Software architects earn a ton, get a ton of respect, and seemingly walk on water. How do you achieve the same title and status?
So, you want to be a Software Architect?
Software engineers benefit from virtually recession-proof job growth, an above-average salary, and reliable career progression, with the option of choosing a technical or managerial path as they move up. Experienced professionals can negotiate even more luctarive terms.
But once developers top out at the senior or principal engineer level, what’s next?
Senior software engineers who aren’t interested in executive management often pivot into a technical leadership role, with a job title like "Software Architect". This position:
It’s a drastic jump from being an individual contributor to a leader with profit-and-loss accountability, who formulates entire software development plans.
What else does this position entail?
These roles will vary greatly in their job description, but some general principles tie them together. Instead of coding new software programs, a software architect is responsible for finding solutions to address non-functional requirements, such as software performance and scalability. They deliberate over procedural minutiae, like process improvement and architectural oversight, while mentoring junior engineers and interfacing with other business units.
In other words, they’re skilled coders for whom coding is no longer their main concern.
Given their leadership position, software architects earn significantly more than software engineers, with a higher starting base salary.
According to Indeed, a developer earns an average base pay of $109,066 per year with a $4000 cash bonus. Salary estimates show software architects typically command $139,678 with a $10,000 cash bonus. That number goes even higher, adjusted for cost of living in major hubs like New York and Seattle.
(This shows the average software architect salary, including non-tech companies. It only takes base salary into account, not total compensation. Schedule a time with us for an accurate salary benchmark for your role)
Software architects make macro-level decisions regarding an organization’s technology stack, including standards like platforms, protocols, technologies, and even programming languages. Software engineers make micro-level decisions to satisfy the constraints of the software architecture.
Most software architects start their career as developers. After amassing 10-12 years of programming experience, they may be tapped for a leadership role if they have domain expertise, a track record of mentoring junior developers, and the right personality fit. Generally speaking, the job market for software architect jobs is small and most new jobs are filled internally.
In some organizations, a software architect is known as a principal software engineer -- the person who oversees a team of developers (which may include hiring and training them) and serves as the main liaison between the software development team and other business units.
As developers progress from entry-level to senior, they spend less time coding and more time drawing diagrams to communicate or sell design ideas to stakeholders. This is a natural byproduct as they develop subject matter expertise, years of experience and are increasingly called upon to make important technical decisions beyond their individual role.
Software architects are usually groomed from technical leads or principal software engineers. Like more senior roles, there's no clear-cut path for getting there. However, there are a few things software architects have in common (in addition to the 10+ years of development experience). Here are a few:
Enterprise Environment Exposure
Software architects are expected to have spent 3-4 years in software design in an “enterprise environment.” This much used and abused term refers to a workplace with clearly defined business workflows, processes, and stakeholders, as opposed to a scrappy startup environment where individual contributors “wear many hats” or “manage up.”
End-to-End Project Experience
Show that you have experience with how a product moves from idea to deployment. Ideally, you'll have this experience on the development side and the management side (meaning that some basic project management experience is a necessity!).
Domain & Technical Knowledge
Domain expertise as well as technical knowledge that is both broad and deep are more important than years of experience. In other words, if you’ve spent your entire career perfecting your C++ and Java programming skills and developing web applications, try expanding into Python or HTML5 and working on mobile apps for Android IOS.
In addition to the above, software architects are familiar with many aspects of the tech space. Familiarity with systems architecture and front-end web design are must-haves. A track record of going above and beyond as an individual contributor doesn’t hurt, either: show that you have experience interpreting business requirements, helping executives frame problem statements, or working with product/UX teams.
As the main liaison between the software development team and the rest of the organization, software architects speak with customers, managers, product teams and developers daily. Architecture decisions are expensive, so having charisma and eloquence will help you pitch ideas and justify decisions.
You must have expertise in several technology stacks and a good understanding of a few others, because you’ll be deciding what’s best for front-end and back-end developers and making decisions that affect IT departments.
Like any leadership position, you’ll be expected to set the vision for a project and execute it within budget and timeline constraints. You’ll need to show that you know how to assign work, delegate, hold teams accountable and keep them motivated.
Software architects are usually former software engineers who went the extra mile to learn new programming languages, take courses and obtain certifications, and read up on the latest technological developments. Here’s a recommended reading list for learning all about software architecture and maximizing your chances of landing the role:
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