One of my favorite books from my youth was Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, published in 1943. Although the writing style is clearly dated by today’s standards, there’s a great plot.
The archetypal lead character (Howard Roark) is a struggling architect with a burning vision; willing to toil in obscurity while rejecting conventional wisdom — and paying an enormous personal price to stay true to his vision.
The architects of the era were focused on creating buildings with enduring value. Today’s enterprise architects might be seen the modern equivalent: creating the digital “buildings” that we all live and work in.
Like the protagonist Roark, the road that enterprise architects must travel can be lonely, with obstacles and challenges at every turn. But when they are able to do their job well, the result can create long-lasting value for the people who employ their services.
My Experience With Enterprise Architects
I’m realistic here — I’ve worked on the IT vendor side of the business for most of my career. Part of being a successful IT vendor is being able to introduce new technology — and, very often — new architectural models and associated operational models that go with it.
If your new widget doesn’t change the basic architecture — or impact the operational model — you’re unlikely to engage much with enterprise architects.
But if your new widget results in significant change, you’re now entering the domain of enterprise architecture. And I've been involved with a lot of new widgets over the years :)
Over time, I found myself spending more and more time with people who were responsible for architecture in larger IT shops. I became familiar with their role, how they look at the world, and how they often have to struggle mightily to achieve their objectives.
Why This Is Particularly Relevant
Regular readers will be familiar with my basic thesis: our economy is changing to a digital one, and businesses everywhere are re-inventing themselves as information-centric. Call it the “3rd Platform” if you like — same basic ideas.
As a result, enterprise IT is going through a once-in-a-career transformation to become the builder/broker of business IT services: convenient to consume, efficient to deliver. Virtually every leadership role in the IT organization is transformed as a result, from the CIO on downwards.
In this context, the role of enterprise architects becomes particularly acute: they have to design the new “digital building” years in advance, and do so in the face of incredible uncertainty from every direction.
Changing business requirements.
Political agendas left and right.
Uncertain budget and funding.
Cynical and skeptical co-workers — both in IT and in the business.
A vendor community with offerings that change and flux at an incredible rate.
We’re having big fight about the requirements, and — even if we decide — we’ll probably change our minds repeatedly. We're not sure if we have the money to finish it.
The land you’re building on is a swamp today. Everyone wants to participate in the detailed minutiae: what kind of building materials, how many rooms and what kind, etc.
By the way, our existing construction crew has no practical experience in building any of this”. And so on.
Is it any wonder that I’ve become very empathetic to the plight of enterprise architects?
How Enterprise Architects Cope -- And Thrive
Just about everyone I meet in the role has common attributes: very intelligent, willing to span multiple disciplines and focus on the interactions, intensely curious, articulate, etc. But some of the really good ones I’ve met go even farther.
For example, I would describe the best ones as “patiently persistent”. They know what’s worth arguing for — and waiting for. While they certainly have learned a lot from past experiences (and have no shortage of opinions!), they realize their role is not to simply recreate the past in a new form — they’re being tasked with envisioning essentially disruptive models — and also figuring out how the organization gets there in a reasonable fashion.
The very best enterprise architects are often alliance builders: they build close working relationships with key business stakeholders, their immediate management, key folks within IT — and with a select handful of IT vendors that they know and trust.
Part of that is good people skills: listening, communicating and empathizing. I see that as essential: after all, next-gen IT is really about people, process and politics and somewhat less about technology. They often have to use influence to make progress, and are rarely given the power to set and enforce mandates.
I frequently hear the same thing: coming up with a workable architecture isn’t particularly difficult. Implementing it — and getting the organization to adopt it — is where the really heavy lifting takes place.
Embrace Your Enterprise Architect?
I suspect that the importance (and difficulty!) of the role is not widely appreciated. T
hese people face monumental challenges, and often face an uphill battle with simply explaining what they’re trying to get done and why.
That’s not ideal.
These are the folks who are designing the digital buildings that we’ll all live and work in — and that’s becoming a very strategic topic indeed.
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