One of the hottest jobs in IT and how to acquire the skills for it

Job description: In IT circles, the Applications Architect title has become overused in the past five years and a lack of consensus has set in regarding its definition.

“It’s a very nice sounding title that people like to have and it has been devalued, like the U.S. dollar,” says Dave Van De Voort, principal at Mercer Human Resource Consulting. Many software engineer, programmer and developer jobs have been re-titled applications architect, when the tasks performed in each position are quite different.

A true applications architect has a broad view and understanding of their organization’s software landscape. They make sure that individual software projects adhere to the organization’s application development methodology and parameters. “They act both as consultants to developers and as architecture cops,” says Van De Voort.

Why is this job hot? New application development projects have sprung up along with new software technologies, so many companies are setting up Web 2.0 applications like blogs and wikis, doing software integration and Web-enabling existing applications, says John Estes, a Robert Half Technology vice president.

“It’s been a perfect storm of different factors that have made this a hot job in the past two or three years,” Estes says. Applications architects are also senior IT professionals who perform a very specialized job, so they are in high demand because there aren’t many qualified ones, Van De Voort says

Gabe Cortina, applications director at Medtronic’s diabetes division, has hired several applications architects during his career and confirms that finding good ones isn’t easy.

“A lot of people will say they are architects but they’re really not,” says Cortina, a member of the Southern California Chapter of the Society for Information Management.

Why you need one: An applications architect steers a project from beginning to end and makes sure it fits with the organization’s technology infrastructure and business strategy.

Typically, applications architects are needed by large organizations with a broad and diverse set of applications that need to be integrated and with a lot of new application development projects, experts say.

Desired skills: At least five years of hands-on application development experience, with a broad knowledge of development platforms, languages and technologies. Top-notch planning and designing skills are key.

Applications architects must also be excellent software developers. This is important because this skill allows the architect to earn the respect and confidence of the developer team and also because, having first-hand knowledge of coding, the person will not “over-architect” the system, Cortina says.

There isn’t such a thing as an applications architect certification: candidates either have acquired the needed experience and knowledge or they haven’t. “Match their experience to the platform they’ll be working with in your company,” says Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing at Yoh.

How to find them: Good places to recruit candidates include the consulting divisions of IT services vendors, like IBM Global Services, and of the actual application makers, like Oracle and SAP, as well as among the ranks of experienced application architects in IT organizations, experts say.

What to look for: Potential hires should be problem solvers and have the people skills to lead groups of talented, often opinionated developers, Estes says.

“Programming is kind of an art and people have different ideas about how to design, implement and test code, so you have to be a good referee,” he says. Project management skills are also key. And a thorough understanding of the organization’s business goals is a must.

“Applications architects must understand the business problem first and foremost, and be able to look at a broad range of technology solutions, so it’s very important that they don’t have technology biases,” Cortina says.

Salary range: US$80,000 to $120,000

Elimination round: A good candidate should be able to explain in detail a specific application development project they led from start to finish, with concrete details of the entire project lifecycle, including design, analysis, testing and implementation, Estes says.

“If they can’t walk you through all that, they may be a programmer but not a true architect,” he says.

Growing your own: A strong case can be made for internal candidates who are familiar with the organization’s software. Senior application developers should have the experience necessary to grow into the applications architect job, experts say.

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