What is the architect doing?

by Bruno Grenson - Head of Architecture
by Alain Couniot - Senior Enterprise Architect
| minute read

This question, raised by Belgian rock band dEUS in one of their most popular songs, easily applies to the IT architect as well. If not more so, since most of us have at least some understanding of what a traditional architect actually does for a living. He mainly spends his time designing building structures and spaces, right? Right! What an IT architect does or designs, however, seems far less clear or obvious. Then again, to a large extent that depends on the type of IT architect in question. 

Let’s leave aside for now the different types of IT architects that exist today and what their job actually entails. We will look more closely into that another time.  For now, we’d like to just point out some of the actual skills and competencies it takes to become an IT architect.

Natural career path

Our research immediately shows up an important difference between traditional and IT architects. Whereas the former, as a rule, are expected to bring an academic background to the table, the latter are usually expected to bring hands-on professional experience (as well). The fact is that the role of IT architect is one you naturally tend to grow into from a position as engineer, consultant or developer, to name but a few potential starting points for a career in IT architecture.

Don’t get us wrong: an academic degree in information technology or computer science is obviously very much an asset for an IT architect, too. More often than not, it’s even a key requirement. Such a degree alone is not nearly enough, however, to allow an IT student or IT professional without actual experience in the field to advance into that leadership position. Becoming an IT architect effectively requires taking on more and more responsibility and leadership.

Balancing act

Becoming an IT architect also presupposes a lot of business and industry knowledge on top of great technical skills. It is not enough to possess strong architecture design skills, for instance, such as the ability to rigorously structure a solution. An IT architect must also have an eye for the bigger picture, taking into consideration different business processes and specific industry best practices.

Above all, an IT architect needs to be a master in the art of compromise. That is actually the main conclusion our own IT architect community at Sopra Steria Benelux has arrived at. In our experience, the true test of any IT architect is his adeptness at balancing requirements and constraints of very different natures: technical, financial, functional, aesthetic, you name it. This balancing act allows him to come up with a creative compromise solution that all the project or programme stakeholders can accept.

Strong soft skills

Last but not least, in order to get a sustained buy-in and active cooperation from all of these stakeholders, an IT architect needs to have very strong soft skills. He notably needs to be a great communicator, in that he knows like no other how to moderate between business and technology teams and various other groups or even companies. It really isn’t that much of an exaggeration, in fact, when we claim that communication is half the work of an IT architect.

All of this leads us to the inevitable conclusion that IT architecture is a mindset before being a skill. Furthermore, it is a mindset that requires the use of both the left and the right part of our brain, equally mixing creative, outside-the-box thinking with highly structured, analytical thinking. In the end, the actual technology work itself often turns out to be the easiest part of our job.