Contenders battle over IT architect certification

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Two global drives are underway to provide certification for IT architects based on real-word experience, technology knowledge, understanding of business, and ability to work with people.

Until now, IT architect has been a self-declared specialty in information technology, often an intellectually alert network specialist whose work had taken him around the enterprise and brought him into contact with business users.

This is the PhD of information technology, says Tony Redmond, vice president and chief technology officer of Hewlett Packard. Redmond is based in Dublin and has played a key role in the certification efforts by both Microsoft and The Open Group, a technology consortium.

At Microsoft's recent TechEd conference in Atlanta, the company announced that 39 IT professionals have been certified to date. Qualifying is a world away from more common Microsoft certifications, such as passing an online test. Applicants pay about $250 to begin the process. Qualifications include 10-plus years experience, strong technical skills, and leadership ability.

Anyone can apply, and the few accepted have a mentor assigned to them for 40 hours. Applicants have to show they have developed frameworks and architecture to serve a full IT life cycle, and it doesn't have to be just Microsoft technology. Candidates in both the Microsoft and Open Group processes face long grilling by a highly qualified review board.

It's not an easy process. Redmond says he saw seven candidates; three passed. "It is not a slam dunk," he says. "You have to know how business and technology work together, and it will require recertification."

Microsoft has certified more than 400,000 software engineers around the world. The qualification is viewed with some skepticism because it is based on passing exams rather than dealing with the weird problems that can pop up in the real world. The IT Architect certification, however, with its oral presentations to a demanding review board, is designed to reach a higher level.

The Open Group hasn't certified any architects yet, and it too has a demanding process that includes a review of experience and an interview before an expert panel that will ask candidates about their technology skills, ability to work with people, and understanding of business.

Allen Brown, president and CEO of The Open Group, says the IT Architect certification reflects the changing demands made on IT in today's business. "Organizations are changing the way that they work," explains Brown, an IT entrepreneur who managed a consulting firm in London before joining The Open Group. "Most enterprises are breaking down the silos between different departments and even linking their IT systems with other organizations. The result is what Jack Welch called a boundaryless organization."

But for that to work, someone with technology skills has to understand how to tie together process-specific applications to provide an integrated flow of information. In financial services, this has a variety of acronyms such as STP and CRM as well as functional categories such as risk management and profitability.

"You have to take a different approach to installing applications," Brown says. "Rather than saying we need a new application in this part of our business, you have to think about how that application is going to be integrated with the entire organization, how information will flow to other applications, and how it will be integrated. You can't just take the requirements and assess the option. Instead, you have to take an urban planner type view to see how it fits in with the entire architecture of the organization. You see the result in job adverts - there are a large number of adverts for IT architects."

For more information about certification as an IT architect, see what it takes at the Microsoft and The Open Group websites.