Architect your Career

If you’ve ever watched the TV show Grand Designs you’ll know that one of the mantras of the host Kevin McCloud is that the builder should not be the architect or the project manager. Every time there’s a self-build project and the couple take on more than their capabilities his first piece of advice is to get a dedicated architect or project manager. And he’s normally right.

Well, why don’t we take the same principle to our careers. We are essentially all self-builders. We’re the people digging the foundation, laying the blocks, installing the plumbing and electrics. All while learning on the fly. Exactly like a career. Sometimes when we’re caught up in the minutiae of the day to day things it’s hard to step back and take a 10000 feet view of where things are at and where they can go. As solution architects this is exactly what we have to do. Look at the vision, the requirements, the constraints, the capabilities and what interfaces need to be taken into account.


Where this this all start?

Towards the middle of last year the company I worked with underwent a major organisational restructure within the IT department. The reasons for the change were I believe justified, as the company grew through acquisition they needed to be able to ensure 24 x 7 global support and have the ability for the regional teams to be in constant communication and collaboration. The goal was to drive standardisation across all sites and in turn drive down costs to deliver IT services. Prior to this each primary site, a total of 9 globally, worked in their own silos with their own budgets. The vision was needed but as with all restructures there are some casualties. Some are desired and others are just unintentional fallout. Following the acceptance by senior executives there were some immediate resignations at the mid-management level which were expected. The delivery of the new restructure dragged on however and led to a number of senior engineers leaving too. Including me.

From about September of 2016 my role changed to be one of two global technical leads for Storage, Virtualisation, DR and Backups. The other lead was based at the largest global site and was getting pummelled day in day out with his own workload. Bolted onto the side of this was also management of the compute layer and data centre facilities. Now, as you can see this is quite a large remit when considering just a country or regional scope but on a global scale across all time-zones over 9 independent IT teams it was a mammoth task. The role itself and the scope was not really an issue however. I love tech and creating a standardised environment globally was something I actually cared about. The problem came from there being no manager above my role. There was nobody over the Storage, Virtualisation, DR and Backups group nor the Database team that were supposed to report into that role. There was no director to provide guidance from a global perspective. So essentially the tech lead role evolved into a one part senior management, one part technical lead and one part senior systems engineer. Due to a tight headcount locally I was already providing project and operational support for all the in-scope areas of the tech lead role and there were significant deadline for manufacturing virtualisation implementation on top of that. Throw in the fact there was a requirement take multiple meetings out of hours and by Christmas I was exhausted and dissatisfied with my job. On top of this I was cranky and shitty at home and I wasn’t getting to enjoy time with my kids. If there was indication of the management roles being filled to alleviate the workload and release the valve then it would have been possibly to justify as there was then an end in sight.

Now I recognise that to a lot of people I may sound like I’m whiney. It comes down to the fact that I don’t want to be part of the IT hero culture where you’re lauded for putting in long hours. I’ve been doing this gig long enough and put in enough stupidly long hours out of some misguided loyalty to an employer to know better. There’s also this idea that we don’t switch off, we’re on all the time and that the work-life boundaries are blurred. I don’t believe that needs to be the case. It’s largely a choice and something that you yourself can somewhat control by setting expectations properly.

Beginning a new job search is never really fun so I decided to take a different approach and treat it differently.

What did I do?

I decided to treat my career as if designing some new solution architecture. As with any job change you need to to take stock of where you are, where you want to go and what role you want to move into next. This is what essentially led to defining what could be classed as the business goal. What is the it you want to achieve?

This is normally formulated as a business case to ensure you can get approval to engage the necessary resources to begin the project. It’s at this point that you decide if you need to engage a project manager and it’s preferable to have a choice in this. Sometimes that’s not always possible however. In this instance a project manager is your recruitment agent. You also look to clarify your requirements at this point as this will guide the entire process. Whether your requirements are more money, more responsibility, working for a vendor or whatever it is you’re looking to achieve, it’s at this point where you define them.

So my list of requirements/”business goals” after months of deliberation and discussions with family were:
* Move to more strategic development role rather than operational
* Australian based but not global company
* A more project-focused role
* A role that provided exposure to cloud technology
* A role that has has progression opportunities
* Absolutely NO on-call
* A step up and not a step sideways
* A job where I would be challenged
* Minimal overseas travel (at least while the kids are very young)
* A role where I can learn something new (new industry, new technology, new frameworks, further personal development)
* A role which meant I wasn’t constantly tired at weekends
* A role where I had time to focus on personal projects too
* Look to gain managerial experience
* Flexible start and leave times
* A workplace where family time is valued

As with all requirements there will be a core that generally doesn’t change but some will be refined or modified throughout the design process. Each process could be for each job applied for, and each design should feed into the next design. Artefacts need to be stored in a central repository so you can leverage what has already been completed. I’d recommend something like Dropbox for non-LinkedIn related information so it can be access from anywhere. Another key consideration is the constraints around what you are willing to accept. This will have as much impact on your decisions as the requirements.

Conceptual Architecture Design:

Once the project is underway the first step in the design process is to review the requirements and constraints and work towards a conceptual architecture design. The goal here is to narrow down the job options based on the design criteria. It is also where you start to align what your goals are to the jobs that exist in the market. It’s at this point that you map out the interfaces so that all inputs and outputs are captured.

In this instance the interfaces are things like when you need to be home to pick up the kids, can you get in late to allow you to drop off the kids off at kindergarten. These are different for each person but can also include things such as training programs that can be leveraged in your next role to fit within your development needs. This would lead to a better outcomes for you personally over time.

Logical Architecture Design:


Following the conceptual architecture design and the refinement of the requirements, constraints and interface points it’s time to drill a bit deeper and look at the logical architecture design. This is where you update your linkedIn details, spruce up the your resume, go meet some recruitment agents for pre-interview chats to lock down the scope of what you are looking for and generally refine the process of the conceptual architecture further. It’s at this point that you begin to get a clear picture of what the outcome may look like which still engaging with the business to clarify your understanding. For the recruitment process it’s no different. During the logical architecture phase you define which jobs are suitable and which ones can be ruled out. It’s also here that you begin to apply for the jobs that tickle your fancy.

Physical Architecture Design:

The physical architecture design phase is where you rock up in person and do your interview. As with all interviews you justify your experience and explain what you can bring to role that’s unique. You also get to explain your goals within the role and it’s at this point you explain what you’re requirements are to make sure that you meet your ‘business goals’. It’s also good to make sure your goals align to the companies vision and that all the interfaces are being covered off.

Transition to Support:

Doing designs is great fun but at some point you’ve got to implement the design and then comes the point to throw it over the fence to the operations guys. The Transition to support is when you start your job and you’re in heightened support for your probation period. You begin to experience the role in reality and iron out any of the gaps between the design and the operational aspects. This could be seen as your first Personal Development Plan (PDP) which gives you an opportunity to make the reality of the job more closely aligned to the to the original requirements.

Lessons learned:

As with all projects there needs to be a time for reflection, a time for learning. It’s at this point that you review the new role, see if it fits the requirements you initially set out and also to re-scope your goals as there may be more or fewer opportunities than you originally thought within the role. You can also take stock of the process you followed and mark out the good things that can be done in future “designs”. You can also review the artefacts that have been created throughout the process to see what can be re-used in the future.

The Outcome

Following all of these steps you should not only have the ideal job, or at least almost ideal but transitioning it to the ideal job, but you’ll also have honed your architectural design skills. While this is nowhere near a scientific process I hope that it makes sense and might be useful to someone else. For me it meant something which can at times be monotonous became a bit more exciting and a great learning process.

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