Technical Architect: Learning, Growing, Innovating
BackBy Agatha Gilmore — November 2008
Remember when you wanted to be an astronaut? Fireman? Ballerina? When it seemed like you could accomplish anything with just a little imagination and some elbow grease?
Well, as a technical architect, this kind of boundless creativity and entrepreneurial gumption come in handy, provided a healthy dose of technical expertise also is part of the package. Just ask Dennis Wisnosky, chief architect and chief technical officer for the Department of Defense Business Mission Area.
“For most architects, it’s more important to know how architecture works — that means technically you have to be very broad. [But] at the opposite end of that stick is being willing to learn new things,” Wisnosky said. “You need to both learn very quickly and be able to work with people who maybe are totally different but have something to contribute.”
According to an article on ITtoolbox.com, the world’s largest online community of IT professionals, a technical architect’s typical duties include defining and developing a company’s technical architecture; ensuring all components of the architecture are properly implemented; coaching the technical team; and resolving technical issues.
To build the knowledge base necessary for this role, Wisnosky took his education seriously. He holds a bachelor’s degree in physics and math from California University of Pennsylvania, two master’s degrees — one in electrical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh and one in management science from the University of Dayton — and in his words, “two-thirds” of a Ph.D. in computer science from The Ohio State University.
Like his academic background, Wisnosky’s path to becoming a technical architect was varied and extensive. Though he graduated from college with a teaching degree, he knew he didn’t want to teach. Instead, he wanted to be an engineer, so he went to work in MRI research at Carnegie Mellon University. While there, Wisnosky was asked by a friend to consider working for the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Feeling like he hadn’t yet given back to his country, he decided to go for it.
“It was supposed to be two years, but they kept on giving me better jobs,” he joked. “It was a chance to create a program that became Integrated Computer-Aided Manufacturing [ICAM]. This blueprint was the blueprint for how the Department of Defense would engage with manufacturing companies worldwide and how manufacturing companies would organize themselves in order to be the most efficient, effective. I worked for the government at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as a civilian for 10 years.”
Ever the entrepreneur, Wisnosky then decided to take what he had learned in his government job and apply it in the private sector. He designed blueprints for several big companies before starting his own technical architecture firm, Wizdom Systems Inc., in 1986.
“What I found was the toughest part was actually in how machines were connected or not connected to one another,” he said. “So I developed a line of factory controllers that were based upon using computers rather than custom hardware and software.”
His innovation — a key to being a successful technical architect — earned him recognition by Fortune magazine as “One of the Five Heroes of Manufacturing” in 1997.
In his spare time, Wisnosky also wrote several books on architecture and once again engaged in contract work for the Department of Defense.
“The last time that happened was in 2005, when I was asked to teach how architecture should be done within the department,” he said. “I found out that what they were doing was very inefficient.”
Wisnosky’s self-starter attitude also came into play as he wrote a letter directly to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about how the government could work better. Rumsfeld responded to his offer, he said.
“They adopted the approach that I had, [and] the Government Accountability Office said we’d done more in six months than they’d done in four years,” he said. “They asked if I would join the department. That was two years ago, in August of 2006.”
In many ways, Wisnosky’s atypical path to becoming chief technical architect is quite typical. For example, a standard resume of a candidate for the position might include three to four years of experience in at least two IT disciplines, or equivalent experience in business analysis or strategic planning.
“I don’t think there is [a typical career path],” Wisnosky said.
However, he added: “I think it would be good to be a real engineer first in some field. It helps immensely for credibility and immensely for personal self-confidence. I would definitely do that for five years, probably no more than 10.”
And after that?
“Keep going to school,” Wisnosky added. “The way that I did, it was on purpose.”
Wisnosky’s collection of certifications was on purpose, too — not to mention eclectic. In addition to being a Certified Manufacturing Engineer [CMfgE] in robotics and holding another certification from the California chapter of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, he also is a certified private pilot and rescue diver.
The role of technical architect also requires tremendous soft skills, as much of the work involves collaboration, sharing ideas and teaching concepts. A typical day for Wisnosky demonstrates that.
“There are a lot of coordination meetings; there are a lot of senior executive advisory boards that I participate in,” he said. “I sit on those boards to make sure the architecture is being used properly. Today, we had the Office of the Director of National Intelligence come in, and they wanted to know how we built this architecture.”
For this reason, it’s imperative for an IT professional who is aspiring to the role of technical architect to hone his or her people skills.
“[It’s important to] bring people together; often [people] who don’t see eye-to-eye technically or maybe they don’t like each other. We all have to agree on what our path forward is going to be and then stick with it until it’s over — until the last moment,” Wisnosky said.
“Some big companies — they have chief information officer[s] whom they pay $10 million a year,” he continued. “That’s not for [their] technical skills, I’m sure! That’s for [their] skills of the kind I’m talking about: being able to bring people together, being able to come up with a plan and have the people in [the] organization be willing to follow it.”
In his current role, Wisnosky also spends a great deal of time researching new ways to implement architectures.
“When they asked me to stay, to become a government person, my condition was that we would be able to implement this architecture,” he said. “So I spent some time studying what was going on in the field, what was possible, looking at companies that are extremely successful — agile companies like Google. How do they do that? What’s their infrastructure based on?”
Then Wisnosky incorporated what he learned into his plans for new blueprints.
Ironically, the economy’s impact on companies could spell good news for those interested in becoming technical architects. That’s because industries experiencing consolidation likely are in the market for new technologies that can handle multiple elements.
“These are blueprints for how organizations are supposed to work, so there’s more and more need for that,” Wisnosky said. “Every company of note is doing an enterprise architecture for their own operations. There’s a need for architects. There’s a need for people who can, in a technical sense, [figure out] how these blueprints should be developed and how they should be maintained.”
– Agatha Gilmore, firstname.lastname@example.org