If, like me, you are an “IT” architect, you’ll know that describing what you do to other people is a challenge… even to people who have some idea about information technology.
It’s definitely not like being a fireman.
I think where we go wrong is that we try to explain the totality of what we do, which is too much (too broad, too complex, too nuanced). Instead, perhaps we should just pick one thing and put it in a context people will understand.
Let’s break it down. Broadly I think architects do four things:
- Create visions
- Craft decisions
- Technical leadership
- Be wise gnomes
Creating visions is all about the ability to paint the metaphorical big picture. It’s the big picture that helps people understand where we should all be going, and why. Sometimes the vision is ours – we discover it; other times the vision comes from others – they simply need help crystallizing it and then communicating it.
Crafting decisions is about getting decisions made. Sometimes it’s about guiding and facilitating people so that they make the necessary decisions, in a logical and sensible way; other times we need to make and assert decisions – to break an impasse, fill a void, or provide a specific direction.
Technical leadership is about making sure the thing is well made. It’s dealing with the nuts and bolts, widgets and gizmos. It’s not just limited to which tools should we use and how should we put the parts together, it also extends into how we should structure our work so that complexity is managed.
Wise gnomes have been there before. They’ve done that. They have first-hand knowledge of where the traps are and experience in dealing with them.
Which of these resonates with you the most? For me, it probably depends on my most recent project, so if someone asks me what I do I’d mentally gravitate to whatever was most front-of-mind.
Explaining it to someone
- Pick one thing that you do (i.e. one of the four above if you’re stumped).
- Put it into a context the person will relate to.
Putting it into context could mean using the metaphor of someone they know, someone with qualities that have some relevance to what you do:
“Basically I’m like Gandalf, I stop the team getting themselves into trouble, support through mentoring, and take the lead in making hard decisions.”
“I’m like the ‘Spock’ of our team – when something complicated needs to be solved I’m the go-to person for logical advice and to make sure we’re not going to break anything.”
Alternatively the context could be based on something you do:
“I’m like the translator that helps the techies figure out what people want, and I help people understand what the technology can do. That means I usually get stuck in the middle and have to work out the hard problems.”
“I’m like the navigator of the ship – people have a vague idea of where they want to go but need help deciding exactly where and how to get there. That’s kinda what I do in terms of choosing which technology we use and how we want to use it.”
“Oh, so you design computers?”
“Sort of, I design systems for [system purpose or name of organisation] and help make the big decisions like which technology we’ll use.”
“I’m an IT architect“
Do you start with “I’m an IT architect“, or something similar? Personally I do. Most people know a little about a regular (i.e. building / civil engineering architect) and that context is useful for helping to explain what is it you do.
Some of my peers think architect is becoming a dirty word in some circles – I hope that’s not really the case.
Remember the Audience
Finally, the important foundation underneath all of this, is to tailor your response to the audience – what background information you think they might already have, and how you want to come across.
You’ll notice that in the examples above I’ve largely avoided talking about the specifics of what we do, this is because successfully leveraging those topics requires the audience to already know what you are talking about.
I think the key is to just get the conversation successfully started – stick to small easy concepts, once that’s achieved you can elaborate further or add to it with additional information.