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Engineer, Conductor or Brakeman?

Posted by johnreynolds on March 31, 2005 at 12:11 PM PST

I was in a meeting the other day where one of my colleagues joked about a manager at our company who insists on calling our staff "Programmers" rather then "Software Engineers". I responded that I had once been an "Engineer", but now I was just a "Conductor". A friend chimed in that she's just a "Brakeman". All this was said in good fun, but a lot of truth is said in jest.

My job (my real job, not what it says on my business card) is to help keep things running smoothly, to spot problems before they get out of hand, and to gently nudge disparate projects into a common direction. I try to make sure that all the little pixels fit into the big picture.

My title is "Architect", but I don't really design things... I figure out how to morph things to make them fit into a constantly evolving master plan. Sometimes I do feel like a railroad conductor, checking "tickets" to make sure that "passengers" (projects) have paid for the right to be on the train. Other times I feel like a symphony conductor, trying to keep the brass section from overpowering the strings section. I never feel like a railroad engineer; a railroad engineer doesn't have to worry whether or not the train will follow the engine (the tracks insist).

I don't have a staff and I can't compel anybody to do anything. That's actually a good thing; if an architect dictates a design the builder may intentionally misread the blueprints, if an architect "sells" a design the builder will likely improve on it (and the owner will benefit). Selling is a lot harder then dictating, especially when you have to sell a design to business folks who don't fully understand the technology and to technology folks who don't fully understand the business (Add to this the fact that I don't fully understand either the business or the technology and you'll understand the challenge).

My colleague "the Brakeman" has a different role. She's tasked with getting individual projects into production. Like the railroad brakemen of old, she has to jump between moving cars to keep the brakes adjusted. Too much brake and the train will drag to a stop, too little brake and the whole train derails. It's a balancing act and often times stressful (prior to the introduction of pneumatic brakes on railroad cars, thousands of railroad brakemen were crushed to death each year).

We do have some "Engineers" here too, but they're not like railroad engineers. They don't drive engines, they design and build engines. This can be particularly challenging when they're asked to build an engine that can power either an SUV or a moped. We've got other folks who really "just" program; they implement the designs and iron out the bugs.

The real message is that it takes a team. Our success depends on relationships between people, relationships between software components, and relationships between business processes. It really doesn’t matter what it says on your business card.

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