A solutions architect is the ultimate “big picture” role. They must give their team an overarching picture of what needs to be done so that a company’s technical staff can deliver tailored tech solutions on time and within budget. Depending on the company, they may also focus on external projects such as app development.
Historically, solution architecture has focused on functional (i.e., what the system should do) and non-functional (such as performance, availability, recoverability, integrity and security) requirements. On a day-to-day level, that means solutions architects might do anything from recommending tools to teams to analyzing a project lifecycle for any inefficiencies.
Many industry leaders think that a solutions architect role is purely technical, but it also involves “soft skills” such as empathy and communication, as solutions architects must secure buy-in from other stakeholders throughout an organization to solve IT and business problems in the most efficient way possible.
A Mix of Technical, Interpersonal Skills
Ramesh Nallapu, solutions architect, SAP presales, cloud/digital transformation at Lemongrass, says that successful solutions architects need both technical skills and interpersonal skills to design, describe, and manage technology solutions for specific problems. They need to adapt, respond, predict, and plan whatever may come next.
"One of the key principles to becoming a solutions architect is to have robust problem-solving skills, which is earned via trial, error and practice," he says, advising that interested candidates seek an education in information technology, computer science, software engineering (for business), programming, or a related field.
"A graduate degree, such as a Master of Science or an MBA in information technology, will be very helpful, as these studies will not only educate you on the nuances of systems design, program management and computer architecture theory, but also in business, finance and people management," he says.
Early in your solutions architect career, study anything related to ITIL, PMBOK, COBIT and TOGAF: ITIL is architecture for service management, while TOGAF is an enterprise architecture framework that helps define business goals and align them with architecture objectives around enterprise software development.
"Once past their studies, solutions architects usually begin their careers as a software developer or network administrator, managing extensive databases and business intelligence tools," Nallapu says. "Then, with five to 10 years of experience, they usually reach the level of solutions architect."
Gaining Exposure to Problem-Solving Work
Kyle Barnes, senior director of IT integration and data strategy with Veeva Systems, explains that software developers, engineers and technical specialists can often ladder into a solutions architect career. The trick is to move from a more tactical outlook on problems to a strategic one.
“In other instances, business or systems analysts are in a good position, through the in-depth knowledge of systems and platforms that gain them enough exposure and experience in overall technology to prepare them for the solution architect role,” he adds.
Want to become a solutions architect? Start out by participating in problem-solving work within your current organization. For example, if you spot break-fix support cases, problem management, or complex projects that need a helping hand, you should volunteer. “Once someone can demonstrate an ability to see the bigger picture for current opportunities and a strategic vision for the future, they are a great candidate for a solution architect,” he says.
Multiple Progression Paths
How far can you go in a solutions architect role? “It all depends on one's career objectives,” Nallapu says. “Once settled in the role of a solutions architect, there are still several interesting progression paths, including that from a solutions architect to a senior or lead solutions architect, then onwards to an enterprise architect role.”
For solutions architects, future roles that focus on strategy planning, consulting or wider project management could prove interesting. Barnes says a solutions architect may have the desire and aptitude to manage people directly, but for the solutions architect, this is a slippery slope.
“They would need to understand what kind of manager they want to be,” he explains. “Do they wish to stay hands-on with technology, and would that opportunity allow for it? Will their experience as a solutions architect lend itself specifically to their success as a manager in that role?”
Barnes says solutions architects are often great candidates for management roles, since they typically demonstrate an ability to assimilate with any team, work closely with project and technology leadership, and are often highly respected among peers and management: “Of course, management can offer opportunities for senior management, director, senior director, vice president, chief technology officer or chief information officer… consulting is an alternate path where they get to assist sales teams with ensuring customers are successful with a product.”
Continuing Education Important for Career Advancement
Nallapu says he thinks it’s important to maintain qualifications, licenses and certifications necessary for solutions architecture roles, and even beyond that, those of enterprise architect roles.
“Even if a solutions architect isn’t yet in a more advanced position, having those education certifications are extremely helpful, as this person can segue into these roles on either a consulting basis, or pinch hit for colleagues already there,” he says.
Continuous learning is key, especially as companies blend emerging technologies such as machine learning into current projects. “Also, I always recommend colleagues staying current by reading industry publications, and attending in-person events such as Qcon, Devoxx, DevDay or ApiDay, or virtual events hosted by AWS, Microsoft or Google,” Nallapu says.