On the 13th of October, 67 Bricks held its first Architectural Kata as an opportunity for developers to practice and experience architectural design. Ted Neward, the original creator of architectural katas, puts forward the argument for them quite succinctly:
“So how are we supposed to get great architects, if
they only get the chance to architect fewer than
a half-dozen times in their career?”Ted Neward
The kata exercise was quite simple to prepare for and run. Beforehand I picked a number of interesting katas from Neal Ford’s list, suitably anglicised them and prepared handouts for both online and in-person teams. Then on the day, it was a case of assigning everyone into teams and explaining the steps we’d be going through that day:
- Gather into teams and read through the assigned case study
- Discuss for the next 50 minutes and come up with an architecture, making sure to document any assumptions. Teams could ask me questions about the case study and I’d happily provide extra detail
- Each team would then take turns presenting their architecture to the other teams and fielding questions from them
- Finally a voting phase where everyone else gets the chance to show thumbs up/down/sideways to indicate how well they thought the presenting team did
As a technical consultancy, we are often involved in architectural design of systems we create or take part in creating. Each client is individual; they seek different opportunities, are subject to different constraints and have different technical strategies. It’s critical for 67 Bricks’ success to have skilled architects able to influence and design suitable systems.
Though, how can we develop these skills? As Ted Neward identified, most only get a half-dozen tries at it over their career. While books, online courses and talks help, knowledge needs to be applied and feedback loops closed to truly improve. We’ve never tried an event like a Kata before and I was interested to see what we could learn from it.
Sharing ideas and learning from one another effectively can be a challenge for any organization and made all the harder thanks to COVID-19 prompting a rapid move to remote working. The exercise looked to provide a great opportunity for participants to meet and work with others they may not otherwise have the chance to.
Initially I hoped to get some of the more experienced technical leads to kick off the afternoon by talking about how they architect systems. This proved difficult. Those who I spoke to either thought they didn’t know that much or didn’t feel like they could speak to an audience well about how to do architecture. As such these initial talks didn’t happen and raised a lot of questions around how to arm participants with enough knowhow to feel comfortable tackling the task. I fear this may have led to some teams struggling too much to learn and make effective progress.
Splitting teams took some thought, I wanted to be sure each team had a mix of experience and tried to aim for teams of individuals who haven’t worked together before. I’m glad I spent the time to do this, the Kata would not have had the same impact if everyone was in the same team they usually are (one of the Kata rules is to try and break up regular teams).
Running the actual Kata was reasonably straightforward, if a little awkward thanks to having to manage both online and an in-person group. Some online teams got stuck waiting for me to join their Zoom room to answer their questions. While the in-person group was easy to recognise if they needed a question answered or a nudge in the right direction.
I tried to prepare some broader scope for each case study before the event in preparation for questions being asked, I quickly found myself having to improvise. I actually found this surprisingly fun. Some teams may have made things harder for themselves by asking too many detailed questions and trying to cover every single detail in their architecture.
The presentation phase had mixed results, some teams did a strong job and were able to present their ideas well, answer questions clearly and came up with really suitable architectures. Other teams struggled a bit more, both with coming up with a suitable architecture and being able to communicate it with everyone else.
Feedback and Lessons Learned
Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, lots of participants really enjoyed the experience. They liked working with different people and felt they learned a lot from one another about how they tackle this type of task.
I think aiming for mixed team compositions was good and allowed individuals to have interactions with colleagues they wouldn’t normally work with. I’ve had feedback a number of times that with the move to remote, developers felt a lot more insular in their teams and I hoped this gave a chance to break out of those groups.
Doing both in-person and remote teams did make running the Kata a little challenging. I felt that I couldn’t effectively keep an eye on all the teams making it tough to know when to nudge a team that may be getting a little stuck or provide an answer to a pressing question.
Next time I would look at including publishing consultants to act as clients. I perhaps enjoyed being a fickle client a little too much. Having a more dedicated individual to represent the client creates opportunities for encouraging more of a discussion, simulating something closer to the real world when we work with our clients. It would also make it easier to manage the event and our publishing consultants can gain some insight to the architecture process.
Given the positive response, I would happily organise another Kata in the future. If you are thinking about running one for your own organisation, I would highly recommend it. It’s a great chance to meet and learn from other devs. I certainly learned a lot simply observing the various teams taking different approaches to their case studies and the variety of solutions they came up with.