In a nine-month program, TNO’s ESI aims to raise the system architecting bar for individuals as well as the organizations they work for. The training brings together big companies and SMEs, from high tech and civil engineering. Participants crank up both their architecting abilities and their leadership skills. The ultimate ambition is to strengthen the system architecting competence of the Dutch high-tech industry as a whole.
“I had always thought of Heijmans as a company doing bulky construction work, totally incomparable to the precision mechanics we’re specialized in,” says Joost van Leeuwen, software architect at VDL ETG. “But I’ve learned that within the civil engineering domain, their projects are just as next level, with very similar system architecting struggles.” Johan van Rosmalen, system architect at Heijmans, concurs: “We’re monitoring asphalt, 25 by 25 centimeters at a time, for 40 kilometers. The scale is different, but the resolution is comparable, and so are the system-level challenges.”
Heijmans and VDL ETG, together with ASML, Smart Robotics, Ultimaker and Vanderlande, participate in the first edition of the multi-company system architecting training organized by TNO’s ESI. In six modules, spread out over nine months, instructors Gerrit Muller and Ale Riedstra support (aspiring) system architects to accelerate their competencies in the market-business-technology triangle. “For the first time in the twenty years ESI has been organizing this program, we’re having trainees from multiple companies, learning from each other,” Muller notes. “We’ve also further improved the integration of the ‘hard’ side of architecting and the ‘soft’ side of technical leadership.”
Using Muller’s CAFCR framework, participants learn to view a system from different angles. “Not only from the system requirements but also from the business context and the perspectives of the customer and the other stakeholders,” explains Riedstra. “This means that you have to know the system you’re working on and the organization you’re working in, and you have to know yourself – who you are and how you respond to the stress evoked by the work you’re doing.”
Each team of 2-4 people brings in system knowledge through a business case, carefully selected together with their so-called sponsors. “You can view a sponsor as a kind of internal customer. This can be a superior or someone else within the organization who has a pressing challenge he would like to see solved,” clarifies Riedstra. It should be a challenge at (sub)system level, involving technical, customer and business aspects, demanding a multi-dimensional analysis in both the problem and the solution domain and requiring regular alignment with stakeholders at multiple levels, and the outcome should be of significant importance to the company.
During the course, the teams work on their business case, applying the CAFCR model and presenting the results to the instructors and their fellow trainees. In the process, they receive a series of challenging assignments from Muller on different system architecting topics, as well as critical feedback from the other participants. This gives them food for thought to process as ‘homework’ in between the modules. Upon reconvening, they report back on their progress and they enter the next feedback loop.
The practical work is supported by the instructors through (some) theory and (regular) introspection. “I can present thousands of slides on system architecting, but I only show the participants a fraction of that,” Muller points out. “The program isn’t about shoving as much as possible down their throats; it’s about helping them grow into the role of system architect, using the business case and the extensive interaction as tools. In the background, we’re continuously gauging their mindset – how does it make them feel, what’s blocking them, what’s making them fly?” The trainees also get a couple of hours of in-company consultancy from Muller and Riedstra to advance their case or their personal development.
“At Ultimaker, the role of system architect is relatively new and by entering this program, we want to learn the tools of the trade and how to apply them when scaling to bigger and more complex projects,” responds Sanne Marx, embedded control architect at the 3D printing specialist, asked about his company’s reason to enroll. Software architect Daniel Claes sees a similar challenge at Smart Robotics: “We’re growing fast and so is our need for system architects. This training helps us better master the role, both on a personal and an organizational level.”
“Technical people are very content-minded and focused on results, but there’s much more to being a system architect,” stresses Riedstra. “As an architect, you have to deal with a myriad of different, often conflicting, interests. It’s impossible to comprehend everything and appease everyone. As an architect, you have to keep many balls in the air at the same time and you need to influence people and win them over to you, even though you’re not the boss. It all starts with knowing yourself and knowing how to deal with others. Most technical people need to become more conscious. Our program aims to help them build the required additional skills.”
“I’ve become more aware of the company dynamics,” acknowledges Janno Lunenburg, enterprise architect at Smart Robotics. Ultimaker’s Marx: “It’s one thing to have a good idea; getting people to get on board with that idea is something else. The program teaches you to align what you need from others and what they need from you.” His colleague, process architect Tom Heijmans, has become more self-conscious: “You’re taught to weigh your behavior and make a deliberate choice when to act and when not to.” Claes from Smart Robotics has learned to switch from looking at the action from a distance to being in the middle of it: “I’m already actively pushing myself to move from the balcony to the dance floor.”
Even seasoned architects get to know themselves better. “Only now, after fifteen years of experience, I’ve come to see the improvement potential of some of my ways,” says Paul van Dongen, mechatronic system architect at ASML. “Implicit behavior, things that I’ve always done a certain way but for which there are better ways. The program takes you back to the essence of your profession – something you usually don’t have time for in your day-to-day work.”
ASML and VDL ETG have enrolled a combined team, with two people from each company, to further streamline their collaboration. “We’re working on a new modular platform. This project requires us to collaborate on a higher level and the training helps us do so,” explains Joost Lobbezoo, system architect at VDL ETG. “Looking at my own company, the program also helps us boost our internal system architecting skills, as we use the learnings to improve our way of working. Personally, it has taught me that you first need to understand yourself before you can understand and lead others.”
Lobbezoo’s colleague Joost van Leeuwen especially values the presence of Gerrit Muller. “He’s a system architecting guru. His advice is really to the point and with his experience, he’s able to quickly pick up on our needs and adapt the content of the training accordingly. For example, after having observed a discussion between us and a couple of our stakeholders, he included an extra module about platform architecture. This was also to the benefit of the other participants, who have similar challenges despite all our differences. And together with Ale, Gerrit creates an open atmosphere, inviting people to speak their mind, which is a very important aspect of system architecting.”
Construction company Heijmans seems an odd man out as the only participant not from high tech. “Yes, we operate in a completely different domain, but stripped to the core, our challenges are very similar,” observes Johan van Rosmalen. “Many of the stories are very recognizable. I, too, am dealing with a lot of different stakeholders, trying to create a system design that everybody’s happy with. The CAFCR model is equally useful in my world of tunnels and traffic control centers. It hands you the tools to look at things differently, giving you insights that allow you to streamline the collaboration with everyone involved.”
“At Heijmans, digitalization is a hot topic as well,” continues fellow system architect Marien Quik. “I’m working on the asphalt monitoring process, which generates huge amounts of data that needs to be analyzed. The training has taught me to look at the bigger picture, so we can do even smarter things. And it has made me much more aware of the importance of customer value – it’s imperative to know what the customer really wants and good communication is vital in finding that out.”
“This program would be very useful to other civil engineering organizations as well,” Van Rosmalen thinks. “They’re all project driven, going from one project to the next, using the V model for process execution. There’s a big change in progress, however, with aspects like reuse and total cost of ownership becoming more and more important. Systems thinking, system architecting – the philosophy taught in this training is perfect for adopting that change.”
Mixing trainees from very different backgrounds really boosts the learning experience. Both the commonalities between the participants and their differences are highly insightful. “Fifteen years on the job or a new kid on the block, working for a big company or a startup, in high tech or another domain – everyone has their own unique experiences for the whole group to benefit from,” finds instructor Riedstra. “Learning from one another is core to the training.”
“As an SME, it’s very informative to see how big companies look at things,” notes Lunenburg from Smart Robotics. “But also how organizations of similar size deal with similar challenges,” adds his colleague Claes. According to Ultimaker’s Heijmans, smaller companies have something going for them as well: “Because they’re usually less hierarchical, stakeholders are much more accessible and there’s more freedom to take the wheel.” His colleague Marx: “And you’re closer to the action. I’ve noticed, for example, that engaging with customers is all in a day’s work for us but less of a given at a bigger company.”
“Across the board, the system architect role isn’t all that different,” concludes Lobbezoo of VDL ETG. “The challenges are largely the same, so the ways to handle and structure them are relatively easily interchangeable.” For ASML’s Van Dongen, there was a lot to identify with: “Sometimes you’re having the same struggles as someone else; sometimes you recognize a struggle you had in the past. The training offers many ways to learn from each other. But what I like most is the authenticity of it all. The challenges, the discussions – there’s no role-playing; everything is real.”
Fertile breeding ground
The program is officially concluded with the teams presenting their achievements to their sponsors. But it doesn’t end there. Riedstra: “The training has two main objectives: improve the system architecting competence of the individual participants and help advance the technical case. By doing both, we strive to raise the level of system architecting at the participating companies. Just sending people to the training isn’t enough, though. What they learn has to land in their organization. So, we also advise the companies on how to create and maintain a fertile breeding ground for system architecting.”
Muller sees room for improvement there. “At ESI, we’ve been doing this for twenty years now and we’ve already made some big steps. We’re not just training individuals anymore and we’re not just improving their technical skills; we’re also improving their soft skills and we’re including their organization in the process. The next step is to effectively influence that organization to give system architecting the attention it deserves.”
“Since the beginning of ESI, twenty years ago, competence development is an integral part of our mission,” adds Joris van den Aker, program manager competence development at ESI. “We not only do research in managing the complexity of high-tech systems but also transfer our results to industry. With this program, our goal is to develop and accelerate system architecting and leadership competences, both at an individual and organizational level.”
New programs are being planned to start in March and September 2022. Companies interested in participating can contact Joris van den Aker. This article was written in close collaboration with ESI (TNO).