Finding Your Way as an Enterprise Architect

Aspiring enterprise architects (EAs) have to navigate a winding, unmarked career path littered with inconsistent job titles, diverse duties and a plethora of frameworks in order to stake their claim in this emerging but confusing field.

Brian Cameron, founder of the Federation of Enterprise Architecture Professional Organizations (FEAPO) and executive director of the Center for Enterprise Architecture at Penn State University, thinks enterprise architecture is a hodgepodge of fiefdoms that desperately needs consistency: “The architectural frameworks and skill requirements vary by organization and industry.”

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Given the lack of standardized job descriptions and training, and employers needing EAs pronto, it’s worth asking a few veteran enterprise architects how they found their current jobs, and how they deal with some of the industry’s quirks.

Target Specific Roles and Industries

If you want a job as an enterprise architect, start by pursuing a narrow range of positions in industries that align with your strengths, technical skills, functional knowledge and interests.

Cameron estimates that 50 percent of practicing EAs have a technical background and 50 percent have a business or liberal arts background, which means there are plenty of opportunities for people with wide-ranging experience.

EAs at major tech firms such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM or SAP usually need considerable software engineering or development experience and familiarity with the cloud and Big Data, explained Serge Thorn, who’s been an EA for 15 years.

Major companies often employ large numbers of EAs, Thorn added, so not everyone’s involved with business-process modeling, portfolio management, IT governance, stakeholder communication and so forth.

Conversely, an EA in a small- to mid-sized IT department typically focuses on enterprise-wide analysis, planning and design; as a result, he or she spends considerable time interfacing with stakeholders. Jobs in smaller companies also tend to require broader skills, business and functional acumen, and an understanding of global architecture.

Don’t be discouraged by lengthy job descriptions for enterprise architects, advised Jason Uppal, chief architect and CEO for iCareQuality. Uppal started out as an aerospace engineer and has never worked in IT: “It’s unlikely that anyone would have all of the skills employers are currently demanding, so start with what you know and build from there.” 

Acquire Critical Skills and Competencies

Traditionally, enterprise architects have relied on decades of experience in order to do their jobs well. For example, Thorn honed his leadership and enterprise architecture skills over the course of 18 years while serving as an IT manager and later as the head of IT for a major global bank.

But that paradigm is changing. In order to meet the growing need for practitioners, many universities now offer certificates for working professionals, alongside online master’s programs, that teach theoretical foundations, decision making and enterprise modeling.

If you’ve worked in software development or engineering, systems design or administration, project management or a business-facing role on an ERP team, you may already possess many of the required skills and competencies for the EA position. After all, EAs spend most of their time selling their ideas, building trust and consensus, and communicating technical concepts to non-technical people. Sound familiar?

You don’t need deep knowledge in any one area, Uppal said; it’s primarily a leadership role. “For instance, I’ve never coded in .NET in my life but I know how an application comes together,” he added. “Technologies come and go but the basic three-tier architecture hasn’t changed in 15 years. Most of the fundamental skills can be learned on-the-job as you go.”

Assess your readiness by comparing your experience to the ideal competency levels outlined in this framework. Online courses, mentoring relationships, lateral moves and stretch assignments that offer enterprise or business exposure are the best ways to close major knowledge gaps.

Another option is to use a subspecialty such as database architecture and administration, or network architecture and administration, as a stepping-stone to an enterprise-architect level.

Learn an Architectural Framework

Most companies use a hybrid enterprise architecture framework, according to Cameron. In fact, a recent industry study found that 66 percent of organizations had developed a customized framework. Fortunately, there’s no need to learn them all; just get familiar with a more popular framework such as TOGAF, ZachmanDoDAF or TRAK; or better still, learn the framework that is preferred by the companies in your target industry.

And while a certification or two may increase your marketability and value, you don’t need one right away. “You could give a TOGAF manual to an industrial engineer and they’d recognize the concepts immediately,” Uppal said. “If you understand the industry, the architectural framework and have the right balance of interpersonal, strategic and technical skills, you have everything you need to make the leap into enterprise architecture.”

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