As engineers at GitLab, we lead the evolution of software, constantly working to find the right balance between proactive work, reactive work, and innovation. We strive to determine what work is important and what work is not, leveraging knowledge from those that know the most about GitLab, and empowering people to work on things that make everyone more productive. Experimenting and innovating are core to how we work, and we focus on collaboration, results and iteration to achieve our goals.
With growth, however, comes complexity. An organic approach to our work sometimes requires help to ensure we are most effective. Help may be in the form of validating our technical approaches, ensuring organizational alignment across teams and departments, and driving priorities to key decision makers. Technical Engineering Leaders take on the task of helping engineers through these challenges. The Architecture Evolution Workflow is intended to provide influence amplification and iteration framework to drive the solution of complex problems both technically and organizationally.
Blueprints are the primary artifact that the workflow revolves around. They are version controlled documents that are released alongside our user-facing documentation and you can find a list of published ones there too.
Long-term iterations, either on features or complex architectural changes, are challenging because it is easy to lose consensus, conceptual integrity, architectural consistency, or alignment in why and how we are doing something.
A blueprint describes a technical vision and a set of principles that evolve as we move forward. It acts as guardrails to keep team aligned. A blueprint gets constantly updated with new insights and knowledge, after every iteration, to become even more useful as we make progress with implementing it.
You can start with a blueprint that is one paragraph long, and evolve the content as you move forward with your exploratory work, depending on what you learn along the way.
Blueprints are tracked as version controlled documents. This enables anyone to propose changes in the form of merge requests. By doing so we can ensure that:
A blueprint is required for changes that meet any of the following conditions:
Invoking this workflow is unnecessary if:
As an engineer, you and your manager determine whether to invoke the Architecture Evolution Workflow. When in doubt, do not hesitate to reach out to a Principal+ Engineer for input.
#architecturechannel on Slack.
Once your blueprint has been merged you can start collaborating with the DRIs to get the work done in a way that seems best for everyone involved.
The blueprint is an artifact that accompanies you during the implementation journey. After each iteration you can get back to it, to update it with the current state of the architectural initiative.
Anyone can propose a change they believe we should work on. When these changes turn out to be too intricate for a single individual contributor to handle (complex backstage improvements, architectural changes, productivity or efficiency improvements), or they span multiple iterations or teams, it may be helpful to invoke the Architecture Evolution Workflow, as the change may not be something directly actionable.
The issue author collaborates with the Architecture Evolution Coach to involve the right people and reach the right decision makes, DRIs, domain experts, and other stakeholders.
For any given proposal, the following people should be involved:
During the process of working on the proposal, the author collaborates with an Architecture Evolution Coach, managers and domain experts, to create a blueprint.
In order to choose the right stakeholders, the author and their manager will first need to understand what is the scope of their proposal, what departments and teams will need to help to get the work done and how important it is for the organization, then they can involve the Architecture Evolution Coach to guide them through the workflow.
Once the blueprint has enough content to evaluate the proposal (it can still be fairly short and simple) new processes and workflows become available for you, to make the proposal visible to the right people. See the section about amplification.
A proposal can be merged early, being still in an initial
proposed state, but
it is advised to have at least a prior input from Architecture Evolution Coach
before merging your blueprint.
As the original author of a proposal, you are the primary DRI.
Architecture Evolution Coach is a Principal+ Engineer, who has been already involved in work on the complex technical initiatives, who can guide the author throughout the process as a mentor and a coach.
The purpose of involving a coach in the process of creating a blueprint is to allow people that know most about GitLab to share their knowledge and perspective on introducing complex architectural changes, help navigate organizational challenges, ensure the proposal is aligned with our roadmap, and help management Engineering Leaders prioritize the work.
The AEC will help you identify the right management Engineering Leader to evaluate the proposal. Managers are key decision-makers, and, ultimately, will help to navigate the organizational complexities to get your proposal approved and funded.
The Engineering Management Leader and AEC will help you to identify the right Product Manager to collaborate on the proposal. PMs are the decision-makers that will help to include your proposal in the stream of work that is always in-flight. PMs can also help with funding your proposal if the believe that we need to hire new people to get it done or to invoke other processes to find people who can work on it.
Domain Experts are engineers with a deep understanding of one or more particular areas. Domain Experts:
A Domain Expert is an engineer, usually an individual contributor, who knows most about specific aspects of the codebase and a domain in the area of proposed changes, but might still lack the deep understanding of the process behind introducing complex architectural changes, hence the collaboration between a Domain Expert and an Architecture Evolution Coach might be very useful.
Sometimes there is an Architecture Evolution Coach available who is also a Domain Expert in a particular area. In that case there is no need to involve another person.
Functional Experts are engineers with deep knowledge across specific functional areas, which include Security, QA, Database, and Infrastructure. You should always involve these functional experts during the generation of blueprint so that we generate awareness early in the cycle and so that they can provide appropriate input into the blueprint.
It is a responsibility of a proposal DRIs, especially Architecture Evolution Coach and managers to figure it out which Functional Experts need to get involved early in the blueprint creation phase, to provide feedback and guidance.
The Author, Architecture Evolution Coach, Engineering Management Leader, Product Management Leader, Domain Experts, Functional Experts collaborate initially in a blueprint merge request
A blueprint merge request is a description of Why, How and What of the change that has been proposed in the issue. It is also a mind map of future iterations. It describes challenges, opportunities and a technical vision that are supposed to guide team members throughout their iterations, even though it usually does not describe the path to the success in detail. As we move forward with implementation and iterate on a project, we continuously incorporate feedback gained after each of the iterations, into the blueprint itself. The blueprint evolves as we move forward, hence it supports "an evolutionary architecture" practice. It is fine to start with a very simple blueprint after it gets reviewed by an Architecture Evolution Coach.
Blueprints are mostly written by engineers, but their content should not be deeply technical. The audience are Product Team Members, management Engineering Leaders and the wider community. A blueprint should describe a clear vision that is easy to understand: use simple diagrams, and avoid technical jargon overload. Technical details will be fleshed out in subsequent epics and issues associated with a blueprint once we enter the execution phase.
Merged blueprints will be published on GitLab Architecture Blueprints public pages. You fill find a list of published blueprints at that address.
If you don't know what content you should put into a blueprint, you can use this template as a starting point. You will also find there a list of acceptable blueprints' statuses, that we typically use in a Markdown front matter (blueprint metadata section).
Please be conscious of our SAFE framework guidelines, and start collaborating on a blueprint in a private space (like a Google Doc) if it should not be made public.
Once the blueprint is merged and there is a buy in from Engineering Management and Product Management Leaders, it is important to find DRIs responsible for the implementation. Those DRIs can be the same as DRIs responsible for the blueprint creation / proposal, but it is okay to reassign people too.
The blueprint needs three people that will become DRIs:
These people will be responsible for the evolution of the blueprint and figuring it out how to get the blueprint implemented.
DRIs can decide to form a Working Group to structure the efforts related to the architecture change. Key considerations in deciding to form a Working Group are the size, complexity, and organizational impact of the change.
The concept of a Working Groups can be an extension of the Architecture Evolution Workflow, but if it is not applicable in a particular case, a different process can be followed, like the suggested one that is described below.
We recognize the challenge of implementing complex architectural changes, over many months or even years. It is difficult to start such a work, fund it in the long term and avoid disruptive distractions as the implementation moves forward.
Blueprints are often written by individual engineers, yet these documents usually describe far-reaching visions. Implementing such a vision takes time and might require funding. The Architecture Evolution Workflow has been built to better support teams in getting this kind of work done. There are a few associated processes, established to increase the likelihood of a success.
One of processes designed to help is a monthly Architecture Evolution Sync meeting with Engineering Fellows and VP of Development, among others. The purpose of this meeting is to:
Once the work starts, it is important to realize that working on complex technical / architectural initiatives is an evolutionary process. The DRIs will be responsible for getting back to the content described in the blueprint to update it with the information from the feedback every iteration gives them. The blueprint is a document that evolves as the implementation continues.
When the work is completed, blueprints no longer represent a forward-looking architectural vision, instead the content describes the work done. As such, they should be removed from docs and should be move to an archive or transformed into blog posts.