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  • John Chambers, PhD

Of Architects and Ivory Towers

The architect is a people person. Or ought to be. There are many IT professionals who tire of the operational routines, who wish to avoid the daily grind and intensity of managing people. Of course, managing people is much more than completing a goals review or a performance plan but we’ll leave that for another time. In the firm, the best architects and strategists know that their connections to others, their ability to sell ideas and accept ideas, and to collaborate with respect, are as important as their technical prowess, credentials, and experience.

Images of the architect are often romantic -- the monk, protector of knowledge through the Dark Ages, scribing by candlelight, or a familiar Renaissance man in Italy drafting a circle on canvas to show the equivalence of arm span vs. height. Perhaps we think of the architect as the ancient mathematician, schematically envisioning the Parthenon’s staircases or the scientist in the cyber lab, strategically assigning protection points to his network. Fun stuff, exciting stuff.

In IT, architects have a special role as well. The good ones are in high demand, maximum demand. When we think of IT folks, they are logicians by training. They want to build things. A thousand years ago they would be designing moats for King Richard’s predecessors; fifty years ago they would be handing over blueprints to construction teams that housed Saturn V rockets. They were the Wizard of Oz’ Scarecrow, “thinker of deep thoughts.”

In the not so new world of IT, or the slightly newer world of cyber security, the scenarios are only half right. The architect is not dictator nor slave; neither engineer nor administrator, and without large teams and large budgets. Much like a project manager who is doomed to lead without having formalized authority, the architect is the multifaceted genius geek with the presence of an orator. In the complex environments of configuration items (CI’s) encompassing applications, hardware, software, business process linkages, and the organizational dynamics of multiple teams, departments, and sometimes competing priorities, the architect is as much politician as professor.

The best architects reach across the aisle.

There are application architects and software architects; enterprise architects and process architects, and I can go on. There are facilities architects and security architects. As each of them create foundations and guidance for strategy, they cannot do this in a bubble. They cannot be academics only. Partly yes, but they will collaborate and compromise depending upon financial plans, project portfolios, infrastructure limitations, engineering strategies, and business dynamics. Can your architects articulate those factors in multi-lingual terms across the IT and business disciplines?

None of this happens in a cushy office with a virtual connection to the ecosystem. Architects must spend as much time negotiating as designing, measuring and calculating. As an architect in an environment of engineers, business people and other architects, there is something in high supply – egos. These architects are some smart folks. Didn’t I tell you they think deep thoughts? That’s not sarcasm. They are thinkers. Thinkers who deal with other thinkers. I often consider engineers as responsible for landing gear and architects responsible for runway design and orchestration. Mistakes in either domain will get people killed. The architect's purview is broader, not necessarily deeper nor more important. This is where the art of collaboration and teamwork become paramount.

When IT devises infrastructure roadmaps, when product managers and applications experts design products, when security engineers and strategists are asked to present an evolution of maturity, replete with plans and schematics, their credibility hinges on the ability to tell the story -- to define the business opportunity, to reference the financial and/or process benefits, and to know the technology as perceptively as Galileo determined what globe circled what globe.

They must lead the meeting.

That is the advice to architects.

Know the audience in business settings and technical settings. Don’t shy from stepwise pictures, methodical illustrations of an evolving environment, and the connections to business activities and bottom lines. In technology domains, architectures are created to solve business problems. They must accommodate logistics, connectivity and infrastructure requirements, workflow aspects, customer expectations and reasonable limitations in storage, cloud engagements and third party integrations.

If we consider an architect in just the domain of cyber security, we’d be mistaken to isolate the accountability to security protocols, firewalls, connectivity to the cloud and the types of workstations in use. Just that handful of nouns is also supporting application portfolios, operational processes, capacity dynamics, and…. opinions. The best architect I ever saw was a woman who was published and renowned. She never spoke down to anyone, and she was deliberate as a marksman. That architect understood she worked alongside minds as sharp as her own. The thoroughness, the explicit methodology, the comprehensive understanding of business work flow were unique talents. This was no ivory tower writer who folded her plans into a paper plane and launched them to the disciples below. She led by collaboration, and her scientific approach had all ears listening. That credibility comes in articulation, empathy and pictures.

As an architect, lead but listen. Depend upon your inner renaissance ideals. Da Vinci's genius was the marriage of hard sciences with humanities. To lead your meeting you’ll be doing more than projecting a technical idea. You will capture hearts and minds and more ideas(!) by weaving your architectural framework to the flow of the business, the elegance of flexibility and scalability, and the points of views of your cross-functional experts.

Reach across aisles, and think of your architecture as the multi-faceted creation, inspired by many parties and professionals in the firm, each with unique and legitimate needs. Every one of them!

Work with them closely, and complete your masterpiece.

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