What makes a damn good solution architect?

by Mindi Clews on 06/06/2015 06:24

WhatMakesDamnGoodSolutionArchitect

The role of solution architect has never been more important than it is today. We live in a world where change is rapid, technology is ubiquitous and systems are increasingly complex. Making the right technology decisions for your organisation for today and for the future can make the difference between success and irrelevance.

If you are a solution architect or want to become one, you’ll want to ensure that you have the ‘right stuff’. If you’re an organisation wanting to make the right technology choices, you’ll want to ensure you pick solution architect employees or consultants who ‘move the needle’. Either way, you may be asking ‘what makes a damn good solution architect?’

Part of my remit is to run the recruitment activity at Equinox IT, including recruiting solution architects and consultants. I’m not an architect myself, so I have collected thoughts from both members of our architecture team and myself to come up with the traits that we believe make a damn good solution architect. If you want more insight into the role, take a look at our post What the heck does a solution architect do anyway?

While each situation is different and will require differing skills, at a broad level these are the traits we find make a damn good solution architect:

1. Damn good solution architects are expert communicators

A solution architect is a techie and a communicator in one. We all know geeky techies who are more comfortable interfacing with their technology than they are with other people; these folks do not make good architects. The role is about understanding needs, providing advice, managing risks and delivering the right technology results. It can involve working closely with business decision makers, enterprise architects, business analysts, project teams, vendor representatives, and countless other roles. This is all about communication. Architects need to be able to listen, empathise, explain, advise, influence, and negotiate, all whilst navigating complex project environments brimming with competing stakeholder expectations.

2. Damn good solution architects have technical pedigree

The best solution architects have moved into the position from technical disciplines within IT where they have accumulated significant experience and battle scars using technology to solve tough business problems. This gives them the knowledge, skills and credibility to provide technical advice to the business or project team. In our experience good solution architects often have seven or more years working within other IT disciplines, such as software development, IT infrastructure, telecommunication engineering, system or database administration and sometimes business analysis, prior to becoming architects.

3. Damn good solution architects bring a breadth of experience

Great architects have an uncanny ability to know ‘what to do’ in just about any situation. This comes from them normally having ‘been there, done that’ across a broad range of technology, organisational and industry scenarios. Sure there are very good technical specialists, who understand a particular technology to unimaginable detail, but in our experience the damn good solution architects have real breadth which allows them to add value across a myriad of business, project and technology situations.

4. Damn good solution architects zero in on risk

In New Zealand we have seen many recent examples of organisations who have been embarrassed by technology issues including security leaks, calculation errors and systems failing under peak usage loads. The solution architect is responsible for helping organisations deliver technology solutions that avoid these unfortunate results. The best architects will understand what the technology needs to do and will zero in on and mitigate risks that may inhibit the technology delivering what the business needs. As such, solutions architects focus on non-functional requirements such as usability, reliability, performance, supportability, and security and often become strong advocates for specialist risk management activities such as performance testing and security testing.

5. Damn good solution architects helicopter and deep dive

The right technical solution for an organisation isn’t one dimensional. Depending upon the nature of the project architects may need to helicopter up to get the big picture – what the organisation is trying to achieve and what business processes is it using. At the same time they need to deep dive into the specifics – the technical solutions, the interfaces, the data, the trouble spots and so on. The architect may need to move between the layers often and must be comfortable and capable of doing so, to ensure that the technology solution delivered meets the organisation’s needs at all levels.

6. Damn good solution architects are pragmatic

Being pragmatic is particularly important in our New Zealand context where our project teams are leaner and we need to punch above our weight and do more with technology for less. Many international technologies and methodologies that we use in New Zealand are designed for much larger scale activity than we have here. The best solution architects understand this distinction and are highly skilled at separating the wheat from the chaff, using what is valuable and discarding what is worthless within the given context. Great architects will focus on the business result and know how to achieve it using the technology, and not be besotted with the technology itself.

7. Damn good solution architects fight for the right solution

The best solution architects will give the right advice for the business result required. This may mean standing firm on a decision and not being persuaded by vendor hype, product claims, or silver bullets. This may also mean telling organisations the hard facts that they may not want to hear. We see this done well when it is communicated gracefully, respecting individuals, and focusing on the genuine needs of the organisation.

8. Damn good solution architects are lifelong learners

The technology that we all use today is remarkably different than it was even five years ago. It would be very easy for solution architects to quickly become irrelevant if they did not keep abreast of the business, technology, and IT practice changes affecting our world. The best solution architects that we know are always learning, reinventing themselves and staying relevant.

If you are a solution architect, or looking to move into the role, or if you are an organisation employing solution architects, we hope that this list has provided value to help you make the best technology decisions your organisations. If you have any thoughts or suggestions we’d love to hear your ideas on what makes a damn good solution architect.

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