Tuesday, March 9, 2010

How Do You Become an Architect?

Someone asked me one of those simple questions that are extremely tough to answer today.

"How do I become an IT architect?"

My first answer was flippant (go figure): Get about ten years of experience running IT projects then call me back.

My second answer was more so: The word Architect doesn't really mean anything. Just print up some cards and put that as your title.

Yeah, I'm not happy with that either.

So, the next train of thought is "how did I get here?" That answer is much simpler and sounds a lot like number 1. I've spent most of my adult life planning, delivering, building or fixing IT programs, projects and products. At some point, you find yourself designing more than doing and before you know it, you get an Architect pegged onto your title. It's a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

I think the real problem is that there isn't really a fixed definition of what an IT Architect is. Everyone's got an opinion and they're all equally good (or bad). My personal definition is that the Architect lives in the space between business and technology. We translate from one to the other, when given business requirements we create technical specs. When given specs, we write a business plan or budget justification or impact assessment. In my mind this is the one unique skill that architects must posesses that other members of the IT staff normally don't.

Many of my peers focus on design. They design things. While I design things also, there are other members of the team closely involved in the design. Design in my world tends to be collaborative. Everyone wants to be a part of that. But when I explain to the CFO why he needs to cough up the dough for a new e-mail system; the rest of the team is strangely silent. I also don't hear many engineers clamoring for a specific feature because of the key business advantage it will give the business. Hence, my role.

So, how does one gain both business and IT skills? In my case I came from the IT side (which I think is better, duh) and then learned the business side later. At a certain point in my career I just got bored with technology. In the end, computers are simple. They do what they're told. People, process, business impact. Those things are complex. They change, they have no set rules. I spend much more time trying to figure out how cloud computing will change the IT landscape than how Hyper-V works. Hyper-V is simple. Cloud computing (which to me is a business model) is complex and still evolving.

If you've been in the IT business and you find yourself topping out, then it may be time to think about becoming an architect. Go to business school. Take one of those Executive MBA courses. Look at the world differently. Just take your CFO out to lunch. Learn what makes him tick.


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