Architecture Journal Profile: Paul Preiss

Architecture Journal Profile: Paul Preiss

The Architecture Journal


For this issue of The Architecture Journal, we met up with Paul Preiss, founder of a nonprofit group called IASA (International Association of Software Architects). We asked Paul about the goal of the organization, and some of his thoughts about the profession.

AJ: Paul, what do you do?

PP: I run the International Association of Software Architects (IASA). I spend most of my time trying to provide programs and services to practicing and aspiring architects.

AJ: Can you tell the readers about IASA? Where and how did it get started?

PP: IASA was founded about five years ago as a user group in Austin, Texas. We've grown to become the largest IT architect association in the world, with about 7,000 members and 50 chapters across 25 countries. Our focus is on professional growth and support for individual architects. We also aim to empower the architects to own their profession the way that other professionals do, such as doctors and lawyers.

I started the IASA to help stabilize my own career. I originally founded the user group because I wanted to help others and get help in my own career path as an architect. I had been practicing for about 10 years, working on some of the biggest and smallest architecture problems out there. I had run into a handful of major issues: the lack of resources targeted at the architect in the daily role; the lack of peers and the inability to find like-minded and similarly skilled people to interact with on a peer basis; the real lack of common definition for fundamental skill sets and the variability of the role across organizations; the overall difficulty of categorizing types of architects and of evaluating competence. I've done everything from seeking jobs as an architect to hiring and managing architects. So much uncertainty makes it very difficult for the individual architect to set a career path and follow that career path across organizations in a way that other professions may take for granted.

AJ: Sometimes IT Architecture is compared to other, more mature professional fields such as medicine and law. Do you agree with these comparisons?

PP: The profession that we are most closely modeling in terms of professional infrastructure is medicine, and I tend to model the organization mostly after the American Medical Association. The medical profession is arguably the most technically complex, mission-critical profession in the world today, with a tremendous volume of technical changes on a regular basis and growth in knowledge bases; and, yet, we graduate and grow doctors in a stable and regular way, through structures like clinical rotations and certification. The reach of IT architecture is broadening. Architects have become integral components of industry and business, in corporate fiscal policy and execution. Architects of healthcare and space shuttle systems are specifically entrusted with human safety.  We impact the financial health of organizations and individuals everywhere through commerce-enabled systems. We can also have a direct impact on entire societies through innovations like YouTube, Web 2.0, and social networking. If we can prepare and support a doctor for everything that they have to go through, creating the professional infrastructure to support an architect can't be as hard!

AJ: Do you believe that our industry should follow the kind of specialization that we see in the medical field?

PP: Perhaps; but, in the end, a doctor's a doctor. If you're out having dinner and someone starts choking, you don't stand up and say, "Is there an ear, nose, and throat specialist in the house?" You say, "Is there a doctor in the house?" The general professional title has to be meaningful before specializations can be meaningful.

A key objective in the IASA is to identify the common differentiator that sets our profession apart from the others. If we don't do that—and I will be honest with you here—we will be tuned out, because business owners I talk to don't have the bandwidth to parse software versus infrastructure versus solution versus business versus application versus enterprise. They want to know why they should hire an architect. If you want to do the profession a favor, help differentiate the profession first, and then work on specialization. Remember that, although lawyers and doctors go through a process of specialization, they first go through a generalized education.

AJ: Can you elaborate more on this specialization aspect?

PP: Specialization can have long-term positive and negative impacts that we need to consider. I really urge everybody reading this article to think carefully about this because it's our job to define for ourselves what our future will look like. If we don't do this, then someday, somebody else will define our profession for us. Specialization in medicine has important insurance implications; in fact, if an oncologist or podiatrist delivers your baby and does it incorrectly, they will be protected from litigation by their insurance. On the other hand, doctors are generally not covered if they practice outside of their specialization.

Given our direct impact on human safety, financial security, and society, I happen to know we are facing increasing degrees of scrutiny around the world as a group of practitioners. The impact of future regulation and regulatory activities should be of tremendous importance to each one of us, and working ahead of regulatory trends to define our profession for ourselves ought to be an immediate priority for each of us. We need to think more about our profession and less about specific individual jobs whether we work for Microsoft, Sun, American Express, Bank of America, or another company from the Americas to Europe, to Australia, to Malaysia or anywhere else in Asia. If we consider our profession first, then we can help stabilize future regulatory activities by guiding regulators to optimal decisions instead of what could be more knee-jerk, politically guided ones should any of their activities be triggered in haste.

Personally, I feel I have a responsibility to help control my own professional destiny. After five years growing IASA, I have come to realize that what I do impacts how architects are perceived around the world.

AJ: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an IT Architect today?

PP: Well, there are at least two important issues you need to understand. I call the fi rst one the, "Where Developers-Go-to-Die Syndrome." The major symptom of this syndrome is, "I've been a developer for 15 years, so I guess I have to become an architect now because that's the next natural progression." This is similar to "I've been a business analyst for 15 years, so I am going to become a business architect," or "I've been in operations and infrastructure for 15 years, so I'm going to become an infrastructure architect."

There's a notion that you can (or even ought to) become an architect by virtue of tenure or pay scale alone. Architecture is commonly seen as a land where other roles go to die. This is an utter fallacy. Architecture is an orthogonal profession distinct from development, business analysis, and system administration. Going back to the medical analogy: If you had been a nurse for 15 years, could you now become a doctor on grounds of tenure alone? You may have some advantages, in terms of practical experience over any intern; but you've still got to start at the beginning of the medical profession. You have to finish medical school, qualify for your license, and complete internships; you've got to go do all those things.


AJ: So, where do you think these perceptions have come from? Who's to blame?

PP: Well, I think it is a pretty natural progression; so, in a sense, there's no one to blame. What has happened has been sort of organic in the sense of its original format, or the process of formation of the IT industry as a whole. It is natural that IT architecture is seen as specializing along multiple lines based on existing roles and other activities such as development, infrastructure management, and business strategy alignment. I think that in fact, the industry is mature enough to where those fulfilling the other roles have become comfortable investing their sense of identity in them. Architecture if often understood merely as a matter of extending what it is we already do, or perhaps even a role granted to those with enhanced innate abilities.

On the other hand, the shape of the profession going forward is up to us; I think we have an opportunity now to be proactive in defining our profession.

I recently blogged about the magician's apprentice, trying to dispel the common notion of, "If I work for an architect, if I put this on my title, if I study and happen to have the right sort of magical quality about me, I'll be a great architect." But in fact, "profession" is a rigorous concept. Professionals are groups of people that clearly define their skill sets, their value proposition, that which differentiates them as communities from other professionals and groups, and the hoops that they and their peers must jump through to be part of the club. That is all any profession really is. As long as the role in question is valuable to society, as we have seen IT architecture become over the years, then, at some point, the associated skill set splits off and becomes completely educable; that is, you don't have to become something else first. Go to the American Institute of Architects Web site, and look at their history. You will read that the 13 founding members of the AIA gathered in 1857 with the aim to "elevate the standing of the profession" and out of frustration that "anyone who wished to call him- or herself an architect could do so... masons, carpenters, bricklayers... No schools of architecture or architectural licensing laws existed to shape the calling." That sounds an awful lot like the IT architecture profession today. So, they put a stake in the ground, and they said that is no longer acceptable; 150 years later, we have the building-architecture profession in its current form.

AJ: Let's hope it doesn't take us 150 years to get there. In a previous comment, you mentioned hoops that you need to jump through to join the architect club. What are those hoops? Is it certification?

PP: The progression of medical knowledge and learning—what physicians have come to understand about their profession, how they practice their skill set, and so on—has allowed doctors to improve the quality of care greatly since ancient times. Keeping pace with the growth of the medical field, the professional bodies have continually raised the quality bar by creating bigger, broader, and more sophisticated hoops for people to jump through. The hoops right now for IT architects are being defined inside the IASA, and in other organizations, from a skills perspective. We have laid out 250+ skills in our taxonomy that defines a rigorous foundation body of knowledge and a rigorous specialization body of knowledge that any individual must possess to be a part of the club. What we call the Skills Taxonomy Project resulted in a body of articles published in collaboration with Microsoft and our members. So the first thing that an architect or aspiring architect can do is look at our skills taxonomy, at our foundation body of knowledge. Regarding professional infrastructure, the profession will decide, for example, as most professions have, whether the first hoop that you have to jump through is a college degree. Generally speaking, most professionals must begin their career with a college education. You are forced to get a medical degree, a law degree, an accounting degree, a finance degree, a marketing degree, or whatever. So, sometime in the future, if IT architecture truly maintains its status as a profession, that will likely be what someone will have to go through first.

Now, all degrees are primarily knowledge-based, and they hinge upon tests. With that in mind, one of the things that we are working on now is effectively an associate certification, which will require a junior knowledge-based test that covers all 250+ skills in our taxonomy. We then have to decide whether the profession needs a significant amount of practical experience, commonly called internships. Those internships could be provided in a very rigorous fashion or a sort of lightweight fashion: A teaching internship is quite rigorous; a marketing internship is perhaps not as rigorous; a medical internship is very rigorous. We need to decide as a profession, how one progresses from the knowledge-based test to the next hoop, which will be a professional certification that simply says: "This person has both the knowledge and the experience to practice architecture without oversight on a certain sized project." However, a professional certification as compared to associate certification will be the hardest to obtain.

A third hoop could be Master Certification, such as the Microsoft Certified Architect programs. And that basically says that anyone above this line represents the top five to 10 percent of the entire professional body globally. I am not going to dig into all of the details of the infrastructure necessary to move between the major hoops, because the ones that are of most interest are the first four, because they represent what it would take for a bus driver to become an architect. The first four hoops are: effective training in the conceptual and practical application of the body of knowledge—a knowledge certification, a really difficult test that certifies that you've properly assimilated that knowledge; an experience quotient often called an internship; and, finally, a professional certification that differentiates you from what IASA terms the "associate" or "junior architect" as a mature individual professional who may now go out into the world and practice without a mentor or direct oversight. So, those are the hoops that IASA members have identified, and those are the primary components of the comprehensive education plan that our members are in the process of building.

AJ: What would be your one take-home message for the people who, after reading this article, are saying, "Yes, I want to be on that path"?

PP: Becoming an architect is a challenge, and the process depends on where you are starting. In general, I would recommend taking a deep look at the skills taxonomy project on the IASA site. Really dig deep into that, even if you don't join. Many aspiring architects should be using that as their real decision-making point. Because, when you look at those articles, you'll see the depth and the breadth. I mean, I have to tell you—from my own perspective—when we first did the taxonomy, I was in shock, because I didn't realize it was that big. I was really surprised at how deep and far the expectations for architects are. I recommend first reading the articles in the IASA online skills library, before deciding if architecture is really your path. Because most people today make their decision about becoming an architect based on what they think an architect is, instead of what the overall skills and maturity model look like. So, I would say that is their first step. The second step, if you make the decision to become an architect, is to join your local chapter. If there is no chapter in your area, help found one, and get involved with the IASA training program, which will allow chapter members to get those skills.

AJ: Can you find active chapters through the Web site?

PP: Yes, chapters, training program, and events are accessible from the IASA home page.

AJ: How about your own career? Where do you see yourself in five years' time?

PP: Well, I tell you, this has been a wild ride; an eye-opening experience for me. I have the fortunate job of being able to talk to really smart people around the world, including aspiring, professional and master architects, about really interesting challenges facing our profession. I don't see myself giving that up any time soon. It's my passion.

In five years, I want to be doing exactly what I am doing now—which is helping architects control their own careers, their own profession, building infrastructure and programs to help architects in their daily jobs, helping organizations best utilize architects to execute their technology strategies and get financial or other types of values. Like I said, you are going to have to pry my hands off of the grid because it is such a fun job. And if there's any measure of success that I can see, it's in the e-mails and discussions I receive saying that the programs that we're putting in place—the education, the community, and so forth—are actually helping people do a better job, understand their jobs better, plan their own personal career paths and really feel they have a chance to achieve their goals. That's the measure of success, and it's gratifying; I believe that I really could do this forever.


This article was published in the Architecture Journal, a print and online publication produced by Microsoft. For more articles from this publication, please visit the Architecture Journal Web site.

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