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What the heck is an IT Architect anyway?

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According to the dictionary on my computer, the origin of the word ‘architect’ is from the Greek: specifically, from arkhi, which means ‘chief’ and tektōn, which means ‘builder’. That sounds like a pretty good start for understanding the role of the architect in IT; the trouble is, in practice things appear to unravel pretty quickly.

There are a number of potential reasons for this. The first and most important perhaps, is that nobody appears to be absolutely sure what is meant by architecture, in the context of IT. Let me rephrase: there are plenty of individuals who appear confident about their own definitions; the trouble is that there is a plethora of highly overlapping and contradictory definitions. Take for example the wealth of difference between systems architects, software architects and enterprise architects at that consensus clearing house Wikipedia.

A second reason could just be that our ability to define architects, and indeed architecture, are symptomatic of the fact that we are still in the middle of a technological revolution. IT is a work in progress, and just when we think we have got a handle on how to structure our infrastructures, everything changes again. Wouldn’t it be great if everything could just stop for a while, so we could catch up and work out some of this stuff for good?

Trouble is, there have been lots of efforts to work such things out. From the Zachmann framework to more recent ‘enterprise architecture’ definitions such as TOGAF, from patterns in software to the best possible practices in data modeling, plenty has been done but this far there hasn’t been any real agreement on one approach, or indeed set of approaches, or set of skills that should define an architect in IT. It is this lack of consistency, from theory to practice, which distinguishes IT architects most fundamentally from their namesakes in the building industry.

There is just the possibility that architects in IT really are over-hyped, over-philosophical and out of touch with the real world of building and deploying business-facing IT systems. It’s clearly important to have people in the organization who can take an architectural view of systems, networks and software.

But is the truth of the matter that given the immaturity of IT as a whole, we cannot currently expect more of our architects than to occupy some kind of ‘chief builder’ role? Should any attempts to define their purpose be met with generous smiles, in the knowledge such folks are doing their best in a rapidly changing environment? Or can we say with absolute certainty that the IT architect is a role no IT organization should be without? Would you be delighted to have the term ‘architect’ on your CV or do you change direction when you see one coming down the corridor? Let us know – we’d love to hear your views. ®

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