Software Architect vs. Principal Software Engineer: What's the Difference?

By Joshua Gross, 17 September, 2022

If you're putting together a team to build software for your company, you might feel a bit overwhelmed by all the different titles and roles in the industry.

When you're creating your hierarchy of engineers, the difference between a software architect vs. a principal software engineer might seem difficult to determine.

The reality is that different titles can be used for various roles depending on the company in question. Both principal software engineers and software architects, however, are at the top of the skill ladder when it comes to the technical aspect of the software development process.

Let's take a deeper dive into the difference between these two job titles and the hierarchy of technical engineering jobs as a whole.

What Is a Software Architect?

Software architects usually focus on high-level structural considerations and software interactions. Usually, people in this role are knowledgable and experienced software engineers with a firm grasp on building long-lasting, sustainable software through a deep understanding of the best practices.

In a small two-person startup, it's common for one person to focus on the business side of things while the other focuses on the technical aspects. The person in the role of the tech partner will usually take care of engineering, architecture, planning, bug-fixing, testing, and everyone on both the front end and the back end.

As the startup gets bigger and grows, though, more people join the team, and this partner might become the technological manager and then either an architect or a principal software engineer– whichever he thinks fits his role best. Even though his job title has been shifting, though, he has actually been an architect for the entire time he's been building the startup.

It's worth noting that architects don't always code, and they aren't always programmers. That being said, many professional software developers recommend that architects know how to write code even if it isn't a part of their job responsibilities. The benefits of knowing how to write code as a software architect include:

  • Allowing the architect to verify the code the developers wrote identifies deviations and matches with the design.
  • Giving the architect the ability to make a prototype or write a proof of concepts.
  • Helping the architect learn about new features or changes.
  • Having another pair of hands to help out when there are deadlines to meet.
  • Helping the architect empathize with programmers when they make mistakes because they have experience with coding themselves.

If all of this isn't confusing enough, some teams have a senior software engineer that is actually more of an engineer even though their title says otherwise. Basically, the role of an architect isn't universally designed, and anyone that designs a system or a product can be referred to as an architect.

Architects are often responsible for designing products, managing development teams, and customer communication. A normal path for a software architect is to start as a low-level engineer or programmer before working up to this executive-level role.

Some of the skills that are necessary in order to work as a software architect include:

  • Problem-solving
  • Organization
  • Leadership skills
  • Great communication skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Creativity

There are also a number of different specializations that software architects can focus on. These include:

  • Applied architect
  • Domain architect
  • Enterprise architect
  • Product or system architect
  • Solution architect

Are you wondering what your budget should look like if you want to build custom software? This guide looks at how much software development costs.

What Is a Principal Software Engineer?

Software engineers are programmers that are well-versed and experienced in developing software both efficiently and effectively. A principal software engineer is usually very high up in the hierarchy of engineers, and they tend to take on large-scale projects. Rather than spending their time writing individual bits of code, these engineers are able to focus on things like:

  • Architectural oversight
  • Interfacing with other business units
  • Mentoring newer engineers
  • Improving process

In a typical team hierarchy, the head of engineering in an organization would be in charge of creating a product that fits within the vision of the senior architect. Generally, software engineers will learn about software architecture if they receive a college degree.

The role of a principal software engineer is to develop and test software that is built in order to achieve the goals of a company. Overseeing the technical aspects of software projects, the principal software engineer works to develop teams that help a company create the software they need to thrive.

Essential skills required to work as a principal software engineer include:

  • Excellent leadership and management skills
  • Expertise in a number of different high-level programming languages
  • Strong communication skills, both verbal and written
  • Problem-solving skills to identify, analyze, and fix technical issues
  • Analytical skills to understand how to meet the needs of the end-user

There are typically four levels of software engineers, which are junior, middle, senior, and principal. Principal engineers sit at the top of this hierarchy and are the highest-ranking title for software engineers. Usually, only one person fills this role and is responsible for overseeing all of the projects in the engineering department.

Architect vs. Principal Software Engineer: What's the Difference?

Parsing out the difference between a software architect and a software engineer can feel like splitting hairs, but they are two separate roles for a reason. Perhaps the most straightforward way to understand how these titles differ is that architects are responsible for producing the plans for a project, while engineers follow through and build the software based on those plans.

A simple way to describe what distinguishes these roles from one another is the fact that software architects are usually a bit more on the business side of things, while software engineers are more on the technical side of things.

That being said, these titles won't necessarily mean the same thing in small and mid-sized businesses or other private companies. There's a lot more leeway on smaller teams, but the corporate environment requires detailed job titles and a more structured hierarchy of roles. This means that you might come across a principal software architect in a smaller company that ultimately is more of an engineer than an architect in their job description and duties.

In some cases, then, these job titles are actually interchangeable to a certain degree. When an individual starts working as an engineer for a tech company, they might specialize in managing and planning high-quality software or producing this product. As they gain more experience and become more specialized, they can move on to either a senior architect role or a senior engineer role.

What About Programmers– Where Do They Fit In?

Programmers are individuals that write code and understand the concepts of functions, looping, logic control, and more. They might write collections of scripts rather than finished software packages, though programmers can also build things like database-driven apps or websites.

Are you building a web app on your own? Be sure to check out ten of the best tools to wireframe and prototype your app.

The Software Engineering Job Hierarchy

Both engineers and architects will typically begin their career journey in lower-level engineering roles. Once they have gained enough experience and expertise, the career path deviates between managing code or managing people.

While the precise path in different companies can vary quite a bit, let's take a look at the standard stages an individual takes when they work their way up to a role as a principal software engineer or architect.

  • Engineer I: Competence in one core language and an understanding of the foundations of programming. This is entry-level with anywhere from no previous experience to two years of experience.
  • Engineer II: Able to write code correctly with minimal supervision and quickly learn from mistakes. These engineers understand the full workflow from design to completion. Usually, people in this role have two to six years of experience or more.
  • Senior Engineer I: Extremely reliable and able to take on projects of medium complexity. Great decision maker that excels at debugging. Senior engineers in this role usually have five to eight years of experience or more.
  • Tech Lead: Takes on additional responsibilities, including managerial tasks and providing technical direction to a team. These professionals usually have seven years or more of experience.
  • Senior Engineer II: Tons of technical and emotional maturity with a history of tech lead roles. These people have shown their expertise in at least one domain. Normally, they have six to nine years of experience or more.

At this point, the career path splits into two potential roads. The first is technical, which is better suited for individuals that want to manage code. The second is managerial, for people that would rather manage people than code.

Technical Track

Software engineer careers can continue along a technical track after an individual has spent about a decade working their way up in the industry.

These technical track careers include:

  • Staff Engineer: A history of launching quality projects and the ability to improve existing systems. With expert knowledge of the codebase, these people have proven themselves as problem-solvers and high-level engineers. Usually, you need ten or more years of experience to fill this role.
  • Senior Staff Engineer: Highly competent and possessing the ability to anticipate technological change. These people have the skills to solve any emergency, and they have a history of delivering products that result from cross-team collaboration. Senior staff engineers usually have about twelve years of experience at least.
  • Principal Engineer/Chief Architect: Able to provide overarching technical direction and identify potential technical problems ahead of time. These people are recognized for their expertise in their industry and have deep knowledge in their particular areas of specialization. Principal engineers and architects usually have fourteen or more years of experience.

As you can see, the principal engineer and architect are in the exact same spot in the hierarchy– at the top. Even though the roles can consist of different types of tasks, they are both high-level roles achieved after a long time of proving oneself in the industry.

Management Track

For people that are more interested in managing people than code, there are a number of higher-level positions in many companies.

These are:

  • Engineering Lead: Manages a large team that oversees tech leads and clears bottlenecks in development. These professionals usually have at least nine years of experience.
  • Engineering Director: Nurtures talent, keeps the company ahead of the curve technologically, and manages engineers. Engineering directors normally have ten or more years of experience.
  • VP Engineering: With years of experience managing engineering teams, they are highly effective communicators that work with the CTO to fulfill the company's vision. They usually have about twelve to fifteen years of experience.
  • Executive (CTO): Gives direction and strategy at an organizational level and oversees the evolution and growth of the technological aspects of a company. These professionals typically have fifteen to twenty years of experience.

Curious to know how many developers you're going to need to build your web app? Check out this guide to learn more.

Is It Better to Build a Team or Hire a Software Development Company?

The decision to build an in-house team versus finding the right software development company to create your software can greatly impact your final product and budget. Building a full-fledged team might make sense for some organizations that focus on building software as a central part of their mission. On the other hand, hiring a team for the job might be the best option for smaller companies or those that aren't specifically software development companies.

If you're ready to take your digital product concept into the next phase of realization, hiring a development partner can allow you to have access to a cohesive, experienced team without needing to add more people to your payroll. This can allow you to work with a wide range of experts you might not otherwise have access to. Additionally, it is generally less expensive than hiring an in-house team.

Do you have a digital product you're ready to transform from an idea into a reality? Give us a shout and tell us about your project.