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Software / Solution Architects: The Sommeliers of the IT World

What I learned about different types of Architects from a sommelier in Greece.

By Sean Killeen

June 03, 2020

I recently had a colleague ask me about how to describe the difference between a great software architect and a mediocre one, or how to deal with “ivory tower” architects. I personally eschew the title of software / solution architect because I don’t like to be lumped into that category, but I was struggling to sum up the differences well.

Then I took a trip to Greece, met a sommelier named Angelo, and had one of the best experiences I’ve ever had tasting wine.

I’ll paraphrase here a bit but will do my best. “I hate sommeliers,” declared Angelo — who’d studied wine for over 10 years, obtained a 5 year master’s degree, and been a winemaker — during our tasting. “They use their knowledge to feel better than people, to make them feel bad about themselves. This experience is meant to be shared. It’s informed by your own preferences. I have tools and knowledge but this experience is meant to be built by you.

I mean, is that a set up for an extended metaphor or what?!

What it Takes to Become a Software / Solution Architect

The title and qualifications vary widely, as tends to be the case with our industry, but in general I would say a software/solution architect needs to have certain technical qualifications.

They likely:
  • understand different architectural patterns or methods of building things,
  • have delivered more than one project successfully throughout their career,
  • excelled as an individual or lead contributor, and
  • have opinions on the right / correct way to build software.

I’m deliberately keeping this pretty general as a baseline. My point is, there are flukes but in general software/solution architects tend to fit the “smart, opinionated, gets things done” model. They’ve usually accomplished things to get where they are, and the position oftentimes carries some distinction.

But how is the position approached by those folks?

Software Architects as the Snobby Sommelier

This is the ivory tower architect. They’ve studied their books, built some major pieces of software, and you should just listen to them. Those suggesting new ways of thinking / doing things are met with disdain and defensiveness. They find themselves buried under articles about best practices that may or may not be current. This architect is the decider. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be earning their paycheck! The weight of the project is on their shoulders! Study this Visio diagram they’ve painstakingly compiled over the last 3 months to see how complex things really are…

Software Architects as the Engaging Sommelier

Now, imagine a solution architect who engages the entire team for buy-in. Who guides with their knowledge rather than bludgeoning with it. Who helps keep concepts accessible for the team, invites discussion on a roadmap, pairs with team members, and enjoys questions. Someone who learns along with their colleagues, who isn’t afraid to explore and say “I don’t know.” Someone who is willing to share decision-making authority and lessons learned with their whole group.

This person has the potential to change the trajectory of an entire organization — to create an entire group of architects who can shape the application of technology for a project. They can raise the discourse.

The Same Tools, Applied Differently

Both sets of sommeliers in my strange little metaphor have earned the right to be called that. Both have the requisite knowledge and experience. The difference is in how that experience is applied.

The difference isn’t about software at all. Technical skills, it turns out, are really not the point here. It’s about what an organization’s politics and structure allows for, and it’s about whether an individual embraces the idea of leadership and collaboration as foundational/core skills. (I avoid calling them “soft skills” for exactly these sorts of reasons).

How Do you Change a Sommelier’s Approach?

This is the hard part. The mileage varies, but it was part of the question I was asked, so I’ll try to answer as best I can. What would I do if faced with an architect that wields knowledge as secret power and judges rather than teaches?
  • Get leadership to make “I don’t know” a golden phrase. If someone sees the people around them being praised for uncertainty, they may be willing to embrace some themselves.
  • Place a value on teaching, and make space for them to shine. Architects have expertise; show them the value you put into sharing that expertise and leveling up others on the team.
  • Disassociate the role of architect from the value that an architect brings. Show the architect that you value you them for their expertise, not their title, and that there’s value, and more advancement opportunities, for them in great feedback. Make the role of architect a calling, not a kingdom to defend.
  • Show them a better way. If an architect only respects expertise, show them some folks with real expertise leading by example.
  • Be patient. It will take some time for their guard to come down. Once they know you’re there to help them and you create some movement towards a culture that allows them to let go, you may make some good progress.
  • Show them work can be fun. Building things together can be great cause for celebration. Celebrate successes with the team as a group!
  • Build the relationship. After all, it’s what you want them to do, right? Find out if there are fears, anxieties, or a bad history in a broken organization.

I’d love your thoughts!

What are some examples of sommeliers in our industry? Has your experience with sommeliers generally been positive or negative? How have you successfully (or less successfully) tried to change a sommelier’s approach? Is this all just a ridiculous metaphor?
I’d love to hear from you! You can find me on E-mail or Twitter.

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