So what exactly does an Architect do?

It’s not unusual in the IT world to have difficulty explaining what you do to your parents. It is, however, a cause for concern when your peers, even your superiors, don’t have a clear understanding. Unfortunately, that’s the case with architects right now.

Part of the problem is terminology. Terms like Enterprise Architect, Solutions Architect, Technical Architect, Information Architect, Business Architect, Database Architect, Software Architect, Network Architect, Systems Architect, User Experience Architect, Security Architect, Application Architect, and Infrastructure Architect are thrown around without authoritative definition and little agreement as to what they mean. I’ve yet to see a comprehensive taxonomy and I won’t be attempting one here. Instead, I hope to highlight some recent work in the area and contribute something of my own to help increase understanding.

The best place to start, is with some definitions. As I noted in the blog’s inaugural post, Wikipedia defines “architecture” as “…both the process and product of planning, designing and construction”. Merriam-Webster’s second definition for “architect” is “a person who designs and guides a plan or undertaking”. These definitions, in my opinion, apply regardless of the type of architect being described. All architects plan, design, and guide.

I’ve found three articles that, in my opinion, do a good job of illustrating how different architect roles relate to each other and what those roles do: IASA Sweden’s Study of Architect Roles, ArchiTech Consulting LLC’s “Enterprise Architecture .vs. Collection of Architectures in Enterprise”, and Igor Lobanov’s “Differences Between Architecture Roles”. I conclude with my thoughts on the subject.

IASA Sweden’s Study of Architect Roles

The Sweden chapter of Iasa (originally the International Association of Software Architects) commissioned a study of Architect Roles that was published in the April 2008 edition of The Architecture Journal. The article dealt with four roles: Enterprise Architect, Business Architect, Solution Architect, and Software Architect. The roles are described as overlapping (see image below) and differing in depth and breadth of knowledge as well as scope of interest. Unfortunately, the article ignores two architectural domains: Technology Architecture and Information Architecture. Additionally, the description of the Enterprise Architect is too IT-centric.

ArchiTech Consulting LLC’s “Enterprise Architecture .vs. Collection of Architectures in Enterprise”

“Enterprise Architecture .vs. Collection of Architectures in Enterprise” by Yan Zhao, PhD, was posted on the ArchiTech Consulting LLC blog on November 21. While the article was mainly focused on the Zachman Framework and how it defines a collection of architectures within an enterprise, it also illustrated the relationship of architectures (and by extension, architects) within that framework (see image below). While it leaves out the overlap, it does a much better job of showing the level at which each role works and it includes the Information Architecture domain.

Igor Lobanov’s “Differences Between Architecture Roles”

Igor Lobanov posted “Differences Between Architecture Roles” on his blog on September 19. While it doesn’t touch on the Business or Information Architecture domains, it provides the best visual representation (see image below) of the depth, breadth, and scope of Enterprise, Solution, and Technical Architects. He also captures the overlap inherent in the roles. In his model, the Technical Architect (correctly, in my opinion) encompasses both the Application Architecture and Technology Architecture domains. Additionally, Igor’s descriptions of the three roles are excellent, detailing the concerns that each role deals with.

My Thoughts

The fact that we are dealing with roles rather than positions complicates matters, because one person can undertake many roles. This is why the overlap aspect is one I consider important. I would hazard a guess that most Solution Architects serve double duty as Technical Architects (generally Application Architects) in small and medium-sized organizations. For that matter, in many cases the Solutions Architect/Application Architect may also double as a senior developer/technical lead (which has both positive and negative effects, but that’s a post for another day). As shown by all three articles, however, the roles share common characteristics differing mainly by depth and breadth of knowledge as well as scope of interest.

For the most part, Information Architecture and Business Architecture receive short shrift in the articles linked to. This is unfortunate as these domains are becoming increasingly important (Information Architecture in particular). I suspect, given recent trends, that those roles will become more common and better defined in the very near future.

Security Architecture is another neglected, but critical area. There’s still some debate as to whether it is another domain or a cross-cutting concern. That’s a debate I won’t be able to settle here.

My concept is a blend of the three articles I’ve referenced. From a high level, I like the overlapping circles of the Iasa model, but I see the Enterprise Architect as encompassing all four domains (Business, Information, Application, and Technology), with the Solutions Architect occupying a similar role on a smaller scale (fewer domains and less organizational scope). The remaining roles I listed, in my opinion, shake out as follows:

  • Technical Architect – this is more a category than a role.  Both Application Architects and Technology Architects would be considered Technical Architects
  • Software Architect – a synonym for Application Architect.
  • Infrastructure Architect – a synonym for Technology Architect.
  • Network Architect – a specialization of the Infrastructure Architect role.
  • Systems Architect – Wikipedia’s definition is synonymous with Solutions Architect, but the usage I’ve seen more commonly is that of an Infrastructure Architect dealing with servers and operating systems.
  • User Experience Architect – a specialization of the Application Architect dealing with user interface design and usability.
  • Database Architect – I view this role as a specialization of the Application Architect (big surprise: an Application Architect views the database as a component of the application), but I see it commonly falling into the Infrastructure space.

There are, of course, roles that I’ve left out. SOA Architects, Storage Architects and Active Directory/LDAP Architects come to mind, but I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to fit them into the framework above. It’s my hope that the framework itself is useful for understanding what to expect from these roles.

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9 thoughts on “So what exactly does an Architect do?

  1. Pingback: Getting there from here « Form Follows Function

  2. Gene,

    An additional resource for your readers which is a comprehensive skills taxonomy for architects can be found at Iasa Global (which underlies the Iasa chapter model you mentioned). You can look at the professional level strawman here (http://www.iasaglobal.org/Document.asp?DocID=547) which defines the 5 baseline or foundation skills which all architects must possess as well as the 4 currently recognized specializations (information, infrastructure, business and software).

    Like

    • Thanks, Daniel.

      I do like both of those posts – they address some very common misunderstandings about the role of architects. In my opinion, you have to know what that role is in order to understand the benefits that it can bring.

      Like

  3. Pingback: Avoiding Platform Rot | Form Follows Function

  4. Pingback: Avoiding Platform Rot | Iasa Global

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