Qualities of an Architect

An architecture encompasses many aspects of a system, one of which is the set of system qualities which are strategically important for the success of the product. An air traffic control system must be reliable; a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) system must be scalable; a product line must be extensible, etc. The qualities in the final product determine the system’s success. Likewise, certain personal qualities are essential in a systems architect, and they are not necessarily the same as those which make a successful engineer. These are some of the personal qualities I believe successful architects exhibit (although none are unique to only that role). It is difficult to say one is more important than another, so I simply list them here in alphabetical order.

Amiability.  There’s a great line from Mary Chase’s delightful play “Harvey” by the main character Elwood P. Dowd:

“My mother used to say to me, she’d say, In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.  Well, for years I was smart.

“I recommend pleasant.”

I’ve personally learned that amiability can open doors when other things, from deep philosophical differences to yesterday’s unintentional slight, would otherwise keep them shut. So much of an architect’s job depends on building and maintaining successful relationships across organizations, and even across companies, that the need for amiability cannot be dismissed.

Big Picture Thinking.  While an architect must focus on the details when needed, they must also be very adept at stepping back and evaluating an issue, event, product, component, etc. in the larger perspectives of both context and time. Every object (whether a component, product, or system) has an immediate environment and a larger environment in which it exists. The object both influences those environments and is influenced by them. An architect must be able to see the larger context and understand the critical influences.

In addition to context, an object also exists in time. An architect must be able to see how an object will, or must, evolve over time; how its context will evolve; and how that should influence the nature of the object today. Understanding both of these bigger picture dimensions will more often lead to successful decisions for today and tomorrow.

Clear Communication.  I often say that what an architect builds is shared understanding. An architect must have excellent communications skills, always strive for clarity, and be able to tailor their communication to fit the audience. They must be equally comfortable writing white papers, producing technical documentation, speaking to audiences (both technical and non-technical), facilitating discussions, or simply listening to someone’s point of view, argument, or struggles.

Graphical Visualization.  From architecture and design to strategy and roadmaps, effective visual media for both technical and non-technical audiences helps avoid costly misunderstanding. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but they are also worth hundreds of thousands of dollars when they help ensure constant alignment and common understanding between stakeholders. Words can often be misconstrued, misunderstood, or missed altogether, but a discussion over a picture is almost always more memorable and effective at creating a shared understanding.

An architect must be able to create multiple visual representations of the same concept. For example, UML may be a great medium for communicating architectural details to an engineering staff, but in my experience it is almost useless for conveying anything at all to non-technical stakeholders. A diagram should largely explain itself to its intended audience; therefore, an architect may need to create a custom graphical representation for each different target audience.

An effective architect should be able to create compelling graphical representations not just of a systems architecture, but of the business’ strategy, technology trends, product roadmaps, etc., and show how these things are interrelated.

Honesty and Frankness.  The work of an architect completely relies on successful relationships with stakeholders across the organization. Without such relationships, the architect will have no influence over design or direction.  Honesty and frankness are essential elements of trust, and trust is the oil which makes any human relationship both successful and fulfilling.

Imagination.  As important as logic is, imagination is a close second. Facts and data can often be cold and uninspiring. Through imagination, the architect can bring them to life in ways which inspire and motivate. Imagination is crucial to problem solving, which often requires creative approaches to more efficiently arrive at successful results.

Integrity.  Personal  integrity is also essential. Integrity and respect walk hand in hand. Winston Churchill said it best in his tribute to Neville Chamberlain:

“The only guide to man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.”

When it comes to integrity in business, simple tests can be surprisingly effective. Texas Instruments trains all of their employees to constantly evaluate their actions and behavior with this one question: “Would you be proud if what you are about to do was reported on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper? If not, don’t do it.”

Lifelong Learning.  The best skill one can learn is the skill of how to learn. The best lesson a teacher can teach is passion for learning. William Butler Yeats once wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of fire.” Such a fire should burn until the fuel of this life is spent. As the Canadian priest and educator M.M. Coady warned: “The man who has ceased to learn ought not to be allowed to wander around loose in these dangerous days.”

I enjoy learning and am constantly reading to that end. I read books that coincide with my job, and others which are tangential. For example, I read books about traditional architecture because they sometimes illuminate principles which apply to systems architecture. Lately I have been taking advantage of the incredible world of free online courses to expand my knowledge of technology areas such as web search and iOS applications.

Logical Reasoning.  Architects are often given assignments which require reasoning through multifaceted information or data to make recommendations and reach conclusions for product, strategy, or technical directions. Reasoning, pattern recognition, and deduction should be both a strength and a natural pleasure to assiduously tackle these tasks and perform them well.

Positive Attitude.  I confess I’m an eternal optimist, sometimes to a fault. But optimism and hope drive all that ever has, or will be accomplished. Ironically, it also drives most of what has failed. Great accomplishments most often come after many failures. Optimism reinforcing determination is what compels one to try again, and then again. Theodore Roosevelt colorfully captured this idea in a speech on citizenship:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Ready to Listen.  Listening is an endangered art form in many circles. Too often people are more anxious to be heard than to hear. This is a shame, really. It is amazing how much smarter people can get when they take the time to listen first. And, sometimes, nothing else is required. The architect must keenly listen to understand not only the needs of customers and market influencers, but also those of internal stakeholders such as senior management, marketing, sales, and support. The architect must know how to listen and facilitate productive, engaging discussions leading to successful products.

What other personal qualities should a systems architect or strategist exhibit? Chime in below!

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