Downturn Places Focus on Role of Software Architects

Several hundred software and enterprise architects this week gathered from around the world to ponder and debate how to affect improvements in how systems and applications can be better engineered and made more adaptive.

Some of the most well-known thought leaders in the field gathered -- many for the first time -- to confront challenges facing those who are, or aspire to be, software or enterprise architects at the Industry Association of Software Architects (IASA) regional conference in New York.

Among those challenges are the lack of a clear definition of the architect's role in the enterprise, a lack of consistent commitment by key IT and business decision makers to apply architectural concepts, and (more recently) a weak economy that is stifling many changes in organizations.

"We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place," said keynote speaker John Zachman, author of the widely accepted Zachman Framework for Enterprise Architecture, developed decades ago during his tenure at IBM. "It doesn’t make any difference what we're doing, we're not meeting expectations and we're not getting things aligned, we're not accommodating a lot of whatever the demands are from general management perspectives, their frustrations continue to escalate"

Those frustrations have escalated for enterprises as they are forced to rationalize their IT investments and address the fact that many systems lack architecture or mechanisms to make applications work together so that businesses can become more agile.

"The biggest call to action is to make sure people understand that information is key, that organizations are trying to build applications but build architectural designs," said IASA president Timothy Leonard in an interview. That means for many lifting up their sleeves.

"We've tried to automate so much stuff," Leonard added. "When you look at all these tools that are out there, ... people are forgetting you have to do the work. There are many architectural approaches out there but you want to make them physically work."

Grady Booch, chief scientist for software engineering at IBM Research. agreed. "You've got to have architects that have skin in the game. In the ideal, I prefer my architects also cut code," Booch said during a panel discussion. "That may not work in all situations, but at least you want the architect to feel the pain of his or her decisions. If you don't have any consequences of your decisions, then you will have a meltdown like we had in Wall Street."

The problem is many architects are faced with the problem of addressing the conflicts between addressing short-term demand and keeping them in line with long-term architectural," Zachman said. "That issue is not going to go away. In fact, if you don’t produce things in the short term, you probably loose the opportunity to work on architecture," he said. At the same time, if you are not paying any attention to the long term, you know you are going to end up with more of the same."

Max Gabriel, director of global enterprise architecture at Pfizer, said it's up to architects to look at business problems in a different manor. "It's not what technology solutions can bring to the table," Gabriel said in an interview. "We need to make business leaders care and act on some of the social and online solutions that we have."

"Moving forward, architects will continue to need to prove their value in the enterprise, said Neil Ward, research director at MWD Advisors. "The big question I heard again and again was 'How do we demonstrate and prove the business value of IT architecture'," he observed.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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