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Making enterprise architecture matter

Of all the IT positions, the head of enterprise architecture is by far the most difficult to recruit for

Of all the IT positions, the head of enterprise architecture is by far the most difficult to recruit for. The right candidate needs to have some expertise in every layer of the technology stack, a keen understanding of the business, the ability to manage a matrixed (and peevish) group of siloed technologists, and the je ne sais quoi to sell concepts like service-oriented architecture to uninterested business executives. If there is one position that truly embodies the CIO paradox, it is this one. As Lynden Tennison, CIO of Union Pacific Railroad, puts it, "The chief architect needs to be the smartest person in the room and the least arrogant."

Yet in order to establish a flexible, fast, cost-efficient environment, you will need to hire one of these rare birds and guide them toward success. Here are four ways:

1. Grow your own. "This is a unique person who is conceptual but can also be in the weeds," says Tennison. "They need to be strategic but not esoteric and have great interpersonal skills." With such a tall order, he suggests internal growth. "You might be better off hand-picking technologists who are the smartest and most likeable, then grooming them for the role."

2. Deliver value fast. The business has limited tolerance for expensive senior executives who appear to do little more than produce a written treatise on development standards. When times are tough, enterprise architecture is often the first to go. "As CIO, it can be hard to defend the role when the time to realization of value is so long," says Scott Blanchette, CIO of Healthways.

So how do you ensure longevity for the group? Throttle the desire to produce a big bang architecture with long-range goals that are never realized, says Blanchette. "Good architects realize that they need to provide incremental project-based business value, not focus solely on a technology destination somewhere out on the horizon."

"You need to identify your sacred cows," says Tennison. This will help identify the battles you can afford to lose.

Peter Breunig, general manager of technology management and architecture at Chevron, agrees. "As you develop your frameworks and standards, don't go overboard," he says. "Early on, you need to stop showing architectural drawings and begin to share successful use cases of architectural concepts. You need to make your work tangible for your business partners."

3. Use architecture as a training ground. "We refuse to staff the architecture group with the headcount they request," says David Harkness, CIO of Xcel Energy. "We force them to use virtual resources across other functions." When the IT organization helps establish the standards they will operate under, it reduces architecture's reputation for being a standards cop. It also provides a development opportunity. "By asking your lead developers to spend time in the architecture group, you are creating a learning environment and building your bench," he says.

4. Get in front of projects. Often, the project team will select a vendor, but the architecture group, in the eleventh hour, will pronounce that the product does not align with the reference architecture. This either delays the project or forces the architecture to team to make an exception, which devalues the whole framework. It's better, says Harkness, to embed architecture in the RFP process. "Instead of waiting until you have solutions that need architecture approval, have your vendors include their ability to adhere to your reference architecture right up front. This way, architecture is not the bad guy, killing your project or creating delays."

The ultimate paradox is this: Architects are as necessary as they are rare. "It's a knock-down, drag-out fight to find people who can do this role," says Blanchette. "I don't envy the people who have to recruit them."

Martha Heller is president of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive search firm, and is a co-founder of the CIO Executive Council. She can be reached at martha@hellersearch.com.

Read more about cio role in CIO's CIO Role Drilldown.

Tags business issuesleadershipleadership developmentCIO rolesoftwareenterprise architectureIT managementbusiness valuemanagementManagement | CIO RolepersonnelArchitecture

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