Random Acts of Architecture

Tales of an architect trying to bring order to the chaos that is modern information technology.

If it were easy, we would not need good IT architects

It is hard not to find advice on being a great IT architect. Beyond modelling and technical details, good advice includes effective persuasion, people skills and persistence. However, the need for non-technical skills is often left as self-evident or explained superficially. It also glosses over important details and distinctions.

Traditionally, IT has two types of roles. The first role is the implementor, such as a software developer, network engineer or QA. They produce non-delegatable outcomes. The second role is a manager or executive, someone accountable when something goes well or poorly.

IT architects fit into neither role. Their value becomes apparent when the project or organization gets big, complex or conflicts with team objectives. They are not more intelligent or more capable than implementors or management. Instead, they solve an emergent need.

IT architects are internal consultants, helping team members to execute and management be successful. Enterprise and senior solution architects increasingly provide executive decision support instead of design, almost becoming a separate role.

However, being a consultant has two fundamental but often missed implications for IT architects. The first implication is an IT architect has no intrinsic authority. Their authority stems from the stakeholders, usually management or executives, that their architectures enable or support.

Whose authority is usually evident in client-facing product teams who share a reporting structure. However, this is often unclear in projects spanning multiple reporting lines, such as large or siloed organizations or internal IT projects. Shared responsibilities between business and IT muddy this further.

The second implication of an IT architect being consultative is people often incorrectly think IT architects, like consultants, are paid for their opinions. Yes, implementors consume the artifacts produced by IT architects, like designs and principles (“opinions”). However, neither stakeholders nor implementors blindly accept them.

Instead, an IT architect should prioritize and justify their outputs as stakeholders do to their superiors. This approach consists of three pillars.

The first pillar is financial. How do the IT architect’s actions make money, save money or lose less money? Start with understanding how the organization funds projects. For example, if maintenance and operation costs are separate, the IT architect may need to justify up-front efforts to reduce each to different stakeholders. A move to IaaS cloud hosting is easier if the organization favours OpEx over CapEx.

The second pillar is metrics. Executives and managers often have objectives, measures or other targets they need to reach. While they are rarely perfect, an IT architect should understand them and reference them. For example, if cost-saving is a metric for a critical stakeholder, ensure the design reduces net cost.

The third pillar is language. The IT architect should learn and use the terms used by executives and managers. Such language varies between organizations and shifts over time but talking like decision-makers helps an IT architect seem credible.

Another question is how much authority the IT architect holds. There is no definitive answer. Less technical management and executives often dismiss the question as an IT issue. IT management may lack the strategic incentives to avoid cutting corners. Organizations rarely question the level and nature of authority when successful. However, they can scramble when things go downhill. 

Aligning expectations and processes beforehand, both individual IT architects and the team, is a practical first step. How is development tracked against the architecture? Is there a process for changing or disregarding parts of an architecture? How do you differentiate poor execution from a good architecture or vice versa? 

Once an IT architect establishes this, IT architects can then differentiate the value of their project from their value as IT architects. The accountability for a project rests with the appropriate executives and management, not the architect. The IT architect needs to focus on their part in it.

Selling an architecture or design and selling the value of an IT architect are related but different activities. Selling a design, for example, requires helping the customer meet their own goals more effectively. It happens periodically, usually once per project. It makes you authoritative for that project. Selling an IT architect role and understanding stakeholder needs are both ongoing, continuous processes.

IT architects are a bit like CEOs. CEOs’ primary customers are the investors or owners of the organization. While ignoring actual customers or staff seems cynical, good investors care about the organization as a whole and beyond just customers’ short term needs.

An IT architect’s “investors” are their stakeholders. Like CEOs, IT architects will rarely keep everyone happy. Not every team will have every need met. Every change involves winners (profit, less work) and losers (more work, more responsibility).

The success of an IT architect relies on their ability to identify and sell their value to the correct set of stakeholders. Selling is challenging and complex. Stakeholders are rarely technical, at least from an architect’s viewpoint, and require empathy.

For example, non-IT management wants justification in business terms, usually financial. They often regard “good design practices” as an unnecessary expense. While organizations are using more technology, technology is rarely a core business competency or differentiator. The onus is on the IT architect to justify anything beyond a minimal expenditure.

Having to justify technology use constantly is frustrating. IT architects often evolve from technologists who “look up” or “see the big picture”. However, the big picture is not really about technology. It is about the application of technology to broad, often ill-defined and contradictory goals. If it were easy, we would not need good IT architects.

Image credit: Creator: Sergey Nivens | Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

One response to “If it were easy, we would not need good IT architects

  1. Adam LG Ring September 5, 2021 at 5:17 pm

    Great coverage of issues often overlocked that explain why the lot of the IT Architect is difficult!

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