5 ways the IT Architect role is evolving
IT is an ever-changing field. As such, IT Architects of all stripes must be adaptable.
Consider some of the modern architectural approaches to applications and infrastructure, such as microservices and hybrid cloud. Then, think about the impacts of those approaches on other important domains, such as networking and security—there's a cascading effect of change that the IT Architect, in particular, must be able to see and understand.
In this article, we'll examine some of the ways in which big-picture trends require IT Architects to evolve and adapt.
While there are multiple specific domains within architecture, most of the patterns identified below apply across the field. (Take a deeper dive into the Architect role's various iterations in our article, "What type of IT Architect are you?") Moreover, you'll begin to notice—befitting the nature of the IT Architect—the interconnectedness of the modes of the role's evolution.
The pace of change is faster than ever
An IT Architect across various domains could once plan ahead with a degree of confidence that the technology and business landscape would look the same for a while. They didn't have 10 or five or three years of runway, per se, but certainly, 12 or 18 months might have been a reasonable timeline for planning significant changes or new implementations.
Architects still have to be able to balance today's requirements with planning for the future, but the latter has become a lot less predictable.
"The velocity at which technology moves, coupled with rapidly evolving customer expectations, requires an Architect to be more forward-looking and adaptable than ever before," said Eric Drobisewksi, Senior Architect at Liberty Mutual Insurance. "The intentional architectures of the past, with their large amounts of preparation and planning, no longer fit today's pace of technology—they will be outdated before they are ever implemented."
This acceleration in pace is reflected in the shift to newer models of software development and infrastructure operations like DevOps and hybrid cloud.
"Adaptable and extensible architectures are now required to provide value to organizations that are taking on large-scale transformation efforts to compete in today's connected digital world," Drobisewksi said. "The waves of technology change are coming faster and faster, and today's Architects need to be equipped to enable incubation and exploration of new technology. They have to quickly vet these new tools, and determine what to invest in or move on from, removing critical barriers of adoption, which then allow agile engineering teams to move freely to respond to the greatest areas of opportunity."
Cloud expertise is a new requirement
Even in architecture roles that don't have "cloud" in the title, cloud technologies are increasingly a part of the know-how and skills needed to be a successful IT Architect. That's especially true in architecture roles that span multiple domains, or those that are especially business-facing, according to Paul Wallenberg, director of technology recruiting at LaSalle Network.
"Enterprise Architects [in particular] need to see across the whole stack of systems, applications, and integration technologies, as well as business continuity and strategy," Wallenberg said. "For architecture roles that have influence on both infrastructure and applications strategies, companies are looking for individuals with cloud-first approaches whose strengths include migration and security strategy."
Put another way, an architect that has traditionally been responsible for planning and designing on-premises systems may also now be looked to for advice on hybrid cloud architecture, as well as helping to determine which workloads will be best suited for which environment—private cloud, public cloud, bare metal, and so forth. Similarly, they may also need to be able to determine the best path to travel in terms of cloud migrations—the decision to lift and shift versus refactoring, for example.
Modern architects are also taking on strategic leadership roles in ensuring that IT teams are able to effectively and efficiently operate these more complex hybrid cloud environments at scale with automation and other technologies.
"As individual data center footprints shrink, today's IT Architects need to understand repeatability and scalability using cloud-native techniques so that appropriate planning can be done on a long-term basis," Wallenberg said.
Wallenberg also noted that companies currently hiring for IT Architect roles that touch net-new custom software or platform development—sometimes referred to as greenfield projects—are also increasingly looking for people who understand serverless design and microservices architecture.
"Today's architects encourage a 'best tool for the job' approach," Wallenberg said. "This has led companies to explore hybrid cloud environments and to house applications and services in different cloud environments depending on function and cost."
Leading through change
The "best tool for the job" principle applies to processes and culture, too—as traditional IT silos have been broken down and teams have embraced paradigms such as agile development and DevOps, IT Architects have necessarily evolved to empower those teams and newer ways of working.
"Now, more than ever, delivery of solutions has shifted entirely to the agile product teams with the Architect adapting to enable aligned autonomy across multiple agile squads," Drobisewksi said. "The architect's role in influencing technology directions across multiple teams and organizations is increasingly critical in an agile enterprise, to allow technology decisions to be made with great speed and proximity to the teams where they are needed, in alignment with architectural guardrails and principles."
This intersects with the aforementioned need for Architects who understand cloud-native architecture, tooling, and processes, for example. Architects aren't adding these skills because they are trendy; rather, they're needed to facilitate modern IT teams achieving their goals.
Architects see people systems, too
Wallenberg noted that the recent transition to remote work in many organizations has rapidly increased the need for Architects who can take a deep, holistic view of their company's technology portfolio across multiple domains.
"The most significant new direction for an Architect is reacting to the pandemic," he said. "Companies that were behind the eightball as it related to transforming their technology assets to more accessible digital offerings now see that Architects need to have a holistic understanding of [the systems they are responsible for.]"
Wallenberg shared a few examples of areas where Architects are increasingly asked to lead decision-making in terms of how, when, where, why, and what an organization's people use to accomplish their jobs:
- Accessibility and the shift away from entirely on-premises applications and infrastructure
- Security considerations and functional governance requirements across all platforms
- Analytic capabilities to determine when to build versus buy a system in terms of cost-containment and ROI
The IT Architect has a much higher profile
All of the above speaks to a fundamental change for IT Architects: your star is shining brighter than ever. The role has shifted from a nice-to-have or complementary piece to a real driving force.
Research firm Gartner has noted that the enterprise architecture function, in particular, has evolved from a support role to a show-runner position. The company has predicted that, by 2023, around 60% of companies will depend on their Enterprise Architects to lead their approach to digital innovation.
Just as the pandemic has shined a spotlight on the need for IT Architects who can think holistically about systems and how people access and use them, it has also underlined the importance of the architecture role to strategic, adaptive businesses.
"The pandemic accelerated the need for Architects to have a larger say in digital transformation, business continuity, and the security posture of an organization," Wallenberg said. "So, enterprise architecture now has a significant need for domain-level, functional expertise as well as deep, sophisticated technical expertise."
Putting it all together
IT Architects have a cascading set of challenges unlike any seen before. To continue to be the reliable, productive leadership that they have been, they must navigate these challenges accordingly. That will include accepting their increased importance as a tastemaker of systems choices, focused more on saying yes to the right directions as opposed to saying no.
Navigate the shifting technology landscape. Read An architect's guide to multicloud infrastructure.