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Enterprise architect career path has bright and dark sides

IASA CEO Paul Preiss discusses how the digital transformation and technology advances are the drivers creating opportunities in the burgeoning enterprise architecture profession.

Paul Preiss, founder and CEO of IASA (formerly the International Association of Systems Architects), has battle scars from years in the trenches. As an outgrowth of his experiences -- and frustrations -- working as a project manager that evolved into systems and software architecture, he brought together others with similar skills and challenges in the Austin, Texas, area as an informal group to share ideas. The effort grew into an international organization with chapters worldwide. In this Q&A, Preiss shares his opinions and discusses the enterprise architect career path.

How do you define the enterprise architect career path in today's cloud and mobile environment?

Paul Preiss: You have to define architect first because whatever you put in front of it doesn't matter. This needs to get discussed much more. When someone says he's a doctor, we don't ask what type. Same with a lawyer, accountant, hairdresser, etc. Specialization doesn't matter until the baseline definition does. I've been saying this for 10 years. Enterprise architecture is the art and science of delivering valuable technology strategies.

What is the current state of the enterprise architecture profession?

Preiss: The enterprise architecture profession is in a deeply troubled place. From surveys we've done at IASA, 85% to 90% of enterprise architects are in IT and have a technology background. Their job is to optimize IT software or hardware infrastructure. It is deeply troubled because a schism has formed over the last 10 years about enterprise architects attempting to architect the [entire] enterprise beyond IT. Instead of moving toward digital transformation and owning that innovation engine, they have moved to place between business strategist and technology strategist. They don't have the business skills or credibility to be good business strategists.

What does this mean for the discipline of enterprise architecture?

Enterprise architecture is the art and science of delivering valuable technology strategies.
Paul PreissCEO and Founder, IASA

Preiss: We're in a state where the enterprise architecture practice itself has generated a schism between architects. There is a constant debate about how 'business-y' we are supposed to be and how much technology we should know. What we say is go own the digital transformation and innovation in technology strategy and you'll get to do the business strategy as a participant. That has been very successful.

Where does this leave the person functioning as an architect?

Preiss: Enterprise architecture still reports to IT and is still primarily a cost minimization and infrastructure optimization process that is focused on documentation as opposed to delivery. It's challenged in terms of credibility as it reaches outside the IT department. A lot of that is self-inflicted damage as we've increased the rhetoric around esoteric concepts of architecting the enterprise.

Let's look at the positive side. What makes for a successful enterprise architecture team?

Preiss: What successful enterprise architecture teams do is shore up their solution architecture practice first. They make sure the delivery of innovation and strategy is absolutely consistent. Success in the enterprise architecture initiative depends on the success of business and solution architecture. And most solution architects are software architects. Senior software developers who were simply building a bunch of features that didn't do the business any good reach a point where they ask 'What does our company need to succeed?' This has to be the focus. Enterprise architecture works best when you can also do solution architecture. When you can do business and solution architecture, that's when enterprise architecture can be transformative and blow the doors off the place.

Is that enough to lay groundwork for continued success?

Preiss: You have to start with small successes at the solution architecture level. That's where enterprise architecture gets its momentum. Then, success comes from two fundamental practices. One is doing great business and solution architecture. The other is having a deeply connected architecture community. That means a community of architecture practitioners who understand their skill set. That's all you have to do. If you have enough good architects in an organization doing business and solution architecture -- whether they call it enterprise architecture or not -- you will be able to innovate and succeed.

What sort of personal temperament should someone exhibit if they are looking to go down the enterprise architect career path?

Preiss: That is a great question. Most successful enterprise architects have a temperament where they are comfortable with uncertainty. This is because great enterprise architecture is about driving change, what you might call digital transformation. It's about determining the next three steps to take to out-compete the marketplace. That temperament is about owning technology strategy -- being an innovator with ideas and moving at a hundred miles an hour. And if you make a mistake, great. Learn from it and go around again. You cannot sit back and design infrastructure, you have to be a change agent.

What about technical skills?

Preiss: They need to be broad and deep. You'll start with an area in which you have deep expertise, such as software or infrastructure or information. Then you can generate on developing two primary skill sets. One is business skill -- including 'how do we make money?', 'What affects our share price?' and 'What makes our customers happy?' The other is deeply understanding human interaction. Real enterprise architecture does not happen at your desk, it happens at someone else's.

What best practices advice can you offer?

Preiss: That's easy. Go find a business case and champion it. Better yet, write a business case and champion it. Find something important to your business that others haven't noticed and make it happen. You want a brand on your forehead that says, 'I care about us being competitive over next 10 years.' The second is to own solutions architecture without killing Agile. You must avoid huge three-year roadmaps that prevent you from making quick business pivots. It's better to create architects who are agile. The third is to build a business architecture initiative. To own business transformation, you have to get out from behind the iron curtain of IT. The last thing is to understand value, not features or requirements, but outcome. Track and measure the value of technology in your organization.

Next Steps

What's the latest thinking on enterprise architecture strategies?

Leverage mobile and cloud for your enterprise architecture

Roadmapping is a fundamental skill

This was last published in August 2016

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What technical, business and political challenges do your enterprise architects face?
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I can't say enough about the accuracy and clarity of this article.  I've searched for an understanding of the architecture role and found much of it here. Understanding and appreciating human behavior in the technology workplace is paramount.  The best single lesson to take away from this article;  Real enterprise architecture does not happen at your desk, it happens at someone else's.
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