Recently I’ve been receiving questions about the architecture discipline and what skills are needed to be an effective architect. These questions are very relevant in today’s environment because architects are vital to the delivery of quality, value-based IT solutions. IT needs great talent in this role.

Rather than discuss how to be an effective architect I’d like to highlight what it takes to become a great architect. After all, we should all strive to be great at what we do! What makes a great architect? I won’t focus on the obvious items such as understanding and mastering technology, solution design, process flow definitions (AS-IS and TO-BE), UML diagramming, logical architecture definition, and frameworks such as TOGAF (list not all inclusive). Architects must be competent in these areas just to get started in the job – table stakes. I’d rather share thoughts on the intangibles that makes architects stand out in the crowd.

Let’s start with a definition of an architect. I’ll share my view rather than a formal definition – keeping it simple. An architect makes/facilitates decisions to ensure technology solutions satisfy business needs – optimize business processes, enable new capability, and drive new sources of revenue.

Becoming a great architect is about having a balance of technical, business, and interpersonal skills. The ability to understand the big picture, connect the dots, and drill down to apply the right technologies needed to solve real business problems is one part of the equation. The more difficult part is navigating the organization and working with/through others to get things done. The degree of difficulty is directly dependent on the level of organization maturity. It’s never easy in very mature organizations, only less difficult.

The attributes that make a great architect are described below.

  1. Business focused – Architects must understand customer needs (paying customer), company products and services, and the industry. The architect must also work to understand the business strategy and have a great grasp of key business processes needed to produce products and deliver services. This knowledge allows the architect to connect the dots and identify the right technologies that provide business value. This also enables the architect to conduct insightful discussions with business stakeholders which will build credibility and establish a great partnership – avoids the “requirements discussion” stale mate. A strong business focus is a tall order and critical to the success of the architect! (Tip: Follow industry associations and read the same content as your business leaders (contact their Executive Assistance to find out what they subscribe to).)
  2. Ability to influence – The architect role must be able to sell ideas – command and control is not an option. The psychology of understanding people and relating to them on their terms is very important. The process starts with building relationships and establishing trust with business partners. Great communication skills are a must! In particular, the architect must be a great listener and seek to understand before being understood. Leave your ego at the door because success is not about you, it’s about what you can achieve by working with and through others. (Tip: Research and understand behavioral economics – Nudge is a great read.)
  3. A great student – Architects must think deeply about driving business value and solving difficult problems. Great knowledge of your user community and how they work is mandatory. This combined with a knowledge of technology (not product, there is a big difference) enables the architect to drive technology experiences that are natural to the user. Great architects strive to become thought leaders. (Tip: Be a great student of technology and do it in the context of driving great user experiences. Help others be great at what they do! Keep abreast of university research, key technology companies (e.g., Qualcomm), and industry thought leaders.)
  4. An essentialist – There’s a lot of noise within organizations. The architect must be able to identify what’s important (vital few) and maintain focus. A great knowledge of business needs (see point #1) helps the architect know where to focus to move the business forward. An inability to focus will lead to exhaustion, frustration, and meltdown – crash and burn. Blocking out the noise (saying no) without offending the requestor is a difficult balancing act. (Tip: No is not a bad word! Most colleagues will have more respect for you if a clear explanation is given – Essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less is a great read.)
  5. Holistic view – At a minimum, architects must be able to visualize the full solution needed to satisfy customer needs. This will help to better understand user experience, potential bottlenecks, threats to service availability, and opportunities to reduce complexity. Enterprise Architects must be able to map business architecture to the application and data architecture. Software Architects must be able to visualize from the client-side to the database and understand everything from usability constraints to worker process contention. Infrastructure Architects must be able to understand workload characterization across all tiers and accommodate peak processing periods. A holistic view increases the quality of solutions, decreases cost, and drives better user experiences. (Tip: Post a comment and we can discuss in more detail if needed 🙂 )
  6. Simplicity – Architects must continually focus on removing complexity. This role has a view of the entire system and is in the best position to drill down and drive simplicity. Why is this important? Complexity is a huge problem within IT and detracts from the user experience, increases cost, increases risk levels, reduces operational efficiencies, and adversely impacts performance. In practice, simplicity is very difficult to achieve because it requires great knowledge of the problem that needs solving and the tools available to solve it.  (Tip: Always keep in mind, less is more – The Laws of Simplicity is a good read.)

Some may say these items don’t apply to all architects. For example, Enterprise Architects are business focused and Technical Architects are technology focused. I would argue that we are all business focused – at least we should be. I feel strongly these attributes apply to Enterprise, Solution, and Technical Architects. This helps each role perform at the top of their game – understand what’s essential and drive the right solutions to enable better business outcomes.

Hopefully this post has given you a glimpse of what it takes to become a great architect and inspired you to achieve it. I truly believe the architecture discipline and great architect talent is key to the success of IT. Today’s IT environment is more complex than ever and the right structure is needed to deliver value. Great architects bring that structure and more!

Posted by Karl

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