Data Science

Becoming a Systems Architect: From Degree Types to Career Paths to $100K Salaries

Becoming a Systems Architect: From Degree Types to Career Paths to $100K Salaries
Systems architects must have a deep understanding of how a system will be used, how many people will use it, and how often. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry October 10, 2019

Jobs for systems architects can be found in just about every city in the US, and systems architects are paid well for what they do. If you're technologically minded and looking for a career with lots of opportunities, this one may be a great fit.

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If your tech dream career involves lots of job openings, opportunities to be creative, and above-average pay, think about becoming a systems architect. Every company that uses computers needs one because it’s the systems architect’s job to oversee the design, configuration, maintenance, and optimization of the tech infrastructure.

As a systems architect, you will work with software, hardware, servers, internet and intranet connections, and web portals, along with teams of engineers and other architects. You might also be responsible for overseeing network security. In short, you will survey an organization’s computing needs and budget, and then figure out how to create an IT infrastructure that has the required resources and offers the desired user experience.

When you become a systems architect, you can work in industries as diverse as telecommunications, healthcare, defense, retail, and banking. A quick look at Glassdoor typically yields openings for systems architects at companies like CVS, IBM, Apple, Amazon, and Bank of America, paying anywhere from $60,000 to more than $150,000 per year. Landing one of those jobs is a matter not only of getting the right education but also the proper certifications and experience.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What is a systems architect?
  • How much systems architects earn
  • Educational commitment to become a systems architect
  • Certifications for systems architects
  • Is becoming a systems architect the right career for you?

What is a systems architect?

A systems architect is a professional who designs, develops, and manages the creation of computer systems and networks for organizations. Depending on seniority, their responsibilities can include:

  • Learning about stakeholder and user needs and goals
  • Generating high-level systems requirements based on those factors
  • Determining how best to fulfill those requirements while staying on budget
  • Choosing commercial off-the-shelf software applications
  • Choosing hardware components
  • Building system prototypes
  • Developing partitioning algorithms and processes that ensure efficiency
  • Partitioning larger systems into smaller subsystems that will be handled by engineers
  • Hiring IT staff
  • Managing engineers and architects responsible for design and implementation
  • Negotiating and administering vendor and consultant contracts
  • Installing hardware and software
  • Generating test requirements and plans
  • Checking technical performance of infrastructure
  • Creating user guides
  • Managing systems backups
  • Researching the latest IT technology
  • Ensuring that system components and processes don’t become overloaded or obsolete
  • Responding to evolving needs and performing long-term system road mapping

Systems architects must have a deep understanding of how a system will be used, how many people will use it, and how often. A company with 500 employees performing administrative and financial tasks will require a very different IT setup than an e-commerce retailer with a store full of thousands of items that processes hundreds of transactions each day. Because system architects must produce an end product suited to employer needs, they need to be knowledgeable and versatile enough to envision multiple solutions to each challenge.

When you become a systems architect, chances are you won’t be working with unlimited resources. It won’t always be feasible to build out the optimal network for an organization. You’ll need to be able to work within budget constraints, and sometimes your work will be further constrained by user preferences and available tech resources. Creativity is definitely a virtue in this role.

Systems architects are sometimes also referred to as principal systems engineers, solutions architects, IT architects, computer systems architects, or enterprise architects, and some organizations use the terms engineer or analyst in place of architect. This may be because the use of the term ‘architect’ is restricted by law in some areas—New York state, for instance—to those who plan and design buildings and other physical structures.


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How much systems architects earn

According to PayScale, the average salary for systems architects is $108,846 per year. It’s worth noting, however, that systems architects may work at several levels in IT. Your salary as a systems architect will likely be based on how much work experience you have.

The average salary for systems architects with less than four years of experience is closer to $65,000, and most don’t make more than $100,000 until they’ve been working for ten years or more. Want to earn more sooner? Consider earning a master’s degree.


Educational commitment to become a systems architect

You can become a systems architect with a four-year bachelor’s degree in technology management, computer science, systems engineering, or a related subject. However, it’s not unusual for employers to bookend their education requirements with ‘graduate degree desirable’ or ‘master’s degree preferred,’ so it’s a good idea to look into what it will take to get an MBA or an IT-focused master’s degree. There’s also another good reason to earn a graduate degree. As mentioned above, systems architects with an advanced degree usually earn more.

Many different undergraduate paths will prepare you for a career as a systems architect. It’s a good idea to look for bachelor’s degree programs that include coursework in:

  • System architecture
  • Machine learning
  • Programming
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Algorithms
  • Data architecture
  • Database administration
  • Probability statistics
  • IT management
  • Technical communications
  • Embedded systems

It’s also a good idea to complete an internship, even if your bachelor’s degree program doesn’t require it. You’ll get hands-on experience with computer systems, hardware, software, and networks, and you may make valuable professional connections that will help you get a job after graduation.

When it comes to your master’s degree, you can opt for a computer engineering or information systems degree, or looks into specialized programs such as:

You should also consider getting an MBA. You might assume that systems architects don’t need MBAs, but if your goal is to work in management or to interface with all kinds of stakeholders, think again.

Mike Kavis, a former enterprise architect and currently a CTO for a start-up company, believes that MBAs can be invaluable just for the perspective they offer. As he told InfoQ: “If an EA has never walked a day in the shoes of a marketing VP, a controller, a lawyer, a CIO, a sales executive, an operations executive, and many others, an MBA can transform the EA from a smart IT person to an effective liaison between IT and the business. My MBA was one of the best investments I ever made in my career.”

Look for MBA programs offering concentrations in information systems or a similar area.

As you research bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees for system architects, read program descriptions carefully. Depending on the school, systems engineering degrees may refer to computer systems, mechanical systems, or real-world infrastructure systems. Make sure you’re only applying for programs that will give you the skills and knowledge you need to pursue the career you want.


Certifications for systems architects

Employers often require specific certifications in addition to academic degrees when seeking a systems architect. Certifications in frameworks such as Microsoft, VMWare, and Citrix commonly appear among job qualifications.

The most important certifications for systems architects are:

To get a feel for which certifications you should prioritize, look at job listings for systems architects to find out what employers are looking for. You’ll have plenty of time to earn these and other certifications, however. Becoming a systems architect usually takes 10 to 15 years.


Is becoming a systems architect right for you?

Think about what it is you want to do. Systems architects at smaller companies may also be application architects (engineers who deal mainly with a particular type of application). If you want to oversee the entirety of an organization’s IT infrastructure, then yes, this is the right career for you. If, on the other hand, you really only want to deal with applications, then you should look into becoming an application architect instead. Or perhaps your true love is not the infrastructure but the information transmitted on it, in which case you may be happier as an information architect.

The good news is: whatever it is you want to do, if you’ve got the skills, the opportunities should be available. Tech is a booming employment sector that’s projected to grow at a 12 percent rate between now and 2028.


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