Skilling up to architect: What you need to land high-paying IT roles

If you want to climb the career ladder to architect roles, you're going to have a broad base of competencies. Whether it's in cloud, security, or data science, we break down how you can land architect roles and the skills you need to learn to pay the bills.

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In February, I wrote an article on the top-paying tech roles in 2022 and the skills you need to land them. It was based on data collected from a 2021 Skillsoft survey of 9,300 tech professionals, which identified the top three roles as:

  • Enterprise cloud architect
  • Security architect
  • Data scientist/architect

We’re actively looking for participants to take our 2022 survey to identify top-paying roles. Consider completing the survey here.

My last article covered the certifications and educational paths a developer could take to reach one of these high-paying roles. This article focuses on the skills you need to land one of those roles and perform well once in them.

What’s with all the architects?

You may have noticed that all three roles are architect-level. It’s hardly surprising that the highest-paying roles are the most senior technical positions available outside of management or the C-suite.

We’ve heard from many engineers who want a high-paying role that doesn’t require them to take on management roles. These three positions have developers designing and implementing a larger plan for their chosen technologies rather than working on one laid out by someone else. In large part, they’re roles for individual contributors, which can come with pluses and minuses.

When it comes to training, career paths for individual contributors can be lacking in some organizations. Knowing what’s out there will help steer your learning and development. Working toward a role like one of these may take some years to accomplish, but learning new skills can also benefit your current role too. Even if it’s a long-term goal, consider how these skills can support your career.

Skills to pay the bills: What to hone on the road to architect

While there is plenty of crossover between roles, each of the highest-paying architect roles require their own specific set of skills.

Cloud architect

A cloud architect needs a detailed understanding of how both the business and the application work in their organization. This includes:

  • Organizational hierarchy
  • Business architecture
  • Information design
  • Application architecture
  • Infrastructure architecture
  • Technology stack

As cloud and application infrastructure increasingly converge, understanding how all the pieces fit together becomes more important—particularly in organizations that plan to offer cloud infrastructure-as-a-service to customers and partners.

When building cloud architecture, it’s essential to understand why your organization is moving to the cloud and how the cloud will help the organization achieve its objectives. Many enterprises have yet to fully transition to the cloud or are in the planning process. They need cloud architects who understand the broader business context to help them transition successfully.

Because of the way cloud providers charge, budgeting and business awareness are crucial in cloud computing. You could, for example, build the world’s fastest, most reliable cloud architecture—but it would be costly to operate. Understanding how to build a cost-effective cloud architecture that matches your organization’s needs and resources is an essential skill.

This brings us to the vendor-specific skills. One question I hear a lot is whether cloud architects should specialize in one architecture. Today, the world is so hybrid- and multi-cloud that I would say the exact opposite. Actively learn how to work in all of the major (and even minor) cloud architectures. There isn’t one dominant player, so having the ability to work with all of the different clouds is valuable and will only become more valuable with time.

Security architect

Security architects require a broad set of skills because they touch all parts of the organization, including non-technical areas. At the same time, the security industry evolves at a high rate—new threats and attackers spring up daily, and security architects have to keep on top of it all to ensure their organizations remain protected. So above all else, anyone aspiring to become a security architect needs to foster an insatiable appetite for learning.

Keeping pace with security advancements means keeping pace with advancements in a broad range of technological fields. A security architect needs to understand the basics of operating systems, protocols, cryptography, and how the organization’s infrastructure connects people and machines. Attacks today target a wide variety of surfaces. If you don’t know how something works, you’ve no chance to design safeguards to protect it.

Resources are often tight in security, and there’s far more to do than can be done. An understanding of risk management is crucial—understanding what risks exist, which can be accepted, which need to be dealt with, and what today’s priorities should be is a daily battle for security architects.

To understand what’s at risk, a security architect needs to know their organization well enough to determine what’s likely to be targeted by an attacker. What's valuable that might be worth stealing? Where are the organization’s weak points?

Not all security is technological. How might an attacker approach people at the organization, and what knowledge would they need to pull off a social engineering attack? Most importantly, what is the potential impact of different types of attacks? Understanding these points helps a security architect design a holistic architecture that prioritizes protecting the highest-risk systems and assets.

Finally, an aspiring security architect must understand the tools, best practices, and design components available to protect their organization’s data, infrastructure, and people. New ideas, tools, and techniques are constantly evolving, so you’ll need to invest plenty of time and energy to stay abreast of developments and identify anything that could help your organization protect against cyberattacks.

Honestly, the security architect role may be the most challenging in an organization after the CEO. People won’t notice when you’re succeeding, only when you fail. A security architect has to design a safe environment for everyone in their organization, and they have to make the right decisions time and time again. It's a never-ending, continually changing job—and the stakes are high.

Data scientist/architect

Real data science is a lot more than visualizations and charts. In terms of skills, mathematics and statistics are the biggest requirements. Many people think they have the math chops, but there’s a reason that plenty of PhD-level researchers in statistics-heavy fields end up in data science. Storytelling and visualization are essential, but they’re more like soft skills—and they only work when backed by the hard world of applied mathematics.

As time has gone on, AI and machine learning (ML) have come to play an increasingly important role in data science. The big challenge in building intelligent solutions is the lack of architecture and processes to gather meaningful data from across an organization. For an aspiring data architect, building this infrastructure starts with understanding the basics, like how databases are structured and how they store data. Once this infrastructure is in place, crafting a strong AI that provides meaningful outputs will be a much easier game.

There's a lot of talk these days about ethics, particularly for AI. You need a fine-grain understanding of what you’re building and why to make sure an AI system is designed to make ethical choices free from discrimination or the developer’s unconscious bias. This is paramount when building something that plays a crucial role in society, like investigating medical histories or directing self-driving cars. To build an ethical AI project, it helps to have a good understanding of what makes people tick, with insights drawn from fields like psychology, sociology, and even history mixed with strong interpersonal skills and the empathy to include and understand other people who may have different perspectives.

Finally, data scientists and architects need to understand data security and privacy. As the name implies, data science works with a lot of data, so you have to secure that data to avoid breaches and meet privacy regulations, or you could cost your organization a lot of money. At a minimum, you need a working security vocabulary to have a meaningful discussion with security leaders and architects.

In the time I’ve been studying it, the role of data architect has emerged as the most volatile of the three. It’s true that security never stops changing, but neither does data science, especially in ML and AI—and it’s been that way for the last decade.

The skills that separate the engineers from the architects

Technical skills are the most important factor at junior levels, and most tech professionals focus on honing them. However, as you become more senior, soft skills—what we at Skillsoft call power skills—become increasingly important.

For an aspiring architect, power skills can include things like:

  • Program or product management help direct how a product evolves and improves.
  • Systems thinking benefits those who must solve larger challenges spanning multiple systems, rather than more isolated problems.
  • Understanding IT operations at your organization helps you understand the real-world implications of development decisions.

Power skills also include things that aren’t directly related to development or technology, like the ability to communicate with your team and advocate for their work within your organization.

As you move into more senior roles, interpersonal skills become crucial. The ability to communicate, write, and present up and down the chain will dramatically improve your impact as an architect.

The systems you design will need to be built by the development team, which will take time. You’ll need to keep time constraints in mind when designing systems: both your time and your team’s time. When solving hard problems, it’s easy to lose track of time.

Finally, organizational skills like budgeting and understanding business models are important too. They provide essential context for your work as an architect and help guide decisions throughout the design and development process. If your work can save your employer money, then they’re more likely to reward you with raises or promotions.

Skill levels for architects: go broad or go deep?

Today in tech, everything connects everything else. You can't deploy an application without touching the cloud. You can’t run an app in production without making sure it’s secure. And everything relies on the availability and integrity of data. And that’s just the three specializations we’re talking about here. On top of those, you have DevOps, traditional infrastructure, and dozens of other critical tech functions that all interlink to build and maintain an IT organization.

Any tech professional, especially one who aspires to reach the architect level, must thoroughly understand related disciplines. So how far should you take it?

At Skillsoft, we rate ability on a five-level scale:

  1. Awareness
  2. Literacy
  3. Competency
  4. Proficiency
  5. Mastery

I believe an architect needs to be in the competency to proficiency range for all related disciplines. Without this understanding, you simply won’t understand the implications of your decisions for other areas of the organization. Ultimately, this ignorance will cause inefficiencies and incompatibilities, costing your organization time and resources.

This is where a passion for ongoing learning comes in. To perform well at a senior level, you need to consistently train in all related fields and hone your primary discipline.

Start learning now

No matter where you are in your career, now is the best time to start learning. A tech career is synonymous with a decades-long pursuit of skills and knowledge, including power (soft) skills and hard skills in your primary discipline, and an understanding of related fields.

If you’re interested in learning more about these roles and the skills involved, check out the IT Skills and Salary Report. This report has informed articles like these and shares the findings from Skillsoft’s largest survey of tech professionals.

The 2022 survey is open through the end of July, and we encourage anyone working in tech to participate to share their experiences and help share the future of the industry. See the survey here.

At Skillsoft, we’d like to help you on your journey. We provide the world’s largest source of online learning for developers, including courses in all the latest tech fields. Over 90 million learners in 160+ countries access our courses, which are 100% cloud-based, so you can access them anytime to support your continuous learning habit.

To start building the skills you need to scale up to architect, check out our course library at skillsoft.com.

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