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Career pathways into tech #6: software architect

Paul Crisp

Paul Crisp is a senior Opencast architect. He tells us about the role and route to the job he does today

What does a software architect do?

“A software architect is basically the bridge between all the teams involved in delivering technology to support the business side of an organisation. Architects are core to IT projects from start to finish, acting as a link between business sponsors, managers, commercial and legal departments, software vendors, the delivery group and inlife service teams. In reality the latter is where much of the money will be spent and the true value of architecture comes to the fore.”

What did you do before starting at Opencast and what was your route here?

“Mine was an unusual route into becoming an architect – I started my career in hot metal. After a degree in history at University College London, I worked in and around Fleet Street in advertising, then as a picture editor and production manager on magazines before joining the Home Office Research Unit in Whitehall as a geographic information systems (GIS) consultant. Not very linear…it was the time when Apple Macs were taking over and I found I had a bizarre affinity for them.

“I’d always loved maps and now had an interest in tech so the Home Office role appealed to me. I worked as a designer/developer on various crime and policing GIS projects, in particular the safer cities initiative during the John Major years.

“Next I went to Ordnance Survey in Southampton as a developer. It is a fabulous organisation and I’m very proud of working there. I designed and built production line monitors and I was part of a team that built OS MasterMap.

“After a freelance water networks project in Swindon, followed by consultancy at US geospatial vendor MapInfo, I took on the role of senior designer at BT Global Services in-house systems integration business Syntegra. That brought me to the North East, which has been my home for more than 20 years.

“Later I jumped across to Sopra Steria, who had a geospatial architecture practice, before moving on to 1Spatial, a leading GIS software company based on the science park in Cambridge. I joined Opencast in summer 2020.”

There must be a more usual route into becoming an architect!

“The usual route involves completing a relevant degree then gaining experience and qualifications. I did that in a roundabout way, led by other interests. The main thing is industry experience and an understanding of how all the different strands and personalities hang together. There isn’t a straight line to becoming an architect. It’s not even specifically a technical discipline though you do have to understand the technology to understand the value it can add.

“We have Opencast techies who can (and do) run rings round what I could ever do. I’m trying to create robust frameworks where they can express their skills and succeed, rather than attempt to tell them what to do. I do have to do that occasionally but then again, they are telling me what they need.”

What makes a good architect?

“Credibility with your team and customer! They need to trust you to understand and anticipate issues then have the relevant skills to articulate them. You must give the delivery team the credit it is owed, which is often simply not done. You also have to take the blows for them sometimes. You have to embrace the idea that you are in a new business/sales role as well. You need to keep up with industry trends and that’s where a personal network also helps – sales people are incredibly useful to know and rarely backward in coming forward. It’s a matter of understanding the sea in which we swim.

“People in our industry are far more emotionally invested and proud of their skills than most people realise, and their creativity is extraordinary. Opencast is fundamentally built around a recognition of that contribution.”

What are you working on now?

“I have several projects on the go – I’m working with an Opencast team on a DWP project, an HMRC project working on our exit from the EU and part of a very mixed group looking at internal systems and culture. I am increasingly involved in developing pre-sales opportunities into new business.”

What do you particularly enjoy about the role?

“I enjoy being at the centre of projects and helping the team find and then deliver the right solutions for clients.”

Day in the life

“I normally start at about 8.30am when I grab a coffee and clamber into the loft where I work. I start with a series of regular stand-up agile meetings across several projects – they’re usually short although I can have between 10 and 15 meetings a day. That reflects the spread of projects at the moment. It’s a busy period.

“We work in an agile way across our internal as well as external projects, and it’s the perfect framework for keeping up the engagement levels and momentum. Regular meetings are important but they need to be for something, not just to say hello. Architectural considerations come into project planning, requirements gathering, decisions on core business functions, sales opportunities and everything in between. 

“I also attend client architecture meetings and discussion forums at senior management level, and I also have to find time to oversee design work – and to do some of my own.

“Opencast is a remarkably friendly and supportive company and there’s a lot of social and techie chat on Teams throughout the day – jokes, a ‘mixtape’ group, special interests, tech support queries and discussions, plans for weekend company hikes in Northumberland, plant growing competitions, pet pictures, art history and more jokes.

“Afternoons will usually be longer discussions arising from issues on the regular calls that typically fall in the morning, and I tend to finish between 5.30pm and 6pm. You need to be quite flexible and respond to the company’s workload, but there’s rarely regular weekend working and Opencast is good at promoting no emails at night or weekends.

“We’re experimenting with ‘precious’ Wednesday afternoons during which we don’t have any internal meetings so we can just get on with work without any distractions. They’re working well so far, though the external and client meetings still find their way through into any space I carve out.

“We also fit in personal development meetings during the week, and we attach a lot of importance to the ‘buddy’ sessions we have for new joiners, especially in these surreal and often worrying times.

“Outside of work I enjoy reading, drawing, walking, cooking and during lockdown I’ve got into fixing old toys. Most of the toys I work with are older than me. It’s a mindfulness thing, I suppose.”

Architect links

Software Architecture Zen – blog by Peter Cripps
Ordnance Survey
UK Geospatial Commission.

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