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The Architect has a Significant Role in Uplifting Digital Transformation

I can’t imagine guiding large-scale digital transformations without knowledgeable and influential architects. Architects guide solutions, seek standard practices, and target building extendable and reusable platforms and services. Without architects, organizations add risk to their implementations that can delay releasing capabilities, create integration gaps, increase costs, and generate operational complexities.

First, here’s a little background on how I recommend organizing digital transformation initiatives and where architects fit into the leadership model. A product owner and agile team can lead the smaller initiatives, but larger ones often require multiple agile teams working collaboratively. The two primary leaders of large strategic initiatives are the product manager, responsible for the vision and roadmap, and the delivery leader, who guides the solution architecture and delivers releases on time and quality. Successful transformation requires a collaboration between the product manager and delivery leader.

Key lieutenants or partners of the delivery leader are the architects, including enterprise, solution, data, and security architects. Architects help translate problems into solutions while defining non-functional requirements (NFRs). They are key to helping agile, devops, data science, and data governance teams create and support standardized solutions and extendable platforms.

The architect’s role from vision to change management

In Digital Trailblazer, I describe the similarities between architect and product manager roles because both require guiding teams through influence. I wrote, “Architects must prototype with engineers using different technologies and implementation approaches, formulating success criteria that help everyone align on an execution strategy.”

Marko Anastasov, co-founder of Semaphore CI/CD, agrees and says, “Just as a ship needs its compass, Digital Trailblazers lean on architects to navigate the uncharted waters of innovation.”

Let’s unpack the architect’s role and consider three example responsibilities:

  • The big picture - Jim Gochee, CEO at Blameless, says architects look at guiding the entire solution, not just the technology. “Digital transformation is complex and touches many systems,” he says. “Architects are your best bet for creating detailed migration plans that are broad, deep, and viable. Also, don’t forget that change is more than technology; it’s also people and process.”
  • Domain-specific responsibilities – There are many types of architects, and Heather Sundheim, managing director of solutions engineering at SADA, shares specifics on the data architect’s role. “Data architects are essential in digital transformation, as data is at the heart of many initiatives,” she says. They organize and structure data to ensure it can be effectively used for analytics, AI, and informed decision-making. Data architects prioritize projects by evaluating their impact on data management, security, and compliance.”
  • Influencing, teaching, and listening –Architects can’t live in ivory towers and dictate standards. They must get into the weeds to see what teams need to deliver solutions meeting today’s requirements while steering them toward supportable and extendable platforms. “Don’t overlook the importance of training in digital transformation,” says John Peebles, CEO at Administrate. “Training teams house some of the most valuable data about an organization’s potential, but that data is typically extremely siloed. Consider how you will access, standardize, and leverage training data.”

Architects must optimize their time around top-down strategy, bottom-up working with stakeholders and agile teams, and in the weeds researching and prototyping technologies.  

Architects’ responsibilities, measures, and activities in digital transformation

In a recent Coffee with Digital Trailblazers, a LinkedIn Audio Event that I host on Fridays at 11am ET, we discussed the significant roles of architects in uplifting digital transformation. I’ve broken them down below into responsibilities, activities, and measures.

Key responsibilities: What architects must deliver

  • Gather actual requirements - Architects must listen beyond what customers, stakeholders, and end-users state or ask for – into the true requirements that will achieve the desired function and bring joy to its users.   
  • Translate the what into many hows – In most situations, there isn’t one optimal architecture – there are solutions with benefits and tradeoffs. Top architects present multiple solution scenarios, technology buying options, and implementation partners. They seek differing opinions, devise POCs to validate assumptions, and provide recommendations.
  • Minimize risks by influencing standards – Leave solutions to every self-organizing team without oversight or guidance, and you may get locally optimal solutions, but the enterprise will also end up with frankenarchitectures, a portfolio of costly technologies to maintain, siloed technical debt, and other operational risks. When architects influence teams toward standard technologies and practices, they are helping their organizations minimize long-term implementation risks and enable teams to deliver innovations faster.  
  • Define the MVP of NFRs – If the product manager’s role is to define MVP features and capabilities, architects play a similar role in defining the MPV of non-functional requirements on performance, reliability, data governance, and security. They then prioritize incremental improvements, especially in areas impacting the business or exposing too much risk.
  • Product management of the enterprise’s platform architecture – A most important responsibility is when enterprises seek standardized platforms, practices, technologies, and capabilities, hoping to reuse them as building blocks to accelerate the delivery of new products/services, lower support costs, and minimize risks. Architects should act as product managers on these solutions by identifying their target customers, defining a vision, and executing a capabilities roadmap.   

This isn’t an exhaustive list of responsibilities, but it can be a good way to communicate and measure the effectiveness of architects working in DevOps and data-driven organizations.

Recommended activities: What Digital Trailblazer architects do

I have a high bar and expectations of architects, and I fear the ones who spend too much time on technology and not enough working with teams and people. Chapter 4 of Digital Trailblazer is titled “Product Management and Architecture: Trials and Triumphs,” and here’s the architectural anti-pattern I shared in the chapter.

“There’s more fiction in an architectural drawing delivered via PowerPoint than the best web designs concocted in Adobe Illustrator. And anyone who has ever been hands‐on with any platform, system, or proprietary application knows too many architectures defined by ivory tower enterprise architects are complete fabrications. They look good. They make executives feel like they are buying and building something achievable and straightforward.” 

So, how can architects become Digital Trailblazers? Here are some recommended activities we discussed during the Coffee with Digital Trailblazers.

  1. Walk in the end-users’ shoes to learn where technology provides value
  2. Align the technical strategy to business outcomes through measurable KPIs
  3. Explain technologies in simple terms and with minimal jargon
  4. Communicate the technology vision multiple times in multiple ways so that people understand the why as much as the how 
  5. Understand requirements before recommending a solution
  6. Pause, listen, reflect, and solve the right challenges, find easy solutions for commodity problems
  7. Develop business acumen and learn the language of this audience
  8. Become a lifelong learner by reading, attending industry events, and sharing knowledge
  9. Drive transparency and inclusiveness, especially when setting standards, selecting technologies, and prioritizing platform improvements
  10. Be humble; an architect isn’t always the expert, and there’s much to learn from customers, teammates, and others

There are two themes across all ten activities: a focus on people and communications. The best architects find researching technologies and defining the solutions the easy part of their jobs and spend more time interacting with people. 

Starting metrics: Architects in digital transformation

We didn’t get into a comprehensive list of metrics during the Coffee Hour, but we did discuss several key targets that can be converted into metrics, KPIs, or OKRs:

  1. Minimize rework, redesign, and technical debt impacts
  2. Reduce time to data and time to value
  3. Mitigate risks through standards and platforms
  4. ROI on reusable platforms and services
  5. Utilization of centralized data assets, platforms, and microservices
  6. Complexity and cost reduction by consolidating platforms and sunsetting legacy systems
  7. Customer satisfaction of DevOps and data teams leveraging platform capabilities

Below is the interview I recorded about Chapter 4 of Digital Trailblazer on product management and architecture. I’ll cover more for architects in upcoming posts, videos, and Coffee with Digital Trailblazer hours.