Roundtable Q&A: What Makes a Good IT Architect?

REDMOND, Wash., June 6, 2005 – As the role of the highly trained and experienced technology professional has evolved in many businesses from one of pure technologist to that of strategic business manager, expectations of the skills an IT professional must possess have likewise changed substantially.

In response to the new demands being placed upon technology managers, Microsoft Learning created the Microsoft Certified Architect credential, a new track that helps IT professionals advance their skills beyond those of a technical expert to the level of IT architects, strategists and business managers. In a significant advance, the program certifies skills in technologies other than Microsoft’s, as well as the company’s own.

Microsoft Learning resources for IT professionals are among the focuses of this week’s Tech·Ed 2005 in Orlando, Fla., Microsoft’s largest annual conference for technology professionals.

Microsoft Learning worked with veteran IT architects throughout the industry to develop a program that reflects the daily realities of the highest level of IT work. Rather than present a prepackaged curriculum, the program requires candidates to demonstrate their skills by creating IT architectures that solve business problems. The centerpiece is a “peer-review” process, where candidates present their work to a panel of respected IT architects in a forum similar to that in which doctoral candidates defend their dissertations.

To learn more about the Microsoft Certified Architect credential, PressPass hosted a roundtable discussion with three of the board members who helped craft the architect certification. Joe Shirey, regional vice president and general manager, Rocky Mountain Region, for Interlink, is a Microsoft Regional Director, a member of the Microsoft Architect Advisory Board, and sits on the .NET Partner Advisory Council. Tony Redmond, vice president and chief technology officer for HP Services and HP Security, has written ten books, including “Microsoft Exchange 2003,” and is a contributing editor to Windows & .NET Magazine. Andy Ruth, Microsoft Certified Architect program manager, is author of several books, including “Concise Guide to Windows 2000 DNS” and “SQL Server 7 Administration.”

PressPass: What does the peer-review process achieve that cannot be accomplished in more traditional methods of certification programs?

Joe Shirey: The process of doing a face-to-face review in front of a board of peers is much more rigorous and forces the candidate to demonstrate the ability to apply technology appropriately.  Additionally, in order to be an effective architect, an individual must possess soft skills, which can be very difficult to gauge using traditional testing methods.

Andy Ruth: I agree, skills such as leadership, abstract thinking, a desire to mentor others, and an ability to navigate the politics of an organization are key. These are skills that are not gained by simply reading a book, but through experience. By having a certification process based on an interview of the candidate by other architects, the competencies of an architect can be better measured.

Tony Redmond: And practicing architects know the work they do better than anyone else, so they can recognize a good architect pretty quickly. Having a peer-review process provides a laser focus on the candidates and emphasizes the practical nature of the accreditation, rather than the somewhat academic focus that some discussions around architecture often take. Peer review also allows a technical deep dive into aspects of the project that candidates present to the board.

PressPass: There are two tracks in the program: Solutions Architect and Infrastructure Architect. What are the differences between the two?

Redmond: Solutions Architect might be better named “Development Architect” because these folks have to master the development tools and frameworks such as .NET or J2EE that are available to create bespoke solutions for business problems.

Ruth: An Infrastructure Architect typically works more closely with the operations group for the overall IT environment, as well as the CIO and CTO for the corporate IT group. He or she is more concerned with the physical network, servers, desktops, storage, management and operations, security, and systemic qualities of the platforms that solutions are delivered on.    

Shirey: There is also a subtle difference in the skills required for each of these roles. The Infrastructure Architect needs to be more technical in nature, while the Solutions Architect will need to have a better understanding of the functional aspects.

PressPass: Would someone want certification in both?

Redmond: It’s certainly possible that someone has the necessary strengths, technical background and experience to be able to achieve certification in both tracks. But I personally think that these people are the exception rather than the rule. Enterprise architects have to have experience in both domains, but relatively few people operate at a true enterprise-architect level. And even so, at that level the challenges are entirely different.

Ruth: I think some would want to prove to themselves that they are among the best in both camps. But the greatest value in achieving certification—in whichever domain they certify—is being part of that community or communities.

PressPass: Only 25 percent of the skill-set requirement for this new certification is technology related. What are the other required skills?

Redmond: Communication is a big requirement. The greatest technologists in the world lose much of their power to influence peers and customers if they cannot communicate—both verbally and in the documents that they write. Going before a board can be a pretty intimidating experience if you are not used to communicating your thoughts in a very concise and cogent sense, especially when the board members begin to quiz you. Communication is also a key contributor to leadership, and the program focuses on the ability of candidates to lead, influence and direct the various people that get involved in large projects.

Shirey: Architects tend to be leaders within their organizations or have strong influence over teams.  The ability to provide this leadership and develop others is essential to success.

Another important aspect is being able to balance business needs with existing and future technologies to provide the optimal solution.  This requires an understanding of the business strategy in order to effectively recommend the appropriate technologies. But as important as strategic thinking is, actually putting solutions into production is where the architect is measured for success. 

Redmond: I also think it’s important to see that candidates are people who are not stove-piped into one particular area; that they are people who adapt to change and can quickly assimilate new technology because the only thing we can predict about technology is that it will change over time.

PressPass: How does this new certification program measure these skills?

Redmond: The board process probes the non-technical skills of the candidates in a very realistic way. The candidates are expected to be able to perform in a reasonably high stress situation. They have to keep their calm and respond to many different questions, so the ability to listen to questioners and comprehend what they’re looking for is also a good skill to have—and be credible in terms of the solution that they propose to the board. My own view is that the successful architects shine through because they really enjoy the challenge set by the board and almost enjoy the grilling that candidates sometimes receive.

Ruth: Architects have to be the drivers for proper use of technology inside of a company. That requires the business skills to be able to explain to a CFO and CEO how technology will provide a return on investment, provide a competitive edge over the competition, or be in compliance with regulations for that company’s vertical market. They also have to determine what is hype or just plain cool, and what technologies will actually address business goals in the most efficient manner while providing the business agility required in today’s business environment. That requires the ability to speak tech talk to developers and engineers as well as drive business awareness, or at least the notion of business needs to that community. For this, the skills needed are not only the technical skills, they are also business, communications, regulation, programmatic and process skills. Since the projects are long term, high cost, and high importance to a company, the architect must be able to make the right choices for the business every time.

PressPass: Why do these communication and leadership skills outweigh technology skills?

Ruth: I don’t think “outweigh” is quite the word I would use; they have to have well-developed skills in more areas than just technology. We have organized the competencies all successful architects possess into seven different areas, and two of those areas are centered on technology.

Shirey: But being a good technologist is only part of the skills required to be a good architect. The soft skills are what help clarify the real needs of the organization in order to recommend the appropriate solution. 

PressPass: Does the program recognize real-world experience?

Ruth: Absolutely. In fact, candidates will not be able to get accepted into the program without it. Many of the skills required of an architect can only be gained through years of experience.

PressPass: How important is collaboration to the certification?

Redmond: Successful architects are invariably good collaborators—not only with their colleagues, but also with their customers and partners. No one has all the answers, so collaboration is fundamental to success in this field. 

Shirey: True. They must work with a number of different people to bring to bear the appropriate solution.  The certification program takes a 360-degree view of the architect to determine how they interact with people inside and outside of their managerial control.  Successful collaboration comes through the ability to communicate effectively and influence others.

PressPass: The program certifies architects who employ technologies other than Microsoft’s in developing IT solutions, as well as Microsoft’s. Why the change? Why is that important?

Redmond: We live in a heterogeneous world and most large customers have a variety of technologies that they work with. It’s certainly possible for technologists to successfully focus purely on Microsoft technology, but I think these people will struggle to design solutions for many of the business challenges that large customers face today.

Ruth: And the architects I’ve met do not immediately talk about products; they talk about technologies and the qualities and capabilities they require for the environment they are working in. Architects who do not know what products and capabilities are available for their areas of expertise will not always provide the best solution for the customer, regardless of who sells the product.

Shirey: Good architects notice patterns in their solutions and can apply those patterns to other technologies.  The technical implementation details will continue to change and morph over time, but the successful architect will be able to leverage their experience to provide appropriate guidance. 

PressPass: What is the ultimate benefit for people successfully completing the Microsoft Certified Architect program?

Ruth: The architects I have talked to are excited that they have a community to share ideas, experience and knowledge on technologies and products. They are always mindful of proprietary information, but enjoy being able to gain and share knowledge with other architects for the betterment of the community and, ultimately, the benefit of their customers.

Shirey: Being included as a member of this select group is an honor that cannot be found by any other means.  In many ways it isn’t because it is a Microsoft certification, but more the approval of a board of peers that are respected in the industry.

Redmond: There is no other certification today that customers can look to in order to ensure they’re getting the highest expertise in architecture. The Microsoft Certified Architect credential is a totally different dimension in terms of proving yourself. It requires a lot more work, but also, more importantly, huge experience gained over many years and a strong track record of successful projects. That’s a nice thing to be able to demonstrate to a customer.

PressPass: What are the most important competencies architects must possess? 

Ruth: The common characteristics architects have include leadership, good communication skills, strategic thinking in combination with good tactical skills, organizational dynamics, and a depth and breadth of technological expertise. Everyone in the IT job space needs some level of skill in each of these areas, but the architect must have significant skills in each of these areas. They are well-rounded individuals who are passionate, can think abstractly and are constantly seeking new knowledge and to better their skills.

PressPass: What continuing education opportunities are there after certification?

Shirey: After certification there is an opportunity to mentor other architects that are coming through the program.  This is an excellent means to further develop leadership skills and remain sharp in many other areas.  Additionally, serving as a board member is a way to spend a week honing skills in all of the areas.  The board process is very intense and a great mental exercise for technical and communication skills. 

Ruth: We will also provide an area where product vendors can provide descriptions and specifications for their products, and an architect can provide a review that other architects can read. Yearly, we will host a summit where architects will give presentations and concepts, and discuss future product enhancements and new architectural developments in the industry.

PressPass: Where do you see this program heading in the long term?

Ruth: As we evolve the program, we will consider adding certification for other domains.

Redmond: But customers will really drive the success of the Microsoft Certified Architect credential. If customers value the accreditation, then architects will want to go through the program. Customers will value the credential if they see it as a high quality bar that ensures that qualified architects possess the abilities to help them design technology solutions to their business problems.

Shirey: And because it requires a peer review and a very rigorous process, I would expect it to become a very prestigious credential for the architect.

Redmond: I’m sure that customers will see value and will want to engage with qualified architects, so over time we should see a solid community of architects come together to continually drive best practice in the area. 

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