Come On In, The Water's Lovely...

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A great many years ago, when I was fresh out of school and learning to be a salesman, we had a sales manager who proudly advertised that his office door was "always open". What he meant, obviously, was that we could drop in any time with questions, problems, and for advice on any sales-related issue that might arise. Forgotten what step five of "the seven steps to making a sale" is? Having problems framing your "double-positive questions"? Struggling to find "a response to overcome an objection"? Just sail in through that ever-open door and fire away. Except that the only response you ever got from him was "...you can always rely on one end of a swimming pool".

Now, I was young and a bit damp behind the ears in those days - and probably not the sharpest knife in the box. So it was several months before I finally plucked up the courage to ask one of the older and more experienced members of our team what he actually meant. "Simple", said my wise colleague, "he means that you can always depend on a 'depend' (i.e. deep end). In other words, no matter what the question or situation, you can usually get the upper hand by prevaricating".

I guess you only need to watch politicians on TV to understand that they all take advantage of this rule. But, strangely enough (and I don't want to give too many precious retailing secrets away here), it can be remarkably useful. Imagine the scene: your customer can't make up their mind about some particular type of plant food (OK, so I was working in the horticultural trade in those days). They ask "Will it be safe to use on my prize Dahlias?" You answer "Well I was talking to a chap last week who managed to grow double his usual crop of tomatoes!" Notice that I didn't say he was using any product he might have purchased from me, or that he actually used any fertilizer at all. Such is the power of vagueness...

All I need do now is overcome the objection, and toss in a double-positive question: "I'm sure that the quality and the results you'll get will be far more important to you than the exceptionally low price we're offering it at this week", and "Shall I wrap it up for you to take away, or would you like us to deliver it tomorrow morning?" Amazing - seems I haven't lost the touch.

So, having regaled you with rambling reminiscences for the last ten minutes, I probably need to try and drift back on-topic. Or, at least, to within striking distance. What prompted all this was reading the preface to our new Microsoft Application Architecture Guide 2nd Edition. In it, David Hill explains that you can always tell an architect because their answer to any question is invariably "it depends". He doesn't say if this behavior extends to things like "Can I get you a coffee?" or "Would you like a salary raise?", but I'll assume he is generally referring to architectural design topics.

And, even though I'm not an architect (INAA?), I can see what he means. In the section on validation, for example, it quite clearly states that you should always validate input received from users. Makes a lot of sense. But what about if you have a layered application and you want to pass the data back from the presentation layer to the business layer or data layer? Should you validate it at the layer boundary? Well, it depends on whether you trust the presentation layer. You do? Well it also depends on whether any other applications will reuse the business layer. Ever. And it depends if you have a domain model, and if the entities contain their own validation code. And then it starts to talk about how you do the validation, depending on what you are validating and the rules you want to apply.

You see, I thought at the start of this project that I could just learn the contents of the guide and instantly become "a proper architect". It's not likely to happen. What it does show is that, yes, you need to know the process, the important factors, and techniques that will help you to perform analysis and make good decisions about structure and design. And you need to understand about conflicting requirements, quality attributes, and crosscutting concerns. You have to understand the types of applications, and their individual advantages and liabilities. In fact, there is an almost endless stream of things that you could learn to help you "do architecture".

And that, it seems, is where the guide really comes into its own. It explains the process and the important elements of design. It lists the vital requirements, and provides guidelines to help you make decisions. It tells you what to look for, where to look, and where to find out more. It even contains detailed references to things like components, layers, tiers, technologies, and design patterns (see http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-gb/library/dd673617.aspx).

And, at almost every step, it proudly flaunts its "it depends" approach. Architecture is not, it seems, about learning rules. It's learning about software and applications, environments and infrastructure, requirements and conflicts, people and processes, techniques and technologies, and - best of all - having your say in how a small part of our technological world behaves. So, come on in - the water's lovely...

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Come On In, The Water's Lovely...