by Sunil Shah

Do You Need an Enterprise Architect?

Apr 07, 20095 mins
IT Leadership

The ambivalence around whether architects are needed is representative of the role's continuing evolution.

The ambivalence around whether architects are needed is representative of the role’s continuing evolution.

Once you get past all the jargon and the highly-nuanced — and sometimes conflicting — job descriptions, your enterprise architect is basically the guy who understands what the business needs, where it is headed and finds technology to match those needs. They’re the ones in charge of abolishing silos, enhancing seamless collaboration and aligning IT to the business. They also translate techno-bable into CXO-speak.

Hang on for a second, isn’t that the CIO’s role?

Not really says Alok Kumar, CIO Reliance Infosolutions, Reliance Industries’ IT arm. If, today, large organizations have hundreds of databases and as many silos, he says, “it’s the CIO who created those databases. There needs to be someone on his team who can fix that. In my opinion, a CIO role is more a business guy than a technical guy. The EA is the tech muscle for the CIO.”

That was the thinking when Reliance Retail decided to get an enterprise architect (EA) in the summer of 2007 — before the economy went sour. Kumar says they were looking for a “common agency” that could ensure that the fast-growing retail division worked off architecture that was robust and scalable despite the multiple teams employed in its development.

Among his responsibilities, the new architect was supposed to keep a sharp eye out for the hardware and databases used in applications in development to ensure the highest amount of efficiency and that upgrades or new requirements could be added seamlessly. “The idea was to ensure that the whole system wasn’t rigid, that it was agile. The architect also guided us when we needed to buy or create an app,” recalls Kumar.

But before the year was out, the architect and Reliance parted ways.

“These are the people who, seemingly, don’t add value to the emergency requirements of a company. They make things better, improve things, which isn’t normally what organizations are looking for during these times,” says Kumar.

While the lack of will to hold on to their architect probably had something to do with the nose-diving economy, what’s telling is that he was not replaced. If architects are seen as dispensable, that probably has something to do with the fact that it’s hard to define their KRAs and harder still to find “visible returns on what they do,” says Kumar.

“It is hard for an EA to show his work to the people who pay money because they have very little understanding of IT. They just look at results. They will ask an EA ‘what do you do?’ and he’ll say ‘I create diagrams.'”

Despite this, Kumar insists that there is a real need for enterprise architects. Yet he limits the companies that need an enterprise architect to a small pool. And he should know, Kumar himself was an EA. Organizations that need architects, he says, need to be large, with plenty of in-house development, preferably companies that have outsourced part of the IT and face a lot of change.

“EAs are a good choice when there are a lot of systems, a lot of data, a lot of regulations. An EA’s role also is very important if an organization is innovative. A bank like ICICI or HDFC, for example, wont be able to survive without one, because they have new products almost everyday. But it’s an investment and businesses shouldn’t look for immediate benefits,” he says.

And investments they are. architects are hard to find and Kumar estimates that someone as senior as architects need to be come at a premium: between Rs 35 lakh (US$69,658) to Rs 50 lakh per annum.

That’s one of the reasons architects in India are an unnamed lot. Their jobs are normally filled in by CIOs or their second-in-commands, says Kumar. “A lot of people look at what an EA does and say ‘what’s the big deal? I can do that.’ This isn’t the West. This is India. We are used to having multiple roles.”

Or some companies hire an architect from the outside, on a visiting arrangement because “enterprise architecture,” he says, “cannot be justified as a full time job.”

It’s an idea that cuts both ways. At a time like this, when business needs to move fast on every opportunity, an architect on hire, with little knowledge of an enterprise’s IT set up, represents one more layer of IT bureaucracy.

But as the same time, having an architect from the outside, whose time is billed to every project, can help streamline the requirements process. “Every design has a cost to it.

So we put that cost to the business and let them figure out whether they are under- or over-designing. Once we did that their requirements became clearer, they started doing their homework better and scope creep became minimal.”

With the advent of SOA, many say that architects will become an essential part of the IT landscape. But only time will tell. For now, in India, it seems it will fall into the category of what cannot be defined, cannot have a place in the slowdown.