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Should I be an Information Architect? How?
October 9, 2007 8:22 PM   Subscribe

I think I want to be an Information Architect. How can I tell if I am qualified? What additional education should I pursue? If not this, then what given my skill set?

I was describing my current job woes with a friend who is a software engineer and started talking about what I do well, and what I want to do more of...his conclusion was that I would be a good information architect. I looked this up on Monster to see what the qualifications are and they seem to be sooo wide ranging that I can't really get a good picture of the requirements.

I currently do software support for a law firm and really need to change jobs if not careers. I have an M.A. in Political Science. Most of my jobs have been doing support stuff to a increasing degree of expertise and diversity in technology. Here is what I am good at: graphic design, synergy/integration of technologies, efficiency, organization, work flow efficiency, troubleshooting, marketing, branding, teaching/training/advising, communication, writing, creativity, ideas, big picture, flow, cultural “sensitivity”.

I know tons of software and am good at teaching myself new stuff, but I am not a coder (taught myself HTML, but that's the limit of my "coding), I have a wide breadth of knowledge of software, understand the concept of how it all works (kind of a jack of all trades, master of none), how they can be integrated and from that how that all should be made user-friendly and intuitive. I can definitely dream up things that don't exist and work with others to create what I imagine.

Am I at all qualified to be an Information Architect? Can I get qualified? Is there some lower level job that will take me there? Is there freelance work like this that I can do? Is there some other career that I should be looking at?

BTW, I'm 41 and not keen on taking a pay cut to do entry level and working my way up; suggestions for doing this, however, ARE welcome if only to give me an idea. I can handle myself in an interview and sell this skill set, but I do want to be pointed in the right direction.
posted by kenzi23 to Work & Money (13 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
well, that sounds a lot like my job, so you're fairly qualified.

IA is all about who you know, more than anything else, so join a local group and get involved

Can help. The annual conference this year is in Miami in March. Go.
posted by beezy at 8:33 PM on October 9, 2007

Finally, a "what do I do with my life" asked by someone more than 2 years out of college! Snark aside, it's possible you might have better luck under the umbrella of "web producer" where you can boss around coders and graphic designers until you build up a network or find an opening to do pure IA. Depending on the company you shouldn't have to take a paycut for this.
posted by rhizome at 9:04 PM on October 9, 2007

I am very cynical about "Information Architects," and my experience with them has been profoundly negative.

(I've seen them bilk companies and agencies who didn't know any better out of billions of dollars to develop "architectures" that made little to no actual sense. Someone once described them as "all the worst parts of consultants, and three times as expensive.")

So, IMHO, if you can walk and chew gum, you have what it takes to call yourself an "information architect." The only question is, can you convince someone to pay you? That's really a question of bullshit artistry sales ability.

More seriously, I'm sure that there are some very talented people in the field, but there are a lot of poseurs, too. You're just going to have to find a way to stand out from the pack. Most people I know got into it via consulting, some from the IT side and some from the business-process side. I think the easiest way to start out is with a big corporation, then once you develop some contacts, spin off as an independent and take the big corp's profit margin as your own.

But hey, I'm just jealous, really. Go to a conference, check the people out, see if you like the vibe you get. But if some programmer ever comes at you with a cross and holy water, now you know why. :)
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:07 PM on October 9, 2007

The skills you describe are all good for IAing, and as long as you're not incorrect in your self-assessment, I'd say you're well-suited. I don't think there's a lower level job that will take you there directly.

Freelance work is out there, but I would be surprised if you could land it without a portfolio / prior experience. Similarly, I'd be surprised if you could make a 1:1 transition, salary-wise, into an agency. You can, however, be hired. IAs aren't exactly thick on the ground, in my experience, and places I've worked have tended to be willing to take on people like you and mentor them.

I would think that your best chance of being hired at a comparable salary to your current one would be to find someone who would hire you as a mixed IT support (or another position you can demonstrably swing. Tech writer?) and junior IA, with the expectation that your responsibilities would transition to full-time IAdom once the UX director decides you're good to go. Or, as rhizome says, maybe producer or project manager would get you in the door more easily.
posted by mumkin at 9:08 PM on October 9, 2007

Like Kadin2048, I am jaded about "Information Architecture." The term used to mean data modeling of information: e.g., there is something we can identify in the data that is an address, a first name, a last name. When we ID that model, we can manipulate it for print, databases, etc. The term now seems to be about the web only and has also merged with web user interaction, graphics, and visual design. Most of the IAs I've met know nothing about anything besides one output: the web. In my opinion, they're not developing an "architecture;" they're doing web design. Frankly, I used to say that I did "Information Architecture" (having been in the SGML and XML biz for 10+ years) but don't anymore. (Then again, to me the web is no different than a piece of paper or a cell phone, so whatever.)

But none of this helps you. Could narrow your focus? For example, "synergy/integration of technologies" and "work flow efficiency" could lead to a job of information flow between systems and content reuse. "Cultural sensitivity" combined with the prior points could lead to a career in localization. I think you have more to figure out than a job title. (Feel free to email me via my profile if you'd like discuss more; this is interesting...)
posted by sfkiddo at 9:42 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am very cynical about "Information Architects," and my experience with them has been profoundly negative.

Here's the trouble: Information Architecture is a real and valid need for software projects, without question. However, it is also the kind of thing that is best done by multidisciplinary people who have the experience and context to understand the nuances of how people and machines interact with each other, and with data.

One could argue (I might) that if you're trained in school to be an Information Architect, then you'll likely have a good handle on traditional forms of IA and a strong vocabulary to support and explain them -- but you'll be stuck if you encounter a situation that is ill-served by traditional forms, and likely to try to force-fit those forms unless you're feeling like an adventure that day.

I've dabbled in IA on a couple of occasions, and by virtue of my background and experience they were resounding successes (measurably so in real $) --- but at the same time, I couldn't talk the talk or apply standard solutions to save my life.

The idea candidate, then, should have the background and experience to give them the context and knowledge, then move into the IA field where they can learn the terms and the standard forms for convenience, but also apply their wealth of experience and knowledge.

Sounds like you're on the right track, then.
posted by davejay at 9:47 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ironically enough, while the discipline of information architecture is all about naming, organizing and defining things, the *field* of IA is still something of an amorphous blob that encompasses bits of human factors, statistics, psychology, library sciences, project management, copywriting and design. To be good at IA is to be obsessive about details, passionate about clarity and meaning, and compassionate towards your audience.

The assets you bring to the table *may* make you a candidate, but they also may make you equally suited to be a project manager or product manager (hats which most all IAs *also* wear to one extent or another.)
posted by deCadmus at 9:49 PM on October 9, 2007

If you really want to be an IA, you need to get an MLIS. I went to UCLA for my MLIS (program description) and there were many students in my program who were wanting to pursue jobs in IA.

Many people end up in IA jobs by happenstance and don't have an MLIS; however, if you want to get an IA job, an MLIS will really open a lot of doors. IA is also one of those jobs with lots of alternate job titles, so you should join ASIS&T or SLA to find listservs that can help you with job hunting tips, etc.

It's definitely a burgeoning field with a lot of possibilities.
posted by HotPatatta at 10:21 PM on October 9, 2007

Judging from your broad skillset, I think you'd perhaps be suited to roles involved in planning and overseeing web projects; labels vary, often it'll be something ending with 'manager' but I tended to just use 'web consultant'.

Basically, any non-trivial web project ideally needs someone who can span the different aspects (design, content, technical, requirements, etc.) with enough know-how to spot potential problems, suggest ideas, write the initial spec, help choose suitable technologies, organise the team, brief the designer, etc.
Information Architecture is certainly part of such a job, but it's 'IA lite', where you need to have the kind of brain that looks for patterns and organises things sensibly but don't need to apply formal processes or have qualifications.
posted by malevolent at 4:36 AM on October 10, 2007

I made this very transition (from technical support to information architecture) a little over three years ago. The move was one of the brightest I've ever made. Feel free to contact me via the email in my profile.
posted by grabbingsand at 7:10 AM on October 10, 2007

HotPatatta, I don't think one necessarily needs an MLIS to go into IA. I'm currently getting and MLIS and an MSIS in IA from Drexel, and while IA is something good for all library science students to dabble in, it's more of an infromation science sort of thing, which many schools are doing apart from library science.

Anyhow... I agree that IA is very much who you know as well as being able to see the big picture. I think davejay's comments are pretty good and I understand people's skepticism about people who call themselves Information Architects. I'd be weary of them too. I would look into some of the professional associations mentioned and maybe ACM to get the lingo and possible projects to gain experience.
posted by kendrak at 9:40 AM on October 10, 2007

I am an information architect, and don't see why you couldn't be one. I have no idea what your pay is, but it's also possible (I think) for you to make the 1:1 transition. The most important thing for you to do is build a portfolio. Work on a project for free or for yourself, and really go through all the steps and create the all deliverables. From there, you've got something of a resume as an "information architect" built, you can talk up your past experience, and you've got something to show. To do all this, I think you also probably need a mentor. Go to some IA related meetups in your area, find people, and ask them the questions you need to get started. Ask if you can show your work as it develops and get feedback, et. Honestly, I think this would be the fastest way of becoming an IA, and possibly better than taking a class in terms of what you will practically learn.
posted by xammerboy at 10:07 AM on October 10, 2007

The problem I have with the title is that it has been misinterpreted for a long time. I found that recruiters (in the DC area at least) were using the Information Architect title to cover everything from pure database administration to pure web design, with project management and software design all thrown in. There are aspects of all of those in Information Architecture, but it's more of a combination of big picture and detail view than is implied by any single one of them. I started getting more meaningful responses on my resume and job inquiries when I went back to billing myself as a senior developer instead of an IA, even though the ideal IA job description is a much closer match to my own skills.

What you may find is that your experience lends itself more immediately to a "technical project manager" job (possibly with "senior" on the front of it) than to an IA job. A good TPM has many of the same skills you say you have, but I think recruiters and employers are more open to people with experience outside the box -- at least in the places I've worked.

Information Architecture implies to me that you're thinking about the way things go in, come out, and relate to each other, and that you have enough familiarity with the systems involved that your solutions work efficiently, but that you also are able to coax requirements and intent out of your "customers" (be they paying clients or just another part of your company) so that your solution actually delivers what they need in a way that is more useful than they had imagined. It's not just about putting bits together. If that, in fact, is what you see yourself doing then you should just get yourself hired and jump in and do it. If you're not sure, go for a TPM title somewhere and in working with project teams you'll be able to identify which skills are your strongest and move from there.
posted by fedward at 11:07 AM on October 10, 2007

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