How to Introduce Yourself as an IT Architect

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:

  1. Create visions
  2. Craft decisions
  3. Technical leadership
  4. 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

  1. Pick one thing that you do (i.e. one of the four above if you’re stumped).
  2. 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.

 

 

 

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Are traditional architecture engagement models still relevant?

An article I wrote, originally posted on the Davanti Consulting website, 30th November 2016, reposted here with permission.

Reinvention dominates the business landscape, pervading how we work and how we engage with those around us. As an architect, I sometimes wonder how many of my industry colleagues have noticed this and contemplated similar innovation. As architects we are often perceived as dinosaurs; surely then, the time to start reintegrating ourselves is now.

THE CURRENT STATE OF ARCHITECTURAL ENGAGEMENT

A good architect can bring excellent value, but that value is lost if it arrives too late. Some of the barriers to this value even appear to be systemic or stem from entrenched legacy thinking.

The way in which architects engage is influenced by several factors, including:

  • Control: architectural governance is often perceived as regulatory rather than wisdom.
  • Processes: these are often complex, “heavy”, unwieldy and time-consuming.
  • Resourcing: architectural capability is often scarce, a scarcity which is exacerbated by heavy processes.

Traditional architectural engagement tends to be based on a “these are the rules” approach renown for volumes of documentation and thinking before any real work starts. Interestingly this way of working doesn’t really have a name – it “just is”. There’s definitely a number of architects who got the Agile memo, but overall that percentage is still relatively small.

There are architecture frameworks such as TOGAF, but a framework is not an engagement model. TOGAF has the “Request for Architecture Work” concept, but this is more of a one-shot form. TOGAF is aimed at enterprise architecture and whilst it refers to solution architecture it does not attempt to address how architects should engage with stakeholders in a product or project delivery setting.

At the project level, architectural engagement will ideally be in the form of an embedded solution architect. Ideally their engagement will start with the business case and continue through to overseeing the implementation. At worst, their involvement will be sporadic or non-existent. For various reasons such as a scarcity of architects, coupled with the weightiness of architecture processes, this engagement will likely be forgone for smaller projects. The associated risk is that smaller projects often grow into bigger ones, consequently attracting belated architectural attention.

So, short of everyone drinking the agile Kool-Aid what should we do? What might a revamped engagement model look like? How do we start, and what are the challenges we need to solve?

FUTURE STATE

The goal is to ensure that architects are able to add value in a timely and sustainable manner.

As architects often work as part of an architectural practice, and within the boundaries of architectural governance, both the architecture practice and governance may need to be revamped:

  • The architecture practice should reinforce behaviours and processes that make the team more consistent in their approach, allows them to support each other, and thus positions the team to offer a more consistent experience to their business clients.
  • Ideally architectural governance should support the team in this change as they are its ambassadors. Governance should not be about doing architecture for the benefit of the architect.

At a high level, think about making these changes so that the following value is unlocked:

Do this 

 So that

Revamp governance.
  • It provides supportive guidance, rather than be a place where things go to be vetoed.
  • It is easy and relatively painless to use, and therefore gets used more often.
Create a toolbox of processes, tools & artefacts that is accessible.
  • Non-architects find it easier to understand and use, as a result the architects will need to spend explaining it.
  • More time can be devoted unlocking value and less time given to discussing the process.
  • Architects have the time (and opportunity) to spend engaging more broadly and more regularly with the business.
Encourage architectural mentoring and coaching.
  •  Architects can be seen more as collaborators and supporters.

 

REVAMPING GOVERNANCE

This isn’t a wholesale re-write, but more of a health check and possible diet.  You might be familiar with the concept of a good value proposition being one that your grandmother could understand; check your architectural governance processes and make sure they can pass that test. Make sure that what is expected is very clear, not onerous, and that its business value is self-evident.

CREATE A TOOLBOX OF PROCESSES, TOOLS & ARTEFACTS THAT IS ACCESSIBLE

Empowering the business, whilst keeping them and the architect team aligned, is going to mean having some supporting materials available. These will work with the revamped governance and be very practical in nature. In situations where architects are working with the business in a mentoring context they will need materials that they can refer the business too, and which the business can use with a degree of self-reliance. These materials should outline:

  • Technology constraints that are deemed important, and why. If possible, a sense of direction, as business and architecture are seldom static.
  • What questions to ask themselves, and when, so that the business doesn’t paint themselves into a corner.
  • Areas of danger or concern; things they should escalate to the architect so that they can be appropriately supported. Thinking along the lines of RACI can be helpful – for example: when should they inform and when should they consult.

These material might be pre-written guides, checklists and (lightweight) documentation and diagrams, or, checklists that the business progressively complete with varying degrees of assistance from an architect. They might be anything from risk assessments, solution option assessments to solution architecture definitions.

Creating materials that effectively support the business (and the architects) means creating materials that are easy to access – not just in terms of being easily located, but also easy to read, and understand.Materials should be suitably light-weight, so that they are easy to consume and keep up to date. After all there’s no point freeing up an architect’s time just to write more documents.

In terms of the artefacts you expect the business/projects to deliver, ask yourself “who will read the documents”? If the answer is “only other architects” then exactly what value does it provide and is it really necessary?

ENCOURAGE MENTORING AND COACHING

There will always be a need for architects to do the architecture, and to be deeply embedded in a given project; but conversely there are many opportunities where a lighter touch may be equally effective.

Coming to the business with a mentoring approach places everyone on a more equal footing, and increases the chance of a more meaningful collaboration. The architects are close enough to spot potential issues, establish some sort of rapport with the business and lead them where appropriate. The business is free to do some of the heavy lifting themselves, freeing up some of the architect’s time.

If successful, architectural value should become easier to unlock, and more valued by everyone.

ENGAGEMENT STYLE

So far we’ve focused on the engagement model, i.e. elements of structure, broad approach and the rationale behind it. Hand-in-glove with those concepts is the style of engagement, i.e. the communication style used and how you relate to stakeholders on a personal level.

It is vital that you tune-in to your audience. Architects need to be leaders, they need to manage stakeholders of all types, and in a range of different situations. To do this effectively will require you to adjust your engagement style to suit both the audience and the message.

The best laid plans are easily ruined by poor execution, and as good architecture is dependent on good communication it is essential to get this right.  Effective communication is a substantive topic in its own right, and beyond the scope of this article, but to get started, consider:

  • Being available, approachable and responsive.
  • Being good at active listening.
  • Being able to relate to others.
  • Being able to simplify the complex.
  • Being able to speak up.
  • Being good at asking questions.
  • Being effective at persuasion, mediation, facilitation.
  • How to say no without coming across as (or actually being) a roadblock.
  • Picking the right communication style for the audience.

IN CLOSING

As a discipline architecture offers great value, and architects tend to be clever people, but realising that value is not straightforward – as architects we need to be proactive, we need to be mindful of changing expectations as the world changes around us. Just because architecture deals in the fundamental does not mean it is impervious to change.

As practitioners of architecture, take what you can from new ways of working, such as Agile and collaborative tools.

Show the business and the rest of IT that architecture is not something up an ivory tower, and that we can lead innovation and change by example.

Career Progression into Architecture

In terms of career progression into architecture, people typically start off from one of several common “starting positions”. For example, a solution architect or application architect this is likely to come from a software development background.
Here a map of some of the more common paths:

typical-career-progressionThere are more types of architect and pathways than what’s depicted here, but based on conversations with architects I have met (or interviewed) this is a fairly accurate summary of some of the more common paths.

The Architectural Role Meta-Model

For simplicity, I define it in three parts (outlined below). In broad terms, Enterprise and Solution architecture disciplines cover the full range of domains but operate within a specific level of abstraction; whereas Domain architects cover all levels of abstraction but within a specific domain.  An in-depth write up on this can be found here, but in summary:

  1. Enterprise Architects – who typically operate at the highest level of architectural abstraction and across a broad range of domains.
  2. Solution Architects – who typically operate at a project or programme level. Although solution architecture covers the full breadth of domains, an individual solution architect will typically be relatively narrow in their focus – either providing general technical leadership within the scope of a specific project, technology or domain.
  3. Domain Architects – typically operate simultaneously across the spectrum of enterprise and solution architecture, but within a single specific domain. They will support both enterprise and solution/delivery specific needs.

Progression

We typically see common paths into and through architecture, such as the software developer into the application or solution architecture space; business analysis into the business architecture space, and so on.  Once in the architecture space it is possible to side-step into related roles – this might be done as a conscious and fundamental career choice, or may simply represent shorter-term variety driven by the work available.
The progression from solution architecture to domain architect to enterprise architect is common but by no means the only career path.

To a certain extent there’s a drift upwards in terms of abstraction (developer to solution architect; solution architect to domain or enterprise architect), but this isn’t always strictly the case.  It’s fair to say that each role has a set of skills and a temperament that suit it – some people will mature from one role into the next, others will take an alternate path.

The Product Specialist

One of the assumptions behind the solution, domain and enterprise architect roles is that these people often have a breadth of experience that goes beyond a single product or technology stack.  In other words, their careers are not defined along narrow vendor specific lines.  This is largely borne out by what I have seen in the market in terms of the experience people have and the career paths they have taken.

Such specialists will be genuinely skilled at what they do but lacking breadth of vision and depth of understanding that someone with a more diverse background is likely to have.

Is this good or bad?  Well I think that depends on what you need for the problem at hand; sometimes you need a very specialized tool for a very special problem, whilst other-times a more flexible tool is best.

One thing to be sure of though, as the technology market grows in breadth and diversity, areas of specialization will deepen.  As anyone familiar with web development in the early 2000’s can tell you, the number of stacks and architectures available has grown considerably; as that range increases so does the potential for individuals to specialize; so does the possible combinations of skills a specific job description might call for.

This specialization is reflected in the vendor space where larger vendors have their own subset of roles (think marketecture) that mirror the role hierarchies found in the general market. We therefore have product specialist roles starting to emerge, with people operating at the level of a solution architect but with a background that cannot assumed to be as broad as those from a more general background.