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Don’t ask for an architect to do a designer’s job

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The language of IT can be tricky, especially when IT terms don’t match with their counterparts in everyday life. The term architect is a prime example. In real life, architecture and design are close – so why isn’t an IT architect the ideal choice for writing your company’s solutions?

 

In order to make IT more approachable, the technology industry has come up with many familiar-looking descriptive terms that have counterparts in everyday life. Perhaps the most common of those terms is cloud, but there are also many others – migration, warehouse, shadow IT, just to name a few.

The term-snatching also covers professions. When your company starts a new IT project, perhaps called a pilot, chances are your IT partner sends in people who carry the title of an architect. They are not going to design and build your new house, though. Their job is to ensure that technology strategies support business needs.

IT architects don’t build solutions

But why fuss about terms and double meanings – surely they are mostly harmless? According to Andreas Gripfors, Enfo’s architecture expert, this is not always the case.

"The title architect gives us a good example of the possible misconceptions. My experience is that most people think architecture is the same as design. While this can sometimes be true when talking about construction, it is certainly not so in IT," says Gripfors.

Getting these two professions mixed up may lead to disappointments when a company is recruiting new people to either of these roles. But the mix-up can cause even more frustrating situations when a company is calling for offers from new IT partners and the specific qualifications and demands for each role don’t match the actual tasks.

"I’ve noticed a trend where clients insist that their new IT partner should have architect-level knowledge for specialist roles. When companies need someone who can build a system and design solutions for them, they say they need an architect – because everybody knows architects love building and design work, right? Not exactly." 

Architect is a strategist, designer is a specialist

In IT, architecture is about technology strategy. Compared to solution designers, who are the masters of certain specific skills or technologies, IT architects are generalists with special knowledge in strategies and in combining technology and business goals together.

"If solution designers are specialists in designing and building houses, then IT architects are specialists in urban planning: where the houses should actually be placed and how they fit into the community," Gripfors compares.

Although companies may state in their requirements that they need everyone in their outsourced team to have strong experience in IT architecture, most of them don’t actually need a legion of IT architects. What they really want is professionals who can do system and solution design for them and maintain the solutions over time. In other words: specialists.

So where do the architects come in when creating a new solution?

The architect’s job in this case is to break down the business requirements and make sure they meet the customer’s long-term strategies, as well as to identify non-functional requirements. These are aspects that do not directly affect the functionality in the solution, but ensure maintainability, scalability and security over time. It’s also about making sure that the solution fits well into the bigger plan and landscape. 

"It’s not uncommon that the role of the architect is to be the mediator between business and technology since they speak both 'languages' well. The architect is also the one with the skills and experience needed to understand the business impact of technology decisions, and is therefore well-crafted to take what others see as too great and often uncomfortable decisions," says Gripfors.

In IT, architecture is about technology strategy.

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Andreas Gripfors

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Teamwork brings the best results

To be fair, the distinction between various technology terms and professions is certainly not easy to understand for non-IT people. What makes it even more complicated is that typically there are also many kinds of architects in IT projects.

An enterprise architect carries the biggest responsibility for planning. He or she evaluates the existing technology environment and determines what change is needed in order for the organization to accomplish its strategic plan. The enterprise architect also works closely with the organization’s leadership to develop the roadmap on how to implement that change. 

There are also solution architects. Their role is focused on turning a concept, for example a gap in the enterprise architecture, into a doable plan for implementation. The solution architect is involved in a project from start to end and has a much wider responsibility than just technology.

"One common thread between enterprise and solution architects is that neither of them is a specialist. That’s where engineers and developers come in." 

The developer is usually the one taking care of the hands-on tasks: writing code, either building something new or adapting a standard solution. These  are then handed over to the engineer who ensures that the solution is installed and configured and defines how it should be maintained over time before it’s handed over to operations. 

In today’s business environment coding is often seen as a desirable skill for just about everyone. But since architecture is a task for a generalist, it would not be totally impossible to become a decent IT architect even if you had never written one line of code or installed a server.

"This is possible because the core competences of an IT architect are not in programming or system administration. The IT architect’s job is to take care of planning, change management, and the marriage between technology and business needs. When it’s time for coding and installing, the specialists do it much better. The best results are achieved with seamless teamwork. Then everyone gets to play to their strengths."

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