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What Architects are Not

What Makes an IT Architect? (And What Doesn’t).

Editor’s Note: In order to describe something properly, it’s often easier to start off with what that something isn’t. In this excerpt from The Software Architect Elevator, Gregor Hohpe, Enterprise Strategist for AWS, reviews some of the roles that are often misattributed to software architects. We’d love to hear from you about what you think about this piece.

Sometimes, it’s easier to describe what something isn’t rather than trying to come up with an exact definition of what it is. In the case of architects, exaggerated expectations can paint a picture of someone who solves intermittent performance problems in the morning and then transforms the enterprise culture in the afternoon. This leads to a scenario in which architects are pulled into several roles that clearly miss the purpose of being an architect:

Senior developer
Developers often feel they need to become an architect as the next step in their career (and their pay grade).However, becoming an architect and a superstar engineer are two different career paths, with neither being superior to the other. Architects tend to have a broader scope, including organizational and strategic aspects, whereas engineers tend to specialize and deliver running software. Mature IT organizations understand this and offer parallel career paths.

Firefighter
Many managers expect architects to be able to troubleshoot and solve any crisis based on their broad understanding of the current system landscape. Architects shouldn’t ignore production issues, because they provide valuable feedback into possible architectural weaknesses. But an architect that runs from one fire drill to the next won’t have time to think about architecture. Architecture isn’t operations.

Project manager
Architects must be able to juggle many distinct, but interrelated topics. Their decisions also take into account — and affect — project time lines, staffing, and required skill sets. As a result,upper management often comes to rely on architects for project information, especially if the project manager is busy filling out status report templates. This Is a slippery slope for an architect because it’s valuable work, but it distracts from the architect’s main responsibility.

Scientist
Architects need to sport a sharp intellect and must be able to think in models and systems, but the decisions they make impact real business projects. Hence, many organizations separate the role of the chief architect from that of a chief scientist. Personally, I prefer the title chief engineer to highlight that architects produce more than paper. Lastly, although scientists may get their papers published by making things sound complex and difficult to understand, an architect’s job is the inverse: making complex topics easy to digest.

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Gregor Hohpe helps business and technology leaders transform not only their technology platform, but also their organization. Riding the Architect Elevator from the engine room to the penthouse, he assures that corporate strategy lines up with the technical implementation and vice versa. He has served as Smart Nation Fellow to the Singapore government, as technical director in Google Cloud’s Office of the CTO, and as Chief Architect at Allianz SE, where he oversaw the architecture of a global data center consolidation and deployed the first private cloud software delivery platform. Having worked for both digital native companies and traditional enterprise IT allows him to reveal the many misconceptions that these organizations have about each other in the form of pointed anecdotes harvested from the daily grind of IT transformation. Gregor is currently the Enterprise Strategist for AWS.

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