The "Chief Architect" as "Quarterback"


An architecture consultant at a recent project that I was working on referred to the chief architect as the “quarterback of the architecture team” (yes, it was in the United States). In this post, I'm going to validate that analogy and see what implications the analogy might have for the role of chief architect.

Summary: The chief architect role is more like a quarterback than a team captain, and this means that their role is enhanced by having a set of reference models.

Most people will at least have heard of a quarterback, even if they've never watched a game of American Football. The quarterback is a pivotal role on the team – often called the “field general”. So what would be the analogy in what most of the world calls “football” – the game of soccer? Is there one?

The obvious answer would be to look at the team captain. But in practice, there is no analogous role, and that's because of the natures of the two games.

Soccer is an inherently fluid game. Watching it can sometimes feel like watching a tub of water wash back and forward as the two teams push their attacks against one another. The role of the captain is to be a team leader who motivates and leads by example.

Meanwhile, American Football is inherently stop-start – often compared to chess. This means that there are regular periods where the action is stopped and then restarts in a flurry of activity. It means that a game is composed of a set of small strategic decisions about each burst of action (each 'play'). Who makes these decisions? - The quarterback, which leads to the unofficial title of 'field general'.

Now that we've considered how the two roles differ, which one of these is the chief architect? Captain or quarterback?

The thing about corporate change is that it is broken up into a set of discrete activities – large scale programs and smaller scale projects. This is inevitable – there's no way to maintain corporate governance and spend in an organization without breaking it into manageable chunks. And the chunks that exist are these programs and projects.

So, day-to-day architectural development consists of a set of discrete projects – which means that architecture is more like American Football than Soccer. This in turn implies that the chief architect is more of a quarterback than a soccer captain – sure, they probably also have a leadership role, but their focus is on the tactics and strategy.

OK, all fun to discuss, but does this give us any actionable takeaways? Well, another distinctive feature of American Football and the quarterback's actions on the field are the calling of plays. “Plays” in this context means a pre-rehearsed, coordinated set of movements for each player once the ball goes in.

The analogy here would be principles and reference models. So, just as any American Football team has a predefined set of plays, it is well worth each architecture department investing in creating a set of reference models. They may conflict, in which case architecture review (led by the quarterback, who is chief architect) decides which play, that is, which reference model applies.

The plays in American Football are created ahead of time because it is not possible to create them on the fly during a game. In the same way, reference models provide a pre-thought out set of approaches because once you're in architectural design and review, you're already under pressure.