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What does a Chief Architect do next?

You have delivered the business, information and systems architecture for a $100M change program, led the design authority and seen your organization through a step change in its operations on an enterprise scale. You have led major business change affecting 10,000s of employees. This is the third time you have done it. You know what you are doing. The head-hunters keep calling asking you do it again some place else. What do you do?

Chief Architect

Do you want more of the same? If the answer is “yes” then you have to evaluate whether your organization can give it. Often, an organization will pause for a couple of years after a major change before engaging on the next round. What will your role be during this “steady state” period? Will you be positioned correctly when the change kicks off? Your experience will tell you that those discussions are already happening – are you involved in them now or can you get involved? If you don’t shape the change from its inception then the chief architect next time around may be a consultant or an “outsider”.

Alternatively, you talk to the head-hunters. You follow up on some of their opportunities. Invariably, the roles are smaller, your compensation expectations are too high, you don’t believe in your potential new boss, moving away from home doesn't suit, or the role just doesn't excite you.

You are in a box as a “chief architect”. But, as an experienced chief architect, you have a huge amount of senior level business and IT experience that looks like it is about to go to waste. Maybe, you should look at alternatives…

Head of Architecture

Sometimes, the Head of Architecture and the chief architect are different people. The difference is that the chief architect is “responsible” and the Head of Architecture is “accountable”. The chief architect reports to the Head of Architecture who is typically on the senior management team of IT and sometimes of the organization.

The Head of Architecture is a manager (and hopefully a leader). They should be a business person first and an architect second. The Head of Architecture faces outwards into the business and into the management organization. They drive architecture to deliver for the business. They create the space for architecture to be effective. It is a political role.

The extensive knowledge of architecture that being a chief architect provides is vital knowledge. But the key capabilities are the business, management, leadership and political skills that will have been developed in driving through successful organizational change.

If you want to make the switch, then you need to have your eyes open to the different emphasis of your role. Not all your staff or management team peers or even your boss may understand the difference in the roles. There may be pressure for you to be the chief architect and also the head of architecture. I don’t believe that this is sustainable; I have talked about architecture being led by a two headed monster elsewhere. It is a balancing act.


What is a CTO?

Anton Chuvakin uses this definition

"the great CTOs usually can’t manage their way out of a paper bag, but

  • have huge vision,
  • the ability to pull an all-nighter and crank out a rough prototype of the thing they are thinking about,
  • have the unique ability to translate complex / abstract thoughts into simple English that a non-technical end-user can understand, and
  • a willingness (or even desire) to get up in front of 1,000 people and talk about the latest greatest thing they are working on / thinking about."

The paper "The Role of the CTO: Four Models for Success" by Tom Berray and Raj Sampath identifies these types...

  • Big Thinker - there are low levels of business change and information does not form a major component of products and services - the aim is to identify big opportunities before the competition and to ensure that IT is bullet proof
  • Infrastructure Manager - there is large scale business change but information is not a major component of the organization's products or services - the focus is on cost reduction
  • External Facing Technologist - low rate of business change but products and services are highly dependent on information - the focus is external support and identifying new opportunities
  • Technology Visionary and Operations Manager - technology is critical in a fast changing organization - the CTO is a change leader helping shape the business vision ensuring that the technology works and delivers the business goals

Each of these roles may be a valid direction for a chief architect. They each exercise different aspects of the talents of a chief architect. The roles have a level of management and politics that may deter some architects. The move should be quite easy. It is important to understand what is required and whether you can adapt and are a good fit to the requirement.


The CIO is typically the head of IT for an organization and will the normal management responsibilities that a head of function will have. The IT leadership role that ensures that the IT function delivers the needs of the organization.

The leadership role has four key dimensions:

  • operational delivery - you get fired if you fail to deliver day to day operations
  • project delivery - you must deliver "business-as-usual" incremental projects and large step change projects - you have a few more "lives" to get this right but if you consistently fail then you will be fired
  • function management - simply this is about adhering to policy and meeting budget
  • business change - the CIO will be expected to support business change through systems and also through IT organization change eg headcount, location, pay changes

A chief architect moving into a CIO position has to be aware of that these four dimensions have been listed in priority order. If you find operational delivery or maintenance issues tedious then don't do this job. It doesn't matter whether the head-hunter or advert stated that a change agent was required - fail on operations and you get fired.

An astute organization recruiting for a CIO will ensure that the new CIO can cover all the bases. This can be a problem for a chief architect since often they don't have strong operational experience and may have moved out of project delivery management some time ago. Moving sideways may be an option...

Head of Development

How many people have you managed? What was the value of the projects that you managed? How many projects in your portfolio? Tell me about your project management experience?

The normal route to head of development would be through project management and technology resource management rather than architecture. Do you have a good story?

In some organizations, the architects are the enemy. Can you overcome the potential prejudice?

This can be a very good move. You get the delivery management, you get a large part of the function management, and you continue to be involved in business change. If you are sensible you get close to operations, you ensure successful transition, you take operational failure as your failure, you ensure exception processes and procedures are implemented to deliver operational success.

Program Management

For some architects, a sideways move to program management can be attractive. Work on large programs as design authority, project management experience and significant business stakeholder engagement are prerequisites for this to be a realistic option.

To make the move, add a program management certification. It is useful to have shadowed a program manager or program director on a major change program to get credible hands on experience. This can be coupled with a design authority role.

The first role may not be that challenging unless you can be seen as the successor to an existing program manager or director. But being seen as delivering major business change successfully will open lucrative doors.

Business Change Management

If you are a more business focused architect and have concentrate on business processes, operating models, and requirements rather than technology then business change management may be an option.

You will need to have worked your models through to implementation and be comfortable working with real end users - e.g. are you comfortable in a call center or at a checkout.  Have you "walked the floor" on go live day?  Have trained end users in their new ERP?  Have you worked through the issues of instilling the process disciplines necessary to to operate an enterprise application successfully.

You will also need to be comfortable working at all levels of management from VP to supervisor.  Can you convince a VP committed to multi million dollar savings that a systems change cannot be implemented in a call centre just by shouting loudly?  Can you identify the detail that breaks that concept, work out a solution that works on floor and delivers the benefits?

Architecture Consultancy

Most consultancies are in need of good architects and are seeing a lot of people in their efforts to recruit.  If they like you then you are in a strong position.  But you must ensure there is a good fit. Is the role right? Can you work with these people? Is what you like doing what is being sold?  Can you find a way of working that fits your personal life?

The consultancies very often split enterprise architecture into different practices.  Business architecture will often fall into a general business strategy practice and domain based consulting.  IT architecture is also often split into IT Strategy and technology architecture.  This can pose a problem for the enterprise architect who wishes to link business and IT.

You will need to understand the practice structure, how the practices work together and how they engage with clients both pre and post sales.  It is important to understand what areas of architecture interest and motivate you.   You must make it clear to your interviewers what these are and how your interests work effectively with the way the consultancy operates.  If you can't work this out, walk away.  If you are not convinced that the interviewer understands and can make it happen, walk away.

If you are convinced that you can make it work then you have to get into the practice that positions you best.  You will have to build relationships with the other architecture related practices, the delivery practices and the sales people in order to create success for yourself.

Or a complete change...

Alternatively, you may wish to get out completely and become a priest, a lawyer, a day trader, a farmer, a property developer, or anything else that appeals. If you want a complete change then I wish you well ...

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References (2)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    Have you read my change management model blog post? Usually applying those steps towards change are useful in any situation.
  • Response
    Response: UK Models Review
    What does a Chief Architect do next? - Enterprise Architecture Blog - Chief Architect

Reader Comments (4)

A very interesting article indeed. Someday I hope to be in the position that I have done all these multimillion dollar projects, and can consider the positions you describe...
Anyway, I feel the article gives some good insight in the pros and cons of the various jobs.

November 22, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSjaak Laan

Excellent article indeed. The issue of a career path out of architecture seems to occur with frequency these days, I suspect this is probably not so unrelated to the fact that many architects have very little business knowledge and are still confined to Java and a bit of database knowledge when it comes to real enterprise IT architectural know-how. I have carried out dual roles in the past, such as domain architect (usually for EDW/BI but also for STP etc.) and programme stream leadership / project management; I have designed and built a plethora of complex systems in my career, and I don't quite understand why someone who has that type of opportunity would opt to do something different, unless of course they don't like to do that, or, they are nor particularly good at it.

September 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMartyn Richard Jones

That was an inspiring post,

Some great advice for the next steps towards a better career and i guess more profits..

Thanks for bringing this up

January 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertechnopassion@ymail.com

Good Post! Very informative, glad that you are going to continue writing things like this!


February 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArchitect jobs

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