So Ya Wanna Be an Architect?

melissa • August 12, 2014 • 2 Comments

What pops into your mind when you hear the word architect? The cool guy from The Matrix movie? Someone who builds cathedrals, or bridges? The person behind the new skyscraper? Whatever it is, they all have something in common. They are creators. Chances are none of these people work up one morning and said, “you know what, I am going to build something great today!”, or maybe they did. For most of us, it is a journey much longer than that.

7119198641_8fb086a9f6_z(Just a bridge, and a 747 with a space shuttle on it)

Almost everyone knows I have an engineering background, that was not something I decided overnight either. I had always been fascinated by the world around me. Besides electronics, I love bridges and the ancient ruins of cultures past. I Always have, and I always will. I think my personality has always landed me to architecture, but in the professional sense, it is the architecture of information technology infrastructures.

By day, I am an IT architect creating enterprise storage solutions, and while my primary focus is the storage system, I could not do it without an understanding of the rest of the infrastructure around it. The applications running on it, the infrastructure it plugs into. So how did I get here? How did I get to the point where I’m creating, and more importantly, how do others get here? From my existence, here’s a couple of steps in the right direction if you’ve decided you want to become an architect.

You must love it.

I love infrastructure. I love hardware, I love software. I love learning everything about it. It is a constant learning process that I started a long time ago (I took my first networking course as a teenager at community college at night), and I plan on continuing it. I’m genuinely interested in all the areas of infrastructure. What do you love? You’re going to dive deeper than you ever thought possible in this area. If you have one interest, such as networking, maybe you should focus on a more network architecture role. Personally, I want to touch it all.

You must be willing to work hard.

Chances are any sort of architecture role transcends what you are doing on a daily basis at work. Be ready to work hard, and to take on more than your day job. It may end up that you end up doing two jobs, your day job and the beginnings of your architecture role. I’ve gotten the same advice from quite a few places, do the job you want, and you’ll end up with it.

It won’t happen overnight, you must be patient.

If you think you are going to walk into your boss’ office and walk out deemed the architect, you’ve got another thing coming. This is a journey. Make sure you have you have a conversation with your boss about what you want to do. As long as you get all of your regular work done, I’ve never had a problem with taking on more. After all, you looking good makes your boss look good.

Ask for help.

Honestly, the best way I have found to learn, is by the experience of others. I’ve been extremely, extremely lucky that I’ve found people willing to teach and mentor me throughout my career. You must be willing to work hard, and show your mentor how you can benefit them. This is a two way street like any relationship, and it should be mutually beneficial for everyone involved. For me, I would often take a “first pass” at something, and then review it with them, and work under their direction. This offloads some of their workload, and gives me experience.

Don’t be afraid to fail.

There is no such thing as a failure, as long as you’ve learned something from the experience. When you start to work on designs, and have them reviewed by others, they may very well be ripped apart (a la #VirtualDesignMaster defenses). This is a good thing! The only way you are going to grow and learn is by getting feedback from those with more experience. This will help you learn to recognized the shortcomings in a design, and correct them in the future. There is no such thing as failure, everything that doesn’t go according to plan is an opportunity for growth.

Start small.

Do you know what my “first” design was? A two node ESX cluster in the DMZ. Was it small? Absolutely, but it was mine. I created it. From drawing the Visio diagrams, to presentations to management around it, to actually implementing it, it was my creation. Don’t try to boil the ocean, you aren’t going to architect a data center as your first project. Start small to work on the critical thinking and logic skills. Once you’ve got the process down, then you can move on to bigger things. I eventually ended up coming up with a design to be used for a new vSphere environment, and believe me, we haven’t seen the last of that one!

See the big picture.

No matter what are you’re going to be architecting, your design will impact more than just your target area. For example, let’s say you’re a storage architect. Sure, you’re concerned about the storage, but don’t forget to think about what you’re connecting to it. You’ll have to connect that storage frame to the network, or it could be multiple networks. What hosts will be connecting to the storage? What applications run on those hosts? Even if you’re not thinking about moving towards an architecture roll, thinking of the big picture will go along way with coworkers and stakeholders. Eventually, it becomes a habit.

What are you trying to accomplish?

No one designs anything in the real world for fun. Even on #VirtualDesignMaster, our challengers are faced with a specific set of circumstances. Keep this in mind as you go through the design process. I try to start every design by writing out my Requirements, Constraints, Assumptions, and Risks, which is actually a newer practice for me. Previously I focused just on what problem I was trying to solve, and I like this expanded model a lot more. Everything decision I make is to meet the criteria of a decision. Josh Odgers put this really well on Twitter the other day.

Eventually, it will be go time.

There will come a time where you’ve made the decision, you’ve gained the experience, and it will be time to do it for real. This may be at your current employer, or it may be someplace new.  I was very fortunate that my life in the VMware space let me do a variety of roles such as architecture, administration and support, and really let me understand the complete inner workings of the environment. One of my jokes is I evolved from a Virtualization Lady-in-Waiting to a Virtualization Queen over the years on the VMware side of the house. Eventually, I made the jump to a NetApp SE to further my architecture skills, and learn everything I could about storage.

There is no recipe for success here, there is no checklist. There is no instruction manual. There are only resources and people to guide you along the way should you decide to embark. Architecture is a journey, not a destination. You’ll get out of it what you put in, and if you truly want to create, there is nothing to stop you from doing it.

Categories architecture

2 Comments

  • pfeif • 5 years ago

    Good thoughts. I love the line about not being afraid to make mistakes. That’s how I learned an awful lot!

    One thing that made me successful as an Architect was understanding the business. Learning the realities of budgets and bottom line business is critical to success. Why? Because that’s why we’re needed. To launch the business.

    So, if your College didn’t give you a course in business, take one. If you can sell your project to the CFO, you pass.