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April 11, 2016

By Lisa Dare



Wondering about your next career move? If you’re technically inclined you might aspire to become a systems architect, a job with lots of prestige and an average salary over $100K. Advancing to architect takes time, effort and sometimes a little creativity, but if you commit now, you can achieve it.

How long will it take?

Most people follow this progression: systems administrator – systems engineer – systems architect. Less commonly, people start as developers, while some learn about systems by working in database administration.

Gaining the skills and certifications (see more about this below) to become a systems architect usually takes 10-15 years.

Practical tips for becoming a systems architect

  • Cozy up to PowerPoint. You two are going to form a close, personal relationship. Presenting clear, high-level information to nontechnical stakeholders is a cornerstone skill in architecting.    
  • Dress and act professionally. You’ll need to impress high-level executives with your professionalism in order to get them to trust you to make decisions they don’t understand.
  • Learn the business lingo. Speaking intelligently about topics like operating costs and cash flow is going to impress the people who hire systems architects.
  • Get experience with cloud technologies. Learn about private and public clouds and how they integrate with enterprise systems. Amazon Web Services (AWS) and OpenStack are smart technologies to master.
  • Get comfortable with compromise. You can advocate for the technically pure solution but you won’t always get it. Understand how to make the right trade-offs between cost, speed and security.
  • Document and communicate. Learn to document your work with precision. Communicate clearly, concisely and consistently about the status of your projects with your superiors.

Education and certifications

Systems architect jobs generally call for a four-year degree, preferably in technology management or computer science. You’ll probably need at least one technical certification and possibly a project management certificate. An MBA or master’s degree in a specialized IT field is a big plus for getting systems architect jobs. 

These are the top certifications that can help you earn a systems architect position:

The Open Group Architecture Framework: TOGAF is the most used systems architecture framework, and the certification is widely respected. 

Project Management Professional: The effort and expense you’ll put into earning this certification will pay big dividends in your career—even before you become a systems architect. Our research shows the PMP adds an enormous bump to your earning potential—up to $20,000 a year. While you don’t technically need a Project Management Professional certification to become a systems architect, it can easily make the difference between getting the job or not.

The PMP prerequisites are steep. If you have a four-year degree, you’ll need to log 4,500 hours of project management time (which takes at least two years but typically more like five, depending on the nature of your work), plus obtain 35 hours of project management training, before you can even take the exam. If the PMP sounds out of reach, the Project Management Institute also offers the more entry-level CAPM (Certified Associate in Project Management), which has no prerequisites.

Open Group Certified Architect: Open CA, the most widely respected architect certification, requires at least two years of full-time experience developing IT architectures. There’s no exam for this certification, but the application process is extensive. Through in-person interviews and documentation, you’ll have to demonstrate that you possess excellent communication and problem-solving skills, leadership and a thorough understanding of how business relates to IT—in addition to sound technical knowledge.   

Related reading

Help desk workers: 10 tips for advancing into systems administration

The no-pressure guide to finding a mentor




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