Is Solution Architect a Good Career Path for a Business Systems Analyst?

A reader asks:

I have been a developer, and from there moved to doing business analysis. I would call myself a Business Systems Analyst, and love that role. Is becoming an Architect a suitable progression from a BA? I have moved from development to doing business analysis. So, I do understand technology quite well so I was more thinking on the lines of Solution Architect/Enterprise Architect. But does that mean you have to be in the technical stream? Also, at what level does business architect come in? Is it higher or lower than Solution Architect?

Laura’s response:

I do see business analysts with strong technical backgrounds moving into solutions architect roles and I think this can be a great career path for the right person. If you like technology enough to keep up with the latest platforms, tools, and technologies, then solution architect could be a good career path choice. Often we also see strong developers with a big picture mindset and strong people or “soft” skills moving right into these roles, so there are many paths to solution/enterprise architecture.

In full disclosure, my husband is what I would consider an enterprise or solution architect and I often joke with him that he’s doing some business analysis. I’ll hear him on client calls talking about business process, business goals, and suggesting high-level technical solutions, and I’ll be like, “Ah! He needs a BA!”

And while I (as a Business Analyst) could have these initial conversations, I do not have the deep technical background to jump right into suggesting solutions and solving problems immediately following a phone call. It’s a highly valued competency within the business community where decisions need to be made fast. This means it can be much easier to have one person you can talk to and get a solution from rather than the more iterative process of a BA/Developer combo.

But I digress…

Yes, I do think a solutions architect role tends to be in the technical stream a bit. The professionals who are successful in these roles can strongly influence a development team. You will have developers challenging your decisions and you will need to be able to talk their talk, write code to create prototypes, and wrestle with thorny issues. I don’t think one can be a great solution architect in the abstract.

And, as to the relative hierarchy of business architect and solution architect, it will depend on the company and how the roles are defined. Solution architect is the more common role today, but business architect might be more likely to have direct executive exposure and I believe it will grow over time. Since these titles can be used for various types of roles, it will depend on how the roles are defined and what the company values. For example, a high tech company might value a solution architect more highly because their competitive advantage is in the solution, while a growing business might value a business architect more because their competitive advantage will be derived from organizing the business to scale.

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Comments

  1. My current title is Web Solutions Architect, but I perform a litany of business analyst roles daily. I have incredible exposure to executive leadership, and my direct supervisor is the CCO as I work primarily in marketing and communications. My key role is provide the technical expertise and lead technical projects to achieve the university’s key communications and marketing needs. I would say roughly 40% of my time is working with IT closely and leading the collective team down the path to a successful conclusion.

    A Solution Architect, in my experience, is very closely related to a business analyst. The roles mix and mingle quite a bit, and I believe (correct me if I’m wrong, Laura) this is what you talk about when there’s no real clear path to and from a BA role because many of the responsibilities depending on organizations may mold them together.

    My background is a web developer. I developed and managed content management systems for 5+ years before making the step into my current role. It gives me an amazing opportunity to explore business analysis, and I get great exposure to a solutions and enterprise architect role.

    In conclusion, what do you want to accomplish in your career and where do you want to see yourself go? This may not be a “step forward” but a lateral, but not all lateral moves should be frowned upon if they give you the skills and experience you want and need.

  2. Hi Brandon, As far as the mix and mingle that’s what I talk about exactly. This is actually formally validated in the recent release of the IIBA Competency Model which breaks out several different roles and mentions various hybrid roles as well (hybrid roles combine BA with responsibilities from other professions).

    Great to hear you are enjoying your new hybrid role as a Solutions Architect and drawing from the BA community to help you achieve great things with it!

  3. I am currently an enterprise architect in a 2000 person US financial services IT organisation. I feel the solution architect, for someone with a well rounded technical background, is a solid career step if you aspirations are towards taking on more responsibility, more stress and more accountability towards making change. I do want to stress well roundedness in that if your only technical background is, say, web development, your ability to formulate solution recommendations will be limited. Not sure the originator of the quote, but I believe it applies here: If all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail.

    Additionally, as you move into solution architecture, you have to be ready to accept more ambiguity in your role and your deliverables. It may seem attractive to be engaged early in the delivery process to help shape the final outcome. But, you will also run into less technical challenges and more management challenges. The politics and the players at the management levels will have more influence on your solution that raw technical elegance. Executives go off for a few days to visit a vendor and they come back charging you to integrate the vendor’s latest product into your solutions … even if there already exists a mature IT asset that directly competes with the vendor’s product being pushed.

    Lastly, you need to develop ways to derive organisational/peer consensus for your solutions rather than just count on your mastery of the technical arts. Spouting “We need to use X from now on for all our !” as the solution architect is going to fall flat if the rest of the organisation doesn’t notionally buy in to X.

    Lastly, check out Joel Spelosky’s excellent post on Architecture Astronauts for additional perspectives: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000018.html

  4. I’m currently calling myself a business systems analyst these days, but have performed the role of solution architect off and on in my background. I too see these roles as lateral and complimentry as opposed to a traditional career path of upward movement.

    In my view the solution architect (or architect assigned to the project) works side by side with the BA\SA to determine what existing systems can be used to help design a solution, or if they determine that none of the existing systems are appropriate then, keeping an eye on the overarching organizational infastructure policy, work with the BA\SA to determine what new system can be developed / purchased and what the technology should look like to best fit with the existing systems or vision of the company.

    The BA\SA generally assists with this effort but is not responsible for it, we determine what data is neccesary where, how it is going to get there, what form it will be in, basically how to use the systems that the solution architect believes are the best fit for the solution being designed. The BA\SA is also completely responsible for the business side of the technology, determine best practices for using it, working with the business to implement those practices, training, etc.

    So finally to the question; Is it a good career path? I think that if you want to work more with technology, less with direct exposure to the end user and their needs then it is definatly a good step to take. Another considerations might be that architecture could have a better defined role in an organization with a clearer path to move upwards as it’s been my observations that architecture is usually already entrenched in organizations where business or systems analysis is still be adopted in alot of organizations

  5. Interesting responses.
    In my experience, mainly working for small to medium companies, highly competent developers are promoted to be Technical Architects, but then – that’s where they stay.
    The architects I’ve worked with love the technical side of things so much that they seldom want to delve into the business side as deeply.

    I would have thought a more common progression (involving architect) would be:
    developer -> architect -> BA
    for those architects who are more interested in sitting between the business/technical space.

  6. I’ve been a Business Analyst for the past 5 years and now moving on to solution architecture. Some of the key points mentioned above are valid, but again it is company specific, and depending upon your organization and the way solution architecture works in your organization …results could vary.

    My very first observation of solution architecture is that it’s not as technical as people make it out to be. The world of solution architects is to ensure that the business deliverable (i.e. the IT projects) don’t digress from the solution blueprint of the enterprise, in lay mans terms if everyone is using MySQL, don’t create a database with SqlServer just because you have the adapter.

    Your enterprise will have a defined blueprint of what it hopes to accomplish architecturally over the next 3-5 years, and the job of a solution architect is to find a way to meet the business requirements without messing up the blueprint.

    That being said, one of my passions on the job was problem solving, and getting things to go from idea to working concept to final solution. I loved that aspect as a BA on a project, because you stay till the end…Technically BA’s aren’t suppose to do this, but I did it in my previous role.

    In the architect space, I don’t see this. What I do is a high level design that I helped formulate against a solution options. That’s it,…architects design the solution they don’t stay to the end. And that’s what people mean by architects are very high level…they help define the scope of the project and the deliverable, but they don’t help deliver it…that’s a job for the Project team.

    I’m still pretty new to this architect role, and my actual job title is project solution architect. So I’m unsure what to expect, however to me it was a logical step for my career progression, it wasn’t a step up but a lateral step, but like one of the commenters said, lateral steps aren’t to be frowned upon.

    • Keith, Thanks for sharing your role. I think you are right on – this is very organization-specific and there are no standards or absolute right answers. I’m interested in your statement regarding that this is not really a technical role. Do you think a business person with no background in technology (no coding experience) could easily make the transition to solutions architect? I have a small background in some technical skills and I still don’t think I’d have the knowledge to make suitable recommendations without a lot of on-the-job research and learning on my part.

      Case in point, I understand what SQL is, but this sentence doesn’t mean a whole lot to me

      “in lay mans terms if everyone is using MySQL, don’t create a database with SqlServer just because you have the adapter.”

  7. Brian Paxton says:

    It’s interesting to see the different viewpoints on the role of the solution architect and I think it shows just how varied, and perhaps overloaded, the term architect can be within IT. There are often two extremes of architect: those who are sometimes referred to as “ivory tower” and focus on producing artefacts like metamodels and conceptual architecture diagrams and at the other end of the spectrum there are those who spend the majority of their time coding and who pride themselves on software craftsmanship and class-level design patterns.

    My personal view is that as a good solutions architect you need to sit somewhere in the middle. You need to have a good understanding of the business context in which you work and be a good communicator – which are both tenets of an accomplished BA. In addition to this though you need a strong background in technology to be able to connect the enterprise level vision and technology direction to the code the developers have to write. You need to be a trusted advisor to senior managers and sometimes execs and at the same time be able to role up your sleeves enough for the development team to have confidence that you’re still connected to their world.

    I think both jfbauer makes a good point around “if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. It’s important to have a wide range of tools within your tool box and to keep up to date with new technologies. This should relate well to business analysis as any experienced BA will know that different elicitation techniques work well in different situations and with different people.

    Finally Laura, I think what Keith is getting at is if your organisation has decided to use the MySQL database server, just because you know how to connect to another database technology (SQL Server) doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. Why does your organisation need to run two types of database technology if the one will do the job you need it to?

  8. There is a difference in pay between a Business Analyst and Solution Architect?
    Can a SA become a BA and a SA to become a BA? Is this possible? Thanks!

  9. Brian Paxton says:

    From a salary perspective there’s not a massive difference between a senior BA and an SA however architects are typically paid a little more. If you google average salaries for the two roles it’s pretty easy to find the differences.

    Whilst there is a degree of overlap within the roles, to be a good BA you will need excellent analysis skills and to be a good SA your going to need to be more skilled from a technology perspective. For the right individual though I think it would be a fairly easy transition.