How to Become a Solutions Architect
July 12, 2021
Solutions architects create "blueprints" to map out how all the applications used by a business will work together. They also guide the implementation of their plans, meaning they are both technicians and managers. The job requires a unique blend of skills and pays accordingly.
Businesses today depend on a variety of applications to achieve their goals. There are web-based apps like HubSpot for customer management, accounting software like QuickBooks, team communications apps like Slack, and dozens of others—including custom-built apps that most people have never heard of.
Solutions architects (sometimes called enterprise architects or application architects) plan out how all the applications used by a business will work together to achieve the goals of the organization. They ensure that the suite of applications in use by an organization will be reliable, efficient, and scalable as the company and its network grow.
If you want to learn how to become a solutions architect, you've come to the right place. In this article, we'll cover:
- What does a solutions architect do?
- How much does a solutions architect make?
- Skills needed to become a solutions architect
- Education needed to become a solutions architect
- How to become a solutions architect
What does a solutions architect do?
While architecture is the metaphor du jour—it's in the name, after all—it's also helpful to think of solutions architects as composers and conductors. Most of us have at least seen a video of a conductor in action, guiding an entire orchestra of musicians in the process of making beautiful music instead of noise. (In contrast, few of us know what the work of an architect actually looks like, aside from drawing blueprints—what did Mike Brady do in his study all day?)
Rather than making music, solutions architects work to meet business goals: increased sales, improved operational efficiency, and better customer service, to name a few. Yet like the best composers, they need to look at the different instruments (i.e., applications) available to them and devise an effective arrangement. Then, like a conductor, they must guide their musicians (i.e., employees) through its implementation. This two-part harmony of technical expertise and leadership ability is a defining aspect of the solutions architect role.
What does solutions architecture mean?
Solutions architecture refers to the collective set of applications and systems used by an organization as well as how they interact with each other and users. Applications architecture is one of the four domains that make up an organization's enterprise architecture within The Open Group Architecture Framework (TOGAF), alongside business architecture, data architecture, and technical architecture.
Some sources assert that solutions architecture encompasses applications, business, data, and technical architecture. Others define it more narrowly. You may see different types of architects and architecture mentioned around the web, such as cybersecurity architects, for example. That's because TOGAF is only one of several frameworks used to think about and implement enterprise architecture. There are many other variations, which is why there is no consensus about what solutions architecture is and isn't.
What are the roles and responsibilities of a solutions architect?
In plain English: a solutions architect needs to assess an enterprise's use of software and its business needs, then devise a plan—aka, a blueprint—that contains information about what applications to use, who will use them and how, and the way these various applications will interact throughout the company. They then need to present this plan to the rest of the organization and guide their colleagues through its implementation.
Furthermore, they need to keep up-to-date on the latest software and best practices in their chosen industry, and continually be on the lookout for ways to improve the architecture they've put in place. To give you an idea of what employers are looking for, recent job listings for solutions architects assign professionals in this role the following responsibilities:
- Monitor software configuration changes to anticipate and address the impact of data reliability and user happiness issues
- Provide thought leadership and active participation in conferences and research with strategic partners and academic institutions
- Devise recommendations on system options, risks, cost/benefit analysis, and impact on cross-domain systems, business strategy, goals, and processes.
How much does a solutions architect make?
As upper-tier business/technical managers, solutions architects are well-compensated. According to Glassdoor, the average base pay for a solutions architect is approximately $127,000 per year, which is on par with other architect positions.
Payscale concurs, reporting an average annual salary for applications architects of about $120,000.
Skills needed to become a solutions architect
Solutions architects straddle the worlds of IT and business administration; they're neither pure managers/leaders nor pure technicians. As such, they need both technical expertise and strong planning, coordination, and communication (i.e., "soft") skills.
Here are some of the essential skills you'll need to become an effective solutions architect, roughly sorted into the two defining aspects of a solutions architect's role—technical expertise and leadership:
- 5+ years of hands-on application development experience
- Systems modeling expertise
- Object-oriented analysis and design
- Application integration expertise
Broad knowledge of application development, including:
- Development platforms (Linux, etc.)
- Programming languages (C++, Java, etc.)
- Software frameworks
- Database management
Leadership and management
- Excellent planning/design skills
- Strong interpersonal skills
- Excellent communication (written, verbal)
- Ability to lead diverse teams of (opinionated) professionals
- Deep understanding of business practices
You may have noticed that some of the items in the above list seem a bit vague; you may be wondering, for example, which software frameworks you need to know. Unfortunately, which specific development platforms, programming languages, database systems, etc. you need to know depends almost entirely on the particular organization you want to work with. You'll develop a broad base of expertise through your education and early career and will be able to specialize as needed as you progress.
How do you know if a career as a solutions architect is right for you?
There are a few things you should consider before becoming a solutions architect. Let's assume you love technology—software, in particular—and have a knack for big-picture thinking and strategic planning. If you're reading this, you probably at least feel confident that you want a technology-oriented job (or have heard that they're where all the money is, anyway).
The primary distinction between being a solutions architect and other IT jobs is its substantial strategic and leadership requirements. The best solutions architects are visionaries, able to take in the full picture of how a company works and imagine a better way of doing things. They synthesize large amounts of disparate information, balancing many competing interests and needs, and they do all of this while shepherding their colleagues through the process of implementing their vision.
Because solutions architect is a relatively senior role, you will have time in your career to get a sense of whether you want to take on greater leadership responsibility, or whether you are more interested in developing your technical expertise. Thankfully, there are lucrative and rewarding careers available even if you find that you're more comfortable working behind the scenes than in the spotlight.
What are the qualities that make a good solutions architect?
The best solutions architects are detail-oriented, organized, reliable, and deliberate. They love it when a plan comes together. They have a natural affinity for logical thinking and a knack for seeing the big picture.
Solutions or enterprise architects need to work with many specialists, managers, and stakeholders—all of whom may have strong opinions of their own—to shepherd their plans throughout an organization. As a result, they must be able to articulate their vision and explain why it's the best path forward.
Education needed to become a solutions architect
You'll need a bachelor's degree in computer science, information technology, or a related field. It may be possible to enter the field with a business-oriented degree, but you would need to pursue extensive coursework and professional experience in computer science to compensate.
How many years does it take to become a solutions architect?
Architect jobs are relatively senior positions. You can expect to need at least five years of experience in the field before you meet most employer's minimum qualifications. If you factor in a four-year undergraduate degree—and don't pursue a master's degree or other graduate education—you can expect becoming a solutions architect to take the better part of a decade. There's a great deal of variability in the time it will take, however. Still, it's safe to say you'll need several years of on-the-job experience before being considered for solutions architect positions.
Why do you need a college degree to become a solutions architect?
Although it's possible to develop many of the skills and knowledge needed to be a successful solutions architect through on-the-job experience, it's not common. The expectation, for better or worse, is that people interested in skilled professions will have attained a certain level of education. It's not because people without a bachelor's degree couldn't possibly do the job, but because it's a quick and effective way to cut down unwieldy applicant pools. Solutions architects have a large amount of influence in their organizations, and employers want to be sure that they're only considering qualified candidates. That said, if you've been working in a related field (e.g., software development) for many years and have demonstrated the appropriate skills and experience, you may well be able to bypass the degree requirement.
What degree do you need to be a solutions architect?
Computer science and information technology degrees are the standard for solutions architects. Top schools for these degrees include:
- Carnegie Mellon University
- Cornell University
- Georgia Institute of Technology (Main Campus)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Princeton University
- Stanford University
- The University of Texas at Austin
- University of California - Berkeley
- University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign
- University of Washington - Seattle Campus
Because solutions architects are leaders and managers as much as they are technical experts, consider complementing your chosen major with a minor in business. Alternatively, you might use a Master's in Business Administration (MBA) to shore up your business skills. Speaking of master's degrees: while not required, an advanced degree (e.g. a master's in information systems) may be a good way to strengthen your skills and bolster your resume.
How to become a solutions architect
The technical half of the solutions architect job is only part of it—and in some ways, the easier part. Easier, at least, for employers to find: there are many more people in the workforce with excellent programming skills than there are outstanding leaders and managers.
Throughout your career, you'll need to be on the lookout for chances to develop and demonstrate your leadership ability. If you want to be a solutions architect, you'll need to reach a point where you're comfortable making decisions that will affect your entire organization—and your colleagues have to be comfortable trusting you to do so.
What steps should you follow to become a good solutions architect?
You'll get a solid grounding in the technical skills and underlying theory you need via your undergraduate education. Still, it's your experience in the workplace that will help you develop the crucial skills difficult to learn in the classroom.
Problem-solving, dealing with unexpected obstacles, playing referee during internal debates about how best to proceed … These are the sort of challenges that a good solutions architect will handle with aplomb.
Although the journey to becoming a successful solutions architect is not a short one, it is one you can start on today. You don't need to be sure that solutions architecture is what you ultimately want to do. The base of technical knowledge you need to grow into a solutions architect role overlaps with dozens of other business-focused IT jobs and can be useful in almost any career in technology management.
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