by John Edwards

7 traits of successful enterprise architects

Jan 20, 2020
CareersEnterprise ArchitectureIT Leadership

In an age of digital transformation, businesses need someone who can plan and build a forward-looking systems infrastructure. Here's how to find that elusive expert.

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Credit: christophertdumond / Getty Images

With digital transformation challenging businesses worldwide, a growing number of companies are placing their future into the hands of an enterprise architect, someone who can take disruption and turn it into a competitive advantage. With a CIO’s guidance, the enterprise architect can develop an enterprise architecture and technology evolution plan that will support and advance the enterprise’s business strategy for years to come.

Finding a qualified enterprise architect isn’t easy, and handing an enterprise’s fate over to someone who isn’t equipped to perform the job can be operationally and financially devasting. To ensure that you hire an enterprise architect who understands your organization’s goals and has the business and technical knowledge needed to build a resilient yet flexible systems architecture, pay close attention to the following traits.

1. A solid track record

Most organizations look for an enterprise architect with a proven track record of delivering large, impactful solutions that enable management to achieve multiple business goals. The EA “should have demonstrated experience working with executives to understand what’s important to running the business,” observes Anand Bahl, CIO, CVP, of chipmaker Micron Technology. An EA should also know how to align IT services with enterprise goals to create a competitive advantage. Additionally, the EA should possess a background in proposing disruptive technologies that will lead to product or service differentiation, rather than suggesting safe and bland commodity solutions that will do little more than meeting the organization’s basic IT needs.

Noel Reynolds, director of solution architects at DNS software vendor BlueCat, believes that an EA should be able to point to past architecture accomplishments, including design choices, goals achieved and challenges met and conquered. “They should also be able to describe their learning process for picking up new technologies,” he adds.

Run away from EAs who can’t provide detailed descriptions of past successes. Reynolds also suggests avoiding any EA who has a history of delivering point solutions that fail to address related issues instead of comprehensive holistic initiatives.

2. Insight and vision

An enterprise architect should always be searching for ways to use new technologies to address current and future business needs. “The combination of curiosity and problem-solving skills result in someone who is always finding new ways to solve real business problems with new and novel technologies,” Bahl says. “This requires individuals who have a strong business acumen, a deep understanding of business processes and an equally deep understanding of existing and nascent technology solutions.”

Legacy thinking can be as big an impediment as legacy architecture, warns Richard Marshall, a former Gartner analyst, now principal of ConceptGap, a technology advisory firm. “Someone with a background in business outcomes and innovation is likely to be a better candidate than someone steeped in conventional large-scale architecture design,” he notes.

3. Deep technical knowledge and skills

The most important attribute to look for in an enterprise architect is deep technical knowledge, particularly in essential and rapidly evolving areas such as networks, virtualization, clouds and automation/orchestration tools. “Broad knowledge will ensure that the architect has the experience to make recommendations about technologies or solutions that are most appropriate to the goals of the organization or the problems that need to be solved,” Reynolds explains. “It will also ensure that when moving toward newer technologies … the architect has the necessary foundational knowledge to adapt and integrate the new technologies into the [planned] solution.”

The best EAs rise to their position from the technology ranks. “They have hands-on experience in different technical roles,” notes Dave Messinger, CTO of Topcoder, an open global community of designers, developers, data scientists and programmers. “They should possess an aptitude for picking up new technologies and have proven expertise running large projects with multiple teams,” he adds.

4. An ability to transform knowledge into leadership

Traditionally, most enterprise architects presented themselves as senior data center-focused IT experts possessing years, or even decades, of hands-on experience. Today, however, with software-defined infrastructures and continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) practices firmly established in the IT mainstream, more enterprises are looking for individuals with strong coding abilities. “EAs can have a greater impact if they lead by example through being more hands on with coding,” says Todd Loeppke, lead CTO architect at recovery service provider Sungard Availability Services. “I look for team members who have the latest hands-on skills, along with years of experience in the industry.”

An EA must be able to motivate and lead a diverse collection of technologists, business and operations teams and enterprise leaders. As decisions are made on identifying and prioritizing project elements, the EA will likely face competing and conflicting demands. “This requires the ability to tease out nuances in needs and wants and then to come to a consensus as to the best course of action,” advises Dan Miklovic, a former Gartner researcher, now a member of The Analyst Syndicate. “Great facilitation skills are critical to accomplishing this [task],” he notes.

5. A sharp awareness of business needs

Deep knowledge of the primary technical stack and surrounding issues is important, but an EA should also be able to understand and address business leaders’ needs. “An enterprise architect … must have a keen business acumen coupled with cutting-edge technology awareness,” suggests Uday Ayyagari, lead architect at B2B payment platform provider Crowdz.

A key goal for any EA should be to bring all of his or her skills together to create new revenue-generating opportunities with a minimal total cost of ownership and cost avoidance. “One of the ways this can be done is by foreseeing technology-enabled operational pitfalls,” Ayyagari explains. “The wrong choices may end up costing a lot to the enterprise, and hence the enterprise architect acts as a beacon of the road ahead.” To ensure long-term success, the EA must pay close attention to key metrics, particularly time-to-market indicators for key revenue-generating activities, Ayyagari says. He also advises embracing cost-avoidance practices, such as scalable design and architecture, DevOps and sleek operating models.

Unless joining a newly-formed organization, the EA will have to balance the conflicting challenges of supporting legacy systems with the need to achieve additional business agility. “Sticking with traditional approaches will result in IT continuing to be viewed as a business prevention service, since the necessary responsiveness will not be there,” Marshall warns. Finding an optimal approach while juggling the continuous requirements imposed by compliance, governance, security and budget mandates can only be achived by keeping a steady eye on business outcomes and maintaining a strong and steady grasp on the underlying technologies.

6. Objectivity

Having an open mind that embraces promising new trends enables an enterprise architect to sift through industry prejudices and white noise to gain an unbiased understanding of technology and industry challenges and strategic directions. “We, as humans, are naturally wired for bias, and this stems from our past experiences and environment,” observes Chander Damodaran, chief architect at Brillio, a digital transformation services company. An EA needs to overcome preconceptions to make merit-based decisions.

Every time an EA begins a project, he or she faces a blank canvas. The EA’s first task is achieving a clear understanding of the challenge at hand. The next step is identifying all of the stakeholders who will be affected or influenced by the upcoming changes and then holding objective conversations with all of the parties. “Clearly seeing the issues and understanding a path forward that can be eloquently communicated to leadership and technical teams is a unique aspect of enterprise architecture [leadership],” notes Scott Binner, a senior consultant at digital transformation advisory firm SPR.

“An EA … needs to have a fairly deep understanding of the business problem, technical stack [and] industry knowledge to lead the conversations,” Damodaran adds.

7. Soft skills

Soft skills, such as a positive personality and motivational abilities, can be as important in an EA as technical prowess. “Soft skills are more difficult to find, since they’re unique to each individual’s personality and can’t be obtained through typical skills acquisition methods,” Binner says. “Politics and people are greater barriers to success of large initiatives than technical roadblocks.”

It’s important to find an EA who excels at both written and verbal communication. “You’ll be relying on the architect to work with many of your internal teams, and you need someone who can communicate and document what they’re doing in a way that will facilitate understanding and cooperation,” Reynolds explains.

Remember, too, that a systems architecture only provides value after it’s been implemented. “The architect must have a passion for success to ensure follow-up and commitment to the architecture,” Miklovic says. “Otherwise, the … process becomes nothing more than an intellectual exercise that will have no benefit to the enterprise.”