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February 19, 2015

How you'll fail as an IT Architect when you compare yourself with a building architect.

For the past 18 years or so I've been working as an architect in many areas and industries. During this time the role of the architect has been compared with a building architect. Probably because that is the only architect most people know and not, hopefully, because it is such an accurate comparison.

Architecting a building is so not like IT architecture. There is really nothing that a building architect does that an IT architect does as well. Not even when you're into waterfall methodologies.
The biggest difference is that architecting a building means architecting something fairly static, with a lot of standardization in place and hardly, if any, deviations from standards allowed. You create the architecture and it is build that way, and if you want the exact same building in some other location, you use that exact same blue print. As such, this is more like designing a COTS (Common Of The Shelf) application. The building architect is more like the software designer, or application designer if you will.
The IT architect is doing something entirely different. For one, she designs something that revolves around principles and is typically not much more that a logical cohesion of principles, assumptions, views and visualizations that provide a general outline of what is needed, more often focusing on how it fits in and it interacts with its surroundings.

Okay, so the building architect focuses on how the internal construction will allow the building to be used and how the external part of the building, its face, looks nice in the surroundings. Just like the software designer. The IT architect focuses on how the surroundings fit around the systems. And how generally the internal construction should look like more or less, in order to support the externals.

Let me cut to the chase, the bottom line is that IT architecture is more like, I'll keep you in some suspense for now.

The thing is that buildings, like I stated before, are more or less static. From the inside as well as the outside. This is what the building architect keeps in mind, he needs to create something that will last, that excels in its stability.
IT systems are unlike buildings, especially when it's software, are dynamic, they're organic systems. This is the exact reason why everybody eschews waterfall and loves SCRUM, and even when you love waterfall, you're aware that the system you're creating is dynamic, or rather organic. As time evolves, your architecture evolves with it as it will be bound to be used for different things. Or at least differently as anticipated. Granted, this is also true for buildings.
Fact of the matter is, that once you start architecting a bulding and you're done, that what you created will be build exactly like that or not at all. With an IT system, you know pretty much for sure that it won't, and the longer it takes to build, the more your architecture will be deviated from.

Thankfully, IT architects are not at all like building architects. Or at least should not aspire to be building architects, or believe that they are because of that comparison over and over again. No, IT architects are more like city-planners.

Ever played SIM City, the computer game in which you have to design a city that thrives? You have to designate areas for commercial, industrial or residential purposes. Build roads, or railway tracks and canals. At no one point do you design or build any of the buildings, but in order for them to appear you need to provide power, sewer systems, water and ensure that pollution is not hampering the growth of your city by making sure that garbage is collected, power is generated in an environmentally friendly manner and rescue services are available where probably most needed.
In SIM City you are a city-planner, you have to architect something that is extremely organic. it changes over time and you need to be aware and facilitate growth. You control up to a point how things evolve, but have no control about how buildings look like, except from the perspective that you provide the ability for the game to place a specific building at a specific place. You're architecting.

So, IT architects are not at all like building architects, they're like civil engineers, they're like city planners.

As always, let me know what you think about this. You agree? Leave a comment, I love to hear that others agree with me. More importantly, when you disagree, leave even more comments, because from you're insights, I can learn.

Iwan

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