Principal Software Engineer vs Architect | How to Differ Them?

Lyudmila Kucher
Lyudmila Kucher

I specialize in outstaffing and staff augmentation, and I have extensive experti...

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principal engineer vs software architect

There is no rulebook for job titles in the IT industry. We sometimes use them interchangeably, but it’s good to be specific, so let’s examine the differences in detail.

One thing is for sure:

  • Titles might not be the most important thing, but they can make a difference.
  • Our job titles define how others see us, they’re a big part of our first impression, and they convey what we do.
  • For managers in technological companies, it’s important to know who does what. Proper titles can even improve teamwork. It’s easier to ask for help when you’re aware of your teammates’ responsibilities.
  • One of the most mysterious titles is Software Architect. How is this job different from software engineering? First, we’ll look at the “soft” side of things, and we’ll get more technical in the second part.


The Mysterious Software Architect

In a (very tiny) nutshell, software engineering is more on the technical side, and software architecture is a bit more on the business side. It’s important to bear in mind that in private companies and SMBs, these titles won’t always mean the same thing.

The corporate environment is a bit more structured and requires detailed job titles, whereas smaller teams have a bit more leeway. So in smaller companies, you might find a Principal Software Architect on outstaffing service whose job, in reality, is limited to Engineering.

Why limited? Because the Architect usually covers a wider range of responsibilities. To put it simply, in a normal team hierarchy, the head of engineering would be tasked with building a product that fits the senior architect’s vision. From an education perspective, Software Engineers with a college education know about software architecture.

Realistically, then, these titles are interchangeable. At least to a certain degree. When Engineers choose a job at a tech company, they can specialize in producing high-quality software, or planning and managing that production. This would lead to either a senior Engineer or senior Architect title as they became more specialized and gained more experience.

Lots of people like building start-ups because it allows them to take on many roles at once. In the archetypical two-person start-up, there’s the business partner and the technology partner. The tech partner does the architecture, planning, engineering, testing, bug-fixing, from the backend to the frontend.

As the software project grows, the tech partner becomes the technological manager, and then – principal software engineer or architect. Whichever he prefers, and thinks describes his job best. In reality, and in accordance with the definition (which you’ll see in a bit), he was the architect from the start anyway.

software developer vs software architect

Now, a different situation. The manager needs to gather a team for a big project with specific requirements, a budget, and a deadline. Should she specifically look for a software architect? Not necessarily! A senior software engineer with relevant experience would most likely be able to take on the role of the senior architect.

One of the crucial aspects of the Architect role is that sometimes the architect isn’t a programmer. Architects don’t always code. But, as Anthony Langsworth (and many professional software developers) would argue, a good architect should be able to write code, because it:


  • “Verifies the code written by developers matches the design and identifies deviations.
  • Helps the architect learn about changes or new features. […]
  • Allows the architect to write a proof of concepts or prototype. […]
  • Provides another pair of capable hands during the project crunch periods.
  • Makes the architect more forgiving of bugs because the architect has likely made similar mistakes in the past.”


This brings us back to the fact that a senior software Architect on some teams can in fact be an Engineer, despite their title. Anybody who designs a product or a system can be called an Architect if the role isn’t clearly defined. So if you need to hire full time developer be sure to describe position responsibilities in detail and do not fuss about titles.

Titles can mean different things from project to project. But if it is crucial – discover what Toptal is and how it can help to unify job titles and job functions when hiring freelancers. On the technical side, however, things are a lot more clear.

Software Architecture and Engineering – technical side

Borrowing from Simon Brown, the job of a software architect is to:

“[…] figure out what the requirements are and design a system that satisfies them.”

To put it another way, architecture entails planning how to put together different software components so that the finished product will fulfill its purpose.

There is a clear deliverable – the required characteristics and features of the product combined into an applicable (buildable) model of working software. It doesn’t have to be a revolutionary system, as there are many different types of commonly used architecture patterns, like Serverless, Event-Driven, or based on Microservices.

After taking care of the model, the architect is responsible throughout the project for making sure that the product meets all the requirements of its architecture. That means not just making sure that the development team is doing everything right technically, but also supporting the team, and upholding the role of the leader in the production process.

The software development engineer’s job involves less dealing with people and more dealing with code. As Samer Buna nicely put it:

“The act of engineering software is about designing, writing, testing, and maintaining computer programs with the purpose of solving problems for many users. It is about creating robust and safe solutions that will withstand the test of time and will work for some of the unknown problems around the original obvious ones.”

Sounds kind of similar to the architect role, doesn’t it? To understand the difference, it helps to see the architect as more of a high-level role, focused on the big picture. The software engineer is more focused on the nuts and bolts of the product.

The deliverables for the engineer are different. For example, it’s clean, usable code, understandable and thorough documentation, and working features.

The engineer delivers the parts that make up the components of the product’s architecture.

If confused — ask about responsibilities and deliverables

In a real-life project management situation, there is no time for ambiguity and confusion. My advice is: when in doubt, ask about responsibilities and deliverables. It will definitely help to hire offshore programmer relevant to your project.

If you’re not sure of what someone’s job title means, ask about what their responsibilities are, and what are the tangible results of their work.

This will help you bypass the title, and really understand if you’re talking to a software architect, a software engineer, or a different specialist altogether.

software architect vs software engineer

Tools and Technologies Utilized by Software Architects

Think of software architects as the master builders of the digital realm. They create the blueprints for complex software systems using a toolkit filled with various tools and technologies. These tools help them design, develop, and manage projects smoothly. Imagine architects using modeling software like UML (Unified Modeling Language) tools to sketch out their ideas visually. It’s like drawing the plans for a house before it’s built. They also rely on tools like Git, which is like a super organized filing cabinet, to keep track of changes and collaborate with team members. Some of the top popular tools include:

  • Enterprise Architect
  • Git
  • Jira
  • Trello
  • Visual Studio Code
  • Docker
  • Spring Framework
  • React
  • Postman
  • Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure

You can see that Jira is one of the most popular tools to keep projects on track. Trello and Clickup are also quite popular management tools. In addition to these tools, software architects use different programming languages, frameworks, and libraries depending on the project. It’s like a chef choosing the right ingredients for a recipe. Actually, choosing the proper tools and technologies is crucial for the eventual success of a project.

Significance of Employing a Software Architect

Having a software architect when building applications is like having a smart leader who knows the way through a tricky maze. They’re important because they design the plan for how everything will work, just like an architect designs a blueprint for a house. This position is crucial because a software architect can spot problems before they even appear. These specialists foresee potential issues and design a solution that avoids any of them which means they can save a lot of time and money for a business.

Another value that software architects bring on the table is the fact that they are tech-savvy and can explain everything in simple words. Thus, middle and junior specialists can leverage working with experts in the field and together create amazing products. They make sure everyone on the team understands what’s going on which helps everyone work together in a synergy. Software architects are responsible for choosing suitable tools and technologies as well.

So, having a software architect on the team is like having a mentor who fixes problems before they happen, picks the best tools, and makes sure everyone is on the same page. This kind of specialist is essential to have if you want to make sure you have a successful project.

Conclusion: Software Architect vs Software Engineer

Usually, we don’t compare, let’s say, principal architect vs principal engineer, as these specialists work side by side and do different parts of the same project. Still, let’s try to outline the major differences between these two roles in a conclusion. Engineering and architecture roles are both important in the development process, but they differ in their responsibilities and focus of their work. Thus, here’s a software engineer vs software architect difference.

Typically, a software engineer is responsible for designing, building, testing, and maintaining apps. As a rule, they work closely with other specialists, like PMs, architects, and QAs, to make sure that the software solution follows the requirements and the deadlines, as well as the budget, are met. To become a sought-after engineer, one can undergo software development training.

On the other hand, a software architect is responsible for defining the overall structure and high-level design of a particular software system. They work closely with stakeholders, like business analysts and product owners, to understand the requirements and constraints of the system and then design a solution that meets those requirements while optimizing for factors such as scalability, performance, and maintainability.

What is the difference in the focus of principal engineer vs architect? When engineers are focused on writing code and implementing features, architects are focused on designing the system as a whole and making strategic decisions about how the components of the system will fit together. They may also provide guidance and direction to the engineers on best practices and architectural patterns to follow.

In summary, while engineers focus on implementing the soft, architects focus on designing the overall system architecture and making strategic decisions about how the system components will fit together. Both roles require strong technical knowledge, but there’s definitely a significant software architect vs principal engineer difference.

It is worth noting that while the roles are distinct, there is often overlap between them. Both roles require a deep understanding of development principles and practices, as well as excellent communication and collaboration skills. In many cases, both specialists work closely together to design and implement high-quality systems.

Frequently Asked Questions

Looking to hire remote software developers but have a few questions unanswered? We are sharing our list of frequently asked questions by our clients when hiring software developers.

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In general, architects tend to earn more than engineers due to their higher level of expertise and responsibility. Still, it depends on location, experience, industry, or company.

No! The solutions architect vs software engineer have to make are different. In other words, they have different sets of skills, like Ruby vs PHP developers, and they are responsible for different things.

Typically, they do not write code as part of their day-to-day responsibilities. Instead, they are primarily focused on designing and documenting the overall structure and high-level design of the software system.

Overall, soft architecture can be a challenging and stressful job, but with the proper skills, experience, and support, it can also be a rewarding and fulfilling career.

Yes, it is possible, but it takes the right combination of technical skills, experience, and education to make the transition successfully.

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