What’s an IT architect, and could you become one?

If you’re a Computer Science student or an IT professional looking for a new job that’s interesting, well paid, and for which demand is constant, you might want to consider becoming an IT architect.

IT architect

What does an IT architect do, exactly?

“Basically, the IT architect is a person who can come up with a high level solution for a business portfolio, application, system, infrastructure or the entire enterprise,” says Cristian Bojinca, Enterprise Solution Architect at RBC, and the author of a book aptly named “How to Become an IT Architect.”

The term is used to encompass all architect roles currently existing in the IT industry:

  • Domain architect (business, application, data/information, and infrastructure),
  • Enterprise architect (encompassing all domain architectures),
  • Solution architect (developing solutions to specific business problems),
  • Cross-cutting roles such as security architect (focusing on all the processes, mechanisms, technology used to protect the assets of the enterprise against unauthorized access).

Requirements for the IT architect role

Working as an IT architect will never be boring, says Bojinca. You have a lot of possibilities to influence the decisions in your company for the long term, especially if you are a business architect (you get to influence the business direction of the company), or an enterprise architect (you guide the organization of the entire enterprise).

But all of these roles require much knowledge and great skills.

For one, you need to have a wide and deep understanding of business systems and technologies. Technical, business, and industry knowledge allows the architect to come up with technical solutions while taking into consideration industry best practices, models, frameworks, and so on. An IT architect needs to have the ability to see the “big picture.”

Secondly, you need to possess architecture design skills – foundational skills that will allow you to create a high level design (using different modeling languages and tools) that will satisfy stakeholder needs and requirements.

Then, you have to be comfortable with documenting and communicating the model used to understand the enterprise, system, application, and network through a series of views (based on predefined viewpoints).

And finally, you need to have the “soft skills” necessary to get sustained buy-in and cooperation from stakeholders to achieve best outcomes. These skills include presentation, communication, facilitation, and so on.

A practical scenario

Take for example the following scenario: A large organization has just been acquired, the lead IT Architect left, and the company’s infrastructure is being merged with that of the new owners. A new IT Architect to lead this merger is needed, but how to choose the right one?

“Currently, there is a lot of confusion about the various architect roles. The definition or responsibilities for those roles varies from one company and industry to another. This lack of uniformity makes it hard for companies to recruit or assign staff to fill architecture positions,” Bojinca notes.

“The TOGAF framework has a section (Architecture Skills Framework) that defines a number of roles including enterprise architect as well as different kind of skills that include enterprise architecture skills, project management skills, IT general knowledge skills, technical IT skills, and legal environment skills.”

But what is unquestionable is that this person has to be able to do – and do well – these specific things:

  • Leadership – Coming from the outside of the organization, he or she needs to establish the trust with the important stakeholders, never imposing leadership but getting things done through personal influence and credibility. This person should be able to clarify expectations and goals, painting a compelling picture that everybody will keep in mind at all times.
  • Communication and presentation – Communicating and presenting this picture effectively to all levels of management as well as subject-matter experts in different domains is crucial, and so is the ability to negotiate conflicts instead of leaving things bubbling under the surface until an explosion occurs. “In some cases, this might be only about taking discussions offline and trying to settle an argument in private instead of having a huge conflict in front of everybody in a meeting,” Bojinca explains.
  • Planning – Although there is probably no expectation to come up with elaborate project plans, one of the deliverables that the enterprise architect has to produce is a roadmap showing the transition from the current state to the target state including the major activities and milestones.
  • Stakeholder management – The most important stakeholders must be identified early in the project and their input must be used to shape the architecture to ensure their later support and the validity of the architecture model. The successful candidate should be able to quickly understand the culture of both organizations and identify the common things that will make the foundation for the new organization.
  • Change management – The merger is an important change for both organizations and should be carefully planned. This change will include multiple aspect such as people (how will the architecture change influence the organization of the company), business processes and functions (business architecture), data or application changes (information architecture), or changes in the infrastructure (infrastructure architecture). “The successful candidate should demonstrate the ability to use an established change model (such as ADKAR) to advocate the architectural change because otherwise team members will not view it as important and they might start to push for the old way of doing things,” he says. “The architect should not only know the architecture inside out but should also be the champion of the architecture, making sure to build awareness of a need for change and making sure that team members have the knowledge and desire to work through this architectural change.”
  • Consulting skills – Last but not least, the successful candidate must demonstrate consulting and advisory skills, know how to build an effective client relationships and deliver excellent client service. “This might make the difference between leading a successful merger and only creating the blueprints,” he says.

The variety of skills and knowledge needed makes it so that good architects are always in high demand, but are usually a scarce resource. If in possession of the right skills and a good reputation, they don’t have to worry too much about finding employment. IT architects are also some of the best paid IT or business practitioners, and have the added bonus of being in constant communication with executives and managers, which means better career advancement opportunities.

IT architects and data security

The fast-paced threat landscape made data security an essential part of every business, and the responsibility for data security now goes beyond the company’s data/information or security architect.

“Each type of IT architect should consider security and especially data security,” says Bojinca.

“The enterprise architect who should consider data security as a cross-cutting concern for all the architecture domains. He/she should work with the security architect to adopt guiding principles such as: least privilege, deny by default, defence in depth (and many others specified in my book) to provide the guidance for the application, data, infrastructure, solution, etc. architects who will then apply them to derive their own architectures.”

The application architect should always consider data security when creating the high level design of the application, focusing on the security measures required to protect the application from exposing ways to access the data by unauthorized users. This should not include only the most common mechanisms to protect the data (such as encryption) but also the application protocol used, authentication, authorization mechanisms, etc.

The solution architect has to include data security as one of the main drivers to establish the solution architecture for the specific business problem.

But, no matter what type of IT architect you are, you need to have some knowledge of data/information security so you can talk with the security architect about concepts such as encryption, security protocols, etc.

“This will allow you to leverage the expertise of the security architect, who has a much deeper knowledge in regards to data security, in order to include this aspect of the architecture in the enterprise, application, data, infrastructure or solution architecture,” he notes.

How to become an IT architect?

As noted before, an aspiring IT architect needs to have a wide technical knowledge, but also an in-depth knowledge of the specific domain he or she wants to build their career in.

For example, an aspiring architect with a business/systems analyst background will have to become familiar with the business architecture concepts and expand his/her breadth by understanding more about the business strategies, drivers and how they determine the business architecture.

A would-be application architect with a software developer background will have to hone his or her soft skills, as well as to get a feel for the level of detail required for the various documents and presentations.

In his book, Bojinca offered advice on how to get the required knowledge, delineated specific career path guidelines for different IT architect roles, and guidance on how to get a job as an IT architect.

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