The symbiotic relationship between engineering and architecture

This content is 2 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I’m entering a new phase of life as my children are growing up. My eldest son has passed his driving test, and now we’re touring university open days. He’s looking to become an engineer (as was I, before I failed my A levels and fell into computing, but that’s another story).

Last weekend, we visited the University of Bath, to learn about their Structural and Architectural Engineering course. In his introductory presentation, Senior Lecturer Dr Chris Blenkinsopp was talking about the relationship between engineers and architects, and it really struck a chord with me.

Dr Blenkinsopp was speaking about engineers as “born problem solvers”. Engineers focus on design – following guidelines and using their problem-solving skills. The architect does the big picture “drawing”, the engineer makes it work. Whilst a computer might be able to solve the maths, the engineer needs an ability to use a range of skills in an imaginative way.

Successful projects need collaboration between engineers and a variety of stakeholders. Critically, it’s vital that architects and engineers work together closely. And, for that reason, the University of Bath’s Design Projects involve both engineers and architects – collaborating at university as they will in their professional careers.

Whilst Dr Blenkinsopp was talking about civil/structural engineers and architects who work in the built environment, there are strong parallels with my world of information technology (IT).

Architects and IT architects

I have to be careful here, because I’ve been called out previously for calling myself an architect, which is a protected title:

“The title ‘architect’ is protected by law in the UK, under Section 20 of the Architects Act 1997. It can only be used in business or practice by someone who has had the education, training and experience needed to join the Architects Register and become an architect.”

[Architects Registration Board]

But all of that relates to architects who work in the built environment. In IT, architect is a broadly used term – and is recognised in the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA). It’s also part of the job title in my employment contract!

The relationship between IT engineers and IT architects

Unfortunately, in IT, the term “architect” is also abused. It’s become common as a term to imply some seniority in the technical space. As a result, it’s lost some of its meaning. Even so, my role as an architect is less and less about technology and more and more about solving business challenges. In the course of that work, I work with lots of subject matter experts – the engineers of the IT world – who solve the problems that I give to them. My role is to draw the big pictures and join everything together. [Often, my tools are some whiteboard pens…]

Where I work, at risual, we run Consulting Skills Workshops, to help our subject matter experts develop the soft skills that are required to be a successful consultant. In reality, our consultants are on the first step towards IT architecture (whether they know it or not). Consulting is an engagement model and a set of soft skills. In terms of career progression, our consultants are no longer engineers – they are often required to work as technical architects.

But there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an IT engineer. We need those problem solvers – the people who know how to bring technology together and use it in imaginative ways. Just as much as we need the people who can take those technology building blocks and use them to solve business challenges.


As a result of taking my son to Bath and sitting in Dr Blenkinsopp’s presentation, my mission has changed. The work I’m doing at risual to develop and grow our Architecture practice needs to be tweaked. I need a slightly different focus. I still need to create great architects. But I also need to up the emphasis on constant collaboration with great engineers.

Because, to take a quote from Dr Blenkinsopp’s talk:

“The best […] engineering solutions require engineers and architects to work together from the outset.”

Professor Ted Happold

Additional Reading

What is IT Architecture? (part 1 of a series I wrote last year)

Developing IT Architecture Skills (part 2)

So, you want to be an Infrastructure Architect? (very old, but contains some useful diagrams)

Featured image: author’s own.

The paperless office

This content is 2 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

For decades, the paperless office has been a panacea, sought out by businesses far and wide. Ever since computers became a part of our daily work, there have been those who have prophesised on how we will no longer need to use paper.

And yet, I still receive so much of the stuff. Sure, I can receive most of my invoices and statements electronically – and we all know how print newspapers and magazines are in a state of decline – but paper is still used extensively. Some people just prefer to interact with analogue media – my wife likes a paper book, for example, and never got on with a Kindle. And some business models rely on shoving pieces of paper through the letter box (try opting out of Royal Mail’s “junk mail” deliveries and you’ll find it’s a lot harder than it should be).

Digitising my life

Several years ago, I started to scan important documents at home. The theory was that everything gets scanned, and only the really important papers got filed in paper form – generally those that related to the house (mortgage, building works) or to me as a person (passport, certificates, medical, etc.).

The trouble was, that I got behind on my scanning. Years behind. Boxes of “to be scanned” and boxes of “might have been scanned – who knows”. And my old Canon scanner was not up to the task – too slow and with an unreliable document feeder. It was also connected to an old (slow) PC, and needed two powered USB ports to drive it (which was a problem on any of the newer devices that I had access to). Added to which, there’s still all the pre-scanning regime files that were stored in the loft until we converted that to living space (4 years ago…).

So, whilst I took a few days off over half term, I bought a new scanner. A 35 pages a minute super-duper Wi-Fi connected paper-eating monster from Brother… and I reworked my document scanning workflow. I’m now scanning through the backlog and thousands of pages of paper are being shredded and recycled each week. So much that I keep overheating the shredder!

What’s the point?

All of this is good – it’s making me feel good about the progress I’m making and my family will be pleased to have fewer boxes of paper in the spare room.

But then my friend Matt Ballantine (@Ballantine70) remarked that he didn’t understand – what did I need to scan? The only paper he gets in junk! And I started to wonder if I’m somehow unusual?

Matt has a point. Years of “business transformation” and “digital transformation” has meant that most of the companies I deal with offer options for electronic bill and statements. But not all:

  • Not all of my tax paperwork is digital. Increasingly it is, but not all.
  • I keep a copy of the latest Council Tax bill, and at least one set of recent bank statements for identity purposes. (Some organisations still won’t accept digital versions!)
  • DBS certificates, vehicle “log book” (V5), etc. are all paper documents (and odd sizes too).
  • Add to that the letters relating to investments, pensions, banking, etc. that don’t arrive digitally.

It’s still quite a lot.

Then there’s the backlog. Maybe I should have a big bonfire and be done with it. Except that my mental makeup won’t allow that. I need to sort through it and find *the important bits* and scan it all *just in case*. (I know. It’s just the way I am. Try living with me!). And, anyway, paper doesn’t burn very well, as I found a few years ago when I got rid of 20+ years’ worth of work notebooks that were a potential GDPR nightmare and just gathering dust.

A digital dilemma…

So, now my “paperless office” is getting closer. And I almost never print anything at work. But I create lots. Lots of documents that I write. Lots of photos that I create. Lots of digital files I download (instead of receiving printed copies) or scan (see above).

The trick is to make sure I don’t replace boxes and boxes of paper files with digital mayhem. A digital mess that’s spread across a variety of online services from Microsoft, Amazon, Dropbox, Google and Apple!

Advice and guidance is welcomed… comments are open below!

Featured image: author’s own.