On the Software Architect Trail

There are different ways to get to software architect rewards.

By Bob Rhubart

March/April 2011

What’s the best job in America? According to a report on the top 100 jobs for 2010, software architects enjoy the #1 slot, with the best paychecks and the rosiest growth prospects. (The only other IT position in the top 10 was database administrator, coming in at #7.) So how does one calibrate a career trajectory from Point B to Point Architect? Different people come at the role from different angles, so the answer depends on whom you ask.

Randy Stafford, a consulting solutions architect with the Oracle Coherence team and a 20-year IT veteran, didn’t plan on becoming an architect.

“It wasn’t premeditated,” says Stafford. “It just happened slowly, almost accidentally, over time. Partly by chance and partly by choice, I was repeatedly an early adopter of technologies whose importance grew.

“I started as an entry-level software engineer working in assembly and Fortran,” says Stafford. “Two years later, I became an independent consultant, taking technical leadership roles for a series of clients. Since the mid-1990s, I’ve held a succession of titled positions for several companies, including director of development and chief architect. Each change along the way entailed taking some risk, but the reward was growth in knowledge and experience. And it was important to participate in the profession by publishing regularly at conferences, in journals, and in books.”

Oracle ACE Director Brian “Bex” Huff is a software architect with consulting firm Bezzotech, where he specializes in Oracle enterprise content management. Huff cites two reasons for becoming an architect. “First, I liked working more closely with customers, rather than relying on abstract developer requirements. Second, I always enjoyed integrating completely different systems together.

“I started out as a Java developer, creating shrink-wrapped products,” says Huff. “I slowly realized that I preferred helping out with our consultants when it came to implementing the ultimate solutions. I helped them with the initial design and supplied them with code to help out on the trickier integration points. When I saw integration patterns emerge, I’d make sure the code made its way into the core product. The transition from developer to software architect was pretty natural.”

Oracle ACE Director Chris Muir, a consultant with SAGE Computing Services and a frequent speaker on Java, Oracle JDeveloper, and Oracle Application Development Framework at Oracle user group events in Australia, is relatively new to the software architect role. His transition began because he was outspoken about recurring problems he observed on client projects.

“Why are these two teams building solutions on different platforms and different technologies that are maintained separately, monitored separately, and require different skill sets?” Muir asked. “Why not build systems with an eye not just to the end business solution but also to making the overall IT infrastructure consistent, maintainable, and interoperable?”

Muir reports that in response to his questions, clients would ask, “So how would you build it?”

“From there,” says Muir, “the role of the architect is born.”

The ability to recognize the patterns in recurring problems is essential for the software architect, according to Oracle Enterprise Architect Pat Shepherd, who specializes in SOA and business process management.

“You see business and organizational patterns emerge. Those who can bring this all together and can communicate clearly and powerfully often become software architects,” says Shepherd.

If clear, effective communication is an essential skill for software architects, it is no small irony that architect might not be the best word to describe the role.

“I always felt the title architect was a tad misleading,” says Huff, who holds a master’s degree in civil engineering. “Designing software is nothing like designing a building. Software is soft; buildings are not. Gardening is a more accurate analogy, or maybe gene splicing.”

Whatever you call it, software architecture is paying off for practitioners and the companies that employ them. And although the career path may not be clearly marked, the journey has obvious rewards.

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