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Dr. G. N. Shrinivas on Solution Architect role, ITAC certification and future of Technical Career Path (TCP)

Forum mall in Bangalore is not the best place to have any kind of serious dialogue and Café Coffee Day does not make things any quieter. However, it was the most convenient place for three of us, I, my friends Sanjeev Krishnan and Dr. G. N. Shrinivas (called Gun) from IIT Bombay to reconnect on the topic of technical career path and role of solution architect. It wasn’t difficult to recognize Gun after 13 years even though he has added more shine on his head. Gun is currently an Enterprise Architect at a large MNC IT company. He has a Ph.D. from Oxford University in Mathematical Sciences. Views expressed here are his personal views. Sanjeev is the founder of Magic Lamp Software a technology firm providing products and services related to quality audit of Java based software. Before starting his own venture; Sanjeev was a Senior Staff Engineer (a technical ladder position) in Sun Microsystems specializing in J2EE platform. Sanjeev has a PhD in Computer Science from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Vinay: Can you tell us what does a solution architect role involve?

Gun: Solution architects (especially seen from a IT_Service_Provider_in_India_perspective) is a catalyst for successful service delivery. This role spans the entire lifecycle of a project, especially the initial phases of the project, (during pursuit and the requirements gathering phases).

Requirements are only as perfect as the person who gathers them and documents them. The challenge is that there usually is a very large amount of contextual assumptions which are built into requirements when they are specified by the customer (users). Solution architects at that time play the role of voice of customer in clarifying these assumptions to the delivery team. It involves asking questions like: “Are you making right kind of tool choices?”, “Are you making right product choices?”, “Are some of the proposal assumptions too narrow?” etc. Another aspect of the role involves assisting sales proposal making / deal making etc. (also called pre-sales). A third aspect often seen in customer relationships in multi-year contracts, involves being an advisor to the customer. In this role, the Solution Architect helps the customer identify, understand and plan for external impetus to the technology landscape!  E.g. new features from some of the upcoming releases of platforms which might be of interest to the client (like Oracle).

While doing all the above, the Solution Architect is often called upon to help build competency within the organization through various initiatives like knowledge sharing, technology conference and certifications.


Vinay: Can you tell us about your ITAC certification experience?

Gun: ITAC stands for IT Architecture Certification. It is managed by The Open Group and it has three levels of certifications (level-1, 2 and 3). Level-1 is a junior architect who can contribute into an architecture team (i.e. needs to be managed). Level-2 is called a Master Architect and he/she can take independent responsibility of delivery of a system or solution. At Level-3, one should have demonstrated significant breadth and depth of impact on business or the architecture community by applying IT architecture.

From a process standpoint, I had to fill in a form from The Open Group, and by the time I was finished, it was a 50 page document. The form requires you to document (exhaustively) how you have performed various architectural activities, and wants you to demonstrate that this has been a consistent feature in your career (not a flash in the pan). This submission was reviewed by an independent committee by way of a board review / interview.

I can see two kinds of benefits from this certification. One, it held a mirror to me to see whether I was doing the right things in my career from an Architecture standpoint. The second side of to benefits from certifications (as yet unproven) is whether certified architects can charge a premium for architectural consulting skills.


Sanjeev: Do clients ask for architects with specific domain (vertical) expertise?

Gun: Typically clients don’t ask for such expertise, they assume it exists! However, to have intelligent conversation it helps to understand the domain. For example, when you talk to retail customers, it helps if you understand their business model and industry standards (eg the ARTS data standards). Further, you need to carefully validate what is meant by vertical specialization. Just because you automate HR processes using PeopleSoft in a financial services company does not provide you with an affinity for the FSI industry. I would say, in the Indian IT Services industry context, vertical specialization often happens through serendipity. You may be lucky to get projects from customers in a similar domain, and after working on these projects you end up becoming an expert in that vertical! J. I haven’t seen many industry folks move from their vertical specialization into IT. It has been always a case of techies growing into the vertical!


Sanjeev: Do you see juniors getting more interested in Technical Career Path (TCP)?

Gun: I feel that the juniors are still confused and I feel TCP is something that is not understood well by most people. It is currently more used as a tool by HR and Learning & Development groups in the organization. Many juniors are still stuck on to the “Doubling of salary” paradigm partly due to the pressure from high leverage (typically the housing loan). In the IT industry here, there is an implicit assumption that your salary should double within 5 to 6 years. It is not clear whether TCP can get you ahead in the “doubling” race.


Sanjeev: What do you see as next steps for you?

Gun: TCP in our organization bifurcates into two kinds of roles. One is a super-specialist (Chief Scientist) kind of role. Here one ends up inventing a new technology. The second one is more like a “Connector”, a CTO. You see a business problem and you say, “May be these guys here should talk to those guys there”, “This technology in this context, we should be able to leverage in that context” etc. Given where we are and what we do, I see more opportunities for the second type of role than the first. There is always a possibility of jumping out of TCP to go into client management type roles.


Sanjeev: Where do you see TCP heading?

Gun: I see more and more commoditization of IT. This means more off-the-shelf and less customization. In this commoditized world, you need fewer specialists, well, fewer people itself.. It possibly will call for a significant change in the type of skills and the delivery team structures. How will TCP (or for that matter a managerial career path) fit into that is unclear to me.