Organizational Structures for IT – Network Leads & Network Architects

I’ve carried the Architect title over the years of being in IT. Below is my opinion on the difference between a Network Lead Engineer and a Network Architect.  

In information technology (IT), a Network Lead Engineer and a Network Architect play significant roles. However, their responsibilities, focus, and areas of expertise often differ.

1. Network Lead Engineer: This individual is typically involved in the hands-on tasks related to the planning, design, implementation, and maintenance of the company’s network infrastructure. This can include configuring network hardware, diagnosing and fixing network problems, and optimizing network performance. The Network Lead Engineer works closely with other engineers in their team to solve problems and may participate in daily troubleshooting and configuration tasks. They often guide and mentor other engineers in the team and might also interface with external vendors to resolve network-related issues.

2. Network Architect: A Network Architect is responsible for designing the high-level structure and behavior of the network infrastructure. They define how network components (routers, switches, firewalls, servers, and software applications) will interact to fulfill business needs. Their role requires a thorough understanding of business processes, network security, and the latest networking technologies. They are usually tasked with designing the network in a scalable, resilient, and secure way. A Network Architect does not typically engage in day-to-day network management tasks but focuses on strategic, long-term projects like network upgrades, integrations, or expansions.

Like in the software world, a Network Architect must have a deep understanding of networking technologies to do their job effectively. They need to know how different network components work, how data flows through the network, and how other design decisions affect network performance, security, and scalability. Without this technical knowledge, the Architect could not design effective network solutions or make informed decisions about network technology selection and configuration.

As to why an Architect needs to have technical expertise:

  • Feasibility: Architects must ensure the systems they design are technically feasible. They need to understand the strengths and limitations of the technologies they use to design systems that can be implemented effectively.
  • Performance: To make systems efficient, architects must deeply understand the technologies they use. They need to understand how different design decisions will affect the system’s performance and how to optimize the design for efficiency.
  • Interoperability: Systems often need to interact with other systems, and architects must understand the technical details of these interactions to ensure seamless integration.
  • Scalability and Resilience: Architects must design systems that can scale to handle growing workloads and be resilient in the face of failures. This requires an in-depth understanding of technical concepts like load balancing, distributed systems, redundancy, and failover mechanisms.
  • Security: Architects must understand the security implications of their design decisions to build systems that protect data and resist attacks.

So, while the roles of a Lead Engineer and an Architect may overlap in some areas, their primary focuses differ. The Lead Engineer is more hands-on and team-oriented, while the Architect is more strategic and system-oriented. Both roles require a deep understanding of technology, but they apply that understanding differently.

Why don’t all Companies follow this?

You might be working for an organization where the Architects s are not technical. Organizational structures and job roles can vary significantly from one company to another, often due to the organization’s size, culture, industry, and specific needs. Here are some reasons why architects or consultants in some organizations may not be as technical:

1. Business Focus: Some organizations may employ Architects and Consultants who focus more on understanding the business requirements, the market trends, the regulatory landscape, etc., and less on the technical aspects. These roles could be more about aligning IT strategy with business goals rather than focusing on technical implementation details. 

2. Industry Practices: In some industries, the term ‘Architect’ or ‘Consultant’ might be used differently. For example, in industries where IT is not the core business, these roles might be more about managing vendor relationships, evaluating off-the-shelf solutions, etc.

3. Team Structure: In some organizations, the technical expertise may be concentrated in other roles, such as Technical Leads or Principal Engineers. The Architects and Consultants in these organizations might focus more on the ‘big picture’ aspects, while the technical details are left to these other roles.

4. Advisory Role: Some consultants are used for their advisory capabilities, strategic perspectives, and ability to handle change management rather than their technical skills. 

However, it’s essential to note that the most effective IT teams usually have a good balance of technical and non-technical skills. Even if Architects and Consultants are not hands-on with technology, they should ideally have a solid understanding of the technological landscape to make informed decisions.

It’s also crucial for organizations to have clear job roles and expectations. If an Architect or Consultant role is not technical, this should be clear in the job description, and other roles in the organization should cover the technical aspects. This ensures that all the necessary skills are present within the team, and each team member knows their role and responsibilities.

My Experience and Opinion

To me, an Architect is technical, returning to the top of what I said. Almost all the organizations I worked for as an Architect were technical. 

It can be confusing and potentially problematic when the term “Architect” is used for roles that are not technical, especially in the context of Information Technology. The term “Architect” in IT traditionally implies high technological expertise. Architects design the structure of systems, which requires a deep understanding of technologies and how they interact. 

If a role titled “Architect” does not involve technical responsibilities, it may lead to miscommunication or misplaced expectations. People inside and outside the organization might expect the Architect to have technical expertise and to make technical decisions, which could lead to confusion or mistakes if that’s not the case. 

Suppose an organization has a role that involves high-level, strategic decision-making around IT but without the need for deep technical expertise. In that case, it might be more appropriate to use titles like “Strategic IT Planner,” “IT Strategy Consultant,” or “Business Analyst.” These titles more accurately convey the nature of the role and help set appropriate expectations.

However, it’s important to remember that job titles and roles vary widely between organizations and industries. Most importantly, the roles, responsibilities, and required skills for a position are clearly defined and communicated, regardless of the specific title used. 

On a related note, even if an Architect’s role is not profoundly technical regarding day-to-day tasks, it would still generally be beneficial for the person in that role to understand the technological landscape well. This helps them make more informed decisions, understand the implications of their decisions, and communicate effectively with the technical members of their team.