While architecture sits at the heart of all things IT, it's not the same type of architecture that produces palaces, museums and bowling alleys. Rather, architecture is a formal discipline within the field of computing that concerns itself with how systems are designed, composed and orchestrated.
Much like the other kind of architecture, IT architecture is both an art and a science. It's as much about understanding and accommodating the people who make use of computing and the services it can deliver as it is about the systems that run them and the networks that tie them together. IT architecture also concerns itself with best practices and with making sure that technology remains the servant of the organization that owns or operates it, rather than becoming an end in itself.
Over the years, as IT has become vastly more complex, numerous types of IT architect job roles have evolved. Today you can find jobs such as enterprise architect, application architect, storage architect and database architect, the cloud architect being one of the most important roles across that entire class.
The cloud architect's job
Cloud architecture is a relatively new discipline, with its roots in software development. Modern cloud architects plan and design cloud environments, typically providing guidance throughout the life of a cloud-based development or deployment project. A cloud architect must understand the concepts and moving parts involved in continuous integration and continuous delivery in the cloud, offering their expertise in cloud-based infrastructure and build-and-release strategies to development teams.
But cloud architects do much more than design systems or IT environments. They must also take ownership of such systems or environments throughout their lifecycles. Architects get involved with initial requirements analysis and see things through to retirement and replacement much further down the road.
On the business side, cloud architects seek to understand what kind of functionality is needed, what it's supposed to do, what competitive advantages it might deliver and how much it will cost to implement. On the technology side, cloud architects decide what systems might be needed, which vendors to do business with, how to integrate pieces and parts from different suppliers, and which APIs and standards to adopt. It's a big job.
Key skills for cloud architects
Cloud architects must possess or develop a sizable collection of skills. Surprisingly, this is one role where soft skills play a crucial role alongside technical skills. Here's a laundry list of skills and qualifications a cloud architect should have or acquire to excel in this field:
- Strong general background in enterprise computing: Ideally, this means one or more degrees in computer science, MIS, informatics or something similar, with a good understanding of how enterprises use information technology for a wide range of purposes and applications.
- Strong technical skills in enterprise computing: Cloud architects must understand the building blocks of IT. These include client systems and applications, networking, infrastructure, data centers, programming languages, web tools and technologies, databases and big data, and ERP. In fact, cloud architects are usually experts in one or more of these technology areas or disciplines. But their expertise is intended to create a vision of what is needed and how it might be put together, not necessarily to get involved in construction or maintenance of the solutions they architect. In the literature, this is sometimes described as a "T-shaped skill profile." Broad but shallow skills apply to most technical areas (the vertical line in the T), with one or more sets of deep skills and knowledge in one or two technical areas (the crossbar of the T).
- Communication: A critical character trait for IT architects is well-developed communication skills, using all available and pertinent communication methods. These include the ability to communicate clearly, directly, and persuasively in writing and in person, in one-on-one conversations as well as group meetings. Cloud architects must also be able to run meetings and manage (read: communicate with) with all kinds of people, including C-level executives, managers, technical experts, end users or customers, and other stakeholders.
- Leadership: Cloud architects need strong, effective leadership skills, because they must convince different groups and stakeholders to believe in a united vision and a blueprint for how a cloud environment works within their organization.
- Asking the right questions: Arguably, the most important skill for an IT architect is a combination of analytical skills and insatiable curiosity. Cloud architects must ask the right questions and listen carefully to the answers (even if they think they know those answers in advance). Designing the right system or solution means understanding and formulating what users and stakeholders really want, in a way that provides proper performance, security, availability and integrity.
- Planning and organizing: Architects must possess strong planning and organizing skills, because they must make and manage action plans for projects that may take months or even years to complete.
- Strategy/business sense: Cloud architects must understand what is really important to a business or organization, focusing on technologies and solutions most likely to provide competitive advantages or to improve productivity and profitability. Thus, they must understand the company's business strategy and prioritize their technology recommendations and guidance accordingly.
Cloud architect jobs and salaries
A quick search across major job boards shows more than 25,000 jobs openings in the U.S. with the word "architect" in the title. Though the average salary for architects varies widely by area of expertise, experience and industry, IT architects are typically senior staff who frequently earn well above six figures. A search of those same job boards returns more than 5,000 job openings with "architect" in the title that pay more than $100,000, with many of those jobs paying more than $150,000 for high-demand IT architect skills.
Becoming a cloud architect
To become a cloud architect, one must add to the mix a deep knowledge and understanding of cloud computing and its roles and uses in the marketplace. This means digging into a host of important technologies, including virtualization, software-defined networking, network infrastructures, physical and virtual storage, data center computing, backup and recovery technologies, disaster recovery, and business continuity. It also means working on the non-negotiable soft skills outlined above.
Building your skills, knowledge and experience
Cloud architect jobs generally go to those in the middle and later stages of their careers. People who aspire to and actually fill those positions usually have 8-10 years of prior on-the-job experience, often with a mix of jobs involving work as a strong technical contributor or technical expert, team lead, or first- or second-level manager. The job calls for a mix of hard technical skills, strong people skills, and leadership abilities that is hard to acquire without building tenure and extensive experience in the IT workforce. That said, it's great for IT pros to recognize that, whatever their specialization or area of expertise, it's always possible to grow their skill set into an architect role at some point in their career.