The technology landscape of most companies grows organically as the company grows, with technology decisions happening on the fly or with a very short time horizon.
At a certain point, though, the complexity of the landscape stops enabling the company and begins to constrain it and slow it down. Here's where an enterprise architect can help, although most companies don't have one.
What Do Enterprise Architects Do?
Enterprise architects address this problem by working to tame the complexity — in part by understanding the IT landscape, mapping it to business capabilities, showing dependencies, highlighting opportunities for rationalization/optimization, and then injecting strategic thinking into technology decision-making.
Enterprise architects make it possible to answer questions like, "What should our landscape look like if we want to achieve these goals?" and "Once we've defined our future state, how do we get there?"
Although challenging and complex, the role of enterprise architect offers a solid career opportunity in the IT world.
A recent report from Glassdoor listed enterprise architect as the best job in America, with a base salary starting at nearly $145,000, with more than 14,000 open enterprise architect positions.
Enterprise Architects Must Ask Questions, Think Strategically
As organizations become more dependent on technology to run all operational aspects, there is growing recognition that the role of the enterprise architect is a discrete position, according to CompTIA Chief Technology Evangelist James Stanger.
"That demand has come up because you really need somebody who is a guide to those changes," he said. "An enterprise architect creates the procedures, does the design, and then communicates constantly with the CIO, CEO, and other folks who report to the CIO."
Whether it's implementing plans for automation or moving to the cloud, the enterprise architect is responsible for asking the questions that will guide implementation of technology and ensure the strategic goals across all departments are aligned.
"The enterprise architect is never the party of no — they're looking for the implications of the changes that are happening," Stanger said.
The smart companies, he added, have realized that they need an architect to serve as a sort of navigator for the company because the CEO doesn't have the time to always be "riding herd" on these separate elements of IT across all the different business units of a business, large or small.
"They're realizing they need somebody who definitely has an ear with the leadership and can liaise and work with the techs to make sure that systems are always conforming to the business strategies," he explained.
Part of the job is to ask a lot of questions, as enterprise architects will be working deeply with each of the IT elements responsible for data management, app development, IT infrastructure, security, and automation, Stanger said.
"What sets them apart is they have experience, but they also have an ideal understanding of how all of those things work and play well together, but also what happens when they don't," he said.
Communications skills are crucial, as enterprise architects must be able to convey whether the technology is driving the company rather than the other way around.
"Maybe there's one element here that we're ignoring, or that the CTO can't figure out, and the CIO is too busy making it all work," Stanger said. "It's the enterprise architect who brings balance to the force, as it were. They're the ones making sure everything is working together, perhaps in unusual ways at times. That's very much the point of the enterprise architect."
Growing IT Complexity Adds to Challenges
Demand for enterprise architects is on the rise because the complexity of the IT landscape is causing acute challenges for businesses, from wasted IT spend and security and compliance issues to lack of organizational agility and adaptability, according to André Christ, co-founder and CEO of LeanIX.
"The fact that companies not only depend on technology to operate but increasingly invest in developing their own software and technology indicates that the challenges, too, will only grow," he said. "The only way to address this mounting complexity is through methodical, comprehensive, and strategic enterprise architecture management."
Christ said enterprise architects can help drive business process transformation — and business transformation more broadly — in several ways.
First, they can help map the path from the current state to the transformed state, highlighting the dependencies that will need to be addressed as an organization moves forward, and by showing the pros and cons of different options.
Second, they can identify inefficiencies in the IT landscape, such as redundant applications (two or more applications serving the same business capability) or avoidable technical debt (like maintaining obsolete applications when they could be retired or replaced).
"Overcoming these inefficiencies is key to any meaningful transformation," Christ said.
Finally, enterprise architects can provide valuable insight into which technologies are involved in what business processes and who owns or is accountable for those technologies, he said.
"This streamlines the actual nitty-gritty work of business process transformation, such as uncovering who uses which solutions, who is currently responsible for them, who will notice if something gets turned off or replaced, and so on," Christ said.
From Stanger's perspective, it's all about communication, as the enterprise architect's role involves ensuring that everybody is speaking the same language.
"Even if they're using a different language, the enterprise architect's responsibility is to ensure everyone is still looking to fulfill the same goal," he said. "It's that communication and liaison function that I see as the most important part of an enterprise architecture."
Enterprise Architects Play Critical Role in Cloud Migration
Enterprise architects also play a critical role in determining which applications are the best candidates for cloud migration, as well as what steps need to be taken to migrate them to the cloud efficiently, Christ said.
"When looking at cloud readiness, EAs may also identify what will need to be done in order to make this or that application cloud-ready," he said.
Since applications in the cloud form part of the entire IT landscape, enterprise architects also connect execution and strategy by maintaining a meaningful overview of what's in the cloud, what's not, and how it is all connected.
"This allows companies to track their progress while also helping plot out next steps or new cloud migration opportunities," Christ said.
Stanger agrees that as organizations make that migration, the enterprise architect must step in and take a high-level view of the plans.
"Moving to the cloud really might make a lot of sense, but has everyone thought about the implications of moving to the cloud in terms of what the business is doing?" he asked. "There are times when that migration might be from cloud to cloud."
Stanger said he's recently seen organizations moving elements from the cloud to a data center because it just made more sense.
"As the enterprise architect, the responsibility is to make sure that if you're moving something to the cloud, do you have that continued functionality or flexibility or service?" he said. "How is that changing other elements of the system? The enterprise architect is the person who has [to ask] the tough questions: 'That's great that you're doing that to save money, but are we losing some sort of business capability that makes everybody else's job harder?'"
From Stanger's perspective, it comes down to having a deep understanding of how each level of the organization uses business solutions and then identifying how a change will affect the organization's ability to move forward.
The Evolution of the Enterprise Architect
As the role of enterprise architect evolves, Christ said the biggest change he sees is it moving from a governance role — the enterprise architect as technology cop or professional buyer dictating what technology people can use or buy — to a strategic one.
"The EA is now helping company leadership not only think about evolving technology needs but also helping them make informed decisions about them," he said.
Stanger agrees that while most small to medium-size businesses won't have a defined role for an enterprise architect, there is a growing need for larger organizations to hire enterprise architects to help with their digital transformation plans.
"As with any higher-end job role, the EA position is something that there are a lot of opportunities out there for people," he said. "Sometimes you'll see organizations where that enterprise architect hat can fit right into a CTO's world or maybe even the CIO world. But, especially in a large organization, the enterprise architect role is best as a separate entity."
About the authorNathan Eddy is a freelance writer for ITPro Today. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, FierceMarkets, and CRN, among others. In 2012 he made his first documentary film, The Absent Column. He currently lives in Berlin.