Hiring a Total Architect (Part 3 of 4)

How to ensure you don't miss the right candidate during the hiring process.

By Frank Bucalo, Enterprise Architect, CA Technologies

In the first article in this series, I identified that the phrase "Total Architect" has started to enter the IT implementation consciousness. These are people that can somehow achieve virtually a 100 percent implementation success rate in an industry known for failure rates upwards of 75 percent. I went on to demonstrate how valuable a Total Architect can be by providing real-world use cases where project failures could or would have been avoided in the presence of a Total Architect.

The second article in this series showcased the traits of the Total Architect. I used the analogy of an accomplished musician to show that Total Architects possess balanced capabilities -- that is, they possess both analytical and creative abilities. They can be both detail oriented and see the big picture at the same time. They have the discipline to acquire the breadth and depth of knowledge required to understand modern IT environments. They work with both machines and people simultaneously to produce works of art -- in this case, successful IT implementations. Hopefully, you now understand that having a Total Architect on your team is essential for your IT success.

This article explores what you should look for when hiring a Total Architect. I use a well-known, successful personality -- James Cameron, the producer of such blockbuster films such as The Terminator, Titanic, and most recently, Avatar -- as a case study. Having studied his biography, I believe he is a prototypical Total Architect, both engineer and artist, and thus a use case to demonstrate what you should (and should not) do when seeking a Total Architect.

Traps in Employment Screening

To begin, let's take a look at what might typically happen to a Cameron-like candidate during the hiring process if you were not "Total Architect aware." I think you will find that the process might eliminate him somewhere along the way, thus depriving your enterprise of his genius and his ability to produce large profits.

The first point where you might eliminate your "James Cameron" is in your educational requirements. Cameron enrolled in a two-year school where he pursued physics, changed his major to English, and then dropped out before completing either program. On paper he was a drop out. One problem with educational requirements as a hiring filter in the technology industry is that things are changing so quickly that curriculum often lags reality. Another problem is people like Cameron find that what they are learning is obsolete or the pace of learning is too slow. If you study such people, you will find they have the ability to teach themselves, then with that knowledge they can create, which is paramount in this age of technological advancement. Cameron summarizes his education this way:

I'd go down to the USC library and pull any thesis that graduate students had written about optical printing, or front screen projection, or dye transfers, anything that related to film technology. That way I could sit down and read it, and if they'd let me photocopy it, I would. If not, I'd make notes.
--Interview with Syd Field, quoted in James Cameron -- Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Part I)

Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that you should target dropouts and bypass graduates in your hiring process. Rather, I am saying that when you are specifically looking for a Total Architect, you might want to consider that they must be lifetime learners, self-teachers, and creators. They might think outside of the box and thus their educational techniques and credentials might be non-traditional.

Education

Likewise, you might eliminate your Total Architect because of certification requirements. There are at least two reasons why a Total Architect might not have a particular certification. First, certifications take far more time to obtain than it takes to learn the actual content. If you read many certification study guides, you will see statements you may interpret as, "This is the way the organization wants you to answer. You must ignore your personal knowledge, experience, and intuition to produce responses expected responses."

Obtaining a certification also usually requires memorization of information that one would usually just reference on demand. You can see how an out-of- the-box, abstract thinker might chafe under such a demand. Personally, I'd estimate obtaining a certification takes about three times the effort of learning the content.

Second, given the breadth and depth of the technology stack, it is simply not possible to obtain and maintain the myriad of certifications that touch your solution. Again, I am not saying that you should exclude certified applicants. Rather, you should be aware that when seeking a Total Architect, filtering based on certifications might eliminate your best candidates. If certifications are important to your organization, I recommend that you locate and hire your Total Architect, and require that they obtain the desired certification within a certain timeframe (e.g., six months).

Moreover, asking for years of exposure to a particular technology might filter out your best candidates. The theory about years of exposure is an excellent technique for filtering concrete learners. They require repetition and extensive hands-on exposure to develop their knowledge and skill. On the other hand, Total Architects are abstract learners. They can read a book for concepts, get it, and immediately be able to creatively apply what they've learned. That's not to say that a Total Architect won't get better with exposure to a specific technology or business area. It just says that an abstract learner can understand, absorb, apply, and adapt new technology in near real-time. That's a desirable skill, so be careful not to eliminate abstract learners by your requirements.

Left Brain, Right Brain

Now, let's look at how you might overlook a Total Architect during the interview process. Remember that your team consists of some people that are pure right-brained and some are pure left-brained. Pure right-brained people are creative and think strategically. They work strictly in the realm of what I call "clouds and lines," but their eyes tend to glaze over when it comes time to delve into the details. One of their favorite lines is, "We'll use the 80/20 rule." They like to pretend that everything is conceptual, simple, and easy. That's not necessarily a problem unless they are in a decision-making role and truly naïve as to the potential complexity required for a solution.

Pure left-brained people are grounded in the hard, cold reality. They tend to see everything as complex and difficult. That is not necessarily a problem unless they are in a solution design role and gravitate to solution designs that are inappropriately complex. Accordingly, theses two groups tend to frustrate each other. With the Total Architect, you are looking for someone who can span and integrate these two groups -- someone that is fully aware that technology is complex and challenging but has a track record of finding effective and efficient solutions.

I see James Cameron as the prototype. I've read about his awareness that new technology would have to be developed in preparation for his film "solution". Rather than pretend that innovation was not necessary, or creating the innovation himself, he anticipated the need, scheduled time to develop the innovation and brought in people to create it.

Often, when seeking to fill an architect position, I've witnessed pure left-brained people perform initial technical screening. I've seen quizzes that ask very low-level, detailed, technical questions, usually based on the specific technology that the left-brained interviewer is currently immersed in. Total Architects are aware of a breadth and depth of technology concepts and issues, but they probably do not have the instant recall the left-brained interviewer is seeking. I heard one Total Architect liken the desire for instant recall of facts to expecting people to memorize the phone book. Needless to say, many Total Architects have been labeled as not being technical and eliminated at this point in the interview process. I've also seen right-brained interviewers eliminate Total Architects. Remember, they tend to dislike left-brained types and want to pretend that the world works according to simplistic models. Thus, when they encounter a Total Architect and that Total Architect mentions that something may be complex, the right-brained interviewer might immediately label the candidate as unacceptable.

Transforming Your Hiring Process

If the traditional hiring process tends to eliminate your Total Architect, what are you to do? The answer is that you tailor your hiring process to align with the skills you truly need. Make the hiring process more abstract.

Let's start with the requirements phase. Most job seekers are urged to keep their résumé to one page. Consequently, Total Architects have been advised to rip out a lot of the information you need to identify a quality candidate. Therefore, you should explicitly ask applicants to provide a long, inclusive résumé and cover letter. You are looking for people a wide breadth and depth of exposure to business and technology. Specifically ask them to indicate both formal and informal training in the "education" section of their résumé, as well as how they obtain new skills. Remember, you are looking for people who can adapt, move across roles, and identify creative solutions. Ask them to provide specific anecdotes about their roles and contributions to projects in the "experience" section of the résumé. Ask them to include interests and hobbies. Often, these can indicate artistic abilities above and beyond pure technical abilities.

Now, let's move onto to the interview phase. First, you must counsel your interviewers. Help them understand that you are looking for applicants that might be non-traditional. For the technical interview, replace the left-brained quizzes with more general, open-ended questions on important technical concepts. For example, I once was interviewing candidates for a distributed computing architect position. I simply asked them to tell about the concept of "marshalling" and let them elaborate. I could easily detect if a candidate had a grasp of one of the primary concepts related to distributed-computing -- translation of data types between applications.

Likewise, if you are looking for an architect to design C++ libraries, ask them to discuss class design. They should be able to enumerate issues such as object storage, creation, multi-threading, and patterns. The right-brained interviewee should ask the applicant to explain a pertinent, related concept. Your script might go this way: "I'm not technical. I know that cloud computing is more complicated than it sounds. Tell me about some of those complications in words I can understand." The Total Architect should be able to talk about such concepts as service-level agreements, service costing, and secured access. What you are looking for is the ability to elaborate complex topics in a simple, understandable way, which indicates an ability to manage complexity.

Breaking with Tradition

In summary, traditionally project failure rates are high. That's why you need a Total Architect. Traditional hiring practices may impede your ability to identify and hire non-traditional resources. You must be aware of that fact and adapt your hiring practices accordingly, or you run the risk of accidently passing on your "James Cameron."

Frank Bucalo is an enterprise architect with CA Technologies specializing in ITIL implementation and risk management systems. Prior to his time at CA Technologies, he was an architect and a consultant with banking and brokerage clients. He is a member of the Global Association of Risk Professionals (GARP) and an ITIL Service Manager. Mr. Bucalo represents the new breed of "Total Architect" – knowledgeable and experienced across business, technology, and technology management domains. You can contact the author at frank.bucalo@ca.com

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Other articles in this series:

Part 1: How Total Architects Enable Project Success

Part 2: Traits of a Total Architect ... And All That Jazz

Part 4: Putting a Total Architect to Work: Lean IT Implementation on Steroids