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How to Become an Enterprise IT Architect

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Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

For those aspiring to become enterprise IT architects, you should know that your road to reaching this goal will be demanding. Here's some practical advice on how to get started in the field and succeed.

The job of IT architect is a highly visible, high-impact role within most enterprise IT shops. The topic of how to become an enterprise IT architect came up when we received an email from a reader. She asked about the best way to transition from her current IT support role into a more responsible and rewarding (both career-wise and monetarily) as an IT architect. Before we discuss that inquiry and our response, let's talk a bit about exactly what an enterprise IT architect does.

Enterprise IT architects play a vital role as IT visionaries and technology gurus who help to shape and implement mission-critical projects and efforts. They may have specific areas of technical expertise or be more generalized IT experts who provide higher-level technical oversight and guidance for IT projects. Enterprise architects are also typically tasked with simultaneously maintaining a strong knowledgebase of current and legacy IT technologies, as well as emerging technologies and other IT trends.

Enterprise architects are also responsible for identifying applicable technical standards to be followed on projects. In addition to their hard technical skills, enterprise architects can be much more effective when they possess critical soft skills. These include leadership abilities, the ability to communicate clearly with all IT stakeholders, strong design skills in one or more IT silos, IT process knowledge and good interpersonal skills.

According to a recent query on Glassdoor, enterprise architects can expect to earn $110,000 to over $170,000 per year, with an average annual salary of $139,000. Chief enterprise architects, the crème de la crème of the IT architect world, can expect a salary range of $160,000 to $230,000 per year, with an average annual salary over $190,000.

IT architects can arrive at their perch among the top IT leaders of an organization via many different avenues and technical backgrounds. IT architects might have history as data scientists, networking or infrastructure experts, or jobs rife with other in-depth IT knowledge. Obviously, a strong background in one or more critical IT service areas is key, as are advanced certifications and/or postgraduate degrees, with a thorough understanding of technology standards and methodologies.

A young and determined IT professional in the early stages of working life wonders how to get from point A to being taken seriously as a candidate for an enterprise IT architect job. There's a lot of work and study to do, but it can be done. Here we explore some potential steps down that career path.

Here is May's first inquiry to us:


Dear Ed,

I am not sure if I should contact you directly or go to forums. I don't know which forums to go to anyway. Basically, I would like to become a system/infrastructure/business architect. I would like to know how and where to start. What jobs should I pursue next, because I have been working for four years already? All of my prior positions have involved various support roles in IT, so I don't know how to move from here. I desperately need some guidance and help. Please do reply!

Thanks and best regards,
May


A short reply followed, asking my interlocutor to fill out a brief questionnaire, followed by this well-thought-out and nicely detailed reply. My answer and advice follow below. 

Here is May's second response with answers to the questionnaire, with the original questions in bold:


Thank you for your prompt reply. As requested, I have filled out the questionnaire and I have also attached my resume for additional information.

My goal: When I am 35 years old, 10 years from now, I would like to be an enterprise architect.

1. What is your educational background? High school diploma? Associate's degree? Bachelor's degree? Graduate degree(s)? Please also briefly describe any incomplete progress toward any of these items (for example, "two years of computer science grad courses, 2/3 of MS completed").

I graduated with a diploma in business information technology (from a technical university in 2009). Currently, I wish to do a degree, probably in business information systems (this is a top-up kind of degree that I can get by completing just three modules).

I feel that I need a degree quick and easy, as in the working environment they just want to know if you have one, and since I don't, it comes off as a great disadvantage.

2. What is your prior work experience? How many years of work and what kind of work have you done? Any volunteer work? Part-time work in school or elsewhere? (You'd be surprised how much value employers give to those who show evidence of being able to hold a job, and how much credit they give to people willing to work as volunteers or part time in order to get experience in their chosen fields.)

I have worked for four years and going. I have mostly done various IT support roles. You may wish to refer to my resume attached for more details. Basically, I just do support.

3. Where do you live? What is the job market like there? How much opportunity for entry-level people? Midcareer people? Senior people? Are you flexible about relocation, or do you have to stay in your general geographic area? (Feel free to answer only those questions that relate to your personal situation; if you're just starting out, please skip the mid- and senior-career stuff.)

I am a citizen of one Asian-Pacific country, actually, but I am currently located in another country. That's because the job market at home is tough for entry-level IT personnel: It's easy to fill support roles, but there's nothing really solid for people of my age and level of experience. They prefer a degree at least and relevant work experience. I am flexible about relocation if required.

4. Are you interested in working in management, or would you prefer to stay on a technical track? Have you ever done any project management (and again, school, part-time and volunteer experience all help)?

I would love to leave the technical track and get on with management. I have been a leader for almost all projects in school and college. I believe I have what it takes to lead a team; however, such an opportunity did not arrive at work. Thus, from a work perspective, I have not led any teams or projects.

5. What kinds of certifications interest you? Please describe any certification held: Is it current or has it lapsed, and when was it earned? How does this fit your overall technical interests? Is there anything outside of certification that particularly catches your imagination, or that you'd really like to work on or around?

I am currently going to sit for an exam in Open Group ArchiMate 2.0 this week (company's paying). I am also studying Windows Server 2012 server track MCSE, and I am very much intent on completing an ITIL foundation as well. Not to forget a degree soonest possible. I am interested in getting certs, but I don't really know which certs to get that can help me become an architect.

6. Do your long-term career goals include staying in your current position (or in the same field as the next position you're seeking, if applicable)?

My long-term career goal is what brings me here. I do not see myself progressing anywhere if I continue doing support roles; it's as if I am floating around. Since I am able to fit into any job scope, I am able to do anything, actually. This gets tiring after a while; I really wanna become an architect or something similar at the very least. Thus, looking for an appropriate job is my next step.

7. What kind of job are you doing now? What kind of job would you like to be doing? How important is salary to you? How important is job satisfaction? If you could have any job at all, what would that be?

I am currently in the position of a system administrator for a small government organization. However, I do almost anything my boss asks me to. This includes modeling of business processes, writing and performing user acceptance tests, setting up touch interface devices and programs, or whatever else he asks of me.

I would like to be doing something that requires me to exercise critical thinking and problem-solving. It was something that I realized when I was helping out an enterprise architect to model his business process, which I was involved in a tiny bit. I really enjoyed modeling the business processes using ArchiMate 2.0 and thinking of ways to streamline and make it better.

I think I can translate business requirements into technical terms and technical terms to business requirements. This, I believe, is what I might be actually good at. Salary is surely important, but right now I feel setting myself on the right career track is more important than salary.

I am, however, not good at programming, although I know Java and I am learning PHP as a hobby; I would almost certainly avoid such jobs.

Summary: I do not have any portfolio or a great technical skill. I am much like what you call a "jack of all trades, master of none." I no longer wish to be like that. I do know that I am good at working near the intersection of business and information technology. I have been doing this for years, since I started working, and have been thinking of which career path I should take. I think this is it. But of course, I could use your help. :)

Thank you so much.

Regards,
May

Here is my response to May:

Dear May,

Let me commence my reply by echoing back my understanding of your long-term goals, then review some of the details in your questionnaire answers, en route to making some (hopefully) helpful observations and recommendations to help you achieve them. If my replies provoke additional questions, please feel free to respond to me directly so we can work them out. 

On becoming an enterprise architect:

To begin with, I think your goal is eminently sound and completely worth pursuing. But it will be a stretch to get out of IT support and into a more substantial IT role, particularly given the kinds of circumstances you describe in your current position. I would suggest that you try to focus everything in your future work and personal development efforts to work your way into systems deployment and, ultimately, systems design and architecture. I'd suggest taking a survey of IT architect programs and certifications available, and for you to start thinking about how you might begin to pursue one or another of them sometime in the next 3-4 years. The delay between decision and pursuit is necessary for two reasons:

  1. To give you time to complete additional studies and to work on useful prerequisite credentials to prepare for IT architecture certification.  
  2. To give you time to pursue additional job openings or opportunities where you can work with IT system design and development so as to position yourself more favorably to play the architect role in an IT or consulting organization.

If you can make some progress on both fronts, and find yourself in a more substantial IT position in the next 3-4 years, I believe you have an excellent chance of meeting your goal to find yourself working as an IT architect by 2025 or thereabouts.

Many online and brick-and-mortar universities offer so-called top-up degrees, which are generally equivalent to the final year of an undergraduate degree program. By earning a top-up degree in a field related to your current undergraduate degree, you will be able to list the additional competencies you earn and learn alongside your existing degree, skills and knowledge.

You should contact program recruiters for the top-up degree offerings in the field that most interests you, describe your current diploma, then ask them, "I would ultimately like to work as an IT architect in a decade or so. Given my diploma in business IT from a technical university, which of your top-up degree plans would you recommend to help me pursue this goal?" They may not only have better, more specific ideas and advice to offer to you, they might also have other programs that would help you converge on your objectives more quickly and directly. In fact, you might also want to consider (and ask them and other institutions of interest to you) if there is a master's degree program in computer science, informatics or information technology that might not directly feature IT architecture as its focus but that helps you make progress toward a career as an IT architect. Surely, this would be a more direct way for you to start working toward your long-term goals!

Given your interest in business, management and the window into operations that working in support always provides intelligent observers, you should also consider adding a Master's of Business Administration to your educational objectives, with some focus and emphasis on business processes, along with IT governance, compliance regimes and so forth (with some considerable attention to ITIL and its certifications as part and parcel of this career thread). It's also very much the case that, given your interests and long-term objectives, pursuit of the Project Management Institute's Project Management Professional (PMP) certification could work to your considerable career advantage. That's why it's heartening to see you already thinking in those directions as I read over your questionnaire reply. My response: Keep thinking along those lines, and work in those directions at every possible opportunity.

In the near term (over the next 12 months), I believe pursuit of an ITIL Foundation certification (and a look at what lies beyond) and aggressive pursuit of the PMP should be your top priorities. At the same time, you can formulate your next steps in higher education and decide whether the top-up degree is beneficial, or if you should pursue a master's degree instead (with an emphasis on IT architecture, if such a degree plan is available to you). Next, you should pursue the degree of your choosing that best supports your IT architecture goals. Once you finish these things, you'll want to hit the job market again to see if you can get closer to your home base, or if you'll need to maintain contract work in the general geographic vicinity, as is the case with your current job.

Hopefully, you'll be able to market yourself more effectively as an IT generalist, project manager and systems designer in your next avatar. If not, you could do worse than to continue in the systems administration area, particularly if your boss keeps letting you tackle projects where you can hone skills that will groom you for more responsible and capable positions in the future. Be sure to keep good records of your projects, accomplishments and work activities. Try to get your boss (or other senior IT professionals) to write testimonials to your work efforts or letters of recommendation along the way. An excellent and easy way to collect work testimonials and recommendations is to join LinkedIn, keep your professional activities and profile up to date at all times, and get strong recommendations from bosses, colleagues, professors and so forth as you work your way toward your long-term goals.

Over the next year or two, as you progress toward your goals, your options should become much clearer. You should also be able to formulate (and then, afterward, to constantly refine) your plans for personal and professional development toward the IT architect role you wish to fill. Again, I am confident you can reach your goal, particularly because you already seem to understand that a considerable span of time, substantial effort and real expense will be involved to make things work.

I'd like to close this email to you with a wonderful epigram I saw on LinkedIn yesterday that seems incredibly apt for your situation:

If you are not willing to learn,
No one can help you.        
If you are determined to learn,        
No one can stop you.

Ultimately, it is your determination, your effort, and the learning and on-the-job experience you acquire that will help you achieve your goals. I believe you're already off to an excellent start.

Best wishes,
Ed 

Editor's note: Emails have been edited for punctuation and formatting to conform with Business News Daily's style. The original wording has not been altered.