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Career Patterns: Technical Architect

A continuation of our Zone Leader series on developer career paths.

· DevOps Zone

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My first degree was in Mechanical Engineering. I really enjoyed it, but when I finally graduated, there was nary a job to be found. As I was fond of food and shelter, and I had interned at IBM for four terms, I decided I could find something in the computer industry. Fortunately for my fondness for eating, I found a gig as a sysadmin, and that kicked off my career. After that, I went on to earn a couple more degrees and worked in a variety of areas, most recently, as a research scientist focusing on cybersecurity and computational intelligence.

At one time along this meandering career path, I worked with a group of enterprise architects as a technical architect. In this role I worked on a variety of systems with requirements ranging from real-time constraints to high availability and global system distribution. I was in that role for the better part of five years. I was able to travel, met lots of interesting people, and felt like I was really making a difference. So how did I get there?

Well, I mentioned my stint as a systems administrator. Oddly enough, that has been very valuable for me over the years - especially now. I moved into software development after three years in that position, working as a software engineer on a variety of projects and as a consultant. After that, I started to consult with some of the architecture teams, built some relationships with the folks on those teams, and moved into architecture work. I earned a couple more degrees and an architectural certification along the way.

Yay, so go do that! You need a few details you say? Fine. In retrospect, there’s a couple of things that really helped me move into an architectural position. The first was my range of technical experience. Did I mention that I worked as a sysadmin? and that I thought it was important? well, you’ll notice that most software developers don’t actually understand the systems they deploy to. At all. And that’s pretty important, especially if you’re designing software systems for the long term, which is what architects do - make the technical decisions that you can’t refactor away with a couple weeks effort. You’ve got to know how these systems work. If you don’t, you can’t make the right technical decisions. And in architecture work, you don’t usually know you’ve made a mistake until it’s too late to easily fix it.

I had strong experience in a bunch of platforms as well. At this point in my career, I had developed for mobile, done some embedded work, and had deep experience in Java, .Net, and LAMP platforms. I was a solid full-stack developer as well. Overall, this diversity of technical experience positioned me well for architecture work.

The second was networking. I can’t really stress how important this is. I knew who I needed to work with to get involved with this work, and made it a point to meet them. After that, I just asked them to help me develop my skills so I could work with them. They were happy to help. Really, it’s that easy, but it’s really surprising how few people will just come out and ask for help.

Educationally, I earned a MS in Computer Science, and a PhD in Computer Engineering. The MS was more valuable at the time for architecture work. I also earned a TOGAF Enterprise Architecture certification (two, in fact, one over TOGAF 8, the other over TOGAF 9) as well as a CISSP certification. Both of these were worthwhile for me and for my customers.

One thing to understand about doing this kind of work - most organizations and companies do architectural work a very limited number of times. That technical architecture may be refactored and revisited, but the initial work is only really done once, maybe twice. If this career path interests you, you’ll need to work as a consultant. This way, you’ll be able to do architectural work with a variety of clients, and be able to make it a career path rather than something you’ve been involved with once in your career. There’s a variety of companies that do this kind of thing - identify a few, get to know them, and ask what you need to do to be an attractive candidate for their organization. Believe it or not, odds are they’ll tell you, and be impressed that you’ve asked.

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