Astronauts Without Mission Control

Joel Spolsky complains that architecture astronauts are taking over at big, rich companies like Google and Microsoft, pushing out elaborate architectural systems that don’t solve actual problems.

He’s right in that smart, technical people like to take on any large, abstract problem that is, as he puts it, “a fun programming exercise that you’re doing because it’s just hard enough to be interesting but not so hard that you can’t figure it out.”

But I think the constant reinvention of (to use Spolsky’s examples) Lotus Notes or file synchronization represents a failure of leadership more than a failure of the astronauts themselves. If you don’t give smart engineers something interesting to work on, they’ll invent something themselves. But all they know is what they studied in school — abstract architectures that don’t solve actual problems — so that’s what they invent. It takes a rare, creative individual to come up with an idea — spreadsheets, Napster, eBay — that is both an interesting technical challenge and a desirable product.

So my question to Mr. Spolsky is: what should all those architecture astronauts be working on instead?