How to become an IT Architect - What is an IT Architect?
What is a IT Architect?
One of the earliest descriptions of what an architect is can be found in the works of Vitruvius, a Roman active around 25 BC, who wrote ten books on architecture.
Studying history is the shortest path to wisdom, the wisdom we seek is to understand the patterns and meta-patterns of architecture and architects, so they can be used in new and novel ways applicable to us now.
Wisdom is at the far end of a continuum in which data becomes information, information knowledge and knowledge over time becomes wisdom.
The amount of data we as a species collect is increasing and will explode when ubiquitous computing or the ‘Internet of Things’ is fully realised.
Much of this wisdom has been disregarded in the modern age, perhaps as a side effect of our education system, or perhaps it is the presence of more data than has ever existed in human history slowing down our ability to convert data to wisdom.
Vitruvius does not refer directly to an IT Architect, but when examining his books one gets a profound sense of relevance, Vitruvius summarises the total human experience of the field, an unbroken line from the Egyptians through the Greeks to the Romans, of what it takes to be a creative designer and abstract thinker.
Modern age architects like Christopher Alexander continue where Vitruvius left off. Alexander’s works form the basis of modern IT pattern language and his design methodologies are applied to user interface design, showing the correlation between the different types of architects still exists today.
Breadth of knowlage
Vitruvius writes that an architect must be equipped with knowledge of many different branches of study and varied branches of learning.
Practicing as IT Architects will recognise a truth immediately, breadth of knowledge in numerous fields of study is an attribute aiding the IT Architect in their daily job.
In the section on the Competencies of an IT Architect we explore the capabilities an IT Architect must possess, and the breadth of knowledge Vitruvius writes about will become something tangible and achievable.
The study of psychology is one such discipline springing to mind, an architect having a good understanding of human behaviour, can apply this insight to create architectural designs, apply it in negotiations with clients and colleagues, and use it to great effect to elicit requirements.
No 'paper' architects
Vitruvius goes on to say that an architect must aim to acquire both manual skill as well as scholarly knowledge of a thing.
Architects having just a manual skill will never be able to speak with authority about their craft and those relying too heavily on theory have been hunting the shadow, not the substance.
There is a fancy word in the English language; reification. Reification is the confusion between the word for something and the thing itself. Words are cheap, talking about a particular architecture approach and building architecture are vastly different things.
We all know of, or work with, IT Architects continuously talking about the wonderful things they would do in your situation, amplifying mistakes you made and belittling your achievements, those IT Architects are hunting the shadow; the devil is the details, practicing IT Architects are doer’s engaging with hard undefined problems daily.
Ethical and competent IT Architects take the opportunity to learn from the challenges experienced by others to improve themselves, not to criticize and belittle. The challenges experienced by others in doing something can never fully be understood after the fact.
Reification has an added meaning, to make something abstract more concrete or real. IT Architects reify business problems into technology solutions.
Personality type of an IT Architect
Vitruvius believed that not everyone had the personality to be an architect; Vitruvius writes that an architect must be naturally gifted and amenable to instruction, as neither natural ability without instruction nor instruction without natural ability can make the perfect artist.
The Myers-Briggs type indicator (MBTI) assessment model reveals many interesting things about the attitudinal preferences of people working as IT Architects. MBTI rates the preferences of an individual against two dichotomous pairs of cognitive functions. These four pairs of preferences are listed below:
Extraversion (E) -(I) Introversion
Sensing (S) -(N) Intuition
Thinking (T) -(F) Feeling
Judgment (J) -(P) Perception
Sensing – iNtuition
Intuition can be thought of as the ability to acquire knowledge without the inference of the use of reason. Although logic is used to prove something you already know about, intuition is used to discover something new.
Thinking – Feeling
Thinking affords beings with the ability to model the world according to their objectives, plans, ends and desires.
Feeling is related to ones emotions and affects the ability to reason.
Donald B Calne is attributed with saying ‘EMOTION leads to action. REASON leads to conclusions’.
IT Architects favour intuition and thinking strongly over sensing and feeling, as a group IT Architects tend to be Intuitive Thinkers. In the MBTI model these are the types INTJ, INTP, ENTP and ENTJ.
Less important seems to be the pairing of extraversion and introversion; it seems IT Architects favour neither strongly. The same seems to apply to the pairing of Judgement and Perception.
It seems Vitruvius was right all those years ago, according to the MBTI intuitive thinkers make up just 10.4% of the population, so only one in ten people has the potential to become an IT Architect.
Architects as explorers
Thinking about the organisations I worked with brings to mind many talented individuals tasked with the responsibility of doing an IT Architecture job, who are fantastic software engineers, but terrible architects.
IT Architects are typically active in the design phase of a software project, the design phase is an exploratory phase the designer seeks a natural and reasonable way of solving the problem at hand. In large and complex systems the design phase is a time consuming task, with many false starts and reworking of the design.
The design phase calls for a big picture thinker, the vast quantity of data available is often imprecise or irrelevant to the actual problem. Intuition is required to see patterns and commonalities in the data.
Designers apply abstraction to deal with the complexity they are faced with; abstraction requires imagination and innovative thinking. Things are rarely ‘black and white’ hence the IT Architects standard answer to any question ‘It depends’.
Studies to determine which personality type suit which software development activities indicate persons with Intuition (N) and Thinking (T) are highly desirable for software designers. The figure below shows the linkage between job requirements, soft skill and personality type.
Vitruvius presents architecture as a thoroughly humanistic art, but warns talent is not enough for success in architecture: favour and ambition play their part, money, good connections, and eloquence is essential.
Vitruvius’s sentiments are supported by modern studies suggesting MBTI is a poor indicator of what makes a good IT Architect or software engineer because the metric does not consider variables such as passion, experience or financial rewards.
MBTI is just an indicator of preferences. A preference is not a limitation preventing somebody from becoming good at an activity; we can grow beyond our preferences and most of us do.
Although the effectiveness of the MBTI is widely debated, we can recognise it is just a model, and all models are wrong to some degree, but it is still useful to us by providing a conversation point to launch further investigation.
Architects as innovators
Architects have a lot in common with innovators; one definition of an innovation is ‘a significant positive change’. IT Architects are always on the lookout for places where positive change can be introduced, be it in architectures, business processes, or just in the way they perform their daily activities.
Part of the challenge of innovation is coming up with the problem to solve, not just its solution. IT Architects can often be found poking around in areas of the business, problem space or process others see as irrelevant.
What matters most is curiosity and the ability to see a problem clearly, combined with the talent to solve it.