The Last Architect

Much is written about the changing role of IT in organizations brought about by the cloud. I truly believe the days of corporate enterprise kingdoms  commanding huge budgets and headcount are numbered. Moving to the cloud and SaaS is simply too compelling of a business argument not to pursue The downstream effects however are not fully realized. Having spent most of my career in some way affiliated with corporate IT I am curious how this new enterprise technology economy affects the growth of those just entering the job market. In one sense, IT heavy lifting first moved off shore and then it left the planet all together and into the cloud. The role that has not and will not float away though is the architect.

For all of the inefficiencies, IT organizations have produced one product that can come from few other sources. Technology savvy subject matter experts capable of connecting complex systems together in their head and on paper. I often descibed my role in the past as the guy who draws boxes on whiteboards, connects them with lines and then explains to developers what the lines are supposed to do. This oversimplified and self-deprecating description is still accurate. It is a skill however that comes less from academics or methodology than from experience.

I did not learn to do this in school. I learned the methodology and notation from books but not the ideas, passion and drive behind the business that the notation represents. There is a belief in the consulting world that every business is the same. That it is exactly like their last contract. To an extent that is true but commonality of competitors is not where advantage is born.

Where will the next generation of architects come from? Where will they pay their dues and learn how to navigate more than code trees and deliverables? How will they learn the corporate skills required to remove political obstacles blocking their technical objectives. As more vertical cloud solutions are implemented there will be fewer opportunities for the small, less risky projects to make mistakes on and learn what is really important in a 1000 line work breakdown structure.

The best architects in IT organizations are those that strike the balance between vision and pragmatism. Pushing the boundary of the possible while keeping the wheels from coming off. Moving and consolidating all of IT to the cloud does indeed make business more efficient but one day the most valuable guy on the team will be the one that knows how to do bring it back to Earth but he will have no where to learn the trade.

4 thoughts on “The Last Architect

  1. Seems to me that the same role / skillz will remain just as relevant in the brave new world of Cloud / SaaS – it’s just that the technologies used to tie different silos together are changing. Instead of focusing on ETL processes, ESBs, COBOL etc. the Cloud gives the enterprise architect shiny new baubles such as REST APIs, web hooks, Javascript etc.

    Unless of course you think that enterprises no longer need to integrate their ERP, CRM, CMS, marketing, … applications?

  2. I agree and that is kind of the point the skills will always be needed. What worries me is that the training grounds are disappearing. When every company did everything on their own it increased the number of opportunities to build, fail and learn. People entering the business will have fewer and fewer places to work to get that experience. Some companies will have no where to learn at all.

  3. The Cloud arguably provides a more democratised way of getting the necessary technical skills that an enterprise architect requires. Instead of only being able to learn about ERP, CRM, CMS, marketing etc. systems after paying for ludicrous up-front licenses and after attending numerous mind-bogglingly expensive & boring vendor training courses, I can now fire up a REST client and start poking around myself, without handing over a cent in many cases.

    And despite what some enterprise architects seem to think, having a deep technical understanding of what each system can and (more importantly) can’t do is the number 1 key foundational skill of the profession. I for one welcome the numbered days of the whiteboard-marker-wielding, hasn’t-coded-in-20-years-and-proud-of-it, self-aggrandising “enterprise architect”!

  4. Democratizing the access to technology is of course a benefit of the cloud. It is not all about writing code though – it is about learning how to explain what it does (and doesn’t do) to people that pay you to make it work or that you need to do it for you for time or skill reasons.

    Moreover – everybody doesn’t learn the same way and it is equally self-aggrandizing to assume everybody can or even wants to learn purely by poking around. That method does not scale.

    The point was though that even if I poke around the API – if I never get to build something people will use and put it in production – I’ll have no idea how to manage the change in the business even if the cloud magically gives me all the bells and whistles simply by entering a credit card.

    Every vendor I know hates enterprise architects because at one time or another one has said ‘no’ and they lost a deal. Sure there are bad ones that say no to everything but every profession has its collection of losers.

    Somebody has to be in the position to decide (or at least suggest) which of ‘n’ choices for a cloud solution is the best one for a particular business. That decision is neither purely business or technical. It is a blend of the two. The best architects understand both sides. The bad one’s will tell you the business doesn’t matter.

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