gallery on Alexander Calder. It was there that I learned that Calder defined the Chief Architect’s purpose better than anyone.
The Calder quote at the top says: “I think I am a realist, because I make what I see. It’s only the problem of seeing it. If you can imagine a thing, then you can make it and ‘tout de suite you’re a realist. The universe is real, but you can’t see it. You have to imagine it. Once you imagine it, you can be realistic about producing it.“
This quote struck me as I had spent the last few days thinking about architecture, and how the architecture conference I’d been attending rarely talked about architecture. I had attempted to create a presentation on Target’s architecture vision, nothing about how we would build it or the technologies used, but simply the vision, principles and structure that would guide a 3000 engineer strong team to leave its current reality and build a new one, a retail platform. I would guess that 80% of the presentations at the conference were on microservices. It was 2017 and all I could think was architects are behind the curve if this is their first introductions to learning about microservices. However, the microservices presentations were far better attended than my own, so, joke was on me.
I loved this quote because I often used the term Architecture Realist when people would ask me about my architecture style. I was only interested in creating architectures that would and could be implemented. I had found that most Chief Architects rarely present anything that engineering teams can actually use to guide their development, and instead fall back to edicts on technologies.
But what really struck me was the simple definition of Calder’s artistic approach, which coalesced for me into the Chief Architect’s purpose.
“The universe is real, but you can’t see it. You have to imagine it.”
This is it, this is the purpose of being a Chief Architect. It’s your role to take yourself out of your current reality and imagine a new one.
“Once you imagine it, you can be realistic about producing it.”
Unlike Calder who could then go about executing his vision via a painting or mobile, producing what you imagine within a large enterprise is not a straightforward task.
The presentation I had created, “Platform Architecture for Omnichannel Retail” was my attempt to convey what I had imagined for Target. Communicating to 3000 individuals to follow a vision is the Chief Architect’s job, not its purpose. I prepared the presentation for O’Reilly to force myself to document the vision in a way that could be consumed by a technical workforce.
Over the ensuing three years I’ve given some version of this presentation hundreds of times to small and large groups within Target. In the real world, producing an architecture means understanding and engagement from teams, which is best done in small groups where people feel comfortable asking hard questions.
What you’ll find is you don’t always have the right answers, your reality, which you thought was perfect, was half baked. But if your principles were sound, working through the hard questions to answers that follow the principles of the architecture builds the patterns and practices necessary to produce the new reality.
For Target in 2020, the new reality is here, we have a Retail Platform.