Seeing the Vertical

While looking for a new position, there are a lot of interviews (fortunately!). When looking for a new opportunity at this point in my own career I've begun approaching them a different manner. I've found the trending transparency to be enlightening, and this is more commonplace in modern enterprises as opposed the 2000s or 1990s. This has been my perspective so far, usually for the better.

I've started asking different questions as an Enterprise Architect than I would have when I was a Developer or even at a different time in my career with less experience. I've found that I can articulate a vision of the organization when asking certain questions, and I call this "seeing the vertical". This alludes to a vertical in a business, and architects are usually part of organizations that have well defined vertical markets. In a colloquial sense, understanding "how the sausage is made", from end-to-end. Understanding the vertical of a potential role, can provide an Enterprise Architect with a view into the enterprise and expectations of the role.

Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.
— Jack Welch, former CEO of GE

Vertical integration isn't a new thing, former CEO of GE Jack Welch famously changed global business culture for the better by stressing the importance of understanding a business from top to bottom; it also should be no coincidence that he started as an engineer, similarly to most architects. Vertical integration remains one of the most prevalent business architectures alive today, enterprises rely on strong vertical integrations to stave off disruption from a cost perspective, and usually hold architecture in high regard to keep the factory moving. What this also means however, is that there is a plethora of culture, methodology, and people involved in keeping it moving forward. Understanding and seeing the vertical from different domains has helped me make assumptions of the role in question and the overall goals of the enterprise.

What business unit is sponsoring your initiative?

This can be a crucial question. Is the IT initiative being driven by the business? If so, this is great, it means accountability is there, expectations are more clear. It also speaks to value, oftentimes architects are challenged with their value proposition to an enterprise. Asking this question can reveal the nature behind the initiative, is this exploratory or substantially tied to a business strategy? It can also reveal how serious the enterprise may be when exploring new technologies, are they serious about their cloud data migration or just paying lip service to the Board and investors.

Is this a backfill position?

Asking this question can give insight into the organizational culture you may be joining, and usually incites the interviewer to provide some history to the role. Has this position been vacant for months? Has this position had multiple turn-overs in the last few years? Red Flag. If this is a backfill, and the last person in the role got promoted, it could speak to the enterprises culture of promoting from within. 

How is the leadership so far?

This is a pretty open ended question, but can provide some insight into the SLT, ELT, or Board at the enterprise, and most folks are keen to provide commentary on their experiences with their leadership. It's a good sign when the person talking about their leadership gets excited, or sometimes you get a long sigh, which could be mean some problems on top of the organization; or frustrations with unclear or undecisive strategies.

Are there business architects?

Asking this probing question isn't necessarily meant to result in a "yes" or "no"; but rather cajoles the interviewer into providing some insight into how business capabilities and functions translate into technical requirements, an inquiry into methodology. They may not have business architects, but still may provide a different perspective into the chain of accountability and trace-ability in the organization. Nebulous requirements are a bane for a successful program, project, or initiative; and getting insight into this provides context for what to expect in terms of, ultimately, the challenges you might face as an architect. It's also a good question in relation to AGILE, as an effective AGILE organization employees coaches and business directly in their methodology.

Describe your typical day.

This is usually only relevant to an interviewer that is in a similar role to what you are applying to, or a hiring manager. Knowing what the typical day looks like at a potential new role provides some context as to the activities and whether they provide value or not. If the interviewee is stuck in revolving meetings throughout the week, it could mean a top heavy organization; one could surmise a bit of political intrigue as people struggle to promote the value of their work. Alternatively, if their typical day is similar to what you are aspiring to, it can be an inspiring message and a breath of fresh air.

What is the value proposition for the initiative?

A pretty straight-forward question, and one most interviewers are prepared to answer, the atypical "elevator speech". Knowing how valuable the initiative is can provide some context as to the expectations and accountability you may have in the role itself. Similarly to asking about business architecture, if this is exploratory, it may mean the value proposition isn't there yet. You may be tasked with influencing and selling it internally; or alternatively may expect a role shift in the future. If the answer has a clear value proposition, e.g. "Supporing X business with their Y strategy", it could mean a large amount of responsibility, and hopefully clear expectations and goals to shoot for.

Describe your favorite thing about your role, and the most challenging.

It's a bit informal to ask about a "thing", but this opens up the interviewer to answer in any way. Asking this question usually illicit's a chuckle, but the results can be very informative to the challenges in their vertical. Are they having trouble with leadership, engineers, offshore, requirements, etc. And the most favorable line can provide some context to the positive aspects of the role in question. Hopefully there is a more long winded positive discussion.

How are your developers?

An open-ended question with the goal to understand how seriously they take their in-house development and IP (Intellectual Property). More importantly this uncovers how the business values internal IT. The interviewer, if in an architect or CTO type role, is usually more than happy to share their experience and challenges thus far. And in a world where great developers can produce incredible products e.g. Netflix, Facebook, Pivotal.; how an organization sees developers is key to understanding how well they are keeping up with prevailing and effective trends such as MVP and micro-service architecture.

Those are a few questions I typically am now asking in interviews, with the goal of finding the right fit for myself as well as the enterprise. I like to think my multiple-domain experience on over 300 IT projects and programs has helped me in the past. TOGAF is a great example of a framework to build a successful and measurable enterprise; covering business, data, application, infrastructure, and security domains. I also find that asking these questions speak to the role of EA, most often resonating quite well with who you are interviewing with.

But these questions probing the vertical aren't just applicable to looking for a new role, I've found that even internally these questions can be important to an enterprise architect when governing or reviewing projects and programs, or networking with leadership in different business units and verticals. 

And knowing is half the battle.
— G.I. Joe
Jesse Myer