Cookie Consent by Free Privacy Policy Generator 📌 The full-stack architect: A new lead role for crystalizing EA value

✅ The full-stack architect: A new lead role for crystalizing EA value

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Skim recent articles about enterprise architecture (EA) and you’ll notice a contradiction. Of them, plenty suggest that, unless a company develops a strong EA muscle, it will limit itself. Yet just as many seem to question the function’s value, or spotlight material that does. A recent report from Forrester, for example, opens: “[While] enterprise architecture remains a critical capability … many digital and IT professionals view enterprise architecture as a roadblock that adds no real value.”

All this contradiction suggests that EA, as a function, may be suffering an identity crisis, but Stephen Ma — acting chief architect at Walgreens — is not about it.

Ma doesn’t object from a place of defensiveness — he knows the function’s value. But he’s frustrated that the discipline’s value hasn’t been communicated as well as it should be, a grave issue in today’s business climate, in which every role of every function is under scrutiny. He also thinks the solution is straightforward.

“We need a full-stack architect,” he says.

That’s right: According to Ma, the solution to EA’s identity crisis is fewer architects, but ones with the ability to traverse multiple architectural domains.

The source of EA’s crisis

To understand what makes an architect “full stack,” we first need to define EA. Per Gartner:

Enterprise architecture (EA) is a discipline for proactively and holistically leading enterprise responses to disruptive forces by identifying and analyzing the execution of change toward desired business vision and outcomes. EA delivers value by presenting business and IT leaders with signature-ready recommendations for adjusting policies and projects to achieve targeted business outcomes that capitalize on relevant business disruptions.”

Not all this work gets done by architects of the same type. By Ma’s count, there are at least four major architect types: Business, Solution, Enterprise, and Technical. Each works across at least two of six major domains of expertise: Business, Product, Design, Engineering, Delivery, and Support. None of them works across all six.

And herein lies the problem, says Ma: When business stakeholders seek to understand EA’s value proposition, or even check the status of a project, they may get different answers depending on whom they ask. It’s the three-blind-men-describing-an-elephant problem: The man who feels the tail describes an animal very different from the one described by the man feeling the abdomen, or by the one feeling the ears and tusks. Though the variety in their descriptions may reflect the function’s comprehensiveness, to the uneducated executive, it sounds like misalignment. That executive feels that, to get a complete picture, he or she must piece it together him or herself.

As Ma sees it, this perception has never been more damning than it is today.

“A lot of people, during COVID, really thought COVID was going to live with us for the foreseeable future, so companies made big digital bets on how people work, how customers interact … and they over-hired,” he explains.

Among these digital bets was greater investment in technological functions believed to critically enable strategy and scale in a remote world — functions like enterprise architecture. Ma recalls how difficult it was to attract talent to CVS, where he was leading architecture at the time.

“I would put a job description out there for a really quality principal architect or director position, and I would get one good resume maybe every three weeks,” he says. “It took me six months to even think about finding somebody good.”

Of course, in the end, many of those bets didn’t pan out. The pandemic ended, many customers returned to their usual patterns of behavior, and about a year ago, companies began revisiting hiring decisions they made under different pretenses, asking, “What exactlydoes this role do?”

And now, with technologies such as AI emerging, they’re asking twice as emphatically. Ma warns all architects that they need to be able to answer this question clearly, consistently, and persuasively.

“I’ve actually heard fellow architects say, in describing their role, that they’re ‘marriage counselors.’ Relationship-building is very important, but it alone is no longer enough.  Architects have to know what they are talking about at a deep technical level,” he says.

Enter the full-stack architect

To solve this problem, Ma sees the emergence of a full-stack architect who can describe the whole elephant — and enhance EA’s service delivery model by several means.

First, the full-stack architect could ensure the function’s other architects are indeed aligned, not only among themselves, but with stakeholders from both the business and engineering.

That last bit shouldn’t be overlooked, Ma says. While much attention gets paid to the notion that architects should be able to work fluently with the business, they should, in fact, work just as fluently with Engineering, meaning that whoever steps into the role should wield deep technical expertise, an attribute vital to earning the respect of engineers, and one that more traditional enterprise architects lack.

For both types of stakeholders, then, the full-stack architect could serve as a single point of contact. Less “telephone,” as it were. And it could clarify the value proposition of EA as a singular function — and with respect to the business it serves. Finally, the role would probably make a few other architects unnecessary, or at least allow them to concentrate more fully on their respective principal responsibilities. No longer would they have to coordinate their peers.

Ma’s inspiration for the role finds its origin in the full-stack engineer, as Ma sees EA today evolving similarly to how software engineering evolved about 15 years ago. During that time, as social media and e-commerce exploded, so too did the variety of software engineers holding the seams together. Those engineers gradually sorted themselves into realms of expertise — front-end, back-end, data layer, and so on — and ultimately came to be coordinated by the full-stack engineer, now quite common in mature organizations, and expected to become only more so over the next decade.

Ma sees this role as analogous to the full-stack architect: “You can’t really have one person, engineer or otherwise, who’s truly a full-blown expert up and down the stack — I’m not suggesting this is a magic bullet — but the idea here is, let’s have full-stack architects who cover all areas from both a business and technical perspective.”

For some readers, this may beg the question: How would the full-stack architect differ from a product owner? Do they both not link the business and the digital execution? They do, but with different priorities. Product owners, explains Ma, even technical ones, tend to never get sufficiently deep into the weeds of the technology itself, always concerned first with the product. Having worked in organizations that leaned on such roles, Ma has never seen it work.

“Maybe it could if your company is clear about what it does and which roles have exactly which responsibilities, but most are not and don’t. You need a role that can help the in-between, that can be the glue holding together some of the areas that fall under several verticals, and who can be the person that anyone — engineers or businesspeople — can go to when they have a need that concerns both the business and the technology teams,” he says.

The need for EA is only growing

Another important justification that Ma offers for such a role is that the problem solved by architects is here to stay, even as advanced technologies enter the equation.

“It’s part of the reason I love this space,” he says. “What’s under it is so many different technology domains — integration, data, APIs, and so on — but also multiple business prongs and industries. There is so much to learn.”

The same can be said for most companies today, as they branch out into new opportunities, often by way of digital transformation, he adds.

“Consider Walgreens, people usually think of our pharmacy, but we also have photo, healthcare clinics, supply chain, and many more functions,” Ma says. “You’re always going to need someone who can bridge the gap between business and technology. You’ll always need someone who underpins it all.”

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