I seem to find myself getting pulled into discussions too frequently concerning the topic of the difference between an engineer and an architect. Most organizations only define the distinction based on a pay scale, seniority or both. My witty response to this question, architects handle layer 8 so engineers can focus on layers 1 through 7. To help better illustrate this statement look at the example org chart below(click the photo to see it enlarged). Let’s presume that this org chart is of a large IT reseller. As you look at each position you will see how the focus changes from technical to business. I also included Cisco’s certification track since it’s the most widely known and marries up nicely with the topic. Let’s now go through the org chart bottom up and define the roles and responsibilities of each position.
Delivery Service Engineer: This position is generally an implementations expert in at least one area with 5-7+ years of experience. While there are varying levels of the DSE e.g. Junior, Senior or I, II, III the commonality is that they are all implementations engineers within professional services. They show up to the customer site and execute what the technical solution architects have designed/provided. The senior DSEs will often be technical team leads.
Consulting Systems Engineer: This position is a subject matter expert with 5-7+ years of experience. This position falls under the sales side in the reseller and is the technical advisor to the account manager and their customers. The CSE has reach-back to the technical solutions architects for definitive answers concerning the customer’s questions for a given technology/solution. Depending on the expertise area of the CSE and the technology/solution of interest by the customer, the CSE may present demos to customers.
Technical Solutions Architect: This position is a subject matter expert in at least one area that heavily focuses on design with 7-10+ years of experience. Normally this is the person coming up with the high and low level designs, build guides and templates that will be handed off to the DSEs. For larger and more complex projects the technical solutions architect will travel on-site, oversee the implementation and serve as the technical lead. Additionally they may travel to a customer’s site to demo a technology/solution. In the event the reseller does not have technical and consulting solutions architect positions, both functions will be handled by solutions architects, possibly with varying levels of seniority.
Principal Consultant: This position is a subject matter expert in at least one area with 10-15+ years of experience that focuses solely on the largest customer accounts within sales. This position is for those very talented and senior consulting systems engineers. In many occasions this person will be briefing the customer’s C-level executives along with the assistance from the consulting solutions architect, who can further technically articulate how their business needs are met with the proposed solutions.
Consulting Solutions Architect: This position is an expert in IT infrastructure with 15-20+ years of experience. The CSA is the glue that ensures the sales account team’s efforts and the professional service’s technical solutions align for a major account or new lines of revenue from emerging technology. Products produced for customers and/or the principal consultant will include; an IT architecture that maps to business needs, solution architectures to address individual business need specifically, technology roadmaps, and briefings for C-level executives that effectively communicate how the reseller, its solutions and its staff are best equipped to handle their business needs.
In conclusion, while many technical experts will argue that the primary difference between engineer and architect is purely salary and technical experience. I believe that while those both may be true, the real difference is in your understanding of business, how technology can solve the business requirements of your customers and your ability to effectively communicate it to them.