Integration Station - Episode 3


In our latest episode of Integration Station, we’re tackling solution architecture in digital transformation: how it works, what it accomplishes, and the real value that solution or enterprise architecture brings to technology implementation projects.  

Joining us for this discussion is Dean Kern, Director of Architecture for MST Solutions. With over twenty years of experience in software development and solution architecture, Dean knows a thing or two about this topic.   

  • “A lot of industries are looking for ways to offer value and to streamline and/or bring additional return on investment. Organizations spend a lot of money developing products, services, things that require a lot of coordinated effort. And leadership traditionally is looking for ways to do that, that are aligned with their business strategy and give them directional guidance. And it’s not always obvious that architecture can help with that.” 
  • “I think that the real value of architecture is around alignment in bringing an organization together in a single mission, from a technology perspective into the business vision.” 
  • “Architecture is really about service to your client. It’s that close partnership. It’s understanding that there is no value in architecture alone. There’s value in architecture as it’s partnered with the business. That is really important to understand, because it’s a moving target.” 
  • “Pragmatism in architecture is not to over-engineer – to make sure that your architecture is in alignment with your needs. I think architecture is very valuable. It offers a lot of ROI to the organization if applied in meaningful doses and at the right time.” 

Jennifer Capestany: Good afternoon, everyone and welcome to another episode of Integration Station. Today joining me we have Dean Kern, who is our Director of Architecture here at MST solutions. Dean, thank you so much for joining me. 

Dean Kern: Nice to be here and thank you. 

Jennifer Capestany: And I’m really glad you’re here because I myself have some questions about architecture and its role in digital transformation. I know it to be very vital, but I don’t know a lot about the bones of how it works, what it accomplishes, and what kind of real value it brings to a digital transformation project. Can you kind of get us started, just by framing that out a little for me?  

Dean Kern: Yeah, I think that’s a valid question, and I don’t think you’re alone in that question. A lot of even senior leaders struggle with the value proposition of architecture. What they see is a real expensive trend, right? And so, a lot of industries are looking for ways to offer value and to streamline and or bring an additional return on investment. Organizations spend a lot of money developing products, services, and things that require a lot of coordinated effort. And leadership traditionally is looking for ways to do that, that are aligned with their business strategy and give them directional guidance. And it’s not always obvious that architecture can help with that. It’s seen as something that can be useful, but it’s also seen as something very expensive. And so, there’s a number of frameworks out there to help guide that, things like TOGAF and Zachman, and these frameworks have garnered a lot of traction and a lot of publicity, but they’ve also, maybe on the other side of that, are seen a as a bit of overhead cost. 

Dean Kern: And does the value that it offers really offset its cost? And, so, a lot of leaders are looking for some kind of guidance or some kind of perspective to help justify a very expensive trend, or what might be seen as a trend. I would argue very differently. But I would say that the importance of this is really around, not necessarily the architecture, but rather the architecture with the partnership of the organization of the business. And so, it’s this partnership versus salesmanship that’s superbly important, right? It’s what helps align the technology strategy with that of the business strategy, brings value, and offers a path forward that is best aligned with the organization. And that’s easily said, but it’s much more difficult to execute and do. And that’s where some of these frameworks like TOGAF and Zachman try to offer some insight and ways to do that. But I would suggest that a lot of the time, organizations don’t start out perfect. They don’t start out with all their processes and people in place. It’s a journey. And it’s really understanding that journey and aligning to it that becomes very important, so that you don’t over-engineer or over architect, right. In that, you bring just as much as you need when you need it. And that’s really the key to bringing that true value so that we can get some level of alignment and organizational value, but do it in a meaningful way, in a way that the organization can consume. 

Jennifer Capestany: Right. 

Dean Kern: And so, I guess to maybe boil it down, what I would maybe suggest is that the real value comes in the technical communication that architecture brings and the alignment within the – or to the – organizational goals, business goals. So I think that the real value is around alignment in bringing [an] organization together in a single mission, from a technology perspective, into the business vision. 

Jennifer Capestany: Right, I can, begin to wrap my head around that one. And I understand what you were saying about processes and how they can be very different, and they come together, in a very organic way, let’s say. When you think of most startups, unless they’re one of those who manage to get millions or even a billion dollars in angel funding, most of those startups – use what they can afford. Their systems and their tech stacks come together really in a very ad hoc way. 

Jennifer Capestany: So, I can definitely see how partnering with someone like MST Solutions, who has an architecture practice built into our whole process, would help a company like that really look at what their system is and if it’s really optimized for them, which leads me to my next kind of question, which is when’s the right time to bring an architect into a digital transformation process? Is it too late for those startups that are now five, ten years down the road, and they’ve got just really an ad hoc system of very disparate, mostly third-party applications? 

Dean Kern: I think that’s a question that is often asked, and there’s some aspect to what you’re saying about, “Hey, the train has left the station. Is the value there?” And of course, it’s always best to bring architecture in as soon as possible. And there are maybe two facets to that. There’s an overall when to bring the practice of architecture into an organization. And that I would maybe say, as early in the process as you can. And the reason I would suggest such a thing is, it offers mechanisms or frameworks and focus, right? So, you have people’s jobs, their job to focus on alignment and really taking business goals and objectives and strategy, right, looking forward into the future and bringing that into a cohesive picture, a journey for technical folks, developers, managers process leaders to really latch onto and help guide them into the future. And it’s really if you could maybe think about a journey, there’s typically a number of different paths to take. Some are longer than others. And so, if the idea for ROI is to really try and take that shortest path as possible and try and reduce costs, and stop the misguided branches, if you will. 

Dean Kern: And of course, there’s no such thing as perfection. You’ll never get it right, every time, all the time. The idea is to reduce and encourage reuse and to really help guide the organization and align from an IT perspective to their business goals and objectives. And so, the other piece of this is just from a process perspective on a day-to-day basis when you’re taking on new projects. There’s, “Hey, when should we be a part of that process as well?” And there too, in, from project to project, when should you be introduced, or when should architects become informed about these? And in here too, [the answer] is, as early as possible. 

Dean Kern: And the reason you want to bring at least some level of visibility there, is to help see opportunities for reuse or to really ensure that from an IT perspective, your capabilities and what you can offer as an organization are aligned, or to be honest, even offer or see new opportunities for innovation and, to see that early on to help reduce churn and to really streamline the process. 

Jennifer Capestany: Right. 

Dean Kern: And it really helps or minimizes what I like to call myopathy. People tend to get in their lane and see things narrowly because they have pressure to perform and to bring projects in a timely manner. 

Jennifer Capestany: Yeah. 

Dean Kern: And, in doing so don’t always see the peripheral, right? 

Dean Kern: They don’t see some of the bigger pictures. And that’s really where architecture helps with that is to take the time and the due diligence to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and look at the overarching goals of an organization, right? And then start to narrow and align, which really helps to guide the process and inform the process. 

Jennifer Capestany: Right.  

Dean Kern: So, yes, eliminating, I think the idea of bringing in an architect early eliminates waste and, really what I would call maybe technical debt cost. 

Jennifer Capestany: Got it. Right. And so really, it can help in many ways. And it’s leading me to wonder if the idea of architecture – solution architecture – can stretch beyond it, to answer other kinds of business challenges. It sounds a little bit like solution architecture is almost like, there’s a process to it, there’s a format to it, a framework, but it also sounds a little bit, like a mindset. 

Dean Kern: It really is, and I’m glad you bring that up. It is absolutely a mindset – there are strategies and frameworks in place for sure. They have been established. They’re well known. A lot of time and energy has been put into those frameworks. And so, I don’t want to reduce the value that they offer, but just as important as those frameworks are, it is important to have the right culture and/or mindset to go with them. And so one of the key challenges that face architects in general, and when I say, architects, what I really mean is architecture, the practice in an organization is the culture to take a step back and partner with the organization as a whole, and that’s really where you get the value, is when architects are not just a part of the process and seen as overhead and or additional cost, but rather are seen as a value add because the process of architecture is bringing reusable components and strategies, things that speed the path and, and help the development teams and help leadership understand what they have, what their capabilities are, and maybe even see potential opportunities or innovation opportunities. Because for businesses, their day job is to understand their business and opportunities from a business perspective. They don’t always see the opportunities from a technical perspective. And this is where architects and architecture as a practice really can help trends within the organization within their market or sector can be understood and applied potentially and seen. And this is where I think the business challenges in a measurable way can add that value to the business by taking the time and/or embracing the discipline of architecture and bringing that to bear if that makes sense. 

Jennifer Capestany: Yeah, it does. Yeah, definitely. It sounds like it ties a little bit back to what you were saying about collaboration and in some ways, real analysis and looking at things in a very organic kind of a way, as in, “Let’s look at the entire organization as a whole. How all of the different gears and cogs are fitting together and what can be optimized there, even something that perhaps you didn’t anticipate because you were just looking at it, say from that narrowed perspective. Well, let’s widen the lens and spot opportunities that could, even if they make small changes, they sure add up.” 

Dean Kern: Yeah, and for sure. And in fact, I think to address some of those – there are strategies around that. So typically, you can create these Centers of Excellence as an example, and these Centers of Excellence offer a focus on specific areas that are strategic to your organization. And so, depending on what you do as an organization, you may want or need excellence or expertise in certain areas. And so, it can be really helpful to create what I would call Centers of Excellence and to create focus around specific areas and even offer areas of different disciplines even within the architecture space of things like data architecture or security architecture. 

Dean Kern: These can be brought to bear in specific areas to really help fully bolster specific areas that you as an organization require or need to focus on. 

Jennifer Capestany: I love that. So, with all of that in mind and everything we’ve just discussed, what do you see as architecture’s role in digital transformation and, maybe, give us an example of that, like a real-world example. How does that work? 

Dean Kern: Yeah. In a sentence, I would say it’s really about service to your client. A client can mean, maybe a couple of different things, right? So, it’s really that close partnership. It’s understanding that there is no value in architecture alone. There’s value in architecture as it’s partnered with the business. 

Dean Kern: And that is really important to understand because it’s a moving target. The business is very often changing and adapting to marketplaces. I might offer an example as we just experienced, COVID-19. So COVID-19 caught us by surprise and very quickly organizations, specifically in healthcare, had to ramp up and change and make profound changes to their processes and only quickly understanding and being able to adapt and make very quick changes were they able to capitalize and maybe even be one of the few organizations in certain industries to really become successful in those areas and, make something that was really bad, let’s say occurrence or event in the marketplace (COVID-19), really can actually be a benefit or maybe increase your position in the marketplace as an organization. 

Dean Kern: If you’re able to quickly adapt and make changes, architecture is absolutely a cornerstone to that. It helps make changes or to make those tweaks or different strategies that you need to form a technology perspective quicker and align to your future goals so that you’re not, “Oh, we need to quickly make a change or do something and it’s a one-off or different.” And rather than become a burden or debt, it can actually bolster your offering or your capabilities, because it was well aligned and thought through with a wider or a broader vision tied to it. 

Dean Kern: And, I say that and it sounds like a lot of overhead, and it is, but I would stress that pragmatism in architecture – just like any discipline whether it’s development or not – is not to over-engineer – to engineer just, or to do just in time or what I call pragmatic architecture really, is to make sure that your architecture is in alignment with your needs and the ROI that it brings and, I can’t coin this term but I certainly subscribe to it, and that is perfect is the enemy of good. I think architecture is very valuable. It offers a lot of ROI to the organization if applied in meaningful doses and at the right time. 

Jennifer Capestany: Yeah, that makes absolute sense. I definitely see that architecture as a framework, as a component of a digital transformation task force, as a mindset is really just very, very, very powerful. And I think it really could contribute to a growth mindset company because I can see how solution architecture really gets your brain thinking in a way that looks at the entire organization, creates alignment, and spots opportunities. 

Jennifer Capestany: But, as you mentioned with pragmatism, it seems like another important aspect is to just tie it very firmly with those business outcomes that you’re looking for today and down the road. And that keeps you from getting up in the sky? 

Dean Kern: Absolutely that’s a really great point, right, is to try to make or as, often as you can, I would argue all the time. It’s not always easy with architecture, but to tie it to the business or the features and functions that you’re trying to bring to bear, to measure it. Everything that you do should be somewhat measurable and tied to those so that you understand the value or understand the lack of value that it’s bringing, and you can make adjustments accordingly. 

Dean Kern: So great point. 

Jennifer Capestany: Yeah. Most definitely. And the phrase “in service to the client” – I think it’s really probably one of the most defining things that you’ve mentioned throughout this conversation, just this idea, as you mentioned clients, we could be talking about your customer, but also external and internal clients, as they’re known these days, they call them stakeholders. And that’s that idea of adding value just across the organization, whether that’s your external client or your coworkers, and trying to make processes and build a system around their actual needs. So, I think there’s a lot of power there and that really is that defining phrase. 

Jennifer Capestany: And, certainly one of our core values as a company is really putting ourselves in service to the client. And architecture’s a big, big part of that. I want to thank you for coming on and really helping me see what all of this is and helping everyone who’s listening to understand the role of solution architecture, when to introduce it, which is pretty much as early as possible, but wherever you are and just how powerful it can be just across the entire organization, even beyond just from an IT perspective where most people, I think, tend to think of solution architecture as an IT thing. And it spreads beyond that, I think in many ways. Any parting thoughts before we let everyone go about solution architecture and, really its vitality to digital transformation? 

Dean Kern: My parting thoughts here are really twofold. To me, architecture starts and stops with communication and partnership. And both of those, here at MST, we really focus and strive to surround ourselves with that as a culture and to really foster and to make those extremely important and upfront. 

Jennifer Capestany: Yeah. 

Dean Kern: And I hope that comes through, and from my perspective, I see those as very important and try to take that into account with every decision we make. 

Jennifer Capestany: That’s brilliant. Thank you so very much. 

Jennifer Capestany: Anyone who’s listening before, you know what I’m going to say. If you have any questions for Dean, go ahead and put them in the comment section below or into the form, depending on which media you’re listening through, and we will do our best to answer. 

Jennifer Capestany: Dean. Thank you so much again for joining me. 

Dean Kern: It was my pleasure. Thank you. 

Jennifer Capestany: We’ll see you again. Come and talk to us again sometime. Thanks so much. 

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