Become a Better Architect

Single steps you can take today

By Bob Rhubart

November/October 2013

There is no magic potion or wonder drug that will instantly turn you into a great architect. You still need a unique combination of technical and communication skills and experience to succeed in that role. So you’re going to have to work at it, and given the pace of change in information technology, that work will be ongoing.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you can take today, right now, to become a better architect. And you’ll be happy to know that those steps aren’t all that difficult or complicated.

For instance, Anthony Meyer, architecture leader at Westfield Insurance, suggests that you spend more money on coffee. “The major hurdle for IT architects isn’t the validity of their approach,” says Meyer. “It’s in getting buy-in.” The problem, Meyer suggests, is in the “foundational misunderstanding” between architects and their partners: the implementers, sponsoring executives, and project managers.

“While a 20-page presentation explaining the technical merits may be needed, buying the right partner a cup of coffee can sometimes be a more effective way to deal with pushback,” Meyer says. “I’ll be the first to say that coffee won’t solve every issue. But in terms of a single step, coffee and conversation can go a long way toward building more-productive relationships and getting ideas adopted.”

Hot beverages aren’t involved in Oracle ACE Director Lonneke Dikmans’ suggestion, but she places a similar emphasis on communication and stresses that buy-in is a two-way street. “Get involved,” she says. “Too often I see architects who come up with decisions and rules without committing themselves to the results of those decisions and rules.”

Dikmans, a managing partner at Vennster, suggests that architects must understand that their actions can have consequences for other stakeholders. Those consequences must be discussed early and openly with stakeholders so that management, architects, and developers understand why the decisions were made and how they will be implemented. “Know what it takes to create the proposed solution,” says Dikmans. “Talk to the developers; participate in the project.”

Oracle ACE Director Ronald van Luttikhuizen, also a managing partner at Vennster, echoes his colleague’s emphasis on involvement.

“Don’t turn your back on something after you have architected and designed it,” van Luttikhuizen says. “Keep involved in the realization of the proposed solutions. This will force you to create viable and feasible solutions and avoid ivory tower architecture. Involvement in the realization will improve your insights and experience with new and alternative solutions, other patterns that can be applied, new trends, and unforeseen pitfalls. These experiences can then be applied in new solutions, making you a better and more adaptive architect.”

In applying those experiences, it is important to remember that technical skills alone do not make a great architect. “Many architects come from a technical background,” says Jeff Davies, a SOA architect, developer, and evangelist and a senior principal product manager at Oracle. “The most important thing they can do is to understand the strategic objectives of their companies. It is only with this understanding that they will be able to direct their technical skills, and the skills of others in IT, toward better serving the company.”

Eric Stephens, an enterprise architecture director at Oracle, takes Davies’ suggestion a step further. “The one single step to being a better IT architect is to stop being an IT architect,” he says. “The most successful IT professionals I know, regardless of title or role, are the ones that are business focused. From an enterprise architecture perspective, the technology is, at best, half of the overall architecture equation.”

Stephens sees a trend among many in the community to separate business architecture from enterprise architecture. “I suspect that this is because of an emphasis on technology among enterprise architects. Whether one agrees with that approach is irrelevant. My point is that the better architects are business centric.”

You’ve heard from a quintet of skilled, successful architects. Now it’s up to you.

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