Enterprise architect job still requires IT in critical role

Jeanne Ross offers advice to existing and aspiring enterprise architects and discusses the latest trends as she reflects on 26 years of researching enterprise architecture at MIT.

IT professionals still serve a critically important role as business strategy and enterprise architecture merge, contributing insight into what is technologically possible and looking ahead to the next big innovation.

That's the assessment of Jeanne Ross, who recently retired as principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research, where she spent the last 26 years studying enterprise architecture. Ross shared information on the latest trends and offered job advice for existing and aspiring enterprise architects in the second part of SearchCIO's two-part interview with her. (Read part one here.)

How does enterprise architecture differ today for practitioners in comparison to what you saw when you started in this field?

Jeanne RossJeanne Ross

Jeanne Ross: We have moved from a world in which you establish a strategy and see how technology can help you get there to a world where what we have to do is be inspired by the technology. We have to constantly be aware of the next thing it makes possible and ask ourselves, 'Should we respond in some way? Is there something we could do for our customers that takes advantage of this new thing?' Enterprise architects have a huge opportunity to bring value to their companies by helping them see exactly that new reality.

What are the most important skill sets for an enterprise architect to have?

Ross: It starts by having a high-level view of what's going on in the company and then understanding the need to come together to deliver what the organization is trying to do. Where I differ from most people is that I would keep enterprise architecture very small in a company. But there would be a lot of architects to support the efforts of the enterprise architecture function.

The enterprise architecture function would be a very high-level design of how to accomplish strategic goals, and then architects would be responsible for subsets of that. The skill set depends on what level you're at. If you're at the highest level, you have to have a high-level understanding of the business. You need to understand how systems and processes enable it. But if you're an architect in a process, then your main skill set would be to be able to communicate how the different pieces come together. You want to be someone who can understand the relationship between systems and processes. You need to understand how good data is developed, derived and maintained, and that relates to processes and people. So you have this clear understanding of how the people, the process and the technology interact. It's a different skill set than the training for a lot of architects, which tends to be quite technical.

How small should the architecture team be based on the size or type of company?

Ross: The main function of enterprise architecture has to be high-level design, but you don't need a big team to do that. You need a chief enterprise architect, and then, depending on how big and complex your business is, you need enterprise architects who can define the high-level design of the individual businesses and functions and relate them back to the corporate design. So, we're probably seeing a team of a dozen maybe in a very complex company. For me, it's a liaison role, and they would work with technologists, human resource people, business process design people and user interface people to make sure all the pieces can come together. But, first and foremost, they're designers, so the people who do the work are distributed throughout the entire organization.

Based on your many years of experience, what is the ideal composition or balance for an enterprise architecture team between staffers from the IT side and the business side?

Ross: It's not so much that you want some people from the business side and some people from the technology side, so much as you want to make sure that business and technology are well represented. We have people in any given company who really get technology and get business, and they're perfect for this. What's happening right now is that strategy and architecture are merging. We finally see these two are basically one and the same. This should have been true for years, and thank God it's finally becoming true. You can't plan a company's strategy unless you plan how the company is designed. Once you understand how a company's designed, it strongly influences what it is capable of strategically accomplishing. You're trying to get clarity around what the business can do, what the business wants to do and how the business will do it. Those get brought together in a function. You can call it strategy. You can call it architecture. You can call it what you will. But it's really the merger of setting the direction for the company and designing the company so it can achieve it.

Does IT remain integral to enterprise architecture, or does it become more of a role for tech-savvy business leaders?

Ross: In our most recent research, we saw companies that we thought were getting really good at fast change. These companies are clearly architecting themselves better. And what we heard over and over again from people in companies that were making real progress is: If you get these business and technology people in a room and just listen to them talk, you won't know which is which.

I think there's still a critically important role for technologists. But for the company, the critical thing is that the gap between the technologists and the business people is tiny. We need people who really can pull off the technology and explain what's possible and what's not possible, and the business people who can hear it and direct it. But if they can't communicate with one another, you never get there. So, there's a certain element of technical architecture that is extremely important but only valuable if, at the front end of it, it's tightly communicated with the business people.

Just to be clear, there's still a huge need for people who are experts at technology and for solution architects. But the finding of years and years of architecture research is that you cannot do this if everybody on the business side doesn't understand what's going on. One of the things people at Schneider Electric told us that I'm really starting to appreciate as I watch other companies is that you want to do as little technology as you can. There are so many fabulous vendors out there. Of course, there are also not-so-fabulous vendors. So, one of the critical things your technologists have to do is distinguish the great from the awful.

So, it's a very different kind of role. It's not about creating anymore. It's about assembling. It's about assessing. It's an architect's responsibility to see the different pieces and how they come together and where they're going to work and where you're going to run into issues. And, more and more, it's going to be about bringing components from here, there and everywhere as opposed to designing and creating those components.

I have a story from years ago. I was interviewing a CIO at a transportation company, and I said, 'The question everybody's asking me is, where can they get great architects? You are a company that people recognize as well architected.' The CIO said to me, 'Oh, I don't go out and recruit architects. I just sit in my office and wait for them to come to me. Somebody is going to come into my office and say, "Hey, listen, I was trying to work on this particular system, and what I realized is I can't work on this alone. If that system doesn't change, then this is never going to work." I say to that person, "Oh, you're an architect." And I change their responsibilities.' I thought, 'That's really smart.' That's the kind of understanding you need -- somebody who can identify where pieces are going to do what needs to be done and fit with other pieces and where they don't. That's the role of the architect.

Do you think enterprise architecture is a good career path for an IT professional? Is there training available? Or is the job more art than science and mainly require extensive experience over time?  

Ross: I think it's a fabulous career. I'm not sure you have to go to school. It really depends on if you have a great mentor. If you don't see that brilliant person at your company, there is some excellent training on enterprise architecture at places like Carnegie Mellon and MIT. But, it's kind of like an MBA. You also need on-the-job training. You need to apply a broad range of experiences to become a great enterprise architect.

What is the most important piece of advice you'd give to enterprise architects?

Ross: Recognize that enterprise architecture is a journey. This is a long haul. You get better and better at designing your systems and your processes. You get better and better at understanding the components so you can take advantage of the next vendor capability. The further out it gets, the more directional and the less specific it gets, because we have to be ready to adapt to what new technology makes possible and what customers want and what competitors are doing. We don't want to have long-term strategies that look rigid and might set target states that didn't quite meet the needs of the moment.

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