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5 enterprise architect interview questions to ask

Finding the right candidate can be tough. Here are five questions to ask when hiring a prospective enterprise architect to help the interview process run smoothly.

Hiring a stranger is always a risk. You never really know what you’re getting. A resume will report past positions and accomplishments, provided, of course, that the information is accurate and not some inflated version of facts intended to make it through the HR Department’s filters and then eventually impress a human reviewer. Once a resume squeaks through, at some point in the hiring process, you need to interact with a prospective candidate. 

The interview process can get incredibly expensive, particularly if the interview process requires the time of key technical personnel. You’re taking them away from high-value work to participate in the interview. As a result, you don’t have the luxury of being random in your interview questions, particularly if you’re interviewing several candidates for an Enterprise Architect position.

So, to help you implement an effective, efficient Enterprise Architect interview process, we offer the following five questions to ask a prospective candidate. The questions are:

  1. How long have you been an architect?
  2. How many architectures have you created?
  3. Describe your last four architectures
  4. What were your most and least successful projects?
  5. What architectures other than your own do you admire?

Let’s take a look at the details.

1. How long have you been an architect?

It takes a good deal of time and experience to become a competent Enterprise Architect. There’s a lot to know both in terms of theory and actual practice. While there are a very talented few who can master the ins and outs of systems architectural design in a year or so, the general rule of thumb is that it takes about five years of experience developing architectures to achieve professional competency.

You are interviewing prospective architects who will be responsible for designing a system that can run into millions of dollars to implement. You want to make sure that prospective candidates have put in the time necessary to acquire the knowledge and skills required to do the work. Not only do you want to make sure they have the years of experience you expect, but you also want to make sure that during those years, they’ve done the work needed to attain mastery. A candidate with five years of experience focused on a single system, from creation to maintenance, is different from a candidate who has experience over a variety of projects at various stages of maturity. An variety of experiences matters just as much as the length of experience. This difference counts. Hence, the next question.

2. How many architectures have you created?

Few architects get it right on the first shot. Many buildings had to fall until those architects designing them figured out how to construct structures that withstood the test of time. The same is true of IT systems. You have to architect many systems to develop the detailed understanding required to make enterprise-level applications that last.

Architects that have created a system or two are still in the growing stages of their careers. Having such architects on staff is perfectly acceptable as long as they’re working under the guidance of more experienced practitioners. However, hiring an unknown architect with no track record inside your organization for a senior position is a risk.

A good rule of thumb for hiring an architect for a senior position is to make sure that they’ve done at least four systems already. Furthermore, of those four, the last two had budgets similar to what your company expects to spend on the system the new hire will be architecting.

3. Describe your last four architectures

More specifically, describe your last four architectures in terms of purpose, budget, and the technical and organizational challenges you overcame.

Those in the know understand that in the world of enterprise architecture, no two systems are alike. Systems might be similar, but they are rarely identical. Each system under design will be unique in terms of the technical and organizational challenges the architect will face. There will be risks that accompany each of the challenges. Some risks are expected; others will be beyond prediction.

The trick when interviewing architects is to see how aware they are of the uniqueness of their past projects and how they anticipated the risks incurred. A good way to determine the depth of their awareness is to analyze how they describe the projects they have brought to fruition. If their description contains a lot of detail from various perspectives—technical, financial, and organizational—it indicates a reasonable degree of awareness. If the candidate talks only about the technical hurdles they’ve addressed, there’s a good chance that they’re more a developer than an architect. Remember, systems architecture includes giving significant attention to the business needs that drive the demands for the architecture. Thus, having an awareness of the organizational and budgetary dynamics in play is just as important as a thorough mastery of the technologies at hand.

In short, how prospective architects describe their past work will tell you a lot about how they will address the work you plan to entrust to them.

4. What were your most and least successful projects?

When it comes to enterprise architecture implementation, we all have winners and losers. The trick is to have a lot more winners than losers. One of the easiest ways to have more winners is to learn from those architectures that were losers. But, to learn from an unsuccessful architecture, one needs to admit to the failure.

Experienced architects can discuss their successes as well as their failures in a thoughtful, objective manner. They can describe how things went right or wrong at an operational level while also making clear their part in the result, for better or worse. And they can report the lessons they’ve learned.

Architects that report nothing but success are cause for concern. Either they’re perfect, which is improbable, or they lack not only the humility and confidence that goes with admitting failure but also the professional wisdom that enables them to learn from their mistakes.

Hiring an architect that can learn from both success and failure is key to keeping the odds of success in your company’s favor.

5. What architectures, other than your own, do you admire?

The world of enterprise architecture is wide. There are thousands of companies on the technical landscape creating ingenious systems worth knowing about. These days, given the proliferation of open-source software, it’s not unusual for one company’s work to serve as the foundation for another company’s innovation.

Thus, a good practice when hiring an architect is to hire someone with a broad awareness of the work of others at a fairly detailed level. The attention required needs to go well beyond catchphrases and cliches gleaned from cursory searches on the internet.

An awareness of what other architects are doing provides an architect with a valuable perspective on the trends and best practices emerging within the industry. Well-informed architects tend to be open-minded and have thoughtful opinions about the quality of work done by others. In fact, when they come across admirable ideas, many will try to adopt those ideas into their work.

The takeaway is this: A candidate that admires the work of others can synthesize new ideas into architectures that will benefit your company. An architect that does not respect the work of others is a prima donna and should be avoided.

Putting it all together

Hiring Enterprise Architects is a difficult task. They need to know a lot, and they need to have done a lot. They’ll have an enormous impact on projects that can easily require millions of dollars to implement. But, to put it bluntly, unlike hiring a person with whom you or a colleague have worked in the past, hiring a stranger is an unknown. It might work out, and it might not. Only time will tell if a hiring choice was the right one.

Yet, having an interview process that includes asking the five questions listed above will help put the odds in your favor. They’re designed to allow you to get a glimpse into a candidate’s knowledge, experience, and attitude. Hopefully, you’ll find them useful.

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Topics:   Career   Leadership  
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Bob Reselman

Bob Reselman is a nationally known software developer, system architect, industry analyst, and technical writer/journalist. More about me

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