Making Architects

I ran across an excellent post on The Tech Evangelist entitled “Architecture Frameworks Don’t Make Architects”. I couldn’t agree more with everything he says. It does seem that the industry expects frameworks to help anyone do an architect’s job. The proof lies in the vast range of skill levels among people bearing the title “architect”, with many so-called architects doing little more than maintaining an inventory of existing components and calling it an “as is architecture”.

Frameworks are intended to be tools, not solutions in themselves. My perspective is that frameworks provide two key benefits – similarity of deliverables and their organization, and protection against errors of omission.

A skilled and experienced architect can certainly identify what information is actually needed, in any given situation or organization, to communicate architectural realities and goals. An architect using a framework will be able to create those deliverables and organize them in a way that is familiar to other architects and also to less experienced stakeholders, saving the time of people trying to understand what they are looking at.

Even the most experienced architect can sometimes commit the sin of forgetting an important aspect, especially in situations where other areas are most in need of attention. One of the most useful things about a framework is that it has stood the test of time and become complete enough to serve as a trusted checklist to make sure nothing important is being overlooked.

The really interesting question in all of this is, “How do you develop architects?” The original post suggests that an apprenticeship model would add significant value. While I completely agree, I don’t think that apprenticeship is sufficient. I’ve worked with people who were almost natural architects, possessing a keen sense of system design as they started their careers, and I’ve worked with very effective and seasoned IT people who probably won’t ever be good architects.

The problem, as I see it, is that architects need both education and training, and these are not the same things. In other words, learning a method or process is not enough – you have to have the insight to apply lessons learned in one area to new technologies.

I’d add that we only need to look to other professions with similar issues. Doctors are expected to acquire significant education in the practice of medicine before even starting any kind of apprenticeship, which is also expected. Even the newest apprentice has a solid and extensive foundation based on formal education. Police officers experience a similar approach – formal training in a police academy setting followed by an apprenticeship characterized by partnering with a senior officer.

A major challenge for system architecture as a profession is that very little of this is appreciated by the IT industry as a whole. Surely, there are managers and executives with the insight to understand the value a skilled architect adds to the picture, but I doubt seriously whether this is even a large minority. Too often, we expect people to become architects through informal on-the job training through mentoring by senior architects. Having talked to many in this situation, at both ends of it, and having been expected to train people with little background to be architects, I can tell you that it doesn’t work very well.

So what’s the answer? The dialog in the profession needs to include identifying those critical education elements that position people to be successful architects, and then the specific training and experience that builds on that education. One client of mine suggested that the best way to identify architect candidates was to assemble a team of ten programmers, wait five years, and then it will be clear which one is the architect. He may have been correct, but we need to do better.

This is important to the profession because trying to explain what architecture is and why it matters has proven too difficult – demonstrating value by increasing the number of good senior architects in circulation is much more likely to make a difference. It won’t matter what architecture is when IT leaders understand that they will be more successful if they have good architects involved.

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Contents copyright (c) 2009 Lawrence B. Fulton


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