The role of software architects in Agile teams

#architecture #agile

Written by Anders Marzi Tornblad

Published on

This is part 8 of the Getting into software architecture series. If you haven't read the first part, here it is: A primer for emerging software architects

As the world of software development evolves, the role of the software architect is becoming increasingly critical, and yet it is often thought of as unnecessary or outdated. In Agile teams, the architect becomes a key player, taking on additional roles and responsibilities that drive the success of projects and the growth of the organization as a whole.

In Agile environments, architects provide technical expertise and direction, and ensure that projects are completed with high quality, efficiency, and appropriate tooling. They manage technical risks, foster collaboration within and outside the team, and play a pivotal role in driving innovation across the organization. Architects blend technical know-how, leadership, and strategic thinking, and can be indispensable members of any Agile team.

This article will explore the role of the software architect in Agile teams, highlighting the responsibilities they shoulder, the benefits of their inclusion in the team, and the modern trends influencing their approach. As we journey through this topic, we'll uncover how the role of the software architect not only shapes the software development process but also influences the very success and efficiency of Agile teams.

Understanding Agile teams

The Agile methodology is a distinctive approach to managing software development, that emphasizes continuous collaboration and improvement. This methodology breaks down work into iterations, creating a cycle of planning, executing, and evaluating. In contrast to older "waterfall" approaches, where one discipline completes their contribution and then "hands it over" to the next, Agile promotes the concept of collaborative, cross-functional teams. The essence of Agile lies in open communication, collaboration, adaptation, and trust amongst team members. The project lead or product owner typically prioritizes the work to be delivered, but the team takes the initiative in deciding how the work will be executed, self-organizing around detailed tasks and assignments.

Modern software development teams choose Agile for its ability to respond to change in the marketplace or feedback from customers swiftly without disrupting long-term plans. The methodology encourages "just enough" planning and shipping in small, frequent increments, enabling teams to gather feedback on each change and integrate it into future plans at a minimal cost. The Agile Manifesto emphasizes that authentic human interactions are more valuable than rigid processes, and collaboration with customers and teammates is prioritized over predefined arrangements. Agile teams unite under a shared vision and bring it to life in the best way they see fit, setting their own standards for quality, usability, and completeness.

The composition of Agile teams

Each specific Agile framework, like Scrum, can mandate a specific set of roles to fill in a team, like Scrum Master and Product Owner, but in general, the roles can be diverse, ranging from product managers and marketers to developers, testers, and software architects, each bringing their unique skill sets to the table. The structure of these teams is often fluid, adapting to changing business realities.

The process of building an effective Agile team starts with forming a group of individuals who are willing to collaborate, learn, and grow together. As the team matures, the members learn to trust each other and understand each other's strengths, optimizing how they work together to deliver high-quality software. Two fundamental pillars of great Agile teams are continuous mentoring and shared skill sets. This environment allows each member to contribute effectively, making the team's overall impact greater than the sum of its individual members. Meanwhile, the shared skill sets mean the team can handle a diversity of work and support each other better.

The software architect

The software architect role, with its blend of technical acumen, strategic oversight, and collaborative spirit, can be a driving force behind successful delivery of high-quality software solutions. Let's take a look at the dynamics of this role, the responsibilities and contributions to the Agile methodology.

Who is a software architect?

Essentially, software architects are the designers of the software world. They employ their knowledge of software technologies, design principles, and patterns to architect systems that are scalable, reliable, and maintainable. But their role extends beyond just technical design. Architects also play a crucial part in defining a system's overall architecture on a higher level, based on an understanding of the business domain, the needs of various stakeholders, and future scalability considerations.

However, it is important that the role of a software architect is not confined to an ivory tower, detached from the day-to-day realities of a software project. In contrast, architects should be deeply involved in the project lifecycle, working closely with other team members, including developers, testers, project managers, and stakeholders. They help translate business requirements into technical solutions, guide the technological choices of the team, and oversee the quality of the implemented solutions. They also foresee and manage technical risks that could impact the project's progress or outcome.

The effectiveness of a software architect is reflected in their ability to balance multiple aspects of the software development process. They need to align the architecture with the business strategy and goals, ensure that it accommodates future growth and changes, and make sure it's implementable within the project's constraints. The architects' skills and influence are integral to these balancing acts, making them an indispensable member of any software team, especially in an Agile context.

The importance of the software architect

One of the primary contributions of a software architect is the establishment of a technical vision for the project. This vision is informed by the requirements of the stakeholders and is aligned with the overall strategic goals of the organization. The architect translates this vision into a set of design principles and architectural guidelines that steer the development efforts. This guidance ensures that the software solutions developed are scalable, maintainable, and robust, addressing both the current and anticipated needs of the organization.

In addition to setting the technical vision, a software architect also plays a key role in managing technical risks. They accomplish this by identifying potential pitfalls and obstacles early in the project, allowing the team to address these challenges proactively. They bring their experience and expertise to the team, enabling them to anticipate and avoid potential issues that could derail the project. This risk management role is crucial in Agile environments, where the emphasis on iterative development and rapid delivery could otherwise lead to the accumulation of technical debt and the emergence of architectural issues later in the project.

Furthermore, software architects foster collaboration within the team and drive innovation. They facilitate communication between the stakeholders and the development team, ensuring that the developers understand the strategic goals of the project and that the stakeholders are kept informed about technical considerations and trade-offs. The architect's understanding of the domain also allow them to introduce new ideas and technologies to the team, promoting a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.

The software architect in Agile teams

In an Agile environment, the software architect is a crucial bridge between the technical team and various stakeholders. Stakeholders, in this context, broadly include everyone from project managers and product owners to customers and end-users who have a vested interest in the project's outcome.

Collaboration with stakeholders

The architect's collaboration with stakeholders begins with understanding the system's needs. This understanding isn't limited to just the immediate functional requirements but extends to the non-functional requirements and constraints, the business context, the strategic direction of the organization, and even the challenges faced by the users.

The architect's goal is to translate the diverse needs of stakeholders into a cohesive architectural vision that aligns with the Agile principles of incremental and iterative development. This involves engaging in constant communication with stakeholders, seeking their input, and explaining the architectural decisions in a language they can understand. This active collaboration helps in building a shared understanding of the project, reducing ambiguities, and fostering a sense of ownership among stakeholders.

Moreover, software architects also play a pivotal role in managing stakeholder expectations. Given the iterative nature of Agile, not all features can be delivered at once, and some decisions might need to be made about the trade-offs between various aspects like speed, quality, cost, and scope. Here, the architect's ability to communicate effectively with stakeholders about these trade-offs, while still maintaining the integrity of the system design, becomes critical.

Working with Developers

The relationship between software architects and developers is pivotal. This collaboration is not merely about sharing responsibilities, but it involves a continuous exchange of ideas, knowledge, and skills aimed at designing scalable and maintainable solutions.

A software architect, in this context, acts as a guide and mentor for the developers. They help the team in interpreting and implementing the architectural vision into code. While doing so, they respect the developers' autonomy and encourage self-organization, a core Agile principle. They provide insights into design patterns, best practices, and coding standards, ensuring the technical quality of the product. They also play a crucial role in identifying potential technical debts and risks early, enabling the team to address them proactively.

In the Agile world, the architect's collaboration with developers extends beyond the boundaries of a single team. Architects often work closely with developers from multiple teams to ensure that the architectural principles and practices are consistently applied across the entire organization. This includes facilitating knowledge sharing sessions, conducting code reviews, and providing feedback. This cross-team interaction fosters a culture of learning and continuous improvement, which is fundamental to Agile's success.

However, an effective architect-developer collaboration goes beyond just the technical aspects. A software architect must also understand the developers' perspectives, their challenges, and their needs. They should foster a culture of open communication and mutual respect, where developers feel comfortable discussing their ideas and concerns. This empathetic approach not only improves team morale but also helps in creating solutions that are truly aligned with the developers' capabilities and the project's needs.

As Agile practices mature, so too does the approach to software architecture. Here is an overview of two key modern trends that are important to be aware of.

The idea of evolutionary architecture represents a paradigm shift in the approach to software design. Traditionally, architects have attempted to predict and design for the system's needs years into the future. In an ever-changing technological landscape, this approach has become increasingly untenable. Enter the concept of evolutionary architecture, which enables the continuous evolution and adaptation of system architecture to meet emerging requirements and environmental changes.

Evolutionary architecture centers around making architecture components flexible and adaptable, with a focus on incrementally modifying and improving the system. The design principles include deferring architectural decisions until they are necessary, making changes incrementally to minimize disruption, and implementing automated testing to ensure system robustness against changes. This dynamic approach to architecture provides a mechanism to react to changing requirements without significant rework or redesign. It aligns well with Agile methodologies, where adaptability and incremental development is valued.

There are many sides to the role of a software architect in an evolutionary setting. As a strategic thinker, the architect tries to anticipate areas where the system may need to evolve and designs flexible solutions that can accommodate these changes. At the same time, they must ensure that the architecture remains cohesive and maintainable as it evolves. This involves close collaboration with the development team to understand the impact of proposed changes, and to guide the team in implementing these changes effectively and efficiently. The architect also plays a critical role in risk management, identifying and mitigating potential issues that could arise from architectural changes.

In an Agile context, the software architect contributes to evolutionary architecture by fostering an environment that encourages continuous learning and adaptation. They guide the team in adopting practices such as refactoring and technical debt management that support evolutionary changes. Above all, the architect ensures that the evolving architecture continues to align with the organization's strategic goals and provides business value. This constant dance between foresight, strategy, and adaptability is what makes the software architect's role in evolutionary architecture so challenging, but also fascinating.

Emergent architecture refers to an approach where the system's design evolves over time, often as a response to changing requirements or new insights gathered during the software development process. This concept aligns well with Agile methodologies, as Agile encourages iterative development and adaptation to changes.

In an Agile context, the software architect plays a significant role in supporting and facilitating emergent architecture. As each iteration or sprint progresses, the architect collaborates closely with the development team to build a common understanding of emerging patterns and structures. This collaboration often involves the architect in hands-on coding, design sessions, and code reviews, ensuring that the evolving design adheres to the system's overall vision and quality standards.

However, the adoption of emergent architecture does not imply a lack of planning or disregard for system architecture. On the contrary, the software architect ensures that each increment contributes meaningfully to the evolving system's architecture. They guide the team in making informed decisions that balance immediate needs with long-term sustainability. The architect also helps manage technical risks, mitigating potential pitfalls that might hinder the architecture's organic evolution. This approach allows Agile teams to remain flexible and responsive, adapt to changes, and deliver value continuously and effectively.

In conclusion, emergent architecture is a dynamic, responsive approach that complements the Agile mindset. The software architect plays a critical role in this process, guiding the system's evolution and ensuring it grows in a way that is sustainable, maintainable, and in line with the project's strategic objectives.

Please note that while I have attempted to give a comprehensive overview of emergent architecture within an Agile context, it's important to recognize that the understanding and application of such concepts can vary depending on specific project circumstances and organizational contexts.

The architect's role in Scaled Agile Framework

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a popular framework that organizations use to scale Agile and Lean practices across an enterprise. SAFe is designed to address the complexities that come with larger software development projects involving multiple teams and stakeholders. It provides a structured approach to scaling Agile that emphasizes collaboration, alignment, and delivery across large numbers of Agile teams.

SAFe is based on three primary bodies of knowledge: Agile software development, Lean product development, and systems thinking. The principles of Agile are at the core of SAFe and guide all aspects of the framework. These principles include prioritizing individuals and interactions, delivering working software frequently, collaborating with customers, and being responsive to change.

In addition to these Agile principles, SAFe incorporates Lean thinking, which aims to optimize efficiency, eliminate waste, and deliver value quickly. Systems thinking, the third pillar, involves viewing the system as a whole rather than focusing solely on its parts. It encourages teams to understand how their work fits into the larger system and impacts other teams and the final product.

Like Agile, SAFe values flexibility and responsiveness over rigid plans and schedules. However, SAFe incorporates additional layers of planning and coordination to manage the interdependencies between different teams and align them towards the common organizational goals. This creates a balance between the flexibility of Agile and the structure needed to manage large-scale projects.

The software architect in SAFe

The role of the software architect takes on additional layers of complexity within a Scaled Agile Framework environment. The primary responsibility still lies in creating and maintaining the software architecture, but the software architect also has a significant part in guiding system development across multiple Agile teams. This involves coordinating with other architects, fostering alignment between teams, and ensuring that system-level considerations are appropriately addressed.

In a SAFe environment, the software architect operates at the level of the Agile Release Train (ART), a team of Agile teams that aligns around common technological and business objectives. In large scale settings like this, there are also multiple architect roles, operating on multiple level of organization, like Enterprise Architect, Business Architect, and Solution Architect. All architect roles work closely together to ensure the architectural integrity of the solutions being developed. This collaboration is essential to the realization of the Architectural Runway, an ongoing vision of the architecture that supports the implementation of upcoming business features. They help establish and communicate this runway, providing the necessary technical context and guidance to the teams.

Moreover, the software architect's role in a SAFe environment extends beyond the technical domain. They're instrumental in fostering a culture of shared responsibility for architecture, encouraging teams to make architectural decisions at the last responsible moment, in line with SAFe principles. They also contribute to a broader understanding of the system's architecture among all members of the Agile teams, thereby promoting an environment where everyone is aware of and respects the architectural boundaries and decisions. In summary, within SAFe, the software architect's role is a careful balancing act that blends technical leadership with effective collaboration, ensuring both the quality of the software architecture and the smooth execution of the Agile Release Train.


Software architects play an instrumental role in the success of Agile teams. They are the ones who bridge the gap between stakeholders and developers, translating business requirements into technical designs that are both scalable and maintainable. They are the ones who ensure quality, working hand in hand with the rest of the team throughout the development and testing processes. Their role is not limited to the confines of the development team, but extends to collaborating with various stakeholders, ensuring the alignment of software solutions with the organization's business goals.

In the Agile world, the role of the software architect is more dynamic than ever. The concepts of evolutionary and emergent architecture have reshaped the way architects approach their work. They now focus on guiding the system's evolution over time, allowing for architecture to emerge through iterative and incremental development. They balance the need for upfront design with the need for flexibility and adaptability, ensuring that the architecture can effectively respond to changing requirements.

Furthermore, the scaled Agile framework (SAFe) presents yet another layer of complexity and opportunity for software architects. Architects in a SAFe environment have additional responsibilities, and their role becomes even more critical as they help navigate larger organizational structures and processes, ensuring alignment across multiple Agile teams.

In conclusion, the role of the software architect in Agile teams is multifaceted and indispensable. It is a role that requires a blend of technical expertise, strategic thinking, and leadership. As Agile methodologies continue to evolve and adapt to the needs of modern software development, so too does the role of the software architect. By appreciating the crucial role of the software architect, we can foster better collaboration, improve software quality, and accelerate delivery, ensuring that we build software solutions that truly deliver value to users and stakeholders.

Further reading

Articles in this series: