To employ or not to employ, that is the architect staffing question

Architecture has been a very interesting field to provide as a service. With the various changes in information products, data science, information technologies all building upon each other, its hard not to remain continuously engaged, amazed and curious.

There is the obvious reward of seeing your designs go live with the tangible solution. Web sites, data products, data centers, technology ordering, MIS, software, kiosks, sensors are things you can point at and say “we designed that”. Its a nice feeling. Maybe not as cool and tangible as a building, transportation network, trains, city centers, etc., but nonetheless, there is something exciting, sometimes intimidating about knowing your designs are being used for something real and for the greater good.

Its more of an internal, or dare we say even intrinsic reward, as from a management point of view, typically architecture buys back risk, achieves the expectations, and when all is well, it is a standing outcome that the typical the bulk of the recognition for success goes to the talented IT implementation team. That credit is seldomly connected to the value of the foresight and concepts that were the foundations of enablement of the project or program two or three years ago i.e. the right business model, the capital plan execution, the innovative operating concept, the team vetting and estimation selection. 

Yet, architects do get credit, when there is a “glitch” in the solution. It is not uncommon for that same team to assure the first thought after some cycles is faulty design flaws and the architect is back in the “credit” limelight and until solved or understood, is put right “under the bus”. For example, an airline client called years after the contract was over on several occasions. Once asking if we had broken or illegally used or infringed on patents (which was summarily dismissed); Another time during Y2K, when after 36 hours straight diagnosing the data center tested back-up VPN wire had simply “fallen out”; and finally, when one day prices on the web site sold international tickets for free plus fees, when it turned out it was the mainframe and happened many times, but historically travel agents intercepted the error on behalf of the mainframe.

But, nonetheless, in your portfolio of accomplishments, you can be very proud that you envisioned that concept, design, or solution. Point being, an architect naturally wants to see their design go live, and move onto the next design. Its not like an operations position where they become a master of efficiency in their trade. Or Development where they become an expert in a set of core technologies. Or a requirements or project manager who enjoys the battle of herding cats. An architect enjoys the conquest. They want to either keeping doing similar architectures or grow to the next.

The What is next? driver for architects

That being said, when a technical leader or hiring manager envision what concept is needed for instituting architecture services at their company, they’ll also need to consider, “what will the architect be doing after the next two projects?” as by this introduction, the drivers are very clear for architects in a career “what is next?”.

  • Will they be churning out more architectures in same patterns, or growing the company, and thus their architecture skills will need to grow with it?
  • What will the role description look like after the first two projects – more technical prowess or more leadership and management growth?
  • What level of architecture services/work is needed against the size, maturity, and complexity of the organization? 
  • After the first two projects, what are the key results needed to measure a skillset that is both needed to have proven history and portfolio of work as well as handle future concepts against the description? 
  • How do you interview and commit for a role – do you assess portfolio for leadership potential or resume qualifications and in-basket technical exercises for the technical depth or both?
  • How do you measure creativity against portfolio trusting it is comparable while not asking too much hypotheticals as architects are built to design for the “what if” and they will beat you every time.
  • Do you know after the first two projects that you will have the challenge the architect will be seeking or that they can handle? 
  • Will it slow down and become a more technical hands-on position or will it speed up and the responsibility will grow, and can they grow with it. 
  • Meaning, what will the level of work look like – not just variable (fast/slow) or stable, but will the role description change or be static or limiting? 
  • Will you need them to take on any task that comes their way or be a strong expert in a specific architecture stack, but those tasks may have gaps in time?

This all said, these are the challenges or hiring a full-time architect. They will be driven by “what is next?” which if you do not know, then your likelihood for expected retention diminish before you start.

Retention and Sizing

Here are a few additional notes on architecture staffing we have encountered and followed by solutions on various staffing models for architects:

Its a buyers market for good architects. Good architects have grown their people leadership, change analysis, results-driven, and team-building skills. Good architects adapt to the subject matter and technical skills become, so that they can handle the rapid change in technology stacks, patterns – those aspects become like “the Matrix”, and they can see through the next technical vendor and industry wave of architecture stacks and grow their value through increasing ROI on services, outlining more valuable or efficient concepts of operation, and easily and collaboratively designing blueprints or transition roadmaps into the PMO change management plans. These positions will pay more, tend to have a lifespan of at most 3 years, and they will get bored. Now if you are hiring for a specific technology architect, then advertise for that and lead with that, in hopes that the stack has a reasonably lifespan and expect limited growth and know their role will be consistent repeat-ability on that stack and grow as only that stack grows and exists. 

Average architects will plateau. If you hired a technical or IT architect, it is more of an analyst or tech team lead architect. They will do this and do it well. If your company though is growing, and changing, and employing new technical stacks, new services and products and new or growing business models, your architect will not grow with it if they were hired as a technical specialist. The role changes from requiring just systems analysis or root cause analysis to business change, policy, or political analysis. The role will now required as the service or product grows in relevance and importance to the organization, a solutions, enterprise or chief architect who is needed that can speak business plan, total cost of ownership, product management roadmap, and present both up to C-level and lead technical teams. The IT or solution architect may struggle with hanging onto to old patterns they know, sticking with the custom portfolio, or worse yet, not keeping up with business management just-in-time training.The hardest part is as they are learning non-intuitive soft skills that go against the more IT introverted hard skill professional profile, they also need to keep up with keep up with the technical architecture changes induced by Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s law. Typically, this becomes too much learning, and an external or new hire is required. In shorter terms, you wouldn’t hire a cook and ask them to farm just because both work with food. This is why Technical architects overengineer as they move up – they do what they know as they move up. Vice Versa as well.

Position is needed for the next two projects, then what? Lets say the architect is brought on for specific architecture skillsets – maybe that is MVC stack flavor of the past few years or maybe that is enterprise architecture analysis – and lets say that architect is hired and is a perfect fit and model architect. As the first two projects wind-down, the problem is time has passed, Moore’s Law has changed, the portfolio requirements have adjusted, but the skillsets chosen may now becoming legacy. It happens that fast. Then, the architects adrenaline wears off from seeing the conquest of going live. They begin to realized the next architecture project is likely not to be a fit. They will tend to either know the end is near or hijack and get “proactive” as business is perceived to delay. As business looks at their next architecture need, data architecture, or process re-engineering, governance or in a new subject matter expertise, they consider if that technical specialist architect can morph.

The answer is technical or application architects do not tend to morph or grow with the organization. Then business considers a new architect, while retaining the old one. Now you have architect bloat, dual roles, and ROI on architecture is at risk of eroding. This is architectures achilles heel, which all comes back to the staffing model. Point being, hiring for the first two projects will yield an average architect, they likely will hit value stagnation, and either reduce into Senior Engineer role, which may be of value, but is definitely a compensation plateau, or they will realize their diminished value and either underperform or encourage them to move on which is just not a good way to acquire talent. Hiring a rock star externally out of the gate will work, but keep in mind they will expect compensation above the organization curve, above inflation, and they will keep up with the salary norms, even if they are comfortable with well-balanced life. They know they can move around to the next conquest.

The position is needed long-term as CIO trusted advisory, but near term, need hands-on technical architecture. Let’s say you instead start out with finding a seasoned trusted advisor, well experience in corporate culture, subject and domain matters, and familiar with patterns in enterprise, process, data, performance, service, technology, and security architectures as well as works well with the various change management domains. They are the perfect fit – except, starting out, you have a project that needs more than a guiding touch, but needs to get their hands dirty in new MongoDB and NoSQL map reduce code analysis. The seasoned veteran has not kept up with actually coding as they have been on higher order tasks, as they should. This gap between the role description long-term need, and short-term fiasco creates a perception of lower value of the individual, even though they were not hired to fill in these unique architecture technical deficiencies. Typically what happens here, is the junior technical staff will begrudgingly fill in the gap, wonder what the “old guy” is doing to earn such a salary, and take longer to team build. Technical architect will team build great with the team, but struggle antithetically with the upper levels, especially in handling the drivers, political sensitivity, and explaining the benefits of the architecture, and design in simple speak.

“The Bobs” –  As office space pointed out, when you bring in organizational development, or architects considering new implications to process, workforce, technology, and investment, there is going to be assumptions that the “short-timers” are in it to get the deliverable done, and get out, and not worry about the collateral damage. That is their performance driven job. They help the executive organize, see alternatives, model, get technical, management, and leadership expertise, and they are gone. As well, it tends to make any internal architects look bad, as they will be moving at a pace that makes the underlings and overlings ask – “why couldn’t you have done that?”. Now it gets the job done, but definitely is more of a clean-up technique than a bonding and corporate unity experience.

Alternative solution to “After the first two projects, what is next?”

Essentially we have pointed out some major challenges to hiring – but more importantly – to the architect as a full-time employee model?

  • How can you keep good talent? How can you retain the investment and knowledge?
  • Are you going to want the role to expand? 
  • How can you get both the architect who grows with the company and solving low-hanging fruit tactical hands-on issues?
  • Do you have enough work to keep the architect adding value based on what you are compensating for full-time employment?
  • How can the architect keep up with rapidly changing technical patterns as well as growing in leadership, management, enterprise context, and corporate subject matter?
  • How can you keep up with changing expertise while balancing the amount of change introduced to stay innovative, relevant, and moving towards stakeholder and stockholder end goals in a timely manner?

Simply put, the full-time employee for an architect position that is likely to grow with company or product will and does not work. That is too much change to ask of the architect – they have to lead change, train others in change, grow in 3-4 professional domains, all while still being interested in a company asking a lot out of them full knowing the rest of the market is buying back risk and innovation in this skill as well. Or they may be able to do it when the service footprint is small, or in project mode, but as soon as operations picks up, moves from a project to projects to program, to regional to division, on the fast ride of national or worldwide services, that is when the peter principle kicks in.

Point being, Consider other models based on where you are buying your risk

  • If you only need for next two projects, consider contract-based employee
  • If your organization is on roller coaster of growth and portfolio change, contract out consulting firms
  • If your organization has the raw talent, but need some temporary leadership, contract our consulting firm leaders to grow team
  • If you want long-term, but can’t define needs bring on consulting firm to bring in various architecture skillsets

Setup these external support (contract, independent consultants) to address 4 major things:

  • Make them earn your trust – setup a starter or bridge task – You need to connect with the individuals before you commit long-term. Give them initial tasks. Worst case, if you change your mind and want to go back to employee, you have flexibility now. Thereafter, award good work with next tasks, but appropriately longer. 
  • Be clear on what may change –  Don’t map out the roadmap for them – make them earn their purpose, but at same time, let them know what roles may be needed in future, so they have a sense of what type of architecture you may need. You wouldn’t hire a cook, then after six months after, ask if they could farm as well?
  • Define outputs – Try to avoid long-term time & materials. Maybe initially, but thereafter, be project or outcome milestone based to assure the honeymoon delivery value continues
  • Setup Lead Key Personnel – Make sure you get a team lead or lead point of contact you have written into contract/task order to escalate, report, and get status from to manage change, risk, issues, and quality. Though you typically do not get personal services contracts, unless it is just independent, you can ask for certain commitment level from A-team before they staff with a B-team – that is what you are paying for.
  • Contract Terms should be simple and clear – Clear outputs and due date from award, clear understanding of their assumptions for resources, access, team, and dependencies from you, clear either fixed price or not-to-exceed amounts, and clear indirect cost understanding (travel, other)
  • Know Executive expectations – If you know the executive is getting impatient, has high expectations, putting that on a new full-time employee may be hard. At same time, if you want to take time, build the culture, and internal skillset, building short-order  tasks to consultants will possible create adversarial relationships between employees and their bosses to show-off.

If an itch is being scratched, please take some time to review “What are Various Architecture Staffing Models” that Xentity can support.