What is a Software Architect? A Beginner’s Guide

Author profile photo for CareerFoundry author Nicole Abramowski.

The role of a software architect has become increasingly important as technology rapidly evolves. But what do they actually do?

In short, a software architect is responsible for designing the overall structure of software applications. They ensure that the application is well-designed, technically sound, and aligned with the business and end-user requirements.

In this guide, we’ll break down the fundamentals of software architecture and explore the key responsibilities of a software architect, as well as the skills and qualifications required for a web developer to become one. 

Whether you are considering a career as a software architect or simply want to understand what role they play in software development, this guide will provide you with a solid foundation to build upon.

Here’s what we’ll be covering:

  1. What does a software architect do?
  2. Software architect skills and qualifications
  3. Software architect FAQs
  4. How to become a software architect from scratch
  5. Final thoughts

1. What does a software architect do?

A software architect is both a technical leader and a business leader. They design the structure of an application, but must also have the soft skills to negotiate between business stakeholders and developers.

On the technical side, a software architect decides on:

Patterns: There are many different design patterns out there that solve specific software development problems. These patterns help ensure that the software application is well-structured, maintainable, and scalable. A software architect makes decisions about what design pattern best fits the needs of the application.

Application layers: An application has different layers that cover the application UI, its business logic behind the scenes, data storage layers (interacting with the database and scaling), and more.

Technologies: This is your tech stack and the decisions about which tools and technologies to use—programming languages, frameworks, libraries, and so on.

Trade-offs and constraints: Time and money are not infinite. In software there are always constraints and trade-offs related to performance, security, and usability requirements. These constraints help shape the overall design of the application.

The importance of software architecture in software development

Now that you know what a software architect does, you might wonder why this is important. 

Like an architect designing a house, if the frame of the application is not solid, you’re set up for lots of problems down the line. Let’s go over why software architecture plays a key role in software development:

  • Provides a roadmap for development: Defining the overall structure of the software application, it’s easier for developers to understand how different components of the system fit together.
  • Reduces development time and cost: A solid foundation for developers to build upon reduces the likelihood of rework, which can save time and money.
  • Increases maintainability: Ensuring that the software application is well-structured and organized reduces the likelihood of errors and makes it easier to modify or update the system.
  • Enhances scalability: Designing the system with scalability in mind helps ensure the system can grow and adapt to changing business needs.
  • Facilitates collaboration: Software architecture provides a common language and understanding of the software application. This makes it easier for developers, project managers, and other stakeholders to collaborate effectively and work towards a common goal.

Software architecture approaches

So, you want to get into the technical nitty gritty. There are many different approaches to software architecture.

We’ll mention three here just to give you an idea:

Layered architecture

Data enters the top layer and works down until it reaches the bottom, which is usually a database. These layers could be a presentation layer (UI), application layer, business logic layer and a data access layer.

The popular Model-View-Controller (MVC) structure is an example of this. It’s good for smaller software applications.

Microservices architecture

Application is divided into smaller, independent services that can be developed, deployed, and scaled independently. This is good for larger software applications, as it’s more scalable. Developers can work on different services at the same time.

Event-driven architecture

Application is built around events that trigger specific actions. It’s useful when real-time data processing is required. Common use cases including IoT, fraud detection, payment processing, website monitoring, and real-time marketing.

Overall, the choice of approach to software architecture depends on the specific needs of the software project, including the size, complexity, scalability, and maintainability requirements.

It’s important to carefully evaluate each approach and choose the one that best meets the needs of the software project.

Software architect responsibilities

People in this role need to constantly consider both the business needs and the technical needs of an application. What might an average day in the life of a software architect be like?

  • Meeting with clients to understand their goals and designing an application that fits them.
  • Guiding a team of developers to build the application after the design, or “blueprint” has been architected
  • Helping streamline and prioritize clients’ goals to fit the reality and complexity of the project. For example, if a feature is incredibly complex and will take a lot of time and money to build, it might be more important to come up with a simplified version first.

2. Software architect skills and qualifications

Software architects typically have a deep understanding of software engineering principles, programming languages, software design patterns, and system architecture. They’re responsible for the “big picture” thinking.

Given that, it’s helpful if a software architect has already seen and been involved in a variety of projects. They are often software engineers or web developers first, with experience coding in different languages, as well as knowledge of DevOps.

Software architects may also have more theoretical knowledge in computer science via a university degree in Computer Science or Engineering, or outside certifications.

3. Software architect FAQs

Let’s go over some common questions about software architects.

Do software architects do coding?

Software architects will often do the high-level coding, depending on the project. However, it’s unlikely they’d be the ones adding day-to-day features. More likely they set up the initial structure and then act as a guide to the developers from there.

If an application was a house, a software architect would build the frame, deciding where the rooms, walls, and windows were. The software developers would be the individual contractors installing the floor, lights, windows, and walls according to the existing specifications.

Is it hard to be a software architect?

Software architects are not beginners, so in that way it takes a good amount of experience as well as theoretical knowledge to be a good software architect.

That said, like any field, once you have the necessary background, it’s easier to see what kinds of architecture fit which requirements.

Do software architects make good money?

Software architects are highly sought-after and their roles are often hard to fill. Given that, salaries for software architects tend to be quite high. The average yearly salary for software architects in the U.S. is $173,695 in total (Glassdoor).

Software architect vs software engineer: What are the differences?

A software architect handles the high-level thinking of an application. This means their responsibilities are more related to software planning and organizing. 

A software engineer’s responsibilities have more to do with implementation of the existing plan, building new features, testing, and maintenance.

4. How to become a software architect from scratch

To become a software architect from scratch, start with the academic side. This could be a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Computer Science / Information Technology, or a vocational program or web development bootcamp that covers computer science topics more deeply.

You’ll need a sound knowledge of programming languages in order to lead a team of developers, collaborate with other teams, review code, etc. You can get this by building projects and completing coding challenges.

You’ll likely want to start as a software engineer, and work your way up to a role as software architect. Look for roles and pick up tasks where you can get experience with System Design, DevOps, etc. You’ll also need to have a deep understanding of Design patterns and architecture, Fundamentals of Data Modeling, Unified Modeling Language (UML).

You can also get some certifications to demonstrate your knowledge. Some examples are:

Final thoughts

Software architects are responsible for creating the blueprint and overall structure of a software application, ensuring that it meets the needs of the business and users. 

A software architect needs a strong understanding of software engineering principles, programming languages, and software design patterns, as well as communication, leadership, and problem-solving skills. 

Staying up-to-date with industry trends, attending conferences, and pursuing additional training and certifications is crucial to staying competitive in the field. 

The field of software architecture is a rewarding one for software engineers looking to move their career to the next level.

If you’re interested in seeing if software engineering is for you, why not try out our free 5-day coding course. In it, you’ll learn how to build, design, and style your first website with HTML/CSS and JavaScript.

If you’d prefer to read more about the field, check out these articles:

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