Apprentice Architecture

Good design sense is a skill that comes only from many years of coding experience. Sometimes it can be very difficult to make those design decisions when you are an apprentice or otherwise don’t have much experience.

When I was an apprentice, oftentimes I would get a problem from Micah (my mentor) and would solve it the simplest way possible. Then I would walk up to him with my head held high and say I was done.

He would almost always point out some way the architecture was not easy to extend or that he didn’t even know Java had goto statements.

As an apprentice, the most important thing is to get everything to work correctly; only then should you concentrate on making sure it is good code. Writing well designed code is not a skill that will appear overnight.

It took years of honing my design sense to be able to see designs right away, and I have only scratched the surface of my mentor’s abilities.

When I was an apprentice, I lacked the experience to make difficult architectural choices. Let alone the ability to get them right the first time.

I instead stayed close to the code and continued to move forward writing working code. This led to many design mistakes, and I had to throw out plenty of code or refactor to a better design.

This is an exercise in taking a step backwards to move forwards. I learned the value of working code as well refactoring to better designs.

Content before form is an important lesson I learned as an apprentice. It laid the foundation for the later lesson that good form is essential for high quality code.

As an apprentice, ask your mentor when you have completed a task if they think there is a better design. Then refactor that design and compare the two. Once again, repetition and practice will pay off as these exercises help you develop a matured design sense.

You will learn from having to solve the problem without being told the design first, and then later having to re-implement a better design. This practice will internalize your design sense and eventually you will start to see the better designs the first time through.

The big problem with trying to get the design right the first time is it leads to coders block. Staring at the blank screen, trying to figure out the best way to do something. Even if you are writing the wrong code, it is important to be moving in some direction.

When I see the code, oftentimes the design I get will form around the reading of the code rather than trying to think in the abstract about the whole problem at once. For me the problem and the design for the solution would be too big of a mental model to fit in my head all at once.

Don’t worry, as you get more experience, your mental context will expand too. Your ability to sustain concentration will build as well as you practice and become more experienced. With experience, you won’t have to think about as many of the small problems anymore.

Architecture is like most craftsman practices in the sense that there are breakthroughs but there is always more to learn. I read a blog recently where Uncle Bob Martin talks about thinking through the architecture of a problem for hours or days before he will start.

When I was an apprentice, I would not have had enough experience or a large enough mental model to think about the architectural impact of a solution. Even as a journeyman, I still only have a big enough mental model to think about an aspect of a problem, write the code, then reevaluate where the solution stands in the context of the system.

For an apprentice, bad design should not be seen as the end of the world. As long as you are learning and progressing in the techniques of creating working code, you are moving in the right direction. Design sense is a long-term skill and you will have to be patient with it. Remember that practice makes perfect.

Paul Pagel, Chief Executive Officer

Paul Pagel has been a driving force in the software craftsmanship movement since its inception.