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Should Architectural Owners be in-house or third party?

Should Architectural Owners be in-house or third party?

In his previous article Dootrix’s head of DevOps, Mark Vallins, looked at the reasons companies are increasingly appointing an architectural owner to ensure good architectural and design governance for IT projects and also to be an additional source of support and knowledge to dev teams – particularly external ones.

The question remains, and it’s a big one, whether the architectural owner should be on the payroll or brought in from a third party.

Given that I work for Dootrix and given, also, that Dootrix acts as architectural owner for a number of its clients, you could be forgiven for perceiving a certain bias. However I’ll try to present the options as neutrally as I can.

The benefits of recruiting an in-house Architectural Owner

It’s standard operating procedure with most businesses that, as they grow, they ditch agencies and contractors of various sorts and hire the expertise they need directly. So the arguments, for and against, apply, more or less, across the range of skills that businesses hire in from legal, accountancy to HR, from PR and marketing to IT.

The reasons are fairly simple; it is almost always cheaper to employ someone directly than to pay a contractor. If someone is on your payroll they’re also, culturally, seen as ‘your guy’ or ‘your woman’, part of the organisation. There’s also often a feeling that you get different sorts of people choosing to work in-house versus the sort that operate as freelancers, contractors and agency employees. I’ll come back to this later.

I think this is the right point to mention that, at Dootrix, we don’t just build apps and systems, we also build relationships. When clients want to take a role in-house we often assist them with the transition by helping them hire; because one of the challenges of choosing the right person, especially if you don’t have the in-house expertise already, is how do you select the right candidate? Choosing the wrong person can have serious negative consequences.

With a role like that of AO, Dootrix does have a vested interest in ensuring our clients hire someone good because the chances are that they’ll be working with us, overseeing a development project, in the future.

So, as a challenge, that one is far from insuperable. That said, there are still numerous reasons a company might choose to appoint an external AO.

The benefits of having an external Architectural Owner

The first, obviously, is company size. Growth companies often can’t afford to add to the payroll. They bring in talent as required.

Secondly, and this is key, part of the role is to be able to see the challenges in a project from both the client and the supplier side. However, with time most people become acclimatised to their working environment; its idiosyncrasies become the norm. An external AO is arguably better placed to be aware of these for what they are and to communicate them to the supplier.

An external contractor also brings fresh thinking. Sometimes things are done just because that’s the way they’ve always been done; larger organisations, especially, can be slow to change culturally. We think one benefit of hiring an external appointee is having someone who will challenge that.

Breadth of experience delivered by external Architectural Owners

That leads me to the third point; breadth of experience. At Dootrix we work on a very wide variety of projects across an equally wide variety of sectors. There’s always an element of cross fertilisation. Different industries tend to be forward thinking in different ways, so working for a very diverse group of clients gives our people deep exposure to the very latest thinking – and we constantly have to innovate in our problem solving.

That’s quite difficult to replicate in house. Businesses often exist in cultural bubbles, relatively unaware of what goes on elsewhere in the tech world.

What’s more, when Dootrix places an AO with a client, they’re generally taking on that role for two to three days per week. The rest of the time they’re back with the team here, working as developers on the kinds of projects that they’re overseeing as an architectural owner. It keeps them sharp and their empathy levels for suppliers high.

Then there’s the issue of scale-up/scale-down. Even quite large companies may not have a need for an AO year-round and yet, at the same time, there may be times of intense activity when they need more than one person.

Because we typically place someone with a client as their AO for six to twelve months they not only stay fresh, but it also means we have a good number of highly qualified people with AO experience. So, if a client needs an additional pair of hands, we can help. Equally, we can always scale down the AO’s involvement if the client doesn’t have enough for them to do. They simply work more days here at the mothership on other projects.

This additionally means that our AOs have a wide circle of people with immediately relevant expertise to draw upon if there’s a problem that could use an additional perspective. The fact that experience and knowledge is pooled also helps provide continuity when someone moves on. With an in-house AO that’s more difficult. Even if an extended handover period were possible (tricky, given that it’s challenging to hire a replacement well within the standard notice period), a lot of the accumulated knowledge risks being lost when someone steps out of a role.

What sort of Architectural Owner do you want?

Lastly, there’s the point I alluded to earlier; differences between the kind of people who opt to work for tech companies and those who choose an in-house role. To be fair to the latter, there are many reasons talented professionals go in-house; security, more nine-to-five to fit with family life, sometimes pay. However, part of Dootrix’s appeal is that we attract really good people who want to work alongside the best. There’s a hothouse effect where we benefit hugely from learning from one another, the cross-fertilisation of ideas and approaches, and the breadth of the projects we’re called to work on. That’s very difficult to replicate in-house unless you’re a Google.

But, one way or another, we can help you if you want to build an AO role within your development process, whether that means seconding one of our people or helping you find the right person to take on a full-time role.

Either way, the future is AO.

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