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A funny thing happened on my way off the podium…

by Anne Lapkin  |  October 16, 2009  |  7 Comments

Last week I was at the Gartner EA Summit in Orlando (a really nice event with a really good group of delegates, but that’s another post).  My last pitch was entitled “Enterprise Architects Beware: The Skills That Got You Here Won’t Take You Forward”.  The premise of the pitch is that the most important skills for an architect have nothing to do with knowledge of technology, but are rather the communications, facilitation and interpersonal skills that allow architects to bring together diverse groups of stakeholders with diverse perspectives and persuade them to move forward in a common direction.

I feel quite strongly about this, as I have known many architects who were great technologists, but fell short in the communication department.  And they were less successful (or not at all successful) as a result. 

Anyhow, as I was leaving the session room, my iPhone (yes, I finally broke down and got one – and that, too,  is another post) blipped.  It was an email from a colleague of mine in the UK.  Evidently, one of the people in my session knows my colleague, and he so vehemently disagreed with what I said that he was moved to write my colleague immediately.

This gentleman’s contention is that all of the soft skills that we advocate so strongly are “alchemy” and while they are seductive to the business (spinning dross into gold is always attractive), the day will ultimately be won by hard science.

Now I’m really sorry that this guy didn’t come up to the podium and engage me directly, because I’m not sure I understand why these two things are in opposition.  Of course you need to be able to make architecturally sound decisions, but you need two other things – you need to be able to express why the decisions you are making are the right decisions to move the business strategy forward, and you need to be able to persuade people to your point of view.

In any environment where there are human beings (and enterprises are full of those, sadly) there is self interest. And anywhere there is self interest, it’s not enough just to be right. You also have to be persuasive – and that’s where the soft skills come in.

Another point, of course, is that it is impossible for you to be the absolute best technologist in every arena, so you’re going to have to rely on the expertise of others in order to make the right decisions.  Interpersonal skills, again, are what help you to leverage the knowledge of other individuals, experts in their specific fields, in the pursuit of the right architecture for the enterprise.

I think that one of the reasons that we stress the soft skills as much as we do is that technologists tend not to recognize how important they are.  I have seen many failing EA programs and so have my colleagues.  I cannot think of a single instance (either in my own experience or that of any body else on the Gartner team) where an EA program failed because it was filled with people who had excellent soft skills, but were not good technologists.  We have all seen many programs failed because they were staffed by good technologists without good interpersonal skills.

Anyhow, I’ve invited the guy who so disagreed with my session to have a conversation. I hope he takes me up on it. And of course, anyone else who wants to discuss this is welcome to reach out to me too.


Anne Lapkin
Research VP
7 years at Gartner
25 years IT industry

Anne Lapkin is a research vice president in Gartner Research, where she provides clients with advice on the alignment of technology solutions with business goals. She is an expert in the development… Read Full Bio

Thoughts on A funny thing happened on my way off the podium…

  1. Jay says:


    He didn’t come up and engage you, because he lacked the soft skill to do it with confidence. I think it makes the perfect analogy for the next time you give this briefing.

    IT takes a back seat precisely because people who are good technologists refuse to either admit that they must be good persuaders as well. To paraphrase, the best plan, never executed, is worthless.

    IT management is to blame for rewarding good technologists by putting them into positions for which they are unsuited.

  2. Great post, Anne. of course you could be like me, all fluff and BS, heavily reliant on my subordinates for content….

    of course I jest at my own behalf, but isn’t that what becomes of us senior execs? Folks who were once smart, and developed the people game to such a point that we forget our roots and are reviled by our subordinates for our stupidity, just as we did to those leaders who came before us…

  3. Phil Simon says:

    Great post, Anne. I can tell you from first-hand experience that you’re right. Most of the time, the soft skills matter more on projects. Of course, you can’t be a technical idiot. However, I’d take the “B” techie with “A” soft skills over the “A” techie with “C/D” skills any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

  4. Chris Bird says:

    It is indeed a shame that the person didn’t engage you directly. Of course greattechnologists are required. Of course great communicators are required. You need both – preferably to a greater or lesser degree in the same human.

    At some levels of design (especially deep in the algorithms) the balance shifts towards the technical excellence. At other levels – sales/marketing, the balance shifts towards the communication. Architects, especially Enterprise Architects sit in the middle. We have to be able to produce suitable (and that’s a subject worthy of debate!) architecture and communicate that to the various stakeholders.

    No more, “we will do it this way because I say so and I am the best tech you have got.”. That has never worked – and never will.

    In my organization the mentoring program is designed to take the behavioral rough edges off the brilliant technologists.

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  7. Bing says:

    Hi Anne,

    You are right to emphasis the importance of interpersonal skill, however in today´s society, don´t you think that we are doing that a bit too much? The guy, who did not come up to engage you, might be shy. For whatever reason, we should not expect everyone to be “confident” in public. If he has made a good point in his email to your colleague, and that message finally reached you, then it is up to you to explore the different opinion, is it not?

    It is not that I disagree with your statement “the most important skills for an architect have nothing to do with knowledge of technology, but are rather the communications”, but I do feel it´s rather misleading. It sounds to me that the technical excellence is less important, which is not. I would rather think the interpersonal skill is just as important as the technology knowledge to an architect. To be able to leverage the knowledge of other individuals, the architect has to have decent level of technology knowledge to be able to pursue the right architecture for the enterprise.

    To be honest, I believe we all agree both soft skills and technical skills are important. I just want to stress the importance of recognizing the talent of those who are more technical than social, more private than open, who are rather a thinker than communicator. How do we advance their career, how do we put their ideas to the best use for an organization?



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