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.
For most of us, smartphones replaced paper maps long ago. You enter your destination, and it presents you with multiple potential routes. Given one route is often fastest, why bother?
The smartphone may not have all the information, such as weather or traffic. The phone does not know that an alternate route may be faster.
Perhaps the environment changes after navigation starts. Having a prepared alternate makes switching routes easier.
Speed may not be the crucial attribute. Maybe the driver wants the psychological safety of a familiar but slower route. Maybe one route is more enjoyable and scenic. Maybe the driver wants to shop on the way.
The fastest route may also have variability or risk. Maybe a football game is soon to finish at the local sports ground. If time is tight, the time of a slower route may be more predictable and, therefore, better.
These reasons also apply to IT architectures at any level, whether technical/component, solution or enterprise.
The problem is most IT architects come from an implementor background, like software developers or network engineers. Good implementors build complex and deep mental models of their systems. These models allow implementors to both isolate issues and plan small to moderate changes quickly and effectively.
Organizations incentivize implementors to make changes quickly and with low risk. Having a mental model facilitates that. The sooner an implementor can envisage and choose a solution, the sooner they can implement it and the sooner it can ship. This speed inspires confidence and provides technical leadership.
However, architects need to think differently to implementors. They still need higher-level mental models but should think more strategically (“Are we solving the correct problems? Is the solution complete?”). IT architects also need to think politically (“How do I convince stakeholders of the solution’s value and my value?”).
An architect should own all technical solutions in a business problem space. Providing a single solution implies the architect owns the solution, not the problem space. Subsequent design changes, even improvements, may diminish the architect’s credibility.
Focusing on a single solution alters how people justify them. The more assured people are that a solution is best, the less strongly they argue for it. They lose empathy with others to whom the solution’s merits are less clear. They often think beyond the design and evaluation stage and are frustrated when yanked back. Alternatives contrast and identify the solution’s pros and cons.
Providing multiple solutions helps generate discussion. Stakeholders may have differing preferences. Presenting different solutions, like playtesting a game, can draw out these preferences and derive the best solution. Stakeholders are customers.
Creating good alternatives and fighting an implementor’s instincts is difficult. The trade-offs are situation- and stakeholder-dependent.
That said, most organizations treat IT purely as a cost. Therefore, the biggest concern in any IT system is cost, including staff, time, and money. Create alternatives that minimize one or more of these by dropping, substituting or minimizing features.
Never sacrifice quality when creating alternatives. Stakeholders, particularly executives, are often not accountable for maintainability, security, availability, and the like. If they are not accountable, they do not care. For those that are accountable, quality is hard to quantify or demonstrate, so executives almost always delegate it.
Another alternative source is the “shortest path to value” (SPV). SPV identifies small projects within large ones with the biggest “bang for buck”, embodying the Pareto principle or 80:20 rule. SPV reduces otherwise massive projects that are hard to scope or have high schedule risk, making them more concrete and predictable.
Consider implementing the project using different technologies (tools or frameworks) or teams. Another team, even if only hypothetical, may take a different approach. Using or avoiding the technology de jour also opens possibilities. A greenfield project has advantages and disadvantages over non-greenfield projects.
Re-examine constraints or “bad ideas”. Even “hard” constraints are sometimes malleable. People often shun anything close to bad ideas. However, unrecognized good ideas often surround bad ideas.
Providing a single “best” solution undermines the architect’s credibility and removes agency from stakeholders. Like smartphone navigation, an IT architect often lacks full knowledge, may not grasp all requirements or environment, or solutions may provide unexpected opportunities for stakeholders. The biggest barrier is frequently identifying good alternates.
However, the biggest reason why alternatives are so powerful is IT architects need to differentiate themselves and sell their role. IT architects are not accountable like managers or responsible like implementors. Their value proposition is technical insights and good designs. Creating, evaluating and comparing the alternatives provides those insights and demonstrates the superiority of that design.
IT architects often pride themselves on their technical knowledge. Tasked with designing a system from end-to-end and taking responsibility for that design, they need to ensure the details are right. They also need to demonstrate technical prowess to earn respect from technical developers and engineers.
However, as discussed in previous posts, architects also have to talk to non-technical people to gather requirements, understand the business context and assure them that a design will meet their needs. For people used to delving into the technical details, this context and mindset switch can be challenging.
First, understand the value the architect’s proposed changes bring to stakeholders and organization. Understand not just what each stakeholder has asked for but how that stakeholder’s performance is measured and describe the impact of proposals in those terms.
Taking an operations manager as an example, describe how this will reduce incident frequency or severity. For a salesperson, relate this to imminent or key deals. For any management, ensure they understand how the changes relate to KPIs, long-term objectives or organizational policies.
A quick way to do this is to describe a technical change then ask “So what?”. Relate it to each stakeholder in a sentence or two then invite questions. Take note of anything asked and ensure it is covered next time.
Sometimes non-technical people suggest technical solutions. While most IT architect’s immediate reaction is to dismiss these as ill-informed, a better response is to understand the reasons behind it. Did this suggestion work last time? Is the relative cost for the asker small? Is a suggested tool the only one the asker is familiar with?
A better response from an architect is to evaluate suggestions and provide quicker, cheaper and/or better alternatives. Sometimes, however, it is important to buy-in by using elements of their suggestion, even if it is technically suboptimal.
Unless the organization has prescribed formulas or a culture of doing so, avoid trying to express impacts in financial terms. Chances are architects will get it wrong. Be careful using jargon or discipline-specific terms, too. Technical people cringe when non-technical people misuse technical terms. It happens the other way around, too.
Describe the context of a technical change in both technical and business terms. What existing systems or processes are impacted? What can we do now that we could not before? What can we do better or cheaper? What additional work is required or what work is saved?
No system exists in a vacuum and there are always flow-on effects for every change. If an architect cannot articulate these, chances are the requirements were not fully understood or analysis was lacking.
Describe the impact constraints have on the design or team implementing the design. Do not just list them (“We only have three engineers”). Say how this impacts the solution (“Option A is a better solution but, because we have a small team and a tight deadline, we are going for option B”).
Everyone in the organization has to deal with constraints. Sharing them helps build trust across teams. It also invites stakeholders, who sometimes have more experience, to suggest better ways of dealing with them.
Produce and use good quality communication. Consider using multiple views of a solution for different audiences, emphasizing different aspects. Use aesthetically pleasing diagrams with consistent use of symbols and colour. Do not be afraid of detail – it gives the audience the impression you have a deep understanding of the problem and solution – but ensure the communication is broad, covering the value and context as outlined above, instead of deep. Provide overviews or summaries to help time challenged people understand important points.
Communication should also cover solutions that were not selected or implemented. The implemented design or change will be evident. Understanding what alternatives were considered is often forgotten, particularly for trade-offs or others’ suggestions.
Beyond communicating better with non-technical people, these practices help architects understand the impact of technical changes on the organization beyond the immediate. It raises questions about larger impacts and exposes gaps in the architects understanding. It also helps build relationships.
Ultimately, being able to communicate effectively with non-technical people makes the architect a better architect. IT architects are more than just designers. They are collaborators and evangelists and they cannot do this if they can only talk and think like engineers. Architects are often the face of the team, department or company and the impression the architect needs to make a good impression.
Moreover, an architect’s technical solution exists within the organization’s social and political environments, not just technical. The architect is responsible for their work’s political and organizational success, too.
Many people are attracted to software development because they love technology and development. Viewing it more as a hobby they are paid to undertake, they gladly spend time outside work solving that nagging problem, mucking around with the newest framework, contributing to open source software or exploring opinions on Twitter.
There is a subset of software developers that takes this to extremes. It is possible for someone that does not “eat and breathe” code to still take pride in their work, to still be a craftsperson or to want to learn more and improve. However, alpha developers make software development part of their identity and their desire for respect drives them to competitiveness.
From a hiring organization’s perspective, these alpha software developers are wonderful. Their pride dictates they produce high-quality work, often at the expense of their personal time. Training costs are minimal because they already know or quickly assimilate new tools, frameworks or techniques. Their competitiveness can force everyone to produce and learn more. They are happy to leave business decisions to others and focus solely on the technical. While these all have downsides, successful companies have learned to temper them.
However, alpha software developers create barriers. Alpha developers’ pride compels them to take technical leadership roles and demand others live up to their standards. Their knowledge of new tools and techniques and almost overriding urge to try them out can shut out discussions of other solutions. For those less enamoured with software development, alpha developers can be intimidating.
When asked to train others, alpha developers feel that owning one’s technical development and career path is a rite of passage. It is not that they look down on people who know less, more that alpha developers made the effort to train themselves so why should others be given special treatment?
Meanwhile, alpha developers feel their performance is judged on their own output and helping others interferes with that. Indeed, alpha developers will work around other developers if they feel they have to “save the project” by rewriting others’ code or taking on others’ work out of impatience.
This problem is exacerbated when alpha developers move into leadership positions. When hiring new developers, they perceive alpha developers as superior and hire them over others. When evaluating others, they reward alpha qualities.
Focusing on alpha software developers creates a monoculture, focused inward on technical prowess and knowledge. Decisions need broad, representative viewpoints. While few companies will have ample members of the target audience on staff, few companies’ target audiences are solely alpha software developers.
This relegates non-alpha developers to permanent “junior” roles. This blocks their career progression even though they may be well suited to roles that software development feeds into like business analysis, user experience, consulting, quality assurance, IT administration or solution architecture.
This also risks the competitiveness between alpha developers boiling over to conflict or burnout. Like a sports teams, having too many ego-driven superstars creates problems. Teams work best with people in a variety of roles and software development is a team sport.
Solving a problem like this, particularly something a deeply ingrained in software development culture, is not simple.
The first reaction is to move away from using lines of code or other similarly easily measured metrics as the primary determinants of productivity to ones that indicate the success of the project. This encourages a team-centric view of productivity, not individual-centric.
However, the problem is deeper than that. Like using the term “craftsperson” instead of “craftsman” at the start of this post, we need specific language to drive specific thinking. It is hard to conceive of ways to drive value without terms to describe them.
For example, a “developer experience” engineer could focus on improving the efficiency of existing developers and hastening the onboarding of new developers. While documentation is part of this role, its focus is more on fixing inconsistent APIs, gathering useful diagnostics, ensuring error messages are complete and descriptive, replacing or fixing buggy libraries and improving internal tool reliability.
This role focuses on the productivity of other developers and understanding how they work instead of raw lines of code. This person should not get too involved in the internals of the software. Otherwise, he or she may start to overlook or forgive bad practices.
Another potential role is a “business process integration” engineer. Working on a lower level than a user experience engineer, they look at product customization, integrations and automation/orchestration opportunities. For internal systems, this could be about integrating the system into a Business Process Management (BPM) or workflow solution. For external systems, this is similar to a customer-facing solution architect but works with the code directly to help users customize or leverage the product.
This role requires an understanding of the broader business context, how software is used by the organization and what the organization views as important. It is a good conduit into business analysis or enterprise architecture.
This all boils down to a search for value. While focusing on software is what others would expect software developers to do, focusing it to the exclusion of some of the software development community is a poor strategy. We need to change how we view and measure our software developers and change who we see as aspirational.
I am a self-motivated, adaptable, outcome-focused enterprise and solution architect that gravitates toward technical leadership roles. My experience covers architecture, management, security and software development roles over 20 years, from multiple startups to global technology companies. I am an inventor of multiple patents; hold a variety of security, IT and agile certifications and contribute to open source software.
I have worked as an enterprise and solution architect at global technology companies like NTT Limited and Symantec. My focus has always been client-facing services, ideally ones that mix software development and IT management.
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