What is a chief architect and how do you become one?
The duties and responsibilities of a chief architect vary depending on their organization. However, in my view and experience, a chief architect is primarily a leader and communicator. They need to understand and influence the business strategy and lead the development of an architecture strategy that supports and enables that business strategy.
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It's so much more than a job title. In fact, a chief architect might not have the word "chief" or even "architect" in their job title. They are defined by their role in setting an organization's architectural direction and are often supported by a team of architects who help them create that vision.
Impactful chief architects acknowledge that how they think is different—and it needs to be. Beyond thinking about an organization's structure and practice capabilities, they must constantly challenge what is possible and advocate innovations to unlock a better future.
What is a typical day for a chief architect?
The average day is meetings, meetings, meetings. However, these meetings are not only for architects to talk but also to listen. A chief architect's success lies in being out in the field, talking to people at all levels within the organization, asking questions, and simply listening. People within an organization are some of the greatest assets, and their insights are incredibly powerful tools for building a greater combined business vision.
A regular meeting for a chief architect includes sitting down with sponsors, typically senior and C-level executives, to discuss their needs and how they map against the vision they're delivering. Next, the chief architect meets with the delivery organization to align the roadmap and understand what must be achieved and why.
On a tactical level, there are regular meetings with the team to ensure they have what they need to get their job done, discussions with suppliers to ensure the organization receives the maximum value from their products and services, and meetings to regularly evaluate new opportunities.
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Chief architects must be flexible with their current operations and be ready to adapt, change, and pivot strategy toward a more successful outcome. It's not about being precious of current operations. The goal is always to reinvent, challenge, and grow.
Networking is also a big part of the role. A chief architect should always look to communicate and exchange ideas with peers outside their immediate ecosystem; it helps them learn, pushes them to challenge themselves, and leads them to grow. Attending or participating in conferences is a great way to start conversations, as is membership in a professional body with an active social structure. Modesty should forbid me from saying that The Open Group Architecture Forum (TOGAF) is a great example. But it doesn't, and it is.
What skills do you need to become a chief architect?
The typical chief architect has a background in IT, where they've moved through various roles within an organization. However, there are many paths to the same destination. I have worked with very successful architecture leaders who didn't have an IT background. The key to their success was a deep understanding of the organization they operated in, coupled with an ability to listen and communicate effectively.
No path is better than the other. Each one brings different superpowers to the table. Those with an IT background obviously have more experience and understanding of what technology can do for an organization and what can go wrong when certain technology is adopted. However, they tend to stick within the IT sphere, so they must consciously develop relationships outside the IT function to generate a rounded view of business priorities.
Those from a non-IT background, such as marketing, tend to have established relationships with business sponsors, as they share the same business language. This allows a better understanding of the business's pain points and the difference between what the company wants and needs. Additionally, chief architects from a non-IT background tend to be more open to advice from their technology community, which promotes happier relationships.
Regardless of background, the most important skills for a chief architect are the ability to communicate clearly and motivationally to all levels within an organization and the flexibility and humility to change.
What does the future of the chief architect role look like?
Every organization functions differently and builds teams in various ways for various business needs, so it's hard to define a single future for the chief architect role. I have observed a tendency for organizations to dismantle central enterprise architect functions and distribute responsibilities across multiple teams.
If implemented well, distributing enterprise architecture functions can bring the role closer to their stakeholders. However, if an organization is moving to a federated enterprise architecture structure and retaining the enterprise architect role, I think it's best to place the enterprise architects with the function they serve. If the architects are placed within the IT function, they will serve the priorities of the IT function first and foremost, which isn't always the best for the business. Organizations need to ask themselves what business pain they're looking to address, then build the role in that function, hiring the right person with the right background.
That said, somebody needs to sit in the middle and coordinate the various strands of enterprise architecture. That person—maybe called chief architect, maybe not—needs to be able to lead without managing.
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If you're interested in learning more about the chief architect role and mindset, consult The TOGAF leader's guide to establishing and evolving an EA capability, which dives into these topics a little deeper.
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