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What is an IT Architect?
As an IT Architect, I align available and emerging technology value propositions with company strategies and goals. At a macro level, I regularly review our application portfolio, project and support team for fit with corporate strategy. At a micro level, I manage a team of business system analysts who support and implement both current and emerging technologies.
I’m responsible for ERP, PLM and other applications that support business operations. I manage process design, system design, system performance, project support and vendor relationships, too. The other architects that I work with handle CRM and BI applications and support. My responsibilities are pretty typical for IT application architects within the context of a manufacturing and supply chain. Similarly, it’s typical for CRM and BI architects to have separate roles in companies that are the size of mine or larger.
What do you love most about your job?
I love that my job involves gathering business requirements, finding or developing technology solutions and demonstrating value to the business. I also really enjoy facilitating interactions between IT and business functions; this involves translating information between diverse groups in a variety of situations. I act as an intermediary between two important parts of the company. This is great for me, since I tend to thrive under pressure.
In the past, I’ve acted as a specialist on four or five different applications and managed small teams on both small and large projects at the business unit or process track level. But now thanks to age and experience, I enjoy supporting a broader array of applications at the enterprise level.
Technology is a tool. IT is a team sport. Getting things done at the enterprise level requires embracing people, politics and priorities.
How did you get into CS?
I got into IT through manufacturing operations. First, I was an operations manager, but I needed better tools to plan, execute and measure performance. I implemented my first two systems as a user, then discovered that implementation was something I really enjoyed doing.
As a college student in the ‘80s, I never used a computer at all. I got my first Mac followed by a PC in 1991 and learned to use spreadsheets, word processors and file systems. Then, I discovered MRP and MRP II systems which helped me plan and execute across functions. I became CPIM certified and worked with MRP and MRP II software vendors to implement my first two systems; the second was both more capable and sophisticated than the first. I could see real progress, quickly, which was exciting. From there, I went to work for the vendors that sold MRP II and ERP software to companies who made and distributed products.
As an applications consultant, I was able to take advantage of the travel opportunities and variety the work required. The enterprise applications market is always increasing in complexity, which makes the work very engaging.
After consulting for many years, I decided to go back to working as a full-time IT employee. I was thrilled to be tasked with implementing and supporting manufacturing and supply chain applications on a global scale.
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What did you have to learn to qualify for the job you have now?
I needed to learn project planning and execution, requirements definition and analysis, system configuration, SQL, PL/SQL and other Oracle technologies.
In my position, it’s necessary to understand the technology stack of the applications we’re supporting or implementing. This is required for troubleshooting and recommending best practices to ensure off-the-shelf software performs to company expectations using out-of-the-box capabilities with minimal customization needed.
I’ve been promoted several times in various companies from individual contributor to team manager.
Do you have a degree in CS? If not, how did you learn?
My background is in Industrial Education with an emphasis in Business. I learned technology through hands-on experience, trade journals and shows, manuals and classes while working. I also have a large professional network that I exchange information with.
Technology classes are very beneficial to those just starting out in the field. They will definitely help get you in the door. Once you’re in, though, you really have to stay on top of new technologies, upgrades, versions and trends to keep up.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Communication within IT is very challenging. You have to consider horizontal communication across business functions and vertical communication across management levels. Achieving and maintaining alignment while remaining flexible is a large part of the job.
However, there are formal processes that can assist in proper communication at all levels.
Never underestimate the difficulty of managing change—technology is constantly evolving. Adopting new processes and technologies takes work, effort, top-down support, time and money.
Do you work on a team or independently?
I work in a highly matrixed environment. I’m on several project teams and report to IT management as well as the company. Our team as a whole also includes external resources such as consultants and support organizations.
We collaborate through in-person and online meetings, ITIL tools, web-based technologies and mobile technologies.
Some of our projects involve people who work remotely or groups in other countries.
What is your typical day like?
Depending on the countries or projects we're supporting, there may be work around the clock and on weekends for the team. But it's typical to work with the business users and managers during their normal work hours.
It’s possible you’ll be required to work on site in your home town, remotely or at a non-local team site (which may require traveling) for weeks or months at a time. It just depends on the structure of the team or the scope of the project.
Some project rhythms require daily or thrice daily standup meetings while others require only reporting activities via email once a week.
It is important for your health and sanity to eat well and schedule exercise and sleep. Many projects and IT environments offer an overabundance of unhealthy, high-calorie snacks. When paired with lots of sitting time, you’ve got a recipe for health issues.
It's also important to schedule training during times when the project timelines will not be adversely impacted.
Could you explain a project that you are directly (or even indirectly) working on now (or recently or soon) that excites you?
It is always fulfilling to go live with a new process or product and see the users interacting with the technology successfully. No matter what stage the product is in—order fulfillment, procurement, planning, warehousing and distribution, finance or human resources—the most gratifying part is getting to hear the executive team share the project’s success and its relationship to real business results.
Some projects solve acute problems where many dollars or business opportunities were lost but then recovered, and other projects solve chronic problems where pennies were lost on too many touches, which can add up quickly. Other projects solve problems where management must make better and faster decisions.
How do you stay up-to-date on innovations and development in your field?
I stay up to date through reading, talking with peers, taking online classes and webinars and attending trade shows.
The technology field is constantly innovating, dividing and consolidating. Businesses that we support do the same; if a company isn’t innovating and reorganizing to meet or better its competition, it will go out of business. In fact, many business I have worked in either no longer exist or have radically changed form.
Some credentials are worth more than others. I recommend seeking certification from a technology supplier or authorized certification partner.
What has surprised you most about learning and working in CS?
What surprised me the most working about the industry is how fast it moves and how incredibly important it is to stay current and relevant.
As a young consultant, I thought I had to know how to fix issues immediately, all the time. With experience, I quickly learned that you can’t know everything, so it's better to know how to diagnose a situation and find the answer in a timely fashion. The answers often come from novel sources like friends of friends, or blogs.
In the beginning, I was was very afraid that I wouldn’t always have answers to problems if put on the spot. While it’s important to be able to think on your feet, it’s also important to know how to ask productive questions so you can then find or develop a solid solution when you have more information to work with. Often the underlying problem needs to be clearly defined before you can fix it or provide an answer.
What advice would you give students who want to follow in your footsteps?
Everything you know today has a half-life and needs to be constantly updated. Don’t hold your current ideas too sacred, or you’ll quickly become obsolete. Constantly and rapidly build your knowledge base and network. Eliminate or automate the redundant things in your life to make room for more strategic thinking.
Never forget people’s feelings and perceptions—they are your reality. Technology does not function without people and more often than not, word-of-mouth can either make or break your career. Be aware of the needs of your employers and coworkers. And take good care of your users, vendors and customers.
Stepping back, what do you think is the most exciting recent or upcoming development in your field?
Current exciting trends include automated data collection, big data, cloud technologies and mobile technologies. Behind the scenes technology is more complex than ever and the user experience is becoming more seamless.
You can never guess who will be the dominant players in the next five years. As an IT professional, you should create value for your business today with current tools while constantly scanning the horizon for new, game-changing technology opportunities. The goal is to begin simulating paths to integrating these new technologies into your business as soon as you identify them.
It’s also always possible there will be technology that nobody in your business understands as well as you do, and you role may be to demonstrate its value well enough to ensure it gets funded. As Wayne Gretzky once said, “skate to where the puck will be.”
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