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What Do CIOs Really Look For in a Chief Architect?

Ryan Grant

11 June 2020

by Ryan Grant

( Words)

This is probably the question I get asked the most. When a CIO comes and asks for a Chief Architect, what are the key skills, traits and experiences they are looking for?

I get asked this question so often because, well naturally there are people every day asking themselves - 'how do I become a Chief Architect?', incumbents wondering whether they are fulfilling their talent and CIOs asking themselves whether they are looking for the right thing.

This article is built around conversations and assignment briefings I've had with CIOs, ranging from those running technology functions of 5,000 people, through to companies with less than 500 people. Whilst their demands grow as the scale increases, there are a common set of parameters they always ask for.

So here they are...

True Commercial Thinking

Any credible and successful Architect will already by definition have bridged that gap between the business and technology, but to really get to the next level, you have to be credible with senior stakeholders in the business, and develop commercial judgement either through experience or education.

When asking for a Chief Architect, one CIO once said to me "We are trying to cut our IT spend by £250m a year, but also generate new revenues of £300m through technology" and said the Chief Architect would be responsible for finding the answer on a global scale. A tough ask for most people, but even harder to put together a multi-year, ever-changing roadmap of how you will get there, but this person was expected to address that problem.

It's a non-negotiable for CIOs that you understand complex Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), can educate business stakeholders on IT spend and if possible have experience of running a P&L. You would, for example, be able to clearly articulate to the business on the level of OPEX savings a new multi-cloud strategy could offer.


Indisputable Track Record at Getting Stuff Done

Whether a CIO is looking for cost-savings through a multi-cloud strategy or a new ERP, your track record against what they are asking for is the single most important thing we, and you, are asked for.

One CIO told us they were currently at around 800 applications (they didn't know the actual number - often the case!), but they'd set a goal of getting them to sub-100. He specifically asked for someone that had made significant achievements in application rationalisation as well as knew what sort of software was available in the market, expecting this person to be clued up on the latest trends in technology products as well as in their industry before the interviews.

Gone are the days of the ivory tower and 'academic' Chief Architect - "I want someone to lead the transformation work, not just a theorist who can write reference architecture" as one CIO put it. Your track record needs to be factually indisputable and backed up by excellent references.


Driving Innovation

Cutting cost and driving revenue will ultimately be what Chief Architects are tasked with. Typically, where there isn't an Innovation function, the Chief Architect is the driver of this. They are responsible for not only exploring and suggesting new technology, but also running feasibility studies and proof of concepts, to ensure the validity of decisions. They must be a constant source of industry knowledge and trends, when on the buy-side of 'build vs buy'.

One CIO mentioned that they wanted to write new languages for Quantum Computing and genuinely explore things that hadn't been done before - something they described as 'Project Zero.' No references – let alone reference architecture – to go by, the Chief Architect was tasked with setting a credible strategy on which this could be achieved. Naturally, he was pointed in the direction of cutting-edge universities and top software vendors.


Dealing with Ambiguity

"There are 250 people in IT and one Architect" said one FTSE100 CIO - you have to be able to go into that sort of environment, identify your key stakeholders and work out how you are going to build a function from scratch where Architecture is an unknown quantity.

You are going to need to deal with a high level of ambiguity or get answers to problems that might not exist yet. Typically, common interview questions address this by being equally vague - 'how would you go about assessing the cost of shadow IT within the organisation?' - GO! The point is to see how you react to such ambiguity.

Winning Hearts & Minds

Ultimately, a Chief Architect often comes in to make tough decisions around the course that will be set for the next one to five years for IT. Often you have to be a 'all things to all people' as we're often told - able to move seamlessly from a conversation with a vendor, to your COO and to a Development Manager. Usually this is one of the 'soft skill' traits that is requested. Being able to do this doesn't just come from experience, it equally comes from the ability to persuade or sell and in some cases repair damaged relationships.

Another CIO mentioned the last Chief Architect they had was forced out of the door, so the successor would have to re-build relationships and Architecture's image within IT & the business. They suggested this person had been too fixated on reporting lines and budgets - 'but how do you affect change without those?' - many will ask - there lies your ambiguity addressed above.

The 'Hypothetical Board Test'

Usually the last stage of the interview processes is a meeting with the COO, CEO or someone similar - but throughout the process the CIO always asks themselves - 'can I put this person in front of the Board?' - so they come to us and ask for someone with "gravitas, confidence in their ability & able to hold a room" - as one insurance CIO put it to me.

These are vague terms, but a CIO will know if you have 'it' or not, within five minutes of meeting you. Successful individuals can usually do the following:

• Clearly put technical acumen into a business context
• Strong presentation skills - they can 'hold that room' regardless of the diversity of audience
• You've prepped well - you clearly know, or have worked out the key business problems and drivers at play, and how a Chief Architect is there to solve their problems.

Arguably the most important point about this, is that the CIO has usually made up their mind in the first five seconds, let alone five minutes, whether you are likely to fit the bill.

Whilst not every CIO will need a Chief Architect to have all of these experiences, the more of these skills a Chief Architect can add to their game, the more successful they are likely to be, both through interviews and subsequently in their role.

I'm Ryan, I'm a Senior Consultant specialising in IT Architecture & Strategy, please get in touch with me directly at ryan.grant@lafosse.com, or join the conversation on LinkedIn.