The symbiotic relationship between engineering and architecture

I’m entering a new phase of life as my children are growing up. My eldest son has passed his driving test, and now we’re touring university open days. He’s looking to become an engineer (as was I, before I failed my A levels and fell into computing, but that’s another story).

Last weekend, we visited the University of Bath, to learn about their Structural and Architectural Engineering course. In his introductory presentation, Senior Lecturer Dr Chris Blenkinsopp was talking about the relationship between engineers and architects, and it really struck a chord with me.

Dr Blenkinsopp was speaking about engineers as “born problem solvers”. Engineers focus on design – following guidelines and using their problem-solving skills. The architect does the big picture “drawing”, the engineer makes it work. Whilst a computer might be able to solve the maths, the engineer needs an ability to use a range of skills in an imaginative way.

Successful projects need collaboration between engineers and a variety of stakeholders. Critically, it’s vital that architects and engineers work together closely. And, for that reason, the University of Bath’s Design Projects involve both engineers and architects – collaborating at university as they will in their professional careers.

Whilst Dr Blenkinsopp was talking about civil/structural engineers and architects who work in the built environment, there are strong parallels with my world of information technology (IT).

Architects and IT architects

I have to be careful here, because I’ve been called out previously for calling myself an architect, which is a protected title:

“The title ‘architect’ is protected by law in the UK, under Section 20 of the Architects Act 1997. It can only be used in business or practice by someone who has had the education, training and experience needed to join the Architects Register and become an architect.”

[Architects Registration Board]

But all of that relates to architects who work in the built environment. In IT, architect is a broadly used term – and is recognised in the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA). It’s also part of the job title in my employment contract!

The relationship between IT engineers and IT architects

Unfortunately, in IT, the term “architect” is also abused. It’s become common as a term to imply some seniority in the technical space. As a result, it’s lost some of its meaning. Even so, my role as an architect is less and less about technology and more and more about solving business challenges. In the course of that work, I work with lots of subject matter experts – the engineers of the IT world – who solve the problems that I give to them. My role is to draw the big pictures and join everything together. [Often, my tools are some whiteboard pens…]

At risual, we run Consulting Skills Workshops, to help our subject matter experts develop the soft skills that are required to be a successful consultant. In reality, our consultants are on the first step towards IT architecture (whether they know it or not). Consulting is an engagement model and a set of soft skills. In terms of career progression, our consultants are no longer engineers – they are often required to work as technical architects.

But there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an IT engineer. We need those problem solvers – the people who know how to bring technology together and use it in imaginative ways. Just as much as we need the people who can take those technology building blocks and use them to solve business challenges.

Conclusion

As a result of taking my son to Bath and sitting in Dr Blenkinsopp’s presentation, my mission has changed. The work I’m doing at risual to develop and grow our Architecture practice needs to be tweaked. I need a slightly different focus. I still need to create great architects. But I also need to increase the emphasis on constant collaboration with great engineers.

Because, to take a quote from Dr Blenkinsopp’s talk:

“The best […] engineering solutions require engineers and architects to work together from the outset.”

Professor Ted Happold

Additional Reading

What is IT Architecture? (part 1 of a series I wrote last year)

Developing IT Architecture Skills (part 2)

So, you want to be an Infrastructure Architect? (very old, but contains some useful diagrams)

This is an edited version of a post that was originally published at markwilson.it]

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