By Charles Wilkinson
Head of Architecture - River Island
River Island is a family-owned firm, first established in 1948 and now leading the field with an ultra-modern IT architecture based on Amazon Web Services. Our architecture team is evolving, too, and we are replacing the traditional enterprise architect role with solutions architects who work hand in hand with IT and the business.
We are looking to avoid the pitfalls that many organisations fall into. Typically, organisations especially large ones, set up a dedicated department of enterprise architects. This generally results in a group of people who hand down from on high an awful lot of Powerpoint, but deliver very little tangible business value. Enterprise architects pride themselves on taking the strategic view but, all too frequently, that does not translate into a real-world actionable plan to deliver actual systems or software.
More often than not, the enterprise architecture community manifests as a design authority (DA). A date will be set for project managers to put their solution in front of the DA. As this date with doom looms, project managers become increasingly nervous and rightly so. By characterising the process as a review by an ‘authority’, negative feedback is essentially guaranteed.
The members of the DA can’t be seen just to approve everything, they are the beardy experts for goodness sake! They should be asking difficult questions and spotting stuff that everyone else missed right?! Additionally, this feedback cycle is very slow, often taking months. The time it takes to address the concerns of the enterprise architect delays the project significantly and the DA becomes negative force and a barrier rather than a positive aid to progress.
Enterprise architecture is alive and kicking
While the enterprise architect may be dead, enterprise architecture is not. At River Island, we have simply evolved the way we deliver enterprise architecture. We’re building a team of solutions architects who come from a development background and are experienced in helping deliver working systems into production.
Most organisations have enterprise architects as well as solutions architects. The difference here is that we have decided that we no longer need a separate group of enterprise architects. Instead, we work as a community of practice and collaborate on enterprise architecture. We still define governance principles to apply and develop appropriate design patterns, just as a dedicated enterprise architect team would. However we don't just document those and expect everyone else to adhere to them; as solutions architects, we take those principles and apply them in the real world, on the ground with delivery teams.
In fact, as solutions architects we are embedded into individual projects, working alongside the scrum team from start to finish. We document governance and design decisions solely for our own benefit and then apply them to the projects we are working on. As we have a development background we’re also able to chip in occasionally and help with the coding. Doing so not only builds trust and rapport with engineering teams, but also helps keep us up to date and in touch with the everyday challenges of delivering great systems in an ever-changing tech landscape.
We haven't seen this approach elsewhere but it is working really well for us. This new approach values automation over documentation, transparency, autonomy and brevity over bureaucracy.
We have also seen some benefits of keeping the architecture team slim and close to the coal face that are less obvious. Part of the enterprise architecture vision that we have laid out is a move to microservices and event driven architectures. This represents a fundamental shift in engineering practices, culture and tools that could not have been achieved if the architecture team championing those themes was not embedded deeply in the teams trying to actually apply them to real engineering.
A real measure of the success of this approach is how well received the architecture team is by the engineering and business teams. Our solutions architects are not viewed as a barrier to progress. They are certainly not seen, as is the case elsewhere with enterprise architects, as intimidating individuals who need to be kept on-side. Here, we are finding all of our engineering teams want to have an architect embedded with them. The developers all see the value of having a solutions architect. The same is true of the business – senior management welcomes solutions architects as they add value to the discussion and are always focused on finding real and pragmatic solutions.
More effective security
The shift towards a solutions architect approach is also helping address security more effectively. Many retailers struggle to achieve their security goals, partly because security is not put at the heart of design and development. The introduction of the GDPR puts greater emphasis than ever before on privacy by design and retailers will need to show that they have considered security and privacy concerns at every stage of development, testing, implementation and operation.
GDPR emphasises that security is not just one person's problem. It’s something that needs to be embedded within the natural vernacular of teams. However, commonly, the individuals within an organisation who are defining its approach to security are not the same ones delivering on it. There is a disconnect. Now that our solutions architects are working within development teams, they can work with our security experts to champion security and ensure that it is addressed at every stage during the development of a real-world solution. Security becomes a first-class citizen.
Architects at the coal face
With the enterprise architecture layer gone, it is more important than ever that our solutions architects are self-directed individuals. There is no higher authority to defer to –but that does mean taking responsibility for successful delivery on the ground. Our solutions architects are free to work on their own initiative, taking full accountability for real-life deployment of the enterprise architecture that has been agreed collaboratively.
Each member of our architecture team should be able to lead a solution design and take active responsibility for delivering working solutions to production, while at the same time contributing to the wider enterprise strategy that we are building together.
River Island is a family firm, not a traditional corporate environment and that is reflected in our architecture team and the way that we build and develop IT solutions. Our goal is to foster a culture that is very different from the culture of other retailers. We are introducing innovative ways of working and are all trying to be actors of that change on the ground in the real world. If this sounds of interest to you then please see our jobs page for more information on what exciting roles we have available.