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How to build your career as an IT Architect

The unclear entry point to a successful career in enterprise architecture is actually an opportunity, not a problem.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

The career path of IT Architects is a choose-your-own-adventure. If you want to become a lawyer, you go to law school and eventually take the bar exam. If you want to become an Enterprise Architect, the career entryways aren't always as well-lit.

Here's one thing that's quite clear—the role of the Architect is as important as ever. It sits squarely at the juncture of business and technology. The Architect is the person who not only understands how a company uses technology to work toward its business goals for today, but also the strategy for tomorrow. They understand what needs to be done now, but also where the organization is headed in the future and how technology platforms will drive those parallel efforts. They don't just build for launch day, but for the next day and beyond.

But if there's no single path toward this critical role, how do you get started? Here's one good way: ask someone who's already blazed the trail themselves.

So we did just that and asked Eric Drobisewski, Senior Architect at Liberty Mutual Insurance, to tell us about his career to date.

About the Senior Architect role

Drobisewski began as an Architect at the Fortune 100 firm roughly seven years ago. Today, he's helping to build out a hybrid cloud architecture operating a growing number of containerized workloads with Kubernetes and other tooling. Key priorities include abstracting away as much of the underlying infrastructure as possible with software-defined and API-driven interaction models, as well as building for extensibility so that they can reliably and quickly add new capabilities as new business goals warrant.

"My primary focus has been creating a hybrid cloud technology ecosystem that enables our evolving business needs and provides a consistent experience for our developers, operations, and security professionals," Drobisewski said of his current role as Senior Architect. "This is both exciting and challenging, as our success increasingly depends on the ability of our teams to deliver digital services and software more quickly and with higher quality, paired with our evergreen priorities to operate applications and services reliably and optimally, at scale."

An Architect's career path

We asked Drobisewski what advice he has for others who want to pursue a similar role, specifically, how to get started.

The unclear entry point to a successful career in enterprise architecture is actually an opportunity, not a problem. The important thing is not where you get your start in technology, per se; rather, it's simply getting started somewhere and soaking up every chance to learn new stuff. Drobisewski first entered the field as a self-taught web developer.

"Early on in your technology career, any role will help you gain perspective and build experience that you can continue to build on for the future," he said. "Approaching each role early in your career with a passion and eagerness to learn as much as you can about that specific technology, as well as pairing with and shadowing more senior engineers and technologists in your team, will position you to understand the bigger picture of how this component fits into the larger puzzle of the technology ecosystem."

Drobisewski's curiosity about technology led him from front-end development to a very different area. He learned the fundamentals of network communication, TCP/IP, and large-scale voice and data networks, where he focused a portion of his early career. In the process, he pursued various certifications in these areas from the likes of Cisco and CompTIA.

This was the first of several evolutionary phases that appear common in people who end up pursuing and landing senior roles as Architects—they build both depth and breadth, rather than hyper-specializing in a particular technology or platform. And one way to ensure you're doing this is to embrace the unexpected. This is how future Architects begin learning the intricacies and interdependencies of complex systems.

Once Drobisewksi had built a foundation in VoIP and client-server technologies, he decided to move back into a software development role. The role ended up being much different than he initially anticipated, which actually turned out to be a boon to his development as a future Architect.

"I was expecting to focus on web development in a client-server environment, using technology and tooling I was familiar with, but the business needed to fill a gap with some critical development and support of back-end services that ran on the mainframe," he said. "At the time, I was a bit shocked and concerned about where this might lead, but I quickly built up skills in ISPF, JCL, COBOL, IMS, and CICS. This turned out to be one of a few great opportunities in my career and provided a deep understanding and appreciation of the complex architectures of enterprise-class systems."

There's a lesson here: you never know where your next significant opportunity to learn and grow is going to come from. In this case, taking a chance on what might have seemed like a less trendy technology became a massive opportunity to get his hands dirty with the kinds of large-scale systems most enterprises rely on.

Once he became comfortable with mainframe technologies, Drobisewski added another layer to the mix; he began working with Java J2EE-based applications and middleware technologies across a variety of contexts, from e-commerce to back-end services to SOA to business-to-business integrations.

This lit up the light bulb that led to Drobisewski's current role and career phase.

"I learned just how intricate the plumbing of these complex systems was, as well as the fragility of the many dependencies required to make them all work together in harmony as an ecosystem," he said. "This is when architecture really became a passion for me. I felt like I had seen enough and built a wealth of experience to try and simplify, improve consistency, and create more efficient technology ecosystems that were well-architected and would support both near-term and strategic needs."

A Senior Architect's advice for aspiring professionals

Your own career development might follow a different route, and that's quite alright. That's actually part of the point: change and adaptability are baked into the Architect's DNA.

That said, there are some great takeaways from Drobisewski's particular path that can translate widely to other technologists who aspire to a senior-level Architect position. Let's break down four of them.

1. There's no substitute for hands-on experience.

"I can't stress enough how vital creating a well-rounded understanding of technology ecosystems is to becoming a successful Architect in any large-scale environment," Drobisewski said.

This means, especially early in your career, that you're best served with a "learning by doing" strategy. While certifications and other educational opportunities can certainly play a role—Drobisewski himself pursued plenty of them—they are best viewed as complementary pieces rather than the primary drivers of your development as a technology Architect.

"Certifications, in my opinion, should be secondary to hands-on and real-world experience," he said. "Use certifications where they fit best for the technology you already understand well and to further document your achievements and knowledge, but don't try to build knowledge primarily through certifications."

2. There's also no substitute for diverse experience.

Continuous learning is a pattern in the professional development of an Enterprise Architect, and an overlapping pattern is continuous learning that spans all levels of a technology stack, as well as multiple platforms or ecosystems. One way to do this is to run toward opportunities or roles that might at first seem counterintuitive or strange, in the same way that Drobisewski embraced an unexpected shift to working with the mainframe. In addition to technical breadth, the work of an Architect invariably requires understanding and empathizing with different roles on a technology team.

"Taking chances on new opportunities to rotate into different teams with varying responsibilities, from developer to operations and security, will pay dividends on your path to becoming an Architect," he said. "This will help remove technology silos in organizations, create a balanced multi-dimensional view and strategy, and position you strongly to navigate the many dependencies—technical and organizational—that you will encounter in your role as an Architect."

3. Build relationships inside and outside of your organization.

There's a lot of plain-vanilla career advice for professionals of all stripes about "building your network." In the case of an architect, it carries real weight: Relationships are both one of the ways you'll learn as well as an eventual job requirement. You need to be able to build and nurture relationships widely, just as you need to understand technology widely.

"Look for individuals that are already in architecture roles and talk to them about your aspirations and passions for similar technologies, or share thoughts and ideas on things you see as potential opportunities," Drobisewski advised.

Because becoming an architect requires a particular zeal for acquiring knowledge, many are also keen to share it. Outside of your current organization, Drobisewski points to professional sites LinkedIn and other online communities—you're here, so you're off to a good start!—as places to connect, as well as open source projects. Even in our mostly remote world at the moment, there are still virtual meetups, conferences, and so forth.

4. Become a great storyteller.

Finally, Drobisewski shared another of his lessons learned: while it might sound strange to some technologists, becoming a good Architect depends in part on being able to tell an effective story.

"It's critically important in technology architecture roles to be able to articulate complex technical topics in a way that resonates with a wide audience," he said.

That means you're able to talk with and evangelize to everyone from the CEO and the rest of the executive leadership team to the boots-on-the-ground engineering teams delivering the solution.

"Storytelling has become an increasing focus in large enterprises to help drive tighter alignment between IT and the rest of the company to achieve business differentiation through technology," Drobisewkski said. "The ability to influence technology vision and direction at all levels of the organization is a key capability for today's IT Architect."

The takeaway

There's no single path to becoming an Enterprise Architect. People don't even necessarily agree on a consensus title for the role—one company's Enterprise Architect is another's IT Architect is another's Cloud Architect. Some architecture roles don't even include the term in the title—you might find a senior software engineer doing the work of an Architect, for example, which adds another layer of uncertainty to an individual's career development choices.

No matter the path you take, take Eric's four points as advice along the way. In my own words, they are:

  1. Seek out hands-on experience.
  2. Seek out diverse expertise.
  3. Build relationships.
  4. Learn to tell a great story.

These key takeaways will get you on the right track. 

If you are on your way to becoming an Enterprise Architect or any other type of IT Architect,  start off with the last point and contribute to this publication

Topics:   Career  
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Kevin Casey

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. More about me

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