Tuesday, October 25, 2005

What's an Architect?

This past year I received a Microsoft MVP Architecture award. Since Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs) are recognized for their knowledge and expertise, it's a great honor to have had my contributions as an architect acknowledged. The only issue I have is that it seems even Microsoft themselves don't really know what an architect is or how to classify MVP Architects. Most MVP categories map directly to Microsoft products, such as SQL Server, Excel, or Visual Developer - C#.  Some others, such as XML or Web Services, link to a specific technology. But, architecture is clearly neither a product nor a technology. So, the question remains, what's an architect?

Harry Pierson, a key member of Microsoft's Architecture Strategy team, describes architecture as the bridge between business and technology. In essence, that means architecture is orthogonal (i.e., perpendicular) to both.

IASA, the International Association of Software Architects, has formed a working group charged with the task of specifying a roadmap to help clarify the "largely uncharted" profession of architecture. Personally, I'm hopeful the team's end result will describe three levels of architects:
  • On one end there are software architects who have a project-oriented focus. They're responsible for building concrete solutions to specific business problems.

  • On the other end are enterprise architects who, by definition, are charged with the job of modeling their IT organization's whole technological landscape spanning different business units and functional areas. Four types of architecture are subsets of an overall enterprise architecture: 1. business architecture; 2. data architecture; 3. application architecture; and 4. technology architecture. The critical success factor for enterprise architects is determined by their ability to communicate and explain information technology to non-technological business managers.

  • Finally, there's a third group of overseer architects who sit half way between software architects and enterprise architects. These folks are charged with the responsibility of ensuring consistency across multiple project teams, but with a narrow focus specifically targeted to a particular architectural issue. For instance, security architects need to oversee multiple projects to make certain that new solutions are all properly safeguarded. Similarly, a business may want to create an architectural team to concentrate on customer data in order to ensure consistency across all business units and customer facing applications.

As difficult as it has been to come up with a definition of the term architect, there's no problem identifying where the demand for a definition is coming from. Virtually every IT professional aspires to become an architect. The job title of architect represents the technological pinnacle of the IT profession. Architects can walk the walk and talk the talk. In other words, the group of people identified as architects can bridge the gap between technology and the business. Some are:
  • strategic -- enterprise architects
  • tactical -- overseer architects
  • operational -- software architects
Regardless of level -- strategic, tactical, or operational -- architects are the leaders serving at the frontier of IT. As skilled communicators who do not hide behind technology jargon or talk down to nontechnical business people, they are uniquely qualified to help their organizations identify how to use IT to gain strategic advantage. Given their solid grounding in their firm's overall business needs, their holistic view of their organization, and their thorough understanding of the underlying dynamics governing changes in technology, it's their job as recognized experts to challenge entrenched in-house thinking. Unfortunately, skilled, business-oriented technology strategists are in short supply. That's why companies like Microsoft, with their support for MVP Architects, are beginning to embrace the emerging field of architecture.


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