The rise of the IT architect

Demand grows for leaders who can take a broad view of the enterprise.

The position of IT architect has become increasingly important to the ever-changing IT industry, and is one that established corporations and start-ups are seeking. The job requires network professionals to acquire new skills, and it could provide additional career opportunities.

As IT positions become more specialized and include increasingly detailed responsibilities, there's a need for someone who can tie several silos of expertise together, says Al Volvano, a product manager for Microsoft's Learning Group. Enterprise architects aren't just technology experts; they are leaders with broad IT knowledge, the savvy to apply it to business problems and the communication skills necessary to coordinate the people who will put their plans into action, says Bill Liguori, senior vice president and co-founder of the placement firm Leadership Capital Group.

Jim Phelps, a senior IT architect for the University of Wisconsin's Department of IT, is charged with assessing the effect and fit of technologies, and aligning technical solutions with the university's IT goals. As he describes it, the position requires "broad vision to fly at 30,000 feet all the time but drop down low to the ground every once in a while to get enough detail." In particular, he concentrates on collaboration, identity management issues and integration patterns.

His department has three IT architects and he says there's talk of adding one more. "The university has grown, and we wanted to deliver integrated services. We don't want students to have to go to the library system and e-mail system and calendar system," Phelps says. "The need for someone who has an overview, high-level vision has grown."

For example, he recently intervened when two university groups were using "e-grading" to describe unrelated projects. The registrar was starting a self-service electronic grade submission project, and at the same time the learning technologies group was working to integrate online learning with the student information system. The architecture group got the teams together and came up with common terminology and definitions to alleviate staff confusion.

Naturally, the role of an IT architect can vary greatly by company. For example, each company might have a set of operating systems, databases and frameworks that it tends to use, as well as industry-specific applications for environments ranging from hospitals to retail stores.

"'Architect' is probably the most abused term in IT," says Tony Redmond, HP's CTO. "When you say 'architect,' what do you mean?" Numerous companies have employees who identify themselves as architects, but those people might be anything from CIOs to programmers, he explains.

Liguori says many businesses have an enterprise architect who reports to the CIO and takes a broad view of the company's infrastructure. Because enterprise IT architects are responsible for straddling the gap between business and IT, they're required to have excellent communication and leadership skills along with a detailed understanding of technologies an employer uses. Under the enterprise architect are more-specialized architects, including those for solutions, information, infrastructure and security.

Salaries for enterprise architects are all over the map. Based on level and industry, average compensation typically ranges from $250,000 to $300,000, according to Liguori. He says some large banks pay up to $500,000, while smaller companies may start at $100,000.

The experience required of IT architects also varies. An enterprise architect might be expected to have between 10 and 15 years of experience as an IT consultant, while a lower-level architect might need to have five to 10 years of experience, Ligouri says.

Perhaps as a testament to the growing demand for IT architects, Microsoft and The Open Group have launched certification programs and are working to formally define different types of IT architects.

Microsoft and The Open Group's IT architecture certification programs target senior network professionals with proven track records. These people are set up with mentors who help them prepare for their evaluations, which are presentations before boards of architects. A presentation lasts about two hours and tests technical knowledge, as well as business and communication skills. HP's Redmond, a member of the vendor's review boards, gives an example of a candidate who was asked to explain how one would deploy open source software and also whether it would make economic sense.

Unlike purely technical certification programs, there is no written test, and there are no specific technologies that candidates must know. Instead, they must demonstrate a broad understanding of IT standards and methodologies, as well as a deeper understanding of a few specific topics of their choosing.

No standardized certification program can test architects on a given company's specific needs, however. Liguori argues that these programs might be helpful in some cases, but "at the end of the day, [architecture is] not the same in every organization." Each company has different needs, so one certification program can't prove that an architect would be qualified to work in every company, particularly one in a specialized field such as medicine.

Regardless of all the different labels, programs and responsibilities, IT is definitely changing. Network professionals are becoming increasingly differentiated from one another, and a need for business-savvy leaders is rapidly emerging. Architects are beginning to fill this role, taking an expanded view of IT that integrates knowledge of technical standards with communication, leadership and business skills.

Ligouri adds that unlike jobs such as programming, "you rarely ever see the architecture being outsourced." The job pays well, and opportunities are in fields ranging from finance to healthcare to retail. If you're interested in both the technological and business sides of IT, a career as an IT architect could be well worth looking into.

DeBeasi is a former summer intern for Network World.

Credential comparisonMicrosoft and The Open Group have both developed certification programs to validate the skills of IT architects.
  Microsoft Certified ArchitectThe Open Group IT Architect Certification
AvailabilityEarly 2006Now
Types of architects certifiedInfrastructure architects, solutions architects. General IT architects.
Candidates reviewed96Not applicable; first review boards will be held week of Oct. 9.
Re-certification requirements“Revalidation” every three years.Re-certification every three years.
Prerequisites10 years of experience3 years of experience plus detailed documentation of recent projects to prove proficiency as an architect.
CostTo be determinedDirect certification: $1,250 for initial three-year certification; $175 yearly renewal fee thereafter, plus $625 re-certification fee every three years.
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